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Relatives or girls my age?

February 19, 2018

Many thanks to those who bore with me through the long interruptions in “It Didn’t Come Off” while I was teaching. I’m slowly going through it to prepare a dual-language e-book, and in addition to some obvious minor errors I made, I’ve found two things I want to ask all of you about:

First, near the beginning of the story, I translated моих родственниц ‘my female relatives’ as if it were моих ровесниц ‘girls my age.’ I’m almost convinced that it should have been ровесниц in the original publication, since родственниц appears to fit the context less well, but maybe I’m just digging in to defend a mistake. What do you think?

Then, near the end, there’s a speech of Gornov’s where my own English doesn’t sound very convincing to me. I think the meaning is more or less right, but it’s not in words anyone would say. And it’s always possible I’m not even right about the meaning. Here’s what leads up to the part I don’t like:

“Oh!” he said suddenly. “Yelena Nikolayevna did write to you, twice. She is beside herself that her letters were not given to you.”

“Strange! I asked her maid several times if there were any letters and always received an answer in the negative.”

Gornov blushed slightly.

“The maid lied,” he said. “That’s clear.”

“So much the better.”

This phrase displeased him. He started to pull on a glove, took it off, threw it on the table, and said, looking fixedly at me,

“I should be unhappy not only if I could doubt her sincerity myself, but even if someone else were to doubt it. I’ve tried to love a woman I did not respect, and it didn’t work; I couldn’t force myself to do it. God forbid I should come to think she had ever lied! You don’t know how taxing the struggle between passion and one’s moral feeling can be! I tried it once, and I don’t think I could take it again.”

He stopped for a moment and eventually repeated,

And here’s what he eventually repeats, and what comes after it, in Russian:

— Не вынесу! Не дай Бог обманывать сердце и вооображение ложно приложенными словами: снисхождение, прощение. Утомишься, измельчаешь, пропадешь в собственных глазах среди этих переходов от любви к ненависти и от ненависти к любви.

If you know both Russian and English, how would you translate these lines? If your main language is English, you can find my attempt in the first bit of direct speech here, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions you have based on the English style — how does it sound to you now, and how do you think Gornov should sound?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2018 9:14 am

    I don’t think “girls my age” is a necessary emendation; most people in Russian villages were relatives, near or distant, after all. Here’s my attempt at the passage from Gornov’s speech:

    I can’t stand it! God forbid I deceive my heart and imagination with misused words like “tolerance” and “forgiveness.” This going from love to hate and from hate to love — it wears you out, it makes you small-minded, you lose any sense of who you are.

    I don’t think “mercy” is right for снисхождение (“tolerance” isn’t the dictionary definition but I think it works in this context); “пропадешь в собственных глазах” is surprisingly hard to translate, and that’s the best I can do with it at the moment.

    • February 23, 2018 10:04 pm

      Thanks so much for this, Hat. I really like the way your version sounds, especially “this going from love to hate and from hate to love.” And the trio of утомишься, измельчаешь, пропадешь в собственных глазах makes a much nicer, more parallel set as you have it. (Obviously I agree about the difficulty of пропадешь в собственных глазах.)

      “Tolerance” vs. “mercy” or other options is interesting. I don’t hear “tolerance” as a word a man would use to explain that he’d consider it a false virtue to turn a blind eye to his love’s shortcomings once he’d been made aware of them. But then I probably wouldn’t be shocked if I saw it used that way in Trollope or Dickens. OTOH Ushakov gives the example “Виновен, но заслуживает снисхождения” and defines снисхождение as “Невзыскательность, нестрогое, мягкое отношение, смягчение” which seems not far from mercy. I wonder if “compassion” might be a possibility.

      You’re probably right about the non-emendation.

  2. February 24, 2018 7:30 am

    The problem with “mercy” isn’t so much the semantic content as the connotations. For any Christian, or anyone raised Christian (like myself), it has religious associations that make it odd in this context (it is also used of royalty, who of course were seen as agents of God, but you wouldn’t ask a person in the normal circumstances of life to show you mercy). The corresponding words in Russian are милосердие and милость (used in Psalm 22[23]). I think “compassion” would work well here.

    • February 25, 2018 6:05 pm

      A good point, and my own non-religious upbringing has left me poised to miss these associations.

      I think снисхождение is always tricky, not just here, because of the inequality/verticality implied both by the prefixes and by the second meaning of the related word снисходительный (not just indulgent/tolerant/compassionate/lenient but haughty/condescending/patronizing). How can it sound like Gornov is implicitly putting himself above the woman to whom he can decide whether or not to show снисхождение without it sounding like he’s claiming to be God or a king or a judge? Both compassion and tolerance strike me as relatively, perhaps inappropriately, egalitarian attitudes.

      I’m persuaded not to use “mercy,” but you’ve made me curious about how writers used it, and a quick search finds Trollope using it in Christian contexts, royal contexts, and in a more everyday way (will men who have power over Lizzie Eustace be severe, knowing she has behaved badly?).

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