Who is Liza?
As the one-year anniversary of all kinds of restrictions, home schooling, disturbing news reports and toilet roll shortages approaches, I find myself in need of some kind of self-indulgent project to distract me from the outside world and help me to ground myself in these uncertain times. Throughout the past 11 months, I have turned more than ever to stories to transport me to a different place, and have read all sorts of books. However, I know no more intimate, immersive way of reading a book than to translate it.
The adventure I eventually decided upon will take me to Russia at the end of the 18th century, and will involve a combination of translating and writing. This labour of love will be a homage to one of the first books I ever read in Russian, Nikolai Karamzin’s tale Бедная Лиза [Byednaya Liza], or Poor Liza. Being very short, it lends itself nicely to language learners, unlike some of the lengthier pillars of Russian literature, so it provides a sense of achievement upon completion, but it is also a classic love story – a melodrama, even – that set my teenage heart a-flutter. Recently, several decades later, I re-read it, to find out whether it still had the same appeal, and I was not disappointed.
So, over the next few weeks and months, I plan to translate Poor Liza into English, and along the way, I will write a ‘travel diary’ about my translation journey. I will document the dilemmas encountered, the discoveries made, and any other experiences from the voyage, so that anyone else who may be interested can follow Liza as she travels from Russian into English.
Since Karamzin is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of Russian literature as we know it today, it is no surprise that Poor Liza has been translated before. One such attempt is the 1803 translation by John Battersby Elrington, which turns out to have a rather interesting story of its own. I will share more about this mysterious translation later.
But who is Liza? The Liza in this story is a girl from a poor peasant family. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother in their dilapidated cottage outside Moscow. When Liza goes into the city to sell flowers, she meets a young nobleman, Erast, and the two fall in love. Erast visits Liza regularly, until one day he tells her he must go to fight in the war. Liza is sad to see him go, but she does not realise how much heartache still awaits her…
Now that the trip has been booked and everything is packed and ready, all that remains is to translate. Liza will be back shortly with an update on her progress!