Actually, Alexander Veltman’s 1835 “Неистовый Роланд” [Orlando Furioso] concerns a fake governor, not a fake inspector, but the parallel with Gogol’s The Government Inspector, one of the most famous Russian plays, is so striking I couldn’t resist the title. (Speaking of titles, James Gebhard, in Selected Stories, renders this one “Roland the Furious,” which makes no sense to me—sure, you might translate Неистовый Роланд that way if it were an invention of Veltman’s, but since it’s the standard Russian equivalent of Orlando Furioso, and since the story features a performance of a dramatic version of that poem, it can’t help but confuse the reader.)

Gogol’s play is straightforward in action, if Gogolianly bizarre in its imagery and conversational divagation (Nabokov says “the Mayor automatically continues to read aloud and his mumbling engenders remarkable secondary beings that struggle to get into the front row… The beauty of the thing is that these secondary characters will not appear on the stage later on”); it starts with the mayor alerting various other town officials that the terrifying Inspector is due to arrive, and shows us the contortions everyone goes through in trying to please the official, who turns out to be a con man. Veltman’s story has the same basic idea (Gebhard says in his introduction “it would be difficult to prove that Veltman’s story influenced Gogol since at the time many anecdotes were in circulation regarding such occurrences in real life”—Gogol began writing his play in October 1835 and it was performed for the first time the following April), but it is Veltmanly bizarre in its telling, leaving the reader completely confused for many pages. It opens with a young man crying out incomprehensibly (“Angelica!… Nature, you are deaf to the outcries of the unfortunate!”) in an inn in a provincial city (which Gebhard says seems from its description to be Mogilev); it then jumps to a feast at the mayor’s house for the name day of “his honored spouse … Nymphodora Mikhailovna” (a name worthy of Gogol) in which there is discussion of Paris and what Kotzebue had to say about it; and it goes on to an increasingly ramshackle performance by a traveling company of actors, which is interrupted by the news that the new governor general has arrived. It eventually turns out that the person in question is actually a member of the troupe who fell out of his carriage and became disordered in his head; because he was wearing a high-ranking uniform for a performance, he was taken for the awaited official.

I would like to note two things that struck me about the story. One is that unlike in the Gogol play, where all the town officials simply make fools of themselves trying to impress the “inspector,” here they actually start performing their jobs as best they can. And the other is the astonishing effect produced by the actor trying to interpret the things said to him by the other characters as lines from the plays he knows and responding accordingly (creating, of course, complete confusion among his interlocutors); it reminded me strongly of Pirandello, and I know of nothing else like it from the period. Of course, I am by no means an expert in the early nineteenth century, and perhaps some learned reader will enlighten me further.

In a better world, of course, Veltman would be well known and this story would be routinely taught alongside the Gogol play; it would be great for compare-and-contrast. But this is not that world.


  1. Hey Languagehat–I enjoy your blog and recommend it to everyone I know who’s interested in language, linguistics, etc., but as someone interested in imperial Russia I appreciate your desire to go to the sources of Gogol, Pushkin et al, but I keep wondering, well, why did a Gogol take hold and a Veltman not so much? I’d love to see a blog post that considered that question.

  2. As I’ve said before, a French-to-English translator whose author refers to M. Emerson’s[*] essay “Confiance-en-soi” must know or guess or remember or look up somehow that it has to be translated “Self-Reliance”, not “Self-Confidence”.
    [*] Not our M. Emerson, of course.

  3. I wonder if the fact that the words “Zhid” (Yid), “Zhidskii” and “Zhidenok” (little Yid) appear over and over again on the first few pages makes modern Russian readers a little uncomfortable? It’s a little like the problem Huckleberry Finn faces today with sensitive Americans.

  4. Probably more than a little uncomfortable, which is totally understandable, since it’s become a vile term of abuse since the vast increase of anti-Semitism that began in the late 19th century, but one thing that’s become clear to me in my reading is that in the earlier part of the century it was a colloquial term whose weight, so to speak, depended entirely on context and the attitude of the person using it; if even such an openly philo-Semitic writer as Narezhny used it, it was clearly not inherently insulting. I actually don’t recall seeing the now standard term еврей in any of the stuff I’ve been reading; I presume it was purely official but not in colloquial use.

  5. marie-lucie says

    JC, perhaps there is a context in which confiance en soi would correspond to ‘self-reliance’, but to me it means the same as ‘self-confidence’ (which often leads to self-reliance, but is not quite the same).

  6. The French Wikipedia article on Emerson lists a book containing the essay in translation as La Confiance en soi et autres essais, trad. de Monique Bégot, postface de Stéphane Michaud, Rivages poche/Petite Bibliothèque, 2000. It does not appear to be an older translation reprinted; at least googling for Monique Bégot shows her to be the author of several current works.

  7. marie-lucie says

    JC, I tried to get more information on Monique Bégot, who has authored at least one book on the Caribbean and otherwise written some translations or co-translations. Perhaps confiance en soi was the best she and her colleagues found for “self-reliance”, but it does not mean that that word would be the best English translation for confiance en soi which means ‘self-confidence. If I were to attempt a translation for “Self-reliance” as a title I would use a different construction, perhaps the verb phrase Compter sur soi seul (‘relying on oneself alone’), since the French verb has no nominal counterpart.

  8. Even googling for “Confiance en soi” and “Emerson” but not “Bégot” turns up a lot of hits: it does seem to be the standard French title of the essay. There are some appearances of “Confiance en soi-même” as well.
    The first appearance of self-reliance in Emerson’s 1841 original appears in this paragraph:

    These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

    The corresponding paragraph in the 1851 translation by Émile Montégut reads:

    Voilà les voix que nous entendons dans la solitude, mais elles deviennent faibles et à peine perceptibles à mesure que nous entrons dans le monde. La société est partout en conspiration contra la virilité de chacun de ses membres. La société est une compagnie d’assurance dans laquelle les membres s’entendent pour la sûreté de leur nourriture, à condition que le mangeur rendra en échange sa liberté et sa culture. La vertu qu’elle demande avant tout est la conformité. La confiance en soi est son aversion. Elle n’aime pas les réalités et les créaturs, mais les usages et les coutumes.

    (Apologies for any typos.)
    All the other occurrences of self-reliance are translated the same way.

  9. marie-lucie says

    JC, I believe you that self-reliance is usually translated as confiance en soi(-même), but I persist in my opinion that the two do not mean quite the same thing. Self-reliance is demonstrated by facing some situation alone, without expecting help, or in the absence of available help. Self-confidence can be demonstrated even without being put to such a test.
    The problem for the English to French translator arises because there is no French noun which corresponds to the English noun. But the verbs do correspond: to rely on (someone or something) = compter sur (quelqu’un ou quelque chose), or even s’appuyer sur (quelqu’un). Hence my suggestion that a translation focused on the meaning, not the form, should use a verbal construction in French.

  10. marie-lucie says

    JC, the French translation you quote also has “joint stock company” as compagnie d’assurance, which means ‘insurance company’. According to the Work Reference online dictionary, the technical term is société en commandite par actions, and another dictionary gives simply société par actions (actions here means ‘shares’).
    Given this further instance of inaccuracy in a single short paragraph, I would not put too much faith in this translator’s vocabulary choices.

  11. m-l: Right then. I absolutely agree that self-confidence and self-reliance don’t mean the same thing, but I was under the impression that confiance en soi could mean either, in the same way that English experience and experiment have distinct meanings but French expérience covers both, so that the translator must glork the correct translation from context.
    But it sounds like that is not really the case, which means that (given the standard French title of Emerson’s essay) my original claim was correct. Knowing French will not tell you how to translate “Confiance en soi-(même)” in this case; you must also know something about Emerson. I note that this bilingual job description mentions both self-confidence as an attribute to be instilled in the prospective employee’s clients and self-reliance as an attribute of the employee herself. In the French version they are rendered confiance en soi and bon sens de l’autonomie respectively. I don’t think autonomy is quite self-reliance either, but I do think the semantic match is closer.
    And to close the circle, it is not enough to know Russian in Hat’s original example: you must also know that in English the Italian title is used. Examples could be multiplied endlessly: it would be the same error to anglicize Karl der Große as Charles the Great rather than Charlemagne.

  12. marie-lucie says

    JC, We agree then!
    the translator must glork the correct translation from context
    Interesting choice of word. I think I can glork “glork”, but it is completely new to me. Trying to pronounce it, the word sounds (and feels, if that’s the right word in this context) onomatopeic: it reminds me of one of a raven’s cries, which I have tried to mimic on several occasions.

  13. I think I can glork “glork”, but it is completely new to me.
    Indeed, you have glorked it correctly. The term was invented by David Moser (and publicized by Douglas Hofstadter) in a pair of self-referential (and hopefully self-explanatory) sentences:

    This sentence contains only one nonstandard English flutzpah.
    This gubblick contains many nonsklarkish English flutzpahs, but the overall pluggandisp can be glorked from context.

    Many more amusing self-referential sentences (too many, perhaps, to be amusing) can be found in this collection, from the terse and classical

    This sentence no verb

    to the thunderously rolling

    Only the fool would take trouble to verify that this sentence was composed of ten a’s, three b’s, four c’s, four d’s, forty-six e’s, sixteen f’s, four g’s, thirteen h’s, fifteen i’s, two k’s, nine l’s, four m’s, twenty-five n’s, twenty-four o’s, five p’s, sixteen r’s, forty-one s’s, thirty-seven t’s, ten u’s, eight v’s, eight w’s, four x’s, eleven y’s, twenty-seven commas, twenty-three apostrophes, seven hyphens, and, last but not least, a single !

    But I found this last quoted in several forms online, and being a fool who enjoys fooling with computers, took trouble to verify it: it contains 38 t’s and 28 commas! It can be made right by changing “this sentence” to “his sentence” and by dropping the Oxford comma after “hyphens”, which is apparently the original form as invented (or discovered) by Lee Sallows.

  14. David Marjanović says

    So many perfectly cromulent words…

  15. I actually don’t recall seeing the now standard term еврей in any of the stuff I’ve been reading
    Pushkin uses it you can say that it happens in the historical / Biblical context, but the Gavriliada is quite contemporarily worded. (A classic anecdote “explained” in this vein that the Israelis won wars because they weren’t евреи, but rather древние евреи (not today’s Jews but the Jews of Antiquity doh!)

  16. Victor Sonkin says

    Khlestakov is a con man against his own will, though, at least initially.

  17. True, true. I wouldn’t want to malign the poor lad!

  18. Incidentally, I only know the 1952 film, with Yuri Tolubeyev as a very impressive городничий and the delightful Igor Gorbachev, who reminded me of Hugh Laurie, as Khlestakov. Are there later versions I should try? (The 1996 Gazarov version has been called dire and unfunny, so I think I’ll give it a pass.)

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