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Russian and Vanity Fair

July 8, 2019

Recently I listened to an audiobook of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48), a wonderful novel I wish I’d read long ago with a few moments I couldn’t help seeing through a Russian lens.

Near the end one of two German students wheedling Becky Sharp (by then Mrs. Crawley) to go out with them is “in jack-boots and a dirty schlafrock [OED: ‘Chiefly in German contexts, a dressing gown,’ citing this passage],” like the schlafrocks you’ll find in Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, etc.

Then the narrator digresses to describe a statue of a former leader of the German town of Pumpernickel:

[…] the last Transparency but three, the great and renowned Victor Aurelius XIV, built a magnificent bridge, on which his own statue rises, surrounded by water-nymphs and emblems of victory, peace, and plenty; he has his foot on the neck of a prostrate Turk—history says he engaged and ran a Janissary through the body at the relief of Vienna by Sobieski — but, quite undisturbed by the agonies of that prostrate Mahometan, who writhes at his feet in the most ghastly manner, the prince smiles blandly, and points with his truncheon in the direction of the Aurelius Platz, where he began to erect a new palace that would have been the wonder of his age, had the great-souled prince but had funds to complete it. (260-61)

Great-souled! This was like finding “machine” in the meaning “car” in an 1910s American children’s book series. And this is what it took for me to see that великодушный ‘great-souled’ is a calque of some language’s version of “magnanimous” (with magnanimous, great-souled, and великодушный all meaning generous, rather than good, wise, or spiritual).

Most of all I imagined Russian novelists reading Thackeray. The narrator’s superficially polite yet savagely ironic manner was probably a model for Dostoevsky, for example, when he laid out Nastasya Fillipovna’s backstory in book 1, chapter 4 of The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69). (It’s as if Dostoevsky took Thackeray but turned up the “savage” dial, while Trollope borrowed the same approach but put his chips on “superficially polite.”)

And I think Lev Tolstoi took this as a personal challenge:

We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly. We should only be in the way of the manœuvres that the gallant fellows are performing over head. We shall go no farther with the —th than to the city gate: and leaving Major O’Dowd to his duty, come back to the major’s wife, and the ladies and the baggage. (141)


I haven’t checked what Tolstoi scholars have to say about this, but my guess is that Thackeray’s words above led to Tolstoi’s below from chapter 3 of “Sevastopol in May” (Севастополь в мае, 1855):

Vanity, vanity, and vanity everywhere—even at the edge of the grave and among people ready to die for a lofty conviction. Vanity! It must be the characteristic feature and the particular disease of our age. Why was nothing heard of this passion from those who lived before, unlike smallpox or cholera? Why are there only three kinds of people in our age: some who take the element of vanity as a fact that undoubtedly exists and is therefore just and who freely submit to it; others who take it as an unfortunate but insurmountable condition; and still others who act under its influence in an unconscious and servile manner? Why did the Homers and Shakespeares speak of love, glory, and suffering, while the literature of our time is only an unending tale of “Snobs” and “Vanity”? (translation of a paragraph that begins Тщеславие, тщеславие и тщеславие везде)

Thackeray published The Book of Snobs the same year as Vanity Fair, so those capital letters are no accident.

Tolstoi, if I remember right, would go on to be pretty contemptuous about what he perceived as his readers’ wish for him to confine himself to feminine-coded family chronicles and love stories, and from the beginning wanted to show that he wasn’t afraid to stick with the “gallant fellows” going to war, even if the most masculine spheres were equally permeated by Thackeray’s and the age’s “vanity.” The gender politics of Vanity Fair, meanwhile, are fascinating and do not always play out the way the narrator leads you to expect. A passage that begins as a condemnation of society’s hypocrisy (“the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name”) moves into a metaphor of a syren/mermaid that’s as vividly written a bit of misogyny as I can remember reading (316-17).

Game show language questions

July 6, 2019

I’m going to break a rule I made for myself not to post about not posting. It turns out that blogging, for me at least, goes better with being a homemaker than with teaching, and not only because there’s less time. Work has me reading books about Russian artists and twenty-first-century novels, as well as watching more Russian TV than I did while studying abroad, and most of that doesn’t fit here.

But a question on a game show about an idiom I think I learned from Olga N. made me want to come back. As you’ll see, it gave the contestants no trouble (and was disparaged by the host as too easy), but someone thought it was hard enough to be worth asking, which is one of those reassuring reminders that native speakers don’t know everything.

Click here to see the idiom without the video

Teaching aspect

July 12, 2018

This isn’t about literature, but it may be of interest. Background: Russian verbs have two aspects, imperfective and perfective, and they’re hard for English-speaking learners of Russian to get right. A perfective verb in Russian will usually correspond to a non-continuous form in English (did, will do), while a continuous form in English (was doing, is doing, will be doing) is almost always translated with an imperfective verb in Russian. But you can’t go the other way, and learning when to use which is, in my opinion, harder than the case system for nouns and adjectives and almost as hard as learning where to put the stress on a word.

Oscar E. Swan thinks that students would have a better chance of getting it if teachers taught aspect differently. Here are the two ways he doesn’t like. First, the nonpast-vs.-past framework used by Roman Jakobson:

This elegantly captures the similarity between the imperfective present and the perfective future by classifying them as “nonpast.” To my English mentality, the Russian perfective future can have a bit of a modal flavor, and I like the way “nonpast” links it to more than the future. But as Swan says, this diagram leaves out буду, будешь, будет, будем… + imperfective infinitive altogether.

Next is the default way today’s textbooks present things, which does include the будем + infinitive compound future:

If you’ve taken Russian in the last several decades, you’ll recognize the diagram above. Here is what Swan proposes replacing it with:

Why? Swan’s central insight, backed by frequency data (836-39), is that the perfective is used more often in both the past and the future tenses, so we shouldn’t train students to believe the imperfective is the default. If you start in the middle of the row, the present tense (always imperfective) is the most common finite form. Moving one column left or right, you get the “compact past” and “compact future,” the next most common forms for many verbs, which correspond to the perfective past and perfective future in traditional terminology. At the left and right extremes, the “diffuse,” a.k.a. imperfective, past and future are least common — at least, compound future forms like мы будем делать tend to be less common than simple future forms like мы сделаем, though the situation is murkier in the past tense.

Swan’s table also doesn’t leave any empty cells. If traditionally teachers say that a perfective form like сделали has no present-tense equivalent, in Swan’s system we can just say that the present tense of мы сделали is мы делаем (835).

I thought this was persuasive enough to be worth thinking about and posting here, but I wonder how it would affect intermediate and advanced language learners trying to get a handle on the other imperfective/perfective distinctions. The past and future forms are hard enough, but for me at least the choice of which infinitive (делать or сделать?) or imperative (делай or сделай?) form to use was even more difficult to figure out, and no doubt I still make mistakes. I’d be curious how Swan would approach those forms pedagogically.

Also, I’m not ready to let go of the idea that the imperfective aspect is unmarked, and the perfective marked. I feel like there are uses of the imperfective “in the wild” that I’d be at a loss to explain without markedness to fall back on. At the same time, it’s easy to make a sentence frame where a perfective verb would be unambiguously wrong, but harder to think of contexts where an imperfective form is impossible (even if the perfective is preferred). But it’s hard to argue with Swan’s point that learners can easily take this way of thinking too far:

In pedagogy [the terms “marked” and “unmarked”] are misleading because they encourage students to think that, because it is supposedly unmarked, the imperfective aspect is overall safest to use, when it is not. It is true that the perfective aspect expresses a narrower meaning than the imperfective, but if, despite that, perfective forms are the ones to be expected in past- and future-tense use, and they are, then in this sense they are not marked, but unmarked, and accordingly the perfective is the “safest” aspect to use in most instances. (835)

See “Sketching the Russian Tense-Aspect System for Verbs That Form Simple Aspect Pairs” by Oscar E. Swan, Slavic and East European Journal 61.4 (2017): 825-43 (no link). The tables above are slightly simplified versions Swan’s tables on pp. 833-35.

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.

Katz and Pasternak Slater on translating Crime and Punishment

June 15, 2018

A while back the folks at The Bloggers Karamazov ran interviews with two translators of Crime and Punishment, Michael Katz and Nicholas Pasternak Slater. It’s interesting to see where their impressions overlap — both mention Dostoevskii’s humor and pick Svidrigailov as the most misunderstood character — and where they don’t. They also touch on two of the problems I keep coming back to when I think about translation.

First, here’s Pasternak Slater on characters’ voices, especially those with a culture-specific marking for class or social group:

The most difficult part of the novel to translate, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, is the dialogue. Almost all the characters in Crime and Punishment have an individual ‘voice’ which carries over from one episode to the next. I have tried to copy their distinctive voices as faithfully as I could, while making each character’s speech seem natural in English. At the same time, the colloquial speech, while sounding normal to the modern ear, must not be too colloquial – it would never do to have palpably twenty-first-century expressions intruding into this nineteenth-century novel. Yet nor does one want old-fashioned Victorian English. What the translator has to look for is a kind of neutral speech that sounds natural when spoken, without being too specifically redolent of England (or any other English-speaking nation, but I write as a British translator); one has to remember that the story is about Russia. – When Dostoevsky uses outspokenly lower-class or peasant expressions, it becomes even more difficult. Some translators have had recourse to Cockney (London) slang to render demotic Russian, and this sometimes works, though it can be treacherous. Regional provincial English is even more of a minefield, and best avoided I think.

What is to be done? On the one hand, speech should sound neutral and natural and not have specific associations with a time after the nineteenth century or a place other than Russia. On the other hand, it should sound like the speech of an individual person from a particular group, and different from the other characters’ voices that are also rendered in neutral, non-anachronistic, non-place-specific English. Existing varieties of non-standard English are either “best avoided,” or in the best case, ”treacherous.” This sounds like an admission that there’s no good solution, but perhaps when I read his translation I’ll see how he threaded the needle.

On repetition, Katz succinctly says “the Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases,” and this for me gets at the heart of the problem. Preserve every repeated word or name or root, and you’re violating the rules of English style more than the Russian ones, which may not feel any pressure to substitute synonyms at all. But if you don’t, you’re erasing connections that existed in the original between the phrases and sentences with repetition.

Here are the first, second, and third parts of the interviews. See if you can guess which scene they choose as their favorite. Or compare the recent translators’ remarks to these comparisons of older translations of Crime and Punishment: Richard Lourie on McDuff, Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Garnett, or Boris Dralyuk on those three translations plus Ready’s.

Women writers and Russian schools

March 12, 2018

The “Required Minimum Content of a Secondary (Complete) General Education” established by the Department of Education of the Russian Federation includes 64 writers and poets. Among them are exactly three women: Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Akhmadulina. That only 4.5% are women is very sad. It’s just as sad that no prose writers are included. And hardly less sad that all three are from the twentieth century.

In a typical Russian literary curriculum for grades 5-11, I counted 185 male authors, from Homer and Vladimir Monomakh to Nietzsche and Timur Kibirov. Twelve women were allowed into this boys’ club, or 5.8% of the total. Only one of them lived before the twentieth century: Charlotte Bronte, an Englishwoman.

That’s Konstantin Zarubin lamenting the underrepresentation of women in the Russian literary canon. He singles out Elena Gan and her story “The Ideal” (Идеал, 1837) as a gem that Russian high school students miss, especially its provincial ball scene.

I sometimes wonder if choosing to limit this blog to nineteenth-century Russia has made me miss out on Remizov or Proust or a million other writers. But that decision, combined with reading Sarah J. Young and Languagehat, did at least prompt me to read Gan and Iuliia Zhadovskaia and Ol’ga N. and Pavlova-Novinskaia. There’s obviously much more to discover. In a companion post Zarubin, who says he hadn’t read many of these authors until a few years ago either, gives his impressions of Ekaterina Dashkova, Nadezhda Durova, Karolina Pavlova, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia, Sof’ia Kovalevskaia, Mariia Bashkirtseva, and Elizaveta D’iakonova.

My thanks to Sarah Kapp for letting me know about Zarubin’s column!

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?