Repetition in Tolstoy II.

Back in 2008 I wrote what is still one of my favorite LH posts, Repetition in Tolstoy; now, thanks to the latest Russian Dinosaur post, we can revisit the issue. The Dinosaur writes about the competing translations of Anna Karenina that appeared in 2014, Rosamund Bartlett’s (Oxford UP) and Marian Schwartz’s (Yale UP), mentioning the problems with which Tolstoy’s “unhelpful syntax” confronts the translator (“adjectival traffic jams; awkward, unmanageable, and not always even conventionally grammatical gerunds”) and points out the translators’ differing approaches:

Schwartz firmly believes that the ‘unconventional and unsettling’ effect of Tolstoy’s style, the occasional ‘roughness’, the use of apparent “mistakes” and of course the repetitions, are all intended to “convey meaning, to express his spiritual and moral concerns’ (Translator’s Note, xxiii). An obvious example of repetition that both translators cite is the adjective veselyi (jolly) and its cognates such as veselost’ (jolliness, good cheer), which Bartlett claims occurs 318 times in Anna (and she should know). Schwartz chooses to translate this word wherever it occurs by a single English equivalent – cheerful – and its cognates (e.g. cheer, cheery). She suggests that by constantly referring to ‘cheer’, Tolstoy meant to provoke ‘ominous associations’ (xxv) in his readers’ minds – a suspicion that the characters were in fact very far from cheerful. Because Russian is an inflected language with multiple derivations and affixations possible from a single stem, in the original, this repetitive technique creates a rich web of inferences and implications. In English, it causes most readers to wonder at the apparent poverty of the translator’s vocabulary. Surely Tolstoy couldn’t have been such a limited writer, constantly re-using the same word?

Bartlett resorts to a richer vocabulary, including ‘merry’, ‘livelier’, and ‘light-hearted’, in order – as her introductory essay explains – to convey the ‘richness of meaning implied in the original’. She asserts that Russian is simply more concise than English, and that therefore multiple meanings may be implicit in a single word; thus to fix on a single English equivalent for that word, as Schwartz does with veselyi, would be unduly confining for the translator (and repetitive for the reader). […] There is a lot of good sense in this approach, and it certainly makes for a richer text for the Anglophone reader. And yet we must remember Tolstoy uses repetition for several reasons, including for emphasis; for the psychologically jarring sensation which Shklovsky would christen ‘defamiliarization’; and for the ‘Hansel’s breadcrumb’ effect, that is, using a chain of similar words to clarify the narrative’s symbolic underpinnings. The style is meant to convey meaning; to provoke discomfort; and to convey meaning by provoking discomfort, rather like a parallel process in cinema, Eisenstein’s notion of intellectual montage, where contrasting or shocking images initiate an emotional or cognitive process in the viewer’s mind. Unwise translators, by gobbling up the repeated words and substituting unrecognizable synonyms, may erase Tolstoy’s subtly laid ‘pathway’ through the plot – and forestall the thought processes that the author had intended to unlock.

She provides a good example from Part Five of the novel in which Schwartz comes out ahead, and in general I am completely on Schwartz’s side here: authors choose to repeat words for a reason, and barring strong contrary reasons translators should respect that choice. But it’s great to see the opposing points of view laid out so eloquently, and it should make each side more aware of the pluses and minuses.

Dino goes on to recount the debate that erupted when Janet Malcolm wrote her review of various Tolstoy translations in The New York Review of Books; the centerpiece was an evisceration of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of which I thoroughly approved, but it also included an unfair attack on Schwartz for choosing to translate Tolstoy’s “образуется” with the odd “shapify” — however much you may disagree with that choice, it’s absurd to use it to judge an entire book by one of the great translators of our day.


  1. however much you may disagree with that choice, it’s absurd to use it to judge an entire book by one of the great translators of our day.

    Completely agree!

  2. Matthew Roth says:

    Isolexism is very common in French, which, yes, as rich is it is, is not as diverse in vocabulary as in English (girls and daughters=fille) or end rhyming sounds…but nevertheless, it has a purpose.

    In troubadour and trouvère poetry, sometimes it is impossible to repeat the isolexism in English. You also cannot always find words which mean the same in English as Occitan or French counterparts which also sound like each other, in tandem to the corresonding Romance words which sound alike… le jouet, la joie, le jeu, jouir all come to mind as examples of the latter. And as it turns out, joie and jouir are isolexical.

    Now, annoyingly, there’s not a verb form which corresponds to both our “rejoice” and “gaudeo, gaudere,” without the prefix. (And in fairness, jouir is from a hypothetical modification of thhe infinitive gaudere…)

  3. It seems that the maxim “avoid repetition” has taken very strong roots in many European cultures. Not long ago I was writing something online in a discussion related to language and translations, using repetition as a means to underline a point, and received several comments along the lines of “don’t repeat these words, try to substitute synonyms” etc. It seems that many are unable to see when repetition is meant to convey a meaning, and instead of appreciating its aesthetics, they are hindered by a reflective “repetition is bad” left in their brains since their school days.

  4. Matthew Roth says:

    True, but I would say avoid unnecessary repetition, therefore allowing for this, for assonance or consonance, isolexism, etc.

  5. True, but I would say avoid unnecessary repetition

    Sure, everyone can agree on that, but the question is: what is unnecessary repetition? Everyone will have a different answer.

  6. It’s sort of like saying “Don’t vote for bad people!”

  7. That seems to be difficult enough…

  8. from Auden’s Forward to Brodsky’s Selected Poems (1973):
    ‘A really accurate judgment upon a poem as a verbal object can, of course, only be made by persons who are masters of the same mother tongue as its maker. Knowing no Russian and therefore forced to base my judgment on English translations, I can do little more than guess. My chief reason for believing that Professor Kline’s translations do justice to their originals is that they convince me that Joseph Brodsky is an excellent craftsman. For example, in his long poem “Elegy to John Donne,” the word “sleep” occurs, if I have counted rightly, fifty-two times. Such repetition might very easily have become irritating and affected: in fact, it is handled with consummate art.’

  9. Matthew Roth says:

    I love the selection from Auden, which clarifies my thinking. Obviously, LH, you’re correct that it is entirely subjective, but if the craft comes out, even if we cannot do more than ask questions and be suspicious that the word is being used ironically or in some other way besides the literal, then it works for me! I would say “unnecessary” also depends on habits of the language. My professor explained that the French get creative in order to avoid repeating “je” in one sentence, for example.

  10. I would say “unnecessary” also depends on habits of the language.

    Well, but that just takes us back to the primordial debate: should a translation feel familiar, reminding us of untranslated works in our own language/culture, or should it feel at least somewhat strange, since it is in fact from another language/culture? The French used to routinely rewrite foreign novels, leaving out what seemed too alien and adding material a French reader would expect. Telles étaient les mœurs de la langue.

  11. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    Dysphemistically, “elegant variation” is by now usually a criticism. Personally I contain a variable variety of various variations, but we are after all all different.

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