How can I explain?
The handsome young gentleman, who we now know is called Erast (or possibly Erastus, but we’ll talk about that later), unexpectedly turns up at Liza’s home, where her mother is charmed by him, too, but bemoans the fact that he is a nobleman and therefore cannot marry her daughter. Her mind filled with thoughts and dreams about what cannot be, Liza wanders down to the riverbank where she sits and contemplates. There, a shepherd boy passes by with his flock of sheep:
‘Но Лиза все еще сидела подгорюнившись. Ах, Лиза, Лиза! Что с тобою сделалось? До сего времени, просыпаясь вместе с птичками, ты вместе с ними веселилась утром, и чистая, радостная душа светилась в глазах твоих, подобно как солнце светится в каплях росы небесной; но теперь ты задумчива, и общая радость природы чужда твоему сердцу.
— Между тем молодой пастух по берегу реки гнал стадо, играя на свирели. Лиза устремила на него взор свой и думала: «Если бы тот, кто занимает теперь мысли мои, рожден был простым крестьянином, пастухом, — и если бы он теперь мимо меня гнал стадо свое.’
‘Liza, though, remained seated, still full of sadness. Ah, Liza! Liza! What has happened to you? Until now, you would wake with the birds, rejoicing with them at the morning, and your pure, joyful soul would shine in your eyes, just as the sun shines in the drops of heavenly dew; but now you are pensive and your heart knows nothing of nature’s joy.
Meanwhile, a young shepherd was herding his flock along the riverbank and playing on his svirel. Liza fixed her gaze on him and thought: “Ah, if only the man who is occupying my thoughts had been born a simple peasant or a shepherd, and if only he were passing with his flock right now!”’
But what exactly is a ‘svirel’? How many English-speaking readers would know it is a wooden pipe with six finger-holes and whistle-like device, rather like a recorder? My colleague Mr Battersby-Elrington refers to it as a ‘shawm’ but that is a slightly different instrument with a double reed, and probably not altogether familiar to readers either, unless they have an interest in medieval music. So, I am faced with a dilemma: should I include a footnote, explaining what a ‘svirel’ is, should I add some kind of explanation in the text itself (this is called a ‘gloss’), or should I opt for a more generic term that readers would understand, even though it would mean losing the cultural significance?
I encountered a similar question earlier in the story, when the author referred to ‘sazhens’:
‘Саженях в семидесяти от монастырской стены’
‘about seventy sazhens from the monastery walls’
You might be able to guess from the context that a sazhen is an old Russian measure of distance. It is equivalent to 2.13 metres, so if my maths is correct, seventy of them would be 149 metres or 163 yards. But what would be the most reader-friendly way to express this in my translation?
My first port of call when tackling this kind of problem is to ask myself, ‘what is the purpose of the translated text, and who is the intended audience?’ (This is known to translators as ‘Skopos theory’). The solution can vary depending on the answers to these questions. For example, if the translation is intended as a parallel text for language learners, the translation might be more literal, to enable students to understand individual words and phrases, and there may be footnotes explaining culture-specific terms. On the other hand, a translation aimed at English speakers reading for pleasure might avoid too many footnotes and favour a freer, more flowing version of the text.
In this case, neither the shepherd nor the exact distance from the monastery are particularly important parts of the story, being there only for the purposes of setting the scene, and to include unfamiliar terms or too much explanation would, in my opinion, interrupt the flow of the story and distract the reader’s attention. All that matters is that the carefree shepherd is playing a merry tune, and that the hut is only a short distance away from the monastery. So – for now at least – the shepherd is playing a ‘pipe’ in my version, and the hut is ‘a couple of hundred yards’ away from the monastery walls. Although I may yet change that to a ‘flute’ or a ‘whistle’ and ‘a hundred or so yards’…