Over eight years ago, in the very earliest days of LH, I posted a bitter complaint about the habits of the translator of the novel Ali and Nino: “She kept all the Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Russian terms from the novel in their German guises (the book was written in German), which produces an effect in English that is at best barbarous and at worst incomprehensible.” A year later I had a similar complaint about a translation from Hungarian. Now here I am, back to kvetch about the same damn thing. I happen to have both the English translation (The Case of Comrade Tulayev, 1951) and the French original (L’Affaire Toulaev, 1949) of the best-known novel by Victor Serge (a Russian revolutionary who was born in Brussels, wrote in French, and passed from anarchism to Bolshevism to a disillusioned sort-of-Trotskyism, and who will always have a place in my heart for his wonderful remark to the Leninists he turned away from: “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Now where’s this omelette of yours?”), so I decided to read them simultaneously. The translator, Willard R. Trask, practiced a slavish fidelity to French orthography that produces extremely annoying results.
I first realized the problem on page 3, when Serge’s Romachkine was rendered “Romachkin” instead of the appropriate Romashkin. On page 7, Macha was kept intact instead of being changed to Masha. (On page 8, a salacious sentence was omitted, but that’s another issue.) On page 15 Kouznetsoff (i.e., Kuznetsov) shows up as “Kutzetsov,” whether through translatorial incompetence or typographical sabotage being impossible to determine, but on the very next line Guépéou has its accents stripped to appear as the absurd “Guepeou” rather than, as it should be, GPU (the secret police, successor to the Cheka and precursor of the NKVD). On page 29 there’s a mysterious “Vorogen district”; this should be Voronezh, but here the error is Serge’s (the French text has “Vorogène”). On page 36 the name of one of the protagonists is given as “Erchov”; it should be Ershov or Yershov (the character is an analogue of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov). It’s not just Russian names that are bollixed up, either; on p. 41 Serge’s Sinkiang, which should have been kept intact, is transmogrified into “Tsingkiang” for reasons known only to Trask. (Oddly, a few pages later he manages to correctly turn “Mao-Tse-Dzioun” into Mao Tse-tung.) What on earth did he think he was doing? Even if he didn’t know the first thing about Russian, he knew that no English-speaker was likely to pronounce “ch” as “sh”—”Macha” can only be read as a female equivalent of “macho,” unless it’s given an equally inappropriate Germanic “kh” sound (as in Mucha). And what is an English-speaker supposed to make of “Guepeou”? Shame on Willard Trask, who failed in the most basic task of a translator, that of producing an intelligible text in the target language.
An interesting sidelight unrelated to the transliteration issue is provided by a quote from Vasily Rozanov on page 28 of the translation; Trask renders the title of the quoted book as Isolation and Serge as L’Esseulement, both decent equivalents of the Russian Уединенное (Russian text). Serge has one of his characters quote a brief section from this marvelous collection of meditative and frequently funny snippets; Rozanov, whose first name and patronymic are Vasily Vasilevich, is imagining his own funeral:
И вот, везут-везут, долго везут: – “Ну, прощай. Вас. Вас., плохо, брат, в земле; и плохо ты, брат, жил: легче бы лежать в земле, если бы получше жил. С неправдой-то“…
Боже мой: как с неправдой умереть.
А я с неправдой.
Serge renders this:
«Le corbillard avance lentement, le trajet est long.»
«Eh bien, adieu, Vassili Vassilievitch, on est mal dans la terre, mon vieux, et tu as mal vécu; si tu avais mieux vécu, il te serait plus facile de reposer dans terre. Tandis qu’avec l’iniquité…»
«Mon Dieu, mourir dans l’iniquité…
«Or je suis dans l’iniquité.»
Which Trask translates:
“The hearse moves slowly, the road is long. “Well, farewell, Vassili Vassilievitch, it’s bad underground, old man, and you lived a bad life; if you had lived better, you would rest easier underground. Whereas, with iniquity. . .”
“My God, to die in iniquity . . .
“And I am in iniquity.”
Most of this is OK, but Serge (and thus Trask) get the crucial word wrong: неправда [nepravda] doesn’t mean ‘iniquity’ but ‘untruth, falsehood.’ It can also mean ‘deception,’ but not ‘iniquity,’ and here it is clearly part of the long and passionate Russian struggle summed up in Solzhenitsyn’s title «Жить не по лжи» “Not to live by lies.” A strange lapse.