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“…hopelessly dainty for snarling, semiliterate soldiers…”

April 8, 2021

Linguist John McWhorter read War and Peace (Война и мир, 1863–69) in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation and didn’t like it.

His main reason is a familiar one, speech that doesn’t sound like speech:

I’m not sure whether “quick-fingers” has ever been a set term in any dialect of English. But even if it has been, it sounds hopelessly dainty for snarling, semiliterate soldiers mired in suffering. No actor, regardless of chops, could convey it convincingly in a theatrical presentation.

I agree, and so many people have said similar things that I think Pevear and Volokhonsky either don’t prioritize natural-sounding speech as a matter of principle or have idiosyncratic ideas about what sounds like a real person talking. But a sustained (and in McWhorter’s case, admirably specific) critique of P&V always makes me want to defend them. Like this:

Then P&V have him exclaim “Worse luck!” Um – worse than what? Please know: we just met this man – it’s not as if we have seen him experience some previous bad luck, compared to which this is “worse.” The Russian is simply “Bad luck!” or “Misfortune.”

Isn’t McWhorter the one being overly literal here? I take “worse luck” as an idiom, one that I as an American don’t use but have seen a lot and don’t find opaque or off-putting. It’s not shockingly weird like “lido” was for me until I looked it up a month ago.

Here’s a more interesting one:

A little later some soldiers are carrying a dead, or dead-ish, man and P&V describe them as disappearing with their “burden.” Yes, noša’s dictionary meaning is burden, but in English, what Tolstoy described with the word for burden translates as load, which noša can also mean depending on context. Burden, given the brute physical experience these men are described as having in hauling this man’s body, is too abstract. Though we know intellectually that burden refers to something weighing one down, note how seldom we actually use it that way, as opposed to in more abstract connotations relating to dependence and emotion. In the physical sense, we tend in this language towards load, which is surely what these worn-out soldiers are experiencing in toting a body.

This time I follow McWhorter’s reasoning, but “burden” doesn’t bother me the way it bothers him. I actively like it. It’s not hard to imagine it in a nineteenth-century novel written in English. And in fact it took me less than a minute to find examples on Google Books of “burden” describing not just a physical load, but the particular situation of carrying a person, as here (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1864–65) or here (an 1841 book review).

For years I’ve heard it’s a bad thing for a translator to try to make a text sound old and fail. But I always assumed that the problem was the impossibility, not the undesirability, of translating Tolstoi or Dostoevskii into the English of Dickens or Trollope or Gaskell. The style wouldn’t come out cryptic or clumsy, in my ideal world—the Russian author’s individual voice, while remaining individual, would just also have whatever veneer of elegant oldness Dickens and company all have for a twenty-first-century reader. Just recently I’ve been realizing that many people don’t even want that outcome.

My quibbling aside, read McWhorter’s whole post. He compares P&V’s translation to the one by Louise and Aylmer Maude, and it’s the first P&V-related post I’ve seen that draws on examples from the language Boro to make points about how translation doesn’t work.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    April 8, 2021 7:38 am

    The McWhorter essay made my day, and I’m going to post it myself. But I hope you can get over the unfortunate syndrome that a critique of P&V “always makes me want to defend them”; perhaps it will help that your point is not actually a defense of the indefensible P&V but a suggestion that McWhorter’s sense of English usage is a bit off (and I agree).

  2. April 8, 2021 1:15 pm

    Oh, iinteresting! Off to read this – I will enjoy it! As for your specifics, I would use “worse luck” as an idiom so have no issues with it at all. Burden actually seems a good choice to me too, having both physical and psychological connotations. But don’t defend P&V – as languagehat implies, they don’t deserve it!!

  3. April 8, 2021 5:56 pm

    Hat and Kaggsy, isn’t that a bit harsh? I’m all for a robust critique of some translator’s general method or individual choices—what could be more fun to talk about?—but I sometimes think these online discussions of translations get a bit too personal and heated. It almost feels like P&V’s critics are angry at them, and what’s the point?

    I do think there’s a pattern of P&V being too willing to use stilted-sounding English, especially in dialogue. But there’s also a pattern of their critics being unfair to them—repeatedly misquoting them or assuming they mistranslated a specific phrase without checking the Russian, for instance. I’d say they need defending more than most!

  4. languagehat permalink
    April 9, 2021 3:52 pm

    OK, I’ve posted it.

  5. May 31, 2021 7:55 pm

    I think “don’t prioritize natural-sounding speech as a matter of principle” nails it, with a healthy dose of understatement. P&V’s priority seems to be a notional “faithfulness” to the original — a notion best appreciated if you know some Russian. Reading their translation of Crime and Punishment, I often found myself trying to guess what the original actually said (and going back to check). This can be instructive for a student of the language, but it’s not much help to the general reader seeking an encounter with putatively great world literature — or trying to read a novel.

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