Friendly former Russian Studies major (some decades ago) and diplomat with three years at the US Embassy in Moscow here. I'm no Boris Dralyuk, but can speak to the difference for me personally between reading Russian stories in the original and reading them in translation.
First: One can absolutely both enjoy and learn things about writing, human nature, Russia, and Russian culture from reading any decently translated Russian story. Any solid translation will give you the significant aspects of the story that tap into our common humanity, and insight into how good short stories in the Western tradition work.
From my perspective, here are three of the things that can be (but perhaps are not always) lost when reading any translation from Russian to English.
The first, as George mentions, is some degree of tone—the writer's attitude both toward the subject, and toward the story's theoretical audience. Chekhov was not writing for you and me: we bring our own baggage to our reading, and whatever our baggage might be, it is not that of the Russian intelligentsia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think he might be amazed at our discussions of his work, his stories' staying power, and the reverence we have for so much of his work. Tone is present in the language of the story, both in syntax and word choice. Because Russian doesn't work the way English works, and because many Russian words aren't one-for-one cognates with English words, some of the tone slips away, (Further to this: it's correct that Chekhov and Tolstoy are written more simply than Dostoyevsky, Gogol', and especially contemporary Russian writers; less tone is lost.)
Second is nuance. English has about 171,500 words, give or take a few hundred. Standard Russian has about 150,000. An educated person has a working vocabulary of maybe 10,000, give or take a couple of thousand. Pushkin used about 21,000 in his writing! A single Russian word might have multiple possible translations in English: there's not always a one-for-one correlation. Sometimes a single Russian word is like a large vessel holding several possible meanings that engage with each other, and that's part of the pleasure of reading it well. But the translator has to choose a replacement word in English, and in choosing exercises both personal preference for a particular English word and personal understanding of the context in which the word is found. To my mind, when the English is more precise than the Russian, the text is somehow flattened. Non-native speakers of Russian also miss some of this sense of nuance, even when reading a story in the original.
And third, for me, are the aspects of language that enhance the story being told: syntax, word construction and word choice, the rhythms of the words themselves, and (related to nuance, above) their linguistic and cultural connotations. Russian has a base of about 40,000 root words [trauma flashback here to stacks and stacks of 3X5 index cards!] , and they're used at different frequencies than root words making up English. Russian often also borrows words from different languages than English does. I think I'd rather beat myself to death with a dull rock than try to reproduce the magic of Pushkin's or Akhmatova's poetry in English. It could lead me only to despair! Those aspects of language may not be critical to the reader of a short story who's dissecting it in the way George does in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, but a poet or someone who has a love affair with the music of language will not have the same experience reading a Russian story in translation as in the original.
So: To me, the translation does matter; but I also come at it as a non-native speaker with a moderate "working proficiency" in Russian, and know that I don't bring any particular expertise to the experience of reading a Russian story in the original—my undergrad GPA is proof that I...didn't have any special insight into Russian literature! ;)
Hope that's helpful.
Happy Thanksgiving, Story Club! I am home with a sick kiddo and may be getting the sickness myself, so a very uneventful Thanksgiving in these parts this year.
Strangely enough, I found this page out of Dmitri Gurov's wife's diary. I think it holds up well in translation.
I have received a letter from Dmitri — he will be returning from Yalta post haste. :(
The children and I have enjoyed our respite from his inane musings while he has been gone. I have warned them that if they snicker or make japes at their father when he invariably starts a sentence with “As a philologist would say…” or “When I was training for the opera…” they will be required to stay home and have extra lessons instead of promenading at the park as they wish.
I shall meet Alexandr tonight, and we will continue our fascinating discussion about language reform and the subtleties of writing poems without using the hard sign. Then, as we are wont to do, we shall make deep and passionate love while staring intensely into each other's eyes — a far cry from Dmitri’s feeble and frantic thrusting.
Oh! And I almost forgot — I have taken note of Dmitri’s irritation at being called Dimitri. I believe I shall only call him Dimitri from now on, and perhaps that will hasten his departure. Having him home is an intolerably irksome situation.
This question of translation from one language to another is fascinating to me. We who write--we who spend hours, at times, making a sentence ring--we know that every word matters. For our words to be translated, which can't help but mean change--it seems it would be impossible for our true work to ever properly transfer. The translator becomes co-author of the work, bringing to it their own world view, no matter how hard an attempt is made to steer clear of one's own mind. So I love this question. I love knowing, as George has written here, that Chekhov, in his own language, is less gentle, more sarcastic. How would we, who read him only in English, ever know that? And what happens to a story when it's translated then? Meanings that were never....meant. Well, we do the best we can with the tools that we have, that's all. Story becomes more important than words, I guess.
My turkey is in the oven. Guests arrive in an hour. I miss my childhood and I miss my children's childhood. I miss my parents and all of my aunts and uncles with their yiddish accents. I miss the movies we used to make every year--murder mysteries! (The first one, when I was maybe 7, was called "The Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving" and in it my older brother was "murdered" with a butter knife.) But life goes on. I'm so thankful for this group of Story Clubbers, those of you who chime in around here, and those of you who choose to only read along. It's been so much fun to be able to talk about writing like this! And to talk about life. Thank you, all of you.
And to you, George, I send you my heartfelt thanks and my love. Without you, none of this would be possible. xo
My Russian great grandfather died in scandalous circumstances when my grandfather was young. I think perhaps my grandfather's shame and youth created a kind of resistance to the old ways, and so the language was never passed to my father or to me (more's the pity). I think from a macro/story-structure level, the differences in translation do not matter so much - we still see character, movement, conflict, and change. But at the micro/sentence level, there's a different sort of nourishment to be gained. I'm always drawn back to our work on 'My First Goose' and I remember one of the Story Clubbers offered their own translation and noted that beauty could also be translated as glory - so that it wasn't just Savitsky's beautiful body, but glorious body. That changes the reading for me. I'm such a stickler for words - to my ear and mind there is a vast difference between glitter, glimmer, sparkle, and shine. Words come with baggage and bias - accreted over many years and thousands of stories. And words are consciously selected by authors to trigger this bias in the reader - 'her eyes glittered' (uh-oh, she's pissed), 'her eyes sparkled' (thank God; he bought her the right fountain pen). For the purposes of dissecting story, the translation probably doesn't matter as much; but for the purposes of reveling in the true brilliance of the author, I'd say the translation matters a lot.
I’m so touched that my (emailed) question to George sparked this post on translation. George’s reply is sensible and refreshingly non-academic, which I truly appreciate. Partly what prompted my question is how the differing transitions are different enough that each has a different title: In our version, it’s “The Lady and the Dog,” while in my published version, it’s “The Lady and the Little Dog.” Slight difference, it would seem. But not really.
Here’s why, and why I think our version is better: One of my theories about this extraordinary story is that Gurov is actually the dog in Chekhov’s title--not Anna’s Pomeranian. I think the story’s fundamental question is not “Will Anna and Gurov find love?” but rather, “Will Gurov change from being a (horn)dog with women and begin to respect at least this one woman, and then maybe perhaps begin to learn to love her?”
The first section we discussed from last Sunday establishes, I think, all of Gurov’s dog-like characteristics, laid out pretty clearly. What transpires in sections 2-4 are his shifts away from this state of mind, toward a state of real potential personal change. (An interesting side note is that the story is structured similarly to Chekhov’s plays, also in four acts.)
Litvinov’s title preserves the possibility of reading the story in that light. The Pevear/Volokhonsky version’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” doesn’t do that--nor does Yarmolinsky’s, which has “The Lady with the Little Dog”(!)....so another thing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day, beyond the Story Club community and George’s wonderful teachings, is that we had this translation, which opens things up, rather than close them off.
Interesting discussion! I can’t say anything about Russian, but I can say something about German-English translation, being an American expat in Germany who has professionally translated for decades.
One year, my German mother-in-law gave me a book for my birthday: the German translation of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I started reading it and enjoying it. When I was about a third to halfway through, however, I started wondering what it was like in English, so I bought the original version.
McCourt’s tone was so much more stinging and bitter, it took my breath away. The strange thing was that the German translator was quite renowned. But he did not manage to capture the tone of the original.
I’ve had other experiences like this. It is a dilemma when you don’t know the original language – you definitely miss something.
I have a Bantam paperback, A Doctor’s Visit: Short Stories by Anton Chekhov which are edited and with an Introduction by Tobias Wolff. I think I picked it up because I wanted to read Wolff’s introduction. The Lady with the Pet Dog is in there using the Yarmolinsky translation. On the subject of translation I recently found a beautiful hard bound copy of Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in which Twain complains that the French do not find him much of a humorist. So in this book he includes the French translation then he translates that back into English where you can see his use of voice and American folksy jargon becomes plain and tedious. Interesting to think what Americans do not translate well.
Happy Thanksgiving, all! So interesting to read that, in Russian, Chekhov comes across a bit sharper. In this story and in The Darling, he was sharp, to me, even in translation. In The Cart, I felt he loved Marya, bitter as she was. In the other two, I didn't feel that at all, I got a - wouldn't call it sarcastic, rather an almost superior tone - she is limited and he lets us know it. And at the end, I was sad and angry at her blindness about the boy, whom she is using for her own emotional ends with no thought of him. In this one, I definitely get the bitter twist on Dmitri. Sarcastic, sharp. Until really the last few paragraphs where the biter is bitten and begins to wake up. But essentially I still think the two "lovers" deserve each other and hope, and believe, they are learning something from the turn of the screw. His style certainly doesn't have the twists of Gogol, or Babel, for that matter (I read My First Goose in three translations) and it may be plain, but it is stunningly pure and that's not just this translation. I spent the day Tues in my husband's heart clinic while he underwent his many many annual tests, and since I couldn't print out the version George sent us, I took Constance Garnet's. There might be some word differences, but the sense, the flow, the power were the same. My favorite Chekhov, incidentally, is Gooseberries, which I had to read four times before I "got" it, and then really only with George's help. But the richness, the people, the landscape, all are to me quite fabulous. I long to dive into a mill pond and whoop - in the rain. And after that, I couldn't help but love that character.
Lydia Davis, as perceptive on translations as anyone, once said that anyone who writes is a translator.
It was interesting to see the Russian word for turkey, Индейка, which could be transliterated as indyeika which gives a hint to its etymology which indicates that the word is related to India, similar to the French deinde which means from India. The fact that the English word is the same as the country is also not a coincidence: the turkey, being an exotic bird when first brought to Europe was given a number of fanciful origins. The Spanish word, pavo, comes from the Latin for peafowl and can be used for that bird as well although pavo real (royal peafowl) is more common. Some regional Spanish dialects retain the indigenous names for the bird, e.g., guajolote in Mexico.
I am far from a linguist but had an interesting encounter with an awful Jorge Luis Borges translation recently. It was an ebook version of The Garden of Branching Paths that seemed to have been translated by an anonymous intern at an Argentine publishing house. It was not only riddled with typos but the translator had also massacred the beautiful rhythm of the original. My Spanish reading is only so so but by comparing the translation to the original it was also clear the translator had completely changed some sections, not just altering descriptions but actions and objects too.
I dropped that version and switched to one by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who was a friend and collaborator with Borges. It was like night and day. Di Giovanni's version preserved the beauty and strangeness and flow of the original. I highly recommend it - there's a free PDF here: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://libraryofbabel.info/Borges/thegardenofbranchingpaths.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwiigcLA78f7AhWGaMAKHYNCAUIQFnoECBIQAQ&usg=AOvVaw3AwcHSdj0VTqTvlSHj3P88
It's funny when you speak of translation. My parents came here from Holland in 1956. When I was in grade 11, maybe 12, I came home with a copy of THE THREE MUSKETEERS. My father said he wanted to read it. I said: It thought you already read it? He said he did, bit it was a Dutch translation, now he wanted to read the English translation. The man was an avid reader. And now, almost fifty years later, I find myself wondering which version he liked better: the Dutch or the English? My question to myself is why I didn't ask him. Then again, I was 17, and what 17 year old thinks of the obvious?
I am also thankful for this story club and all its members. Happy thanksgiving everyone!
I am fascinated by translation, with French the language I can manage best. After finally reading Stuart Gilbert's translation of Camus's "The Plague," I plunged into reading it in French. And was APPALLED, HORRIFIED, AND ANGRY to discover that on a very early page, Gilbert actually INSERTED a sentence that absolutely did not appear anywhere in the original. How DARE he?! I found a different translation (Robin Buss) and was much happier - he stuck by Camus. Then, I read that Pevear and Volokhonsky work by Volokhonsky doing a very literal, word-by-word translation from the Russian, and then Pevear reshapes it into smoother English. English is interesting in that - as another commenter mentions "glitter, shine, sparkle," etc. - it developed out of a mishmash of many different languages of different origins, so often has more words to choose from that may have subtly different meanings or connotations. So with P & V, if Tolstoy used the words "dripping" or "dripped" multiple times in a passage, V would keep that as written, and P would retain it. Constance Garnett might mix up the "drips" with dribbles or spatters or drops so as not to be repetitive. Which is "correct"? I don't know. I read Bob Blaisdell's engaging "Creating Anna Karenina," and I asked him how he selected the Garnett translation as the reference text for that book, as her translations have rather fallen out of favor or fashion. He said, "Because it's freely available online so anyone can jump in and consult it on the spot, and it serves that purpose just fine."
Lydia Davis's collection "Essays Two" is largely about translation. She tries to follow the original verbiage so closely as to even try to match the number of syllables and even the occurrence of some of the same letters within the English word she selects. I've also read somewhere that a translator's goal might be to reproduce the story as if the writer of the original had simply written the story in English. As many times as I have watched the wonderful Clouzot film "Quai des Orfevres," I STILL cannot follow long bits of dialog in French because of all the "gangster / cop" slang and idiom.
I'm currently plowing through a new book about the cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris in French because it hasn't been translated yet and I wanted to read it. And even though I mostly want to get the main content understood, I want to tinker with his sentences - sometimes he sounds pedantic, then he'll make a little joke, then write an endless sentence with a dozen clauses all separated by commas, and I'm thinking, wow, I really don't get how he FEELS about some things, or is he just not a very skillful writer... or am I missing something? I could make him sound more colloquial OR more academic OR slightly grumpy OR with a bit of dry wit - depending on the words I choose to replace his!
And George, I LOVED the "translation" exercise you posed in Swim in a Pond. You supplied a sentence in English from a Russian original, and then asked how many different ways could we "translate" that line simply into other words in English.How would the different versions sound or feel? How did the rhythms or sounds or sentence structure change the images or feelings evoked by one little sentence describing a bench beneath some trees in a park?
Translation... infinite choices, and no ONE right one! It's wonderful.
After an unanticipated warm and thoughtful conversation with mostly new friends at dinner today, finding a post from GS on Story Club adds more richness to the evening. Thanks as always. Just wanted to ask perhaps the obvious on this line: "...essentially, when we are writing, we are “translating” some mental image into language - an image that could be expressed in an infinite number of ways." My thought on this is to ask if, when you are writing or creating a character and how you imagine them "to be," to wonder that your "feeling" of what they feel and what leads to the language you give them arguably could come before "some mental image"? This isn't asked very well, but the notion of a specifically "_mental image_" and not a _bodily feeling_ (which phrase may may be redundant) makes me ask how your _feeling_ as author about your character's feeling gets to the word-filled "page." (p.s., I am the social science person who is not a writer of fiction but does "write" people, so to speak.) Thanks for considering.
Love this, George! Wonderful notes on translation. Brilliant to chat with you yesterday - what generosity and insight. THANK YOU. For your story clubbers and re the convo with the translator I mentioned yesterday - here is Stephanie Smee on translating and on her love of Swim in the Pond. https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/stephanie-smee-on-the-art-of-translation/id1412509301?i=1000525358373