Joan Neuberger’s home page [2024: no archive available] (which I searched out because I was so impressed by her book Hooliganism) has a very useful series of links, mostly relating to Russia; one of them is to Sher’s Russian Web, which contains (among many other things) Benjamin Sher’s piece “Nature vs. Art: A Note on Translating Shklovsky.” This goes into considerable detail about two translations of a single paragraph from Viktor Shklovsky’s famous essay „Искусство как прием“ [‘Art as technique/device’]:

“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs…”

There are two current translations of this key passage from Shklovsky’s masterpiece, one in Lemon and Reis’s Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (p.4), which includes the opening chapter from [Theory of Prose] and the other in my complete translation of Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (p.6).

The reader may wonder which version is “closer” to the original text, Lemon and Reis’s or mine. Well, the answer is: neither one. After looking at the passage carefully and retracing my mental steps, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that neither Lemon and Reis nor I are in actual fact close to the text.


Because this excerpt, at least, cannot be translated head-on. It can only be approached through the back door of “interpretation.” It is a veritable quagmire of elusive, shifting terminology.

There is only one way to translate a passage like this one and that is by interpreting it in terms of the translator’s implicit schema or set of preconceptions.

He goes on to give the two translations (as well as a “literal” version); I’ll add the original Russian here:

И вот для того, чтобы вернуть ощущение жизни, почувствовать вещи, для того, чтобы делать камень каменным, существует то, что называется искусством. Целью искусства является дать ощущение вещи, как видение, а не как узнавание; приемом искусства является прием „остранения“ вещей и прием затрудненной формы, увеличивающий трудность и долготу восприятия, так как воспринимательный процесс в искусстве самоцелен и должен быть продлен; искусство есть способ пережить деланье веща, а сделанное в искусстве не важно.

I’m dubious about some of his ideas, particularly that delan’e is “a possible misprint or variant for delanie” (I’m curious to know what Russian readers make of his insistence that “I cannot imagine that Shklovsky, in the context of enstrangement (ostranenie, itself a verbal noun, that is, the act of enstranging) would ever speak of ‘experiencing a made thing’ [delan’e, a substantive]”—the implication that delanie is any less a substantive is of course absurd), but I love this sort of picking of linguistic nits.

As it happens, Katerina Clark, in her Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, translates the crucial phrases (and provides some context) in the course of introducing Shklovsky; I’ll highlight in bold the parts that correspond to Sher’s translation:

Russian Formalism in some senses began with a lecture by Shklovsky entitled “The Place of Futurism in the History of Language,” delivered when he was still a young student, on December 23, 1913, at the Stray Dog Cabaret, a center of theatrical experimentation. A later essay by Shklovsky that makes similar points, “Art as Technique” (Iskusstvo kak priyëm, 1915-1916), the de facto manifesto of early Formalism, contains a quintessential account of the first premise of perceptual millenarianism. Here Shklovsky quotes a passage from Tolstoy’s diary of 1897 in which the writer remarks how it is often the case that with a routine task such as dusting the room one cannot recall whether one has dusted the divan or not. If one has dusted it but forgotten about it, it is as if the act had not occurred, so little has it impinged on one’s consciousness. Indeed, Tolstoy concludes, “If for many people an entire complex life passes by unconsciously, it is as if this life had not been.” Shklovsky goes on to say that “art exists in order to recover the sense of life, in order to feel objects, to make the stone stoney“… Shklovsky, like the Futurist artists and so many other avant-gardists of his time, gives the ability to “see” an object or word absolute priority. He draws a distinction between “seeing” (videnie) and “recognizing” (uznavanie), the latter being what happens when a word or object has been routinized: “Once objects have been perceived several times one begins to perceive them by recognition: an object stands before us, we know about it, but we do not see it.” He labels such a predicament “automatization” (avtomatizatsiya), and he provides a solution for it, a technique he calls “making strange” or “defamiliarization” (ostranenie). This technique involves taking things out of their context as a means of seeing them and “using an impeded [zatrudnënnaya] form that increases the degree of difficulty and the length of perception, for the process of perception in art is self-valuable and must be prolonged; art is a means for experiencing the making [delan’ye] of an object, and what is made [sdelannoye] in art is not important.

As Sher says, “A volume could be written about translating this passage alone.”

(Incidentally, this appears to be Sher’s translation of the full essay.)


  1. I am a great admirer of Shklovsky. His work in itself is to be seen as some “device of “enstranging” philological things”. This means, by the way, that he was not a dogmatist.
    delan’e and delanie mean very much the same, but the former is slightly more colloquial and the latter is more archaic. So, “delan’e” fits better, to my mind. In formalistic thought, art is not a Creation, but working tough and rough.

  2. I cannot imagine any other way of reading Shklovsky’s “…есть способ пережить деланье вещи”
    than to treat деланье as a variant of делание. It’s not a misprint, but rather a completely legitimate variant, one that simply sounds better in this case.
    Деланье doesn’t have any meaning other than “the act or process of doing”, same as делание. In other words, there is no substantial difference in meaning as in the case of сиденье vs. сидение, or варенье vs. варение. Perhaps this is due to the ready availability of деяние, which has precisely the “purely substantive” meaning one would expect деланье to have by analogy with варенье vs. варение etc.
    Sher’s interpretation of “деланье” is therefore correct, but the choice is easier than he supposes it to be. Sher supposes that there is a possible reading of “деланье вещи” as “a made thing”, that Lemon and Reis chose this reading, and that the reading is incorrect in this context. But the reading is, in fact, impossible to begin with. Lemon and Reis’s awful “artfulness” may be due to their misreading “деланье” as Sher thinks they misread it, or it may be due to their completely missing the meaning of the clause and substituting something bland and kind-of plausible.

  3. What I like the most about it all is that there’s (apparently) a typo at they have деланье веща — I can’t help giggling at this — instead of деланье вещи.

  4. Roman and Anatoly: Thanks for the analysis of the two words; I didn’t think his analysis was right, but I’m glad to have that confirmed by native speakers.
    Alexei: Heh.

  5. Деланье is not much, if at all, different from делание but this isn’t particularly important to the discussion. What puzzles me is both Sher’s and Lemon & Reis’ translation of the last, underlined sentence. I find the literal translation more adequate because it preserves the ambiguity of the original. Indeed, деланье вещи means both the making of a work of art (probably not what Shklovsky meant) and the process of (re)creating an object (in the perception of the artist or an imaginary recipient) by artistic means.
    Whether it is possible to sense a thing through recognition, I wouldn’t rush to judgement. I’d say it is: I’m myopic so when I look at a stone it is enough for me to recognize (i.e., categorize) it as a stone (not as a giant bug or a piece of plastic, say) in order to sense its stone-ness, which is to say a standard set of qualities ascribed to stone: coldness, firmness, roughness, etc. Shklovsky seems to argue that art requires — and is — an effort (hence the “difficult form” and “en-strangement”) that makes it possible to experience or recreate the stone-ness in its originality, without help from pre-existing notions of what (a) stone is and is not.
    Shklovsky’s Russian text is actorless: he doesn’t say who is supposed to see, to recognize, and to perceive, which is the source of the ambiguity.
    Man, do I hate Formalists. It’s far more refreshing to open Olesha and see how it’s done, not how it’s supposed to be done.

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