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Translation comparison: Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories

June 19, 2018

If you don’t mind a detour to the twentieth century, here‘s another translation comparison well worth your time. Languagehat looks at translations of Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a.k.a. Kolyma Tales (Колымские рассказы, written 1954-73, published in Russian 1966-78), by John Glad (1980) and Donald Rayfield (2018). The discussion of the end of “Through the Snow” (По снегу, 1956?) is particularly interesting. Here are four versions of the last sentence:


А на тракторах и лошадях ездят не писатели, а читатели.


Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.


As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.

Languagehat’s commenter D.O., as amended by LH:

Tractors and horses are for readers, not writers.

To my mind this last version is head and shoulders above the two published translations. I’d love to hear Rayfield’s thinking here. This isn’t a case of a translator going for the apparent surface meaning and missing a specialized or idiomatic use of a word, but of going right past the obvious choice.

After reading LH’s post, I thought there must be context missing: maybe there was an earlier sentence about the people walking through the snow as “writers” of a winter camp map, which their jailers would read? But as far as I can see, the whole story is just two paragraphs long, with nothing about bosses anywhere, and nothing about writers or readers of anything until the last sentence, which reads like a twist ending held back for effect. You thought I was talking about literal snow, and probably winter routines at a labor camp, but surprise! It’s a metaliterary allegory. The first writer forges a new path in difficult conditions, other writers widen the path by following the first writer, but not too exactly, and then readers can casually ride through on a tractor.

I just wonder if Rayfield is two moves ahead of me, since it’s hard to believe he’s unaware of the obvious metaliterary interpretation, unless it’s a case of seeing everything through the lens of Gulag suffering.

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