THE CATCHER AND THE ABYSS.

Reed Johnson has a New Yorker blog post about two Russian translations of The Catcher in the Rye, the classic one by Rita Rait-Kovaleva, called Над пропастью во ржи [Over the abyss in the rye], and the 2008 version by Max Nemtsov, Ловец на хлебном поле [The catcher in the field of grain], summarizing the differences by saying “Rait-Kovaleva has subtly shifted Caulfield’s speech into closer accord with good Russian literary norms, while Nemtsov’s Caulfield is both brassier and crasser, exaggerating his supposed iconoclasm”:

Here is how the protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye” sounds in the original and the two translations—back-translated, of course, into English, which inevitably introduces its own distortions. I’ve tried to preserve the differences in tone, which are apparent from the very opening sentences of each of these works:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye”)
If you truly would like to hear this story, first of all you will probably want to find out where I was born, how I spent my stupid childhood, what my parents did before my birth—in a word, all that David Copperfield rot. But truthfully speaking, I don’t have any urge to delve into that. (Rait-Kovaleva, “Over the Abyss in Rye”)
If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ’rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth. (Nemtsov, “Catcher on a Grain Field”)

Michele Berdy, who sent me the link, feels that Johnson wasn’t hard enough on Nemtsov, and I have to agree with her response to the latter’s version: Bleah. She was also kind enough to send the Russian originals of the sentence quoted by Johnson in back-translation, which I have appended below the cut.
Addendum. I won’t make a separate post of it, but Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg has a WSJ piece about translations that’s worth a read; I particularly want to single out this quote from Richard Pevear:

“Most disagreements over words ignore the context, which is all important,” responds Mr. Pevear in an email. He says Tolstoy’s original word for the shoes, “porshni,” “is obsolete in Russian,” describing “primitive peasant shoes made from raw leather.” He says that is “rather close to the first meaning of brogues in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘rough shoes of untanned hide.’ “

He is responding to Rosamund Bartlett, who said, quite correctly, that “brogues” “conjures up an image of ‘smart shoes with perforations.’” No English-speaker today [aside from John Cowan; see comment thread] thinks of brogues as “rough shoes of untanned hide” (and I might point out that the OED entry he cites hasn’t been updated since 1888). But never mind facts: the important thing is for Pevear to never, ever admit error.


Rita Rait-Kovaleva (1961):

Если вам на самом деле хочется услышать эту историю, вы, наверно, прежде всего захотите узнать, где я родился, как провел свое дурацкое детство, что делали мои родители до моего рождения, – словом, всю эту давид-копперфилдовскую муть. Но, по правде говоря, мне неохота в этом копаться.

Max Nemtsov (2008):

Если по-честному охота слушать, для начала вам, наверно, подавай, где я родился и что за погань у меня творилась в детстве, чего предки делали и всяко-разно, пока не заимели меня, да прочую Дэвид-Копперфилдову херню, только не в жилу мне про все это трындеть, сказать вам правду.

Comments

  1. Is “мне неохота в этом копаться” as formal-sounding as Johnson’s backtranslation “I don’t have any urge to delve into that”? It sounds just as colloquial as Salinger’s “I don’t feel like going into it” to non-native me.
    Nemtsov might be a little over-the-top, but I like the tone of “для начала вам, наверно, подавай, где я родился.” What grates on me is Rait-Kovaleva’s clear “услышать эту историю”/”hear this story” for the vague and offhand “hear about it.”

  2. Yes, for native (Russian but not English) me, “urge to delve” seems too formal for “копаться”. “going into it” is much closer.

  3. Attempting to translate something that was written in a contemporary slangy style more than half a century ago has a hopeless problem of mediation: should it sound like slang of 1951 (who even remembers that? — not me, I wasn’t born yet) or 2008 (already a bit dated, methinks)?

  4. I haven’t read Catcher in the Rye in about 40 years, so I can’t remember if there is much 1950s slang. Certaintly the sentence quoted isn’t markedly anachronistic. But you could deal with that not by meticulously rendering the whole book in 1950s Russian slang (which almost no one would understand in Russia today and which, in any case, wouldn’t be appropriate because [most of?] the English in the book is not that dated), but by using a few words suggestive of the period. Nemtsov’s version is screamingly, wildly anachronistic – it’s all super contemporary, Moscow urban slang. Stylistically it’s way out of line with the original probably wouldn’t be understood in 10 years.
    If anyone’s interested, I can dig out a link to an article in Russian by an excellent translator on dealing with anachronistic language.

  5. Victor Sonkin says:

    Nemtsov’s version is lightyears away from contemporary Moscow urban slang. Actually, it’s all but incomprehensible for a young Moscow hipster.
    Here’s a link to the article quoted by Johnson that deals with the issue of Salinger and new translations at some length:
    http://magazines.russ.ru/inostran/2009/7/bo16.html

  6. Well, Victor, maybe the translation as a whole is not Moscow contemporary slang, but that sentence sure is. And it’s certainly way off from the original. Did you send the link because you think we (or I) are defending the canonical translation?

  7. The Catcher was probably the first “serious” novel I had read in English. I think I was 15 and it must have been 1987 or 88. I was predictably impressed. I wonder now if Holden’s slang was, or sounded, authentic enough. Never mind the Russian translations – was there anything fake in the original?
    I recommend the article at the link provided by Victor Sonkin for a discussion of Nemtsov (who is churning out translations assiduously and deserves gratitude for that). There’s something wrong with formatting as some spaces are missing but perhaps it’s just my Chrome. There’s a great quip by Grigory Dashevsky, a talented translator and poet: “Translators, after, all, are ‘post horses of enlightenment’ [Pushkin] not postal doves of delight [probably an allusion to Schubert's Die Taubenpost?].”

  8. “I wonder now if Holden’s slang was, or sounded, authentic enough. Never mind the Russian translations – was there anything fake in the original?”
    It has been a very long time since I read Catcher in the Rye, but I’ve read some Salinger books since then. I think that Salinger as a writer had a unique talent for putting colloquial American speech into the mouths of his characters. He achieved this not necessarily by larding his characters’ utterances with slang as such, but simply by capturing the rhythms and textures of everyday speech in a convincing and compelling way. You hear real people talking when you read him.
    My Russian isn’t sensitive enough to evaluate how well the two translations of the first sentence replicate this qualify for a Russian-speaking readership. However, the back translation of the Nemtsov translation seems to me, at least, to fall short precisely because it tries so hard to be slangy that it doesn’t feel colloquial.

  9. A nice perspective, thanks, Victor. Still it troubling for me to accept that “for different social and cultural layers of readership, and for different times, we need different translations”.
    The much-cited fact that Russian readers in the 1960s-70s didn’t have a clue about hamburgers, while today’s readers know them all too well, strikes me as incredibly superficial. More fundamental things shift and change between generations. Does it mean that we need to re-translate original works into their own original language, just decades later, without ever waiting until they grow as obscure as Beowulf? Should we also rewrite books for those cultural layers of potential native-readers who just have hard time getting it as told by the author?
    If comments and footnotes do the trick with obsolete realities and obscure cultural references of the original literature, then how come footnoting isn’t the most practical solution for a beloved, but dated, translation?
    Some stories – like Alice in Wonderland – are (and are meant to be) translators’ magnets, ever irreducibly complex, never perfected, always leaving room for reinterpretation. Perhaps Salinger’s like that. But the proof is in the market, isn’t it? When new translations keep cropping up again and again, you just know it isn’t over. Conversely, when an old classic translation held sway for decades, uncontested, then perhaps the market has been cornered and it really *is* over.

  10. You’re getting Danish spam now?

  11. I get spam from all over: LH is an international product!

  12. Salinger on Rye: the world’s most over-rated book. Doesn’t deserve a menu spot at the Carnegie Deli.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Can someone explain the justification for translating the title as “Over the Abyss in Rye” ?

  14. Catherine Darley says:

    Do we “need different translations for different social and cultural layers of readership, and for different times” ? If not only to give some work to translators ? I just had a look at my copies of some French version of Salinger’s books — fine translations in themselves, light, witty, but flat. Maybe it’s inherent to French to lack the versatility of American language and so of American prose, and it isn’t a question of time : French isn’t more flexible now than in the 50s or 60s and it would not be so interesting to change the kind of slang — so few words seem out of fashion in these versions.
    In other cases, we have had a lot of “new versions” these last fifteen years — new Dostoevsky (really fine and totally different from the early 20th century version — that I love nonetheless), new Joseph Conrad (some in a depressing kind of “simple French”), new D.H. Lawrence, new Chekhov, new Malcolm Lowry (really beautiful)… and of course, on stage, a lot of new Shakespeare with a large stock of slang, each new version getting obsolete in a few months.
    And yes, as each new one tries to be more in modern readers mood, it seems that the distance which tears us apart from the time when the text was written disappears, as if the reader should be afraid of this distance. The most delightful French version of Orlando Furioso I ever read was a translation immediately contemporaneous with the original, partly non understandable, but full of the youth, the wit, the fun of its time. And so, should we also write again, translate our own texts ? There was a large debate some years ago about a new edition of Montaigne’s work — in modern French — although Montaigne is not so hard to read, at least for a cultured reader (and who else reads Montaigne) and all the more with footnotes.

  15. Can someone explain the justification for translating the title as “Over the Abyss in Rye” ?
    I’ll wait for a native speaker to weigh in on that, but Google Books tells me that there’s a 1998 book by Valeria Novodvorskaya called Над пропастью во лжи [Over the abyss in (the) lie], which is not only a great pun but can be perfectly translated into English as “Catcher in the Lie,” with the same minimal r/l difference.

  16. Marie-Lucie, my memory of the book isn’t great, but as I recall the main character mishears (or hears?) a kid singing “when a body catch a body in the rye” and then imagines he saves kids in a rye field playing close to a cliff, catching them so they don’t fall. Hence “over the abyss.” “Catcher” in Russian is problematic.
    I agree with “for different social and cultural layers of readership, and for different times, we need different translations” if understood broadly. A century ago translators “smoothed” out language, cut bits and pieces from the text, and made the language conform to the target language’s norms. Sometimes you even got, say, Russian peasants saying “Cherio.” Today many/most readers have different expectations/demands for a translation. They want it complete, for one thing, and I think there is a greater willingness to struggle a bit with foreigness.
    Victor, I should note that when I wrote “version” I meant the version of the sentence, not the translation as a whole.

  17. mab, here too, a classic translation exists, but can’t be used to clip out the title:
    Если кто-то звал кого-то
    Сквозь густую рожь
    И кого-то обнял кто-то,
    Что с него возьмёшь?
    By a poignant coincidence, Marshak (who famously internalized Burns into Russian poetry) is always mentioned alongside with Rita Rait whenever Russians muse about translations which surpass the originals (for better or for worse, some may say). Marshak to Burns is about what Rait-Kovaleva is to Vonnegut, in a sense.
    I still remember when I first heard “В
    …полях под снегом и дождем”
    sung to a guitar accompaniment, far away from home.
    И если б дали мне в удел
    Весь шар земной,
    Весь шар земной,
    С каким бы счастьем я владел
    Тобой одной,
    Тобой одной.
    When I got back, just like the author of this blog, with a great effort I found Robert Burns’s original, and it was such a disappointment! But in poetry translations, it’s far more accepted to do away with precision in favor of artistic wholesomness.

  18. Here are the relevant passages from CitR (so sue me, Estate!). From chapter 16:

    It wasn’t as cold as it was the day before, but the sun still wasn’t out, and it wasn’t too nice for walking. But there was one nice thing. This family that you could tell just came out of some church were walking right in front of me — a father, a mother, and a little kid about six years old. They looked sort of poor. The father had on one of those pearl-gray hats that poor guys wear a lot when they want to look sharp. He and his wife were just walking along, talking, not paying any attention to their kid. The kid was swell. He was walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalk, but right next to the curb. He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming. I got up closer so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.

    And from Chapter 22, Holden talking to his younger sister Phoebe:

    I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else — something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”
    “What? Stop swearing.”
    “You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like —”
    “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
    “I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
    She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
    “I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
    Old Phoebe didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, when she said something, all she said was, “Daddy’s going to kill you.”

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, LH, mab and JC. I read the book a very long time ago, at a time when I did not understand everything I read in English, and I had forgotten that episode.

  20. Dmitry, yes — I know about the Russian Burns, who is lovely and bears so little ressemblance to the Scottish Burns! Thanks for the Gradsky clip; I have a long association with the Skomorokhi…

  21. For what it’s worth, “Rita Wright-Kovaleva” beats “Rita Rait-Kovaleva” in anglophone sources by about eight to one, per Dr. Google.

  22. On the Addendum: I do, in fact, think of brogues as being Irish peasant shoes, which comes of having read too much Celtic Revival in my youth and remaining way too ignorant of modern clothing names.
    The Odyssey cover shown with the Trachtenberg article is quite lovely, and it’s a pity it should be attached to a translation by someone whose work Le Guin politely but devastatingly describes as “not useful”. I would say “ignorant” myself.

  23. I do, in fact, think of brogues as being Irish peasant shoes, which comes of having read too much Celtic Revival in my youth and remaining way too ignorant of modern clothing names.
    Just goes to show one should try to avoid sweeping statements. I’ve emended the Addendum accordingly.

  24. John Cowan: since “The Wheelhouse” comment thread is closed I thought I would use this thread to point out that your point about Ontario English having spread unchanged to Western Canada (compliments of the railroad system) is quite true. Indeed when I worked in Victoria I was mistaken for a native Victorian more than once, despite my English having been acquired in Ontario and Montreal.
    There do exist some linguistic traces of earlier varieties of English once spoken in the Canadian prairies: in Manitoba there once existed a dialect of English known as “Bungee”, spoken by people of Euro-Native American descent, whose paternal ancestors hailed from Scotland, notably the Orkneys. There also exist some loanwords in Native American languages which must have been borrowed from the English spoken at the trading forts along Hudson’s Bay: For instance Cree /watsija/ “Hello” was apparently borrowed from “What cheer”, and interestingly enough must have been borrowed from a non-rhotic dialect.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, I remember hearing a conversation between students in Vancouver some years ago, with opinions such as “I like the way we speak in Vancouver, but people in Toronto …”. I don’t remember the details of what was wrong about Toronto English (except perhaps “Trawna” as the local name of the city), but is Toronto an exception to Western Canadian English?

  26. Marie-Lucie – I think vancouver’s the exception (or that’s how it sounds to me, I can’t tell vancouver accents from american, but toronto and western canada are different enough). I think I heard that settlers west of the cascades moved up from washington rather than overland?

  27. “Marshak to Burns is about what Rait-Kovaleva is to Vonnegut, in a sense.” The problem with Marshak is that his Russian Burns is neither Burns nor particularly good Russian poetry. It’s children’s verse – no sex, no allusions, no depth. Not that Marshak was the first – as early as 1840 there was Gerhard’s smoothed-out German Burns set to music by Schumann. Likewise, Marshak’s Shakespeare leaves the Russian reader wondering if the Bard ever wrote a sonnet that wasn’t boring or banal. The old Odessa joke about Caruso and Rabinovich comes to mind.
    I don’t think one can mangle Vonnegut so badly especially if one does not have to. With Salinger, slang and censorship were insurmountable problems for R-K, but Slaughterhouse Five was more translator-friendly. (I’m not sure if the joke about Vonnegut sounding better in translation/worse in the original is Dovlatov’s or Gore Vidal’s.)
    Kotletki is what’s inside a hamburger – I’d have no problem translating a patty as kotletka because it looks and possibly tastes like a flattened-out homemade kotleta of my parents’ generation. Unfortunately for R-K, there’s more to a hamburger than patties. By the late 1970s, though, гамбургер and хот-дог had entered the Russian languages, a decade before the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow.
    BTW, Dmitry, could you fix the second link in your latest post – you must have missed the quotation marks.

  28. BTW, Dmitry, could you fix the second link in your latest post – you must have missed the quotation marks.
    If it were just that, I would have fixed it, but there’s nothing but a and /a. Dmitry, if you’ll supply the URL, I’ll add it to the above would-be link.

  29. Sorry I didn’t realize that the link’s gone missing – http://valya-15.livejournal.com/133463.html.
    The problem with Marshak is that his Russian Burns is neither Burns nor particularly good Russian poetry. It’s children’s verse – no sex, no allusions, no depth…. boring or banal
    Not like we should spend much time “arguing about tastes”, but, ahem, it’s hard to agree that it’s more straightforward allusions to sex which give verses their depth. I remain convinced that Marshak’s translation convey deeper feelings. But perhaps what’s profound to one reader is banal to another (your loss, sorry)

  30. old Odessa joke about Caruso and Rabinovich
    I took me quite a while to find an English version of this joke that was even intelligible, never mind funny, so here it is for anglophone posterity:
    “Nu, that Caruso is a terrible singer!”
    “How do you know? Have you ever even heard him?”
    “No, but last night Rabinovich sang me one of his songs.”

  31. Marie-Lucie, s/o: actually, in my experience, the younger generation of Torontonians (especially women) have a distinctive, very recognizable intonation: this may have been what these Vancouver students were talking about. But the rest of Ontario and everything West (minus the Ottawa valley, which on account of its isolation also has a noticeably divergent accent), plus adjacent American States, remains quite homogeneous. People in Victoria (often born and raised elsewhere in British Columbia or in the Canadian West) told me that in Washington, Oregon or even California they could easily pass for locals, linguistically.
    Hmm, let’s make this a little more relevant to this thread…actually, in one of the first linguistics classes I taught, down in the Southern United States, I offended some of my students. I had pointed out that the uniformity of English in North America, especially West of Texas and the Great Lakes, was very similar to the uniformity of Russian East of the Urals. For similar reasons: both areas were colonized very recently, under very similar conditions (first with railroads, then with other forms of transportation, with mass literacy and continuous population movements keeping linguistic diversification to a minimum), and hence yielding very similar linguistic results (extreme linguistic uniformity). To some of my students ANY comparison pointing to similarities between Russia and the United States was by definition unacceptable.
    Oh, another possible exception to this Central/Western Canadian linguistic uniformity might be the variety (varieties?) of English spoken by Aboriginal Canadians: but a systematic comparative study of Aboriginal English spoken in different parts of the country does not exist, to my knowledge. A pity.

  32. J. W. Brewer says:

    The “stereotypical” Canadian accent one might associate with Bob and Doug McKenzie (where e.g. “about” comes out as “aboot”) is reasonably close to the “Fargo” accent stereotypically associated in the U.S. with Minnesota and adjacent states (all pretty close to Canada and pretty far from either coast — a college classmate of mine from Green Bay, Wisc. had this accent in spades). But Americans from the Pacific Northwest don’t commonly/stereotypically have that accent, so if people from BC sound like they could be from Oregon (which I don’t otherwise find implausible), then people from BC don’t have *that* Canadian accent.

  33. John Cowan: this is the joke I had in mind, thank you. It’s how most poetic translations end up, I suspect.
    LH: I noticed years ago that your blogging software wants links spelled as ‘a href=”http://xxx.xxx.xxx”‘ not as ‘a href=http://xxx.xxx.xxx’. Else the link just disappears.

  34. “To some of my students ANY comparison pointing to similarities between Russia and the United States was by definition unacceptable.” (Etienne)
    It’s hard not to notice similarities among the settlement of Siberia, Australia, and parts of North and South America by people of European ancestry.

  35. LH: I noticed years ago that your blogging software wants links spelled as ‘a href=”http://xxx.xxx.xxx”‘ not as ‘a href=http://xxx.xxx.xxx’. Else the link just disappears.
    Isn’t that how HTML works? I thought you always had to have the URL in quotes. Of course, I’m perennially behind the times.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    “about” comes out as “aboot”
    This seems to be how Americans perceive the word spoken by Canadians, but to me it sounds closer to a boat. At least it does here in Nova Scotia.

  37. LH: quotation marks are considered good practice because it is easier to “quote” every html attribute rather than memorize which attribute requires quoting. But they should not be required in that position AFAIK.
    marie-lucie: my Saskatchewan-born, US-educated professor pronounced “about” as “a-boat”. Perhaps I could not help hearing a diphthong while it was a near-monophthong, say “abawt” or “aboot”.

  38. It has just occurred to me that the Nemtsov half-sentence Erik M. quoted at the beginning of the tread – “для начала вам, наверно, подавай, где я родился” – is pure Hiawatha verse.

  39. closer to “a boat”
    Indeed. Hence my three rules for spotting Hidden Canadians in the U.S. media:
    1) If your suspect pronounces “about” as “a boat”, congratulations! You’ve spotted a Hidden Canadian. (Not “a boot”, that’s Scottish.) [This is /aʊ/-raising.]
    2) If your suspect recites “Little Miss Muffet” and “spider” and “inside her” don’t rhyme, you may have spotted a Hidden Canadian, but then again it may just be a Western Pennsylvanian or something. [This is /aɪ/-raising.]
    3) If your suspect says “eh?” at the ends of every other sentence, you’ve spotted a Hidden Canadian who’s mocking you.

  40. John Cowan – Hopefully the spider is beside instead of inside Little Miss Muffett. Could they really not rhyme? Huh. I’ll have to pay attention to more Canadians and Western Pennsylvanians.

  41. J. W. Brewer says:

    OK, I’ll accept “aboat” instead of “aboot” for the sake of argument. But do John Cowan’s diagnostics distinguish British Columbians from Washingtonians/Oregonians?

  42. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: it is not quite “a boat”, but closer to it than to “a boot”.

  43. My “spider” does not rhyme with my “beside her”. I don’t know where I got my spider vowel: no Canada or Western PA in my recent ancestry, though my mother’s father was from Eastern PA.

  44. “Beside her”, yes, of course. I was conflating Little Miss Muffet with the Lady of Niger, limerick version.

  45. I believe the Canadian diphthong is /əu/.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    LH: I believe the Canadian diphthong is /əu/.
    I think that’s true in most of Canada, but here in Nova Scotia I often hear it closer to the diphthong in boat, starting with a rounded vowel. But I don’t notice it all the time: perhaps it is typical of a specific area of Nova Scotia.

  47. Hat, m-l: That’s why it’s called “raising”: the start vowel of /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ is raised from [a] to [ə].

  48. marie-lucie says:

    JC, but the term “raising” is only accurate if you consider [au] to be original: in fact [əu] is closer to the original, (and similarly for [ai] and [əi]). So the change has not been a case of “raising” in Canada (and Scotland too) but of “lowering” in other places.

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