Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Luzhins

As soon as I read the Russian title of Nabokov’s novel Защита Лужина (which is translated into English as simply The Defense], I realized immediately that the name of the hero could not be coincidental. The first Luzhin in Russian literature, of course, is one of the villains in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Indeed, the latter seeks to rush Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya into what is very much a marriage of convenience. In Nabokov’s novel, the mother of Luzhin’s fiancée also accuses her would-be son-in-law of seeking to rush into marriage: “You would probably get married today and right now, if you could” [Вы, вероятно, хотели бы жениться уже сегодня, сейчас]. (Perhaps the mother also has Dostoevsky’s character in mind: when she first hears his name, she wonders if it is not a pseudonym). She dresses down the hero for his slovenliness and lack of personal hygiene. She wonders aloud to him whether he is not a “lecher” [разватник], and she suspects that he might have a venereal disease. Here we think of the other villain seeking to despoil Dunya in C&P: the truly lecherous Svidrigailov. 

In truth, Nabokov’s Luzhin is really quite innocent and completely without ulterior motives. Though he is far from uninterested in pursuing the relationship and does indeed clumsily seek sexual gratification, the relationship is in many ways initiated and advanced by his wife-to-be. During the initial courtship at the German resort, Nabokov makes clear that it is the girl who pursues the man and not the other way around. In this way Nabokov’s passive Luzhin, who gradually goes mad and becomes the victim of hallucination during the match with Turati, deflates Dostoevsky’s active and designing villain of the same name. 

In either case, it is worth noting that the name could be literally translated as the rather negative and deprecating “Mr. Puddle” in English (since лужа = puddle).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Strange Russian Etymology from the Beginning of Leibniz's Theodicy

Leibniz proposes an odd etymology for the Russian word for Wednesday (sreda), as though the word derived from the name of Zarathustra:

His [Zarathustra’s] great learning caused the Orientals to compare him with the Mercury or Hermes of the Egyptians and Greeks; just as the northern peoples compared their Wodan or Odin to this same Mercury. That is why Mercredi (Wednesday), or the day of Mercury, was called Wodansdag by the northern peoples, but day of Zerdust by the Asiatics, since it is named Zarschamba or Dsearschambe by the Turks and the Persians, Zerda by the Hungarians from the north-east, and Sreda by the Slavs from the heart of Great Russia, as far as the Wends of the Luneburg region, the Slavs having learnt the name also from the Orientals.

Yet Terence Wade (in his Etymological Dictionary of Russian, p. 208) notes that the word is related to other terms that emphasize the meaning of "middle" (like serdtse, seredina, and srednii). Hence, like the German Mittwoch, it just means the middle of the week. 

Though Leibniz may have known some Russian from being the confidant of Peter the Great, he lived long before the era of modern linguistics and thus knowledge of sound changes. I would thus be willing to believe Wade. It couldn't be true that both etymologies are correct?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Continued discussion of Danilevsky's Russia and Europe

Two blog posts ago I began discussing Danilevsky's influential Slavophile book, Russian and Europe. I have recently gotten some time to continue to read it, and whereas in my previous post I focused on what Danilevsky said to differentiate Russia's actions from those of contemporary European powers, I wanted now to remark on some of the more interesting and surprising opinions that the author had about the Russia and its relationship to its empire.

Danilevsky's civilizational model of world history is constructed in such a way as to justify the entire territorial integrity of the Russian Empire as the homeland of the Slavs. According to Danilevsky, unlike the other two great land empires, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, the Russian Empire was not formed out of conquest [zavoevanie] of lands belonging to foreign nationalities: "not one of Russia's possessions may be considered to have been won through conquest, in the bad, anti-nationalist sense of the word so detested by humanity [ni odno iz vladenii Rossii nel'zia nazyvat' zavoevaniem - v durnom, antinatsional'nom i potomu nenavistnom dlia chelovechestva smysle]." Regarding Congress Poland, which at the point of Danilevsky's writing had attempted two uprisings against Russian rule (in 1830-1831 and in 1863-1865), the author believes that Russia is protecting this country's Slavic identity in the face of encroachments by Germanic powers (Prussia and Austria-Hungary). Danilevsky claims that between 1815 and 1830 the Poles enjoyed semi-autonomous status and "constitutional forms of government." This time was "one of the happiest in Polish history", only to be spoiled by the 1830 uprising fomented by the Polish intelligentsia and apparently completely unrepresentative of the wishes of the Polish population.

The author admits that Russia's territorial acquisition of the Caucasus had met with rather mixed resistance. Russia's intervention in the region was a response to the pleas for help from the "trans-Caucasian Christian regions" [zakavkazskie khristianskie oblasti] (i.e., the Georgians and Armenians, though Danilevsky does not name these peoples by name). The author admits that the conquest was significantly less popular with the "Caucasian mountain peoples [kavkazskie gortsy]", who are, of course, Muslims. I was interested to learn that Danilevsky names Russia's conflicts in the Caucasus against these Muslim nationalities as an ongoing point of negative publicity in Europe.

I was most surprised to read that Danilevsky thinks that Russia's historic acquisition of Siberia cannot be considered to be a subjugation, since no peoples worthy of civilizational status have ever occupied that space. This land can either be considered to be vacant [pustoporozhnii] or "inhabited by wild tribes with no history" [zaselennykh dikimi neistoricheskimi plemenami]. Obviously, Danilevsky does not have a very high opinion of the aboriginal and Turkic peoples that have historically occupied the non-European part of Russia. Yet it is interesting that later in the same paragraph the author accuses Spain of having forcefully dominated and destroyed "entire civilizations" in the Americas. There is no academic way, even by nineteenth-century standards, of justifying a pronouncement that while Mesoamerica, for example, contained civilizations which should not have been disturbed, Siberia did not and thus was open to Russian colonization. (The author asserts that this ongoing colonization of the Russian east is a project advanced by many Russians of their own free will and without assistance from the government, a statement that is dubious and perhaps hard to justify. It is interesting that another Slavophile writer, Sergei Aksakov, wrote a family-saga novel about one such group of Russians who chose to resettle east of the Volga).

All of Danilevsky's cherry-picked examples serve only to put into question the enterprise of state and empire building by European powers but to justify Russia's historical expansion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review of Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life"

I will resume my discussion of Danilevsky shortly, but in this post I wanted to ruminate about Rosamund Bartlett's recent Tolstoy: A Russian Life, which I recently finished reading. Interestingly, this is the first biography of Tolstoy that I have read, so I cannot compare it against earlier efforts. But I will say that much is familiar from what I have gleaned in my other readings about Russian literature, and I have read something independently about the life and photography of Tolstoy's wife, Sofia, in Bendavid-Val's Song Without Words: The Photographs and DIaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy. (I can wholly recommend this latter book; it would be a fascinating album even if most of the photos did not feature the great Russian writer, since Sofia was extremely diligent in taking so many photos of life at Yasnaya Polyana and providing posterity with captions and comments. She presents a rich historical record of what life looked like on a nineteenth-century Russian estate, even if Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana could hardly be termed a typical estate).

The great question about Tolstoy's life for me (and probably for many others) has always been why Tolstoy, given his talents, wrote two outstanding works of literature, namely War and Peace in the 1860s and Anna Karenina in the 1870s, only to never take up fiction on such a scale again afterwards fiction on such a scale again afterwards. Granted, I do like the writings from the latter part of Tolstoy's life (in particular The Death of Ivan Ilych and Kholstomer, the story told from the perspective of a horse). I also own an early edition of Resurrection replete with interesting marginalia that was printed by the Tolstoyan Vladimir Chertkov's press, which was set up in England with the express purpose of printing Tolstoy's later religious writings. So I do not mean to sound like a philistine. But I am sure anyone can appreciate the difference in sheer significance between W&P and AK, on the one hand, and The Kreuzer Sonata and Resurrection, on the other.

The answer to my question, of course, lies in Tolstoy's initial religious conversion of the late 1870s and early 1880s, and his decision to devote himself to writing for the peasantry and eventually developing the body of tracts, essays and short parables that would come to make up the core body of Tolstoyan doctrine. I appreciate that these writings are perhaps magnitudes more interesting than some of the non-fiction to come from Dostoevsky's pen, for example (namely the latter's jingoistic writings in the Diary of a Writer on the Russo-Turkish War of 1878). I also appreciate the historical significance of the Tolstoyan movement, and I was unaware of all the Tolstoyan communes that have sprout up around the world, even in the Soviet Union.

But I nonetheless sympathize with the attitudes of many contemporary Russian writers who believed that Tolstoy could have better devoted his talents by continuing to produce sophisticated long-form fiction (or novels, but it is a matter of classic debate whether Tolstoy wrote in this genre, or if his writing defies such classification). Take, for example, Ivan Turgenev, who on his deathbed wrote a letter to Tolstoy entreating him to return to writing novels for the educated public.

Bartlett describes the process of Tolstoy's religious conversion and then eventual rejection of the Orthodox church well enough, particularly considering that this is a one-volume biography published by a trade press and does not treat Tolstoy's life in such meticulous and critical details as Joseph Frank does in his five-volume biography and study of Dostoevsky. Yet Bartlett can offer no really satisfactory reasons for the fundamental changes in Tolstoy's written output after the end of the 1870s other than to say that Tolstoy's headstrong and defiant attitudes towards his society and social caste became stronger and more dominant as he grew older, and that these interests dominated over his wish to be a novelist. Bartlett shows that Tolstoy's non-conformist personality traits may also have their roots in other members of the Tolstoy clan, such as the wild Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, who returned from a combined sea voyage around the world and land trek from Alaska to St. Petersburg in 1805 with tattoos that he received in Hawaii.

Some of Bartlett's research about Tolstoy's self-education and development as a writer did strike me as particularly interesting and perhaps without parallel among his other peer writers from the Golden Age of Russian Literature. For example, Tolstoy had a particular enthusiasm for language learning that remained a constant through his life. Whereas most all members of the Russian educated classes and nobility had fluent French (the famous literary critic Vissarion Belinsky was a notable exception since he could only speak and write Russian), Tolstoy also knew German, wrote frequently in English to his American and British correspondents, and learned Greek and even the invented internationalist language, Esperanto.

There is a notable lack of discussion in Russian literary criticism about the reception of the literary heritage of classical civilization, and in light of this it is all the more striking that Tolstoy learned Greek expressly so that he could translate Aesop's fables for inclusion in his ABC primer for Russian peasants. Tolstoy also read Homer's Illiad and Odyssey and Xenophon's Anabasis in the original during the early 1870s, which was an experience that had great influence on him. Bartlett reports Tolstoy's remarks to Afanasy Fet at the height of his interest in reading the classics: "I'm completely living in Athens. I speak in Greek in my dreams."

Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Danilevsky's Russia and Europe

I have started reading N. Ya. Danilevsky's Russia and Europe [Rossiya i Evropa]. Since, as far as I can tell, there are no translations of Danilevsky into English, I am of course reading the work in its original Russian. Note the facsimile of the 1895 edition here.

The book is an influential treatise that describes a theory of historical and cultural development that is determined by a nation's particular civilizational type. In this way Danilevsky's work prefigures the works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, historians of culture who seem to be somewhat forgotten nowadays.

I have come to know of the importance of Danilevsky's book through my study of Dostoevsky. Danilevsky and Dostoevsky were both members of the Petrashevsky Circle, which was a literary gathering of intellectuals and freethinkers that was discovered and broken up by Nicholas I's regime in 1849. Dostoevsky was initially sentenced to execution for his participation in the group, but he was granted a last minute reprieve in which he was sent into a Siberian exile that lasted nearly a decade. Danilevsky was given the much lesser sentence of spending 100 days in the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was largely due to the fact that he wrote a letter to the authorities proving his political innocence. Given the importance Dostoevsky would later give to his time as a prisoner, I am sure that the great Russian novelist would not have found it beneficial to use his writing abilities to extract himself in such a way from this difficult situation.

Russia and Europe, which was originally published in 1869, made a big impression on Dostoevsky. The latter proclaimed that it would become a "bedside book [nastolnaya kniga]" for Russians in the decades to come (Budanova 138).  The particular idea advanced in the book that Russia would create an independent Slavic civilization initiating the next phase of world history informs Dostoevsky's character of Shatov in The Devils (Frank 560). However, Dostoevsky was on the whole dissatisfied with Danilevsky's reduction of the significance of Russian Orthodoxy to a national characteristic, denying its status as a universal embodiment of Christian doctrine suitable for the whole world.

Like so much nineteenth-century expository prose, whether written in Russian or another language, the beginning of Russia and Europe meanders and is in no hurry to get to its thesis. Instead, it gradually works up to its main argument by first positing the question of why Russia is treated like a second-class power by the other great powers of Europe. Danilevsky compares the outcomes of two recent historical events. In 1864 Denmark, a small power, was forced to cede Schleswig and Holstein to two great powers, Austria and Prussia, despite an earlier treaty which guaranteed Denmark these territories. A decade earlier, in 1853, Great Britain and France declared war on Russia because of the latter's insistence that Turkey honor its previous agreement that the Orthodox Church be given supreme authority over the Ottoman Empire's Christians. Danilevsky insists that Russia had no intention or invading or declaring war on Turkey and thereby expanding its own empire. Clearly we are meant to understand a certain continuity here where the great powers are allowed to use arms to seize territory in contravention of a previous treaty, and Russia is also prevented from acting in accordance with its diplomatic agreements with Turkey.

These events testify to the existence of a fundamental civilizational/cultural divide between Latin-German and Slavic civilizations. I will write more about my readings in Danilevsky in future posts to come.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of "Is That a Fish in Your Ear"

I have just finished reading David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, and though it is not exactly a book in Russian studies, the topic of the book touches directly on my career as a Russian translator. In addition, the author does use a number of foreign language examples from Russian (even though Bellos is a French-studies scholar). In what follows I will present what I found to be the most interesting points and passages that I noted down in my digital commonplace book.

Bellos discusses the problem of translating in such a way that the "foreigness" of the source text is preserved. As I discussed earlier this year, the task of trying to preserve the ethnic content of the original in a new language is problematic to say the least. Bellos says that it "runs the risk of dissolving into something different --- a representation of the funny ways foreigners speak." In literary translation, it is hard if not impossible to mark the fact that characters in a foreign-language novel, though they are made to speak the language of the target text, originally spoke a different language.

Bellos makes the interesting point that the English language allows only foreign words from certain cultures that have had a historical relation with an English-speaking nation to be allowed into translations. So the preservation of certain French words in the English translations of French novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an accepted and common practice due to the prestige of the source culture, and modern American English is receptive to the use of certain Spanish phrases in translation since they have been made familiar to a large audience due to the presence of large numbers of Spanish-speakers in the United States.

The author states that the translation of poetry, drama, film subtitles and even sometimes literature (as in the case of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is often a collaborative process. Bellos even confesses that he translates the novels of Ismail Kadare, who writes in Albanian, from a French translation by Tedi Papvrami: in essence a translation of a translation. This is the kind of practice that some critics believe is one of the faults underlying the Google Translate engine, in that most language pairs translated by the machine translation service are translated through an intermediate translation into English (what Bellos terms a pivot language).

I find the author's argument that foreign works of fiction, and even films, are now created in such a way as to facilitate adaption and translation into English, to be quite compelling. In the case of dialog for films this means crafting short dialogue that lends itself to the subtitling constraints of how many characters can be displayed on the screen at one time and the reading speed of the average moviegoer. "Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman's success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films."

Bellos believes that there is no special mental procedure (other than requisite knowledge of two or more languages) that distinguishes translation from other activities that rephrase and recontextualize language: "[N]o precise boundary can be drawn between translation, on the one hand, and drafting, editing, correcting, reformulating, and adapting a text, whether written in the same or in some other tongue, on the other." He gives the example of the practice of journalists around the world who, while reading one of the major news wires published in French, Russian or Arabic, create news stories for their target markets. They inevitably end up translating the news into their local language, but these journalists do not think of what they do as translation; in fact, what they do is not just servile translation, since they add to and embellish the plain information that is published in the source wires.

The book is not just concerned with written translation, but it also devotes much discussion to oral interpretation. The practice in the West of only translating or interpreting in one's native language (which is what I do as a Russian to English translator) is not universally true. Bellos gives the example of official Soviet interpreters at the UN, who were all native Russian speakers who interpreted into foreign languages. This may have had a political motivation (the Soviets were not going to trust foreigners to do their interpreting), but nonetheless these interpreters supposedly performed just as well as others who interpreted into their native languages. Bellos cites a Soviet-era textbook in interpreting which explicates this method (G. T. Chernov, Osnovy sinkhronnogo perevoda (Moscow: Vysshaia shkola, 1987)), but my hunch is that except in the case of exceptional individuals (e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, who admittedly spent much time in an anglophone environment), it is extremely hard to exercise native command of a foreign language. I encounter English written by native Russian speakers who have university educations in foreign languages, linguistics and translation studies on a daily basis, and though their writing is competent and serviceable, rarely does it seem like it came from the pen (or keyboard) of a native speaker.

Bellos repeats the insights of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy when he states that "[i]n large areas of national and international affairs, speech has now become a secondary medium, a by-product of writing." The author spells out what this means for the practice of oral interpretation, which in pre-literate times was the only form of translation, sharing with epic poetry the same kind of immediacy of performance and characterized by the same ephemeral, fleeting nature of an utterance that could not be recorded. Today, by contrast, interpreters working at the UN often receive ahead of time the texts of speeches that are to be delivered by delegates.

Indeed, though it is ostensibly just a book about translation, Bellos has plenty to say about the nature of language. For example, much of the active vocabulary of any fluent speaker of a language is concentrated on just the few thousand most common words, and that most other words, such as most of the headwords that can be found in a large dictionary, are used only in rather precise contexts and have recondite meanings. The fact that this is true helped me immensely when I was in the initial stages of learning Russian, since one of the ways that I built up my vocabulary was through studying Nicholas Brown's frequency dictionary of the 10,000 most common Russian words.

Though we tend to think of dictionaries and other wordlists as primarily monolingual constructs, and of bilingual dictionaries as secondary specialist tools of translators and bilinguals, the latter tools preceded the former by many centuries. According to the author, "[a]mong the very earliest instances of writing are lists of terms for important things in two languages." Bellos cites the example of Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual dictionaries from the ancient Near East. By contrast, the first alphabetically complete general-purpose monolingual dictionary was Samuel Johnson's dictionary of the English language, which was published in 1755. Indeed, I remember reading this tidbit before in C. M. Millward's A Biography of the English Language, one of my favorite textbooks from college. (I see that it is now in a third edition, whereas what I used was the second).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit

Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit presents a nightmarish world set during the Stalinist drive towards mass collectivization and industrialization. The novel opens as Voshchev (whose name, as Chandler and Meerson note, is perhaps derived from the Russian voobshe, or "generally", hence a Soviet everyman), who has just been dismissed from his job for "thoughtfulness," walks to a neighboring town and joins a group of workers who are digging the foundation pit for an apartment building to house future proletarians. The major irony of this project is that the foundation pit eventually becomes the grave for Nastya, an orphaned girl who throughout the novel represents to all the other characters the hope of the future proletarian generation destined to live in the world of total communism.

Indeed, the thinking of the ardently devoted members of the work crew, such as of Chiklin and Safronov, strictly runs along the lines of Leninist-Marxist dialectical materialism. The engineer Prushevsky, who oversees construction of the foundation pit, understands the construction project not just as an engineering problem, but thinks about the social structure of the project in terms of Marxist
base and superstructure theory (19). Many of the workers seem to be resigned to the fact that they will die in achieving socialist construction in order to facilitate the ultimate transition from capitalism to communism.

The tension of the current moment of socialist construction that the novel captures is so great that even the natural world conforms to the Marxist plan, as though following the animal-world equivalent of Lysenkoist botany. This is particularly true of the part of the novel that focuses on a collective farm located not far away from the foundation pit. For example, a group of rooks "felt like departing ahead of time [i.e., before the normal migration], in order to survive the organizational collective farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm" (75). Not only does the collective farm contain conscious, collectivized middle and low peasants, but also a group of collectivized horses who are able to equitably distribute hay among themselves according to communist principles. The following sentence describing their behavior echoes the Leninist mantra of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs": "Each animal took a share of nourishment proportionate to its strength and carefully carried it in the direction of the gate from which all the horses had first emerged" (88). And finally, there is a blacksmith bear named Misha (apparently taken at least in part from Russian folklore) on the collective farm who represents a kind of idealized proletarian worker and helps root out kulak peasants.

The novel is heavily grounded in the language of estrangement (ostranenie). (This is a concept perhaps best articulated by the Russian formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky.) In the afterword to his translation Chandler emphasizes all the unusual turns of phrase that Platonov employs in Russian in order to make strong allusions to Russian orthodoxy, literature and philosophy. This is certainly true, and I appreciate how Chandler attempts to remain faithful to Platonov's experimental language. 

However, earlier this year I discussed the problem of translating language too literally, so that the resulting English is awkward. It seems the case that there are some rather odd-sounding renderings in the Chandler and Meerson translation where the Russian would seem to justify a more natural English translation. For example, Voshchev refers to the worker's barracks at the foundation pit as "the dwelling place", though the original zhilishche can mean simply "lodging, quarters" (50). At another point near the beginning of the novel Safronov asks Kozlov to "reinforce yourself with physical culture" (24), which sounds like a rather literal translation of the original fizkul'tura. When I am translating texts (which are admittedly much less literary than Platonov) I simply render this word as "exercise" or "physical fitness," which are certainly much more common in English than "physical culture." (But I will also note that "physical culture" was a major theme of 1930s official Soviet culture, as this page from the Seventeen Moments in Soviet History explains, and it is true that Chandler and Meerson include a short note on this as well). And in a scene that takes place at the village church, the translators render Russian khram as temple (93). Though the latter can be translated as a temple, I think the context here dictates that it should be a simple parish church.

Works Cited

Platonov, Andreĭ P, and Robert Chandler. The Foundation Pit. New York: New York Review Books, 2009. Print.