I’m reading Goncharov’s Фрегат “Паллада,” toggling back and forth between the Russian text and the translation, The Frigate Pallada, done by one Klaus Goetze, who says in the Preface “I was born in Berlin in Germany, and at the age of eighteen I didn’t know a word of Russian.” He studied with Baron von der Osten-Sacken at Berlin University and Maria Yulievna Azarova at Cambridge, and I regret to report they might have been embarrassed for their student if they read his work here. Of course we all make mistakes, and it’s quite a long book, and I’m indulgent about the occasional slip, but when they become too glaring and frequent I take notice, and if it becomes too much to bear I post. Mind you, this isn’t as bad as the work of Isidor Schneider (see here, here, and here), but I hope never to see such dreadful translation as that again. At any rate, I began putting exclamation marks in the margin on page 46, where one sentence refers to the English ship “Kemperdown” and the next to the “Excelenta.” This isn’t even a matter of knowing Russian: how could anyone think that those ridiculous collections of letters are the names of English ships? I’m no naval specialist, but even I could tell they had to be the Camperdown and the Excellent. On the next page, the name Мотыгин [Motygin] was repeatedly rendered “Motuitin”; that’s just a misreading (to which is added the silly use of “ui” for ы), but it’s evidence of a worrisome sloppiness.
I didn’t get seriously bent out of shape until Chapter 3, where I found on the second page the sentence “There is one thing, however, that the charts of Reper cannot show, that cannot be reduced to figures, a thing nobody can put on a map.” The charts of Reper?! The Russian is “Реперовы таблицы”; I suppose Goetze was led astray by the (inexplicable) capital letter, but this means (as the notes to the Russian edition say) “tables for navigational calculations”; репер [reper] is simply the French word repère ‘marker, indicator; landmark’ (familiar to me mainly from the phrase point de repère) in Cyrillic disguise. [Actually, it turns out this probably refers to “Raper’s Tables”; see DCA’s comment below.] But the straw that forced the camel to post came a couple of pages later, when the helmsman says they’ve passed the Tropic of Cancer (heading south) and Goncharov remarks that he was cold during the night. “How’s that?” [Как так?] asks the helmsman, and he responds “Так, взял да и озяб: видно, кто-нибудь из нас охладел, или я, или тропики. Я лежал легко одетый под самым люком, а ‘ночной зефир струил эфир’ прямо на меня.” [Nothing special, I just suddenly got chilly: evidently one of us cooled off, either me or the tropics. I was lying lightly dressed right under the hatch, and “the night’s zephyr poured ether” right onto me.] The bit about the night’s zephyr is an allusion to a Pushkin poem, and is quoted within the quoted line of dialogue; Goetze seriously impairs intelligibility by putting only that part in quotes, and leaving the rest as narrative rather than dialogue:
It came over me, and I shivered: clearly, someone got cold, either I or the tropic. I lay, lightly dressed, under the hatch, and the “zephyr of the night poured ether onto me.”
There are various problems there, including the omission of the opening “Так” and of “самым” in “под самым люком” as well as the inclusion of “onto me” in the Pushkin quote, but the killer is the rendition of “взял да и озяб” as “It came over me, and I shivered”; Goetze was clearly unfamiliar with the idiom “взять да (и),” used in reference to doing something suddenly: он взял да убежал ‘he up and ran.’ That one is worthy of Isidor Schneider himself.