Back in June I posted about Janet Malcolm’s NYRB review of various Tolstoy translations; the letters section of the latest issue includes a full page of responses (and I thank Trevor and Rick for alerting me to it). The longest and most interesting is by translator Judson Rosengrant; he quotes Malcolm’s passage attacking Schwartz’s rendition of образуется by “shapify,” and continues:
The word in question, obrazovat’sia, given to Matvey in a conjugated form (“Nichego, sudar’, obrazuetsia”), is not in fact a neologism at all, nor is it meant to be funny (the “good joke” refers to Stiva’s ponderous witticism about the German clock master who visits the Oblonsky home every Friday). There is, however, more at stake here than the accurate identification of a lexical category, or the intention of a phrase, and the issues deserve an extended analysis. In regard to the Russian word itself, there are two main aspects: the morphological and the semantic.
The morphological aspect is straightforward. The root obraz is very old, going back at least a millennium, and is found not only in Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic but also in other Slavic languages. The derivational suffix –ovat’, used to turn the root noun into a verb, is very well established, too, and so is the additional reflexive suffix –sia that makes the transitive verb an intransitive, passive one, as in the usage in question: obraz-ovat’-sia. Thus the structure of the word was not new, nor were any of its elements; it was and is a very standard Russian verb with a deep history and not a neologism either for Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, or for Goncharov in Oblomov in the 1850s, or for the critic Belinsky in the 1840s, or for Pushkin in the 1820s and 1830s in the several places that he used it.
This means that any translator wishing to render obrazovat’sia in English must respect the brute historical fact that, unlike the bizarre word “shapify” cited by Malcolm, it is not an unusual form at all but rather a very ordinary one that does not call attention to itself as such (something that would in any case have been quite uncharacteristic of Tolstoy, whose innovations were syntactic and in the sheer cognitive wealth, range, and precision of his vocabulary).
The semantic aspect is more complex. Because of its long history, the word has multiple meanings, some archaic or obsolete, some still active, some more colloquial, some less so, but all overlapping in their basic sense, and all—as with any usage—affected by the various ways in which the word has been employed. Briefly, the root obraz denotes an image, a representation, a picture, or an icon (it is commonly used that way in current Russian), and, by extension, a form, with the verb meaning, in modern Russian, to represent or depict (to produce an image of), to constitute, to give form or a form to, to result in, or even to educate (as in the formation of a mind).
Some of those meanings and others were latent, at least to some degree, in Matvey’s colloquial use of the word, but the one that is operative is the one that Stiva made so by selecting it, by eagerly seizing upon it and repeating it, thereby providing (as Tolstoy contrived it, for the issue here is the intricacy of his art) what will for the attentive reader have been a moment of rich thematic implication.
There’s considerably more, and I recommend reading the entire discussion (at the last link); it’s rare that a general-interest periodical sees such detailed analysis of Russian morphology and semantics!