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On to pelerines, pinafores, and berthes

July 31, 2016

Many thanks to all who commented on the last post! With your help, I think I know more or less what I need to do with the repetitions of кокетничать/кокетство and стеснить/стеснять. Now it’s only the лиф ‘bodice (?)’ that remains.

Commenter Gorkovchanin cites an 1847 dictionary where лиф is defined as “Лифъ – Перехватъ на задней части платья около поясницы” (“Lif: a perekhkvat on the back part of a dress around the lower back”) and перехват is in turn defined as “2) Мѣсто въ платьѣ, съуженное надъ поясницею” (“Perekhvat: a place on a dress that is narrowed over the lower back”). So a 1 1/2 vershok– (2 5/8 inch–) lif would mean the woman in the portrait had a mostly bare back, and wouldn’t suggest anything about her chest.

That’s plausible and different from how I read it. I thought I might be misinterpreting what ширина ‘width’ meant in terms of where you’d put a tape measure, and I also wasn’t confident in my arshins and vershoks, but the idea that a lif did not at least include the front part of the upper half of a dress hadn’t occurred to me.

However, I’ve been looking at how contemporary writers used the word lif, and it does seem to typically mean the part of a dress that’s above the waist, as opposed to the iubka ‘skirt’ of the dress. Also, this portrait in “The Old Man” is supposed to be an unsuccessful imitation of a head by Greuze, and in the prototypical head by Greuze I don’t think we see the woman’s back. Details below, if you’re interested; if anyone wants to weigh in on whether lif means “bodice” (OED: “2. The upper part of a woman’s dress, a tight-fitting outer vest or waistcoat, either made in a piece with the skirt or separate […]”) in the relevant passage, and if so what exactly “1 1/2 vershoks of width” means in context, that would be wonderful.


Here are some mid-to-late nineteenth-century uses of lif, the word I’m so far translating as bodice (click the link after each to see the Russian):

Robin Otto West on Pinterest calls this a “Dress with lace pelerine c. 1865”

“It will probably now seem very strange if we begin to talk about ball gowns. However, we will mention only one, and that merely to marvel at the degree of refinement that women’s taste has today attained. Here it is. Three skirts of blue satin, the lowest of a dark color, the second much brighter, and finally the upper one brightest of all. Each skirt has been matched with a bouquet of roses with velvet leaves. The lif and sleeves are smooth. Wreaths of small roses have been placed at the end of the sleeves, and on the lif a white lace pèlerine or berthe.” (from the fashion column in an 1843 issue of National Annals)

“The clothes worn by boarding-school girls are so well known that it is almost unnecessary to describe them. In the main a green or brown floor-length camlet dress, of the most idiosyncratic and antediluvian cut, a skirt sewn in the back to a smooth, cut-out [вырезанный] lif, with short sleeves, that was fastened with hooks in the back; one breadth of the skirt, which was not sewn to the lif, was fastened to it from the side. With the lif a pinafore — linen on weekdays, calico on holidays — was fastened on underneath with pins and tied on above with a string; white pelerines and sleeves — that is the outer clothing.” (from “Sketches of the Boarding School Life of Former Times [From the Memories of an Old Boarding School Girl]” in an 1870 issue of Dawn)

“The influence of the Marquise de Maintenon (beginning in 1685) on women’s dress was expressed above all in the replacing of the open lif by a high one that covered the entire chest up to the beginning of the neck.” (from an 1879 translation of a German treatise on the history of fashion)

“‘One may base one’s idea of the Ural sarafan,’ writes the author (p. 122, no. 4, Lib. for Reading), ‘on those sarafans in which wet-nurses are here sometimes dressed, with only one difference: that the sarafan is made with a very high lif that goes right up to the throat and with a waist encircled by a gold or pearl belt with long tassels.’ Something isn’t right here; something here doesn’t make sense. The lif, according to the author, goes up to the throat, and then there is the waist — and where is the skirt? One gets quite lost trying to picture it. The sarafan has neither a lif, nor a waist: the sarafan is one continuous mass of fabric that covers the entire figure of the Ural woman, from her neck all the way down to the floor […] If a Cossack woman takes it into her head to wear a belt, then both a waist and a lif will be formed thereby, and otherwise, that is, if the Cossack woman does not wear a belt, as is regularly the case in Cossack women’s day-to-day domestic life, then there will be no sign either of a waist, or of a lif […] and can the dressing-gown [khalat] be said to have a lif and a waist? It seems that it cannot.” (from a work on the Ural Cossacks published posthumously in 1888)

a woman needs help pulling on [стянуть] a lif that is too tight and laments that she no longer has a “slender waist”; later she can’t breathe in it and asks if the lif can be let out [не можете ли вы немножко отпустить лиф?] (paraphrase of a page of “Mortal Combat” [Смертный бой], in Russian Thought in 1894)


And here are some selected portraits by Greuze, of women with or without doves:

Portrait of a Girl

Portrait of a Young Woman

Le Chapeau blanc (The White Hat)

Jeune fille aux mains jointes (Young Girl with Clasped Hands, 1780)

L’Oiseau mort (The Dead Bird, 1800)

La jeune Fille à la colombe (Girl with a Dove)

Bodices, coquettes, constraints, and embarrassment

July 26, 2016

Here are three places in “The Old Man” where I wasn’t sure how to translate something. Ideas (confirmation, corrections, refinements, further questions…) are most welcome.

1. Realia: nineteenth-century measurements. From installment #3.

Next to the portrait of the old man, in an ugly gold frame bedecked with stars, hung in all its splendor a pastel depicting a young woman with a long, curved neck and a thirty-inch bodice who had a dove on her shoulder; the whole pose betrayed pretentions to a head by Greuze.

Рядом с портретом старика, в безобразной золотой рамке, усыпанной звездочками, красовался пастель, изображающий молодую женщину, с выгнутой шеей, с лифом в полтора вершка ширины, и голубем на плече; вся поза обличала претензию на Грёзовскую головку.

A word-by-word gloss of the Russian would give you “with bodice at one-and-a-half vershoks width.” A vershok is 1 3/4″. I decided that this was shorthand for 1 arshin + 1 1/2 vershoks (30 5/8″) and that this kind of measurement was assumed to always be 1 arshin + X vershoks, in the way adult height was assumed to be 2 arshins + X vershoks. If I’m right about adding 1 arshin, and if I further assume that ширина ‘width’ here means a circumference around the torso just below (?) the breasts, then this would make the woman in the portrait roughly the opposite of Stepanida Andreyevna: thin, flat-chested, and prone to infelicitously aestheticizing herself in high-culture ways.

There might be an implied physical contrast between Katerina Alexeyevna, the narrator, and the woman in the portrait (who are presumably related) and on the other hand Tatyana Grigoryevna and Stepanida Andreyevna. The ugly but Herculean Rostislav and the still handsome Mikhail Fyodorovich could also be included. But if I have the bodice detail wrong, then this comes crashing down, since all we know about the narrator’s appearance directly is that Mikhail Fyodorovich says she is “pale and thin” while she rests and recuperates in the provinces.

2. Handling repetition: кокетничать and related words. From installments #11, #12, and #22.

There are three Russian words related to “coquette,” and I’d like them all to be visibly related in English, and perhaps all to use a form of “coquette.”

[the narrator describing Rostislav]
One must give Rostislav his due. His behavior was tactful, and once he had noticed Mikhail Fyodorovich’s liking for him, he very adroitly and with becoming modesty played the coquette with his intelligence and knowledge.

Надобно отдать справедливость Ростиславу: он вел себя с тактом, и заметив расположение Михаила Федоровича к себе, — очень ловко, — с приличной скромностью, кокетничал своим умом и познаниями.

[Rostislav speaking to the narrator about Stepanida Andreyevna]
What if she does [put on more airs]? She even puts on airs without a hint of affectation or insincerity. It isn’t like the calculated high-society coquetry that’s a sign of spiritual decay.

Что же? она и жеманится в простоте душевной, не во вред чувству. Это не то, что великосветское рассчитанное кокетство, которое обличает душевную порчу.

[The narrator misunderstanding the reasons for not telling Mikhail Fyodorovich about the ghost in the summer house]
But Katerina Alexeyevna stuck to her guns this time — the summer house was entirely demolished. This incident allowed my aunt to prove that a woman cannot be rid of a certain kind of coquetry, even in old age, with respect to a man she once loved. She forbade me to tell Mikhail Fyodorovich about the ghost, knowing he was not superstitious and would laugh at us.

Но Катерина Алексеевна на этот раз поставила на своем, беседку сломали до тла. При этом случае, тетка моя доказала, что женщина, даже под старость, не отделывается от кокетства известного рода, в отношении к человеку, некогда любимому. Она запретила мне рассказывать Михаилу Федоровичу о привидении, зная, что он не суеверен, и посмеется над нами.

But Languagehat made a good case that the first кокетничал was a different meaning of the verb.

I liked my initial reading so well that I can’t unsee it: I think the narrator is describing Rostislav’s social tactics in deliberately feminine terms (not just “played the coquette,” but “tactful,” “very adroitly,” “with becoming modesty” — these are not the words one expects for a man unfit for high society who is enchanted by his own broad shoulders). Is Rostislav showing off his knowledge, or strategically revealing some of it while holding some of it back to be sure he continues to be interesting?

The instrumental object is a point in favor of LH’s “showing off” reading, I think, but you can find examples of men figuratively “playing the coquette” with this verb too (e.g., Pushkin about himself: “С Наблюдателями и книготорговцами намерен я кокетничать и постараюсь как можно лучше распорядиться Современником”). Russian speakers, how do you take кокетничал here? English speakers, is “played the coquette” jarringly gender-bending, or the kind of thing a clever narrator might say in a story?

3. Handling repetition: стеснять/стеснить. Installments #25 and #28.

Writing this blog has made me a bit hyper-aware of the issue of preserving repetitions in translation. The main sense of стеснить is “to crowd,” as in to make a bench crowded for someone else by sitting on it when there’s not quite enough room. It can also be used in the sense “restrict someone’s freedom” or in the figurative sense of “make someone feel embarrassed or awkward.”

[Seryozha speaking to the narrator about Mikhail Fyodorovich]
Of course; but he does value my freedom and would not want me so much as to feel constrained.

Конечно; но он сам дорожит моей свободой, и не захочет и стеснить.

[The narrator describing Stepanida Andrevna after the latter had a half-dozen more children]
Stepanida Andrevna was flourishing even more than before: her full figure had reached such an extreme that it seemed she could not gain any more weight out of courtesy, lest others feel embarrassed.

Степанида Андревна процветала еще более прежнего: ее полнота достигла крайних пределов; еще потолстеть Степанида Андревна, казалось, не могла из учтивости, чтобы не стеснять других.

Seryozha seems to be using the “restrict someone’s freedom” meaning. But is the narrator saying that Stepanida Andrevna is so overweight that if she were fatter, other people would feel awkward, as if her physical appearance were a kind of faux pas and they’d be embarrassed for her? Or that she would literally make couches or entire rooms feel crowded by taking up too much physical space? Either way, is there an elegant way to use the same verb in English in the two places, and does it matter in this case? My sense is that the stakes are lower here — I care more about the “coquette” words.

I find I lean heavily on a trick I learned from Boris Dralyuk and Constance Garnett, where if you can’t use the same English word for one Russian word in two places, you use an extra English word just to show the connection, but here I’m not sure that would make things better.

“The Old Man” is by…

July 25, 2016

Ol’ga N. wrote “The Old Man” in 1857. Here’s the original publication in Library for Reading. In the same issue you could read Benediktov, Avdeev, Mei, Maikov, Goncharov, Fet, and (in translation) Józef Ignacy Kraszewski.

Ol’ga N. was the pen name of Sof’ia Vladimirovna Engel’gardt, née Novosil’tseva (1828-1894). In French she spelled her name Sophie Engelhardt. I first learned about her from this Languagehat post. Another good place to read about her is Mary Zirin’s entry on her in the 1994 Dictionary of Russian Women Writers.

When I first read “The Old Man” almost two years ago, I found one of my favorite not-quite-new words: шаккендс. Halfway through the translation I was mystified that the WordPress algorithm for recommending posts seemed to know who the author was, and my earlier post on that word probably explains how it could.

By my count Engel’gardt wrote 55 or 60 works of short fiction, plus a play, memoirs, and a famous obituary of Shcherbina. In the e-book of “The Old Man” there will be a bibliography with links to about 20 works that I’ve found online — most of them in the journals they first appeared in via Google Books, but some on proza.ru thanks to recent republications by M. A. Biriukova.

Wrapping up “The Old Man”

July 22, 2016

I hope you enjoyed reading “The Old Man” half as much as I enjoyed translating it. I’ll post the author and a link to the original publication on Monday. Before I do, does anyone who hasn’t looked it up want to guess who the author is, or say anything about the story before you find out? This post is your chance to comment — pick any pseudonym you want if you want to guess without going on record.

Soon I’ll put up an e-book of the story in one piece. There are at least three places in the text I want to solicit your collective advice about first, though. One is a problem pointed out to me by Languagehat, with another I think I got something right but am not confident of my knowledge of contemporary realia, and in a third I came up with a solution I’m not sure I’m happy with. Posts on those to come soon.

There are no doubt other things I got wrong, and if you have noticed or do notice any, I’d be very glad if you’d point them out (don’t spare my feelings; I’d rather know!).

The Old Man (31)

July 22, 2016

“Hmph! Be glad, will he!” began Mikhail Fyodorovich. “An idiotic people! What is there to be glad about? What have they accomplished? Who benefits from it? England. And what is England to them? Their natural and irreconcilable and principal enemy! A frivolous, empty people! They are ready to do anything for the sake of a phrase, out of a frivolous love of words. That’s just it — Voltaire was right when he mocked the French. And where is the true glory to be found here…? On whose side? Doesn’t everyone know that a properly carried out siege must sooner or later overcome any stronghold? But who could have predicted that a stronghold thrown together haphazardly in plain view of the enemy would be able to withstand a year of a properly carried out siege? Yes, sir, it’s an empty victory on the part of the French, and on ours it’s something truly heroic, it’s lasting glory! And what are you all so glum about? Don’t you see that the defense of Sevastopol is as good as ten victories?”

M. Dubois came in. The old man stood erect and looked proudly at the Frenchman… The latter looked at him in the manner of a man prepared to listen and respond; but Mikhail Fyodorovich walked slowly out of the room without saying a word.

Qu’a donc monsieur, au nom du ciel?” asked the puzzled Frenchman.

I left as quickly as I could. A cold autumn rain beat against the windows of the carriage; the final groans of the martyrs of Sevastopol sounded in my ears; the furious face of the old man, Lutvinov, remained before my eyes… But Katerina Alexevna came out to meet me, beaming.

Rostislav is safe and sound; Rostislav has been given the Cross of St. George; Rostislav has been sent from the army to Petersburg… We shall see him.

Naturally, it was decided that we should go to Moscow the very next day; but I did not want to leave without enquiring about Mikhail Fyodorovich, and in the evening I set off to take leave of him.  I was received by Tatyana Grigoryevna; the poor old woman was terribly flustered: Mikhail Fyodorovich had fallen ill in earnest.



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The Old Man (30)

July 20, 2016


I visited the Lutvinovs again on a day memorable to me, September first. Mikhail Fyodorovich was pacing the living room in terrible agitation and greeted me with a question:

“Have you heard? Sevastopol has been abandoned to the enemy!”

The old man was holding a crumpled poster, which he handed to me; I read the report. For a long time we said nothing. Seryozha appeared with a rifle on his shoulder; he was just back from hunting.

“Seryozha, Sevastopol has been abandoned!” said the old man.

“Sevastopol…?” repeated Seryozha. “Has it really?”

He read the poster, stood motionless for some time, and then put it on the table and started walking around the room.

“What do you say? Are you sad?” asked the old man.

“It’s annoying!” replied Seryozha. As he did not have any warmth of spirit, his pride had awakened. “M. Dubois will be so idiotically glad. But I tell you this in advance, uncle, I won’t allow him to be glad about it.”

“Oh, how can you say that, my dear,” observed Tatyana Grigoryevna, wiping away her copious tears. “He may well take offense if you are too hard on him.”

Mikhail Fyodorovich clapped his grandnephew on the shoulder.

“No, let him! Don’t let our boys down!” he said, and again began to pace the room. He was so upset that one could not help being concerned for him. Tatyana Grigoryevna and Seryozha kept a close watch on his every movement.


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The Old Man (29)

July 18, 2016

It was a cold but clear day. Stepanida Andrevna asked if I wanted to look at the garden for old times’ sake. This was almost a sacrifice on her part… The poor woman could scarcely walk, tumbling onto one foot, then the other like a duck, and our walk did not come to a good end.

“No, no, let’s go to the right!” Stepanida Andrevna said to me, with uncharacteristic liveliness, when I stepped onto the boardwalk that led to a grove that had been planted on the far side of the pond. “No, people aren’t to walk here.”

“Why is that?”

“The other side is infested with snakes.”

“Did ours move here from Politino, perhaps?”

“Do they have them in Politino too?”

I naively told her about the razing of the summer house and, of course, about the ghost that had appeared to me personally. Imagine my surprise when poor Stepanida Andrevna became very embarrassed at the end, turned red as a beet, and seemed to avoid looking at me. I was quite flustered myself; we said nothing for about five minutes. My companion made a quite inopportune complaint about the heat, and we headed home.



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