People and Achievers

As I think through ways of rendering the language and feel of Notes from Underground more effective for younger readers of English today, it occurs to me that, just as chelovek should often be “person” rather than “man,” so too the frequent references to the U-Man’s listeners as “gentlemen” (which is the ubiquitous translation in English for his use of gospoda), can often be some variety of “people.”

This sometimes means that where he stops to address the invisible listeners directly, as in a phrase like “Naverno, vy dumaete, gospoda, chto ia vas smeshit’ khochu,” I am rather liking a smoother, non-interruptive phrase such as, “You people probably think I’m trying to be funny.” And where he has, “Mne teper’ khochetsia rasskazat’ vam, gospoda, zhelaetsia il’ ne zhelaetsia vam eto slyshat,” I’m thinking this works pretty well: “I would like to tell you people a story now, whether you want to hear it or not.” And for this, “No, gospoda, kto zhe mozhet svoimi zhe bolezniami tshcheslavit’sia,” this: “But who do you people think can be vain about their own illnesses?”

This strategy is feeling more effective at this point in part because I’ve noticed my students getting hung up on the language, which in most of the existing translations feels rather old-fashioned and stilted. People who first encountered D in these versions will not hear him in my attempts here, I realize, but that’s always the case with canonical texts. It’s hard for King James readers to hear Biblical language in any other English version. I have trouble with this myself, and it’s surprisingly slow going to train myself to hear it differently. But it also strikes me as a healthy thing to do, rather than sticking to the same words and phrases mostly because they “sound right.” Differences of interpretation are another thing.

Another word I was struggling with and think I might have a solution for is the Russian deiatel’. Other translators have used “active people,” “active figures,” “men of action,” “public figures,” and other combinations of an adjective plus a noun. I suppose at its root the Russian just means something like “people who do things,” but the U-Man uses it as an object of derision — I hear it pronounced ironically, with dripping sarcasm: “all these disgusting… people who do stuff.” Hm.

Then I remembered the Clifton Strengths designation “achiever” (one of my top five!), and this motivational and corporate word seems just right. I have only started inserting it into all the places where I had something else before, but so far it works remarkably well.

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