In my ongoing immersion in Russian history, I’m up to the Civil War, and one of the books I’ve been looking forward to is Ivan Bunin‘s Cursed Days, his diary of those awful times. The translator, Thomas Marullo, is a Bunin scholar, and the book comes with all the scholarly apparatus you’d hope for: preface, introduction, bibliography, glossary of names, index, and above all lots and lots of notes, sometimes taking up half the page (they’re footnotes, much easier to use than endnotes). Bunin is one of the great (and too neglected abroad) masters of Russian prose, and his unwavering eye brings wartime Moscow and Odessa to life, but those notes…

I was mildly irritated at first by the sheer plethora of them, the dutiful explication of things anyone could look up for themselves, sometimes on the map provided in the book: “Smolensk is an administrative and cultural center, 350 miles south of Saint Petersburg…” But I told myself “better to err on the side of excess,” and it was good to have detailed information on each newspaper Bunin mentions and be given a précis of the historical events he alludes to. An early warning sign of serious trouble came on page 36, when the footnote talked about a city called “Oredyosh”—it’s actually Oredezh (with the stress on the first syllable). But I didn’t actually put an appalled exclamation mark in the margin until page 59, when Bunin says “The Romans used to brand the faces of their prisoners with the words: ‘Cave furem'” and the footnote said “Beware the Madman.”

Fur (accusative furem) is the Latin word for ‘thief’; I can only suppose that the annotator got it confused with furor ‘madness,’ but really, you’d think the incongruity of the translation would have prompted a further look into the dictionary or a quick consultation with someone from the Classics Department. On page 60 Bunin mentions “Karakhan,” whom I looked up in the list of “Prominent individuals mentioned in the text” (many of them the opposite of prominent, but I’m not complaining) and found Karakhan, Lev Mikhailovich (1889-1937) with the helpful parenthesis “(pseudonym of Rozenfeld, Lev Borisovich)”—except that that belongs to Kamenev, Lev Borisovich (1883-1936), a few lines above! Furthermore, if you look up Karakhan in the index it says “See Rozenfeld, Lev”! On page 61 Bunin says “Derman has received news from Rostov: the Kornilov movement is weak there,” and the footnote says “Rostov, also known as Rostov the Great, is one of the oldest cities in Russia and is located roughly two hundred miles northeast of Moscow.” All well and good, except that the Rostov the author is talking about is Rostov-na-Donu (or Rostov-on-Don), about 600 miles south of Moscow, something that should be obvious to anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the geography of the Civil War: what the hell would Kornilov have been doing in the Yaroslavl Oblast? If there are mistakes like that in the things I know about, how can I trust the notes about things I don’t?

By comparison a minor annoyance, but the one that made me head for the computer to blog this whole mess, is the consistent spelling of Clemenceau as “Clemençeau”—why on earth would there be a cedilla on that c, coming as it does before an e? (If you’re going to misspell Clemenceau, the proper way is to put an accent aigu on the first e, which better reflects the pronunciation.) It bothers me more than I can say when books like this, which deserve to be sent out into the world with the best apparatus scholarship can provide, are treated so shabbily.


  1. David Marjanović says

    I feel your pain.

  2. marie-lucie says

    You seem to be happy with the quality of the translation itself, and with the rest of the scholarly stuff. Perhaps the person doing the annotating was not the translator, but an underling who was not properly supervised?
    Re Clemenceau, I misunderstood your sentence at first. Indeed the name does not have an accent aigu, even though it is pronounced as if it had one. About the cedilla, my impression is that English speakers tend to either ignore it altogether, or err on the side of safety by putting it where it is not needed.
    Finally, I was struck by your use of the word “plethora” in what I take to be its original sense of ‘surfeit, excess’ – everyone seems to be using it now to mean just ‘plenty’, which I find very irritating.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Finally, I was struck by your use of the word “plethora” in what I take to be its original sense of ‘surfeit, excess’ – everyone seems to be using it now to mean just ‘plenty’, which I find very irritating.

    Isn’t “plenty” the original sense in Greek?

  4. In Greek, yes, but we’re talking about English. The first senses in the OED are:
    1. Med. Originally: overabundance of one or more humours, esp. blood; an instance of this. In later use: excessive volume of blood (hypervolaemia or, now rarely, polycythaemia) or excessive fullness of blood vessels (now esp. as seen on x-rays); an instance of this.
    2. fig. An unhealthy or damaging plenitude or excess of something; a state of surfeit or glut. Obs.
    3. Usu. with of. Originally in pejorative sense: an excessive supply, an overabundance; an undesirably large quantity.
    By the time you get to “Subsequently, and more usually, in neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety,” you’re in the twentieth century.

  5. Hmmm, interesting. Marullo’s translation got a favorable review at SEEJ; another translation of his was favorably reviewed at Slavic Review. I guess this is just to show the limit of these reviews – not everybody has your extensive knowledge. But I would not be too worried and mistrustful in this case.
    On a side note, a very famous and senior scholar I know mispronounces Hamartolos as Harmatolos. Metathesis at work… It drives me up the wall.

  6. David Marjanović says

    I note that once again the !§&*%$& four humors are to blame for a loan.

  7. You seem to be happy with the quality of the translation itself
    I am not in the least. See my latest comment in this thread.
    Marullo’s translation got a favorable review at SEEJ
    Must have been a colleague sucking up to him, or somebody who didn’t bother to do a serious comparison. We’re not talking about an occasional glitch, which can happen to anyone; we’re talking about serious blunders, too often to forgive.

  8. or somebody who didn’t bother to do a serious comparison
    I am afraid so. There are two kinds of reviews, I noticed. There is the reviewer who knows his/her stuff and ruthlessly points out errors big and small; then there is the reviewer who rephrases the author’s introduction, spices it up with some praise, and sends it off. Makes me wonder which type of review I really want for a book I might write. The first, I think – despite the pain!

  9. But it would be nice to have it balanced out with one or two of the second!

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