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.

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