Gogol’s Styles.

I’m finally getting around to reading one of those pdf files that have been cluttering up my Kindle, Robert A. Maguire’s “Translating Dead Souls” (Ulbandus Review 6, 2002: 13-35) (JSTOR); I have problems with some of his decisions, but I thoroughly approve of his main one, which is to try as far as possible to preserve Gogol’s repetitions and provide equivalents for his effects — as he summarizes it on p. 26, “to translate and not merely paraphrase.” I was struck by a passage about “the enormous range of lexicons, styles, and even syntaxes” Gogol uses (p. 24):

I doubt that a scholar of the caliber of Viktor Vinogradov exaggerates when he says that the age of Gogol is “a new age in the history of the Russian literary language,” and that Gogol’s own language, throughout his work, is “the fullest system of literary expression, including as it does not only the styles of the literary language of a preceding age, but also reflecting the complex stream of the literary language of social and group dialects of the town and country.” All these currents come together in Dead Souls to form “a structural unity of various stylistic layers, each of which corresponds to a particular plane of artistic reality and to a particular character, or to the persona of the author.” Among those that Vinogradov identifies are: Ukrainianisms, earlier literary styles, especially from Romanticism, Sentimentalism, and the eighteenth-century odic and rhetorical corpus, conversational Russian from every social level, official jargon, Church Slavonicisms, technical and scientific terms, foreign words, sometimes russified, sometimes not. The translator’s first duty to himself is to identify which is which.

A daunting task, but he’s right, that’s how you have to approach it. (He started off translating a sample passage, thought “This isn’t so bad,” and agreed to do the whole book, only to discover that the farther he went in it the harder it got…)

Addendum. A nice companion to the Maguire piece is Adam Thorpe on translating Madame Bovary, which I’ve just plucked from the dusty December reaches of my inbox (sorry, Rick, and a belated but heartfelt thank-you!); Thorpe “made a decision equivalent to climbing without oxygen in 19th-century gear: I would stick to period language,” using Spiers’s French-English dictionary, published in 1853, and his discussion of Flaubert’s styles makes an interesting parallel to Maguire’s of Gogol’s:

Inch by inch, I would cover the ground, only to slip back when, for example, I realised that Flaubert had been using an extended metaphor (military, legal, whatever) for an entire paragraph. There were times when I tumbled into the crevice between the two languages, lost all sight of a natural English sentence, felt myself turning into the constituent molecules of a linguistic object – a pattern of auxiliaries, participles, pronouns.

Like Joyce, Flaubert can be drily comic, but humour is dependent on a precise selection of words, registers and double meanings, so I had to take an irony geiger count of every sentence – whose “right” translation lurked just around the corner. This was the version that combined accuracy, naturalness and musicality. The problem was the lack of corners: as in a dream, there would be one long traverse with nothing on it. The solution would appear (sometimes the novel felt like a vast crossword puzzle) through a combination of experiment, meditation and lateral thought: I had to step firmly away from the French and face a contrary direction – another track entirely. The solution usually had only two out of the three essential elements, and more work had to be done: less a path to climb than a Rubik’s Cube of words to be twisted about or thrown at the wall.

And of course I enjoy the nitpicking:

Historical details took hours of research: for a debauched night, Emma sports a “lampion” on one ear: not the unlikely “paper lantern” (Wall), nor a “cocked hat” (Eleanor Marx Aveling, Russell and Davis), but a suitably Gypsy-like “lantern earring” – fashionable at the time.

I’d actually like to take a look at his translation sometime; he seems to have the right idea of how to do it. (Hmm, the Kindle edition is only $2.99 — maybe I’ll just spring for it…)


  1. Great essay, thanks.

    “Mr. English, a skilful translator with an excellent knowledge of Russian, somehow got trapped in the wrong meaning, and to make it work, had to amplify Gogol’s sentence. This is often a sign that something is amiss.”

    “Trapped in the wrong meaning”! There’s a phrase I’m going to steal next time I need to politely criticize a translation.

  2. Interesting, but why he decided against “tax-farmer” for “otkupshchik”? He explains that it “is as alien for the English ear nowadays as the original would be for the Russian”. And what’s wrong with that? And not translating “muzhik” is also a somewhat strange decision. Yes, there probably is no English words that encompasses all subtleties of the Russian original, but to leave it as is because AHD says that someone already did it is to shift a work of translation on the reader, who now has to unearth a treatise on Russian socioeconomic classes or forever remain in the dark.

    One funny mistake: Russian “koleso” cannot mean a travelling contraption. It means “wheel” and Gogol makes his two muzhiks discuss the wheel as being likely or not likely to travel (as if by itself) to Kazan and beyond for larger comical effect.

  3. two muzhiks discuss the wheel as being likely or not likely to travel (as if by itself) to Kazan and beyond for larger comical effect.

    The comical effect has nothing to do with supposed (and actually not implied) travel of a wheel “by itself”. No, they are just bantering about this:

    “This wheel won’t withstand a road to Kazan’ !” – “No it will survive it just fine” – “No it’ll fail on the road”.

    The absurdity of all this has nothing to do with wheel’s ability to travel, but simply with the fact that the two guys don’t know if the cart *is* heading to Kazan’ at all, and if does, of course they have no way of knowing if a wheel will fail?

  4. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know the work or the situation, but why is it comical to discuss whether a wheel in poor condition will survive a long trip without breaking down?

  5. Interesting, but why he decided against “tax-farmer” for “otkupshchik”? He explains that it “is as alien for the English ear nowadays as the original would be for the Russian”. And what’s wrong with that?

    I agree; that’s one of his decisions I have problems with.

  6. Marie-Lucie, it’s hard to discuss and explain humor and you might be better off just reading it and figuring out for yourself, but roughly it is absurdity of the whole situation. First of, there are two people who simply search for a pretext not to work and to talk about something. They have no real interest in this wheel going anywhere, they have no idea where this “traveling contraption” is travelling to; Kazan’ is an absolutely random place as well. But they discuss it so earnestly if that was actually their business and interest. That’s why I think focusing on a wheel is such a nice touch. It’s as if these two people cannot possibly be bantering, you see, they are so specific, maybe they have relevant technical expertise and someone asked for their opinion. But of course, that’s not what it is.

  7. It was before the internet. Nowadays after two idle villagers killing their time are done with talking about weather, neighbors, prices, harvest prospects, and conspiracy theories, they could just watch vids on their smartphones. But Gogol’s two lazy guys still needed some stupid subject to talk about (probably after being so idle for so long that they totally ran out of the regular topics). Voila, they could argue if that one rig over there is or isn’t gonna blow a tire before getting anywhere close to Pittsburgh.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    D.O. and MOCKBA, thank you for explaining the context.

  9. John Emerson says:

    What is said about the languages of Gogol remind me of things I have read about the languages of Celine. Celine (especially in Voyage au Bout de la Nuit) mixed normal written French (which was stricter than written English),the ordinary spokes French even of educated people (which was quite different than their written French), various sorts of class and other dialects, slang and argot, and some unusual constructions and tics characteristic mostly of himself. Perhaps for this reason, I found the French text remarkably more powerful than either of the two translations I read.

  10. John Emerson says:

    The two guys speculating about the fate of the wheel trying to go to Kazan reminds me of the Mark Twain character who was willing to bet on anything whatsoever, for example, which of two flies would take off first.

    Twain, Celine, and Gogol seem somewhat similar in their familiarity with nonstandard life and their willingness to bring it into literature.

  11. @D.O.:

    And not translating “muzhik” is also a somewhat strange decision.

    I’m by no means an expert in Spanish translations of Russian authors, but I recall many of them using mujik instead of translating it as campesino or paisano, perhaps to emphasise the differences between the Russian peasants’ serfdom with the largely free-holding system common in Spain after Alphonse X.


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