Man, person, people, or none of the above

While editing a translation recently, I came up against the following challenge. In a passage in which two men are talking about art, one says to the other something to this effect: “The artist must develop his technique to the point that he does not think about it anymore.” The source language in this case is one that has the possessive pronoun agree with the noun (like French), so if the word “technique” were actually the French feminine-gendered noun technique in the source, then the possessive pronoun would be the feminine sa. In effect, the French says “her technique” because technique is a she, even if the person who might have the technique in question is a he. English, by contrast, tends to like its pronouns, wherever they might occur, to agree with the subject of the phrase, and this raises the issue of the changing use of “their” and “theirs” as a gender pronoun preference and a possible way around this sort of gender specificity of English.

If it had been just one instance, it probably would not have been a difficult problem to solve, but this was a piece about art, and there were multiple occasions where a character held forth, beginning with “the artist must” or “the artist should,” and then listed a string of clauses and nouns that often used possessive pronouns. The translator in this case had a preference for using “their” in all these cases, but my old ears and my Chicago Manual of Style were hesitant.

The speaker in all instances was a man, apparently hetero-normative, and he was speaking with another man, also hetero-normative. The author was also a man, and he did not express a preference. In my opinion, he may not have quite seen the subtleties of what we were discussing, so it was the translator and me thinking through this together.

Like my last post on the U-Man’s possible use of “like,” which will surely grate on old ears, especially those who know the book well in previous translations, I wonder about how the possessive pronoun “his,” even in such clear circumstances, might affect people’s reading at an almost unconscious level, especially that of college students who have grown used to the gender-neutral singular they/their/theirs.

My inclination in the end was to very carefully edit the two longer passages where this sort of construction occurs, such that the issue never appears to come up. This involved a few shifts of “the artist” to “artists” and some other very minor changes that I believe only the translator and I will ever notice. This, however, is a recent book that is being offered in English for the first time. Changing something like this in an older one with many translations in print, not to mention in the regular college curriculum, for a text moreover that has seen dozens if not hundreds of scholarly treatments in books and articles, often with minute attention to issues of language based on the existing English translations—well, this is bound to elicit strong opinions.

I believe this concern, namely, how college-age readers might respond to these books when they first read them is behind much of Gary Saul Morson’s objections to the translations of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonskaya, which he expresses quite sharply, calling them “awkward and unsightly muddles” among other things, in his 2010 “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature.”

It might appear ironic, but it is for a similar reason, namely, this interaction with readers at a key stage in their reading life, that I am tempted by a translation strategy that reduces the gender dichotomies of the U-man’s speech, enabling readings, especially readings aloud of the performative sort that I have suggested this text affords, that are broader, more inclusive, and in the end, more engaging for students encountering the text today.

This sort of specificity announces itself from the beginning, and as far back as two years ago when I posted the first in this series of reflections on translating Notes from Underground, I have wondered about it. What would it be like to edit along the lines of what I did for the book I mentioned above about the artist? What if the opening lines of this Notes from Underground were not, “I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man,” (each phrase of which interprets chelovek as “man,” though it could also be person all three times) but something more like this:

“I’m malevolent…. I’m bad. I am not an attractive person.”

Now before we pronounce this collectively as awful, or anything at all for that matter, I ask you to read it aloud, with pauses in between each phrase as appropriate for an opening monologue. The first phrase is an announcement. The dots are there because he’s trying to shock and is waiting for it to sink in. The second one is taunting: baaaad. The third is insinuating, as if “an attractive person” were in quotes—put your fingers up in the air and say it with a Trump voice.

I’m going through my version now, version two, with this principle in mind.

It’s, like, the ripest old age

The relative frequency of the word даже is something translators from Russian to English figure out at some point, and Dostoevsky’s palaverers present a classic case. Gogol’s are right up there as well, and I seem to recall that one of the most astute passages of Eikhenbaum’s “How Gogol’s Overcoat is Made” delves into the repetition of the word for comic effect. Dostoevsky’s usage strikes me as less funny or deliberate and often seems more of a tick than a device. One of the best ways to deal with it is to drop the “even” from the English. The same, it seems to me, is true of the word ведь. Here again, “even” is a possibility, but the connection is (even) more tenuous, and the word might in fact be more like an oral speech marker sometimes, indicating in effect that someone is speaking aloud, or pretending to, a little like someone might say, “you know” or “right” in English speech.

These variations occur to me as I look at this line: “Мне теперь сорок лет, а ведь сорок лет—это вся жизнь; ведь это самая глубокая старость.” To get at it requires a little more context obviously. The paragraph is where the U-man introduces the idea of the modern (19th-century) person’s—which means in this case his own—inability to become (another great construction: сделаться + instrumental) anything definite. Intelligent people can’t become, only fools can. This is his forty-year old conviction, and then we get the line in question.

The fact that this is a verbal performance has often been noted. In this it reminds me a lot of Nabokov’s Lolita, a performance that conjures a persona powerfully and with lasting effect. The basic characteristics of this voice have been generalized over time through the many fine translations that exist and are regularly read and taught. A translation today is not likely to change its basic contours, its dripping irony, biting, embittered tonal variations, self-congratulation, anger, indignation, and invective. Whether he “really” feels any of this is another question, which means I should add self-conscious to the list of its attributes. Indeed, who would want to change such a fantastic creation?

But I wonder about this dramatic quality in today’s English and whether he should continue to sound like a 19th-century functionary. And so I wonder about the use of a word like “like.” This is not my idiom. I have probably avoided it actively ever since living in southern California, where it was a powerful evocation of the Valley Girl persona. But since then it has become accepted and now appears (even) among groups who have never heard a Valley Girl speak.

Could a word like this work for the U-man?

The line in question could then be something like this: “This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age.”

And the slightly longer passage, using the same principle, would be something like this:

This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age. Living more than forty years is improper, disgusting, immoral! Who lives beyond forty? Answer me truthfully. Be honest. I’ll tell you who: bastards and fools.


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.