Magarshack at Penguin.

Russian Dinosaur has an intriguing interview with Cathy McAteer about her research on translator David Magarshack and the Penguin Classics series he worked for; like everybody else, I was familiar with his versions of classic Russian literature (notably Dostoevsky), but I knew nothing about him or about the background of the translations. Turns out he was born in Riga (his dates were 1899–1977, just like Nabokov’s) and emigrated to the UK at nineteen, married the Yorkshire-born and Cambridge-educated Elsie, and approached E.V. Rieu offering his services as a literary translator; I’ll let you get the rest of the story at the link (and I’m looking forward to the book, if McAteer turns her PhD research into one), but here I want to highlight the final bit, since it is based on my request to the Dinosaur for information about pronunciation:

One last quick question (by special request): how would you actually pronounce Magarshack?

CM: This is an interesting one. I only ever hear Brits referring to him as MAGarshack, but of the Russians I know who are familiar with Jewish surnames, they say MagarSHACK. Alas, I do not know how he talked about himself here in the UK, but I guess it’s the same sort of conundrum facing anyone who says NabOkov/PasterNAK/RomAnov amongst British lay listeners..

Russian Магаршак is indeed stressed on the final syllable (it’s one of those Jewish names derived from abbreviations, in this case of Morenu Ha-rab Rabbi Shelomo Kluger), and I presume that’s how the translator said it in his head, but I suppose he bowed to popular pronunciation when he talked with people; was that popular pronunciation indeed MAGarshack? Is that how people who interacted with him at Penguin said it? If you know, I’m all ears.


  1. Famous translator Самуил Маршак (Samuil Marshak) who did it the other way around, English to Russian (and was a poet in his own right) apparently belongs to the same group of rabbi Kluger followers.

  2. Robert Everett-Green says

    I remember a biographical paragraph on the back of a Magarshack translation in paperback, which stated he was born “in Riga, Russia.” A souvenir of simpler, more imperial times…

  3. And before those imperial times it was a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire, and before that a member of the Hanseatic League. The Bartlett book I’ve been posting about has a nice map of the original city and an account of its founding.

  4. When I went through the Penguin Dostoevskys as a student, I pronounced the name (in my head) as MaGARshack. Probably I suspected that wasn’t correct, but in English it sounded slightly more euphonious than the two alternatives. Now I find, in an LH post from 2010, that the Pevear-Volokhonsky duo also pronounce it MaGARshack, but that’s a source that may not be considered authoritative.

    The interview with Cathy McAteer notes that Magarshack had children, and there are several Magarshacks in current London phone directories. Perhaps somebody in the UK could do some basic detective work?

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’ve never had occasion to say Magarshack, but if I had done before reading your post I would probably have assumed first-syllable stress.

    Nabokov is another matter. He was often mentioned when I were a lad and at that time everyone in England gave him first-syllable stress. Subsequently I’ve heard that second-syllable stress is better: is that right?

    While we’re at it, what about Shostakovich? When I first heard his name it was always with secondary stress on the first o and full stress on the second o (pronounced as [əʊ̯] — not a very Russian sound). More recently I knew someone who insisted that the stress was on the a, but that didn’t sound right to me at all. What is it really?

  6. The algebra book I used in high school was by one שמעון מהרש”ק (pronounced MaharSHACK).

  7. @ACB: If you want to stress the names where the Russians do, it’s Nabókov and Shostakóvich.

  8. @ Kobi: Could this Shimon Maharshak have been the author? “Born 1904 in in Slutsk. Graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Teacher in the Tel Aviv commercial school “geulah” [redemption]. Published “Algebra,” a three-part text book.”

    Since Slutsk is in Belarus, how was Maharshak spelled in Russian? Probably Магаршак. h>г>g, as usual. On the other hand, dropping the h altogether results in Marshak, which sounds nicer in Russian (I think). Coming across either name for the first time, I’m sure most native Russian speakers would stress the last syllable.

    @ Athel Cornish-Bowden: It’s Shostakóvich in Russian as it was Szostakowicz in Polish: the composer’s paternal grandfather was the son of an impoverished Polish-Lithuanian nobleman.

  9. Subsequently I’ve heard that second-syllable stress is better: is that right?

    Yes, and penultimate stress for Shostakovich as well (-ovich surnames are always stressed on the -o-, with a very few exceptions of Serbian origin).

  10. There are instances of such names undergoing stress shift when they are Anglicized; my grandmother’s last name was MAGorel, but in the old country the name was, of course, magaRIL.

  11. Alexei K. – Most probably this is the same Maharshak. Looking at the phone book I see a fair number of Maharshak and Marshak names in Israel and a small number of Magarshak names. Regarding the spelling I can’t help you as I don’t know Russian.

  12. @D.O.: according to Wikipedia, the name Marshak comes from a different rabbi, one
    Aharon Shmuel ben Israel Kaidanover.

  13. Emily Morris says

    I am one of David Magarshack’s eight grandchildren. The family pronounced it MAGarshack. He never tried to correct it, but nor did he teach any of us any Russian.

    The spelling, I was told, was invented by a German official during the processing of his migration papers. I believe that made him the only Magarshack with a ‘c’.

  14. Thanks very much for weighing in; I now feel comfortable saying it MAGarshack in my head (unless I’m speaking Russian in my head)!

  15. Arlene Gerofsky says

    Emily Morris. My grandfather, Joseph Magarshack left Russia in 1907 and came to Canada. When he arrived, he took the last name of a man he’d met on the ship (He couldn’t write his own name in English). I know that all of the Magarshak/Magarshack/Marshak and I believe Maharshaks everywhere are related. When I read several of the Russian classics and saw your grandfather’s name, I felt compelled to find him. When I went to the UK in 1977 (I think), I called and spoke to someone (your grandmother?), who informed me he had just passed…sigh. She was so kind and invited me to visit, but I had a connecting flight. So sad. By the way, the family here has always pronounced it MAgarshack. All that just to let you know that you have a large family in Canada. Come visit!

  16. What a great story; thanks for sharing it!

  17. I wonder about origin of surname Gerofsky.

    To me it sounds like derived from Hebrew term ‘ger’ – Gentile convert to Judaism.

    The ending suggests that the convert in question was Slavic – most likely ethnic Russian.

  18. Susan Gerofsky says

    Hi! Arlene Gerofsky, we are second cousins. My paternal grandfather, Hersch Magarshak, came to Canada from somewhere near Riga in the early 20th C before WWI. His older brother Joe had changed the family name to Gerofsky as Arlene said, changing it slightly from the man who had (possibly sold him the ticket?) on the ship, a Polish Jew named Gurofsky. My grandma, Sarah Stein, married Hersch/ Harry Gerofsky and settled in Hamilton, Ontario; her cousin married a Gurofsky, so I have cousins by marriage who are Gurofskys.

    I also got in touch with Emily Morris’ grandma, Elsie Magarshack, in 1986, after David had passed away. My husband and I visited for a day though, in their lovely house in Hampstead that had been nice been Michael Foote’s. We met Elsie, Bieban, Christopher (who had a pottery workshop on the ground floor), and one other sister whose name I can’t immediately recall. We all got on very well, and I saw photos of David Magarshack, who looked a lot like my grandfather.

    When we got back to Hamilton, I asked my grandfather (who was about 92 at the time) if he remembered David. He said he had a vague memory of a little cousin named Dovidl.

  19. Susan Gerofsky says

    By the way, both Elsie Magarshack and my grandpa said that:
    • The family were flax merchants near Riga
    • Family origins could be traced back to Spain before the Inquisition
    • The acronym Magarshak came from the Maharal: Rabbi Yehudah Loewe of Prague, a famous Talmudic scholar and cabbalist whose name is connected with the legend of the Golem.

  20. Thanks very much, both for the personal story and the information about the history of the name and family!

  21. Another Marshak:

    Boris Ilich Marshak (Russian: Бори́с Ильи́ч Марша́к) (July 9, 1933 – 28 July 2006) was an archeologist who spent more than fifty years excavating the Sogdian ruins at Panjakent, Tajikistan.
    Marshak began his work at the Sogdian ruins, which date from the 5th-8th century, at Panjakent in 1954. He became director of the archaeological expedition in 1978, a position he held until his death. Marshak was a leading authority on the history of Panjakent, the archaeology and art history of Central Asia, and medieval eastern silverware. In 1979 he became head of the Department of Central Asia and Caucasus at the Hermitage, in Leningrad.

    About Panjakent (in Russian):

Speak Your Mind