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

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.

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