A BAD TRANSLATION.

Chukovsky talks about Maxim Gorky so much I thought it would be a good time to finally read Gorky’s famous autobiography. I happen to have the old Isidor Schneider translation (Citadel Press, 1949) that I picked up somewhere for a dollar, so I’ve been comparing it with the Russian, and hoo boy, I can’t believe some of his goofs. One glaring example of his inadequacy is near the start of Chapter 2, after young Alexei (Gorky’s real name was Alexei Peshkov) has been taken to live with his grandparents in Nizhni Novgorod and is witnessing one of the frequent, violent family quarrels. His grandfather views the resulting debris and says to his wife, Gorky’s grandmother, “Ты, мать, гляди за ними, а то они Варвару-то изведут, чего доброго…”: “Mother, keep an eye on them [Alexei's violent uncles], or else I’m afraid they might hurt/torment/victimize/destroy Barbara [Alexei's newly widowed mother, whom the uncles want cut out of the inheritance].” Now, the phrase that I’ve translated “I’m afraid they might” (other possible translations are “who knows if” and “for all we know”), чего доброго, literally means ‘of which good.’ No, I don’t know how you get the actual meaning from the literal one; it’s an idiom. At any rate, here’s what the valiant Mr. Schneider made of the sentence: “Think of them and Barbara’s little one that they’re so angry about . . . so, who has the better heart?” That left me speechless, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how he came up with it.
Another bad patch is in Chapter 4; the author is remembering the tales his grandmother used to tell him, among which were сказки о премудрой Василисе, о Попе-козле и божьем крестнике: “stories about Vasilisa the Wise, about Priest Kozel [or the Goat Priest] and the godson.” Except that Schneider turns it into “stories about [...] the sage Basil, the priest Kozha, beloved of god.”
According to this brief biography, Schneider was born in Ukraine in 1896, but came to the U.S. in 1902, at the age of five or six, so presumably he had only a patchy acquaintance with Russian. How he convinced a publisher to let him translate a major work of Gorky’s is beyond me, but you have to admire his chutzpah in the Translator’s Preface, where he makes snide remarks about earlier translations, after Gorky “became immediately a figure of world interest”: “Publication of his work was hurried through the presses. The rush, unfortunately, showed itself in most of the translations. This was so with what is generally considered the greatest of his works, the autobiographical trilogy.[...] As it reached its English reading public, it had only a dim resemblance to the original.”
Update. But wait, there’s more! On the very next page, Gorky describes a fire and says “очень высоко над ними колебалось темноватое облако, не мешая видеть серебряный поток Млечного Пути”: “very high above them wavered a dark cloud, not hindering [them] from seeing the silver stream of the Milky Way.” Schneider ends the sentence: “…but not low enough to blot out the silvery furrow of the Mlechna road.”

Comments

  1. Are other languages as badly translated as often as Russian?

  2. Every language is translated badly, each in its own way.
    (sorry–can’t help myself)

  3. chego dobrogo – what good in that?

  4. Are other languages as badly translated as often as Russian?
    I imagine a good rule of thumb is that the less well known the language is (among the population using the target language), the worse the translations are likely to be.

  5. I always thought of it as еще чего доброго, something like “one good thing after another.” The situation is bad enough, and here’s something else to make you worry.

  6. John Emerson says:

    So Gorky took the name of his birthplace, the city of Gorky, right?

  7. the city took his name as far as I know, it was Nijnii Novgorod before

  8. David Marjanović says:

    I imagine a good rule of thumb is that the less well known the language is (among the population using the target language), the worse the translations are likely to be.

    Exception: the German version of Harry Potter. Done in a rush, deliberately peppered with how the translator apparently believes the youth speaks nowadays, all colors wrong as a rule (pink becoming “red”), entire sentences missing, entire sentences added. One embarrassment after another.

    So Gorky took the name of his birthplace, the city of Gorky, right?

    read is right instead. The name means “bitter” and alludes to how the world isn’t all rosy… or something.

  9. Interestingly, he himself apparently pronounced his real family name Pesh-KOV, but as far as I know all Russians today (certainly all reference works) say PESH-kov.

  10. In one translation of the Borges story The Lottery in Babylon, a reference to the race between the tortoise and Achilles that was used to illustrate the infinite divisibility of time was translated as a reference to the race between the tortoise and the hare!

  11. The standard use of chego dobrogo is negative. I always translate it as ‘god forbid’. It’s one of those typical Russian reversies: negatvie means positive, and positive means negative. Compare the standard Russian reply to ‘How are you?’(Как дела?) – ‘Nichego’ (literally – nothing, but meaning ‘I’m okay, not so bad – nothing bad has happened.
    I’d deconstruct the idiom as follows:
    chego (genitive of chto – what) means ‘what if’ and
    ‘dobrogo’ (genitive of dobry) means ‘good chance’. The main meaning of dobry is ‘kind’, but it also means ‘good’ as the standard Russian/Slavonic greeting ‘dobry den’ (good day) or in lyudi dobrye – good people, see Yeshua’s exchange with Pontius in Bulgakov’s M&M.
    here is чего доброго in Fedorov’s phraseological dictionary.
    Chukovsky had been curious about Gorky for a very long time. Here is a link to his 1905 review of Gorky’s early shorty stories.

  12. it was Nijnii Novgorod before
    It took Nij’s name?

  13. Victor Sonkin says:

    I imagine a good rule of thumb is that the less well known the language is (among the population using the target language), the worse the translations are likely to be.
    I’d say the situation is reversed in Russia. The translations from, let’s say, Serbian or Slovene (I’m just quoting those because I could check them personally) are usually done by Slavic scholars who know the languages and cultures in question and are attentive enough to their mother tongue, too. With English, lots of people think they know the language, so the mistakes in translations from English are among the most atrocious. Nobody cares.

  14. and now, http://3.ly/asS
    i did not know it was renamed again

  15. chemiazrit says:

    So Gorky took the name of his birthplace, the city of Gorky, right?
    the city took his name as far as I know, it was Nijnii Novgorod before
    No one “took” any name. “Gorky” was imposed on Nizhny Novgorod by Uncle Joe as way of honoring the writer, who by all accounts would have refused the honor if refusing Uncle Joe had been a option (MG was still alive at the time). Surely the nizhegorodtsy couldn’t initially have been very chuffed either to have their ancient city (est. 1221) renamed “Bitter.” Like most other such Soviet-isms, the unwelcome name was ditched at the first opportunity.

  16. I imagine a good rule of thumb is that the less well known the language is (among the population using the target language), the worse the translations are likely to be.
    There are exceptions, however. Jusuf Vrioni’s translations of Ismail Kadare’s works from Albanian to French are said by Kadare himself to be excellent (and his own French is certainly good enough for his opinion to carry some weight).

  17. it was Nijnii Novgorod before
    It took Nij’s name?

    It looks like the Nizhny Novogrod (“new city”, from Old Norse Novgarðr) of Gorky fame is not the same city as Veliky Novgorod or Holmgård of Rurik and the Varangians fame.

  18. I imagine a good rule of thumb is that the less well known the language is (among the population using the target language), the worse the translations are likely to be
    I wonder about that. It seems to me that there are plenty of dilettantes who can convince a publisher they know Spanish, French or German better than they really do.

  19. Everyone is taking my name in vain these days. I have just found out that in Hebrew the common greeting meaning “what’s new?” is “Mah nishma?” and the formula answer is “Baruch Hashem” ברוך השם — Thank God, or “Blessed be G_D” as some have it. Wiktionary says Baruch HaShem is “Blessed be the Name (of the Lord)”. This came up in a discussion about the video of Leonard Cohen’s Tel Aviv concert–at around 0:56 Cohen says, “This is not about forgiving and forgetting, this is not about laying down ones arms in a time of war, this is not even about peace, although God willing, it could be a beginning. This is about a response to human grief, a radical, unique, and holy, holy, holy response to human suffering Baruch HaShem.”

  20. I wonder about that. It seems to me that there are plenty of dilettantes who can convince a publisher they know Spanish, French or German better than they really do.
    Yeah, the more I think about it the more I suspect I was shooting from the hip in the wrong direction (perhaps hitting the dog that was barking up the wrong tree).

  21. John Emerson says:

    You do have the Omar Khayyam phenomenon — Fitzgerald was translating from an almost unknown language in a world without Persian Studies departments. I’ve been told that Fitzgerald’s translation goes so far afield that you can’t even match certain quatrains of his with any specific quatrain in the translation. (Those are called “Imitations” today).
    And also that he took a minor Persian poet and treated him as major, and made an Epicurian out of a standard average Muslim mystic.

  22. “You do have the Omar Khayyam phenomenon — Fitzgerald was translating from an almost unknown language in a world without Persian Studies departments.”
    I would guess that there was slightly more Persian spoken among English people then than now, given that it was the language of administration of the Mughals and various colonial administrators had to learn it. But, right, certainly no Persian Studies departments.

  23. John Emerson says:

    “ASndy specific quatrain in the original”, I mean. And “Certain quatrains of Fitzgerald’s translation”. You get the idea.

  24. The name change game in Russia is more complicated than popular belief suggests. The link below lists about 75 places that changed name in the entire history of Russia. Of these 54 or so have not changed their names back. There are quite a few (Marks, Dzerzhinsk, Kirov, Budyonnovsk, Chapayevsk) for example(Chapayevsk used to be Trotsk)) that you’d think would have changed back. A fair number of the changes also seems to reflect a size change e.g.Almetyevo → Almetyevsk.
    http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/List-of-city-name-changes-in-Russia-and-Soviet-Union

  25. christian business says:

    I do not think that is badly translated. Russian language is always is very difficult to translate into English.

  26. chemiazrit says:

    The name change game in Russia is more complicated than popular belief suggests…
    Point taken. But among major cities / provincial capitals the only ones to have retained a Soviet name are Ulyanovsk and Kirov (whose citizens rejected a measure to change it back to Vyatka, though the question keeps coming up). Dzerzhinsk arguably qualifies as a city, but was founded in 1930, so, afaik, doesn’t have a historic name to revert to.
    I do not think that is badly translated. Russian language is always is very difficult to translate into English.
    Evidence that no matter how spectacularly black something is, there’s always someone perfectly prepared to call it white.

  27. I imagine a good rule of thumb is that the less well known the language is (among the population using the target language), the worse the translations are likely to be.
    I suspect this is not true. French is not exactly a poorly known language in Japan (although it obviously pales in comparison with English), but Japanese translators make some ridiculous errors translating Le Petit Prince. One is at the explanation of how Europeans refused to believe in the discovery of asteroid B-612 because the news was announced by a Turk wearing non-European clothing. Heureusement pour la réputation de l’astéroïde B 612, un dictateur turc imposa à son peuple, sous paine de mort, de s’habiller à l’européenne. (“Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume”). The Turk redelivered his discovery in the right get-up and everyone believed him.
    Several Japanese translations get the meaning totally wrong. It starts with the original 1953 translation:
    * “さいわい、B-612番の星の評判を傷つけまいというので” (Saiwai, B-612 ban no hoshi no hyōban o kizu-tsuke-mai to yū no de), literally, “Fortunately, in order not to harm the reputation of asteroid B-612…“.
    A number of later translations continue to get it wrong.
    * One says “でも、小惑星B612のうわさのおかげで…” (Demo, ko-wakusei B612 no uwasa no o-kage de…), literally, “Thanks to rumours of asteroid B612…
    * Another says “さいわいにも、小惑星B612の評判を聞きつけて、” (Saiwai ni mo, ko-wakusei B612 no hyōban o kiki-tsukete), literally, “Fortunately, hearing the reputation of asteroid B612…“.
    * A similar error occurs in this translation: “幸いなことに、小惑星B612の評判を聞きつけて” (Saiwai na koto ni, ko-wakusei B612 no hyōban o kiki-tsukete), literally, “Fortunately, hearing the reputation of asteroid B612…“.
    * Yet another says “さいわいなことに、小惑星B612番が話題になったため” (Saiwai na koto ni, ko-wakusei B612-ban ga wadai ni natta tame, literally, “Fortunately, since asteroid B612 had become a widely discussed topic…
    That leaves eleven translations to get it right, which they do using various circumlocutions — this expression apparently doesn’t have a good match in Japanese idiom. But it is rather remarkable how poorly even a well-known language such as French can be translated into Japanese.

  28. John Emerson says:

    Christian businessmen’s theories of Russian translation have always been idiosyncratic.

  29. how poorly even a well-known language such as French can be translated into Japanese.
    i think the problem is not poor language skills or bad translations, but appreciation of irony and sarcasm, it’s just how the translators felt it would be too offensive to translate the text as it is, maybe

  30. But among major cities / provincial capitals the only ones to have retained a Soviet name are Ulyanovsk and Kirov
    And Kaliningrad as well, which would the best known one. But a fair enough point. I’d quite like to see a proper study on this – anyone know of one?

  31. appreciation of irony and sarcasm, it’s just how the translators felt it would be too offensive to translate the text as it is
    I saw this in Jordan, watching Jerry Seinfeld on the local Amman station. Seinfeld was telling a joke about Hare Krishnas in airports and losing luggage, and suddenly the Arabic subtitles stopped altogether. The punchline was something like “Oh, my God” which of course would be Taking the Name in vain and horribly offensive in an Arab culture. The whole ending went untranslated.

  32. Sometimes the subtitles skip a few sentences on Norwegian tv. My theory is the translator gets bored and nobody notices except me, and I only read them because I’m a bit deaf.

  33. i think the problem is not poor language skills or bad translations
    This would be a nice explanation, except that in this case eleven translators do manage to get it right. The problem is quite clear: several translators have not understood the original, resulting in a mistranslation. In this they were possibly influenced by the original back in 1953. Had Naitō Arō got it right way back when, perhaps a few of the recent translators would not have been led astray.

  34. maybe that would be easy to test, no?
    if there were other mistranslations in those versions – perhaps you are right, the translators didn’t get the sentence
    if no, their sensibilities played a role in translating it that way

  35. I don’t think their sensibilities are relevant here. There is nothing inherently offensive about the sentence. The problem is that translators have parsed it wrongly. Instead of “Fortunately for the reputation of B612, X happened” they have analysed it as “Fortunately, X was done in order to help the reputation of B612″.
    Translators who got it right translated it as:
    * さいわいにもB-612の評判は上がった。Saiwai ni mo B-612 no hyōban ga agatta. Luckily, the reputation of B-612 rose.
    * B612がみんなに認められるのに好都合なことが起こりました。B612 ga minna ni mitomerareru no ni kō-tsugō na koto ga okorimashita. Something happened that was fortunate/favourable for B612 to be recognised by everyone.
    * その後、小惑星B612に、名誉挽回の幸運が訪れた。Sono go, shō-wakusei B612 ni, meiyo-bankai no kō-un ga otozureta. Later, asteroid B612 had the good fortune of being able to retrieve its reputation.
    * (The fact that a Turkish dictator mandated Western clothing)小惑星B612の名誉のために幸運だった。shō-wakusei B612 no meiyo no tame ni kō-un datta. …was fortunate for the reputation of asteroid B612
    * ところが、この小惑星B612号の評判をあげるにはちょうど好都合なことに、Tokoro ga, kono shō-wakusei B612-gō no hyōban o ageru ni wa chōdo kō-tsugō na koto ni, But something that was quite fortunate/favourable for raising the reputation of this asteroid B-612 happened
    * 小惑星B612にとってラッキーだったことに、 Shō-wakusei B612 ni totte rakkii datta koto ni, Luckily for asteroid B612,
    * 幸いなことに、小惑星B612は名誉を挽回できた。Saiwai na koto ni, shō-wakusei B612 wa meiyo o bankai dekita. Fortunately, asteroid B612 was able to retrieve its reputation.
    * ただ、小惑星B-612号の名誉にとってさいわいだったのは、Tada, shō-wakusei B-612 gō no meiyo ni totte saiwai datta no wa… But what was fortunate for the reputation of asteroid B-612 was that…
    * さいわいなことに、たまたま… Saiwai na koto ni, tamatama… Fortunately, it just happened that….
    Some translators leave out the awkward term “reputation”, making it simply “fortunate for B612″. Others go the other way and expand the expression to say that the asteroid “managed to retrieve its reputation”.
    One other translator translates quite literally:
    * さいわい、小惑星B612の評判のために、Saiwai, shō-wakusei B612 no hyōban no tame ni, Fortunately, for the reputation of asteroid B612,
    This is also incorrect as it implies that the Turkish dictator enforced a new dress code for the sake of the asteroid.
    (There were a couple of errors in my earlier post. 小惑星 should be read shō-wakusei. And there are 15 translations, not 16, of which it now appears 9 are correct and 6 are incorrect. There is one other translation, but it is a retelling rather than a translation.)

  36. Sorry, one English gloss was incorrect.
    * ところが、この小惑星B612号の評判をあげるにはちょうど好都合なことに、Tokoro ga, kono shō-wakusei B612-gō no hyōban o ageru ni wa chōdo kō-tsugō na koto ni, should be But quite fortunately/favourably for raising the reputation of this asteroid B-612,…

  37. David Marjanović says:

    And Kaliningrad as well, which would the best known one.

    All cities in East Prussia seem to keep their Soviet names. Even Sovetsk, the former Tilsit.

  38. Trond Engen says:

    All cities in East Prussia seem to keep their Soviet names. Even Sovetsk, the former Tilsit.
    Since the previous population was completely replaced the only history to reclaim is post WW2 settlement.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    I meant to finish that sentence with a question mark, but apparently nobody does question Marx in Kaliningradskaya oblast.

  40. Tilsit continues in cheese form.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    the previous population was completely replaced

    Not true. 20,000 German speakers are said to be left, complete with an Aktion Deutsches Königsberg. And the Lithuanian speakers are still there, too.

  42. When I lived in Hamburg, I knew a very nice cleaning lady who had grown up in Königsberg before WW2. She was related to Kant.

  43. When I lived in Hamburg, I knew a very nice cleaning lady who had grown up in Königsberg before WW2. She was related to Kant.

  44. (I made that last bit up.)

  45. (I made that last bit up.)

  46. If a few of Konigsberg’s bridges had been destroyed, a certain math problem now be a lot easier to solve.

  47. Actually, only the #7 bridge between the two islands needs to be destroyed. Surely the Konigsberger’s wouldn’t object to something as small as that, if it helped to advance science.

  48. They’re used to it; happens all the time.

  49. Anything to Euler few wheels.

  50. Emerson’s Solution to the “Six Bridges of Konigsberg” problem is too little known.
    Taking out any single bridge would do the job, not just #7, but this comment box is too small for me to give the proof.

  51. I had the same problem with my 8-bridge solution.

  52. I had the same problem with my 8-bridge solution.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Translating well-known languages: I have written before about how annoyed I am at poor translations of French in some academic books, for which there is no excuse in the English-speaking world such as dearth of models or consultants, either alive or in books. But I recently had the reverse experience, as I was looking for a textbook on linguistic theory written in “French. There was one that looked very promising at first, until I looked a little more closely at the examples, which came from a variety of languages. The English examples almost all had something wrong with them, either in the sentences themselves or in their translation, even for the simplest ones: for example, It is translated as C’était (= It was). This in a book whose two co-authors are linguistics professors! Surely it is even easier for French scholars to find suitable English consultants than for American scholars to find suitable French consultants, but no, non-specialists think they know the languages and can dispense with revision. Sloppy work! And in a linguistics textbook, such elementary errors in very well-known languages do not bode well for the examples given in lesser-known languages for which there is much less documentation available: if one can’t trust that examples in French or English are correct, how can one trust examples in Kabardian or Atayal (an aboriginal language of Taiwan), for instance?

  54. ‘изведут’ I think could be better rendered into English as ‘do her in’

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