Unable to sleep last night, I pulled out a little collection of Alexander Kushner (a wonderful St. Petersburg poet; here‘s a pdf file of his 2002 speech “Poetry and Freedom”) and opened it at random to a poem whose first stanza is:
Skuchno, Gogol’, zhit’ na etom svete!
No poveet medom inogda
Ot pushistykh zontichnykh sotsvetii!
Chudno zhit’ na svete, gospoda!
[It's tiresome, Gogol, to live in this world!
But sometimes there's a honeyed breeze
from the fluffy zontichnye sotsvetiya!
It's wonderful to live in the world, gentlemen!]
I didn’t know the words I’ve left in italics, but it was clear from their roots they had something to do with umbrellas (zontik) and flowers (tsvet), and I was too sleepy to bother going downstairs to look them up. So today I did, and it turns out zontichnyi is ‘umbelliferous’ and sotsvetiye is ‘inflorescence.’ Neither meant anything to me, so I looked them up; an inflorescence is a characteristic pattern of flowers on a stem, and one of the several varieties is an umbrella-shaped form called umbelliferous.
So how do you translate that? In Russian, both are perfectly ordinary-sounding words, and even if the average Russian doesn’t know exactly what a sotsvetiye is (I hope my Russian readers will enlighten me about this), it doesn’t carry any of the forbidding “incomprehensible technical term” air of its English equivalent. Nabokov, of course, would have rendered the line “From the fluffy umbelliferous inflorescences,” and quivered with pedantic joy as he did so; for the rest of us, that would risk clubbing the poem over the head with a hundred-ton hammer. But if you don’t, how do you keep it from losing all specificity and becoming a banal reference to sweet-smelling flowers? Ah, the endless troubles of translation…