I’m now reading Dostoevsky’s Двойник (The Double), his second published work, which came out in late 1846 after the extraordinary success of his first, Poor Folk (discussed at LH here and here), had turned his head and inspired jealous colleagues like Turgenev to mock him unmercifully; I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished it, but for the moment I’ll just note that the use of language is wonderful and frequently hilarious, and the paranoid main character, Golyadkin, may be modeled on Dostoevsky’s friend Butkov, who I’ve been writing about lately — besides the similarities in psychology and social position, they share the same given name and patronymic, Yakov Petrovich. But at the moment I want to post about some colloquial phrases that seem to have given translators some trouble.
As Golyadkin is pouring out his troubles to the irritated and confused Doctor Rutenspitz, he mentions that some people “умеют этак иногда поднести коку с соком” — they know how to present someone with koka s sokom. Now, кока с соком is literally ‘egg with juice’ (кока is a children’s word for ‘egg’), but it is, or was, a colloquial expression for ‘abundance, riches’; it’s not very common (is it still used at all? the last citation in the Национальный корпус русского языка is from 1920), but it’s not clear whether the doctor’s response (“Что? что поднести?” — “What? present what?”) means he doesn’t know the idiom or is simply overwhelmed by Golyadkin’s flood of non sequiturs (he responds with similar confusion to much of what Golyadkin says). Golyadkin reponds impatiently, “Коку с соком, Крестьян Иванович; это пословица русская” (Koka s sokom, Krestyan Ivanovich; it’s a Russian saying), which isn’t much help to the floundering doctor. But how to translate it? Constance Garnett has “they sometimes manage to serve you up a fine egg in gravy,” which, OK, that’s literally pretty much what the Russian says and conveys the general sense, but I’m not sure it’s ideal. The overhyped Pevear-Volokhonsky duo have “a cock with a sock,” which is so ridiculous I can’t even imagine what they were thinking. But let’s move on.
Shortly afterwards, Golyadkin describes how an acquaintance congratulated someone on having attained the rank of collegiate assessor, the eighth rung on the Table of Ranks which ruled Russian official life, and an important one worthy of celebration because it conferred nobility (hereditary until 1845, when Nicholas I reduced it to lifetime nobility, with hereditary nobility beginning at the fifth rank, state councilor). Golyadkin is a titular councilor, the ninth rank, so he himself is of course longing for such a promotion. He quotes the acquaintance as saying “И тем более рад, что нынче, как всему свету известно, вывелись бабушки, которые ворожат”: “and I’m even more pleased because now…” now what? There’s the rub. The Russian literally says “grandmothers who tell fortunes vyvelis’,” the verb meaning either ‘go out of use, disappear, become extinct’ or ‘be hatched.’ Garnett apparently chooses the second sense (“all the world knows that there are old women nowadays who tell fortunes”), P&V the first (“as all the world knows, there are no more little grannies telling fortunes”). But what both of them ignore is that there is a phrase (ему) бабушка ворожит ‘(he) holds good cards’ or ‘has a friend in court,’ which it seems to me must be intended here, because grannies telling fortunes, whether they exist or have gone extinct, are completely irrelevant, whereas “I’m even more pleased because now you have friends in high places” makes perfect sense in context. I know Golyadkin is insane, but that doesn’t mean everything he says is random babbling.
But there’s a third phrase that I myself can’t make head nor tail of. Golyadkin says “Да тут, чтоб уж разом двух воробьев одним камнем убить, — как срезал молодца-то на бабушках”: “But now, to kill two birds with one stone, as…” As what? Garnett has “But, to kill two birds with one stone, as I twitted our young gentleman with the old women”; P&V have “And here, to kill two birds with one stone — once I’ve cut the lad down with the little grannies,” and neither of them makes any sense at all (furthermore, typically for them, P&V translate тут by its literal equivalent “here” rather than the contextually appropriate “now”); surely they are missing some idiom or reference, but I don’t have any idea what it might be. Anybody know?