I was intrigued by a passing reference to an obscure mid-19th-century Russian writer called Yakov Butkov, did a little investigating, and found a chapter on him in the reminiscences of Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksandr Milyukov (Literaturnyya vstrechi i znakomstva [1890], pp. 105-131). It was a sad and moving story of a young writer who got in trouble with the authorities and disappeared from view, his promise wasted, and I wanted my wife to read it, so I started translating it. (It took me all weekend and ran to over 4,500 words, so it would be nice if I could get it published somewhere; if anyone has any ideas, let me know!) At one point I ran into the kind of pun that’s completely untranslatable; it seems to me that you either footnote it (in an academic version) or omit it (in a popular one). Butkov has been summoned to the censorship committee and is very nervous about it, and he says: “Right at the University a stock exchange hare [birzhevoi zayats] I know ran across my path, he just nodded at me. And you don’t believe in omens, sir!” This made no sense to me, but I correctly presumed “hare” was a slang term. First I went to Dahl, where I discovered that to Russians a hare crossing your path is a sign of bad luck, like a black cat in English; then I googled “биржевой заяц” and found that it was slang for an unofficial broker, one of those middlemen who scurries around making deals for people. Now all was clear, and I could see what a clever pun it was, but I also realized there was absolutely no way to render it in English. (If only unofficial brokers were called “black cats”!)

Addendum (May 2010). Butkov is mentioned in Kornei Chukovsky’s Diary, 1901-1969 (see this post), in the entry for May 23, 1927: “The most amazing thing is how ignorant a RAPP literary historian can be. He has never heard of Iakov Butkov…”


  1. Well, there’s “fat cats” but “black fat cats” would cause too much semantic confusion with the old (hep)cat slang term and probably come off a tad bit offensive.

  2. Did you consider turning it into a simile?

  3. The ironical side to your story is that nowadays nobody [in Russia] would consider a hare crossing his way a bad omen. As in English, it’s now a black cat. So the pun is untranslatable not only into English, but in present-day Russian also.

  4. Well, is it specifically relevant that he’s an unofficial stock broker, or can you take some translator’s license and make him a ladder-builder or something? :-/

  5. I was wondering if that superstition was still in effect—thanks!
    MMcM: How would you turn it into a simile?

  6. Reminds me of another untranslatable hare I ran across… “My name is Hare, and I know nothing.

  7. I am not aware of many venues in which you might publish it for payment but there are a number of highly respected journals that would consider such a piece of translation. You will be no richer but better known as a translator. Paying gigs might be just a bit closer down the road as a result of having improved your resume.
    Have you considered Words Without Borders? It has a top-flight reputation and it gives precedence to languages from Eastern Europe eastwards.

  8. What I had in mind was roughly (very roughly), “a [dark?, small?] stock broker darted across my path, [just?] like a black cat.” Giving up on the pun, as I think you must, but keeping the idea that an encounter with a person could be ominous due to it animal association.

  9. I’ve heard of the hare’s association with bad luck from that legend about Pushkin. So to some the superstition would be familiar.
    If I’m interpreting what you wrote correctly, in addition to the clever word play there’s also an ominous parallel between the men’s situations: an unlicensed broker brushing past and recognizing as his own a writer of disallowed material. (To me, the word “заяц” in particular underscores the illegitimacy of the man’s activities. It is still in use to refer to someone sneaking into something without a ticket. And according to Ushakov, the usage would have been current during Milyukov’s time too.)
    I agree with MMcM–replicating the pun is a tall order. But perhaps drawing out this foreboding parallel of illegality would be enough?
    In any case, I’d be interested to see what you end up with. To find places to submit translation, you might keep track of ALTA’s calls for submissionspage.

  10. michael farris says

    _extremely_ free version:
    “Right at the University an unlicensed broker I know named Katz ran across my path, dressed completely in black. He just nodded at me. And you don’t believe in omens, sir!”

  11. michael farris says

    I’ll just add (before anyone else can) that my proposal isn’t suitable to non-fiction (and its suitability to fiction is … not entirely obvious).
    I think in non-fiction, you’re gonna be stuck with footnoting it or leaving it out.

  12. I always figure there’s got to be some solution (at least until the deadline arrives). I would start by making a list of things that are bad luck in the conventions of the target language/culture and then seeing if you can work one into a pun that is roughly equivalent to the one in the source text. For example, you might say “one of those black market cats crossed my path,” or something like that.
    The main thing, I think, is to always assume there is a solution waiting to be discovered. Of course your solution won’t be exactly the same in all respects to the original, or it wouldn’t be a translation, it would be a transcription. I don’t think — as long as you believe translation is possible at all — that anything is untranslatable.

  13. Well, stock exchanges have bulls and bears – maybe you could do something with that?

  14. I can only come up with a very loose and rather tortured pun in English (of the Scots variety), which is perhaps a bit too faecal to work.
    “Ominous start – I nearly stepped into a jobber on my way here.”

  15. David Marjanović says

    “and I know of nothing”, said in court.

  16. Well, I assume this translation hasn’t sold yet, and the cost of making it must be pretty well sunk after six years; maybe you should just post it here on your site, as people do nowadays.

  17. Oh, I don’t care about the money, and I haven’t actually tried to place it anywhere; I just have to decide what to do about big chunks of prose like that, too long to make a reasonable post. I’ll probably start a new subsite (parallel to Hats and Languages, which I should also revisit — haven’t looked at them in years). Also, I need to improve the translation, which is way too stiff and translation-y.

  18. Go for it! And yes, a side page is the Right Thing.

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