Not Up to It.

Alongside the chronological reading of Russian literature I’ve been doing since 2012, I’ve indulged in various auxiliary projects; I’ve read the poetic output of Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva, and now I’m working through the complete stories of Ivan Bunin, my main resource being this massive collection (supplemented by a couple of others for the longer works it doesn’t contain). Bunin is appallingly undervalued despite being the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature; he’s a master of the short story, as good as Chekhov, and should be as well known. But as I wrote here: “there’s nothing really to say about Bunin, especially for an academic. He didn’t join literary groups, he didn’t radically change style, he didn’t emigrate and then return and have a complicated relationship with the Bolsheviks like Gorky, he just wrote great short stories, decade after decade.” I’ve gotten up to 1911, and the most recent story I finished is Сверчок [Cricket], named after the peasant who narrates the story-within-the-story; his real name is Ilya Kapitonov, but he’s known to everyone by his nickname “Cricket.” His tale is about how his bullheaded son Maksim (also known as “Cricket”) froze to death one night after insisting on going out in a frigid frost; though he was feeble and twice his son’s age, he carried the dead body all the way to the train tracks, where he was eventually rescued by railway workers. This tale leaves his listeners silent and thoughtful; finally the cook says there’s one thing she doesn’t understand — “How is it you yourself didn’t freeze?” He says absentmindedly (рассеянно), “Не до того было, матушка.” This is almost impossible to translate, or rather there are too many possible ways to do it. The one published translation I’ve found in Google Books, in Russians: Then and Now: A Selection of Russian Writing from the Seventeenth Century to Our Own Day, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky (Macmillan, 1963), has “My mind was on other matters, mother.” Serge Kryzytski, in The Works of Ivan Bunin (Mouton, 1971), renders it “I had no time for that, mother.” Equally valid translations would be “I couldn’t be bothered,” “I was in no mood for that,” “I didn’t feel like it,” and “I had other things on my mind.” Perhaps the best translation would be the simplest, which also reflects the semantics of the Russian idiom: “I wasn’t up to it.” (I tried my hand at translating a brief Bunin story back in 2009; it attracted 182 comments!)


  1. This post caught me because “up to/for it” is pretty much my default for “не до…” expressions like this, though I do wander sometimes. I checked my American Heritage idiom dictionary and it says “be up to” in this meaning (“be able to do or deal with”) dates back to the late 1700s so that sounds pretty safe for Bunin.

    And I’m guiltier than most on Bunin, having hardly read him at all, despite having several books that I keep meaning to read.

  2. English is not my first language, but it seems to me that “being up to it” means having the strength or ability. This is clearly not what не до того было means. The other translators correctly picked up that it is an ordinary phrase meaning that someone couldn’t be bothered with such a relatively unimportant thing.

    I read Bunin’s Cursed days as a historical document and liked it and then went for his celebrated Dark alleys, which are often held up as the great Russian love stories that do not ignore the physical side of the matter. Unfortunately, I found them dull and uninspired. Probably, I should have started with his earlier stuff.

  3. If you are a sex-obsessed Soviet teenager and there is no porn available, no, let’s make it nothing even remotely related to sex is available and the only thing you can read about it is a few scenes in books filling a bookshelf of Russian classical literature at home, then Bunin is the right choice.

  4. Yeah I agree with D.O. that “wasn’t up to it” is about ability so sounds odd for this — is that oddness in the Russian?

    “Wasn’t up for it” though is about will if that’s appropriate.

  5. The way I hear it, ne do togo means the speaker has other, more urgent business to take care of, or other, more pressing concerns on her mind. There are also fixed expressions like ne do smekha: “When my foot got caught in a trap, they all laughed, a mne bylo ne do smekha.”

  6. How about “wasn’t up for it”?

    The modesty hiding the impossible reminds me of Orwell’s 1984. When Winston first visits Mr. Charrington’s antique shop, he notices there’s no Telescreen. Mr. Charrington says, “I never had one of those things. Too expensive.”—as if anyone had a choice.

  7. mudbringer says

    A Japanese expression that seems to fit perfectly occurs to me: それどころじゃなかった, which explained wordily in English would be: “It just wasn’t the time or place for that sort of thing.” In comparison, the “I” in most of the English translations suggested seems rather intrusive.

  8. I agree with the others that “wasn’t up for it” suggests preference whereas “up to it” suggests ability.

    I’m not sure, however, that “I wasn’t up for it” sounds quite right in the mouth of an aged Russian peasant. “I didn’t get around to it,” perhaps?

  9. speedwell says

    The aged Northern Irish peasant I am married to would say, offhandedly, “couldn’t be arsed, mam”.

  10. English is not my first language, but it seems to me that “being up to it” means having the strength or ability. This is clearly not what не до того было means. The other translators correctly picked up that it is an ordinary phrase meaning that someone couldn’t be bothered with such a relatively unimportant thing.

    Although “not up to it” doesn’t necessarily refer to having the strength or ability, I agree that that’s more prominent and thus it’s not an ideal rendering here. But it needs to be kept in mind that exact semantic match is not the only thing to worry about in a translation. Both “Не до того было” and “I wasn’t up to it” are simple, six-syllable expressions; that in itself carries considerable weight, since the longer the rendering, the less plausible it is. To take it to the extreme, imagine Henry James trying to capture every nuance of possible meaning: “Well, to tell the truth, it might not have been possible had I been in a less distracted frame of mind, it is of course hardly a feat to be expected, but…” I definitely don’t like “My mind was on other matters” — it simply doesn’t sound like something a peasant would say. Kryzytski’s “I had no time for that” is better but in my opinion pins down the meaning too sharply. On the other hand, mudbringer’s Japanese expression sounds ideal!

  11. “I had my hands full as it was.”

  12. Not bad at all!

  13. AJP Crown says

    Up For It by K. Jarrett.

  14. Love those guys!

  15. It seems to me that a more impersonal concept is involved. What about

    “That wasn’t a/the problem.”?

  16. Google Translate says “I’m not up to that”

  17. LH, you convinced me. Literal meaning is always good, but prosody at this key moment is overriding. Interestingly, the change of meaning is also meaningful. “Not having time for it” means that getting killed by cold is a distraction that can be put aside. This is what we can expect in a cheesy American movie when in the last shot a hero explains how they’ve managed to go through a series of improbable events to save their loved one and says that they’ve promised something or other and we have to assume that their promise is stronger than the laws of nature. But “not having strength for it” means that death is some sort of achievement that one has to reach when they have filled their life’s measure. This is fatalistic and eschatological in a stereotypical “mysterious Russian soul” vein. You outrussianed a Russian.

  18. My work here is done.

  19. Google Translate says

    Google Translate says (part of a description of figs):
    Oshiri kara mitsu ga dete iru no ga kanjuku no shirushi.

    It is a sign of ripe that honey comes out from the buttocks.

    Bon appétit!

  20. The Tumbleweed Farm says

    I would say, “I was too busy for it”.

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