There’s a great thread over at Crooked Timber that starts with a comparison of the English and German versions of the Kant quote from which the blog title is derived (“Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden”—I’m with Ingrid, the author of the post: I prefer Isaiah Berlin’s memorable English rendering, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”) and proceeds to all sorts of translation anecdotes and arguments, as well as discussion of which language to read works in when you know the original to some extent. My favorite strand of the discussion took off from the remark that “The first translation of The Master and Margarita allegedly translated ‘dentist’ as ‘Dante scholar'”; Anatoly (from whose Avva post I got this link, and who provided some of the best comments) explained that “dantist is not pretentious in Russian, and it doesn’t transmit French overtones if you don’t already know it comes from French. It’s used alongside ‘tooth doctor’ [zubnoi vrach] more or less synonymously; stomatolog is another word with exactly the same meaning in common speech” but said he couldn’t find dantist in the text of the Bulgakov novel, whereupon WorldWideWeber announced he had found it in the rewritten chapters—and linked to Simon Karlinsky’s 1972 NY Times review of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which contains a wonderfully splenetic blast at poor Michael Glenny, the translator:

My spot-checking failed to locate any truly spectacular howlers of the sort that made Michael Glenny’s earlier translations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels proverbial among literary scholars (among other gems, he rendered “dentist” as “an expert on Dante,” “saints” as “swine,” “squirrel fur” as “protein,” and, mistaking the Russian word for bathtub, vanna, for a woman’s name, added a new character to Bulgakov’s cast). But I did find one instance of Glenny’s notorious penchant for introducing female anatomy or nudity where there is none in the original: Xenya’s daydream of wearing a locket with a gauzy dress in Chapter Four is expanded into “ethereal in voile with a pendant between her breasts.” This is the same kind of breast fixation with which Glenny had previously saddled both Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.

(In Glenny’s version of “For the Good Cause” in “Stories and Prose Poems” a “head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman” is translated as a “bosomy pin-up” and the innocuous description of that portrait grossly and gratuitously sexualized).

The haste with which “August 1914” must have been translated is suggested by the occasionally careless and distorted transcriptions of proper names and place names. “A family that descended from Riurik” (i.e., the dynasty that ruled Russia before the Romanovs) is not very helpfully rendered as “the Riurikovich family” and “Yelena Molokhovetz” the celebrated Julia Child of pre-Revolutionary Russia, for some reason emerges as “Malakhov’s cookbook.”

“August 1914” is admittedly a most difficult text for translation; still, in fairness to the reader, the English version of the novel should have been labeled by the publishers “adapted” or “paraphrased” by Michael Glenny, rather than translated by him. it is hard to think of another recent instance where the old maxim traduttore—traditore would be more apt.

One thing I’m curious about is this comment by Ingrid (the original poster):

My favourite translation blunder, that reproduces itself in all the languages I know, is the title of Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smultronstället”, variously known as “Wild Strawberries”, “Fraises Sauvages”, “Morangos Silvestres”, etc. It totally misses the original sense of that special place in your heart that you visit in your dreams and your nostalgia, your “secret little garden”.

Can anybody provide an analysis of the word smultronstället? I always just assumed it meant ‘wild strawberries.’


  1. This is completely off topic — but I don’t remember “squirrel fur” in whichever translation of Margarita I read. I do remember, though, that one of the main characters in on of Gombrowicz’s books, probably “Pornographia”, is first seen looking for someone to sell a few squirrel skins to. I read these two books at about the same and pigeonhole them into one of my favorite categories, “East European black humor”.
    Squirrels in literature: a new research topic.

  2. The Swedish Agency for School Improvement gives a succinct translation that is basically what Ingrid says: the Swedish academy gives a good bit more detail, but that detail is, as you’d expect, på svenska:
    BETYDELSE: ställe där det växer l. brukar växa (mycket) smultron. LitAlbum 1877, s. 13.
    * En dag .. kom vi på ett smultronställe i ett stenrös.
    * LINDGREN AllBarn 56 (1946).
    särsk. bildl., om ställe l. plats l. tidsperiod o. d. där resp. under vilken man upplever lycka l. glädje l. stor trevnad o. d.; särsk. i uttr. livets smultronställen. (Den gamla ser i drömmen) glada ögonpar från lifvets smultronställen, svärmerier vid sjutton år, kungar för en bal. LINDQVIST Dagsl. 3: 40 (1904).
    * LO-JOHANSSON Förf. 59 (1957; om restaurang).

  3. Ah, so smultron is ‘wild strawberry’ and the whole thing means literally ‘place of wild strawberries’? Thanks!

  4. Michael Farris says

    The usual Polish translation of the Bergman movie is ‘Tam, gdzie rosną poziomki’ (Where the wild strawberries grow) AFAICT wild strawberries (poziomki) are considered a different fruit in Poland than domesticated strawberries (truskawki). I don’t know if it carries the same connotations of nostalgia that Ingrid claims for the Swedish, but I think it does have forest connotations (and IME Poles are drawn to forests for all sorts of reasons).
    As for reading translated literature. If I can’t read the original I’m just as likely anymore to read it in Polish as English. I read Master and Margarita in Polish (Mistrz i Małgorzata) as it’s Slavic and I thought more likely to be closer to the original in style and intent. But I sometimes read books translated from English into Polish as well for various reasons including the first Harry Potter book (as far as I’ve got in the series) cause I found a cheap copy at a second hand store and didn’t want to pay full cover price for an English version.

  5. You didn’t miss anything. In my opinion the only virtue of those books is the story; Ms. Rowling as a stylist is… well, she’s not a stylist. And they’re considered different in Russian as well: zemlyanika vs. (non-wild) klubnika.

  6. marie-lucie says

    As concerns the French translation of the film title, “Les Fraises Sauvages” is not a good one, only a literal translation from English “wild strawberries.” In fact those delicious little strawberries, picked at the edge of woods and other out-of-the-way places, are called in France “fraises des bois” – strawberries of the woods or forests. I can’t think of another example offhand but there are other plants specified as “des bois” or “des prés” (of the meadows). The word “sauvage” is sometimes used, for instance in “carotte sauvage” (wild carrot, a plant with a minuscule little carrot-coloured root, too small to be of real use as food), which may be a literal, learned translation from Latin “carota silvatica”, where the adjective “silvatica” (ancestor of “sauvage”) is from “silva” meaning woods or forest. Of course our European ancestors spent a lot more time in the woods than we do, even after they had started cultivating the land. Once they had domesticated some plants, keeping the original name for them, when they needed to designate the corresponding wild species which they still knew, they added a descriptive word such as “of the woods”, etc. This process is well-attested in some languages of the Americas, where the words for some native plants or animals have been transferred to the imported ones, and the original species are designated by those words plus some description referring to where those species are found in the wild.

  7. Ian Myles Slater says

    Rowling may not be a notable stylist, but her prose apparently does offer real problems for translators.
    For abundant examples, browse at http://www.cjvlang.com/Hpotter/ (Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese Translation), where puns, English naming conventions, uses of alliteration and allusion, and levels of speech (official, colloquial, textbook, archaic, commercial, etc.) are considered, among other topics.
    Some these, of course, will be easier to convey in European languages than in those under consideration there. Others just exploit historical peculiarities of British English — like the ethnic and literary mixture seen in “Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.”

  8. I for one would find it odd to choose to read Rowling in any language but English. True enough, she is not a great stylist, but she does have a very English voice. Reading a Polish translation of Harry Potter would be rather like watching Doctor Who dubbed in Polish.

  9. Wild strawberries are increasingly different than domestic strawberries. Wild strawberries are small, delicate berries with an exquisite flavor. Domestic strawberries are large, crunchy berries, sold by the pound, which sometimes taste good and sometimes not.
    There’s an intermediate form which you can grow yourself, and recently it’s also been available, for a price, at the best gourmet stores.

  10. I for one would find it odd to choose to read Rowling in any language but English.
    Then I shall not say a word about my collection of HP in translation :o)
    As for Smulltronstället, the Slovak translation is “Lesné jahody”, i.e. strawberries of the woods/forrest. I remember I used to pick wild strawberries as a kid when I spent my summers at my grandma’s and I’m sure we had a word for the place where they grew, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. There is a Slovak word for a place where domestic strawberries are grown, though, “jahodovisko”.
    The Hungarian title of that movie is “A nap vége”, i.e. “The end of the day”.

  11. michael farris says

    “Reading a Polish translation of Harry Potter would be rather like watching Doctor Who dubbed in Polish.”
    Considering how I was never able to get into the good doctor (though trying a couple of times) I think I’d prefer it dubbed into Polish (though not with the single voice-over usually used here, yuck).
    I’ve met the publisher of Harry Potter in Poland (who’s American) and I heard a nice story of how they dealt with ‘muggle’: Originally the translator used ‘tuman’ (dimwit) but was overruled by the publisher who pointed out that Dursley didn’t understand the word while any reasonably functioning person in Polish would know ‘tuman’.
    The publisher first wanted muggle to remain untranslated like most names. Then the translator had a stroke of inspiration – there’s an informal suffix -ol widely used in Polish slang with (slightly) despective connotations (for example: Englishman is usually Anglik, but Angol can be used to indicate a personal, not altogether friendly relationship with the Englishman in question). A little experimentation (magol didn’t quite cut it) and he came up with Mugol which is close in appearance and (sort of) sound but with extra connotations that the original opaque English word doesn’t have, one of those examples where a translation is better (IMHO) than the original.

  12. The standard Russian name for that Bergman movie is Земляничная поляна, Strawberry Field, almost like the Beatles song. (No, don’t get me started on клубника vs. земляника.)
    I’d think that the Internet makes a translator’s work much easier — at least idiocies like that дантист blunder can be avoided.

  13. Smultron are wild strawberries, and Stället is “the place” but a smultronställe is a particular treasured secret place. It is like knowing where the very best mushrooms grow. You could almost translate it s “sweet spot”, though I know that doesn’t really work. But it would make sense to explain that your smultronställe is the sweet spot of your world.

  14. David Marjanović says

    I think the translation of the Kant quote works fine, but the “ganz” part could and should be translated, too: “no quite straight thing was ever made”.
    No idea what that movie is called in German, but I doubt it’s called “Walderdbeeren”, which would be the name of the plants. Maybe it’s something along the lines of “where the wild strawberries blossom”; but in general German “translations” of movie titles are even much worse than this.
    Harry Potter is difficult to translate, but the German translation is a lot dumber than necessary! “Shocky pink” became “bright red” — I kid you not.

  15. michael farris says

    “No idea what that movie is called in German, but I doubt it’s called “Walderdbeeren”
    If Google is to be believed, it’s called “Wilde Erdbeeren”. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

  16. “Stället”: it reminded me of something I read somewhere about the English history of “stall” / “stale” and related words (can’t find it now). These have very restricted meanings in modern English, but past meanings include “place”, as in Swedish, and others.
    “Stale” still sometimes means “horse urine” in the horsy world, I think. The OED is worth a glance if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

  17. Adrian Room’s Dictionary of translated names and titles confirms that the German title is Wilde Erdbeeren. Italian is the only one he lists that keeps the “place” idea: Il posto delle fragole.

  18. Just for completeness: in Japanese it seems to be 野いちご (“wild strawberries”, ditching the “place” etc.)

  19. I’ve really liked the French translations of the Harry Potter novels, though the translator’s a bit inconsistent about what terms and names get translated and how. (Generally, Latin and mock-Latin were left alone, as were ordinary proper names, while Rowling-specific proper names were translated based on the words they seem to derive from; but there were a number of exceptions. I don’t think this inconsistency would be noticeable to someone who didn’t already know the English equivalents, though, so it’s really not a big deal.) And most of the translated names were pretty good, though not all: I think Snape→Rogue, Moony→Lunard, and Hogwarts→Poudlard were all pretty big changes in connotations/feelings and I think Prongs→Cornedrue gave too much away (though maybe things seem more given-away when you already know what’s coming). On the up-side, I didn’t even know what “Hogsmeade” meant until I saw the French “Pré-au-Lard”, so even though Rowling and I share a primary language, the translation helped me understand her writing a bit. 😉

  20. David Marjanović says

    “Wilde Erdbeeren” is a literal translation of “wild strawberries”. No place, no romantics, nothing.
    German Stall = stable… uh… not the adjective!

  21. John Emereson: I thought Margarita might have worn a squirrel fur coat, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in the book (maybe I just imagined her wearing one). Neither could I find ‘protein in Glenny’s translation. Neither could I find any saints mistaken for swine. I did find Vanna, though. He had also rendered ‘ball’ into ‘rout’ (“Satan’s Rout”).

  22. Ian Myles Slater says

    Some of the Glenny “mistranslations,” if they actually exist anywhere, may in fact belong to other people entirely. For example, in the “Crooked Timbers” comments one finds: “The first translation of ‘The Master and Margarita’ allegedly translated ‘dentist’ as ‘Dante scholar.” Since Glenny’s version of “The Master and Margarita” was, officially at least, released simultaneously with Mira Ginsburg’s, a reference to an allegation about “the first translation” is at least ambiguous. (And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it wasn’t in her translation, either.)
    Although Tanel is right that “Satan’s Rout” isn’t a good translation, it isn’t Glenny’s absurd mistake, either. As readers of Georgette Heyer are probably all-too-aware, a meaning of “rout” current in English around 1800 was “a fashionable gathering.” (Readers of Jane Austen will have encountered, and perhaps wondered about, “rout-cakes.”) It is a good description of the chapter, although the more literal “The Great Ball at Satan’s” (Pevear and Volokhonsky) and “Satan’s Grand Ball” (Burgin and O’Connor) are both much less confusing!

  23. michael farris says

    “The Great Ball at Satan’s” (Pevear and Volokhonsky) and “Satan’s Grand Ball” (Burgin and O’Connor) are both much less confusing!”
    For my money the first isn’t very good as it makes Satan sound like a barkeep (and the location changes every year so it’s not even accurate in English I think).

  24. Having read a few Harry Potters in French and one in Zwedish, I noticed that the French translator routinely prunes non-narrative detail. (Whether that’s good or bad presumably depends on your ambi3nt level of Cartesianisme.)
    Since I’ve moved to the Netherlands (Kingdom of), these days most of my reading time is occupied with the (very patchy) Dutch translations of Jerry Cotton trashkrimis. (I have at least one in Cherman, but it is still too hard for me.)
    Oh, and what everyone else said about smultrons, obviously. (Except that it isn’t really a howler, since it’s unavoidable lossage. Everyone should simply learn Zwedish, says me.)

  25. Ian Myles Slater says

    That’s an interesting reaction to “The Great Ball at Satan’s.” the construction struck me more as a bit excessively literal. My Russian is creaking with age and disuse, so that may be misapprehension on my part. But it is a frequent complaint about translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky.
    I found Burgin and O’Connor much more readable. However, I’ve read Glenny’s version several times over the course of thirty years, and still think of it first.

  26. michael farris says

    “That’s an interesting reaction to “The Great Ball at Satan’s.” the construction struck me more as a bit excessively literal.”
    Well I’m assuming that Russian (which I don’t know) is like Polish in that the preposition u (plus genetive) can be used to refer to the host (The Polish is Wielki Bal u Szatana). For me, in English “at Satan’s” can refer either to the name of a location (like a bar) or where Satan habitually lives (which isn’t Moscow). Other native speakers may (and I’m sure will) disagree.
    “it is a frequent complaint about translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky.”
    From the way they work (if the description is accurate) over literalness will be inevitable unless his Russian was very, very fluent, which I gather it isn’t.
    The hypothesis has also been made that their reputed (over)literalness (I can’t judge first hand of course) is a deliberate strategy to ‘exoticize’ the text – to make it read as if it were written by a Russian in English, fluent but not always idiomatic. It’s an approach that some readers may prefer though I certainly don’t.

  27. Throbert McGee says

    “Well I’m assuming that Russian (which I don’t know) is like Polish in that the preposition u (plus genetive) can be used to refer to the host (The Polish is Wielki Bal u Szatana).”
    _Velikii Bal u Satany_ (that is, _u_ + genetive) would certainly be a very natural way to say it in Russian, although my Russian edition of the novel is in storage and I can’t remember if that’s the actual phrasing used by Bulgakov for the title of that chapter. (Alternatively, he might’ve used an adjectival form of “Satan,” or something — I just don’t remember exactly.)

  28. Ian Myles Slater says

    There is a Russian text at http://lib.ru/BULGAKOW/master.txt. I have no idea how reliable it is in detail; but I have used it (with dictionaries and grammars at hand) to spot-check places where translations differed.
    Yes, it looks to me as if “Velikii Bal u Satany” is the chapter title; or that would agree with my rough transliteration, anyway.

  29. Siganus Sutor says

    Michael : « or where Satan habitually lives (which isn’t Moscow). »
    It might be hard to translate some books, and harder still to translate some poems, but some jokes definitely can’t be translated. Like this one for instance:
    “Do you know where the devil lives?”
    After a while, the answer would be “In the ■■■* of a woman”.
    After another while (and some polite silence) “And you know why?”
    “Parce que Satan l’habite.”
    * a part of the feminine anatomy that I dare not describe here

  30. Chiming in a bit late, but the movie’s apparently named ‘Jordbærstedet’ (‘The Strawberry Place) in Norwegian. A bit weird considering we have a perfectly good word for wild strawberries, ‘markjordbær’ (so the movie would’ve been ‘Markjordbærstedet’), but I guess it’s because of “design” issues.
    FWIW, I like the Pevear&Volokhonsky translations; I think their style has a certain Russian feel over it (which may be because of the literalness).

  31. Argh. Had to chime in. The P/V translations don’t give any sense of the original Russian. They aren’t “literal”; they are a mish-mash of styles, epochs, approaches; filled with mistakes in understanding the Russian and appalling English. “The Great Ball at Satan’s” is awful; it sounds like a ball at a dive like Joe’s or Sam’s and as a title has nothing in common with the original Russian. It doesn’t even make sense in the context of the book. My colleague and I have written about the P/V translations, although the article is in Russian only at this point. It can be found at
    Sorry I’m so grumpy. Must be the lousy Moscow weather.

  32. “dantist is not pretentious in Russian, and it doesn’t transmit French overtones if you don’t already know it comes from French. It’s used alongside ‘tooth doctor’ [zubnoi vrach] more or less synonymously; stomatolog is another word with exactly the same meaning in common speech”

    Just got to this in the Brothers K:

    Пан же Врублевский оказался вольнопрактикующим дантистом, по-русски зубным врачом.

    Pan Wróblewski turned out to be a privately practicing dantist, in Russian zubnoi vrach [‘tooth doctor’].

    (‘Dentist’ in Polish is dentysta.) It would seem that in Dostoevsky’s time дантист was felt as a foreignism.

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