REPETITION IN TOLSTOY.

One of the things that surprised me when I started reading War and Peace in Russian was that it wasn’t particularly well written in the “fine writing,” Nabokovian sense. The sentences were baggy, the words were not carefully harmonized, and there was an astonishing amount of repetition. But le style, c’est l’homme, and Tolstoy himself was baggy and unharmonized, and I was soon as caught up in the story as I had been when I read it in English.
But eventually I started realizing that his style worked in a way I wouldn’t have expected, and I’ll tell you exactly when this became clear to me. It’s early in Book I, Part Two; the Russian army is holed up in Braunau, having failed to meet up with Mack‘s Austrian army, already surrounded at Ulm and surrendering to the French. Young Nikolai Rostov, serving with the Pavlograd Hussars, is sharing quarters with his squadron commander, the excitable and high-living Captain Denisov (based on Denis Davydov), who comes back from a night of losing at gambling and asks Rostov to hide a purse with his remaining money under his pillow; the purse later disappears, and the protracted wrangle over who took it and who owes whom an apology is interrupted by the announcement that the army is going into action.
Now comes Chapter 6, of which I present the first two paragraphs, in Russian and then in English (in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude):

Кутузов отступил к Вене, уничтожая за собой мосты на реках Инне (в Браунау) и Трауне (в Линце). 23-го октября русские войска переходили реку Энс. Русские обозы, артиллерия и колонны войск в середине дня тянулись через город Энс, по сю и по ту сторону моста.
День был теплый, осенний и дождливый. Пространная перспектива, раскрывавшаяся с возвышения, где стояли русские батареи, защищавшие мост, то вдруг затягивалась кисейным занавесом косого дождя, то вдруг расширялась, и при свете солнца далеко и ясно становились видны предметы, точно покрытые лаком. Виднелся городок под ногами с своими белыми домами и красными крышами, собором и мостом, по обеим сторонам которого, толпясь, лилися массы русских войск. Виднелись на повороте Дуная суда, и остров, и замок с парком, окруженный водами впадения Энса в Дунай, виднелся левый скалистый и покрытый сосновым лесом берег Дуная с таинственною далью зеленых вершин и голубеющими ущельями. Виднелись башни монастыря, выдававшегося из-за соснового, казавшегося нетронутым, дикого леса; далеко впереди на горе, по ту сторону Энса, виднелись разъезды неприятеля.
Kutuzov fell back toward Vienna, destroying behind him the bridges over the rivers Inn (at Braunau) and Traun (near Linz). On October 23 the Russian troops were crossing the river Enns. At midday the Russian baggage train, the artillery, and columns of troops were defiling through the town of Enns on both sides of the bridge.
It was a warm, rainy, autumnal day. The wide expanse that opened out before the heights on which the Russian batteries stood guarding the bridge was at times veiled by a diaphanous curtain of slanting rain, and then, suddenly spread out in the sunlight, far-distant objects could be clearly seen glittering as though freshly varnished. Down below, the little town could be seen with its white, red-roofed houses, its cathedral, and its bridge, on both sides of which streamed jostling masses of Russian troops. At the bend of the Danube, vessels, an island, and a castle with a park surrounded by the waters of the confluence of the Enns and the Danube became visible, and the rocky left bank of the Danube covered with pine forests, with a mystic background of green treetops and bluish gorges. The turrets of a convent stood out beyond a wild virgin pine forest, and far away on the other side of the Enns the enemy’s horse patrols could be discerned.

The bolded words are all forms of the same verb in Russian, conscientiously turned into different phrases in English so as to avoid the cardinal sin of repetition (and two of them are melded into the single phrase “became visible, and”). This is one way of doing things, it lends variety, but in this case the variety destroys what Tolstoy is doing with that paragraph.
Russian has a whole series of verbs relating to vision and other forms of perception that are the bane of translators; белеть [belét'], for instance, is defined as ‘to show up white’ in the Oxford dictionary, but when would you ever say something “shows up white” in English? In Russian, things белеют all the time: sails, clouds, faces, you name it, and each time the poor translator has to figure out what periphrasis to use, inevitably losing the compact force of the simple verb. Here we are dealing with the verb виднеться [vidnét'sya], which Oxford defines as ‘to be visible.’ Again, we rarely have occasion to talk about things being visible, but here we have виднеться used five times in rapid succession: the town, the vessels/island/castle/park, the left bank with its greenery, the convent, and finally the enemy. The thing is that the repetition doesn’t stand out the first few times, because the Russian verb is utterly lacking in distinction: it’s basically a placeholder, something to connect the reader/viewer to the things seen. It’s the verbal equivalent of a hand pointing helpfully in the desired direction. It’s almost as bland and featureless as “said,” which we are used to seeing repeated over and over without really noticing it. It’s a boring verb, and its repetition lulls rather than irritates.
And it is precisely that lulling effect Tolstoy is after. Here, he murmurs (after a brisk scene-setting paragraph), see this bucolic scene? Sun, rain, a little town, red roofs, a bridge, ships, an island, a convent… The barely heard mutter of Виднелся… Виднелись… Виднелся… Виднелись… виднелись… is like the soothing clack of the train passing over the rails as you drift off in your sleeping compartment, half-watching the countryside pass by outside. And then in the final three words of the paragraph his fuse reaches its end: виднелись разъезды неприятеля [vidnélis' raz"yézdy nepriyátelya], “were visible the mounted patrols of the enemy.” We’re not idle onlookers observing a quiet countryside, we’re at war, and the shooting will soon start.
Note that it’s not just the repetition that is lost; even the significant inversion of the last clause, placing the all-important word “enemy” at the end, is ignored by the Maudes: “the enemy’s horse patrols could be discerned.” The Ann Dunnigan translation I happen to own handles it no better: “the enemy’s cavalry patrols could be seen on the hillside.” The translators are painting a landscape, while Tolstoy is setting you up and delivering a sucker punch.

Comments

  1. Yeah, this is a great point.
    Last year I was translating a book about early photographs of Jerusalem, and everything виднелось. Lacking any other option, I filled the book with “could be seen”s.

  2. John Emerson says:

    Tolstoi was only one of the great writers of whom Nabokov spoke ill. He reminds me of Stravinsky that way — Stravinsky rarely said anything good about a living composer, and could be quite nasty about Beethoven and others.

  3. Pevear and Volokhonsky make a point in the foreward to their translation to explain “how the balance and rhythm of his prose depend on repetition,” and criticize Maude and Dunnigan for breaking that. For this passage in particular, they translate виднеться as the unnatural “one could see,” but at least it’s consistent, up through the final “one could see the mounted patrols of the enemy.”
    (I’m not trying to be biased towards Pevear and Volokhonsky here; theirs is simply the only edition I’ve read. My Russian is almost good enough to start on Tolstoy, but not quite…)

  4. Goutham Tholpadi says:

    I really enjoyed reading your piece! I think I derived almost as much fun reading it as a native Russian would have on reading the extract from ‘War and Peace’. It made me want to learn Russian. :o)
    I am from India. Though I speak Kannada (my mother-tongue) at home, I was educated in English and read, almost exclusively, English literature. Your piece makes me want to go back and read all the Kannada literature I can get my hands on.
    You know why? There is so much beauty in those works that most people in the world can not see because, as your piece brought home to me, they do not know that language or are not native speakers. I am lucky enough to know it and appreciate it. If I don’t read it, who will?

  5. michael farris says:

    Going into problem solving mode: Maybe a better approach in English might be to jettison the visual predicates after first one, something like:
    Down below, the little town could be seen with its white, red-roofed houses, its cathedral, and its bridge, on both sides of which streamed jostling masses of Russian troops. At the bend of the Danube, vessels, there was an island, and a castle with a park surrounded by the waters of the confluence of the Enns and the Danube, and the rocky left bank of the Danube, covered with pine forests, with a mystic background of green treetops and bluish gorges. There were turrets of a convent beyond a wild virgin pine forest, and far away on the other side of the Enns were the approaching horse patrols of the enemy.

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    The sucker-punch interpretation reminded me of the startling last couplet of “Oranges and Lemons:” “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” The translator’s goal, on this supposition anyway, would be to find the dullest, most unremarkable way to render the repeated verb–something on the lines of “there was,” or “there you saw” (even “there you see,” in what might be called the Tour Guide Present)–and maybe “enemy horse patrols” or “enemy’s mounted scouts” to intensify the impact of the sucker punch when it arrives?

  7. Tolstoi was only one of the great writers of whom Nabokov spoke ill.
    But he didn’t, that’s why I was surprised! He held Tolstoy up as the shining example of everything that is great in the art of the novel; true, he took Anna Karenin [sic] as his exemplar rather than W&P, but I still thought he must have found Tolstoy a fellow spirit in terms of prose, whereas nobody could be more different. Dostoevsky, whom Nabokov disparaged at every turn, is more artistic on a sentence-by-sentence level (at least to my non-native ears).
    Maybe a better approach in English might be to jettison the visual predicates
    The translator’s goal, on this supposition anyway, would be to find the dullest, most unremarkable way to render the repeated verb–something on the lines of “there was,” or “there you saw”
    Yes, these are both good approaches, and “on the other side of the Enns were the approaching horse patrols of the enemy” works for me.

  8. John Emerson says:

    IIRC he badmouthed Tolstoi somewhere. Maybe he was inconsistent. His highest praise was for Gogol.

  9. Thank you! There are two Russians I really want to read in Russian: Tolstoy and Pushkin. I usually require a language to have three before I dig in but you’re making me want to make an exception!
    I’m glad to see your disgruntlement with Tolstoy’s abject failure to live as he thought he should (and told everybody else to) doesn’t prevent you from appreciating him. Speaking as a personality of the same type. We like to hope people will listen to us anyway :-)

  10. This is the sort of subtlety that is completely lost on me. I guess I just don’t have the mind of an artist.
    I’m pretty sure I bought a copy of War and Peace but I can’t seem to find it now (one of the great disadvantages of shelving my unread books two deep without any order whatsoever), so I can’t ask you if the edition I have is any good.
    I’ve read Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, but I can’t remember much of it now just … two or three years later …

  11. The Italians have an old saying “traduttore, traditore” (translator = traitor).
    Often, the style and even hidden meanings are lost, although sometimes translators do a great deal of work in their attempt to preserve the feeling of the original.
    But probably much harder is to translate slang and different accents. For instance, some characters in a book might speak with a Scottish accent, but how do you translate the accent to Romanian (or whatever language)? :-)

  12. I usually require a language to have three before I dig in but you’re making me want to make an exception!
    Oh, I’m pretty sure once you’ve learned enough Russian to read those two you’ll find more…
    I’m glad to see your disgruntlement with Tolstoy’s abject failure to live as he thought he should (and told everybody else to) doesn’t prevent you from appreciating him.
    Reading about the lives of Hemingway and Pound inoculated me pretty successfully against that particular disease.
    But probably much harder is to translate slang and different accents.
    And conversation in general. Russian dialog has a feel that I’ve never seen rendered successfully in translation.

  13. U. Jhelen Monrove says:

    His highest praise was for Gogol.
    He put Nikolai 2nd to Lev…
    “Leaving aside precursors Pushkin and Lermontov, we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev”

  14. John Emerson says:

    I guess I’m all wrong. Unless I can dig up that snide remark….
    I’d add Mandelstam and that whole generation of poets to the reasons to learn Russian.

  15. For instance, some characters in a book might speak with a Scottish accent, but how do you translate the accent to Romanian (or whatever language)?
    I did that once for a translation class back at the college and translated dialect (might have been Scots, don’t really remember) with a dialect, my native one. The teacher went ballistic, citing a thousand reasons why the very thought of using a dialect when translating fiction was inappropriate. I called him an idiot and never showed my face in there again. Fortunately, it was a selective course.

  16. This is the sort of subtlety that is completely lost on me. I guess I just don’t have the mind of an artist.
    Yeah, me too. Every time our host focuses his attention on Russian literature, I get a small taste of how wonderful my college years could have been if most of my teachers hadn’t been such incompetent idiots. And maybe I can make up for it now.

  17. A good book that tackles translators’ failure to remain true to repetitions in great stories is Milan Kundera’s book-length essay “Testaments Betrayed.” As I recall, he focused mainly on Kafka; but it addressed the issue well.

  18. Nabokov made a distinction between Tolstoy the artist and Tolstoy the preacher; he revered the first and had contempt for the second. It’s the same split that let him reconcile his aestheticism and anti-didacticism with an appreciation of Dickens. Of course Tolstoy’s bagginess and repetition is the artist’s problem and not the preacher’s – but N. might have been catholic enough about Russian styles not his own to see it as the weird sort of virtue that LH suggests.
    The sucker-punch effect of the quoted passage reminds me how Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique” takes Tolstoy as its favored example of literary ostranenie – maybe Tolstoy’s writing isn’t artsy, but it’s certainly artful.

  19. maybe Tolstoy’s writing isn’t artsy, but it’s certainly artful.
    I like that!

  20. The Italians have an old saying “traduttore, traditore” (translator = traitor).
    I’m fond of J.L. Borges’ observation that “The original is not faithful to the translation.” myself.

  21. John Emerson says:

    I just flashed that the best Russian translation of -gate is probably -shchina. Am I right?

  22. Well, they have similar functions—making a noun vaguely referring to the circumstances surrounding someone or something—but -gate implies criminal activity and -shchina is just ‘the time of X,’ so no, not really. Khovanshchina is not Khovanskygate.

  23. Bill Walderman says:

    “I usually require a language to have three before I dig in but you’re making me want to make an exception!”
    Add Dostoevsky to the list and you’ve got three.
    But there’s much more . . .

  24. Yeah, I’d say Gogol, Bely, and of course Nabokov in prose, Blok, Mandelstam, and Brodsky in verse, just for starters.

  25. Crown, Arthur Crown says:

    I like this post, it sounds like W&P is in need of a better translation. I am reading, in English, Suite Francaise, about the French who leave Paris at the time of the 1940 German invasion, and now I am looking for similar writing, but of course it could be also a mangled translation. It would be fun to translate Saul Bellow into Mark Twain, or the Bible into Evelyn Waugh, and I’m sure that sort of thing has been done.

  26. Arthur J. Crown says:

    (I meant I’m looking for stylistic manipulations of language similar to the Russian Tolsoy, not that I expect to find any either in this book or a translation of it).

  27. John Emerson says:

    Damn. The only -shchinas I know of are -gates, Khovanshchina and Makhnoshchina.

  28. “Add Dostoevsky to the list and you’ve got three.”
    - Bill Walderman
    I agree! I admit I’ve read very little Russian literature and all of it in translation but I put Dostoevsky’s The Idiot near the top of all literature I’ve read.
    LH, I’m curious what your opinion of him is. I notice you didn’t mention him. Is he simply a slot or two below the others you list or do you not rate him highly.

  29. No, I rate him highly indeed, but 1) I have read very little of him in Russian (which I will remedy after I finish Tolstoy), and 2) I assumed he wasn’t a favorite of dale’s or he would have mentioned him himself.

  30. Oh, and on the topic of the post, thank you so much for pointing that out. I am re-reading the Dunnigan translation and I remember the setting if not the actual paragraph. I will never read it in the original so any nuggets like this are really appreciated.
    Your earlier post on the new translation spurred me to dust off Dunnigan again.

  31. “Mounted patrols” and “horse patrols” are both a little too long-winded; “outriders”?
    Which reminds me of the origin of the word “harbinger” – related to “auberge”, a harbinger is a military billeting officer. They turn up in your town with a clipboard and a piece of chalk (there’s a reference in Machiavelli to someone conquering a city “con gesso”, with chalk, meaning that he just sent his billeting officers in) and start writing “B COY HQ” and “BN QM STORES” on the walls of houses to let the troops know, when they arrive the next day, whose house they will be quartered in.

  32. Another writer of the same family, Alexey N. Tolstoy, made fun of the verbs белеться and чернеться in his children’s book Приключения Буратино (an adaptation of Pinocchio):
    “- Там что-то чернеется, – прохрипел Карабас Барабас. – Там что-то белеется, – подтвердил Дуремар.”

  33. Heh. For non-Russophones:
    “Something’s (showing) black there,” wheezed Karabas Barabas.
    “Something’s (showing) white there,” Duremar confirmed.

  34. Chris Johnson says:

    My humble solution: substitute the word ‘appeared’ for all the elements you have bolded, with the final sentence ending ‘..appeared the mounted patrols of the enemy.’
    Of course, my opinion is that nothing really translates. Every single word contains conscious and unconscious associations which are inseparable from that word in the context of the language in which it appears.
    Great article.

  35. I think “appeared” works nicely—excellent suggestion.

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