The Importance of Being Erast
Things have heated up almost to boiling point now in the relationship between Эраст [Erast] and Лиза [Liza]. The pair continue to meet near Liza’s home, on the banks of the Москва [Moskva] river, but away from any prying eyes. Both have declared their affection for each other, but it is becoming clear that Erast’s heart may not be as pure as Liza’s. He persuades her not to tell her mother about their love, and dodges the question of their incompatible social status, when it turns out that a marriage to a peasant’s son is on the cards for Liza.
But are we talking about Erast and Liza, or Erastus and Lisa? And do their lovers’ trysts take place by the Moscow River or the Moskva? How should a translator approach the problem of names?
When working with names, translators face a dilemma: should the names be preserved as they are, or would it be better to adjust them slightly to make them more palatable to readers who are accustomed to an all-English diet? As the world gradually adopts a more global stance with the rise of international travel, the internet and population mobility, foreign-sounding names are certainly more normal than they used to be, but readers can still find them confusing or off-putting. Although Bombay and Peking are now known as Mumbai and Beijing, reflecting an awareness of our predecessors’ anglicisation of names, we inhabitants of the English-speaking world still persist in referring to Moskva as Moscow or München as Munich, and much more besides. Why do we feel the need to change the writer Lev Tolstoy’s first name to ‘Leo’ or talk about Tsar Pyotr I as ‘Peter’ the Great, while it seems perfectly acceptable to call the well-known composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by the Russian version of his name?
Fortunately for me, ‘Liza’ is a less problematic name when it comes to translation, as it is already a recognisable name in English (although how many readers will use the correct pronunciation of ‘Leeza’?). Opinion on Erast, though, seems to be divided. Typing ‘Erastus’ into Google produces approximately twice as many hits as ‘Erast’. Erastus is the name of many historical figures, including Erastus of Corinth who is mentioned in the Bible on three occasions. The name ‘Erast’, on the other hand, has been popularised in recent decades by writer Boris Akunin who wrote a series of novels about a detective called Erast Fandorin. My copy of Battersby-Elrington’s translation of Poor Liza plumps for the ‘Erastus’ option, but my current preference is for ‘Erast’, as I can’t see a good reason to change it.
Moscow, however is more problematic. To English speakers, this is the standard name of the Russian capital, so there is no question about how to translate it. But what about the river? The river which flows through the centre of Moscow is known to Russians as ‘Moskva-reka’, and is sometimes rendered as the ‘Moscow River’, and sometimes as the ‘Moskva River’, or even just the ‘Moskva’. I am quite keen to preserve as much of the Russian flavour as I can and avoid over-anglicising in my translation, as long as it doesn’t baffle the reader, so I might opt for ‘Moskva’. Maybe. The more I think about it, the more I keep changing my mind.
Which versions would you choose?