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What is literary language?

During the process of negotiating a translation project, the customer frequently stipulates that I should use ‘literary language’. This seems like an appropriate thing to request from a literary translator but what exactly does it mean? It is a somewhat a vague term, though, nebulous even, that sounds lofty and intellectual and seems to mean different things to different people. So, I decided to give the matter some thought and come up with a definition of my own that I could call upon when faced with this request in the future.

Wikipedia defines literary language thus:

A literary language is the form (register) of a language used in written literature, which can be either a nonstandard dialect or a standardized variety of the language. Literary language sometimes is noticeably different from the spoken language (lects), but the difference between literary language and non-literary language is greater in some languages; thus a great divergence between a written form and a spoken vernacular, the language exhibits diglossia, a community’s use of two forms of speech.

The article then lists a selection of languages and discusses their various literary traditions. Russian is not currently included in this list, which I find surprising, given the interesting history of the Russian written language and its evolution from Old Church Slavonic, blending with the vernacular to create a new, unique literary language in the 18th and 19th centuries. English, on the other hand, is included in the list, stating that:

For much of its history, there has been a distinction in the English language between an elevated literary language and a colloquial idiom.

This is true to a point, of course. Managers of a large company might write official reports in a different kind of English to that which is spoken on the shop floor, for example. A poet writing a new poem will most likely use a much wider and more interesting vocabulary than a parent writing a letter to school to explain a child’s absence.

This explanation implies there is a strict and clear divide between literary and non-literary English, pitting written language against the vernacular, or ‘posh’ versus ‘common’. But what if an author is writing a novel about the goings-on in a factory, or a story told from the point of view of a parent of a sick child?  An elevated form of ‘literary’ language might not be the best option in order to create the right mood. Instead, the author would need to select the right kind of language to suit the situation.

The language of Shakespeare or the Bible could be described as literary, but Shakespearean English wouldn’t suit a modern crime novel. Long, unusual words or scholarly vocabulary might be considered literary language, but fans of popular detective sagas or bestselling chick-lit might not be too pleased to find their favourite authors using academic terminology. 

Literary language, in practice, is the language used in literature. Technically, it concerns only the written language, but it can also be spoken aloud, just as the spoken word can be conveyed in writing. It is not a matter of a separate language with its own grammar and vocabulary, but a melting pot of all varieties of language, from the highest to the lowest and everything in between. For a writer or a translator in today’s world, using literary language means being sensitive to register, style, region, and all the other subtleties of language. It is about being able to manipulate language to create a desired effect – to shock, delight, horrify, thrill, console or devastate. Therefore, the process of being aware of all of these facets of language and using them to full effect is a gargantuan task faced by every writer or translator, and the results vary immensely.

Do I use literary language? I certainly hope so. I aim to use the right words in the right settings, avoiding archaic language where modern slang would be more appropriate and vice versa, or making aristocratic characters sound noble and refined, and uncouth ones come across as coarse and rough around the edges. However, the translator is more restricted than the writer. If a Russian text says, for example, ‘зал был большой’, (literally, ‘the hall was big’), the number of options available to me are limited. Depending on the context, I could perhaps venture to use a more evocative adjective, such as ‘spacious’, ‘vast’ or even ‘cavernous’, but this might add an extra level of meaning beyond what is in the original text. So, I have to stick with ‘big’ or ‘large’, since I am the translator in this situation, and not the author. Similarly, in French, ‘une belle femme’ is ‘a beautiful woman’. She could perhaps be ‘lovely’, ‘pretty’, or even ‘comely’ in certain contexts, but probably not ‘radiant’ or ‘captivating’, even if I think that would be nicer, because that is not what the author has written.

As a translator, I must be faithful to the original text, finding the best possible match in English. Unless requested to do so, I should not use language which is richer and more eloquent than that of the source document. If I have done my job properly, the English in my translation will be no more and no less literary than the language used by the author.


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 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!

Avana. The Red Dragon Awakens.

The English version of the Avana trilogy is now complete! The Red Dragon Awakens is the third part of this story set in ancient Ireland. Avana and the elementalists must help the people of the land of Erin to overcome the forces of darkness before the army of the Underworld invades the country. Annie Lavigne’s tale of druids and demons explores the nature of friendship and love as two warring peoples, the Ulaid and the Connachta, struggle to reconcile their differences and work together to free the Emerald Isle from the clutches of evil. I’ve had so much fun working on this romantic fantasy series which is simply and sensitively told, and would recommend it to anyone 16+ who is a fan of the genre.

The Red Dragon Awakens (Avana, book 3) by [Annie Lavigne, Helen Hagon]