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

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.

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