Racing to 2019

Quite a few things have happened since I last posted, so much that I am having trouble remembering what happened when, what I wrote down and what I didn’t, where I traveled, and how many people’s names I’ve forgotten since I spoke with them. Apologies for my tardy replies and general slowness.

We got a four-year, one million dollar grant from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to work with a partner university in Kyiv/Kiev to help train communications specialists in Ukrainian civil service. We got a two-year $700,000 grant to establish a Russian Flagship Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. I helped to organize, then took part in a conference on Siberian Infrastructure and Environment at the Indiana University Gateway in Berlin, Germany (my paper “Tree and Bird,” focuses on the spruce and the jay, especially the Norway Spruce and Steller’s Jay, markers of sorts at the confines of an imagined geography of Siberia that starts with my front yard and ends in Alaska).

AHB published three books! First was Christopher Merrill and Won-Chung Kim’s translation of Sunwoo Kim’s If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth; then Anna Rosenwong’s translation of a compilation of poems by Jose Eugenio Sanchez as Here the Sun’s For Real (just reviewed by Anthony Seidman at the LA Review of Books); and third the 91st Meridian Books title The Same Gate: A Collection of Writings in the Spirit of Rumi, which is complemented by an entire series of events and films at the International Writing Program over the past several years.

In October, the American Literary Translators Association‘s annual conference came back to Bloomington, the second time in six years we have hosted it. The first was when I had just moved there (here), in 2013, and was in my first year as chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. On the eve of the conference in 2013, I learned I would be president, not VP, as I had assumed (the president-elect had a heart arrhythmia that needed to be treated….)

As I look back on this, I am a bit surprised I did not collapse at the time. It is sometimes surprising how much adrenaline can accomplish. This is worth taking a step back to remember, at least for myself, so I’m going to write it down here, in the spirit of Predrag Matvejević, to remember and record, lest it fall into the nothingness of oblivion. We all have time enough for that.

I started my term as ALTA president in something of an emergency. I was slated to take on the vice president’s role, but on the eve of the 2013 conference, our president-elect at the time, Elizabeth Lowe, contacted me to say that she’d been diagnosed with a serious health problem and would not be able to take on her duties as president. Thankfully, she is doing quite well again now (I was quite happy to see her at the opening reception of the 2018 conference enjoying a beverage), but at the time the board turned to me and asked me to serve. There wasn’t anyone else do it, so I agreed. I was then in my first year of chairing a department at a new institution—I had come to Indiana just nine months before. This meant that I didn’t have the usual preparatory period before assuming the presidency and that I had many other things on my mind. It was also at this moment that ALTA was transitioning from its long sojourn at UT-Dallas to something new, which meant we were heading into completely uncharted waters.

I found local support at Indiana University through graduate assistants and the Executive Dean’s Office in the College of Arts and Sciences, which provided financial support for travel. I reached out to colleagues in ALTA whom I knew were committed and knowledgeable for advice and counsel. These individuals included Aron Aji, Susan Harris, Sean Cotter, Olivia Sears, Susan Bernofsky, and Esther Allen. Several agreed to become board members, and some of these individuals are serving in the current leadership still. Some months later I turned to my former student from the University of Iowa, Erica Mena-Landry, with whom I had collaborated on several projects at Autumn Hill Books and The Iowa Review, and whom I knew to be a tech-savvy, artistically sensitive, and extremely dynamic person. Erica and I worked for many months essentially as partners on a host of ALTA initiatives, feeding off each other’s energy and enthusiasm. This was both good and bad. It propelled ALTA forward in profound ways—we added new awards programs, re-established our NEA collaboration, begin receiving regular NEA funding for the annual conference, and became a literary partner of the AWP. But it also wore us both out and made it clear that what we were trying to do in the way that we were trying to do it was not really sustainable in the long term.

This realization came close to the end of my three-year term as president, and the executive committee (Aron Aji, Sean Cotter, Paul Daw and myself) was by then seriously considering the potential benefits of a new affiliation with an institution of higher learning. The process of partnering with the University of Arizona, ALTA’s newly established home base, has been skillfully shepherded by current president Aron Aji and vice president Ellen Elias-Bursac, while ALTA’s new executive director, Elisabeth Jaquette, its communications and awards manager, Rachael Daum, and program manager, Kelsi Vanada, have launched themselves into the many new prospects and opportunities that this affiliation affords. My last of six years on the board ends in October of 2019.

A few weeks ago, Jill Schoolman at Archipelago wrote to let me know she’s almost finished reading my translation of Jergović’s Kin. I had been waiting patiently, somewhat nervously (what if she didn’t like it after all?). In her note she wrote, “You’ve done a wonderful job with it. I love the book.” Yes, so do I. Excerpts coming soon.

What’s a Person Worth

My colleague Alexey Vdovin at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow wrote to ask for an article I published in 2003 as part of the proceedings of the 13th International Congress of Slavists, which was held in Ljubljana, Slovenia the year before that, and since I don’t have a definitive version of that article handy, and I haven’t put up any new blog posts for a while, I will make it available here (help yourself Alexey!). This essay was the kernel of a chapter in The Woman in the Window, so I don’t believe it has additional insights or interpretations from the ones offered in the chapter entitled “Three Modern Characters: the Double, the Con Man, and the Woman in the Window.” But I could easily have forgotten things. The actual essays is called What’s a Person Worth: Character and Commerce in Dostoevskii’s Double,” and it appears in Robert A. Maguire and Alan Timberlake, eds. Proceedings of the 13th International Congress of Slavists (Bloomington: Slavica, 2003), Vol. 2: Literature, pp. 203-212. (Alexey, I’ll try and get you a pdf in the meantime, in case you want to cite page numbers.)


When Titular Councilor Iakov Petrovich Goliadkin, in Dostoevskii’s 1846 novel The Double, rushes from one merchant to another to arrange purchases to be concluded at some unspecified future time or changes his larger bills into smaller in order to have a fatter wallet, he is manipulating the superficial details of commerce in order to give himself the appearance, and perhaps the inner sense, of affluence. The same may be said of his hiring a carriage, renting livery for his servant, driving around town, and “paying a call” on his doctor. These are the trappings of a station higher than the one he currently occupies, and Goliadkin’s eventual descent into madness may be understood, as Dostoevskii himself indicated in his feuilleton of the period, as the result of an urge for upward social mobility, in short, ambition.[1]

This conceptual framework links the book less to the world of the Gogolian petty clerk, that is, to “Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat,” which, as numerous critics have shown, functioned as the inspiration for Dostoevskii’s Poor Folk, than it does to that of Dead Souls. This latter relation, as Joseph Frank has shown, while uppermost in Dostoevskii’s mind at the time of The Double’s initial creation, has tended to be neglected because of his subsequent revisions, which removed most of the direct intertextual references for the 1866 edition (Frank 1976: 299-300). Nevertheless, these two texts, even after Dostoevskii’s changes, remain crucially connected to one another. While I agree with Frank that “the best way to understand The Double is to see it as Dostoevskii’s effort to rework Dead Souls in his own artistic terms,” the resulting “new synthesis of Gogolian elements” and, in particular, the “genuine exploration of encroaching madness” that he identifies in The Double depend upon an assumption of realism that the work itself calls into question. Indeed, it is not even clear that Goliadkin in fact goes mad at the end of the work. Goliadkin Junior, we are told, is outside the carriage in which Goliadkin Senior is being led away, and subsequently drops out of sight. For all we know, he returns to the ball from which he emerged “hatless” at the moment of Goliadkin Senior’s discovery behind the woodpile. If one sees Junior as a manifestation of Senior’s repressed social aspirations, as many have, then of course it is only the guilt-ridden, retiring, “conscience” that is committed. In other words, if half the man stays behind, well-adjusted, even giddy at the removal of his twin, that is not madness in any ordinary sense, let alone a clinical one, and the appeal to realism gives way before other, symbolic or metaphorical interpretations.

I do not mean to supply a definitive answer to the question of whether Goliadkin does or does not go mad in the present essay, for I don’t think one is possible. Dostoevskii has provided equal evidence for at least two ways of interpreting his text, turning the “either/or” of reality into a dreamlike “and,” in effect daring his readers to attempt to see through the filter of his words to a reality beyond it that is, of course, not there.[2] The work’s conflicting details thus lead readers into an interpretive impasse, problematizing interpretation itself. Here the link to Dead Souls is relevant in another manner, with Gary Saul Morson’s suggestion of Gogol’’s book as a “hermeneutic parable” providing a helpful starting point (Morson 1992). But such a reading—namely, seeing problems of interpretation as paramount—vitiates the social and political aspects of Dostoevskii’s work, and Gogol’’s for that matter, to too great an extent. It is certainly true that both writers were interested in the manner in which readers read and interpret literature, making sense or nonsense out of life in the process. But Morson’s equation of the puzzling aspects of Gogol’’s work with its purport, while rhetorically quite skillful, also divorces that work from pivotal features of its immediate socio-political context, and, as a result, distorts the very real sense in which the writer hoped to transform the world.

Gogol’’s Dead Souls, which I have treated elsewhere (Valentino 1998), presents in part a reaction to the encroachment of a commercial ethic on the upper echelons of Russian society in the early nineteenth century. Chichikov’s seemingly nonsensical wanderings represent a progression from the a-commercial, sentimental state of Manilov to the degradation of Pliushkin as a result of the gradual acceptance of commerce in human souls by the middle terms: Korobochka, who is fearful but acquiescent, Nozdrev, who is trade incarnate (along with lying, cheating, and gambling), and Sobakevich, whose knowing subjection of questions of human value to questions of price leads directly to the degradation of worldly value at Pliushkin’s estate. Behind this interpretation lies a long-standing trend in republican thought that has tended, in opposition to capitalist apologists, to see social corruption as a function of the rising commercial ethic.[3] Viewed in this manner, Gogol’’s depiction links commerce with fraud, depravity, corruption, and ultimately, slavery.[4]

There is, however, a fundamental ambiguity in Dead Souls with regard to the very commercial processes the work implicitly critiques. It is an equivalent to what Joseph Frank refers to as the “puzzling ambiguity of attitude” in The Double, where “a character is shown simultaneously as socially oppressed and yet as reprehensible and morally unsavory because he has surrendered too abjectly to the pressure of his environment” (Frank 1976: 307). In much the same way, all while suggesting the morally inflationary effects produced by the action of trading in human souls, Gogol’ gives us a hero, the explicitly non-virtuous Chichikov, who is both the commercial agent par excellence and the work’s only catalyst for social change. Herein lies its most important connection to The Double and the one I shall pursue in this essay.

As social catalyst, Chichikov represents a revolutionary force. This force explains the rumor among the town’s inhabitants that he is “Napoleon in disguise” (Gogol 1997: 209). Such an individual is not like what John Bayley calls “the Napoleonic hero, the man of will, obsession and dream” (Bayley 1971: 316). Nor is he primarily the Napoleonic manipulator, who reduces others to the means of achieving his own ends (see for instance Lotman 1978: 476-77). He is instead Napoleon the upstart, a man who, by obtaining power, wealth, and/or influence, will cease to be who he was and become someone new. This social, political, and economic advancement on the part of one man amounts to a revolution of the old system of landed wealth and title, which fixed the future position of a man as rigidly as fate itself. It serves therefore as an icon for the processes of modernization, the emergence of the modern social individual. The ambiguity that lies at the heart of Dostoevskii’s Double may be understood in the very same way: in order to rise from one’s place, whatever it is, one must break with oneself, perhaps take on a disguise or deceive and manipulate others. One must create an image of oneself in the eyes of others, which may or may not correspond to one’s “true” self. One must nurture and manipulate the icons of consensual fantasy, including the very image one has created, in a thirty-year-mortgage style attempt to translate oneself into something real.

This is precisely what Chichikov attempts to do, namely, associate himself with the collective fantasy of the dead serfs’ value, thereby acquiring real estate and transforming himself into a pomeshchik. In the process, he becomes at one point a “millionaire,” at another the worthless kidnapper of the Governor’s daughter, at a third “Napoleon in disguise,” all as a result of the collective fantasy of the town’s inhabitants, the fluctuations of which raise, lower, and altogether reformulate his social image, his social and political value, with the baselessness of rumor, or words on a page, or stocks floating in a market. In his relation to Goliadkin, the fact that Chichikov does not suffer psychologically from these shifts of identity has prompted critics to look elsewhere in Gogol’’s opus for a suitable model, but this leads one along a side path. While the chinovnik atmosphere of such works as “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” furnishes a superficial resemblance to that of The Double, the best way to understand The Double’s relation to Dead Souls is to dig deeper into the origins of Chichikov’s character, all while keeping in mind the broad socio-economic, political, and psychological implications of the interpretation I have offered. Chichikov’s nearest literary referent is in fact not Popryshchin or Akakii Akakievich, nor indeed, any previous Gogolian creation. It is Hermann from Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades.”

Like Chichikov, Hermann attempts to manipulate fantasy. True, it is not the fantasy of money or commodified labor, but it is no less powerful for all that. Moreover, the revolutionary implications of Hermann’s “entrepreneurship” are highlighted once again in a reputed resemblance to Napoleon. The similarity is noted, appropriately, thrice (see Leighton 1977). First, Tomskii comments to Liza, “He has the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles.” Then the narrator remarks, “He was sitting on the window sill, frowning fiercely, his arms folded. In this attitude he bore a striking resemblance to the portrait of Napoleon.” Finally, we are told simply, “This resemblance struck even Lizaveta Ivanovna” (Pushkin 1936: 250, 252). The allusion to “The Queen of Spades,” through the suggested resemblance of Chichikov to Napoleon, is strengthened by several parallel themes: false representation (Hermann pretends to be in love with Liza), social climbing achieved through criminal actions, and the subjection of questions of value to the measure of money. Dead Souls carries on where Pushkin left off, presenting a politically conservative reaction to a loss of social value as the result of commercial culture’s spread in post-Napoleonic Russian society. But Gogol’’s depiction leaves out the psychological implications that such a transformation of social identity represented for Pushkin. Through its prominent interrogation of madness, The Double recreates this psychological dimension, accompanying it with a characteristically Dostoevskian emphasis on moral and esthetic questions.

The government assignatsii over which Goliadkin gloats at the beginning of the story are objects of beauty and sensual pleasure to him. Thus the “pachka zelenenkikh, serenkikh, sinenkikh, krasnenkikh i raznykh pestrenkikh bumazhek” looks at Mr. Goliadkin “affably” and “encouragingly” (Dostoevsky 1972: 110). He must wipe his hands before touching them. He counts them for the hundredth time in the course of two days, caressing each between his thumb and index finger. Even in all their numeric specificity, they represent for him a rather indeterminate, “splendid” sum of money, which “can take a man far.” In much the same manner, the government document, another kind of valued paper (bumaga), must be beautified before it is turned in. It is under the pretext of scratching out a blot that Goliadkin Junior is able to wrestle the crucial paper away from his elder twin in order to worm his way into the good books of their department superiors. The government issued money and the government office document are thus powerful in an equivalent manner, namely, through their appeal to desire and imagination.[5] As such, they may be filled, on one hand, with all Goliadkin’s hopes of success as well as, on the other, his fears of conspiracy and betrayal.[6] But they are more than mere personal symbols. These are public phenomena that have underlain modern European society since the middle of the eighteenth century. As such, they are filled with the hopes and fears of the public as a whole and are powerful only to the extent that humans agree among themselves to value them and, most importantly, make good on their promises.

This aspect of Dostoevskii’s works, that is, the importance of monetary promises—promissory notes—has tended to be overlooked by critics. A quick glance at the two most important of Dostoevskii’s post-exile novels makes the omission clear. Raskol’nikov is brought to the attention of the investigating authorities initially because he faints at the police station, where he has been summoned because of a stale IOU that he earlier gave to his landlady. The entire subsequent development of the story hinges on the fainting spell, which the broken promise to pay has brought to the surface. Dmitrii Karamazov is led to his fateful encounter with Grushen’ka because his father has threatened to sell her Dmitrii’s promissory note. The note thus links the three characters in what will become the novel’s main conflict. In neither work is the piece of paper the central problem. In both it serves as a kind of catalyst, a container for potential inside the stories, which mirrors the actual role of promissory notes, and indeed, all forms of credit, in life itself. The power of such phenomena lies in the kind of imagination, consensual collective fantasy, that underpins modern society.

In The Double Dostoevskii has in effect concentrated this fantastical potential in the mind of a single individual. Goliadkin thus begins his journey by fantasizing about his fantasy-based assignatsii. He toys with the trappings of wealth that can create an image of himself as prosperous in the eyes of others. He sinks himself into the symbols of the government bureaucracy that serve to verify the greatness of the Russian state, its power and “benevolence,” and by extension, the power and greatness of each of its individual human cogs. The split that takes place in him as a result of this wholehearted acceptance of 1840s modernity is merely a coming to terms with the trade-off that his complicity necessitates. In this interpretation the story may be seen as yet another version of the moral or spiritual decay that accompanies modernity in such works as Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (1847) and Balzac’s Illusions perdues (1837-43), as the growth of social dependence in the forms of salaried office, personal and professional patronage, “the exchange of forms of mobile property” and “modes of consciousness suited to a world of moving objects” with fluctuating values, signal a fundamental transformation in the social and political life of the individual.[7] The loss of such “human” traits as sensitivity and a Schilleresque beauty of soul that make one capable of appreciating the love that binds us to others and to the world itself, are an inevitable, lamentable, but “ordinary” complement.

To the questions of what one might give up, beyond psychological integrity, by coming to terms with such a world and what might constitute an appropriate rebellion against it, this early work of Dostoevskii’s furnishes intriguing responses. The first dovetails with what Albert O. Hirschman has called the “Romantic critique of the bourgeois order,” which, from Fourier and Marx to Freud and Weber, portrays the triumph of the ideology of self-interest as an impoverishment of the “full human personality.” The irony of such a critique stems from its historical blindness, since, as Hirschman explains, “capitalism was precisely expected and supposed [by its eighteenth-century apologists] to repress certain human drives and proclivities and to fashion a less multifaceted, less unpredictable, and more ‘one-dimensional’ human personality’” (Hirschman 1997: 132-33). For Dostoevskii, particularly in his pre-exile, humanist phase, this irony would have weighed little in comparison with the very real conditions of early nineteenth-century Russian society, with its entrenched serfdom and dehumanizing bureaucracy. Goliadkin’s complicity in the modern world, his desire to raise himself in it through the manipulation of his self-interested public persona, may be seen therefore as an impoverishment of his humanity, which is depicted as a fundamental division.

The sense of human kind’s moral diminution must also be related to a perceived loss of heroism, particularly as a chivalric, aristocratic ideal, in modern times, when “to strive for honor and glory” comes to seem anachronistic, if not ridiculous. Dostoevskii gestures toward this chivalric mode by having his hero, love letter in hand, look up to the window behind which Klara Olsuf’evna supposedly awaits him, thereby invoking the gaze of the devoted knight toward his feminine inspiration.[8] But what looks back from behind the window is not his beloved at all, or at least not the beloved woman Goliadkin has convinced himself to expect. It is an undifferentiated public gaze:

Suddenly, in all the windows at once, a strange commotion took place. Figures appeared, curtains opened, entire groups of people rushed to Olsufii Ivanovich’s windows, all looking for something in the courtyard. From the safety of his pile of firewood, our hero, in turn, began following the general commotion with curiosity and stretched his head from right to left as far as the little shadow of the woodpile concealing him would allow. He froze all at once, shivered, and all but sat down on the ground from fright. It occurred to him—in a word, he guessed it with all his being—that they weren’t looking for something or someone: they were looking precisely for him, Mr. Goliadkin. Now everyone is looking, pointing in his direction. […] Suddenly they have all seen him, all at once, and are waving at him, nodding towards him, saying his name. (Dostoevskii 1972: 224)

This substitution of public notice, public opinion for the approval of an exalted, untouchable woman is a masterstroke of literary transfiguration, by means of which all the “tainted” ambitious motives of the hero are stripped of their idealist veneer. The utterly confused Goliadkin Senior does not have the conceptual wherewithal to comprehend that what emerges from the ball to meet him in the very next moment is not an alien enemy-twin but the public self his own desires and fantasies have unleashed.

The story’s mock heroic narration, the subject of much critical speculation,[9] is also best understood within the intellectual historical context of the demise of knightly glory in the modern world.[10] Here again Dostoevskii’s text appears to take its cue from Gogol’’s poema, which functions in part as a form of lament on the disappearance of the hero, particularly the virtuous hero. “The virtuous man,” explains Gogol’’s narrator,

has not been taken as a hero […] because it is time finally to give the poor virtuous man a rest, because the phrase ‘virtuous man’ idly circulates on all lips; because the virtuous man has been turned into a horse, and there is no writer who has not driven him, urging him on with a whip and whatever else is handy; because the virtuous man has been so worn out that there is not even the ghost of any virtue left in him, but only skin and ribs instead of a body; because the virtuous man is not respected! No, it is time finally to hitch up a scoundrel. And so, let us hitch up a scoundrel. (Gogol 1997: 224)

What Gogol’ develops is an opposition between the virtuous man and the confidence man, the trading man engaged in shady commercial transactions, which points to a long legacy of negative attitudes toward business in Russian culture.[11] Dostoevskii’s critique of modernity, however, does not limit itself to the morally inflationary consequences of allowing commerce to infiltrate culture. Instead, he directs his attention inward, to modernity’s very “fantastical” foundations, to the fashioning of public personae, the wearing of masks, the acquisition of status, and the effects of such “progress” on the inner life of one “not handsome, but also not bad looking, neither too fat nor too thin” individual (Gogol 1997: 3). His story is not that of the petty clerk crushed by the monolithic bureaucracy but of the everyman who tries to get by within it. The monumental struggle between the two Goliadkins, then, is mock heroic only in a historical sense, that is, when placed alongside what Bakhtin has called the “externalized” heroes of the ancient epic (Bakhtin 1981: 13-20). For the modern individual by contrast, Goliadkin’s inner struggle is, more often than not, the only kind of heroism available.

I am suggesting that Dostoevskii’s novel be understood in effect as something of a Psychomachia, or “struggle for the mind,” on Prudentius’ fourth-century model, just as Gogol’’s work, in its finished form, was to be something of a Divine Comedy. But, it should be noted, Gogol’’s book was to be an active, transformative Divine Comedy, which would mark the end of Russia’s Middle Ages and also propel the country into a new, moral and spiritual renaissance.[12] The question arises: how can a work of literature, or any work of art for that matter, manage to transform society if not by its imaginative potential? Here the great power of modern society re-enters each of these quintessentially modern works, pointing once again to the fundamental “ambiguity of attitude” that they share. Gogol’’s aborted attempt subsequently to transform his hero introduced in effect an open question into Russian nineteenth-century literary depiction: how could notions of self-interest—so important to the development of modern society in Western Europe—be appropriated by Russian society without its socially corrosive concomitants? In other words, how might a self-interested agent be depicted in the Russian context as a non-fragmented behavioral entity, socially valuable in a manner that re-directed the self-interested energies Gogol’ satirized so devastatingly? For Dostoevskii in The Double, the fantasy of the assignatsiia and the fantasy of the document exercise a transformative power equivalent to the fantasy of the literary work, as all represent the power to make ideas, collective consensual fantasies, into reality and create something out of nothing.[13] The effect of The Double on a reader attempting to locate the boundary between truth and fantasy is to point to what Slavoj Zizek has called the fantasy of “ontological consistency” (Zizek 1989: 68), the pervasive truth of ideological fantasy in the modern world, the “positive structuring of social reality by shared fantasy” (Mulcaire 1999: 1039). It is ironic that of all movements, realism, with its explicit truth claims and denigration of the imaginary, would make the greatest use of this fantastically transformative power of literature.

In the specific context of Russian literary history the task of depicting the whole man is of course bound up with the notion of the positive hero.[14] It was Chernyshevskii and his followers who would take up Gogol’’s question most forthrightly in subsequent years, namely in their attempts to create self-interested, yet virtuous heroes whose actions were directly beneficial to the whole of Russian society. Dostoevskii’s well-known opposition to such representations, while on one hand demonstrating the great chasm that separates his later political views from his early humanism, nevertheless stems from a similarly internalized look at the inevitable contradictions of modern personality.


[1]Goliadkin, states Dostoevskii, “goes mad out of ambition, while at the same time fully despising ambition and even suffering from the fact that he happens to suffer from such nonsense as ambition.” Frank 300.

[2]“Dreams are quite incapable of expressing the alternative either-or; it is their custom to take both members of this alternative into the same context, as though they had an equal right to be there. […] There is not really an alternative in the dream-thoughts, but an and­­­­––a simple addition.” Freud 267.

[3]The history of republicanism in West European thought is well documented in the works of Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and others in the Cambridge School of the history of political theory. This essay relies in particular on numerous underlying themes of modernity as formulated by Pocock 1975.

[4]“Trade, without doubt, is in its nature a pernicious thing; it brings in that wealth which introduces luxury; it gives rise to fraud and avarice, and extinguishes virtue and simplicity of manners; it depraves a people, and makes way for that corruption which never fails to end in slavery, foreign or domestic.” Davenant 1771: 275.

[5]See Mulcaire 1999 for a well-argued reformulation of the understanding of the role of public credit, especially in early eighteenth-century British society.

[6]Likewise, his concerns about Petrushka are invariably presented as fears of being “sold out” (prodan). See Dostoevskii 1972: 111, 188. All translations from this text are my own.

[7]On the advent of a “world of moving objects” and its questioning of the constitution of modern personality, see Pocock 1975: 464.

[8]This supremely charged trope is ubiquitous in nineteenth-century literary representation, from Schiller’s “Knight of Toggenburg” to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Turgenev’s A Nest of the Gentry, Henry James’ The American, and the list goes on. Dostoevskii began his first published work, Poor Folk, by invoking this image. He would toy with it on more than one occasion in subsequent works, not only in his pre-exile period. It is inverted, for instance, at the conclusion of Crime and Punishment, when Sonya looks up to the hospital window behind which Raskol’nikov is recuperating and understands that her life is now meaningful only as a reflection of his.

[9]Cf., for example, Bakthin 1963: 291-92; Vinogradov 1929: 261-67; and Terras 1969: 206-212.

[10]Hirschman sketches a brief history of “the Idea of Glory and its Downfall” in The Passions and the Interests, 9-12.

[11]I do not wish to claim that this is a trait unique to Russian culture. From Lazarillo de Tormes to Defoe’s Moll Flanders to Le Sage’s adaptations of Guzman de Alfarache and, especially, Gil Blas, one repeatedly witnesses the social and economic rises and falls of individuals through calculating, self-interested, and not always legal, commercial undertakings. However, retarded commercial development in Russia and its artificial freezing by the Soviets meant in practice a preservation and even popularization of certain aristocratic attitudes toward commercial enterprise—what Gogol’’s narrator refers to as that “which the world dubs as not quite clean”—and a shielding of the Russian populace from the dilemmas of modern commercial society. In the socialization of school-age Russians one finds even today a strong suspicion of self-interested motives and a tendency to denigrate the individual who puts “Ia” at the front of the alphabet, instead of where it belongs, at the end. Such suspicion may have passed through and been institutionalized by the Soviet period, but its roots in Russian culture are far deeper than the twentieth century.

[12]For a discussion of Gogol’’s literary models, particularly in relation to Dante, see Maguire 1994: 296-97; and Fanger 1979: 167-68.

[13]Certainly in this Gogolian phase and probably later as well, Dostoevskii believed that art could have such transformative power. The great responsibility such a stand conferred upon the artist, which clashed with the professionalization of literature taking place in this very period, tormented him throughout his creative life. Dostoevskii’s financial straits are well known, though the extent to which he might have unconsciously sabotaged his own financial well being, almost always in connection with his literary endeavors, can of course never be known for certain.

[14]The classic treatment of the expression of politically virtuous behavior in Russian literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remains Mathewson 1958. It generally steers clear of economic history, leaving issues of republican thought in the Russian context untouched.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1963. Problemy Poetiki Dostoevskogo, 2nd ed. Moscow.

–––––. 1981. “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed., Holquist; tr., Holquist and Emerson. Austin.

Dostoevskii, F. M. 1972. Dvoinik. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh; 1. Leningrad.

Bayley, John. 1971. Pushkin: a Comparative Commentary. Cambridge, England.

Davenant, Charles. 1771. “An Essay Upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainers in the Balance of Trade,” The Political and Commercial Works. London.

Fanger, Donald. 1979. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol’. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Frank, Joseph. 1976. Dostoevskii: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. Princeton.

Freud, Sigmund. 1955. “The Interpretation of Dreams,” tr. Brill. The Major Works of Sigmund Freud. Chicago.

Gogol, Nikolai. 1997. Dead Souls, tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1997. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph. Princeton.

Leighton, Lauren G. 1977. “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades’” in Canadian Slavonic Papers XIX. 4: 417-43.

Lotman, Jurij M. 1978. “Theme and Plot: The Theme of Cards and the Card Game in Russian Literature of the Nineteenth Century,” Poetics and Theory of Literature 3: 455-92.

Maguire, Robert A. 1994. Exploring Gogol. Stanford.

Mathewson, Rufus W. Jr. 1958. The Positive Hero in Russian Literature. New York.

Morson, Gary Saul. 1992. “Gogol’s Parables of Explanation: Nonsense and Prosaics. Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word, eds. Susanne Fusso and Priscilla Meyer, 200-239. Evanston.

Mulcaire, Terry. 1999. “Public Credit; or, the Feminization of Virtue in the Marketplace,” PMLA, (114) 5: 1029-1042.

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton.

Pushkin, Alexander. 1936. The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories, tr. T. Keane. New York.

Terras, Victor. 1969. The Young Dostoevskii 1846-1849. The Hague.

Valentino, Russell Scott. 1998. “A Catalogue of Commercialism in Gogol’’s Dead Souls.” Slavic Review (57) 3: 543-562.

Vinogradov, V. V. 1929. Evolutsiia russkogo naturalizma. Leningrad.

Zizek, Slavoj. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London.


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.

On Translating Word Play

I’m on my way to the AWP conference later this week and will be speaking on two panels, one on translation and word play, the other on translation and exile. Here are some thoughts about the first. Basically, it’s what I’m going to be saying in the first part of my comments. Then I’ll have some examples. This means that if you’re planning on coming and you’re reading this, you’ll have time to think about other examples, if you agree, or counter-examples, if you don’t.

Karen Emmerich has a passage in her 2017 book Literary Translation and the Making of Originals where she is commenting on the language of a contract she was given for a translation from the Greek, in which the publisher required “a faithful rendition into idiomatic English” of the work in question, stipulating that the translation should “neither omit anything from the original text nor add anything to it, other than such modest verbal changes as are necessary in the translation into English.” After noting that such language, including the “modest verbal changes” phrase and injunctions against omitting from or adding to the original text, are quite standard for translation contracts in the U.S. and the U.K., she points out that this stance rests upon a misconception that is both deep and widespread. “Translation,” she writes, “has no truck with modest changes. The entire translation is a text that didn’t exist before: all the words are added; all the words are different.” This line reminds me of the Steve Martin joke about those arrogant French people who have a different word for everything!

I mention this at the start of my comments because it might be seen to clash with one of the AWP’s guidelines regarding the use of one’s “own” work:

Moderators are asked to ensure that “presenters who read from or discuss their own work during a panel discussion, as opposed to an event designated as a reading, do so in a limited capacity (not longer than 5-minutes), and only to expand upon the discussion of other texts, authors, or subjects.”

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this does seem to raise concerns with regard to translation as a mode of writing, creative or otherwise. If translators are included in such events because their work is considered a part of them, then the idea that they are creative artists seems to be implicit. Why then would they get a pass on commenting on their “own” work as translators unless in fact this was a form of double-think in which that same work was simultaneously considered not theirs? Original authors appear to take center stage in this domain, regardless of how many of the words in the English translation are theirs, or someone else’s.

This question affects how translators position their work vis-à-vis other kinds of writing. Creative writing has established itself as a domain unto itself in the academy, largely with the help of organizations like the AWP. Yet the impetus to promote authorial image above all clashes with the fact of translation, where some unknown inscrutable interloper stands squarely between the “original” author (or rather her or his image as created by the translator, the editor, the publisher, and so on) and the adoring reader who wants to commune with that author’s unadulterated intentions. What we really need, I suspect, are some new fake translations to shake us up. Short of that, we can look to word play as one of the best places to show how such fictions of the reading-communing-originality paradigm break down. Word play does this especially well. Why is that?

Translators routinely need to deal with differences between the expressive systems of two cultures—different grammars and histories and literary genres and so on. One language might have a very strong way of marking verbal aspect, for instance. Another might decline its nouns to show part of speech. A third might not use articles to show number or gender or past reference. These are common enough issues, and translators will have faced them dozens if not hundreds of times in the course of translating a single page, and really they’re nothing new. But word play focuses on them in a very particular way—it’s a little bit like my putting two identical pencils in my hand, holding it out to you, and saying, “Take the pencil.”

This is not exactly playful, but it points to the use of the article and indicates that there’s something odd about that use. If you are the translator trying to translate this phrase, “Take the pencil” into a language that does not use definite articles, assuming you think it’s important and you’re trying to convey whatever that important thing is in your translation, you will have to invent something, you will have to create it. And this will be true of the vast majority of things one might play with in a language—puns, homonyms, particles, syntax. The moment there is any kind of language play going on, especially of the sort that focuses on itself, the translator’s inventive faculties will need to kick into a higher gear, and the resulting English language text will become that much more the result of a creative activity only loosely associated with the source.

A different way of putting this might be to say that if there is word play in my English version of a text, in 95% of the cases or more it will be because I made it up. And on that basis it probably ought to fit into the category of one’s own work for the purposes of a panel like this. So to avoid being reported to the authorities, I will use only one example from a translation that I wrote and then the other I will take from a translation of a colleague.

Example 1: “On the Origin of the phrase ‘Italian tears’”

How to create the appearance of an accent can be to some extent language specific, especially where a word in one language might use different consonants and vowels than an equivalent word in a different language. But as long as the general characteristics of accented speech are recognizable, this should not pose too big a problem.

Tako je govorio Lucio Fabiani: zima svoga života. S umekšanim suglasnicima, onako po talijanski, pa bi zima bila cima, svoga zvoga, život zivot, i čim bi Ćućo spomenuo cimu zvoga zivota oba bi mu oka bila puna suza. Ali ne onih koje niz obraze poteku, nego naročitih suza stajaćica, kakvih u to vrijeme u Sarajevu nije bilo, ni oko njega, na pašnjacima, među pčelinjacima, te su ih ljudi nazvali—suze talijanke, i čim bi netko u društvu spomenuo da su se kome oči napunile suzama, upitalo bi ga—je li talijankama, i svi bi tad znali o kakvoj se žalosti, o kakvom čovjeku, o kakvim se suzama govori.

Here the general characteristics of an Italian accent are what stand out, not the specific ways that it manifests itself in one or the other language. Since there is a comic effect as well, it needs to be relatively pronounced, it seems to me, and there aren’t enough consontantal markers in “winter of one’s life” for that, though “once” for “one’s” is a good start. Plus my author has every word accented. So I’ve added a bit to make it stick.

This was what Lucio Fabiani said: the winter of one’s life. With extra vowels and softened consonants, as in Italian, so that winter was a-winter, one’s was a-once, life was a-life, and the moment Ćućo remarked on the a-winter of a-once a-life, both his eyes would be filled with tears. Only not the kind that run down your face but that particular kind of stay-in-place tears that did not exist in Sarajevo then, or anywhere nearby, on the grazing lands, among the beekeepers, so people called them Italian tears, and anytime someone might remark in conversation about how another’s eyes had filled with tears, they would ask, Italian ones? And then everyone would know what sort of complaint, what sort of person, and what sort of tears were being discussed.

This example is at one end of a spectrum, where the play is with sound associated with letters, a particular kind of accent, which is likely to be represented differently from one receiving culture to another.

My second example, which doesn’t have a title because it has no source at all, and which is from Alyson Waters’ translation of Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times, published by Archipelago Books in 2012, is at the other end of this spectrum I’m imagining, and it involves a footnote, which is one of the ways one can address wordplay in the source.

“Professor Glatt gave me the clef that opens the gate, for I am not a man to write clé when it is possible to write clef, even if in so doing I compel the translators of my tale to slow down—and I trust they see no malevolence where none intended; I would gladly let them have a full page to express this slight difference in leisurely, creative circumambages that will even further delay me taking up my post and so I shall wait until they have surmounted the difficulty” [little footnote marker here] “there’s no bad faith on my part this time, it’s simply a matter of a force majeure, which by definition, cannot be imputed to me, pace Professor Glatt; my conscience is clear, I didn’t invent writing and when given the choice between two spellings, I always, because I am an honest sort, opt for the one that serves my thought or intention better—a clef is heavy in the hand, it is dotted with rust, worn on one’s belt, unlike a clé, what I understand in any case by clé: its clink-clink like small change deep within your pocket…” and there’s more. But what the translator did here, with the permission of the publisher, was create a footnote at the spot I indicated—not an end note, which is important, because the intention is to break up the reading and focus on the language play that is going on, in this case the homonym of clé and clef, and the footnote is a free-associating improvisation by the translator in imitation of the author’s prose, only instead of the words clé and clef she goes off (or rather on and on) about the words gate and grate. I won’t quote it because it is a page long. It’s actually my favorite part of the book.

This second example, like the first, rests on an instability that is in the source text, a variation that is specific to the language in question, but at the other end of the spectrum from the question of orthographically representing accented speech, it takes up the challenge that is implicit in all word play—focusing attention on it and creating—just like those arrogant French people—all new English words to do it.