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Liza’s Journey. Part 8.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In these internet times, it is so easy to be sucked into the rabbit hole of information with its vast network of enticingly clickable taglines leading to an infinite supply of must-read articles. And so it was with my project. Having translated Poor Liza, and then found a plentiful supply of other stories by Karamzin that I just had to translate, I went on to explore the other writers of the time who influenced Karamzin, or who were influenced by him. As I result, I learned about Gessner, Emin, Rousseau, Locke, Mme de Genlis, Ovid and many others with whose works Karamzin was familiar, and then I proceeded to spot echoes of Karamzin in the writing of Pushkin, Lermontov and other pillars of Russian literature who followed in his wake. Karamzin really did exist at a pivotal time when Russian literature was beginning to emerge in all its glory, and his work had an impact not only on the literary scene, but also on the Russian language itself. Being well-read, having travelled widely, and given his aptitude for languages, Karamzin was clearly attempting to reproduce the Western European Sentimentalist genre in a Russian language that was more accessible to a wider readership.

Intrigued, I began to read some of these Western Sentimentalist works, and found some striking parallels with Karamzin’s stories. Mme de Genlis’ Eugénie et Léonce, for example, has much in common with Karamzin’s Eugene and Julia, while Poor Liza features many of the stylistic elements found in Salomon Gessner’s poetry, and Karamzin also refers directly to the works of other writers in many places. Pushkin’s story The Stationmaster, meanwhile, seems to be written as a response to Poor Liza, with a similar storyline, although its heroine is rather more robust and it is told with Pushkin’s characteristic sophisticated flair. A passage from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, where the narrator encounters a strange girl singing a mysterious song, bears a striking resemblance to a scene in Karamzin’s Bornholm Island featuring a strange young man singing a mysterious song. Even the title of this novel is blatantly reminiscent of Karamzin’s A Knight of Our Time, published almost forty years earlier. And so the list goes on…

My only problem was where to stop. I had to set myself some kind of limit. So, I chose one story to accompany each of the four Karamzin stories already in my collection (plus a sprinkling of poetry for a little extra flavour!). Consequently, the final(ish) version of my much-larger-than-planned translation project will probably look something like this:

Eugene and Julia by Karamzin and Eugénie et Léonce by Mme de Genlis

Poor Liza by Karamzin and The Stationmaster by Alexander Pushkin

Bornholm Island by Karamzin and an extract from A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Knight of Our Time by Karamzin and an unusual version of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

More details of the fate of the finished project to follow in my next post…


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