TRANSLATION PROBLEMS.

I’ve run into a couple of difficulties arising from my reading lately, and I thought I’d share them, since they affect more than the words in question.

1) This is what I think of as the “echelon” problem, because of a long and unfortunate tradition among translators from Russian of rendering the word eshelon ‘special train’ as “echelon,” simply because that English word corresponds in form and etymology to the Russian one. They overlook the slight problem that the English word has no meaning even remotely corresponding to the Russian; it means ‘a steplike troop formation; a level or grade in an organization or field of activity,’ and nothing else—except to specialists in Soviet literature, who have absorbed this peculiar bit of translationese to the point that I have had a hard time convincing them that it exists nowhere else and that the “translation” should be retired forthwith. A similar problem came up yesterday in reading a Boris Akunin story called Strast’ i dolg [Passion and duty], set in an alternate Russia which has revived tsardom, along with its Table of Ranks and all the rest of the imperial paraphernalia. The sentence in question reads: Pogibel’ deistvitel’nogo tainogo sovetnika prishla nazavtra, na raute u angliiskogo poslannika sera Endryu Vuda: ‘The ruin of the Active Privy Counselor came the next day, at a raut at the residence of the English ambassador Sir Andrew Wood.’ The dictionary translation of the word raut is “rout.” Now, this is a different case from eshelon because there actually is an English word rout meaning ‘a fashionable gathering or assembly, a large evening party or reception,’ but the word has been obsolete for over a century and it’s unlikely anyone but a devotee of Victorian literature would be familiar with it. (Side note: I learn from the OED that there are in fact ten different routs, ranging from ‘a company, assemblage, band, or troop of persons’ to ‘the act of searching, or of turning out something,’ including the hapax ‘some kind of horse’: 1697 Vanbrugh Æsop i. iv. ii, Your Worship has six Coach-Horses,.. besides Pads, Routs, and Dog-Horses.) To render the word “rout” would be unconscionable—I would say “at a reception”—but I’ll bet there are plenty of lazy translators who would do it.

2) I was reading a NY Times story yesterday called “Siberian Dam Generates Political Wrangle Over Power” when it occurred to me, not for the first time, to look up the Russian for ‘dam.’ The dictionary translation is plotina, but I can never remember it because I rarely see it in Russian texts. The story concerned the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam; I did a Russian search on the name and discovered the feminine gender is caused not by plotina but by GES, the Russian acronym for ‘hydroelectric station.’ That’s why I can’t remember plotina; what we call the Hoover Dam, the Russians would call the Hoover GES. GES does not mean ‘dam,’ but it is used where we use ‘dam’ in the usual contemporary context of large concrete structures for generating power. There must be other examples of this phenomenon—different terms used in similar contexts—but I can’t think of any right at the moment. Anyway, it’s an interesting test of a translator’s skill; if you don’t know the language well, you’ll wind up using a dictionary definition rather than the situationally appropriate word.

Comments

  1. ten different routs
    One is reasonably well-known on the English trad folksong circuit, via the song “The Rout of the Blues” (i.e. the mustering of the Royal Horse Guards regiment).

  2. In this case dam probably translates дамба (damba), not plotina.

  3. Is damba really used for those big concrete monsters? I thought (based on the Oxford’s rendering ‘dike’) that it meant an older style, the kind the Dutch boy stuck his finger in.

  4. Tatyana says:

    Renee, you took the word out of my mouth.
    Only I’d use it in case of Hoover Dam, as direct translation of the name; Sayano-Shushenskaya is definitely a “station”. Dam is only a part, however significant, of the conglomerate of various technological units which is contemporary power station.
    In the case of the book you’re reading “raut” is intended as anachronism (which would sound as such, I beleive, in modern Russian also) – in the same fashion and for the same purpose the outdatedtitle and ranks are dug up and presented as alternative monarchist reality.

  5. I remember getting a comment about eshelon from you when I posted a translation of the first chapter of The Hot Snow to my blog a couple of years ago. Even if you haven’t had any success with other translators, you certainly convinced this one. 😉

  6. Per Ambrosiani says:

    By the way, the text of Akunin’s story can be found at http://www.akunin.ru/knigi/prochee/skazki/1/.

  7. “No s krasnym krestom vse idut i idut eshelony
    A vrode po svodkam poteri ne tak veliki.” – V. Vysotsky.

  8. It’s technically incorrect to say ‘hydroelectric dam’, as the NYT reporter does. It should be ‘power station’. Damba normally serves water management purposes, e.g. in the Netherlands or St. Petersburg. A damb that is part of a hydro power facility is definitely plotina. It’s plotina Dneprogesa, not *damba Dneprogesa.
    Raut, esp. svetskiy raut sounds nearly as Victorian in Russian as in English, so it’s not an entirely bad idea to use ‘rout’ in a translation of a text as thoroughly stytlistically calculated as Akunin’s wirtings are often assumed to be.
    Deystvitel’nyy statskiy sovetnik is probably a calque of ‘Wirklicher Geheimrat’ so although sometimes translated as ‘active privy counselor’, it should be closer to ‘full’, ‘actual’, ‘real’ or ‘true’. I’d prefer ‘full’, as in ‘full member’.

  9. Tatyana says:

    Also, “poslannik” sounds as anachronistic as “raut”. Both belong to – at least- Victorian era. Ambassador is translated as “posol”.

  10. Sayano-Shushenskaya is definitely a “station”. Dam is only a part, however significant, of the conglomerate of various technological units which is contemporary power station.
    Quite true, but the fact is that Russians talk about the conglomerate whereas Americans use “dam” as shorthand for the whole thing. If the Hoover Dam had been built in Russia it would be called a GES, and if the Sayano-Shushenskaya were in the US it would be called a dam. As a practical example of what I’m talking about, I was confused for a long time by the translated title of Yevtushenko’s book Bratsk Station — it sounded like a train station. If it had been rendered “Bratsk Dam,” it would have been much clearer.
    Deystvitel’nyy statskiy sovetnik is probably a calque of ‘Wirklicher Geheimrat’ so although sometimes translated as ‘active privy counselor’, it should be closer to ‘full’, ‘actual’, ‘real’ or ‘true’. I’d prefer ‘full’, as in ‘full member’.
    I hear you, but the traditional translation is “active,” and since all such titles are pretty arbitrary anyway, there’s no good reason for changing it. (“Privy” is a completely archaic word, but presumably you wouldn’t want to change “privy counsellor” to “secret counsellor” in deistvitel’nyy tainyy sovetnik.)

  11. LH, I wouldn’t write off ‘privy’ yet. A few Commonwealth countries still have Privy Councils.
    Eshelon can also mean ‘tier’ or ‘grade’ in Russian. ‘First-tier stocks’ would be aktsii pervogo eshelona. Note the expression gluboko eshelonirovannaya oborona, lit. ‘deeply-tiered defence’.

  12. I know the word still exists, but it’s only used in phrases like “Privy Council” — and I’ll bet most people have no idea what it means by itself, because it’s been obsolete for a long time. My point was that if you’re going to object to “active,” you should object to “privy” too; they’re equally phrase-dependent.

  13. LH, you seem to be saying most native speakers don’t get–not even instinctively–the meaning of ‘privy’ in ‘privy council’ or ‘privy to’. I didn’t realize that.

  14. LH, you seem to be saying most native speakers don’t get–not even instinctively–the meaning of ‘privy’ in ‘privy council’ or ‘privy to’. I didn’t realize that.

  15. I’d guess that more Brits than Yanks would know, but of course evidence would help. I’m fairly confident that the vast majority of my fellow Americans know the word, if at all, only as a part of some weird British institutions; “privy to” is a highfaluting phrase over here and would be used only as a show of erudition, and even those who know the phrase would (I suspect) be unable to tell you what exactly “privy” means.

  16. I’m reminded of the use of Diet for the Japanese parliament — previously so used in English only(??) for that of the Holy Roman Empire.

  17. There is another English word, weir, that may, depending on the context, correspond better to Russian дамба, when we’re talking of smaller ones. It’s widely known in England because there many of those on rivers and canals and I’ve never heard them called dams.

  18. Again, I doubt many Americans are familiar with the word, but that’s just a guess.

  19. I’m familiar with it from Wind in the Willows.

  20. I’m pretty sure I first learned of ‘weir’ while on the freshwater Thames.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Indigenous tribes of the North Pacific Rim (along with many others) used to construct salmon weirs on many rivers. These were not dams but more like kinds of fences which would prevent the fish coming from the ocean from continuing up the rivers, making them easy prey for fishermen armed with spears.

  22. Jonathan D says:

    To me the difference between dam and weir isn’t simply size. A weir controls the flow on a waterways in a relatively limited way, while with a dam there’s more implication that it’s storing water in some sense. Dams could be much bigger than weirs, but are also very small structures for very local water storage where there otherwise wouldn’t be any sort of regular water body.

  23. “I’m pretty sure I first learned of ‘weir’ while on the freshwater Thames.” (Paul Ogden)

    Three Men in a Boat is half about locks and weirs on the upper Thames.

  24. George Gibbard says:

    I first learned privy as the old word for toilet, e.g. in a medieval castle (it would be built into an outer wall such that your business fell outside the wall). This makes privy council immediately understandable, as the kind of thing Lyndon Johnson was famous for.

  25. Thanks for the chuckle!

  26. David Marjanović says:

    To me the difference between dam and weir isn’t simply size. A weir controls the flow on a waterways in a relatively limited way, while with a dam there’s more implication that it’s storing water in some sense. Dams could be much bigger than weirs, but are also very small structures for very local water storage where there otherwise wouldn’t be any sort of regular water body.

    “Weir”, then, corresponds exactly to German Wehr – which otherwise means “defense”.

  27. This made me look up Hoover Dam on Russian wiki. It’s translated literally as Плоти́на Гу́вера, дамба Гувера with a link incongruously explaining that дамба ~~ earthen levee, rather than a concrete dam

  28. Trond Engen says:

    Never use дамба in the concrete sense.

  29. 🙂 nice one Trond.

    Just for LH, this reminds of a wonderful samizdat magazine of poetry which I haven’t seen for at least 30 years, and always cited from memory. This and other poems from “Syntaxis” influenced my perception of poetry a lot! Stunned to see that it, too, made it to the internet recently:

    Дамба, клумба, облезлая липа.
    Дом барачного типа.
    Коридор. Восемнадцать квартир.
    На стене лозунг «Миру — мир».
    Во дворе Иванов
    Морит клопов.
    Он бухгалтер Гознака.
    У Макаровых пьянка.
    У Барановых драка.

  30. Thanks!

  31. Getting back to Pogibel’ deistvitel’nogo tainogo sovetnika, the whole sentence is archaiized. Pogibel’ is at the very least a marked word in modern Russian (that is, you don’t use it only for its direct meaning, you want to convey some nuance) and poslannik is not used for ambassador (it’s just “posol”). I suspect the whole story is written in this manner of faux-imperial language and the translator has to figure out an appropriate linguistic device to convey it.

  32. Dambas, like little boys, are fine in the abstract, but terrible in the concrete.

  33. Trond Engen says:

    Condensation is good in the abstract but bad in the concrete.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Weir again: Reading about Irish and Welsh mythology I found at least one legendary character reputed for owning a weir, a word I had never encountered until then. I did not realize the importance of owning a weir, but I suppose that by constructing weirs across some rivers, ancient and medieval lords or other land owners not only improved their own access but controlled others’ access to salmon coming up those rivers to spawn.

  35. @marie-lucie: Owning a weir comes up now and then in the Celtic legends of the British Isles. In some of the stories, it definitely seemed that it was supposed to be an important cultural signifier, but I don’t think I ever figured out exactly what it meant. The most notable example for me (it was certainly the first literary example of a man with a weir that I encountered, and actually the only one that I can specifically place off the top of my head) was in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which pastiches many elements of Welsh mythology.

  36. I suppose that by constructing weirs across some rivers, ancient and medieval lords or other land owners not only improved their own access but controlled others’ access to salmon coming up those rivers to spawn.

    There is one narrative like this in my family history. My Pomor ancestors supposedly were pauperized after the Peasant Reforms when they receive personal freedoms but the salmon weirs remained in the possession of Solovetsky monastery, leaving the Pomor fishermen with a sharecropper-like status, worse off than “before freedom”. Eventually they abandoned salmon fishing and moved to cities. This story is an ultimate hearsay, told me by my granny from the words of her grandmother, and some elements of it don’t seem to be correct. The famed island monastery didn’t have mainland possessions after the Imperial govt. helped itself with the former monastery properties across Russia, long before the Peasant Reforms. The monks could have controlled the weirs indirectly, but most certainly the mainland Pomors weren’t in serfdom dependence from the monastery even before. And I still couldn’t confirm the identities of my Northerner ancestors. Got a Finnish-like streak in my DNA to hint at who they were, plus some hopes to scour recently-digitized parish books of Yaroslavl (where my granny was born) … but one has to be a resident of Russia to register for online access there 🙁

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you Brett and Dmitry!

  38. Trond Engen says:

    It hasn’t occured to me before that weir is cognate with No. vær “(orig. seasonal) fishing village; fishing or hunting ground on the coast”, ON ver “ibid.; poet.: ocean”. I believe the Icelandic cognate can be used even for a regulated seasonal fishing place in a river. Or at least is used that way in a toponym.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    English weir, German Wehr, Norwegian vær, ON ver :

    Could the ware in Delaware, the name of a noble English family, be related?

  40. Wikipedia believes their name referred to a Norman lieu-dit, or small geographical region, named in French La Guerre which would be /wer/ in Normand. This in turn might be from Norse verr ‘alder’ or Breton gwern ‘id.’ It could also be an aphetic form of Latin ager ‘field’ or from Late Latin warectum ‘fallow field’, of which I do not know the etymology. A connection with the Frankish equivalent of English gore ‘triangular piece of land’ is also a possibility.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks for the research, JC, although I find those derivations mostly far-fetched.

    In any case, un lieu-dit is not really a ‘region’ but a very small, named place, usually uninhabited but with some sort of identifying feature, such as a crossroads, a cross or small chapel, a prominent rock, etc, or a memory of some event, which is the basis for the name. But this name goes back centuries and its original meaning will probably have been lost or at least obscured.

  42. Perhaps it refers then to a small grove of Alnus glutinosa, the black alder, or perhaps A. viridis, the green alder (more of a shrub)? These are pioneer trees, among the first to appear in open fields, and eventually displaced by other trees that overshadow them. I don’t know if the native word aulne was replaced by a borrowing in Normand. (Geraint, are you there?)

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Late Latin warectum ‘fallow field’, of which I do not know the etymology

    Reminds me of German brach “fallow”.

  44. ODS takes the “fallow” sense of brak to be from the break root (since the sward will need to be broken to resume farming) — hard to see how that would become LL warectum. There’s another sense of “lowest quality” that’s referred to the wreck root which might have been a more plausible source of the Latin, but I think that is much later.

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