Sunday, December 28, 2014

On translating Russian

In my Sportsman's Library, usually called "The Book of books" around here, I wrote about Mikhail Prishvin's Nature's Diary, and the problem of translation:

"There is also an interesting book by Prishvin, published by Pantheon 1952, called The Lake and the Woods, a handsome volume illustrated by woodcuts. A close read reveals it is the same book, but by a different translator and, more remarkably, with hardly any two words the same! I have helped translate another hunting book from the Russian, and know that the languages are different enough that some paraphrase is inevitable, but this edges into funny. Having no Russian edition, I can't tell which seems the better. The new one reads more smoothly and the old is prettier. I am happy to have both."

The first Prishvin I read was published by Penguin in 1987 and translated by L. Navrozov. Here is a passage:

"I always felt ashamed when I came to my senses after the madness of a chase as I slung a wretched limp hare over my shoulder, but this queen of the woods was no anti-climax to a hunt even when dead, and Solovei would have gone worrying the carcass if I had let him.

"The shadows had already deepened into twilight."

And then The Lake and the Woods (published by Pantheon in 1951, and translated by W. L. Goodman):

"I am always ashamed to come to myself after a mad chase, when there is nothing to hang over my shoulder except a miserable, puny hare. But this beauty we had caught and killed was worth the hunting, and if Solovya had had his way, he would have gone on for more.

"Thus it was we met the twilight in the forest."

Recently I was examining a small book, a collection of Prishvin called The Black Arab (publisher Hutchinson International Authors, 1947; the translator was David Magarshack, who did many translations of Russian literature), which I had picked up long enough ago that I no longer remembered  what was in it. I saw a chapter, a long one, called "Nature's  Calendar" and had a sudden suspicion, but as its sections (of course) showed no familiar names, it took a while to coordinate it. Sure enough:

"After recovering from the mad passions of the chase, I usually feel ashamed, even while I am swinging the limp body of a hare over my back. But even in death that beautiful fox did not rob me of the taste for hunting and, had I permitted it, Solovey wold have gone on for a long time pulling the dead fox about.

"So we were benighted in the woods."

Please notice that even the dog's NAME is different!


Andrea said...

I'm not expert in Russian but I'm guessing "Solovya" is more of a diminutive/endearment to Solovey. But yeah, the differences in interpreted emphases are pretty remarkable.

Anonymous said...

So, will it be recorded that Prishvin wrote one book in Russian but THREE in English? Maybe you should be targeting foreign markets more, Steve, to sell a greater volume of books! I find such a phenomenon incredibly interesting though--it DOES make me want to read ALL THREE versions, to see the different interpretations! There's another book out there that has so many different cultural interpretations it's caused--just a bit--of controversy over the years--what's the title? Oh yeah--the BIBLE......L.B.

Mark Farrell-Churchill said...

I remember an unnecessarily indignant letter-to-the-editor of Time magazine, I believe it was, complaining that a particular Russian surname was spelled with an -sky rather than an -ski as it had appeared in the original article. "Actually, neither," I thought to myself. "It would be spelled in Cyrillic, and the transliteration is too arbitrary to get bent out of shape about." And, as your post illustrates, transliteration is just the tip of the iceberg. An interesting set of excerpts...