Deliver us

Just translated and adapted this from the Polish original, which was written by Adam Mickiewicz ca. 1830. It seems pretty appropriate for our time.
Almighty God! The children of a democratic nation raise their pretty damn-well armed hands to you from every quarter of the world (some of them just keep inexplicably exiting the country). They cry to you from great plains and snow-capped peaks, from rising waterways and sinking dessicate valleys. By the blood of our people fallen in battles for liberty and justice, deliver us O Lord!
From the profane little hands of fools, deliver us O Lord!
From the darkness of ignorant minds, deliver us O Lord!
From the superficial inanity of wealth without depth of character, deliver us O Lord!
From intolerance and hatred bred of xenophobic fear, deliver us O Lord!
From two-faced reactionary hypocrisy, deliver us O Lord!
From intemperate rhetorical ineptitude, deliver us O Lord!
From silly narcissitic speachifying, deliver us O Lord!
From sexist pus*-grabbing boasters, deliver us O Lord!
Such a visionary that A. M.!

The thing about злой

I suppose I’m fixating a bit on this now, though that seems perfectly appropriate for when one translates such a fixating book, but this злой really is a nasty thing. I now am seeing two sets of words, mostly “moral” on one side (as in Pevear’s dichotomy noted in post number 1, though it now seems too categoric), mostly “psychological” on the other. And so there is wicked, malevolent, and evil; and then there is mean, petty, nasty, and spiteful. I suppose vengeful might also work, though I don’t quite see “angry,” which Jessie Coulson offers in the famous first English line: “I am a sick man… I am an angry man.” Really, the state of being “angry” for the quality or attribuite of being “zloi” just doesn’t work for me. If someone else sees how this can work, I would really like to hear about it. I am thinking that the best adjective to capture all this is probably “bad,” and J.C. does indeed have “bad” in the later phrase, “I was a bad civil servant.” This is the same adjective, in one case “angry,” in the other “bad.” Bad is good here because of its wide semantic range: wicked is bad, and nasty, mean, and spiteful are bad, so if zloi = bad, the reader gets to choose in the same way that a reader of the Russian text would get to choose what zloi means.

Until we come to what appears to be the noun from which this adjective has been derived, which in this case is злость (zlost’), as specified when the narrator makes clear that he did all this stuff со злости, meaning “out of zlost’.” Here “wickedness” or “evil” seem just too willful an interpetation on the translators’ part, since there is a common word зло (zlo), which is the acknowledged opposite of good(ness), while злость is somehow narrower, more specific. Злость practically forces one to grimace and crinkle one’s nose in disgust when one pronounces it. Зло could conceivably be grand à la Milton’s Satan, but not злость. Зло could also be abstract, evil in principle, part of a philosophical discussion about the world. Злость puts principle in the flesh. Earthy, smelly flesh.

I am now leaning towards maliciousness or perhaps malice as the noun in question. He did X out of malice evokes a personality and an attitude, maybe even a facial expression. We’ll see if this sticks. I hope it doesn’t leave a scar.

Lying, Pretending, and Playing Around

The line that begins the third paragraph, Это я наврал про себя давеча, что я был злой чиновник, strikes me as continuing something of the subtly childish tone (just give me some tea with sugar) that enters in the final lines of the previous one, an impression that is reinforced when he continues, Я просто баловством занимался и с просителяма и с офицером. Or rather it isn’t that the tone is childish, it is the language of an adult describing the behavior of a child, which accords with the retrospective tone that rises and falls through the novella.

While that first verb is usually translated with some form of the English “to lie,” as in “to tell a falsehood,” I am inclined here to emphasize a bit more the narrative’s role playing, performative dimension and use the word “pretending” instead. It was a game he was playing with them and with himself, and this game continues in his elaboration in the next line, where баловством занимался could be rendered as “being mischievous” or “being naughty.” Here again that sense of an adult describing a child’s behavior tempts me to go with naughty, but I am also tempted by “playing around,” which has the advantage of the explicit use of play and feels more natural and colloquial. Might it be a bit too colloquial for a text published in 1864? I am not quite sure. This doubt will remain in my version for now, which for this:

Это я наврал про себя давеча, что я был злой чиновник. Со злости наврал. Я просто баловством занимался и с просителями и с офицером, и в сущности никогда не мог делаться злым.

has this:

I was pretending just now about being a malicious civil servant. Pretending out of maliciousness. I was just playing around with both the petitioners and the officer and could never bring myself to be truly malicious.



Scaring Sparrows

There does not appear to be any English idiom “to scare sparrows,” which is in all the existing English translations that I have been able to have a look at & something that the U-man says he was doing as a government clerk in the very first section of Part I. I am still trying to figure out whether there was an idiomatic expression to that effect (as he puts it пугать воробьёв напрасно) in Russian 150 or so years ago. One Facebook friend suggested гонять голубей, but it seems not to be a metaphor and is merely what pigeon owners do when they let them fly and then direct their circling and swooping in formation, by means of whistling, hand waving, or some other form of signaling.

At first I was bothered by the “in vain” idea, but now I understand that as the opposite of chasing them away for a particular purpose, as in they are eating my garden so I need to frighten them. In this case, he was just doing it because he got some pleasure out of it and was consoling himself by means of it. I am just a tiny bit tempted by the idea of inserting a definite article before the word sparrows, which would give the entire passage a very different sense.

My friend Val Vinokur points out that in his Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has one of the boys throw rocks at sparrows at Iliusha’s funeral. I find the idea that the two passages might be distantly related by means of a species of bird, the sparrow no less, quite appealing.

The whole passage, trimmed a bit for clarity, goes

…сознавал в себе, что я … только воробьев пугаю напрасно и себя этим тешу.

Another Facebook friend did a yandex search (“because this is just so interesting”) and found not a set phrase but lots of entries for “как отпугнуть воробьев” (how to scare away sparrows). She also notes that “воробьиное пугало” translates as a scarecrow. This makes me wonder if maybe “scaring crows in vain” might not be a good option. It is definitely more concrete, and the tie-in to the scarecrow is rather nice. But crows are large and a bit scary, while sparrows are little and cute, even if they’re annoying when they’re devouring your blueberries.

My colleague Maria Shardakova, Director of Russian Language Instruction at Indiana University, hears in this expression echoes of a whole class of idioms:

Стрелять из пушек по воробьям = firing at sparrows with a cannon (overkill)
Старый воробей and, later in the 19th century, Стреляный воробей  = a rigid, uncompromising person and/or an experienced person, someone you can’t fool [Стреляного воробья на мякине не проведешь]

We’ve obviously stumbled onto a rich source of metaphorical expression, and Dostoevsky’s usage must be resonating within a larger aura of “the word,” as Bakhtin would later put it, except that here it is rather the bird.

It also occurs to me that we might have come to accept this scaring sparrows phrase at least in part because of the widespread availability of this work and the consistency with which translators have rendered this phrase, even if “I was just scaring sparrows in vain” is not immediately understandable in English and might even strike someone unfamiliar with the text as a rather odd notion. Perhaps this speaks to the power of translation in shaping the reception of a work along certain lines and with certain attitudes and ideas associated with it. I’ve toyed with chasing pigeons (the phrase I mean), and someone suggested cow tipping as an option, but while this last expression implicitly conveys petty maliciousness, it is far too deliberate and intricate to stand in for chasing little birds, which has something quite childish about it, an impression re-enforced by the next line in the text.

Here’s what I’ve decided to go with for now:

I was aware at every instant, and even at moments of the bitterest bile recognized inside me with shame, that I was not only not a malicious person, I wasn’t even an embittered one, and I was merely frightening sparrows to make myself feel better. I would be frothing at the mouth, but just bring me some kind of doll, give me a little tea with sugar, and I’d likely calm down.

Insatiable Titillation

Pevear and Volokhonsky have “inexhaustible delight,” while Jesse Coulson has “hugely delighted,” and Kirsten Lodge offers “insatiable pleasure,” all of which are renderings of the Russian “неутолимое наслаждение,” which reminds me of a Russian TV commercial for the Mounds chocolate bar from the 1990s (someone asks Mounds if he’s tried Almond Joy and when he says no, the person responds with the slogan current at the time “райское наслаждение!” (heavenly enjoyment)). But the problem here isn’t the noun, it’s the adjective, which makes the enjoyment somehow unquenchable. I think enjoyment is enjoyment and if it goes on forever, so much the better, but if it’s something that is unquenchable, unappeasable, insatiable—and this is the sense I understand from the word неуталимое—then it isn’t enjoyment, it’s something that’s almost but not quite enjoyment, and that’s more like teasing or titillation. And so this is what I think about the phrase in question.

Когда к столу, у которого я сидел, подходили, бывало, просители за справками, — я зубами на них скрежетал и чувстовтал неутолимое наслаждение, когда удавалось кого-нибудь огорчить.

There’s so much here to comment on. He was just sitting at a table. They are petitioners looking for information or perhaps documents. He would grind his teeth at them? What the heck is that? He would gnash his teeth at them? Still don’t get it. Isn’t grinding and gnashing one’s teeth something that is usually directed inwardly? Here I rather like Jane Kentish’s use of the verb “snarl.” This is what a mean civil servant would do to others, I think. And then there’s that unquenchable enjoyment, which doesn’t make much sense either.

I offer this:

Whenever people came up in search of information to the desk where I sat, I would snarl at them and feel an insatiable titillation if I was able to insult anyone.

There is no fulfillment in his enjoyment. He never quite reaches it. He is always unfulfilled. I think this is part of the point. It is implicit in the position of salaried dependency and a critique of the bureaucracy that is structured into the narrative. Russian bureaucracy and just plain bureaucracy.

On First Words

Richard Pevear has a foreword to his collaborative (with Larissa Volokhonsky) translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in which he offers some rationale for using the word “wicked” to translate the Russian злой (zloi) in the first line: the book is not about psychology, as is sometimes thought, he claims; it’s about morality, and to convey this idea “wicked” is better than the other words that translators have used such as “nasty,” “mean,” and, especially, “spiteful.” It’s a smart interpretation, clearly available among the many possible approaches to the book, and one I have pointed out whenever I’ve taught the book to students. It’s also one of the very first choices a translator is faced with, as the first line announces.

Я человек больной… Я злой человек.

It’s a nasty opening, with an inversion of the adjective and noun in the first sentence, an ellipsis that has been the subject of plenty of interpretive debate, the use of the standard Russian word for “person,” which has almost invariably been translated as “man,” and then the wonderfully wicked “zloi,” which could in fact mean wicked or evil, but might also be interpreted in other ways, particularly as it gets elaborated later in the opening passage through the phrase со злости (so zlosti), which has most often been translated as “from/out of spite” (as in “I did X from spite”) and which is pushed a bit willfully, it seems to me, when rendered as “from/out of wickedness” or “from/out of evil.” For this reason, I believe “spite” is the better choice for the phrase со злости, but I still like “wicked” or perhaps even more “evil” for злой on its own. There’s no reason these have to be mutually exclusive. I will certainly return to this in a subsequent post.

As the opening is a monologue, I have found the most convincing interpretations of the passage among those who see it, or rather hear it, as a performance of sorts, akin in some measure to the performance of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, with similar shifts of tone, register, and point of view. This is a narrator who is practically dancing around the page, his face contorting, nose crinkling, eyes filling with tears and then, in quick magical turns, beaming with apparent joy or twisted with irony and derision. It could be set up effectively as a dialog or a multi-voiced drama, and I have seen good adaptations do precisely this.

There’s much more to note in this first paragraph, but I admit to being a bit anxious to show my first try:

I am a sick man…. I’m an evil man. I am not an attractive person. I believe my liver is ailing me. Of course I don’t give a damn about this illness of mine and don’t know for sure what’s wrong. I don’t go for treatment and never have, though I respect doctors and respect medicine. I’m also extremely superstitious, or at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious.) No sir, it’s out of spite that I won’t go for treatment. Probably you won’t understand that. But I do. It goes without saying that I won’t be able to explain to you exactly who it is I am spiting through this spite of mine. I know very well that I can’t “get back at” the doctors by not going for treatment, and I know better than anyone I’m only hurting myself with all this, no one else. Still, if I’m not going for treatment, it’s from spite. My liver hurts. Well, let it hurt even worse!

I’m reading this aloud dozens of times as I work on it, shifting and playing with the tone and emphases each time. It can be read in many ways, and that opening ellipsis, as I recall reading somewhere, seems best as something of a trial, announcing something to see what the response might be, looking around at an audience that is actually only imagined. A performance for oneself. (Think Taxi Driver.)

These are actually not the first lines of the book, however. Those are in a footnote from the author, or at least signed by “Fyodor Dostoevsky.” The tone there makes it clear that the tone here is different, but that topic I will save for post number two in this new category of this now old, or at least oldish, blog: “Notes on Translating Notes (from Underground).”

Feel free to drop me a line if you have comments.

Translation and Exile

Many metaphors for translation seem to imagine it as a kind of travel, a movement with baggage across some national, cultural, linguistic, and/or geographic boundaries, usually from an imagined foreign territory to one’s own home turf. In that foreign territory—so these metaphors often go—one discovered something or was given something, and in translating that something, one tries to carry it across from over there to right here, provide it a new home perhaps, new neighbors, if not a new life altogether.

This set of spatial relationships has created a very fertile ground for metaphors of translation, with some of the oldest tapping into the notion of the translatio, or transfer, of a saint’s relics from a site of discovery in the Ancient World to a newly created cathedral as part of a city’s myth of origin. St. Mark in Venice comes to mind, and that episode adds the intriguing idea of thievery to the mix, as two Venetians supposedly stole the remains from Alexandria in the 9th century, bringing them to the Lagoon as part of the official origin of the city. Translation and/as theft is a topic for another post.

I suspect these sorts of travel and new life metaphors, in the U.S. and perhaps the Americas in general, have been inflected somewhat by the notion of immigration. The roots are over there; we are transplanting things to this soil; there is rupture involved, great distances, perhaps some heartache, something like nostalgia for a lost past, regret, displacement. A lot like exile. But I want to ask what has been exiled exactly? The text itself? The translation is a new text, another text. The source is back safe at home and hasn’t gone anywhere at all. Or is the idea that its spirit somehow still exists latent in the translated version, despite the fact that all the words are different? Does a translated text evoke nostalgia for its own lost past or for some sort of ghost or doppelganger of itself? How else might translated works be thought of as exiles from their homes?

The problem I find in such notions has to do with a kind of instability at their center, which we tend to turn into certainty, definiteness, especially when we talk about that thing we always seem to talk about when we talk about translating: the original. Textual scholars, people who study the histories of individual works, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to the poems of Emily Dickenson, any serialized nineteenth-century novel, and so on, have developed a detailed and sophisticated apparatus for discussing how unstable and variable the genesis of any work actually turns out to be. As Karen Emmerich has rightly pointed out, all of that instability of the source disappears as soon as we start talking about translation. At that moment, the original becomes one thing, when it never was one thing—it was always a mixture of things, editorial versions, and authorial revisions, textual redactions, and second, third, fourth editions, and so on.

The unstable nature of the source also pertains to the metaphors used as the basis for talking about translation. Who this St. Mark actually was is not entirely clear; whether those stolen or “liberated” bones were actually his is even less clear; and what relationship the bones might have to the person, even if they were once located inside the body that was his, is probably the least clear thing of all. I want to ask, what do bones mean? What is their relationship to spirit, let alone soul? Don’t you have to invent a story, perhaps lots of stories, about them in order for them to mean something? And of course this pertains at least as much if not more to the stories of immigration to the new world, the sort that might evoke nostalgia, which in turn is based on stories about the old world, that dubious source once again, invented stories, interpretations that only come to look definitive when we translate them, turning them into “the original.”

So far I’ve only been referring to the source. Once I start thinking about the act of translation, things become even less stable. Say you have a source, just one, and you read it carefully, study it, look up all the words and references you might not have known, then what? It’s in your head in what form exactly? Presumably you’ve somehow made sense of it to yourself, which means you have an interpretation, at least an implicit one, and it’s sitting there in your head. Now what? Well, if you’re a translator and not merely a reader, you’re going to have to write all that down. And as we all know, things immediately start to change as soon as one begins to write. You start making little changes, interact with the author and/or a series of reference works, colleague-readers, maybe a group of workshop participants, an editor, a copyeditor, a teacher, a designer maybe, a marketing department maybe, and the book that results—we’re assuming you finish it despite all these distractions—turns out to be a mixture of many different people’s ideas, suggestions, agendas, theoretical engagements, as well as the conventions of editing, publishing, and literary production and consumption in the receiving culture.

After all this, it’s no wonder if the translation feels it is an exile! Or rather, if it feels like an exile. (These metaphors are never really adequate.) Not all translations, however, are like exiles in the same way. They are more akin to expatriates in this regard. Some expats wear an eternal mask of carefree nonchalance on the outside, but they are alone and yearning for home underneath. I would put Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin here. Others are completely happy in their new home, even more than that, they are happier than they were where they started out; they’ve found a new community of peers, not to mention readers, one they never had before. I would put Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in this category, or Barbara Wright’s translation of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

Translation as an activity, I suspect, often makes translators feel like exiles, too. They travel to that other place, the place where the source lives, often physically and at a young enough age for it to be formative and transformational for them, and there they discover or are given something, and they try to bring it back with them. They try to give it to others, the whole thing, just as they experienced it because they want to share that experience. They accept it in a way into their heads, and sometimes their hearts, and then they try to write it down so others can take it into theirs. I won’t say that this is an impossible thing to do—that’s too simple.

But there is something fundamentally unstable with the basic terms here as well. As if translators were the same in one culture and at one point in their lives, as they are in another. We are barely the same when we move from one social role to the next in a single culture. It’s a bit ambitious to assume we might maintain even greater identity when moving across different ones, taking up different verbal and meaning making systems, socializing with different friends, using different gestures, tones of voice, experiencing a different pace of life itself. Why would we assume a work would mean the same thing to us there and here, even if we could somehow make it the same thing in both cultures? The instability of the source points to the instability of us, and if there is nostalgia for some lost source in this scenario, it might just as well be for our own past selves as for some supposed original text.

I have moved us from a spatial to a temporal metaphor, I realize, from exile in space to exile in time, and to the inevitable nostalgia that accompanies such displacement. It is not the way I usually think about translation; it does not make me happy to think about it in these terms. I prefer to focus on translation as being more about creation and gain than about transfer and loss. But nor do I think that it is wrong—the baggage you bring back with you from that other culture, that other life, is with you still; it has a weight to it even if it is immaterial, and it has a volume despite its lack of extension in space. Inside that volume are thoughts and ideas, experiences, and desires that are or were your own experiences of reading and understanding that culture and now this work comes to stand in for them, maybe just a little bit, maybe a lot. And they make it clear to you that you never completely came back from there, and also that you did, and as a translator you’ll never be either altogether there or altogether here again.