Alexander and the Mosquito.

I’ve just started Turgenev’s novel Накануне (On the Eve) — I’ve reached the 1860s! — and in the first few pages, in the course of a conversation between the young friends Bersenev and Shubin, the latter, lying on his stomach and observing the goings-on in the grass, says:

Меня больше всего поражает в муравьях, жуках и других господах насекомых их удивительная серьезность; бегают взад и вперед с такими важными физиономиями, точно и их жизнь что-то значит! Помилуйте, человек, царь созданья, существо высшее, на них взирает, а им и дела до него нет; еще, пожалуй, иной комар сядет на нос царю создания и станет употреблять его себе в пищу. Это обидно.

What strikes me most in the ants, beetles, and other gentlemen of the insect kingdom is their astonishing seriousness; they run back and forth with such grave expressions you’d think their lives actually meant something! For heaven’s sake, a person, lord of creation, a higher being, is looking at them, and they could care less. What’s more, some mosquito might sit on the nose of a lord of creation and start using him for its food. It’s insulting.

Fortunately, thanks to my strictly chronological path I had just read Turgenev’s famous lecture Гамлет и Дон-Кихот [Hamlet and Don Quixote], and the memory of this passage was fresh in my mind:

Если бы мы не боялись испугать ваши уши философическими терминами, мы бы решились сказать, что Гамлеты суть выражение коренной центростремительной силы природы, по которой все живущее считает себя центром творения и на все остальное взирает как на существующее только для него (так комар, севший на лоб Александра Македонского, с спокойной уверенностью в своем праве, питался его кровью, как следующей ему пищей; так точно и Гамлет, хотя и презирает себя, чего комар не делает, ибо он до этого не возвысился, так точно и Гамлет, говорим мы, постоянно все относит к самому себе).

If we were not afraid of frightening you with philosophical terminology, we would have said that Hamlets are the expression of the fundamental centripetal force of nature, according to which every living thing considers itself the center of creation and looks on everything else as existing only for it (so a mosquito, sitting on the forehead of Alexander of Macedon, with quiet conviction of its right to do so, fed itself on his blood as its proper food; just so does Hamlet — though he despises himself, which the mosquito does not do, because it has not raised itself to that point — just so does Hamlet, we say, constantly relate everything to himself).

It’s fun to see Turgenev using the same image in such different contexts! I presume the mosquito is the one that is supposed by some to have infected Alexander with his fatal disease.

Comments

  1. Lars (not the regular) says:

    and they could care less

    Surely you mean “and they couldn’t care less”?

  2. Are you baiting the Hat? Well, Turgenev might not have approved of the slangy construction, but I’m translating him into my dialect.

  3. Yvy tyvy says:

    Frankly, I could care more if people say they could care less.

  4. I’ve decided “they could care less” is actually not stylistically appropriate in this context, but I’m having trouble coming up with a substitute that works; maybe “they aren’t interested”?

  5. You can simply say “they don’t care”. The Russian expression is not slangy, but informal.

  6. Excellent suggestion! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me. Brains are funny things.

  7. The use of “centripetal force” in that translation bothers me. Something like “centripetal impetus” would be fine, but “centripetal force” is such a common term in physics that seeing used to mean something entirely different from the usual scientific definition is quite off-putting. The overlapping of the standard phrases “centripetal force” and “force of nature” probably doesn’t help either.

  8. That’s a good point; I’ll change it to “impetus.”

  9. Re centripetal force: But Центростремительная сила is the exact Russian equivalent of “centripetal force” as scientific term (see the Russian Wikipedia article), so whether Turgenev uses it in a way a physicist would recognize is beside the point – he uses the physical term, not some near equivalent. So my vote goes for Hat’s original translation. 🙂

  10. OK, you’ve convinced me, and I’ve changed it back!

  11. Bathrobe says:

    Hat, will you stop flipflopping?

  12. Never!

  13. Lars (not the regular) says:

    I’ll admit to not having studied the archives; I did not intend to troll you. Something else caught my eye: For the longest time, I’ve been arguing in various forums for the existence of a certain ‘academic we’ where the referent is singular. These things have always been on the spur of the moment, and as such without examples to hand, and I’ve always been told that it doesn’t exist. I remain unconvinced, and as fate would have it, I believe I spy one here:

    “If we were not afraid of frightening you…”

    So, is this an instance of the “academic we” or is it something else?

  14. I think it is such an example — not that Turgenev was an academic, of course, but he was operating in a quasi-academic context, giving a public lecture on literature.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    I keep misreading the post title as this song title:

    Alexander og Margido (mel. Auld Lang Syne)

    To brødre gikk en gang til sjøs med skonnertbriggen Fido,
    Alexander var den enes navn, den annens var Margido.

    Og briggen kom til Frisco by efter første tørn til vanns
    Alexander i en kirke gikk, Margido dro på dans.

    I Zansibar bandittene en skibsgutt ville henge,
    Alexander reddet guttens liv, Margido tok hans penge.

    Og skuten Fido fikk en last og lasten var konjakk,
    Alexander sto til rors så fast, Margido lå og drakk.

    Så kom de på sin lange reis omsider til Torino,
    Alexander skrev et brev til mor, Margido gikk på kino.

    En natt gikk kokken over bord som han sto ved vaskebaljen,
    Alexander øvet redningsdåd, Margido fikk medaljen.

    Så ville deres gamle mor dem en Trondhjemsnål forære,
    Alexander bar den på sitt bryst, Margido lot det være.

    Så satte de for England seil men skuten Fido hvelvede,
    Alexander kom til himmelen, Margido kom til…England.

  16. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Så satte de for England seil men skuten Fido hvelvede, / Alexander kom til himmelen, Margido kom til…England.

    I wasn’t expecting England at the end, but it somehow seems appropriate.

  17. Google Translate renders skonnertbriggen as fiancé (masculine!). What the helvete is it thinking?

  18. Trond Engen says:

    (Warning: I’ve been propagating false facts. I was lazy and cut&pasted the text from the ‘net, just correcting obvious errors. Now I’ve pulled out tne songbook from the shelf, and there were more errors.)

    John C.: Google Translate renders skonnertbriggen as fiancé (masculine!). What the helvete is it thinking?

    Good work on ‘helvete’. Danish rhyme dictionary?

    ‘Skonnertbriggen’ means “brigantine”. I’ve been trying to imagine the pathway. I can’t think of any other occurence of that word than this song, and surely no other context as widespread in a Norwegian corpus. I wonder if there could be a translation of the song somewhere out there, in which Alexander asked politely for a girl’s hand and Margido took the rest of her.

    I probably should translate it myself, but the simple meter of rhyming couplets is really hard. I’d have to come up with new but equivalent ideas all the way through. Like e.g. a stanza about asking for a girl’s hand.

  19. Congratulations on reaching the 1860s in your chronological read-through of Russian literature!

    Your project has actually inspired me to undertake a similar effort (albeit in a different language’s literature). I’m wondering though what are the actual selection principles you use to determine what you read. Do you just open up a chronology of Russian literature and read through all the publications of a given year, year upon year? Or do you limit yourself just to certain major authors you’re already familiar with, and use this as a way of filling in the gaps of minor works by major writers that you never got around to before? In other words, how do you keep a project like this from spinning out of control and roaming ever farther afield?

  20. Danish rhyme dictionary?

    No, a dim memory of the word, which I checked against Wiktionary. It lists No Sw helvete but not Da. I wasn’t too sure about -ete/-ede (cf. hvelvede), but took a chance. Checking, helvete appears five times on this site alone, probably in comments by you or your landsmen.

  21. Also helvetti in Finnish.
    I remember reading a passage from a book called Побег из ада (An Escape from Hell) by Mikhail Devyatayev, translated into Finnish as Pako helvetistä. It describes his escape from a German concentration camp (in Russian).

  22. David Marjanović says:

    I knew Switzerland had a dark secret.

  23. Your project has actually inspired me to undertake a similar effort (albeit in a different language’s literature).

    Excellent! I’d be glad to hear the results; I find it incredibly useful to read each story or novel with the recent literary background fresh in my mind.

    I’m wondering though what are the actual selection principles you use to determine what you read. Do you just open up a chronology of Russian literature and read through all the publications of a given year, year upon year? Or do you limit yourself just to certain major authors you’re already familiar with, and use this as a way of filling in the gaps of minor works by major writers that you never got around to before? In other words, how do you keep a project like this from spinning out of control and roaming ever farther afield?

    Well, first I had to create my own chronology of Russian (prose) literature, because there was no such thing as far as I could discover; I started it in the summer of 2009, and it’s ballooned from a few pages to (at the moment) 232. I’ve taken a lot of trouble adding information on first publication (the March issue of such-and-such a journal) so that I can to some extent go chronologically even within a given year. I started out basically reading everything available, because up to about the 1830s there really isn’t that much, and I’m deeply grateful I was so omnivorous, because I discovered terrific authors like Vasily Narezhny and Aleksandr Veltman, who I knew only as names and would never have read for their own sake — I liked them so much I sought out and read everything I could find of theirs, and being omnivorous was really the only way I could have found them. If I started reading something and just didn’t enjoy it, I quit and moved on; I’m not a masochist.

    I’ve started becoming more selective in the last year or so; when you get to the 1850s there’s just too much, and the point, after all, was originally to have a good background for reading Dostoevsky, not to become the world expert on Russian literature of the mid-19th century. So I’m skipping stuff I have no reason to think will be of interest, but reading absolutely everything by authors I care about, like Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and at least giving a chance to works I think might be worth it (especially those by women writers, who have historically been shoved under the rug whether they were good or not). I’m not sure what you mean by “roaming ever farther afield,” but I’m making good progress — about a decade a year — and even though that will slow now that I’m in the 1860s and hitting a string of major novels, I should get to my white whale, The Brothers Karamazov, in the next few years. Then I’ll have to decide whether to press on through the ’80s and ’90s or leap ahead and read the modernist prose of the early 20th century, which I’m excited about.

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