Rosengrant on Malcolm on Schwartz.

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!


  1. Curious what about Tolstoy’s name that makes people want to Latinize it (as in the caption of the linked page). It seems that it’s almost always Leo Tolstoy, but never Anthony Chekhov, Nicholas Gogol, or Theodore Dostoyevsky?

  2. Yes, that is odd and interesting.

  3. Tony Chekhov, Nick Gogol, and Ted Dostoevsky.

  4. Alex Pushkin, Mike Lermontov, Mike Bulgakov, and Andy White.

  5. I always assumed that this verb in the context of education (and the deverbal noun obrazovanie ‘education’) appeared as a fairly recent calque from German Bildung.

  6. The letter from Wohl is … disturbing, coming as it does from a translator.

    Not even an acute critic like Janet Malcolm is qualified to pass judgment on a translator’s work if she has no knowledge of the text in its original language.

    This is an equivoque: unfit to judge the fidelity of the translation (obvs) or unfit to judge the result (not obvs at all)? To pull the celebrity angle out of it: If I am handed a translation by Rasputinreynolds from the Slobbovian of Stubbornovsky, and I don’t know a thing about any of these three, I can still judge its language and style (and criticize Rasputinreynolds if it’s bad) and its plot and theme (and criticize Stubbornovsky if it’s bad).

    I would argue that the translator serves the author and the original text. Period.

    In that case, why translate at all, if the final reader’s interests are worth bupkis? Or if you must translate, as a snail must excrete slime, why pester the publishers and the public with the output?

    [Garnett’s] Anna Karenina creates the illusion that it is something in its own right, like Chapman’s astonishing Iliad or the delightful Don Quixote of Tobias Smollett.

    But mere-shmere living translators such as you and me should not aspire to this, though of course in practice translators always create “something in its own right”. It reminds me of the prescriptivist’s rejoinder to “But great writers A, B, and C don’t adhere to your stupid rule in their writing!”, which is “Ah, but they are great writers, and you are not.” This idea makes me more than half sympathize with Harold Ross, who didn’t see why poetic license entitled a writer to get something wrong.

  7. Who do you prefer, John Bunyan or John Bunin? (Trick question: nobody likes John Bunyan.)

  8. Leo is the French for Лев and surely it’s natural for an upper class Russian of his generation to use a French version of his name internationally. Dostoyevsky called himself ‘Theodore Dostoiewsky’ when he was living in Geneva. Pushkin is always known as Alexander/re not Aleksandr.

    His works were first translated into French and other first translations were often from the French not the Russian text so from the beginning he was always known abroad as Leo.

  9. Yes – according to Unbegaun (as cited by Vasmer), образование in the sense of education is a calque from Bildung. It sounds Karamzin-ite and appears more than once in Karamzin’s output, but Bolotov appears to have used it as early as 1788. See this dictionary of 18th-century Russian for examples.

  10. January First-of-May says:

    According to the version I have read, the actual lifetime translations of L.Tolstoy spelled his name “Lyoff”, not “Leo”. Though I suppose there could have been some variety.

  11. Yes, that’s true. I wonder when the pronunciation in Russian changed from Лёв to Лев?

  12. Ivan Derzhanski’s “History of Bulgarian Orthography” talks about the word a bit:

    “The Russian word lev `lion’ is likewise a Church Slavonic loan — the expected *lëv does not exist (though a man called Lev […] is usually nicknamed Lëva). In Bulgarian, `lion’ is ləv, the regular cognate; the Russian loan lev is the name of Bulgaria’s currency, which goes back to the lion being the nation’s totem animal.”

  13. According to Vasmer dictionary, Лёв is a Moscow variant, which makes sense in Tolstoy’s case:

  14. Very interesting, thanks!

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Are you the same Julia (from Argentina) who used to post here, but whom I haven’t seen for a while?

  16. “Nichego, sudar, obrazuetsya” translates into English quite straightforwardly as “That’s all right, sir, things will shape up just fine”

    No need for bizarre “shapify”

  17. The “shapify” thing is clearer in context, when immediately afterwards Stiva comments that he never heard the word “shapify” before he moved to Springgrad and Matvei expresses surprise, protesting that the word is perfectly cromulent.

  18. Way to embiggen the comment thread, @Matt!

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    OK, but “shape up” is not such a common everyday phrase that everyone would know it, so it’s not implausible that Stiva might not have heard it before. There may be places in the English-speaking world (“before he moved to Springgrad”) where no one says it.

  20. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: Maybe that depends on what variety of English you speak. In America “shape up” is far too common to be unknown to a native speaker.

  21. SFReader has it right, needless to say! So far as I know, the verb is well-established, but we might still bear in mind that it is both imperfective and (as here and most often, for me) perfective. When used in the past tense, it is only perfective. For many meanings there is also an imperfective ‘obrazovyvat’sja’. As for ‘education’, ‘obrazovanie’ comes across to me as rather ‘static’, not so much the process or the instruction, for which ‘obučenie’ might fit the bill better. Yes, it may well be a relatively recent formation, from ‘Bildung’ – bear in mind ‘vospitatel’nyj roman’ ‘Bildungsroman’. Borras and Christian’s wonderful ‘Russian Syntax’ (OUP, 1959…) has a nice little entry on words for ‘Education’ in Russian. I learned the book by heart as a student of Russian.

  22. Thanks for reminding me of Russian Syntax; I bought a copy a few years ago and meant to go through it but never did.

  23. Virginia Bennett says:

    As a specialist in Russian literature & language & translator, my translation would favor the sense of the verb in context & I’d prefer “turn out”.

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