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Translation comparison: stories by Tolstoi

August 3, 2017

Muireann Maguire ends her recent essay reviewing Tolstoi translations by dividing his translators into foxes, “who offer often brilliantly researched, many-faceted, aesthetically and syntactically satisfying equivalents for Tolstoy’s prose,” and hedgehogs, who “reproduce Tolstoy’s awkward grammar and surprisingly restrained lexical range very much as they find it: they make no attempt to change his sometimes jagged style, and they leave his reiterated or neologized words on the page in all their spiky, defamiliarizing splendour” (221-22). Constance Garnett is a fox, and Marian Schwartz is a hedgehog (shapify is mentioned, 216), as are Pevear and Volokhonsky. The translators Maguire reviews here include a pair of foxes (Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, who together translated Hadji Murat) and two separate hedgehogs (Roger Cockrell, The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories, and Nicholas Pasternak Slater, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories). Peter Carson, the late translator of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, is apparently the best of both worlds.

One of the issues Maguire discusses has interested me for a while: what to do when there are languages other than Russian in the text being translated. In Hadji Murat, there are words like naibmuridkunaknukeraoulkhozyrikizyak providing local color without always being explained in the text. I was a bit surprised that translators were reluctant to keep them in English — I imagine they are and were equally obscure to many Russians. Readers of English, meanwhile, can pick them up gradually in context, or just create meaning out of the fact that there are so many unfamiliar Caucasian words. But the translators apparently sometimes paraphrase with unusual or ordinary English words instead, or, in the case of Zinovieff and Hughes, provide a glossary. This part of the essay had me looking up The Song of Hiawatha in Russian. In his translation Ivan Bunin seems to retain every вигвам or Гитчи-Гюми, which to me seems the clear solution, though to be fair his text comes with a glossary too.

There’s a sociolinguistic phenomenon where a native speaker can say something that’s heard as unremarkable or, perhaps, as deliberate playing with language, but if someone learning the language says the same words in the same order, they get corrected. I wonder if something analogous is going on with Tolstoi’s shifts between present and past tense and his translator Cockrell’s relative consistency, tense-wise. Compare Maguire’s literal gloss for the purpose of demonstration:

Zhilin sees it is a bad business. The gun had ridden away, you can’t do anything with a sabre alone. He let the horse go back towards the soldiers; he thought he’d get away. He sees six riding to cut him off.

to Cockrell’s version of the same passage from “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”:

Zhilin realized that things did not look good: his rifle had gone, and there was not much he could have done with just a sabre. He headed back towards the escort of soldiers, thinking he could escape that way, but then he saw a group of six Tatars galloping to cut him off.

[Update 8/5/17: Here’s the Russian passage of this partial paragraph for comparison:

Жилин видит — дело плохо. Ружье уехало, с одной шашкой ничего не сделаешь. Пустил он лошадь назад, к солдатам — думал уйти. Видит — ему наперерез катят шестеро.]

Maguire is right to point out what is lost — “the abrupt, tension-generating cadence of the original,” as well as some “stylistic rough edges” — but perhaps translators are constrained in a way authors aren’t (217-18). Their audience may take the most intricate and thoughtful recreation of aesthetically significant clumsiness as their own clumsy clumsiness.

Maguire, who has a wonderful ear for these things, finds that many translations of Tolstoy don’t achieve the right “emotional tone,” but that’s apparently not a problem in Carson’s Confession, which she says

is excellent not simply because it is both accurate and easy to read (as we have seen, the two are often incompatible qualities with Tolstoy); it also captures the rhetorical quality of the original. Tolstoy, writing in the first person, shifts from intimate anecdotes to orotund pulpit-beating and back; Carson successfully captures the almost hypnotic effect of repeated transitions. (220)

The harshest words in the review are for an early American translator. Poor Leo Wiener’s “He who likes to coast must drag up the sled” for люби кататься (with an implied люби и саночки возить that Wiener makes explicit) probably wasn’t “baffling” (215) in his time and place (OED, coast: “13. a. orig. U.S. To slide down a snow- or ice-covered slope in a sled”); but then it’s almost a reflex for me to defend the translators of his era, whose job must have been harder than that of translators now.

There’s much more in the essay, on the word molodechestvo (218) and attempts to translate the way Tolstoi’s peasants talk (219-20). Read the whole thing!

See Muireann Maguire’s review essay in Translation and Literature 26.2 (2017): 214-22 (paywall).

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2017 8:04 am

    Yes, it’s a wonderful review essay!

    Their audience may take the most intricate and thoughtful recreation of aesthetically significant clumsiness as their own clumsy clumsiness.

    Well, that’s a risk they have to take to be worthy members of their profession, just as good politicians occasionally have to do things voters won’t like. It’s simple cowardice to paper over what the author is doing so the readers of the translation won’t raise an eyebrow.

    • August 4, 2017 1:56 pm

      Fair point – I definitely don’t mean that translators should obscure the difference between a smooth original text and a rough one! But the ultimate goal, it seems to me, is to create an impression in the mind of the reader of the translation that’s as close as possible to the impression created in a reader’s mind by the original.

      Somehow the translator has to convince the reader to take “clumsiness” (or another similar feature) as an integral part of the text and not as a comic failure to render an original presumed to be elegant. If the reader’s reaction is laughter or annoyance at presumed errors by the translator, we don’t get an “abrupt, tension-generating cadence” any more than if the translator had papered over everything unexpected.

      (This “readers’ expectations” game can work in reverse, too: I think Evan McMurry assumed the Russian text of Dead Souls was less smooth than it is, and that Donald Rayfield must have “sacrificed” something to make the English so readable.)

  2. August 4, 2017 12:20 pm

    Maguire’s gloss is misleading, unless, of course, she provides further explanation in the article. (Also, why use the past perfect in the second sentence? Present, past perfect, present… how does it follow from the Russian?) What she seems to take for awkwardness is the way folk tales are customarily told. If I had to extemporize a Russian fairy tale, it might go like this:

    Видит Иван-царевич – дело плохо. Но старик доброго коня ему подарил, на таком сто верст проскачешь, оглянуться не успеешь. Проскакал Иван три дня и три ночи – думал до тридевятого царства успеть. Глядит – голова мертвая из травы-муравы подмигивает. Под Иваном конь добрый, а голова-то ему страшна, да и глядит по-волчьи.

    I’m trying to stick to Tolstoy’s verb tenses here. When telling a joke (анекдот), I might likewise play loose with the sequence of tenses – to sound natural and keep the flow, not to be “awkward”:
    Приехал мужик домой из командировки, а ему дверь никто не открывает. Ну, думает, жена любовника завела. Достает ключи, открыл, в прихожей ботинки чужие стоят. Снял шапку, пальто, идет в спальню… and so on.

    I’m not happy with Cockrell’s version either. Make it sound like it was written for children and half-literate folk, which I’m pretty sure it was (I read it as a child), but avoid too much dumbing down.

    • August 5, 2017 4:48 pm

      I don’t want to misrepresent Maguire — I don’t think she ever calls the passage in question awkward, though her reference to “stylistic rough edges” seems to include it. She says “the challenge to the translator is to conserve its [‘The Prisoner of the Caucasus’’s] simplicity without sacrificing clarity” and notes that it was “originally written for children” (217). As I wrote the post I was generalizing in my mind to “rough edges” in general (not just the tense shifts here) in a way that was probably misleading.

      Regarding the past perfect, my instinct matches Maguire’s and Cockrell’s here: it’s the best choice to translate уехало. I guess this is because it’s clear that the action of уехало is previous to the action of видит, and the sequence is important (?). With the simple past an English reader could interpret it as Zhilin first seeing it was a bad business, and the gun “riding away” afterward. Also, there frequently isn’t an explicit signal of the past perfect in Russian, but if you hardly ever use it in translations, the English will sound off — I think you have to reconstruct the situation and use the tenses and aspects an English speaker would use to describe it.

      Actually, I wonder if this issue is at the heart of why English readers find the tense switches in this Russian fairy tale / joke / children’s story voice tricky: because Russian doesn’t have exact analogues to the English present perfect and past perfect, it uses the perfective past to emphasize the sequence of events in a wide variety of contexts? Although, on the other hand, I suspect you can also find English narration in the historical present with past tenses mixed in in a way that’s hard to explain by rule.

      • August 5, 2017 5:57 pm

        I have no problem with Cockrell’s tenses. He’s using the past perfect in a subordinate clause with the main clause in the past. Business as usual.

        My beef is with Maguire’s bizarre choice of tense. Sure, I could rewrite her bit like this:

        “Zhilin sees it is a bad business. After the gun had ridden away (you can’t do anything with a sabre alone), he let the horse go back towards the soldiers; he thought he’d get away. He sees six riding to cut him off.”

        Now the past perfect looks grammatically justified. I suspect that to Maguire, “had ridden” felt like a subordinate clause to “he let the horse…” Point taken, but it might as well be subordinated to “He sees,” in which case the past perfect would be off.

        “I suspect you can also find English narration in the historical present with past tenses mixed in in a way that’s hard to explain by rule.” I would suggest listening to people telling stories to their friends over beer, picking the best narrators and imitating their style. Or turning to children’s stories from the XIX century.

  3. August 4, 2017 2:12 pm

    Well, the translator can explain to the reader in a Translator’s Note that the apparent “clumsiness” is the author’s and is an integral part of the text, perhaps giving an example or two. But Robert Chandler was absolutely right to rework his translation of Platonov’s Kotlovan to up the clumsiness levels to match Platonov’s. I praised it here, and one commenter said “that opening graf would put me off the book completely. It seems to me to be literal, word for word, translation of something that may well work in Russian, but (as always, for me) totally fails in English.” Such are the risks the translator runs.

    • August 4, 2017 2:30 pm

      That’s a great post, and the commenter’s reaction is a perfect example of what I meant. I don’t know the solution (I’ve personally read Translator’s Notes like that with skepticism — “if there’s anything here you find clunky, trust me, it wasn’t me” — though of course they may be entirely honest, and examples would convince me more than a blanket assertion), but wouldn’t a hypothetical text where Chandler kept all the clumsiness but didn’t make that reader suspect it was overly literal be the best of all? Maybe just going further than a paragraph into the existing translation would allow him to convince you it’s all done knowingly – I bet Chandler is exceptionally good at that.

  4. August 4, 2017 4:37 pm

    My comment keeps disappearing, not sure why.

    • August 4, 2017 4:50 pm

      Sorry about that! It got flagged as spam for some reason. I’m glad you said something, since I usually never think to check the spam filter.

      • August 4, 2017 4:57 pm

        No problem. I’m going to post a slightly edited version now.


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