A month ago I posted on Rachel May’s The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English, which I had just started; now that I’ve finished it, I’m basking in the pleasure of having found a book that explains in such detail a strong but inchoate feeling I’ve had for as long as I’ve been reading Russian literature: that Russian is strikingly, perhaps uniquely, ill served by its translators. When I’ve tried to talk about this, I’ve babbled to people about the “feel” of Russian dialogue, which seems to be so hard to reproduce in English, but it’s not just the dialogue—everything but the most formal writing has something of that feel, something of the sound and affect of spoken Russian. The basic concept is that of the “personal narrator,” the voice that tells the story and partakes of the rhetorical devices of the spoken language, a voice which is almost always muted or done away with in translation, replaced by the impersonal narrative voice that translators seem more comfortable with. May starts off Chapter Two with this very apposite quote from Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (I presume in her own translation): “You must know that for the most part Akaky Akakievich expresses himself in prepositions, adverbs, and, finally, the kinds of particles of speech that have positively no meaning whatsoever.” She continues:
Little words that have “positively no meaning whatsoever” abound in human speech and, often, in literary narration. These are the fillers and signals of register; terms of endearment, respect, condescension, or disrespect; markers of phatic and conative functions; or simple idiosyncracies that distinguish living speech from expository prose. Generally defined as lacking semantic content but fulfilling some communicative function, these elements of language rarely advance a plot but immeasurably increase the richness of the telling. Unlike the pristine diction of expository prose, prose with an abundance of “meaningless” sounds and phrases suggests palpable human voices and allows them to interact and interpenetrate one another’s spheres. As a literary device, they have had great proponents in many languages (William Faulkner, Laurence Sterne, Mark Twain, to name some anglophone examples). But nowhere have they had so rich a flowering as in Russian literature, where they are used to set up layer upon layer of meaning within the narration and between narrator, character, and reader. Why “must we know” that Akaky Akakievich used meaningless particles in his speech? First, because they establish the insecurity and insignificance of his character, but also because they identify the narrator with this pathetic creature. After all, the narrator, too, uses an abundance of fillers (you must know; for the most part; and, finally; positively; whatsoever). Thus Akaky Akakievich becomes Everyman, his voice merely a somewhat less articulate echo of the generalized voice that tells of his miserable condition.
Unfortunately, translators tend to consider semantics first, and “meaningless” phrases suffer as a result…
The bulk of the book consists of examples from Russian literature given in the original and one or more translations, with discussions of exactly what the translators have failed to preserve; I’ll quote here some of the general passages that describe the kind of things at issue. On deixis:
When used in third-person narration, such expressions as “now,” “here,” “many years ago” pinpoint the narrator as present at the scene. They also suggest that the audience is physically accessible to the narrator and that it has a definite viewpoint. The effect is to imitate the oral speech situation, in which a gesture is enough to establish a place and time. Although English has most of the same deictics as Russian, this is a feature of narrative language that is often omitted or changed in translation. [...]
The last three examples in 2.3 have in common one Russian deictic term that does not have an English equivalent. The Russian word vot is defined as indicating proximity or immediacy or adding expressiveness to a phrase. It can mean “right here,” or “there,” or even “look” or “see,” or it can simply be emphatic. Twice I have used “now” in its place, to reflect the sense of immediacy vot imparts. This term is so common in Russian and so difficult to approximate in English that translators tend to ignore it. The evidence seems to show, however, that along with it they discard other deictic expressions and the entire sense of a narrator’s presence. In isolated instances translators are probably right to omit it, because the English alternatives often sound stilted. But when vot is used as part of a larger tendency to personalize the narrative voice, translators need to plumb the expressive resources of English.
On “interjections and parentheticals”:
Trifonov’s narrator’s use of vprochem (“however,” or, here, “of course”) is an example of another set of intrusive elements available to authors wishing to personalize narrative voice. These include such signals of subjectivity as modal particles, parentheticals, interjections, and some qualifiers (the last three are known, collectively, in Russian as vvodnye slova, or “parenthetic words”). [...] Thus, they are all essential to narrative voice. However, because many of the modal particles appear frequently in prose without any apparent semantic content, it is common practice in translation simply to omit them. In isolated instances their omission makes little difference, but if they disappear throughout a text this can have profound effects on “the definition of communicative relationships.”
And perhaps the most basic of all, “colloquial register”:
The most colorful signal of a personal narrator is the use of colloquial language. In contrast to standard “literary” Russian, the colloquial register carries the suggestion of an oral, speaking storyteller. Soviet literature of the post-Stalin era essentially reintroduced this register into Russian literature after a long hiatus, and as an innovation it had both artistic and political impact. However, it has been one of the hardest features of this literature to capture in translation. Kornei Chukovsky lamented the loss of prostorechie (common or substandard speech) in translations of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day: “As you see, it’s a pattern. It turns out that not only Ralph Parker but all, positively all, of the translators flatly refused to translate prostorechie. And their Italian colleagues joined them in this” [...]
The English language contributes to this trend because it lends itself less well to approximating oral speech in writing. The absence in English of an equivalent for vot, for example, removes an essential tool for expressing immediacy. Russian shifts tenses and even person more easily than English does, making for a more natural range of interjections and syntactic breaks. And there is evidence that the colloquial register is more accessible to Russian writers, since Russian has a more live sense of the distinction between oral and written styles. [...] A typical page from a Russian dictionary has frequent notations of register, with nearly a third of the definitions or examples marked “colloquial” or “common.” In sum, the colloquial register is well recognized and readily available to Russian writers who wish to create a casual atmosphere for their narration without using idiosyncratic or regionally distinct terms; it is possible to evoke a generalized storyteller who imparts a sense of oral narration but does not interfere personally in the story.
By contrast, English has a rich dialectal system but generally lacks a standard, or at least standardly acknowledged, colloquial vocabulary. (We even lack a satisfactory term for prostorechie, since “vulgar” has come to mean “obscene.”) The Oxford English Dictionary does not distinguish colloquial from literary terms, combining them all under the rubric of “common words” (“which belong to the language common to literature and everyday speech”). Slang, dialectal, and specialized terms may be singled out, but the register of unconstrained speech is not recognized. This may explain, in part, why translators often do not seek to use it[...].
That’s just the second chapter; the third and fourth are equally rich, and of course I’m omitting all the examples that give weight to the generalities, but I hope I’ve given some idea of how valuable the book is. One can quibble with some of the details of her discussion of individual sentences, but I don’t think one can successfully argue with her main point: translators need to do more to use the resources available in English to convey the feel of the Russian text.