I know this is petty and I should rise above it, but I can’t help sharing a couple more examples of malfeasance from the Gorky translation discussed here. In Chapter 7, discussing his childhood pleasure in correcting his grandfather’s errors while praying, Gorky quotes himself as saying “А ты сегодня ‘довлеет’ пропустил! […] Надо: ‘Но та вера моя да довлеет вместо всех’, а ты и не сказал ‘довлеет’.” This means, “Today you left out dovleet (‘suffices’)! … You should have said ‘But may my faith suffice instead of all [works],’ but you didn’t say ‘suffice.'” But our friend Isidor Schneider has: “where you should have said, ‘My faith reigns supreme,’ you left out ‘reigns.'” In other words, he’s reading dovleet with the usual twentieth-century meaning ‘dominates, prevails’ rather than the earlier meaning, insisted on by Russian prescriptivists to this day and clearly necessary in this context, ‘suffices.’

OK, that one’s just sloppy and mildly amusing. But on the next page, he renders кулугурские шутки ‘schismatic jokes’ as “It’s a gag that’s going the rounds in Kaluga.” Fine, Schneider didn’t know the word кулугур [kulugur], a pejorative term for Old Believers (Brockhaus and Efron derive it from калогер [kaloger], from Greek καλόγερος, ‘monk’), but rather than make a desperate stab connecting it with Kaluga, a minor grain-trading town hundreds of miles from Nizhni Novgorod, he might have noted that Gorky defines it in the next clause, раскольниками придумано, еретиками ‘thought up by schismatics, heretics.’

We won’t even get into the passage in which young Gorky responds to a question about the “чинов ангельских” [chinov angelskikh, ‘orders of angels’] with А кто такие чиновники? [A kto takie chinovniki, ‘but who are those officials?’]; Schneider’s decision to deal with it by changing the untranslatable pun into “Are they incorporated?” and then putting in the grandfather’s mouth an explanation about how corporations are “established to get around the laws” is just plain obnoxious.


  1. The lesson here is that I could have been making a living as a translator all along. But now it’s too late.

  2. It’s never too late! Or, as Isidor Schneider would say, the marmots have not yet left Kamchatka!

  3. So he doesn’t even quote the jokes? Pity. I do loves me some religious mockery.

  4. But the tumbleweeds have left Siberia.

  5. The tumbleweed of the American West was an Asian import. A record has been reconstructed of its first appearance in various states of the American West, from the Pacific Coast inward.
    The tumbleweed is used as an image of homelessness by the Sanguo Wei prince Cao Zhi, the first great non-anonymous poet of the dominant shi style. He was forced by his brother, the Emperor, to move every year or two to keep him from putting together a following in order to mount a coup. (Not a happy family at all; a third brother may have been poisoned by the Emperor).
    So anyway, all those country western songs are recycling a figure from classical Chinese poetry. You heard it here first.

  6. I’ll have an order of angels with a side of onion rings, please.

  7. religious mockery
    Q. Why do the ladies love Jesus?
    A. [arms held far apart, parallel to the ground] Because he’s hung like this.

  8. Ladies Love Cool Jesus.

  9. earlier meaning, insisted on by Russian prescriptivists to this day
    I was so surprised by your claim that grammatists still insist on the old meaning of dovleet, that I scrambled to verify it – and they do! Even more, many insist that довлеть над – to dominate over smth is incorrect that the verb must be used with Dative – довлеть кому-чему, also archaic.
    Here is a modern right wing Russian commentator telling off the Patriarch Alexiy (!) for not knowing the correct usage of dovlet’ (He said: Над Россией довлела смута – Dark times dominated over Russia)

  10. Here is a modern right wing Russian commentator telling off the Patriarch Alexiy (!) for not knowing the correct usage of dovlet’
    Down with patriarchy!

  11. Victor Sonkin says

    I understand that ‘довлеть’ in its original meaning is going the way of the dodo, but in such circumstances I’d avoid using the world altogether rather than say ‘довлеет над’.
    My favorite story about it (I hope it will be understandable at least to those who know Russian): I was retelling a friend my attempt to exchange a faulty monitor for a working one, and how the clerk told me “Я бы рад, но сами понимаете, надо мной довлеет…”, at which point my friend reacted with “Ага. Злоба его”.

  12. John E, that was my point.

  13. Apropos of nothing, I came across Danish (and English) translation of The Overcoat today, so hopefully I’ll get around to reading it in a coupla years.

  14. довлеет дневи злоба его
    for English speakers: Victor’s story refers to this passage from Sermon on the Mount:
    Matthew 6:34
    Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
    At some point довлеть got mixed up with давить, доминировать (to press, to dominate). We often used to say to someone annoying: не довлей (stop pressing me).

  15. There’s an excellent discussion of the change of meaning here; the intermediate step (going back to the time of Peter the Great) was a meaning ‘it is necessary/fitting.’

  16. a very funny read, the article telling off the Patriarch Alexiy (!) for not knowing the correct usage of dovlet’
    i enjoyed reading it very much, our teachers of Russian at school were very good ones i guess that i know 90% of what she corrects
    she could have been a little kinder to the “starushkam, vospitannitsam komyacheiki”, but in their times it was reverse, so it’s like deserved, her pithiness, i guess
    good to read someone knowing her subject so very well even though she writes zlo (angrily)

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