Anatoly Vorobey has a post discussing Freeman Dyson’s NYRB review “Scientist, Spy, Genius: Who Was Bruno Pontecorvo?” and in particular the linguistic analysis foregrounded in Dyson’s opening paragraphs:
“I want to die as a great scientist, not as your fucked spy.” These words were spoken in Russian by Bruno Pontecorvo a year before his death in 1993, in reply to a Russian government official who was trying to arrange for a visiting historian to interview him. They come as close as Pontecorvo ever came to confirming the widespread belief that he had been spying for the Soviet Union when he was working at the Canadian nuclear reactor project in the 1940s.
The words vash jebanyi shpion describe the way he did not wish to be remembered. In Half-Life, his new biography of Pontecorvo, the particle physicist Frank Close translates them as “your fucking spy,” which misses the precise meaning. Pontecorvo was certainly aware of the precise meaning of the word when he used it. It describes his emotional reaction to the way he was treated by the Russians as well as by the Western media. It gives us a glimpse of the inner turmoil that he successfully concealed from his family and friends. He was undoubtedly a great scientist. Whether he was a spy is still open to question.
As Anatoly says, Close is right and Dyson is wrong: though “ваш ебаный шпион” technically “means” ‘your fucked spy,’ the participle ебаный [yobany] being a passive one, translating it that way is incorrect. In this context, “ебаный” has a purely emphatic sense, precisely like English “fucking,” and “your fucking spy” is the correct way to render the phrase in English. Anatoly goes on to write:
Дайсон неправ, и его ошибка тут очень типична для понимания неродного языка, даже такого, который хорошо выучил. Когда нам встречается фраза типа “ебаный шпион”, нам помогает ее понять богатый языковой опыт, накопленный за много лет – в течение которых мы снова и снова слышали “ебаный такой-то, ебаный сякой-то” и усвоили, насколько в этой конструкции нивелирован буквальный смысл.
Dyson is wrong, and his mistake here is quite typical for understanding of a language that is not one’s own, even if one has learned it well. When we [native Russian speakers] encounter a phrase like “ебаный шпион,” we are helped to understand it by a rich linguistic experience accumulated over many years in the course of which we have heard again and again “ебаный this, ебаный that” and have assimilated the extent to which in this construction the literal sense is leveled.
I am happy to say that thanks to my determined immersion over the years in all registers of Russian (and particular credit goes to my unbelievably foul-mouthed ’90s pal Anatoly Lifshits, who included at least one блядь in every sentence) I instinctively knew the force of the word here and would never have dreamed of translating it Dyson’s way. (I hope someone writes a letter of correction and they print it; Russian obscenity is important stuff!)
This problem with a passive participle reminds me of a recent e-mail I sent to Sashura:
My wife gave me the English translation of Annenkov’s «Замечательное десятилетие. 1838–1848» for Christmas, and I’ve been happily reading along. Then I got to this, from chapter VIII:
Thus, Belinsky argued against the critic of the Moscow Observer of 1836 when the latter, in some strange fit of enthusiasm, declared that supposedly for the sake of the single expression “I hear” which burst from the lips of Taras Bulba in answer to the exclamation of his son, his torturer and executioner, “Do you hear this, father?” […]
I immediately said “What?!” and managed to find the Russian original online:
Так, Белинский опровергал критика «Московского наблюдателя» 1836 года, когда тот, в странном энтузиазме, объявил, будто за одно «слышу», вырвавшееся из уст Тараса Бульбы в ответ на восклицание казнимого и мучимого сына: «Слышишь ли ты это, отец мой?» […]
I’m not sure which is worse, the failure to understand the Russian or the fact that poor Irwin Titunik, the translator, clearly had no idea of the plot of Taras Bulba!