The book is open at page 1, a blank document glares white and empty on the computer screen, and a pencil is tucked behind my ear ready to make notes. Translation is about to commence.
All good writing manuals stress that the opening sentence of a book should make an impact, grabbing the reader’s attention straight away. Bland will not do. Therefore the same applies to a translation. If the author has invested time and effort into producing the perfect beginning, then it is the translator’s job to reflect that by producing an equally well-crafted version in the target language. Some novels start a with short, punchy opener, especially modern ones, while many classic authors go for the lengthy, more convoluted kind.
Karamzin’s opening of ‘Poor Liza’ is of the longer type and contains a lot of information, describing the narrator’s wanderings in the area around Moscow:
Может быть, никто из живущих в Москве не знает так хорошо окрестностей города сего, как я, потому что никто чаще моего не бывает в поле, никто более моего не бродит пешком, без плана, без цели — куда глаза глядят — по лугам и рощам, по холмам и равнинам.
So, how can I translate it so that it sounds good, whilst ensuring that all the information is there? First of all, I sketch out a literal translation:
It is possible that no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one is out and about as much as I, no-one wanders around on foot more than I do, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains.
Then I set the original version aside and read what I have written, asking myself whether it sounds natural and stylish, or whether it is really stilted ‘translationese’ – neither one language nor the other but an awkward combination of English words with Russian forms and idioms. Could I change ‘it is possible’ for ‘perhaps’? Using one word instead of three might be less clunky. Does ‘out and about’ feel a bit too modern? What about ‘roam abroad’ to give it more of a 19th century flavour? Is ‘on foot’ really needed? Surely wandering is something generally done on foot, so qualification is not essential. I have used ‘no-one’ three times in the same sentence, so should I change some of them? Casting a glance back at the Russian, I notice that Karamzin has used ‘никто’ in each instance, so I decide that ‘no-one’ is ok. I’m not 100% certain though, and I may come back and change my mind later. What about ‘groves’? What is a grove, really, and have I ever walked through one? Would orchards, woods, forests, avenues, copses, thickets or even just trees be more appropriate? Well, Karamzin used ‘рощам’ which is generally translated as ‘groves’ so I’ll stick to that. For now. Hmm…
After some more reflection, the opening sentence now looks like this:
Perhaps no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one roams around it as much as I, no-one has wandered its length and breadth more than I have, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains.
Now I think it sounds a little less wooden, but maybe there are a few more things that could do with tweaking. I’m still not sure about ‘groves’… Time to move on, though, otherwise I’ll never get through it all. I’ll go back through it all again later anyway.
The second sentence looks like this in Russian:
Всякое лето нахожу новые приятные места или в старых новые красоты.
It’s much shorter and simpler, and my English version reads:
Every summer I find new pleasant places, or new beauty in old ones.
Each summer I find delightful new places, or discover new beauty in old ones.
…and so on ad infinitum… I have to start somewhere, though, so I pick (mostly) the second version. For now, anyway. This means the first draft of the first paragraph is complete:
Perhaps no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one roams around it as much as I, no-one has wandered its length and breadth more than I have, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains. Every summer I find delightful new places or discover new beauty in old ones.
57 words done. 9,977 to go…