Over eight years ago, in the very earliest days of LH, I posted a bitter complaint about the habits of the translator of the novel Ali and Nino: “She kept all the Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Russian terms from the novel in their German guises (the book was written in German), which produces an effect in English that is at best barbarous and at worst incomprehensible.” A year later I had a similar complaint about a translation from Hungarian. Now here I am, back to kvetch about the same damn thing. I happen to have both the English translation (The Case of Comrade Tulayev, 1951) and the French original (L’Affaire Toulaev, 1949) of the best-known novel by Victor Serge (a Russian revolutionary who was born in Brussels, wrote in French, and passed from anarchism to Bolshevism to a disillusioned sort-of-Trotskyism, and who will always have a place in my heart for his wonderful remark to the Leninists he turned away from: “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Now where’s this omelette of yours?”), so I decided to read them simultaneously. The translator, Willard R. Trask, practiced a slavish fidelity to French orthography that produces extremely annoying results.

I first realized the problem on page 3, when Serge’s Romachkine was rendered “Romachkin” instead of the appropriate Romashkin. On page 7, Macha was kept intact instead of being changed to Masha. (On page 8, a salacious sentence was omitted, but that’s another issue.) On page 15 Kouznetsoff (i.e., Kuznetsov) shows up as “Kutzetsov,” whether through translatorial incompetence or typographical sabotage being impossible to determine, but on the very next line Guépéou has its accents stripped to appear as the absurd “Guepeou” rather than, as it should be, GPU (the secret police, successor to the Cheka and precursor of the NKVD). On page 29 there’s a mysterious “Vorogen district”; this should be Voronezh, but here the error is Serge’s (the French text has “Vorogène”). On page 36 the name of one of the protagonists is given as “Erchov”; it should be Ershov or Yershov (the character is an analogue of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov). It’s not just Russian names that are bollixed up, either; on p. 41 Serge’s Sinkiang, which should have been kept intact, is transmogrified into “Tsingkiang” for reasons known only to Trask. (Oddly, a few pages later he manages to correctly turn “Mao-Tse-Dzioun” into Mao Tse-tung.) What on earth did he think he was doing? Even if he didn’t know the first thing about Russian, he knew that no English-speaker was likely to pronounce “ch” as “sh”—”Macha” can only be read as a female equivalent of “macho,” unless it’s given an equally inappropriate Germanic “kh” sound (as in Mucha). And what is an English-speaker supposed to make of “Guepeou”? Shame on Willard Trask, who failed in the most basic task of a translator, that of producing an intelligible text in the target language.

An interesting sidelight unrelated to the transliteration issue is provided by a quote from Vasily Rozanov on page 28 of the translation; Trask renders the title of the quoted book as Isolation and Serge as L’Esseulement, both decent equivalents of the Russian Уединенное (Russian text). Serge has one of his characters quote a brief section from this marvelous collection of meditative and frequently funny snippets; Rozanov, whose first name and patronymic are Vasily Vasilevich, is imagining his own funeral:

И вот, везут-везут, долго везут: – “Ну, прощай. Вас. Вас., плохо, брат, в земле; и плохо ты, брат, жил: легче бы лежать в земле, если бы получше жил. С неправдой-то“…
Боже мой: как с неправдой умереть.
А я с неправдой.

Serge renders this:

«Le corbillard avance lentement, le trajet est long.»
«Eh bien, adieu, Vassili Vassilievitch, on est mal dans la terre, mon vieux, et tu as mal vécu; si tu avais mieux vécu, il te serait plus facile de reposer dans terre. Tandis qu’avec l’iniquité…»
«Mon Dieu, mourir dans l’iniquité
«Or je suis dans l’iniquité.»

Which Trask translates:

“The hearse moves slowly, the road is long. “Well, farewell, Vassili Vassilievitch, it’s bad underground, old man, and you lived a bad life; if you had lived better, you would rest easier underground. Whereas, with iniquity. . .”
“My God, to die in iniquity . . .
“And I am in iniquity.”

Most of this is OK, but Serge (and thus Trask) get the crucial word wrong: неправда [nepravda] doesn’t mean ‘iniquity’ but ‘untruth, falsehood.’ It can also mean ‘deception,’ but not ‘iniquity,’ and here it is clearly part of the long and passionate Russian struggle summed up in Solzhenitsyn’s title «Жить не по лжи» “Not to live by lies.” A strange lapse.


  1. You seem to feel that there is a prescriptive form of transliteration from one language to another. Was it so, in 1951? I know no Russian so I can only take you at your word, but I would find it curious if there had not been numerous systems of transliteration from the Russian to English. I know that there are still quite different systems, for instance, in transliterating Persian and Arabic into various western languages, even competing ones into English, and that often diacritics are neglected, at times intentionally. At times, convention trumps strict transliteration as well.

  2. I didn’t know he was an author! I think “неправда” can mean “injustice”, in archaic or pseudo-archaic speech or context. The 1st example popped into my head is from Khovanschina:
    … спаси Бог ..,
    от татей – бояр крамольных,
    от злой, лихой неправды
    It looks like Serge understood (or misunderstood) Rozanov’s passage that way, maybe due to its style – although I am not sure about all the connotations of the word “iniquity”.

  3. I think Hat’s point here is that the translator should have tried to anglicise the text as a whole. That means that as well as translating French words into English (e.g. révolutionnaire as ‘revolutionary’), he should also have converted Russian names into a format familiar to English speakers. There are possibly several different ways of doing this, and there may even be some based on French. But the failure to convert francophone transliterations into anglophone ones simply because the original work is in French is just laziness and sloppiness. Yes, there might be times when retaining French transliterations is justified (I can’t think of any at the moment, but they no doubt exist), but this isn’t one of them.

  4. “Дело Тулаева” is available online in Russian, but your filters won’t allow posting the address. Is the French version really original?

  5. Is the French version really original?
    You seem to feel that there is a prescriptive form of transliteration from one language to another. Was it so, in 1951?
    Not hardly. Nor is it today, when it comes to troublesome letters like “Щ”. But I don’t think you’d see Frenchified renderings like that in any book published in an English-speaking country in 2010.
    I’ve read that translation of The Case of Comrade Tulayev (indeed, I think it’s the only one) and agree the spelling of names is distracting. But if the worst you can say about a 60-year-old translation is that it doesn’t follow contemporary spelling conventions, I’d say the translation is holding up pretty well (occasional outright boners notwithstanding: I must say it never crossed my mind that “Guepeou” referred to the ГПУ. I took it for a nonsense word.)
    All this reminds me of an anecdote from my Russia years involving a girl with the surname Важина who had been taught to write her name in English with a ‘g’ in place of the usual ‘zh’, and thereby won a valuable scholarship to the States when some data-entry numb-skull in the US found the name irresistible, and impulsively included her on the list of winners, though she’d not, in fact, been selected. By the time the error was discovered it was too late to retract, so off she went to the States for a year. All thanks to bad transliteration.

  6. You seem to feel that there is a prescriptive form of transliteration from one language to another.
    No, you mistake my point. Any transliteration is fine, as long as it conveys the sound accurately. My problem is not that the translator doesn’t follow some arcane system, it’s that no English speaker has a hope of pronouncing the names correctly given Trask’s rendition. If he had kept the exact French spelling of Romachkine, at least a reader who knew French would be alerted to the Frenchiness of the form and maybe guess the -ch- should be pronounced /sh/, but by dropping the -e he makes it look like a normal English version of a Russian name. And come on, anyone with the sense God gave a goose knows that Masha is how we write that extremely common Russian name in English.
    But if the worst you can say about a 60-year-old translation is that it doesn’t follow contemporary spelling conventions, I’d say the translation is holding up pretty well
    But I’m not talking about the translation at all; that’s an entirely separate issue (it’s pretty decent, but has an unfortunate tendency to bowdlerize). I am talking specifically about the rendition of Russian names in French rather than English form, which is senseless for an English-speaking readership.

  7. This post was worth making just so we could all hear the story of the girl with the surname Важина who got a scholarship for being named “Vagina.”

  8. Here in North London an Asian Woman with the uncommon but not rare first name Nagina took it into her head to give her car a second (and unauthorised) numberplate in addition to the one demanded by the law. ‘Nagina – 1’lasted a couple of days in that form before being baudlerised…

  9. rootlesscosmo says

    Hat, is your English version the fairly recent paperback edition from New York Review Books? I read that and either got what “Guepeou” (which I agree is a monstrosity) meant, even without the accents aigus, or the editors corrected it to GPU–I don’t have the book around so can’t check.

  10. No, it’s the nice, compact 1963 Anchor Books paperback. I find it very hard to believe that a reprint would go to the trouble and expense of correcting this stuff, but if they did, good for them. If you find your copy, let us know.

  11. hard to believe that a reprint would go to the trouble and expense of correcting this stuff
    They didn’t. The NYRB reprint is the edition I own.

  12. This is something which drives me mad too. I remember giving translation students a practice German-into-English translation in which the German original made reference to negotiations between John Foster Dulles and some guy called “Chruschtschow.” Half of the students left the German transliteration gloriously intact in English: CH (as in “church”) merges into a RUSK before encountering a stranded H which itself gives way to TS (as in tsar, perhaps) before the word ends with a plaintive howl of OW (as in: “Ow! You just stepped on my toe!” or “Ow! You just mangled my language.”) English-speaking readers without a knowledge of German would not necessarily have recognized this name as belong to a person they had actually ever heard of. The other half of the class went for Khrushchev, which made rather more sense.

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