As you may have noticed, I’ve been on another hiatus lately… November has been an extremely busy month for me. I’m participating in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this month and it’ll be zapping all my writing energy until December. In other news, I have a brand-new laptop, an HP Pavilion DV2620CA (CA is the country code for Canada; it’s DV2620US in the States). It’s very lovely, and it came with one of those 3-in-1 printer/scanner/copier things. Score!
(If anyone has any opensource software recommendations for a Vista Home Premium… you know where the comment link is)
Today’s post is a little different from the gifted kick I’ve been on lately. It’s more in the spirit of an earlier post of mine from last April, A Quick Dabble in Mandarin Chinese. Languages are just such a fascinating topic to me, and today’s subtopic is translation, which is just as interesting.
I first have to say that I read a lot of (translated) foreign books, and nowadays almost more than I read English books; I’ve been doing it for years. This is the most important piece of advice I can give to someone looking to read a translated work: Be extremely picky about the translation you get, and learn a little bit about the original language. The difficulty is that the things you usually need to learn about the original language to properly understand it usually come from a good translation, and you can’t know how to pick a good translation unless you know something about that original language and what to look for.
It’s worth always worth the attempt; you miss out so much in a novel that is poorly translated.
Here’s an example from my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, originally published in Russian. I was lucky enough to accidentally pick a good translation (the most recent Penguin Classics edition, translated by David McDuff) from a shot in the dark, and I learned so much about the Russian language from it. Looking at key passages the other translations of it that exist, I’ve realized just how lucky I was.
For instance, one of the things to look for in a good Russian translation, something that you cannot ignore when reading a Russian novel, is the proper rendering of the characters’ informal nicknames. Good translations can initially be confusing if they don’t explain why each character has multiple names at the start, and some translations don’t use them or use Americanized versions of them to avoid overwhelming the average reader. Settle for the initial confusion.
What each character calls the other characters and vice versa is important in understanding the relationship between them. In these Russian novels, each character has three parts to their name, much like the first-middle-surname approach of Western cultures. The first and last names are the same as in western cultures. The middle name is a patronymic, or a name derived from the father. For the character Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, for instance, Ivan is his given name, Karamazov is his surname, and Fyodorovich indicates that his father’s name was Fyodor.
But each character also has a set of nicknames derived from their given name, and this can confuse western readers who don’t know much about Russian. The type of nickname used can often indicate a character’s relationship with someone else. A general rule of the thumb is, the longer the nickname, the “cuter” it is considered.
The character Aleksey (Or Alexei) Fyodorovich Karamazov, for instance, has many nicknames. The narrator and most everyone in the story call him “Alyosha”, his most basic nickname. The fact that everyone calls him by his informal nickname of Alyosha is important: it indicates that he is on informal terms with nearly everyone he meets. His more “cutesy” nicknames are Alyoshka, Alyoshechka, Alyoshenka, and Alekseychick. The only characters who ever call him by these names are the playful and promiscuous Grushenka (a cutesy nickname for another character on informal terms with everyone) and his father. Interestingly, the drunker his father is, the cuter his nicknames for Alyosha (and everyone else) get. Alyosha’s brother Dmitry also refers to him fondly as “Lyosha”, which is affectionate, but not necessarily “cute”. Alyosha’s other brother, Ivan, only ever calls him Alyosha, indicating rightly that he is not as close to Ivan as he is to Dmitry, something that is missed in some English translations.
Ivan, on the other hand, is a more serious and brooding character, and is never referred to by his nickname, Vanya. His two brothers call each other by nicknames all the time, but always refer to Ivan as just “Ivan”. Everyone else, even the woman Ivan loves and occasionally the narrator, call him by his most formal name: Ivan Fyodorovich. This is important, because it indicates that no one in the story, not even his own brothers, are close to Ivan; or else that Ivan considers himself too serious to be called by a nickname. His nicknames of Vanya, Vanka, and the cutesy Vanechka are only used once in the novel, by his extremely drunk and (at the moment) overly-sentimental father.
The way certain characters use the nicknames of others also hints at their personality. Ivan never uses nicknames except for his younger brother, Alyosha, once again indicating that he has no close relationships with anyone. Alyosha calls most of the characters (with the exception of his brother Dmitry and the woman he was briefly engaged to) by their given names alone, indicating that he is very polite. Their father Fyodor is a very sentimental drunk, and is always drinking; therefore he often calls his sons by their nicknames, and the nicknames he uses for them get cuter the more he drinks. Grushenka, a very playful and capricious character, calls everyone by cutesy nicknames to sound cute herself. The very proud female character Katerina Ivanovna is often called Katya by the male characters, but never to her face until the end of the novel, when her pride begins to melt.
These are subtle but important parts of characterization in The Brothers Karamazov. It’s possible to pick up these same things in an inferior translation that either omits or Americanizes the use of nicknames, but the nicknames are just such a wonderful indicator of a character’s relationships. This is very apparent in The Brothers Karamazov, which is all about the lives and personalities of the characters, but applicable to any classic Russian novel. My copy of Crime and Punishment omits nicknames and Americanizes them where they can’t be ignored, and I do feel like I’ve missed an important part of the story’s depth (which is why I bought a second copy, a better translation). When picking a translation of Anna Karenina, I found a passage that used a character’s nickname and looked at how it was translated in each version to find the one most true to the original Russian. It was worth it.
I’ll be posting my own guide on picking a good foreign language translation sometime in the near future, so look for it coming soon!