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Words new to me: Владимирка

July 3, 2020

I just looked up Vladimirka and I’m pretty sure I’ve looked it up before, so I thought I’d put it here. This is from Pisemskii’s A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), where Lizaveta’s husband Anany Yakovlich has returned after a long absence during which Lizaveta had an affair and a child with Lizaveta and Anany’s legal owner, Cheglov:

CHEGLOV (putting his hand on her shoulder): Come, sit down! … What about your scamp of a husband?

LIZAVETA (sits down with her arms drooping): Oh, master, do you know what!

CHEGLOV: Well, what is it?

LIZAVETA: He’s going to torture me [Собирается тиранить]. I’m lost, just clean ruined!

CHEGLOV: Did you put the blame on me—say that it was all my fault?

LIZAVETA: I told him… I tried to lie to him the way you told me: but do you think he believes it?

ZOLOTILOV (to LIZAVETA): How does he mean to torture you? (To CHEGLOV.) Elle est très jolie.

LIZAVETA: I don’t know, sir… but I know it’s something terrible—we haven’t slept for three nights now. He just sits there like a wild beast and stares me straight in the face, as if he were trying to kill me with his look—it’s something terrible!

CHEGLOV: That’s awful, awful!

BAILIFF: He can’t do that! Don’t he know [?]

(Act II, scene 2; translated by Alice Kagan and George Rapall Noyes in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama [New York: D. Appleton, 1933], pp. 425–26)

A super-literal translation of the words replaced by the [?] would be “among us [a/the?] Vladimirka is indicated for all such.” (The line in Russian is “Как же это может он сделать? Владимирка-то у нас указана про всех этаких, — знает то.”) It must be something bad, but what?

It turns out it’s a reference to the road from Moscow to the city of Vladimir, and from there to points east, used metonymically for exile and hard labor in Siberia. As Kagan and Noyes knew: their translation of the line is “He can’t do that! Don’t he know that we send such fellows off to Siberia?”

The peasant and non-peasant characters speak very differently in the original Russian, more than the translators were able to convey (that’s a hard task that I wish I were better at). I imagine 1930s actors could do a lot with “just clean ruined” and “don’t he know” (and on the flip side with “scamp of a husband”), but it doesn’t feel like enough.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    July 3, 2020 7:30 am

    Oh, that translation makes me twitch! I’m so glad I can read Russian lit in the original; especially with dialogue there’s just no substitute — it’s like looking at black-and-white reproductions of paintings. If that’s all you have access to, it’ll have to do…

  2. languagehat permalink
    July 3, 2020 7:31 am

    “Come, sit down! … What about your scamp of a husband?”

    Has any human being ever talked like that??

    • July 3, 2020 11:28 am

      Right? I was surprised that their dialogue didn’t sound better to me, since I had it in my head that Kagan and Noyes were theater people, but it looks like Noyes was actually Kagan’s Russian professor at Berkeley in the 1920s, so maybe not.

      All I can say in defense of “scamp of a husband” is that I think they wanted to make the noblemen sound a bit precious, so both social groups would deviate from some imaginary linguistic middle, instead of having the noblemen speak in neutral language while the peasants speak peasantese.

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