Archive for the ‘Translations’ Category

Tolstoy Brings Another Horseman Down with a Cannonball: More Thoughts on Translation

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

My last post, “The Sound of a Cannonball to the Gut: A Comparison of War and Peace Translations,” considered several English translations, including my own, from the Russian of a single sentence in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At the time I wrote it I had no idea that later on in the novel Tolstoy would once again briefly tell of a horseman being hit by a cannonball. As before, when the unfortunate rider was an otherwise unmentioned Cossack, the new victim, a Russian general at the disastrous battle of Austerlitz, plays no dramatic role beyond his cameo appearance as one taking a direct hit to the body by a cannonball while on horseback.

It was the striking description of the first such hit that drew me to look at how different people had translated the passage. I was disappointed in what I found. I thought most of the translations, though giving the basic picture of what had happened, destroyed the effect of Tolstoy’s narrative method and failed to capture the terrible sound of death by cannonball impact.

This post is basically an addendum to the previous one, so I recommend reading that one first. I am not going to go into the earlier description again, though I will have to refer back to comments on the translations now and then. It turns out that the new description clarifies what Tolstoy (and probably the translators) meant in the earlier one.

As before, I am considering five published translations and my own. The 1903 Constance Garnett translation has been the most widely read version. Another by Aylmer and Louise Maude (1922–23) was praised by Tolstoy himself, though I’m not sure how good his English was. The translations by Garnett and the Maudes are in the public domain and widely available. The next chronologically is Ann Dunnigan’s 1968 (Signet) translation. The one by Anthony Briggs (2005) is available in a Penguin edition. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007) have been translating all the big Russian novels to widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Theirs is published by Vintage Classics. I should add that all but the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation are available in very cheap or free ebook form, whether Kindle, iBook, or Nook.

The scene of the passage considered here is one where remnants of the Russian army, which has been routed, along with its Austrian and German allies, by Napoleon’s army at Austerlitz, are being slaughtered by cannon fire from the heights recently conquered by the French. A general on horseback has just opened his mouth to speak, but before he can, the following occurs, for which I give the original Russian and the six translations to be analyzed. Anyone who compares this passage to the earlier one will note a great deal of similarity.

“Вдруг одно из ядер так низко засвистело над толпой, что все нагнулись. Что-то шлепнулось в мокрое, и генерал упал с лошадью в лужу крови.”

“Suddenly one of the cannon balls flew so low over the heads of the crowd that all ducked. There was a wet splash, as the general fell from his horse into a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a cannonball flew so low over the heads of the crowd that everyone ducked. There was a moist plopping sound and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a stray cannonball whizzed across so low over the heads of the crowd that everybody ducked. There was a terrible splashing sound and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

Pevear and Velokhonsky (P & V)
“Suddenly one of the cannonballs came whistling so low over the crowd that everybody ducked. There was a wet smack, and the general and his horse fell in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly one of the cannonballs whistled so low over the crowd that they all ducked. Something smacked into wet stuff, and the general fell with his horse in a pool of blood.”

There is pretty close agreement on the first sentence except that Garnett and Dunnigan (following Garnett?) omit the sound of the cannonball in flight, just saying that it “flew.” But how did everyone know to duck? Garnett, Dunnigan, and Briggs all say “over the heads of the crowd,” though “the heads of” is not in the Tolstoy. This is further evidence that Dunnigan and Briggs made use of Garnett. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. P & V and I correctly identify the sound of the ball in flight as a whistling. For some reason the Meades now say “hissed” instead of “whistled,” which they used in translating the earlier sentence. Briggs says “whizzed” this time instead of his earlier use of “whoosh” to translate the sound. He also takes the liberty of saying it was a “stray” cannonball. Since the group of soldiers were under continual bombardment (a cannon shot every ten seconds, had been mentioned a little before), I don’t think this insertion of “stray” is justified. The cannons could not be precisely aimed, of course, but the shot that hit the general was no more stray than the ones hitting privates and sergeants in a field of great carnage. Garnett, P & V, and I have kept Tolstoy’s “one of the cannonballs,” which makes the very point that the cannonade was ongoing. Dunnigan and the Meades just say “a cannonball.” Which is fine, but why not follow Tolstoy more closely?

Tolstoy’s description of the sound of the cannonball hitting the general echoes that of the earlier account of a Cossack horseman hit by a ball, which was the subject of my last blog post. It also, I think, clarifies the point I wasn’t clear on—whether the sound Tolstoy imitated (with an onomatopoeic word) was meant to apply to the impact of the ball in the body or the fall of horse and rider. The Russian word could be interpreted either way. Here, there is almost no doubt in my mind. It is the sound of impact. Since the verb (шлепнулось) used here makes the sound of the noun (шлеп) used before, I conclude that the previous smack or slap or flop was the sound of the ball in the Cossack and not the flop of the victims to the ground, though that is not a logical necessity. In the passage considered in my last post, I went with what I thought to be the majority view in interpreting the sound to be applied to the fall. I noted that Briggs’s intention, while not completely clear, probably was to associate the sound with the impact. Brunnigan’s word placement (of “pl-op”) seemed to go with that interpretation as well, but I doubted that was her intent. Now, I think it probably was, since she uses “plopping sound” in translating the passage being considered here, where there is no question in my mind about what the sound is referring to. Although I hadn’t thought of the Meades’ use of “fl-fl-flop” as describing the impact, I now see they use “flopped” here, almost certainly to describe the impact, so they quite possibly meant it that way in the earlier passage.

While I interpreted the “fffflop” sound (as I rendered it) to be that of the crashing horse and rider to the ground, there is nothing to make that the necessary interpretation in my translation any more than there is in Tolstoy’s original Russian or any of the other translations. Since I was the only one translating the earlier passage without the possible benefit of the hindsight to be gained from seeing the general’s fate, I may well have been the only one attaching the sound to the fall except for Garnett. Maybe I should just change mine to “sssslap,” which sounds more like an impact to me and is much closer to Tolstoy’s word.

Let’s look at the how the translators deal with the impact sound this time.

Garnett: “There was a wet splash, as…”

Meades: “It flopped into something moist, and…”

Dunnigan: “There was a moist plopping sound and…”

Briggs: “There was a terrible splashing sound and…”

P & V: “There was a wet smack, and…”

Me: “Something smacked into wet stuff, and…”

Given the way she finishes the sentence with “as the the general fell from his horse into a pool of blood,” Garnett seems to be taking the sound she calls a “wet splash” as being made by the general’s fall into the pool of blood, rather than the sound of the ball impacting his body. I’m almost sure this is wrong. Everyone else, by keeping Tolstoy’s “and” between the sound and the fall, seems to interpret the sound (flop, plop, splash, or smack) as the sound of impact, an event preceding the fall. Considering also the earlier (Cossack) passage, where there is no mention of a pool of blood, I feel confident that Tolstoy here means the impact sound.

Speaking of the previously analyzed passage, I’m happy to note that there is no trace of a “thud” in these translations. Nor is the impact sound said to be from something “soft.” There is no doubt that it’s something juicy being hit this time. The Russian adjective Tolstoy uses here means wet. That is, it’s much closer to the “liquid” of the first described body than “moist,” which is what the Meades and Dunnigan use. Moist is still much better than soft, since one can at least imagine hearing an impact in something moist and thinking “that’s in something moist”.

I don’t like the way the Meades say “It flopped…”, meaning the cannonball, since Tolstoy once again just relates the impact sound without explicitly ascribing it to the cannonball. Of course, it’s the cannonball, but please follow Tolstoy. All the other translators save me use the construction “There was…” a sound of some kind, which they describe in somewhat different ways.

Briggs once again uses “splashing,” which I think can be justified from the verb, but the “terrible” is all his doing. Briggs seems to believe it is the translator’s job to improve on the author’s original, to make the kind of impression on the reader that the translator thinks a passage should make if properly understood. This is very presumptuous when the author is Tolstoy.

The Meades and Dunnigan make the sound of impact too insignificant in my opinion. “Flopped into something moist” and “a moist plopping sound” both sound more like a cherry dropping into a bowl of applesauce than the high-velocity impact of a twelve-pound iron ball into a human body. P & V’s “wet smack” is much better, despite sounding like a sloppy kiss. It gets both the sound of a violent impact and the wet in, though it doesn’t make the penetration (with in or into) explicit.

I realize that my translation—with its “smacked into wet stuff”—is not beautiful, but I’ll make an argument for it. My goal is to stick to Tolstoy as well as I can because I know he chooses his sentences with a purpose. For both of the descriptions of a cannonball hitting a man (Cossack and general) he avoids specifically saying what either the missile or the target is, telling us instead what the sound of impact was like—what hearing it would make the hearer interpret it as being: something smacking into something wet. In the case of the Cossack’s death, Tolstoy uses the word for “something” for the liquid target. In the case of the general’s, he uses the word for the missile, while the target is only designated “wet.” Russian frequently uses an adjective to stand in for a noun having the characteristic indicated by the adjective, and Tolstoy has done that here with the word for wet. I didn’t want to use “something” twice in the same sentence any more than Tolstoy did, which is why I chose “wet stuff,” as the best approximation I could think of. In both cases Tolstoy uses the preposition which can be translated as in or into to make the point that there is a wet substance being penetrated. Only the Meades and I keep this in our translations explicitly, but I think we did well to. “Smack” seems pretty good for the impact sound, as I now understand it. I mentioned it as an alternative in the previous post’s analysis, and I’ve decided to go with it also.

Now let’s deal again with the “from his horse” or “with his horse” question, which came up in the previous post. Although the grammar is the same as before, both Dunnigan and the Meades have gone over to Garnett’s and Briggs’s “from his horse.” P & V, with Russian native-speaker Volokhonsky sticking to the Russian text faithfully, keeps the “with” sense (they say “and”). I am translating it that way too. I have looked at three Russian texts (two electronic, one paper), and they all have the (instrumental case) ending on the Russian word for horse that mandates the preposition be read as with, not from, so I don’t think it’s a typo. Barring evidence that Tolstoy would break this rule (and I have noted places where he has used the genitive case on other nouns following this same preposition to indicate from), I can’t see how the from the horse reading is justified. There is no later mention of the horse, but the same applies to the general. If one cannonball felled both rider and horse in the earlier example, why not again? It’s certainly not essential to the story, but I see the horse going down too.

An extremely meticulous reader of this post might have noticed that in one place I seemed to favor “slap” for the sound and in another “smack.” “Slap” was just so close to the Russian “shlop” that I had to choose it as my substitute word (sssslap, actually) in the sentence translated in the previous post. For this post’s passage I have gone back and forth between “smack” and “slap.” And between “in” and “into,” for that matter. At some point, you just have to go with one.

Finally, I can’t help wondering how these two brief scenes of a cannonball killing a horseman came to be. Since neither advances the story, I have to think that Tolstoy wanted to get the sound of a cannonball hitting a body into the book, as part of the full experience of what warfare of the time was like. But why twice? A plausible scenario (to me, anyway) has the Austerlitz scene being written first, but then being judged insufficiently arresting, coming as it does amidst a scene of widespread death and destruction, near the end of a battle. So the scene with the auditor, a total novice to the sounds of combat, would have been inserted later (but earlier in the book) as the first example of an attack by cannon ball, with the description of the sound as being something totally new, something to be interpreted by the auditor’s mind, and coming out of the blue as the first sounds of a battle just commencing. Even before this, Tolstoy had described the sound of grapeshot through the mind of Nikolai Rostov, who first came under fire on a bridge and heard what seemed like a lot of nuts being scattered on the bridge, followed by the groan of one who’d been hit. Those sounds also stuck in my mind. Assuming Tolstoy has no other cannonball victim further into the book, one that somehow demands discussion, I will have nothing else to say about these translations unless someone points out a blunder of mine too blatant not to correct.

The Sound of a Cannonball to the Gut: A Comparison of War and Peace Translations

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

My last post was an exercise in closely comparing several English translations of the first sentence of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I found it enlightening, not having realized just how many subtleties of meaning and chances for mistakes a single short passage could contain. I ended that post saying I might do something like it again. Sooner than I thought, here I am with another sentence analysis, a meatier study in more ways than one. In my current reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian (I’m only about 180 pages into its 1200), I encountered a striking passage in a battle description, which led me to to look at a few English versions to see how it had been rendered by different translators. I saw significant differences, which seemed worth writing about.

This time I am considering three published translations (plus two added at the end) and my own. The oldest English translation of the three is the one done by Aylmer and Louise Maude (1922–23). It is in the public domain and widely available. The next chronologically is by Anthony Briggs (2005), available in the Penguin edition. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007) have been translating all the big Russian novels to widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Theirs is published by Vintage Classics.

Without going into detail about the part of the book in which the sentence occurs, I’ll set the scene merely by saying that Russian troops fighting a rearguard action in Austria have just come under attack by the French army. Quite implausibly, it seems to me, the commanding general has permitted a curious civil servant, a state auditor, to come ride along the battlefield with military officers to experience firsthand what it was like to be in a battle (an uncommonly dangerous one, at that, given the military situation). At this point in the book I can’t even tell where he is supposed to have come from. The action is occurring in Austria, but the auditor seems to speak Russian. I think the literary purpose of the auditor is to have someone present who is as new to the experience of battle as we the readers are. I should add that I haven’t read much further, so I can’t rule out the auditor’s later having some other role, which more fully explains his unlikely presence.

Right before the passage to be analyzed, the auditor had asked what it was that had just hit the ground ahead of them, and he had been told it was a “French pancake,” a joking way of identifying it as a cannonball shot at them by the French. No mention of the sound accompanying the cannonball’s flight was made at this point, but presumably there had been more than visual evidence of its arrival for the auditor to have noticed it and naively asked what it was. After a few more words were spoken and a description given of what the auditor looked like as he spoke, the following event occurred, for which I first present the Russian text and then the four translations I’m considering.

“Едва он договорил, как опять раздался неожиданно страшный свист, вдруг прекратившийся ударом во что-то жидкое, и ш-ш-ш-шлеп – казак, ехавший несколько правее и сзади аудитора, с лошадью рухнулся на землю.”

He had hardly finished speaking when they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling which suddenly ended with a thud into something soft . . . f-f-flop! and a Cossack, riding a little to their right and behind the accountant, crashed to earth with his horse.

Hardly were these words out of his mouth when suddenly there came another terrible whoosh ending in a thudding splash into something soft, and with a great squelch a Cossack riding just behind him to the right toppled to the ground from his horse.

Pevear and Volokhonsky (P&V)
He had barely finished speaking when there came again an unexpected, dreadful whistle, suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid, and f-f-flop—a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.

He had barely finished speaking when suddenly again a terrifying whistle was heard, abruptly ending with the sound of a violent impact into something liquid, and fffflop—a Cossack, riding a bit to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.

Now let us proceed to examine the translations of this passage phrase by phrase.

Briggs begins with “Hardly were these words out of his mouth…”. Everyone else, including me, says “He had barely [or hardly] finished speaking…”, which is just what the Russian says. I don’t know why Briggs chose to refer to the “these words” instead of the speaker, especially since the immediately preceding sentence talks about the auditor’s appearance, and doesn’t contain the last words he’d spoken at all.

The first cannon ball shot in their vicinity was followed by another, which made itself known by the sound it made flying through the air.

Maudes: ”…when they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling”

Briggs: ”…when suddenly there came another terrible whoosh”

Pevear and Volokhonsky: ”…when there came again an unexpected, dreadful whistle,”

Me: ”…when suddenly again a terrifying whistle was heard,”

A fair amount of interpretation is required in translating this phrase, but let’s first consider the sound itself. Was it a “whistle” [or “whistling”], or was it a “whoosh”, as Briggs would have it? The Russian word translates as whistle. The word—svist, transliterated—even makes a whistling sound (just as whistle does). A little research online turned up this description of the cannonballs from Napoleon’s guns: “The cannonballs themselves were subsonic, and lobbed slowly through the air, loudly whistling as they approached.” So Briggs’s whoosh (a different sound) is misleading and not true to the reality of battle. By the way, “lobbed slowly” is compared to modern artillery shells. Those cannons had a range of nearly a mile, so the balls weren’t moving slowly by ordinary standards.

Now let’s consider the adverb (неожиданно) rendered as “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” (turned into the adjective “unexpected” by P&V). The word can be translated either way, so we must consider the context. As I see it, when modifying a verb, the word basically corresponds to what we mean in English by out of the blue, which conveys both suddenness and unexpectedness. I checked a number of online Russian language dictionaries, and they had Russian words meaning quickly and suddenly (Быстро, внезапно) as the first definition.

There is not even agreement among our translators as to whether the adverb in question modifies the verb (раздался) coming before it or the adjective (страшный) coming after it in the sentence, however. There is no article in Russian to make the choice unambiguous by preceding or following the adverb. The Maudes say the whistling was “unexpectedly violent.” The Maudes’ interpretation implies to me that a less violent whistling was to be expected. One might argue that, compared to the previous cannonball’s more distant whistling, the new one was unexpectedly violent, but the Maudes say that “they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling,” as though it were unexpectedly violent for the second time. Or maybe it was just more violent than one could ever expect. But I don’t think the adverb is meant to modify the adjective in this phrase.

Briggs’s rendering of the sudden onset of the sound is similar to mine. We both say “when suddenly.” His “another” and my “again” pretty much convey the same meaning, although my “again” emphasizes the temporal aspect, and his “another” the similarity of the sounds. The other two translators, by using the unexpected interpretation, downplay somewhat the startling effect of the sound, especially P&V, who transform the adverb into an adjective (unexpected) modifying the noun whistle.

Only the Maudes and I actually mention that the whistling missile was heard. The Maudes say “they…heard,” while I, keeping with the passive voice used by Tolstoy, say “was heard.” There’s a difference, and it’s not as though Tolstoy couldn’t have said it the way the Maudes translated it. So I assume he wanted to convey the bursting forth of the sound without the distracting reference to who was hearing it. Below, I will make the point that I think there was one particular hearer Tolstoy had in mind, better left unspecified. Briggs and P&V just say the whistling sound “came,” suddenly in Briggs’s case. P&V don’t exactly say the sound came unexpectedly, just that it was an unexpected sound, which was being repeated.

Was the cannon ball’s sound “violent,” “terrible,” “dreadful,” or “terrifying”? Violent seems to focus more on the physical characteristic of the sound, instead of the feeling it inspired, which the other adjectives point to. To me, terrible and dreadful don’t go far enough, considering the sudden death that the whistling ball could inflict on anyone it hit. I chose terrifying.

Now we come to the part of the passage that struck me so forcefully.

“… which suddenly ended with a thud into something soft…”

“…ending in a thudding splash into something soft,”

Pevear and Volokhonsky
“… suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid,”

“… abruptly ending with the sound of a violent impact into something liquid,”

As I first read (translated) this phrase, it was the “into something liquid” that struck me. What does that mean? What liquid? Horse and rider crash to the ground. Then I remembered how much of our bodies are water. What would a cannonball to the gut sound like? Tolstoy is reporting the sound as he imagined (or perhaps knew from experience or from others’ descriptions) that it would be heard and interpreted by someone, qua sound, before the hearer had had a chance to consider what the impacted liquid might be. The adjective жидкое means liquid, not soft, as Briggs and the Maudes translate it. P&V say liquid, and I note that Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker. She’s the one of the translating pair that goes through the Russian text first, with Pevear following to polish and clarify her English rendering. Which is to say, I think Volokhonsky is likely to have gotten this word right. I haven’t been able to find any Russian-English dictionary that says the word means soft. Furthermore, the Russian language dictionaries I checked only define it either as liquid (fluid) or as weak or thin, as in watered down.

Briggs gives a nod to the liquid meaning by saying “thudding splash.” Tolstoy did not say splash or describe the actual sound beyond how the hearer interpreted it, however. I don’t know if the sound of a cannon ball hitting flesh or gut would be a splashing sound or not. It’s hitting a body that contains fluids, both in its tissues and, confined within membranes, in organs such as stomach and intestines. It’s not a pleasant thought, but I think Tolstoy means to jar us, as anyone hearing it for the first time would be jarred. In any case, I don’t believe a translator is justified in extrapolating to a very specific descriptive sound like splash when Tolstoy did not write it.

I especially take issue with the use of the word “thud” to describe the impact of the cannon ball on the man’s body. A thud is a loud dull sound, like the sound a heavy book falling flat on a wooden floor makes, to take an example. Hitting a feather bed or a wedding cake or anything else soft (or liquid) does not produce a thud. Thudding splash doesn’t make sense. Thudding “against” makes sense for producing an actual thud, but doesn’t go with the idea of penetration into liquid.

The Russian word in question is удар, which means a blow or violent collision, or the sound produced by such, which is the case here. By no means is thud the required translation of the word. My two Russian-English dictionaries have a couple or three inches devoted to the word in various phrases, and the word thud never appears as the translation. My English-Russian dictionary does not take thud back to удар. What the English translation should be depends on the context. If thud is rejected, what’s the alternative? I chose “sound of a violent impact.” That’s not as succinct, but it’s accurate and gives the reader a chance to take the meaning in. There isn’t always a single word to convey a meaning. Within the sentence, my choice sounds fine to me. I would add that, while I can imagine sounds that would make me think a projectile had penetrated something very juicy, I have trouble thinking of sounds that would make me think one had penetrated something “soft.”

Note that a key word here is the “something” that is impacted whether it’s described as soft or liquid. It is presented this way to express a hearer’s interpretation of an unknown phenomenon, in which something has whistled past and evidently hit something else violently, something liquid. The explanation for the sequence of sounds (and realization of what the impacted “something” was) only comes when the attention turns to the crashing fall of Cossack and horse.

It seems clear to me that there is one particular hearer in whose mind we are placed to hear the sound of impact and whose mind rushed to explain it as “the sound of a violent impact into something liquid” without at first realizing what that something was. Who else but the one who along with us, the readers, had never heard the sound a cannon ball makes upon hitting a human body, probably in the guts?

The auditor! The hearer! To make things clear, I note that the Russian word used for auditor by Tolstoy (аудитор) is really the same as the English word (Latin root, of course), just with a Russian accent. This seems so obvious that it may have been remarked upon before, but I just discovered it on my own, so I’m enjoying it. The Maudes chose to render the word as “accountant”, thus missing the “clue.” Of course, I may find out that later in the book there is some additional need for the civil servant to have been an auditor in order to fulfill some role in his later brief appearance, which I can see is coming by use of the search feature in the iBooks app.

Now we come to the end of the sentence.

“…f-f-flop! and a Cossack, riding a little to their right and behind the accountant, crashed to earth with his horse.”

“… and with a great squelch a Cossack riding just behind him to the right toppled to the ground from his horse.”

Pevear and Volokhonsky
“… and f-f-flop—a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.”

“… and fffflop—a Cossack, riding a bit to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.”

Let’s take care of the very last part of the sentence first. Three translators say “crashed to the ground [or earth] with his horse.” The other, Briggs, says “toppled to the ground from his horse.” How do we know which translation is correct? The Russian preposition by itself doesn’t tell us. But the ending of the Russian word for horse in the phrase puts it in the instrumental case, which unambiguously means with his horse. Had it been in the genitive case (different word ending), then from would have been correct. It’s a crashing down and not a mere toppling also. The fact that both man and horse must have been hit by the ball is made clear later, when the auditor sees the Cossack dead and the horse still writhing.

Tolstoy indicates drawn out sounds by repeated letters, separated by hyphens. This is clear from other examples in the book. What does he mean to convey by ш-ш-ш-шлеп? Transliterated, this is shlop (or shlep), with a long drawn-out sh. It has to be the sound of something, but what? Is it also a recognized onomatopoeic word? Is it meant to be the sound of the ball passing through the Cossack’s body or the sound of the crash of horse and rider to the ground? I think the punctuation “…, and shlop—a Cossack…crashed…,” makes it natural to think that shlop is the sound of the crash to the ground. All the translators, except probably for Briggs, I think, have interpreted it that way. But why is it such a drawn out sound? Is the dash meant to indicate that the crash to the ground followed the shlop sound? Knowing what shlop means should help nail the interpretation down.

Is shlop (шлеп) a word in Russian? Neither of the big Russian-English dictionaries I use have it, but they do contain two suggestive verbs and a noun that begin with shlop or schlep. The intransitive verb is translated as to fall with a plop or thud. We seem to be getting close here. Russian language dictionaries online do contain шлеп, and one of the definitions is the sound of such a fall, the other being the sound of a slap or smack. I’m about ready to say the case is closed, but I think there’s still a small amount of room for a different interpretation, which I believe Briggs has made.

Briggs has the Cossack toppling “with a great squelch.” I was not familiar with squelch as a sound. One dictionary defines it as “a squishing noise,” which might suggest that Briggs was talking about the sound of the ball passing through the body. But listen to this other definition I found for squelch: “a sound of or as if of semiliquidmatter under suction — the squelch of mud.” Would a slap or smack describe a squelch? Briggs may well be meaning to express the sound of the ball exiting the body of the Cossack. Can we be sure that Tolstoy didn’t use the drawn out sh to express the passage through the body and the final shlop to be the sound of its emergence on the other side? Squelch doesn’t fit with crashing, or even toppling. So I’m guessing Briggs had in mind the sound of the cannonball emerging from the Cossack, since he has acknowledged the juiciness of the sounds by describing the impact as splashing.

The rest of us decided to interpret the shlop as describing the fall and used an English onomatopoeic single-syllable noun ending in p. The Maudes and P&V presumably mean to use the same convention as Tolstoy for indicating drawn out sounds in writing “f-f-flop.” But to me that looks more like stuttering than drawing out the f. I went with “fffflop,” which I think anyone would interpret as drawing out the f. I was tempted to use fffflump (a dull heavy sound, as of a fall), since flop makes me think of soccer and basketball players flopping. But the rhyme of flop with shlop proved irresistible.

There is a small puzzle associated with this analysis of the sounds. How did the horse get hit too? Did the ball hit it first but only with a glancing blow? Or did it pass through the Cossack and then hit the horse? Since the horse is later seen writhing on the ground, it must have received a substantial hit.

Even if my interpretation of Briggs’s intent is correct and that interpretation of Tolstoy’s scene is correct, I would still find him to be greatly at fault for inserting his own specific description—“splashing thud” and “great squelch”—in place of Tolstoy’s way of presenting the events. It’s as though Briggs views the translator’s job to be rather like that of a writer adapting a novel to a screenplay, in which specific instructions have to be made on sound effects etc. At least the other translators are trying to stick to Tolstoy.

I didn’t have access to the 1903 Constance Garnett translation when I started writing this, but now I do. It has been the most widely read version. I don’t think it’s worth rewriting the phrase-by-phrase analysis to include it, but I will say a few words about it.

“He had hardly uttered the words when again there was a sudden terrible whiz, which ended abruptly in a thud into something soft, and flop—a Cossack, riding a little behind and to the right of the auditor, dropped from his horse to the ground.”

I think Briggs may have consulted the Garnett translation while making his. Garnett also refers to the auditor’s “words,” and she is the only one except Briggs that incorrectly has the Cossack toppling from his horse instead of crashing down with his horse. Briggs also follows Garnett in reversing the order of “to the right and behind” from how it’s written in the Russian. Garnett, like Briggs, also was unaware that cannonballs whistled. She says “thud into something soft,” about which I have already expressed my opinion. I do like her “ended abruptly,” and had already chosen similar wording before I saw hers. As usual, I might add, Garnett’s translation flows well, which is nothing to sneeze at, even when it contains mistakes and deviates from the style of the original.

Now I also have Ann Dunnigan’s 1968 (Signet) translation, which I’ll briefly mention.

“He had hardly uttered the words when again there was the sudden, terrifying whistling sound, abruptly ending with a thud as something soft was struck—pl—op!—and a Cossack riding a little to their right and behind the auditor fell to the ground with his horse.”

Dunnigan probably consulted Garnett’s translation, as her beginning “He had hardly uttered the words when again there was…” is word for word the same (and at variance from the literal Russian). She substitutes “the sudden terrifying whistling sound” for “a sudden terrible whiz.” The “whistling” is an improvement, and she chose “terrifying” and “abruptly ending” just as I did. She also makes it unanimous for the use of thud to describe the ball’s impact sound. Dunnigan, unlike Garnett and Briggs, has the horse correctly falling with the Cossack. Her placement of “pl—op!” makes it seem she intends to associate the sound with the impact rather than the fall, but the word doesn’t fit that interpretation.

About that thud. Is it possible that all the translators considered here just followed Garnett in using this word, thinking perhaps that the common idea of a thud must be too limited? I’m just baffled by splashing thud, thud into something soft, and thud against something liquid. It’s like a placeholder word that never gets replaced. Am I wrong about what a thud is? Cannonballs could literally knock a person’s head off. Are we to suppose they would make a thud against a human body? I think the word thud destroys the intent of the author by introducing an inappropriate sort of sound (one that imparts a note of finality) into the reader’s mind. When followed by “into something soft,” which adds nothing one can imagine hearing, the supposed thud is logically negated, and the reader’s mind must jump to information (soft target) that is not in the domain of the senses, instead of taking in the sound of an “impact into something liquid.”

Now I’m trying to imagine the sound a cannonball hitting me in the breastbone, as opposed to the gut, would make. Wouldn’t that make a loud crack rather than a thud? Even if we could think of a way a cannonball hitting a human being would make a thud, which I doubt, that doesn’t mean that thud should be used in translating this particular sentence. OK, I’ll say no more about it.

Let no one be under the illusion that I spend this much time on every sentence I read. It would take me years to read War and Peace in Russian at that pace, assuming I could ever finish. I read as fast as I can, while always looking up words I don’t know, of which there are almost always several on a page, and trying to make sure I’ve connected the adjectives and pronouns to the right persons etc. I also rely on having translations to refer to. I’d be embarrassed to recount some of the dumb misreadings I’ve made and corrected after consulting a translation made by one of the translators mentioned here. I value their work. Translation is hard! Now I need to get back to my reading before I lose track of who all the many characters in War and Peace are.

You Can’t Judge a Translation by Its First Sentence, Can You?

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

A few weeks ago I finished reading Brothers Karamazov in Russian. Only took me a year. But I’m a patient man, never lost the thread, and I was reading a lot faster toward the end. Naturally, I consulted my Russian-English dictionaries constantly. Yesterday, I thought I’d take a look at what kind of selection I’d have had in translation. Below you will see the original Russian, my translation, and five translations in books currently available. I was surprised at what I found just in this first sentence.

My comments follow the selections. [AK] and {FK] stand for the names Alexei Karamazov and Fyodor Karamazov. Initials of translators are used to identify them in the discussion. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that all of these translators know Russian better than I, but I only had one sentence to work on (with their renderings before me), while they had to deal with something over 800 pages. I was able to access some of these translations using the “Look Inside” feature for books on

Dostoyevsky, Russian original
[AK] был третьим сыном помещика нашего уезда [FK], столь известного в свое время (да и теперь еще у нас припоминаемого) по трагической и темной кончине своей, приключившейся ровно тринадцать лет назад

I. Andrew MacAndrew (AM), Bantam
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity (and is remembered to this day) because of the tragic and mysterious end he met exactly thirteen years ago

II. Constance Garnett (CG), various editions (public domain)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago

III. David McDuff (DM), Penguin
[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago

IV.  Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (PV), Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago

V. Ignat Avsey (IA), Oxford World Classics
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time (and to this day still remembered in these parts) on account of his violent and mysterious death exactly thirteen years ago

VI. Me (BE)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district who was notorious in his time (and still remembered here even today) for his tragic and murky demise, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago

The first thing I would like to call attention to is that two of the translators (III-DM and IV-PV) follow the word order in the original Russian in the first part of the sentence:

III-DM says “[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time …”,


IV-PV say “[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day …”

I believe this is a case where something is to be gained by changing word order. In the Russian there is no ambiguity about who was “noted” or “well known,” because of the word endings which distinguish the cases. In English, I think there is a slight ambiguity with this order. Is it [AK] who was well known etc. or [FK]? It was certainly [FK], and the other translators change the word order to eliminate or greatly reduce ambiguity.

Perhaps some slight ambiguity remains n V-IA’s rendering, despite the changed word order.

V-IA says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time …”

II-CG changes the word order and eliminates the possible ambiguity, but she doesn’t stop there. She alters the sentence further, thereby introducing a problem.

II-CG says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day,…”

This change by II-CG alters the meaning, restricting the landowner’s notoriety to “our district,” a restriction not found in the Russian, and which, as it turns out in the story, was far from the case. Even without that foreknowledge, the parenthetical mention of [FK]’s memory being alive among the locals, even thirteen years after his death, would seem to imply that his fame has not lasted elsewhere, but had spread beyond his district “in his time.” But this contrast is not present in II-CG’s rendering, which presents [FK]’s fame as a local phenomenon in the first place.

I think the versions of I-AM and VI-BE eliminate the ambiguity without doing any damage in the process.

I-AM says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”.

I may be making too much of the possible ambiguity of reference in these translations. How many people would be confused? Even more relevantly, how many readers of this first sentence will not already have some knowledge that the story involves the murder of the father of the brothers Karamazov? Still, the fact remains that in the Russian there is no possibility of getting confused about who died, so I think that total certainty should be maintained in the English version, and it’s easy enough to do.

All of the translators, save II-CG, keep the parenthetical remark in parentheses, which brings up another point. The narrator of the novel claims to be someone who was around for the events he describes. Part of the time he is writing as an actual witness. Part of the time he is passing on what he has been told. Part of the time he has completely evaporated to become an implausible “omniscient observer” without a personality, all depending on Dostoyevsky’s whim. But, at the start of the novel, as in the story of the trial, there is no doubt. This is supposed to be a real person, relating a history of events in his district. In that sense, he is a character himself, and his idiosyncratic writing style is something the translation needs to convey. II-CG rides roughshod over this idea.

OK, let’s pick a couple of nits.

I-AM says “… landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”

There’s nothing in the Russian text about becoming. He just was. Celebrity? Maybe, but that makes me think of someone gaining fame while still alive, which isn’t the case here. It also sounds like something more positive than being murdered, probably by your son.

Worse than that, in my opinion, I-AM makes the opposite mistake from II-CG by not implying the ongoing memory of [FK] is restricted to the narrator’s locale.

I-AM just says “(and is remembered to this day)”

All of the other translators restrict the continued memory in some way.

IV-PV say “(and still remembered among us)”, using the same wording as II-CG, but in a way that I think contrasts the local nature of the ongoing memory to the notoriety in [FK]’s time. III-DM uses “among us” also.

V-IA goes even further in stating the local nature of the memory by saying “(and to this day still remembered in these parts).”

I suppose the Russian “у нас” could mean among us Russians, not just those of us “in these parts,” but I think the fact that the ongoing memory is placed in parentheses argues for the local memory interpretation. I went with “here,” which is similar to “in these parts,” but with room for a bigger “here.”

Now we’ve come to the phrase that every translator rendered differently, describing the reason for [FK]’s notoriety. Here they are:

I-AM “because of the tragic and mysterious end he met”

II-CG “owing to his gloomy and tragic death”

III-DM “for his tragic and fishy death”

IV-PV “because of his dark and tragic death”

V-IA “on account of his violent and mysterious death”

Vi-BE “for his tragic and murky demise”

First let me note that all of the translators save one include “tragic” as one of the adjectives. V-IA chose “violent” to render that word. I’m sure he would make a case for for it, but based on the narrator’s choice of a word (трагической) that cries out to be translated “tragic,” instead of other available words he could have chosen to say violent, I can’t accept it. I think “tragic” conveys the idea of suddenness, and the notoriety already mentioned would lead a reader to guess it was not an ordinary accidental death. There is also the factor of maintaining the narrator’s voice to be considered. He said tragic. Beyond that, the story of Dmitri Karamazov can only be seen as a tragedy, notwithstanding the attempt to mitigate it in the epilogue, so [FK]’s death was especially tragic for Dmitri.

The other adjective (темной) is subject to interpretation. It indicates a lack of light or clarity, literally or figuratively. Four translators, taking into account the details of the story, chose a word that carries the notion of uncertainty in the circumstances of [FK]’s death, which was indeed what gave it such widespread interest. “Fishy” it was, but somehow that word just doesn’t sound right to me. “Mysterious” to me introduces the notion of there being doubt as to what caused the death, which was not the case, the only thing in question being the identity of the murderer. I submit that “murky” is perfect, given the uncertainty in the details of the murder, and I expect all future translations to use it (no royalties required).

“Gloomy” is terrible in my opinion. What makes a violent death gloomy? “Dark” is not as bad, and it carries with it the idea of an evil deed, but it does miss the notion of uncertainty which all the other translators picked up on. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these two translations felt the need to invert the Russian word order, making “tragic” come last. Maybe “tragic and dark” and “tragic and gloomy” would have left the weakness of dark and gloomy more exposed.

Four translators note that [FK]’s death occurred “exactly thirteen years ago.” III-DM says “just” instead of “exactly.” I assume he meant that to be the equivalent, but “just thirteen years ago” is more likely to be interpreted as “only thirteen years ago,” which wasn’t meant, as far as I can tell. II-CG just ignores the word, thus modifying the narrator’s voice once more.

Finally there is the word most translators rendered as “death.” I-AM chose “end,” and VI-BE chose “demise.” Obviously, they all leave [FK] dead as a doornail, but I would argue that “demise” is best in keeping with the narrator’s voice, just based on the evidence of my Russian dictionaries. The Russian word is translated “demise” in both my dictionaries, not “death.” My English to Russian dictionary maps “demise” back to the Russian word in question, but not to the usual word for death. There are other words the narrator could have chosen, and I think he characteristically chose the one we call demise.

I would not have imagined that translations of a single opening sentence would have so many differences. I also hadn’t thought about all the ways a translation could go wrong, especially in subtle ways. It was fun to compare the translations and try to better them. I have a feeling I may do some more of it.