Agreeable eye.

an eudæmonistarchives

September 2021

a note on the translation

Книгу занимательную вы проглотите слишком скоро, она слишком врежется в вашу память и воображение; перечесть ее уже невозможно. Книга скучная, напротив, читается с расстановкою, с отдохновением — оставляет вам способность позабыться, мечтать; опомнившись, вы опять за нее принимаетесь, перечитываете места, вами пропущенные без внимания etc. Книга скучная представляет более развлечения.

—Pushkin, ‘Thoughts on the Road/Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg1

The other day as I was reading Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (ca. 1789; translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman, 2020), a chance word pulled me from the world of the book and set me to wondering about translation. The word in question appeared in chapter 6 (‘Spasskaya Polest’), perhaps the most famous part of the book, in the midst of a curious interchange the narrator overhears in the dark at a post-station cabin. The speakers turn out to be a treasury clerk and his wife on their way to Novgorod; the clerk is complaining about government corruption and, in particular, about a governor-general who happened to like oysters and went to extraordinary lengths (and immense expense using government funds) to satisfy his cravings.2 The passage that drew my attention ran as follows:

For as long as he had little moolah of his own he refrained from his craving, eating about ten at time, and then only when he happened to be in Petersburg. (p. 28)3

The word that caught my eye, of course, was ‘moolah’. Moolah: First attested (in the OED) in the sense of money, cash, the green stuff (and not a variant spelling of mullah) in 1936 – ‘slang (originally U.S.)’.4 An odd choice for a twenty-first-century translation of an eighteenth-century text. Seems like the sort of word one would use in a translation class to show the instructor – whimsically – that one is paying attention (‘engaging with the original’) and not cribbing from a pony (as Nabokov would put it).

It is impossible for me to have a well-informed opinion about whether or not ‘moolah’ is an appropriate choice in this particular passage. One must account for the fact that it is reported speech, and the translation should (or could) convey a sense of the character’s manner, as well as the narrator’s, as well as the author’s. Other renderings would leave a different impression:

Any time the topic of translation crops up, it always calls to mind W.H.D. Rouse’s comment on Elizabeth Carter’s translation of Epictetus (from the introduction to the Everyman edition): ‘Mrs. Carter’s own style is not the style of Epictetus; but it is a style, which is more than can be said of most writers at this time. At least she has represented the author’s ideas faithfully and coherently.’5 It is not the most sophisticated philosophy of translation, but it has its appeal. I will never know, of course, whether one of the silly alternatives presented above would have allowed me to eavesdrop on the treasury clerk uninterrupted. The thought of moolah, though, drew me out of the age of Catherine the Great and shoved me into a dimly lit production of ‘Death of a Salesman’ – an unhappy transition – and it was only with difficulty that I was able to overcome my irritation and return to the text.

  1. ‘You gulp down an entertaining book too soon, it sticks too much in your memory and imagination; it’s impossible to reread. A boring book, though, can be read with detachment, with relief – it allows you to forget yourself a bit, to dream; when you come to, you take up it again and re-read the passages you missed through inattention, etc. A boring book is more fun.’ (Englished with the help of Google translate and advice from PF, which I did not always take.) []
  2. Modeled, perhaps, on Potemkin. []
  3. My knowledge of Russian is limited to what one might pick up casually in a post-Soviet republic where Russian is not the primary language (молодец!). For those who are interested, however, the original (cf. old style in the 1790 edition) is: «Пока деньжонок своих мало было, то он от охоты своей воздерживался, едал по десятку, и то когда бывал в Петербурге» (emphasis mine). []
  4. The entry in the OED made me wonder if ‘moolah’ had an afterlife in Australian English, but not to the extent of wanting to pay to subscribe to check in Macquarie. Cf. Google’s ngram for moolah – the nineteenth century spikes involve mullahs, not money. Perhaps a problematic approach to arguments on language use; my aim is the anecdotal, not the authoritative. []
  5. Whether a translator should or should not be credited on the cover is a matter on which I have no opinion, save that a name is more likely to send me (as a reader) away than to draw me to a book I would not otherwise read; indeed, some names create an internal struggle which only ends in their favor if there is no other readily available translation of the same title. Take, for instance, the case of Pevear/Volokhonsky’s volume Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin; aside from not, in fact, being ‘complete’ (it does not contain a translation of the text quoted in the epigraph to this post, for example), the only reason I ended up buying it was because it is not easy to find another affordable translation of Pushkin’s Journey to Arzrum. []

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