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Bodices, coquettes, constraints, and embarrassment

July 26, 2016

Here are three places in “The Old Man” where I wasn’t sure how to translate something. Ideas (confirmation, corrections, refinements, further questions…) are most welcome.

1. Realia: nineteenth-century measurements. From installment #3.

Next to the portrait of the old man, in an ugly gold frame bedecked with stars, hung in all its splendor a pastel depicting a young woman with a long, curved neck and a thirty-inch bodice who had a dove on her shoulder; the whole pose betrayed pretentions to a head by Greuze.

Рядом с портретом старика, в безобразной золотой рамке, усыпанной звездочками, красовался пастель, изображающий молодую женщину, с выгнутой шеей, с лифом в полтора вершка ширины, и голубем на плече; вся поза обличала претензию на Грёзовскую головку.

A word-by-word gloss of the Russian would give you “with bodice at one-and-a-half vershoks width.” A vershok is 1 3/4″. I decided that this was shorthand for 1 arshin + 1 1/2 vershoks (30 5/8″) and that this kind of measurement was assumed to always be 1 arshin + X vershoks, in the way adult height was assumed to be 2 arshins + X vershoks. If I’m right about adding 1 arshin, and if I further assume that ширина ‘width’ here means a circumference around the torso just below (?) the breasts, then this would make the woman in the portrait roughly the opposite of Stepanida Andreyevna: thin, flat-chested, and prone to infelicitously aestheticizing herself in high-culture ways.

There might be an implied physical contrast between Katerina Alexeyevna, the narrator, and the woman in the portrait (who are presumably related) and on the other hand Tatyana Grigoryevna and Stepanida Andreyevna. The ugly but Herculean Rostislav and the still handsome Mikhail Fyodorovich could also be included. But if I have the bodice detail wrong, then this comes crashing down, since all we know about the narrator’s appearance directly is that Mikhail Fyodorovich says she is “pale and thin” while she rests and recuperates in the provinces.

2. Handling repetition: кокетничать and related words. From installments #11, #12, and #22.

There are three Russian words related to “coquette,” and I’d like them all to be visibly related in English, and perhaps all to use a form of “coquette.”

[the narrator describing Rostislav]
One must give Rostislav his due. His behavior was tactful, and once he had noticed Mikhail Fyodorovich’s liking for him, he very adroitly and with becoming modesty played the coquette with his intelligence and knowledge.

Надобно отдать справедливость Ростиславу: он вел себя с тактом, и заметив расположение Михаила Федоровича к себе, — очень ловко, — с приличной скромностью, кокетничал своим умом и познаниями.

[Rostislav speaking to the narrator about Stepanida Andreyevna]
What if she does [put on more airs]? She even puts on airs without a hint of affectation or insincerity. It isn’t like the calculated high-society coquetry that’s a sign of spiritual decay.

Что же? она и жеманится в простоте душевной, не во вред чувству. Это не то, что великосветское рассчитанное кокетство, которое обличает душевную порчу.

[The narrator misunderstanding the reasons for not telling Mikhail Fyodorovich about the ghost in the summer house]
But Katerina Alexeyevna stuck to her guns this time — the summer house was entirely demolished. This incident allowed my aunt to prove that a woman cannot be rid of a certain kind of coquetry, even in old age, with respect to a man she once loved. She forbade me to tell Mikhail Fyodorovich about the ghost, knowing he was not superstitious and would laugh at us.

Но Катерина Алексеевна на этот раз поставила на своем, беседку сломали до тла. При этом случае, тетка моя доказала, что женщина, даже под старость, не отделывается от кокетства известного рода, в отношении к человеку, некогда любимому. Она запретила мне рассказывать Михаилу Федоровичу о привидении, зная, что он не суеверен, и посмеется над нами.

But Languagehat made a good case that the first кокетничал was a different meaning of the verb.

I liked my initial reading so well that I can’t unsee it: I think the narrator is describing Rostislav’s social tactics in deliberately feminine terms (not just “played the coquette,” but “tactful,” “very adroitly,” “with becoming modesty” — these are not the words one expects for a man unfit for high society who is enchanted by his own broad shoulders). Is Rostislav showing off his knowledge, or strategically revealing some of it while holding some of it back to be sure he continues to be interesting?

The instrumental object is a point in favor of LH’s “showing off” reading, I think, but you can find examples of men figuratively “playing the coquette” with this verb too (e.g., Pushkin about himself: “С Наблюдателями и книготорговцами намерен я кокетничать и постараюсь как можно лучше распорядиться Современником”). Russian speakers, how do you take кокетничал here? English speakers, is “played the coquette” jarringly gender-bending, or the kind of thing a clever narrator might say in a story?

3. Handling repetition: стеснять/стеснить. Installments #25 and #28.

Writing this blog has made me a bit hyper-aware of the issue of preserving repetitions in translation. The main sense of стеснить is “to crowd,” as in to make a bench crowded for someone else by sitting on it when there’s not quite enough room. It can also be used in the sense “restrict someone’s freedom” or in the figurative sense of “make someone feel embarrassed or awkward.”

[Seryozha speaking to the narrator about Mikhail Fyodorovich]
Of course; but he does value my freedom and would not want me so much as to feel constrained.

Конечно; но он сам дорожит моей свободой, и не захочет и стеснить.

[The narrator describing Stepanida Andrevna after the latter had a half-dozen more children]
Stepanida Andrevna was flourishing even more than before: her full figure had reached such an extreme that it seemed she could not gain any more weight out of courtesy, lest others feel embarrassed.

Степанида Андревна процветала еще более прежнего: ее полнота достигла крайних пределов; еще потолстеть Степанида Андревна, казалось, не могла из учтивости, чтобы не стеснять других.

Seryozha seems to be using the “restrict someone’s freedom” meaning. But is the narrator saying that Stepanida Andrevna is so overweight that if she were fatter, other people would feel awkward, as if her physical appearance were a kind of faux pas and they’d be embarrassed for her? Or that she would literally make couches or entire rooms feel crowded by taking up too much physical space? Either way, is there an elegant way to use the same verb in English in the two places, and does it matter in this case? My sense is that the stakes are lower here — I care more about the “coquette” words.

I find I lean heavily on a trick I learned from Boris Dralyuk and Constance Garnett, where if you can’t use the same English word for one Russian word in two places, you use an extra English word just to show the connection, but here I’m not sure that would make things better.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2016 10:18 am

    “Bodice” is an unusual word here perhaps. The bodice is part of a garment so maybe this would be a delicate way of describing physique (i.e. chest size!) without being too specific and maybe this is what a writer would have done at the time? And if Stepanida is so much larger in contrast, I would be inclining towards an interpretation that she’s taking up too much space so others are, as you implied, finding it hard to sit on a couch with her (I visualise the kind of people who take up two seats on a bus….)

    • July 27, 2016 12:13 am

      Thank you! I may have built up my whole interpretation on a wrongly understood clothing detail. It’s good to know that the “taking up too much space” interpretation of стеснять wouldn’t sound too hyperbolic. I’m still not sure how (or whether) to use the same word in English for both uses of that Russian verb!

  2. July 26, 2016 2:29 pm

    What’s a лиф in the story? Today лиф stands for the whole upper part of a dress, I guess. But, to my surprise, the Dictionary of the Church-Slavonic and Rusian language (1847, Словарь церковно-славянского и русского языка, composed by the Second Department of the Imperator’s Academy of Sciences) defines: “Лифъ – Перехватъ на задней части платья около поясницы” (Vol.2, p.257, second column) What’s перехват then? Find it in in Vol.3 on page 210: “Перехватъ: 1)… 2) Мѣсто въ платьѣ, съуженное надъ поясницею. So, “vershok-and a half лифъ could mean narrow dorsal upper part of a dress implying naked back. Probably the girl was turnd sidewards. By the way, you can say whether a neck is curved if you look ot someone from side and not face-to-face. So, ‘bodice’ seems misleading here.

    • July 27, 2016 12:24 am

      Thank you – this is extremely valuable! I need to think more about this other meaning of лиф. One thing that concerns me is that a lot of portraits by Greuze seem to be mostly from the front, but of a person whose head is turned to the side. In such a portrait you could tell whether the neck was curved and see the bodice of a dress but not the back. But there are a few paintings where the back is visible. Hmmmm. Do you have any sense of how many possible interpretations there are of ширина? By “narrow dorsal upper part of a dress,” I take it you’re saying that the ширина is a vertical measurement from about the back of the neck down a bit to the upper back? Is it at all possible for ширина to mean a measurement all the way around the torso? Or yet something else?

    • July 30, 2016 8:53 pm

      Forget that “back of the neck” remark – rereading your comment more carefully I saw the над поясницею. So the suggestion, as I take it, is that лиф here refers to a thin strip of material across the lower back, where at one point there are only 1 1/2-vershoks of fabric between the top of the skirt of the dress and bare skin, which goes from the lower/middle part of the back all the way up to the shoulders.

      • August 14, 2016 10:02 am

        Let’s reread the beginning of the episode: “In the end I gave up sleep, lit a candle, and once I had calmed down, I began to examine the objects that surrounded me. On a wide section of wall opposite my bed hung some family portraits in blackened frames that were not particularly large or elegant.”… The Russian text says “небольшие и неизящные семейные портреты”. I would understand “небольшие” as “rather small” meaning “below average size” while “not particulary large” sounds more like “not that large, medium sized”. The first two portreits were small and not elegant pobabily because they were painted by a noname local artist (notice that the author of the third portreit is said to Tropinin – you can google for him). The author describes what is seen in the porttreits in the candle light. So, an inch-and-half лиф can be the visible size of the picture element. Do you belive that teller is that quick in arithmetics without a pencil and a paper to estimate the *visible size* of the лиф and to scale it to *human-size* to be sure it’s 1 1/2 вершок and no one or two (i.e. with an absolute error of 2 cm? So, the question now is, what is th usual size of a portreit in that times? Then we could tell whether ширина stands for the horisontal width or the frontal vertical height of the upper part of the dress, and whether the gisl in the portreit was slim or a curvacious cutie…

      • August 20, 2016 9:29 pm

        Hmmm… I’ll believe you that небольшие here means “rather small” rather than medium-sized, but I’m skeptical that 1 1/2 vershoks is measuring a distance on the canvas – what would that tell the reader if we don’t know how big the whole painting is (beyond небольшой), or any person or object in it? And the mathematical skill required doesn’t seem any harder than looking at a Facebook picture on a phone screen and guessing “she’s 4’11” tall” or “he wears an XXL” or “that ceiling must be over 3 meters high” or, if we were in the Russian Empire, “he’s 14 vershoks tall and a skewed sazhen across at the shoulders.” Whatever their actual error, I think people can and do use exact numbers to express surprise at the size of something, or some other reaction.

  3. July 26, 2016 6:58 pm

    Кокетничать: it is a very common verb in Russian, and I think that “to play the coquette” sounds stylistically wrong here. I like “to show off” a lot, but you could also play with “to flirt” or “to charm” or even “to tease.” Кокетство is very close to “flirtation,” and it is much more common in Russian than in English even now.

    • July 27, 2016 12:09 am

      Thank you for this, Julia! Leaving aside for a moment the questions of style and frequency, do you see кокетничал in the first passage as having about the same meaning as кокетство in the other two passages?

      I am not sure if you, Languagehat, and I are using “show off” in the same way. How do you understand what Rostislav is doing? Is he A) trying to make himself look as knowledgeable as he can, as if it were a competition for who knows the most, or B) trying to reveal a little bit of knowledge at a time, to sustain Mikhail Fyodorovich’s interest in him, or C) something else?

  4. July 27, 2016 7:30 am

    Кокетничать: for me, it is more A) than B). The verb is frequently used for a man (and not necessarily a woman) who is trying to “рисоваться.” I don’t feel that he is presented as feminine, but rather like someone who feels and knows well how to behave in the society. What Rostislav is trying to do is to attract attention, but he does it subtly, cleverly, and with tact. It doesn’t imply that he tries to reveal his knowledge little by little but rather knows the right time and the right place to “play” his knowledge. The verb is used with a certain irony and puts doubt on the presence of any particular outstanding knowledge. Unlike your other examples of кокетство, this sentence makes the reader smile.

  5. July 27, 2016 8:38 am

    I wouldn’t bother commenting just to say “I stand by my opinion,” but I think a couple of added points are worth bearing in mind: 1) кокетничать is a verb, кокетство a noun; while of course they are obviously related, they are not the same word, and it not infrequently happens that related verbs and nouns are used differently; 2) the issue of repetition has to be dealt with differently in different kinds of writing — as you know, I am a fan of reproducing it in poetry and in prose that is written with concern for every word, sentence, and punctuation mark (e.g., Nabokov), but I don’t see the point in trying to do so when the author is a common-or-garden-variety get-it-down-on-the-page-and-move-on sort who is primarily interested in making a point and/or moving the reader. With all due respect for Olga N., I think she can be safely classified as the second type; I can’t see her chewing her pen as she tried to decide on le mot juste. With that in mind, I think you can safely ignore verbal resonances across the story unless they are clearly intended, which is not the case here. Occam would say the reading that makes the best sense in context (‘show off, plume oneself’) is the right one.

  6. July 27, 2016 9:42 am

    I agree with Languagehat that кокетничвть is not the same as кокетство in your examples. With кокетство, there is no irony, and the word is used in its straightforward meaning.

    As for Stepanida Andreevna, стеснять here implies both embarrassment and taking up too much space (her physical size). It seems to me that it is more important to find the translation that includes both meanings rather than going with the repetition. It is a sly and funny sentence.

  7. July 27, 2016 4:30 pm

    I’m ready to admit defeat on кокетничал: it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. Thank you, Hat and Julia, for helping me understand that passage better! Even after conceding I was wrong on the Russian, I’m surprised everyone finds the English so jarring (Arthur Conan Doyle used “play the coquette” about a male scholar once, in another sentence that makes the reader smile), but I’m clearly the outlier here.

    What would you say to “flaunted his intelligence and knowledge”? I just can’t make “show off” go with “with becoming modesty,” even as an intentional oxymoron. (Julia, I like the “flirt”/“charm”/“tease” suggestions, but I think they’d take me most of the way back to the sense of “play the coquette,” which might be semantically misleading even if it would be a stylistic improvement.)

    I actually can picture Olga N. meditating on le mot juste (at least as much as, say, Dostoevskii, whose repetitions in translation get discussed plenty). But however I imagine her intentions, I’m not ready to say there are writers like X who can be assumed to be doing things on purpose across the board and writers like Y who are clearly just muddling through.

    As a reader I experienced кокетничал as related to the first кокетство, which appears in the very next scene and is said by the character кокетничал was said about. It also still seems to me to tie into 1) the running theme of who does or doesn’t have простота, and who is or isn’t guilty of жеманство, in “The Old Man” and 2) the general condemnation of high society talk in women’s writing of the period (see Jehanne M. Gheith, “Women of the 1830s and 1850s: Alternative Periodizations,” in A History of Women’s Writing in Russia, ed. Adele Marie Barker and Gheith [Cambridge, 2002]). All the “coquette” words seem to peak in popularity right around the time “The Old Man” was written, which also may make it something of a key word.

    OTOH I didn’t even notice the repetition of стеснять/стеснить until I’d spent a lot of time with the text, and I don’t feel I’m losing much if there’s no repetition in the English there (and from the comments so far it sounds like it’s fine if there isn’t any).

  8. July 27, 2016 4:52 pm

    What would you say to “flaunted his intelligence and knowledge”?

    Works for me.

    I’m not ready to say there are writers like X who can be assumed to be doing things on purpose across the board and writers like Y who are clearly just muddling through.

    I certainly didn’t mean it to come off like that! I didn’t want to divide writers into the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned, just to say that some writers (Flaubert, Babel, Nabokov) have an intense focus on every word and you’d have to have a good reason to ignore their word choice, whereas most writers are more practical and just write as effectively as they can. That doesn’t make them worse writers! Dickens is no Flaubert on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but that doesn’t stop him from being a great writer.

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