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Liza’s Journey. Part 3

Chinese Whispers

In my last post, the narrator was describing the setting for his tale, somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow. Next, we are introduced to Liza, the main character. She is seventeen years old and lives in a dilapidated hut with her poor mother, having lost her father two years before. Liza is humble and conscientious, and works hard weaving, knitting, gathering flowers and berries, then trekking into Moscow to sell the fruits of her humble labours in order to provide for herself and her frail mother. One day, a handsome young gentleman offers to buy all of her flowers every day henceforth. However, when she goes back the next day, armed with the prettiest flowers, he is nowhere to be seen.

At this point, the Russian text reads:

У Лизы навернулись на глазах слезы; она поцеловала мать свою.

На другой день нарвала Лиза самых лучших ландышей и опять пошла с ними в город. Глаза ее тихонько чего-то искали. Многие хотели у нее купить цветы, но она отвечала, что они непродажные, и смотрела то в ту, то в другую сторону. Наступил вечер, надлежало возвратиться домой, и цветы были брошены в Москву-реку. «Никто не владей вами!» — сказала Лиза, чувствуя какую-то грусть в сердце своем.

(74 words)

Meanwhile, the rough first draft of my translation looks like this:

Liza’s eyes welled up with tears, and she kissed her mother.

The next day, Liza picked the very best lilies-of-the-valley and took them, once again, into the city. Her eyes silently cast around in search of something. Many people wanted to buy her flowers, but she replied that they were not for sale, and looked this way and that. Evening came, when she must return home, so the flowers were tossed into the Moscow River.

“You belong to no-one!” said Liza, feeling such sadness in her heart.

(87 words)

When I compared my version to the 1804 translation by John Battersby Elrington, this passage, like the rest of the story, looked very different.

Liza’s eyes overflowed with tears. She knew not why, and hid them in her mother’s bosom, encircling her aged neck with arms of polished ivory.

The next day, the poor, unconscious Liza selected all the finest flowers and hastened to Moscow. Her inquisitive eyes wandered in search of something. Many approached her little basket and would have purchased her flowers: but “No, they were not for sale,” and she continued to look, first on one side, then on the other. The evening fell, however, and she must return. Once more darting an enquiring look around, she pettishly threw the flowers into the Moskva and then sighed, “Now no one can have you.”

(112 words)

This English version is, on the whole, eloquent and pleasant to read, and because the translator was a contemporary of Karamzin, the language and style are appropriate to the period. Nevertheless, it veers away from my copy of the Russian text quite significantly. Where the original uses plain language, such as ‘она поцеловала мать свою’ (she kissed her mother), Elrington elaborates, adding extra information (note the difference in word count) about her mother’s bosom and aged neck, as well as Liza’s ‘arms of polished ivory’, which is puzzling.

After a little online research, I came across an article[1] which goes some way towards explaining this discrepancy. Apparently, it is not known for certain who John Battersby Elrington was, but it is possible that he was really Andreas Andersen Feldborg, a Danish author and teacher of English, and he may well have produced this English translation from an existing German one, not directly from the Russian. As in the game ‘Chinese Whispers’, the more languages a translation passes through, the greater the potential for changing the meaning.  It is easy to see how ‘welled up’ might become ‘overflowed’, or the passive mood become active, but where did the ‘arms of polished ivory’, ‘pettishly’, ‘sighed’ or ‘once more darting an enquiring look around’ come from? Is this artistic licence on the part of Elrington or the German translator before him, or were they working from a different version of the original text? After all, Karamzin was still alive at the time of translation, so it is quite plausible that subsequent edits and revisions occurred.

Aside from the occasional grammatical oddity, Elrington’s translation is a good read, especially for an English-speaking reader whith no knowledge of Russian. The elaborations and alterations, although odd, are nicely and sensitively written, even if they do make the English version rather more florid than the original story. Meanwhile, I find myself wondering: did Karamzin, an educated, well-travelled writer and historian, ever see this translation himself? 


[1] Cardiff Corvey, ‘Reading the Romantic Text’, Issue 12, Summer 2004: Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, Cardiff University.

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