Grannies Telling Fortunes.

I’m now reading Dostoevsky’s Двойник (The Double), his second published work, which came out in late 1846 after the extraordinary success of his first, Poor Folk (discussed at LH here and here), had turned his head and inspired jealous colleagues like Turgenev to mock him unmercifully; I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished it, but for the moment I’ll just note that the use of language is wonderful and frequently hilarious, and the paranoid main character, Golyadkin, may be modeled on Dostoevsky’s friend Butkov, who I’ve been writing about lately — besides the similarities in psychology and social position, they share the same given name and patronymic, Yakov Petrovich. But at the moment I want to post about some colloquial phrases that seem to have given translators some trouble.

As Golyadkin is pouring out his troubles to the irritated and confused Doctor Rutenspitz, he mentions that some people “умеют этак иногда поднести коку с соком” — they know how to present someone with koka s sokom. Now, кока с соком is literally ‘egg with juice’ (кока is a children’s word for ‘egg’), but it is, or was, a colloquial expression for ‘abundance, riches’; it’s not very common (is it still used at all? the last citation in the Национальный корпус русского языка is from 1920), but it’s not clear whether the doctor’s response (“Что? что поднести?” — “What? present what?”) means he doesn’t know the idiom or is simply overwhelmed by Golyadkin’s flood of non sequiturs (he responds with similar confusion to much of what Golyadkin says). Golyadkin reponds impatiently, “Коку с соком, Крестьян Иванович; это пословица русская” (Koka s sokom, Krestyan Ivanovich; it’s a Russian saying), which isn’t much help to the floundering doctor. But how to translate it? Constance Garnett has “they sometimes manage to serve you up a fine egg in gravy,” which, OK, that’s literally pretty much what the Russian says and conveys the general sense, but I’m not sure it’s ideal. The overhyped Pevear-Volokhonsky duo have “a cock with a sock,” which is so ridiculous I can’t even imagine what they were thinking. But let’s move on.

Shortly afterwards, Golyadkin describes how an acquaintance congratulated someone on having attained the rank of collegiate assessor, the eighth rung on the Table of Ranks which ruled Russian official life, and an important one worthy of celebration because it conferred nobility (hereditary until 1845, when Nicholas I reduced it to lifetime nobility, with hereditary nobility beginning at the fifth rank, state councilor). Golyadkin is a titular councilor, the ninth rank, so he himself is of course longing for such a promotion. He quotes the acquaintance as saying “И тем более рад, что нынче, как всему свету известно, вывелись бабушки, которые ворожат”: “and I’m even more pleased because now…” now what? There’s the rub. The Russian literally says “grandmothers who tell fortunes vyvelis’,” the verb meaning either ‘go out of use, disappear, become extinct’ or ‘be hatched.’ Garnett apparently chooses the second sense (“all the world knows that there are old women nowadays who tell fortunes”), P&V the first (“as all the world knows, there are no more little grannies telling fortunes”). But what both of them ignore is that there is a phrase (ему) бабушка ворожит ‘(he) holds good cards’ or ‘has a friend in court,’ which it seems to me must be intended here, because grannies telling fortunes, whether they exist or have gone extinct, are completely irrelevant, whereas “I’m even more pleased because now you have friends in high places” makes perfect sense in context. I know Golyadkin is insane, but that doesn’t mean everything he says is random babbling.

But there’s a third phrase that I myself can’t make head nor tail of. Golyadkin says “Да тут, чтоб уж разом двух воробьев одним камнем убить, — как срезал молодца-то на бабушках”: “But now, to kill two birds with one stone, as…” As what? Garnett has “But, to kill two birds with one stone, as I twitted our young gentleman with the old women”; P&V have “And here, to kill two birds with one stone — once I’ve cut the lad down with the little grannies,” and neither of them makes any sense at all (furthermore, typically for them, P&V translate тут by its literal equivalent “here” rather than the contextually appropriate “now”); surely they are missing some idiom or reference, but I don’t have any idea what it might be. Anybody know?


  1. cock with a sock
    I love it! Why not?
    A teacher of Russian who is also a member of this cafe quoted a recent blooper by her student who translated “ряд попыток” (ryad popytok – a series of attempts) as ‘a happy drink’, presumably for the phonetic similarity of ryad – rad (happy, glad) and popytok – napitok (drink).

  2. babushki
    Isn’t it obvious from the phrase just above: “И тем более рад, что нынче, как всему свету известно, вывелись бабушки, которые ворожат” — ‘Even more glad because now, as the whole world knows, there aren’t any babushkas capable of doing magic’.
    i.e. ‘cut on babushkas’ is a hint that the man got promotion on merit, not thanks to some divine intervention.

  3. I mean, there is some sarcasm that is read into the phrase.

  4. Well, I have no idea how to translate a highly idiomatic speech of Mr. Golyadkin, but the meaning in context is pretty clear. Golyadkin is rambling about people who can tell the truth where everyone expects only platitudes. In this context кока с соком means unexpected and unpleasant surprise; бабушки, которые ворожат means benefactors in high places and вывелись of course is got extinct not hatched (I have no idea how to translate it. Old witches bringing good fortune meant ironically). The humor of the situation is that this so called truth-teller tells only banalities appropriate for the occasion, but in the distorted view of Mr. Golyadkin it all becomes a subterfuge. Or maybe it was a subterfuge, we have no one to tell us except Mr. Golyadkin, especially because it was Golyadkin who said all this, as perfectly clear by the end of the episode.

    как срезал молодца-то на бабушках: it clearly means that by saying вывелись бабушки, которые ворожат our truth teller cleverly put down Vladimir Semenovich, who in the mind of Mr. Golyadkin has received promotion through his uncle.

    I did not read the whole novel, but from the scraps that I did read it seems that in Golyadkin’s mind the upstart Vladimir Semenovich not only was given promotion over Golyadkin (allegedly by influence of his uncle), but also is trying to marry Clara Olsufyevna, who Mr. Golyadkin fancies for himself.

    BTW. In this passage Dostoevsky uses word нещечко = precious. I did not know the word and did not find etymology in Vasmer.

  5. Thanks, both of you!

    BTW. In this passage Dostoevsky uses word нещечко = precious. I did not know the word and did not find etymology in Vasmer.

    According to this book, it has variants нестечко, нешточко, нищечко, and is based on нешто/ништо, dialect forms of нечто.

  6. Dost seems to like the word; he also uses it in Село Степанчиково и его обитатели (“Она не нагляделась на свое нещечко, впилась в него глазами”; “Бедная, и не ожидала поутру, что ее нещечко так покойно примет известие о «пассаже» с Татьяной Ивановной”), Записки из мертвого дома (“В эти три недели иногда вся палата подымалась в один голос и просила главного доктора перевести наше нещечко в другую арестантскую палату”), and Братья Карамазовы (“С тех пор, с самой его смерти, она посвятила всю себя воспитанию этого своего нещечка мальчика Коли”). Veltman and Saltykov-Shchedrin also use it repeatedly. Solzh uses it in Раковый корпус (“Один такой у нас, нещечко”) and Merezhkovsky in Лютер (“совещание о том, как бы спасти Лютера, эту славу, может быть, не только Германии, но и всего христианского мира, это «нещечко, опасную игрушку Фридриха Немудрого», как те же враги его злобно шутили”). The earliest citation is in Fonvizin’s Недоросль: “Как скажу я тебе нещечко, так пожить на свете слюбится.” Overall, though, it’s very rare; the Национальный корпус русского языка finds only eleven works that include it.

  7. If we need a further nod to what D.O. and Sashura said:
    Golyadkin describes himself as a straight talker, not capable of intrigue, but dreaming of revenge on an [at first, unnamed] vicious enemy who is prone to platitudes and strong at working the connections – before bringing himself to tears with this admissions. Because it is a case for tears, truly.

    The name of Vladimir Semenovich, “the youngster”, comes up next, and then, the mysterious “кока с соком” is immediately explained as an unexpected twist / a double-decker congratulation, ostensibly a statement of praise but hiding inside it a veiled critique (kind of like a soft-boiled egg hiding inside it the juice of a runny yolk). You take a bait and – surprise surprise – you may get smeared.

    “cuz there aren’t grannies with their magic around here anymore” meaning “yeah, right, it was a promotion on merit, and not due to nepotism”

    Of course “the smart colleague” who put down (~~ срезал ) the lucky Vladimir Semenovich is no one else but Golyadkin itself, and he’s immediately punished for this with the rumors about his supposed marriage of convenience – a marriage to a “fat, ugly, shameless” German.

    “To kill two birds with one stone” – presumably both to attack Vladimir Semenovich and to paint the rumors as false – the poor madman retells the story of the double-bottomed congratulation in the presence of Klara and her father.

    It’s Dostoyevsky. The death spiral of circumstance, mistake, and powerlessness.

  8. Excellent analysis! Man, what a good writer he is.

  9. Hat, thank you for the research on нещечко. Used from Fonvizin to Solzhenitzyn and the word is nearly extinct, unbelievable.

  10. Bathrobe says

    кока is a children’s word for ‘egg’

    Interestingly similar to the Australian children’s word for ‘egg’, which is ‘googie egg’, apparently from ‘goggie’, a Scots child’s word for an egg.


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