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Liza’s Journey. Part 7.

Travelling Companions

As with all good adventures, Liza’s journey seems to have diverged from the route that was originally planned. Having completed the first draft of my translation of ‘Poor Liza’, I happened upon some other stories by Karamzin, and Liza has now been joined on her journey by a motley crew of travelling companions, such as the supremely innocent if not angelic Julia, a singing Dane with a tragic story to tell, and an unlikely knight. The more I read by and about Karamzin, the more fascinated I became by the development in Karamzin’s writing, which is apparent in the stories, and which led to him becoming one of the founding fathers of Russian literature as we know it today.

‘Eugene and Julia is a sweet yet tragic love story, not unlike ‘Poor Liza’, but much simpler and more idyllic in style, having been written some three years earlier in 1789. ‘Bornholm Island’ was published the year after “Poor Liza”, and although it can still be described as a tragic love story, there are also plenty of Gothic overtones, as the author begins to experiment with new techniques. The later ‘A Knight of Our Time’, published in instalments in a journal in 1802 and 1803, is different again, its tone slightly tongue-in-cheek, as the now older Karamzin injects his writing with a certain amount of sarcasm and wit.

So, while I am gathering, reviewing and wondering about a home for my now numerous translations, here is a snippet from the first draft of my current favourite, ‘Bornholm Island’:

The scarlet hue of sunset had not yet faded in the bright sky, its rosy glow falling on the white granite rocks and, in the distance, beyond a large hill, it lit up the pointed towers of an ancient castle. The boy could not tell me to whom the castle belonged. “We do not go there,” he said. “And God only knows what goes on inside!” I redoubled my steps and soon neared the huge gothic building surrounded by a deep moat and a high wall. Silence reigned all around, the sea could be heard far away, and the last ray of evening light was dying away over the bronze spires on top of the towers.

I walked around the castle – the gates were closed and the drawbridge raised. My guide, although he himself did not know why, begged me to go back to the huts, but how could a curious person agree to such a request?

In the same story, a mysterious stranger with a guitar sings a song, hinting at the rest of the plot. The narrator kindly translates it from the Danish for us:

O Bornholm, dear Bornholm!
My soul for you doth yearn
Never resting, where’er I may roam,
and yet I weep in vain.

Here I languish and lament,
now banished from your shores
by the oath of a scrupulous parent,
to sigh forever more.

The current Karamzinian chaos on my desk

Liza’s Journey. Part 6

The heat is on

The story is nearing its climax which, for this sentimental tale, means that emotions are running high, the pace is quickening, and the writing is becoming more intense. We have suspected for some time what Erast’s intentions might be, and now our suspicions are confirmed. Poor, naïve Liza is carried away in the heat of the moment, and erroneously believes that Erast’s motives are sincere. Without actually saying so, he makes Liza think he plans to marry her, and she finally submits to his passionate advances:

Она бросилась в его объятия — и в сей час надлежало погибнуть непорочности! — Эраст чувствовал необыкновенное волнение в крови своей — никогда Лиза не казалась ему столь прелестною — никогда ласки ее не трогали его так сильно — никогда ее поцелуи не были столь пламенны — она ничего не знала, ничего не подозревала, ничего побоялась — мрак вечера питал желания — ни одной звездочки не сияло на небе — никакой луч не мог осветить заблуждения. — Эраст чувствует в себе трепет — Лиза также, не зная отчего — не зная, что с нею делается… Ах, Лиза, Лиза! Где ангел-хранитель твой? Где — твоя невинность?

You don’t need to be a Russian speaker to see that this paragraph contains a very long sentence, lots of dashes, and an ellipsis. This serves to speed up the action and create a sense of frenzied confusion which is all over before Liza can figure out what is happening. But do these techniques have the same impact in English?

She threw herself into his arms – and at that moment purity was set to perish! – Erast felt an unusual stirring in his blood – never had Liza seemed so exquisite as she did now – never had her caresses had such a powerful effect on him – never had her kisses seemed so ardent – she knew nothing, suspected nothing, feared nothing – the darkness of the evening fed his desire – not a single star was shining in the sky – there was not a single glimmer to shed any light on this transgression. – Erast felt a trembling inside himself – Liza felt the same, not knowing why – not knowing what was happening to her… Ah Liza! Liza! Where is your guardian angel? Where is your innocence?

As usual in translation, there is no one correct answer to this question. Russian and English punctuation are similar, but there are some subtle differences.  Purists might argue in favour of keeping Karamzin’s punctuation, but it does seem a little odd to my English eyes. Instead, I am more inclined towards breaking up the sentence into shorter ones, and swapping the occasional dash for an ellipsis, which might be more commonly used in English. Perhaps something like this…

She threw herself into his arms, and at that moment purity was set to perish! Erast sensed an unusual stirring in his blood. Never had Liza seemed so exquisite as she did now… never had her caresses had such a powerful effect on him… never had her kisses seemed so ardent. She knew nothing, suspected nothing, feared nothing. The darkness of the evening fed his desire, since not a single star was shining in the sky, and there was not the slightest glimmer to shed any light on this transgression. Erast felt a trembling within. Liza felt the same, not knowing why, not knowing what was happening to her… Oh, Liza! Liza! Where is your guardian angel? Where is your innocence?

Somehow this version seems to flow better and feels more natural to me, but some readers may disagree. Translation, just like literature itself, is highly subjective. Either way, Liza is in a terrible state at the end of this scene, having lost her innocence in the midst of the turmoil. Will Erast marry her after all, as she hopes he might?

Liza’s Journey. Part 5.

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?

The biblical Erastus in 2 Timothy 4:20

Liza’s Journey. Part 4

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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’…

Liza’s Journey. Part 2

Opening Lines

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.

…or perhaps:

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…

Liza’s Journey. Part 1

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!