global directory of translation services
 The translation workplace
The Details and the Spirit of a Literal Translation Translation Article Knowledgebase

Articles about translation and interpreting
Article Categories
Search Articles

Advanced Search
About the Articles Knowledgebase has created this section with the goals of:

Further enabling knowledge sharing among professionals
Providing resources for the education of clients and translators
Offering an additional channel for promotion of members (as authors)

We invite your participation and feedback concerning this new resource.

More info and discussion >

Article Options
Your Favorite Articles
Recommended Articles
  1. overview and action plan (#1 of 8): Sourcing (ie. jobs / directory)
  2. Translation User Manual
  3. Getting the most out of A guide for translators and interpreters
  4. El significado de los dichos populares
  5. The difference between editing and proofreading
No recommended articles found.
Popular Authors
  1. C. Daniel Andrade
  2. traductorchile
  3. Roald Toskedal
  4. danielemadrid
  5. Denys Dömin
No popular authors found.

 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  The Details and the Spirit of a Literal Translation

The Details and the Spirit of a Literal Translation

By Henry Schroeder | Published  12/14/2006 | Literature and Poetry | Recommendation:
Contact the author
Henry Schroeder
United States
German to English translator
Became a member: Oct 22, 2002.
View all articles by Henry Schroeder

See this author's profile
The Details and the Spirit of a Literal Translation:
Translating Voskoboev and Elizaveta and Turn in the River by Andrey Dmitriev

Henry Whittlesey

A more readable version with explanatory footnotes and references is available on request


This essay on the translation of two novellas by Andrey Viktorovich Dmitriev is an attempt to lay out some ideas about how to approach a literal translation that remains not merely faithful to the content of the original, but also to the spirit of the work. Andrey Dmitriev’s writing offers an intriguing collection of concrete linguistic nuances, some of which cannot be rendered in English without losing all trace of the original’s syntactic uniqueness. While a literal translation must attempt to recapture the particularities of his writing, it must not lose sight of the proverbial larger picture, that is, the spiritual effect of his prose on the reader. Where a sentence proves particularly prohibitive in the new language or where the style is adulterated for the sake of the English text, the translator must search out a new reference point within the work itself. Furthermore, even in the event of a potential story without any stylistic complications for a literal rendering, the translator encounters the problem of retaining the poetry within the author’s polyphony without losing the reader in a sea of detail and sacrificing the beauty of the original to a mechanical equivalent.
Andrey Dmitriev’s prose is in part defined by: (a) emphasis on the sentence (b) repetition of words, (c) variations in the length of sentences, (d) leitmotifs for characters and places, (e) switching between the present, past and future tense, (f) compactness, (g) themes interwoven through different plot lines within one narrative, (h) exploiting the semantic ambiguity inherent in language, (i) lengthy, multiclause sentences that do not begin with the subject as well as (j) poetry, assonance and rhythm. To a largely lesser extent, all these hallmarks of Dmitriev’s style can and should be retained in translation. At times, however, where the translated sentence would be inaccessible or thoroughly fail to capture any non-semantic side of the original, it is necessary to analyze the greater context, including the spirit of the passage or text, as a basis for determining the form the translation shall take. This analysis and the resulting rendition of such sentences or sections of a text will allow the translator to integrate the spirit of the work into the isolated details.
I will begin by discussing a number of these aforementioned details, where the method of literal translation did not call for any extraordinary alterations. This will be followed by an examination of passages that are relevant to the subject of translating the spirit of the text by identifying stylistic leitmotifs in the original and in some cases rendering them in an alternative style for the translation.

I. The Details

a. Sentence, Repetition, Ambiguity

The vast majority of a translation must be literal to enable the author’s voice to sound in the ear of the reader. It must avoid the temptation to tinker with the result in the terminal language (otherwise known as the target language) on the basis of preconceived prejudices. Here is a paragraph from Voskoboev and Elizaveta rich in imbalanced sentences, repetition and ambiguity:

Отмывая пол от белил, протирая «Матильду» тряпочкой, а «Мадонну» салфеткой, Елизавета напевала. Слуха она не имела вовсе и знала лишь один, ею же самой придуманный, тягучий и странный мотив. Она вспоминала его в очень редкие мгновения своей жизни, и всякий раз это означало счастье. Впервые Елизавета запела еще в Кеми, когда по случаю окончания восьмилетки мать подарила ей золотые часы с календариком. Мотив соткался как бы из ничего, быть может, из отзвуков популярных в ту пору мелодий. Он прозвучал гимном повзрослению, музыкальной похвалой самой себе, самостоятельно решившей перехйти в девятый класс и держать курс на Высшее Образование, которое являлось Елизавете по ночам в образе ослепительного солнца над смотровой площадкой знаменитых Ленинских гор... Когда Елизавета уже готовила шпаргалки к выпускным экзаменам, из дому вдруг ушел отец – хмурый, нелепый, ехидный человек. От тахты, с которой он редко вставал, стойко пахло валокордином и увяданием. Лежа на тахте, он уныло вышучивал Елизавету. Елизавета, по пустим, говорила: (293-4)

As she scrubbed the whitewash off the floor, wiped “Matilda” with a rag and “Madonna” with a napkin, Elizaveta sang. An ear for music she did not have and knew just one motif – tenacious and strange – which she had thought up herself. She remembered it at very rare moments in her life, and each of them meant happiness. The first time Elizaveta burst out singing was in Kem, when she received a golden watch with a calendar from her mother after completing eighth grade. The motif was strung together as if from nothing, perhaps from the music of melodies popular at that time. It sounded like a hymn to maturation, like musical approbation for someone who had decided all by herself to enter ninth grade and stay on the path to the university, which appeared to Elizaveta at night in the form of an incandescent sun above the viewing platform in the well-known Lenin mountains… When Elizaveta was already preparing her crib notes for the entrance exams, her father – a somber, cockeyed, spiteful man – suddenly walked out. The couch, from which he rarely got up, reeked persistently of Valocardin and decay; lying on that couch, he would dejectedly mock Elizaveta. Elizaveta, for instance, would say:

The unbalanced sentences, interruptions, the repetition of тахта (couch) and the name Elizaveta, especially at the end of the second-to-last sentence and beginning of the last one, create a narrative cacophony, begin a descent into the nearly aesthetically tasteless, which has been conscientiously retained in the translation. The paragraph begins with Elizaveta singing – a prominent theme in the first section of the novella. In Russian the reader works her way from a gerund introducing three events that abruptly end with Elizaveta sang (Елизавета напевала). For a long time I was tempted to hint at her singing and increase the balance of the sentence by writing Elizaveta scooped and descanted, but such a formulation would have mitigated the effect as well as the juxtaposition of this sentence to the narrative poetry of the following ones, which continues up to the description of the motif. Nevertheless I did replace the gerund with “as she”, which is a construction as rare in Russian as sentences opening with gerunds are common.
One of this narrator’s idiosyncrasies is to use a word two or more times within a sentence, abutting sentences or within a paragraph, as if one echoes the other and puts the sound in a new light. Without considering how the meaning might be refracted differently in the context (sometimes making the repetition impossible), the same word in Russian often appears with different endings due to the declination or – in the case of verbs – the conjugation. This, of course, is impossible for nouns in English and generally offers an insignificant difference in the case of verbs. But rather than blandly repeat the same word, wherever possible, I have used the demonstrative pronouns this and that as well as personal pronouns or zero pronouns as much as possible to avoid the absolute repetition that is otherwise inevitable in English. Hence the couch is followed by that couch in the second-to-last sentence.
Another characteristic of Dmitriev’s writing is that it often describes one event, but could potentially be describing another as well. An example of this is where the narrator says: из дому вдруг ушел отец. In the context, although not completely clear, it seems that Elizaveta’s father merely went out of the house and – let’s say – down to the bakery. This misreading is strengthened by the description of the couch, his behavior toward Elizaveta and a lengthy conversation with him that appear to take place after the father has walked out (and consequently suggesting that he returns). Yet in fact her father has completely disappeared and the description of the conversation that follows is an excerpt from one of their conversations. In any case, whether he has left for good or not, the translation should retain this openness wherever possible.
The Russian sentence in everything from journalism to sophisticated literature begins much less frequently with the subject than we see in any form of English writing. Among others, this results in greater pellucidly apparent syntactic diversity in Russian. While I have indeed sought to convey the disorder and stylistic chaos of the last sentences involving the father, I have still hesitated to begin a sentence with a preposition followed by a relative clause, although this invariable makes the English a little more graceful and less polyphonic than the original. Nevertheless I did retain in my opinion the most jarring part: the repetition of Elizaveta’s name and the inclusion of an independent relative clause right after the subject of the sentence, which is a more abrupt interruption in English due to its rarity in twentieth century English literature. Again, a faithful literal translation must in part employ nuances of the terminal language to achieve an effect comparative to the one produced by the original text. Even if this requires that the translation have more sentences setting out from the subject, this shift of emphasis away from the impersonal constructions of the original means that the syntax partially ensuring the poetry of the original (impersonal constructions) will be rendered in a comparatively poetic form in translation (personal constructions beginning with the subject). Consequently this shift will have the effect of capturing the spirit of the original that would be lost by focusing excessively on the material side of a literal translation (this will be addressed in more detail later).

b. Poetry, Assonance and Rhythm

At times the narrator uses awkward sounding formulations to highlight disharmony or problems lurking below the seemingly harmonious surface. This is the case after Voskoboev and Elizaveta return home from their relatively successful foraging for mushrooms (successful insofar as Voskoboev is no longer as moody and unhappy in the immediate aftermath). Primarily commas and interruptive independent clauses let the narrator hint at the precarious state of their lives:

Не прошло и часа, как дежурная машина везла их домой в Хнов по пустынному бетонному покрытию специальной дороги. Потом они переодевались во все сухое, спали, чистили грибы, картошку, резали лук. Наконец запах грибного супа наполнил квартиру, хлынул на лестничную площадку, поплыл по Архангельской и по улице Клары Цеткин... Елизавета помешивала суп половником, улыбалась супу, порой сокрушенно покачивала головой: у соседей за стеной разгорался скандал. Слышно было, как подвывает, жалуясь, Галина, тоненько и резко вскрикивает майор Трутко. О чем он вскрикивает, было не разобрать, но, судя по тону, он нападал, а Галина оборонялась – ее жалобы становились все тише, реже, слабее, вскоре она и вовсе замолкла... (315)

In less than an hour an Air Force vehicle took them home to Khnov, along the empty concrete surface of the service road. Then they changed into dry clothes, slept, cleaned the mushrooms, potatoes, cut onions. Finally the aroma of mushroom soup filled the apartment, flowed onto the landing in the stairwell, floated down Arkhangelskaya and across Klara Tsetkin… Elizaveta stirred the soup with a ladle, smiled at her soup, shook her head from time to time in distress: a fracas was brewing on the other side of the wall where their neighbors lived. She could hear Galina whining, complaining, Major Trutko yelling sharply, shrilly. It was impossible to make out what he was screaming about, but judging by the tone of it, he was attacking and she was resisting - her complaints became increasingly quiet, rare, weak, soon she fell silent altogether...

The passage flows from elegiac sentences to abrupt endings and brutal, multicomma disorder. Back and forth, in and out, the narrator describes the end to the happy day in commensurate language: Наконец запах грибного супа наполнил квартиру, хлынул на лестничную площадку, поплыл по Архангельской и по улице Клары Цеткин (Finally the aroma of mushroom soup filled the apartment, flowed onto the landing in the stairwell, floated down Arkhangelskaya and across Klara Tsetkin.) But two parts, even more so in the original, prevent any rhythmic flow from entering the passage. One is the absence of a comma at the end of a list, which sounds particularly odd here: Потом они переодевались во все сухое, спали, чистили грибы, картошку, резали лук (Then they changed into dry clothes, slept, cleaned the mushrooms, potatoes, cut onions). The other is what Elizaveta heard through the wall: Слышно было, как подвывает, жалуясь, Галина, тоненько и резко вскрикивает майор Трутко (She could hear Galina whining, complaining, Major Trutko yelling sharply, shrilly). In my opinion the reversals and pauses of the Russian can only be approximately retained in English. The point, however, is that although the Russian sentence is obviously comprehendible and could be rendered in significantly more comprehendible English, precisely this decision would not only (once again) reduce the polyphony of the text as a whole, but it would also remove any allusion to confusion and distress in Elizaveta’s mind (or the narrator close to Elizaveta).

c. Past, Present and Future

Dmitriev’s narrators have a special relationship to time, be it unique or iconoclastic, they move comfortably from the past to the present to the future, in both traditional and less traditional ways.

И тогда Воскобоев пришел к ней. Опустившись на краешек плащ-палатки и с минуту помолчав, он вдруг принялся торопливо и подробно высказывать свои соображения о предстоящем застолье: кого позвать, кто сам придет, сколько купить водки, если учесть, что четверо вовсе не пьют, другие, есть и такие, предпочитают крепленое вино, а полковник Живихин – тот давно зациклился на коньяке, но главное, чем кормить, где достать такую прорву мяса; конечно, и рыбу можно сделать на уровне европейских стандартов, например, запечь... Тут Елизавета перебила мужа, стала соглашаться с ним во всем и успокаивать насчет рыбы. Разумеется, она запечет рыбу, да и по поводу мяса расстраиваться не нужно: Живихина нужно расшевелить. Он охотник, и пусть еще не сезон, но ведь есть же у него знакомые егеря – пусть застрелят кабанчика или лося или, на худой конец, поделятся из старых запасов... (302-3)

And then Voskoboev went up to her. He sat down on the edge of his raincoat and was silent for a minute, before suddenly beginning hastily and in detail to voice his thought on the upcoming dinner party: who to invite, who would come on their own, how much vodka to buy if you consider that four people don’t drink at all, while others – and there really are those – prefer strong wine, and then Colonel Zhivikhin – who had long since fallen for cognac; but the main thing is: what to eat, where to get an outrageously large portion of meat; and the fish, clearly, would have to be prepared in the European way, for instance, by baking it… At this point Elizaveta interrupted her husband, began to agree with him on everything and to reassure him with regard to the fish. Of course she would bake the fish, and he shouldn’t worry about meat at all: we just have to motivate Zhivikhin. He’s a hunter, and although it isn’t the season, it’s impossible for him not to have some hunter friends – they could shoot a small wild boar or an elk or, in the worst case scenario, make something out of old leftovers…

This is more or less the introduction to transitions between the present, past and future in the narration of one moment in Voskoboev and Elizaveta. Although Dmitriev explicitly explores the possibilities of these temporal peculiarities in Russian syntax, they are present throughout Russian literature in part due to grammatical rules. In Russian, a narrator speaking in the past tense does not always have to render the main verb in that tense. As in English, the narrator can describe a scene in the past and say he was certain (that) they would kill him. What follows certain is not a verb in the past tense, but rather a subjunctive. In Russian the grammatical rules dictate the future tense (совершенный вид) in such a case. Here we can see an example from Tolstoy: Один француз стоял на бруствере, махал шапкой и кричал что-то. Козельцов был уверен, что его убьют; это-то и придавало ему храбрости. (Лев Толстой, Севастополь рассказы, 196)
Unlike English, however, the Russian language offers many more opportunities to switch from past to present or future tense narration. For example, indirect speech, the conveying of feeling, thought, belief and knowing can all be rendered in the present tense. Instead of saying: He knew that she was there, the sentence in Russian reads: He knew that she is there. Hence in Tolstoy we see Olenin reflecting on his feelings for Maryana in the present tense, although the story is being told in the past:

Мне нужно было видеть, слышать ее, знать, что она близко, и я бывал не то что счастлив, а спокоен. После вечеринки, на которой я был вместе с нею и прикоснулся к ней, я почувствовал, что между мной и этою женциной существует неразрывная, хотя и не признанная связь, против которой нельзя бороться. (Лев Толстой, Казаки, 385-6)

(literal translation) I needed to see her, hear her, know that she is near and I was not only happy, but calm. After those evenings when I was together with her and touched her, I felt that between me and this woman there exists an indissoluble, although unrecognized connection, against which it is impossible to fight. (Translation mine, italics mine)

Traditional English grammar rules out the use of the present tense in each of these cases, even if it would, for example, be possible to avoid the past tense after felt by using an infinitive. In English the rest must be narrated in the past. Whatever Tolstoy’s approach to narration may have been, Andrey Dmitriev is intentionally and ingeniously exploiting the temporal flexibility of the Russian language, which to the greatest extent possible, I have tried to incorporate into the translation.
Besides the colon and что in the passage cited from Voskoboev and Elizaveta, Dmitriev employs both sentential adverbs, verbs and colloquial terms of speech and long sentences that flow from a specific tense into infinitives in order to create a graceful, and at times almost inconspicuous transition to another tense. Разумеется is one of these (a verb that performs the role of a sentential adverb in English and is translated as such for the latter) and allows for the introduction of the present or future tense in Russian. The turn could be uttered by the narrator, could be the voice of a character, or even the author himself, and isolated from the narrative, it is temporally free in Russian. Although it is my opinion that a traditional approach to language would call for the text following разумеется to be in the past in English, it is this narrative monotony that is precisely the antithesis of Dmitriev’s work and hence I have followed his lead (again, wherever possible).
An example of where I have felt such switching of tenses was impossible follows in the next paragraph:

Стоило Воскобоеву присесть на край подоконника, взглянуть в окно и поднести к папиросе зажженную спичку – Елизавета была тут как тут и, подняв мужа, как охотник куропатку, гнал его в бакалею за желатином и корицей, а когда он возвращался с желатином, но без корицы – отправляла его искать корицу по всем знакомым, по всему Хнову, лишь бы не позволить ему хотя б на миг оценеть и задуматься, лишь бы не допустить, чтобы он вновь поддался своему несчастью. Воскобоеву же казалось, что Елизавета вымещает на нем горечь и тревогу, измучившие ее за последние недели; он сказал себе, что если ей от этого легче, то – пусть, и потому безропотно пускался в долгий поход за корицей, хотя и знал наверняка, что этой самой корицы дома навалом. (303)

If Voskoboev managed to find a minute to sit down on the edge of the windowsill, look out the window and raise a lighted match to his cigarette, Elizaveta was already there and, raising her husband like a hunter his partridge, chased him out to the grocery store for gelatin and chicken; and when he returned with gelatin but no chicken, she sent him in search of that chicken to all their acquaintances, across all of Khnov, so that he would not have even a second to become diffident and sink into a reverie, so that it would be impossible for him to succumb to his despondency. To Voskoboev it seemed as if Elizaveta was venting the bitterness and agitation plaguing her over the last few weeks; he told himself that if this made her feel better, then let it be, and so he humbly embarked on the long walk for chicken, although he knew it was likely that at home they were up to their ears in the very chicken he sought.

Each что toward the end of the cited passage introduces the present tense in Russian. Here, however, the translation would sound exceedingly stilted were I to write: it seemed as if Elizaveta is venting or he told himself that if this makes her feel better. This latter case is an example of indirect speech with an if…then construction, which in Russian calls for the present tense and in English the past (in this case). To flout this rule would make the English sound unnatural and would sacrifice the narrative poetry (already invariably reduced in a translation) for the benefit of a theory. Yet again to establish a rule would be equally fruitless, for in the following paragraph we encounter another passage that is an alternative form of indirect speech, but one that does arguably allow its translation to be in the present tense:

Почувствов, что народ дозрел, Живихин встал и навис над столом. Начал полковник издалека. С того, как нелегко личному составу полка с жильем и бытом. Нужен нормальный военный городок, но вблизи аэродрома его не очень-то построишь. Куда ни глянь – озеро, болота, лесопосадки, а рубить лесопосадки нельзя, не для того их сажали.... (The toast in indirect speech continues in this manner to the end of a long paragraph) (304)

Zhivikhin, sensing the others were ready, stood up and loomed over the table. The colonel began from afar. From how difficult it is for pilots in their regiment to find apartments and make a life for themselves. A traditional military town would resolve everything, but they couldn’t really build one close to the airfield. Wherever you look, there are lakes, swamps, forest plantations, and you aren’t allowed to cut down forest plantations – that isn’t why they planted them…

Here I have vacillated, at one time thinking that this passage should be translated in the past tense as it would for the classical rendering of indirect speech. Especially the sentence нужен нормальный военный город inclined me to think that the required they is preferable to we, since some subject is necessary for the natural translation of this needed. But again the question arises: how monophonic do you make a text in general before it loses an essential component of the original? If the translator continually smoothes out an integral feature such as the heterogeneity of the original for the sake of so-called naturalness, does this amount to less of a translation than a different text. It would be like turning the lightness and fluidity of Tolstoy’s Russian into awkward, cumbersome sentences slavishly following the original and thereby losing one of the defining aspects of Tolstoy’s Russian: its poetry. The same is true in reverse: you can even all this out, but in the process you lose the flow in and out of the current reality of the narrative. You lose the double narrative, the real and the fictive, present in a single description. It is no longer two or even three voices that describe the events once, but the traditional one voice – one story narrative. The same goes for the avoidance of original repetition in the translation: elimination means a loss replaced by nothing.

II. The Spirit

a. Analysis of Passage

The difficulty in conveying the presence or absence of the poetry, assonance and rhythm in the original is the most problematic subject for a translation and is the one that should draw the greatest attention when a sentence is deemed even approximately untranslatable in its original form and is consequently modified for the terminal language. This is an instance where the translator should use the spiritual effect of the original passage or entire text as a reference point for the translation of the fragment. Consequently the translation of such an untranslatable sentence should orient itself on the larger context to determine the form of the new sentence and in this way add something to the text on the basis of interpretation. Special consideration must also be given to this subject at the beginning of a text since it sets the stage for the piece and potentially offers the opportunity to introduce a stylistic leitmotif from the outset.
In both the stories discussed here, the source text is composed in a way that does not allow for translation without interpretation and entails that the English sentence will be shaped in part by the information obtained from outside the sentence or paragraph itself. Here is the first paragraph of Voskoboev and Elizaveta:

Пятьдесят лет и три года на углу Архангельской и Клары Цеткин стояла керосиновая лавка; ее снесли за ненадобностью и построили пятиэтажный розовый жилой дом с котельной и газовыми плитами. Квартиру номер два заняли капитан ВВС Воскобоев и его жена Елизавета. Они въехали с ворохом кочевого барахла, которое пять лет таскали с собой по чужим углам. Все эти табуретки, тумбочки и наволочки предполагалось со временем выбросить и заменить чем-нибудь обстоятельным, не позорным. Из нового, серьезного барахла новоселы приобрели ко дню переезда сервант «Матильда», пригнанный в контейнере из Ленинграда, и сервиз «Мадонна», присланный в подарок к новоселью старым корешем из Вюнсдорфа. (227)

For five decades and three years the kerosene shop stood on the corner of Arkangelskaya and Clara Tsetkin; then it was deemed junk and removed to build a five-story, pink tenement with a boiler room and gas stoves. Air Force Captain Voskoboev and his wife occupied apartment number two. They arrived with a pile of nomadic crap, which they had been dragging around from one unfamiliar corner to another for five years. You had to assume that they would eventually get rid of all these stools, night tables and pillowcases, replacing them with something substantial, not humiliating. The brand-new, serious crap that the new homeowners acquired in the days before moving included a “Matilda” cupboard shipped in a container from Leningrad and a “Madonna” set that an old buddy had sent as a housewarming gift from Vunsdorf.

What is noticeable, despite some moderately complex sentences (especially the last) is that each sentence flows smoothly, the sentences in and of themselves are perfectly balanced, and the transition from sentence to sentence, clause to clause is smooth, even if a little abrupt. In other words, the paragraph is a combination of poetic prose with innocuous jerks. Yet the sentence following the semicolon can neither begin with the object, be impersonal or literally express за ненадобностью. An analysis of the passage itself reveals a combination of smoothness and moderate abruptness. I have taken the liberty of inserting then after the semicolon to make the transition to the second half less abrupt. Is this decision warranted? The corresponding Russian sentence is not as abrupt as its English equivalent partially due to ее снесли, partially a consequence of being able to place the kerosene shop right before the semicolon, along with other factors including assonance and the ability to снести за ненадобностью, which cannot be phrased this concisely in English. The options here are numerous: the translator could, for example, wipe out the semicolon entirely and use a conjunction like before. However, this would thoroughly eliminate any hint of abruptness, of which there is indeed a little in the Russian. Furthermore, while the text only suggests it slightly in this first sentence, abruptness is a characteristic of one narrative voice in the novella, which becomes evident in the frequent absence of the conjunction and at the end of lists (he ate the fish, meat, pork as opposed to: he ate fish, meat and pork). Clearly it is also possible to emulate the Russian, but the abruptness of the transition is much harsher in English than it is in Russian. It is also here that consideration must be given to the context and the spirit of the text as a whole. Does it make sense to open a translation of a text characterized by a poetic approach to narration with a harshly impoetic sentence and is such a rendering appropriate in this place, even if abruptness – not harsh, but graceful – is often encountered. But it is perhaps again precisely the shape that this abruptness takes in the narrative as a whole that must determine how this semicolon will be treated. For the Russian sentence is open for interpretation. What form of abruptness does the reader find in the text: harsh, graceful or none at all? My reading was smooth and abrupt, hence a semicolon and then.
A shift from impersonal and passive to active sentences is also required if the original Russian text does not aim to be stilted or to reproduce a specific – say – academic genre. The same applies to syntax in general, which reads perfectly naturally in the original and must be rendered in translation accordingly. This requires the calibration of the rhythm in English, tuning it with a relative pronoun or a zero relative pronoun, as well as any other mechanisms at the disposal of the translator, such as the aforementioned fluidity of active sentences as opposed to strict adherence to the order in which the words appear in Russian (an option in the second sentence, for example, would have been to make it a passive sentence so that Voskoboev and Elizaveta could appear at the end, but whereas in Russian the subject at the end of a sentence receives a natural stress, in English – only in the rarest of cases, and not here – can the subject appear at the end of the sentence, and, in this case, which would be a passive construction, not only would Voskoboev and Elizaveta not be stressed, not be the subject, but the word order would merely be retained in stilted English). A similar idea is the reason behind not translating Из нового, серьезного барахла новоселы приобрели ко дню переезда сервант by starting the sentence with of – it just read about as naturally as the second half of the previous sentence in parenthesis.
At times it is necessary to add even more than a mere then. This turns out to be the case with one sentence in Turn in the River where the Russian construction is so prohibitive that I was forced to add another sentence:

- Кажется, ветер, - вкрадчиво, с вызовом и надеждой произносит мужчина в драповой куртке, которую он, садясь за стол, не пожелал снять. За окном в потревоженной ветром пыли шевелится, змеясь, длинная желтая трава, катятся к воротам комки листьев и серой бумаги, поднимается мелкий мусор и, колюче позванивая, бьет в стекло. (244)

“It seems there’s some wind,” utters the man in the thick wool jacket he had not wanted to take off as he sat down at the table. He speaks ingratiatingly, with defiance and hope. Outside the window the long yellow grass, snaking about, quivers in the dust stirred up by the wind; wads of leaves and gray paper roll toward the gate; bits of trash rise up and, calling from time to time in a prickly tone, beat against the glass.

The adverb (вкрадчиво), instrumental case and independent clause modifying his jacket cannot be included in one English sentence as they are in Russian – primarily because adverbs, let alone the instrumental case, do not precede verbs. Furthermore, the following sentence is a lengthy description whose word order must be thoroughly reworked in English, hence calling for an extensive shift in the narrative style. If the basis for this refocus is not found in the passage itself, then the text must be used as a reference point for determining the translation.

b. Analysis of Work:

The opening paragraph of Turn in the River offers another lengthy description, not unlike the aforementioned one, which requires not merely minor alterations, but something close to an overhaul on the basis of an interpretation of the larger text:

По тесным бульварам центра, по дымным проездам заводского района, по запыленным проспектам окраины автобус ползет к городской черте; долго ковыляет меж взрыхленных сухих полей; возле зверосовхоза избавляется от груды крикливых, распиравших его людских тел и, спасаясь от гнилого запаха норок, песцов и чернобурок, изнуренных рыбным кормом, летит, распахнутый и легкий, с разбойным ревом к горе... Высадив у горы последних пассажиров: старуху с сумкой на колесиках, мужчину в драповой куртке, женщину в черном плаще, он со вздохом сдвигает двери и, сделав медленный круг по гравию, нехотя отправляется в обратный путь. (227)

(Literal translation) Down the narrow streets in the center, down the smoky avenues in the factory district, down the dust-covered roads in the outskirts, the bus creeps toward the city limits; for a while it wobbles between the dry plowed fields; by the state fur farm it unloads the clamorous mass of human bodies about to push it apart and, escaping from the putrid smell of mink, sable and silver fox, famished from fish food, it flies, its doors wide-open and (its aisle) empty, with a robber-like roar toward the mountain… Having set down its last passengers by the mountain: a crone with a bag on wheels, a man in a thick wool jacket, a woman in a black raincoat, it moves its doors with a sigh and, after slowly turning on the gravel, reluctantly sets out on the return trip.

This is not an easy passage to read, not even for a native speaker of Russian. Accordingly there is no reason to make the translation any more readable if the objective is to retain the nuances of the original (as I have been arguing hitherto). Yet I could not bring myself to render the opening passage in a fashion that would scare off nearly every uninitiated reader and dismay the others with its hopeless misunderstanding of poetry in English. The inevitable dispersion of attention resulting from this beginning is the antithesis of the effect the story has from page two. Perhaps this is precisely Dmitriev’s aim – elegiac sentences weaving a scene in the mind of the reader - before the drama becomes apparent and alters your mood. But in English there is no poetry in the literal translation I have provided above. If it is readable at all, it is only with tremendous effort and little reward – invariably more than what is required of the Russian reader. These considerations aside, a look at the larger context reveals that such passages occur from time to time within the text, as we have seen in the previous example. In part, descriptive narration acts like a leitmotif recurring throughout the story and illuminating the plot. If such a description is handled similarly in appropriate cases, it will merely produce an alternative stylistic leitmotif in the terminal language that may at the same time satisfy the expectations of, in this instance, an English-speaking audience.

(Final translation) The bus creeps down the narrow streets in the center, down the smoky avenues in the factory district, down the dust-covered roads in the outskirts, as it makes its way toward the city limits; for a while it wobbles between the dry plowed fields; by the state fur farm it unloads the clamorous mass of human bodies about to push it apart, escapes from the putrid smell of mink, sable and silver fox, famished from fish food, and flies – its doors wide-open, its aisle empty – with a robber-like roar toward the mountain... Once it has set down its last passengers by the mountain: a crone with a bag on wheels, a man in a thick wool jacket, a woman in a black raincoat – it moves its doors with a sigh and, after slowly turning on the gravel, reluctantly sets out on the return trip.

The first sentence flouts nearly every convention I personally adhere to in the literal translation of literature, but it introduces a certain poetry, conforms to the form of a sentence one might see in English and makes it somewhat possible to stomach the belly of the paragraph – translated comparatively more literally. Above all, this translation has shifted the emphasis of the paragraph from overt alterity in the narration to more subtle alterity. And there is nothing out of the ordinary in such a rendering, for subtle modulations in the style of Jane Austen is characteristic of English literature and the poetry that ensues gives the reader at least a brief sense of the original’s spirit. If this method of translating inaccessible descriptive passages is pursued consistently through the text, these complex passages will become the vehicle for introducing the spirit of the original text as a whole into the translation. A Russian reader is accustomed e.g. to having the subject at the end of a long sentence, so she will see poetry in Dmitriev’s descriptions of nature, while the Anglo-American reader expects the subject earlier in a sentence that will be regarded as poetic. Since this element of poetry in the original would otherwise be lost without modifying such passages – in other words, by adhering to a strictly literal translation – the translator must approach them with an eye to an ulterior effect, that of conveying Dmitriev’s effort to tangle the skein of man and nature.


Where the effort to be literally faithful to the original is most fraught with ambiguity and problems lies in the rendering of its spirit. Besides increasing the percentage of active sentences, I have also sought out equivalent parts of speech on the basis of assonance where this is called for by an original that produces this effect through the declaration of the nouns, the conjunction of verbs, internal or standard alliteration, etc. The same applies to the rhythm of the text. Dmitriev constantly varies the length of his sentences and their internal balance. Some are perfectly tuned, others wildly dissonant, some even a mixture of the two. The process of reading the original is supposed to stimulate a range of responses, and the same result is sought in the translation, even at the risk of rejection by an uninformed reader.
This attempt to incorporate the diversity of Dmitriev’s prose was then extended by transforming certain intractable descriptions of nature into a kind of naturalistic leitmotif in an attempt to capture the syntactic poetry of his writing in a foreign language. Such a departure from the strictly material orientation of a literal translation may be no less literal in that the essence of a work of art is the unquantifiable and undefinable. Just as the spirit of Joyce is lost on the Russian reader in a translation dominated by the subject, so it is when the reader is required to navigate through the Scylla and Charybdis of Dmitriev’s occasional poetic stream of description: the beauty is lost in their breakers, eddies and whirlpools.

Copyright ©, 1999-2017. All rights reserved.
Comments on this article

Knowledgebase Contributions Related to this Article
  • No contributions found.
Want to contribute to the article knowledgebase? Join

Articles are copyright ©, 1999-2017, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.
Content may not be republished without the consent of