THE LITTLE SEAGULLS.

Having taken another course from Professor Sashura, I’m going to pass on some more information that may be of general interest but will certainly help anyone trying to make their way through Life and Fate in the original (the Amazon link is to the Chandler translation my wife gave me for Christmas). In chapter 38, the pilots about to leave the northern village where they have been held in reserve to return to the front are discussing the relative merits of German and Soviet fighters, and one of them says that the German pilot “doesn’t like horizontal fighting, he tries to get vertical.” Someone else agrees, saying “Who doesn’t know that? Even the village girls know he breaks away from tight turns.” Then comes the line I needed help with: “Эх, «чаечек» надо было тогда получше прикрыть, там люди хорошие” ['Well, then, the chaechki should have been covered better, those are good people there']. I figured out that chaechki was a diminutive of chaiki ‘seagulls,’ even though it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries (even the ones that have a lot of obscure diminutives), but the only definition for chaika I could find was the literal ‘seagull,’ which obviously (from both context and scare quotes) wasn’t intended here. So I wrote Sashura, who provided his usual full explanation:

Chayka was the nickname of the Red Army’s И-153 fighter plane (И – for истребитель, same as F designation in USAF), a biplane that was the mainstay in the Soviet air force throughout the later 1930s and early 1940s. The nickname is because of the gull-like shape of its wings. While it was superior to Japanese aircraft in 1939, shooting them down at a rate of 3 to 1, it wasn’t an even match for the German Messerschmitt 109. They talk about their engagement near Rzhev, the bloody continuation of the Moscow counteroffensive. By the time of the battle of Stalingrad the Polikarpov-designed Chaykas were mostly replaced by monoplane Yaks and American Airacobras, but many pilots had warm feelings towards the older planes, as the phrase shows (прикрыть – to give cover, covering fire).
This is brilliant, how the scene is built! The pilots are discussing fighting manoeuvres and saying that German pilots don’t like dog-fights involving tight curves (виражи), for which the Chaykas were famous. Then one pilot says, even girls in the village know that ‘he’ (the enemy, Germans) avoids tight turns. Chayka is of course feminine. The gender of the word prompts the next comment about giving better support to Chayka planes. Then they all stay quiet thinking about their girlfriends in the village whom they will leave in the morning.

He’s absolutely right about the brilliance of the scene, and the deeper I get into the book the more I feel its greatness—I’m deeply grateful to Sashura for urging me to read it in the original. (For one thing, I would have missed this line entirely, since Chandler leaves it out, as he tends to do with difficult lines; I don’t want to be overly harsh, since it’s a common practice among translators, it’s a huge and difficult book that presumably, like most such jobs, had a too-tight deadline, and readers won’t notice unless they’re familiar with the original, but it’s a nuisance when you’re reading the original and checking the translation mainly to help resolve just such difficulties. Also, leaving out the line makes the sudden silence in the next line unintelligible.)

Comments

  1. In If Not Now, When? Primo Levi had girls flying Soviet airforce planes. They weren’t fighters, though.

  2. Am I over-interpreting, or is the subtext of the first line of dialogue “German pilots/soldiers/men prefer oral sex [in the male-standing, female-kneeling position] to intercourse”? In which case the second line might have to do with the sin of Onan (in the original sense).

  3. Primo Levi had girls flying Soviet airforce planes. They weren’t fighters, though.
    Presumably the 46th Guards Women’s Night Light-Bomber Regiment, which (Richard Overy says) “was run entirely by women, from armourers to pilots and mechanics. Twenty‐three of its members became Heroes of the Soviet Union.”
    Am I over-interpreting, or is the subtext of the first line of dialogue “German pilots/soldiers/men prefer oral sex [in the male-standing, female-kneeling position] to intercourse”?
    I’m pretty sure you’re overinterpreting, but I’ll let the Russians have the final word if they want to weigh in.

  4. Tom Recht says:

    Is leaving out difficult lines really a common practice among translators? I never suspected this.
    (And I wish I’d known it the one time I translated a novel myself – it would have made life so much easier.)

  5. Hat, once again thanks for posting my humble observations – and the links.
    re John Cowan’s suggestions, there is a lot of sexual tension in the book, naturally, though quite subtle, implied, nothing as graphic as in modern lit. I am quite sure there was, at the time, a lot of expletive banter among the pilots – and soldiers in general, but it wasn’t a done thing to put it in serious writing. One can read similar assumptions into War and Peace too.

  6. Is leaving out difficult lines really a common practice among translators?
    I’m afraid so. I never would have guessed it either, and when I started comparing translations to originals a couple of decades back (I remember Hopscotch was an early one), I was shocked… but the more different translators I saw doing it, the more I realized it was an inevitable result of too much work to do in too little time (and for too little money). I, an amateur reading books for pleasure, can spend hours investigating a single allusion if I feel like it, but if you’ve got a 600- or 900-page manuscript due by next month, you’ve got to blast ahead and damn the torpedoes. Not to say I approve, but I understand the pressures.

  7. I, an amateur reading books for pleasure, can spend hours investigating a single allusion if I feel like it,
    Disgusting hedonist. For God’s sake use some self restraint.

  8. Hat, you’re just the person to say: did I get the Russian aviation language approximately right in this post about the Polikarpov I-16 and Socialist Realism?
    http://theartpart.jonathanmorse.net/?p=169

  9. Hat, it’s hard for me to believe that Robert Chandler leaves tough lines out — he is an amazingly scrupulous translator. Have you checked to see that the editions are the same? He may have translated another edition than the one you are reading.
    I’ve certainly never left a line out — it would never occur to me — but when going back over a translation, I’ve found sentences I simply missed.

  10. j. del col says:

    Grossman refers to the ‘little seagulls’ in his war dispatches, too.
    Soviet women pilots flew various kinds of aircraft, including fighters and bombers. Lily Litvyak was the leading female ace, IIRC.

  11. Bill Walderman says:

    “Hat, it’s hard for me to believe that Robert Chandler leaves tough lines out — he is an amazingly scrupulous translator.”
    I, too, have been working my way through Life and Fate in Russian, using Chandler’s translation as a crutch. Yes, he does leave some sentences out, and this seems to happen from time to time at just the places where I need help. It leads me to suspect that he didn’t understand the Russian, either.
    What is more puzzling is that he has left out a few chapters in their entirety, for example, Part 1, Chapter 57. I’ve been using the EKSMO edition for the Russian, but I also have a copy of the 1980 edition published in Lausanne, and I’ve verified that these chapters omitted by Chandler are in fact present in the Lausanne edition, which was the only edition available at the time Chandler made his translation. Anyone have any insight into this? The EKSMO edition does fill in a few lacunae in the Lausanne edition.
    That said, it’s a long book, and Chandler’s translation seems, to me at least, on the whole, quite good.
    The book is slow going for me, with my DLI Russian, and I just don’t have the leisure to hunt down everything I don’t understand, though I wish I did.

  12. Hat, it’s hard for me to believe that Robert Chandler leaves tough lines out — he is an amazingly scrupulous translator.
    I know, I felt the same way, but after it happened enough times I had to accept that it wasn’t coincidence that the missing lines were exactly those with particularly difficult words or allusions. But it’s a huge novel, and I imagine he had a tough deadline.

  13. Are you all using Chandler’s 2006 translation?

  14. I am; is there another?

  15. Bill Walderman says:

    I believe the 2006 edition of Chandler’s translation of Life and Fate, published by New York Review Books, is a reissue of the original Harper & Row edition published in 1986, which had fallen out of print. I don’t think the translation was revised–the translation dates from 1986, not 2006.

  16. Ah, interesting. That’s good to know.

  17. Hat, it’s hard for me to believe that Robert Chandler leaves tough lines out — he is an amazingly scrupulous translator.
    Actually, he does far worse. He certainly does leave jokes, puns and “tough lines” out, as I can attest, having had occasional recourse to his translation (via Amazon’s search function) when I was reading Жизнь и судьба myself. Invariably the word or phrase I was curious about would be glossed over or omitted entirely. However, Chandler’s bigger sin is actually boasting in his translator’s note of having excised a total six pages from various passages he found too prolix. This might well account for the “missing chapter” noted above.
    Not that Grossman is immune from prolixity, but I find the idea of selective cropping by a translator abhorrent. Who the heck are you to be playing editor, bub? Reading that note in a bookstore, the happy result was that I returned the translation to the shelf and resolved to read the novel in Russian instead.

  18. I find the idea of selective cropping by a translator abhorrent. Who the heck are you to be playing editor, bub?
    I quite agree. Much as I dislike the turgid historico-philosophical passages in War and Peace, I can’t imagine simply omitting them if I were translating the novel. I’d limit myself to a remark in the Translator’s Note that if people felt like skipping the second appendix, they wouldn’t be missing anything.

  19. Hat, you’re just the person to say: did I get the Russian aviation language approximately right in this post about the Polikarpov I-16 and Socialist Realism?
    Actually, I’m not the person to say—Sashura knows far more about aviation language than I—but I didn’t see any specialized terminology in your post anyway. If you’re asking about “aviation” versus “aircraft,” I don’t think there’s any right answer; it’s a matter of taste which you prefer in that context. (I myself would probably have gone with the former.)

  20. Hat, you’re just the person to say: did I get the Russian aviation language approximately right in this post about the Polikarpov I-16 and Socialist Realism?
    Well if Language defers the question to the rest of us, then no, aviatsiya wouldn’t really mean aircraft; in the context of the poster, it means Air Force; and it is definitely feminine, while I-16 “Ishak” is masculine. Atho’ the human-plane topic begs the famous spoof lines:
    Первым делом мы испортим самолеты,
    Ну а девушек, а девушек потом
    and these dramatic lines too.
    Anyway on the topic of translations skipping tough stuff vs. mired in footnotes. I-16 nickname is a good little example. “Ishak” it is purely onomatopoeitic in origin – would that be “Icy” in English? Besides is not even Russian, it’s Turkic – would that be “Burro” in American English? Phew, it feels comparatively so good to be translating verses rather than prose, with rhythms and sound making perfect excuses not be a “perfectionist of meaning”!

  21. Thanks very much for the information about aviatsiya, Hat and Moskva. I’ll post the correction.

  22. j. del col says:

    “Aviation” would analogous to “armor.”

  23. I-16 nickname is a good little example
    In the Spanish civil war they got nicknames of their own: I-16 – Mosca, I-15 – Chatos (snub-nosed), SB (ANT-40) – Katiuska.
    It’s not only nicknames, designations can be confusing too. I (И) is equivalent of F, for fighter, not for the famous designer Ilyushin, as it is refered to in Beevor’s The Battle for Spain.
    At some point in WWII, about the same time as shoulderbars where re-introduced and units started to be refered to by the name of their commander, aircraft got names of their designers – Il, Yak, PO and MiG.

  24. j. del col says:

    And the pilots soon came up with inventive puns on the design bureau initials.
    The LaGG-3 was dubbed the Lakirovanyie Guarantirovanyie Grob ( that’s the best I can do for transliteration) which stood for Varnished Guaranateed Coffin. The plane was too slow and unresponsive to be effective against German fighters and was coated with a phenolic wax to smooth its exterior.

  25. I still remember the first stunning impression from reading “L&F” as it first appeared in late 80s.
    What had left most lasting impression was the way Grossman seemed to “paint”, rather than “describe” certain scenes, like the burnt plane with pilot’s body on a snow-covered hill, made crimson by the sunset, or how one was hearing the distant “hurray” of the infantry counter-attacking on the other, smoke-covered, bank of Volga, barely audible in the din of artillery, like a distant howl, or how an officer, having just arrived to a position in the Kalmyk steppe, woken by a sudden artillery barrage and thinking that the position is under attack, feels a resolve to die in this forsaken lands, or…
    I know I will re-read this one day. To me, the book has a unique way of making one feel the high historic drama without making it either too pathetic or too impersonal.

  26. Yes, exactly. Lots of novelists have tried to imitate Tolstoy; I don’t know anyone besides Grossman who has managed to capture that combination of utterly believable characters and unforgettably painted (as you say) scenes, letting us feel we have experienced a period of history in our hearts and guts as well as our minds.

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