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.