Five years ago, a Russian friend, hearing I was intending to translate ‘The Queen of Spades’, said, ‘That will be very difficult, harder even than translating Andrey Platonov. You’ll find you can’t afford to change a single comma.’ My friend proved only too right; every slightest liberty I had allowed myself in the first draft came to seem unacceptable. I imagined, however, that The Captain’s Daughter would prove easier. I remembered it as being less deliberate, less precise in both style and structure, than ‘The Queen of Spades’. I could not have been more wrong. Like the novel’s young hero, Pyotr Grinyov, Pushkin is a trickster. The Captain’s Daughter, apparently a mere historical yarn, is the most subtly constructed of all nineteenth-century Russian novels. It took me some time, however, to realize this.
The Captain’s Daughter is presented as a memoir, written towards the end of his life by a provincial nobleman, Pyotr Grinyov. The plot turns on a number of gifts and their unexpected consequences. On his way to serve as an officer in the southeastern province of Orenburg, the sixteen-year-old Pyotr gets lost in a blizzard and is guided to safety by a mysterious peasant. Pyotr generously expresses his gratitude by giving the peasant a hareskin coat. In Fort Belogorsk, where Pyotr is posted, he falls in love with Masha, the captain’s daughter, and fights a duel against a jealous rival, Lieutenant Shvabrin. A rebellion breaks out; its Cossack leader, Yemelyan Pugachov, captures Fort Belogorsk. The treacherous Shvabrin goes over to Pugachov and advises him to hang Pyotr along with the other officers. Pyotr’s servant realizes that Pugachov is the peasant to whom Pyotr gave the hareskin coat. Despite Pyotr’s refusal to recognize him as Tsar, Pugachov spares Pyotr’s life and allows him to go free; he even gives Pyotr the gift of a horse and a sheepskin coat. A few months later, Pugachov shows still greater generosity, allowing Pyotr to return to Belogorsk and rescue Masha from the hands of Shvabrin, who is trying to force her to marry him. After the rebellion has been put down, Shvabrin denounces Pyotr, making out that Pyotr deserted to Pugachov just as he did himself; Pyotr’s acceptance of Pugachov’s gifts is used in evidence against him at a tribunal. In the last chapter, Masha goes to Petersburg, speaks to the Empress and persuades her of Pyotr’s innocence.
My first task, after completing a first draft, was to focus on reproducing the specific voices of the various characters. At this stage I began to work more closely with my wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth does not know Russian, but she has an unusually fine ear for tone and rhythm and her knowledge of English idioms is broader than my own. We work orally. I read a draft to her, sentence by sentence, and we discuss any phrases that either of us finds in the least unclear or in any way false, batting different versions to and fro until we either resolve a problem or accept that it is best left for another day.
Vasilisa Yegorovna, the wife of the fortress commandant, speaks a folksy Russian saturated with biblical phrases and popular sayings. It was important to find English equivalents for these, and still more important to reproduce the unstoppable impetus of her speech, the unselfconsciousness with which she rushes from topic to topic:
We sat down to dinner. Vasilisa Yegorovna did not stop talking for a single moment. She showered me with questions: who were my parents? were they still alive? where did they live? what were their circumstances? On learning that my father had three hundred serfs, she said, ‘Well, fancy that! Who’d have thought there are people in the world with such wealth? And we, dear sir, have only our one maid, Palashka. Still, thank the Lord, we manage to make ends meet. Our only sorrow is Masha: the girl should be marrying by now, but what does she have for a dowry? A fine-tooth comb, a besom broom and a three-kopek coin (God forgive me!) so she can go to the bathhouse. All very well if a good man comes her way, but otherwise she’ll remain an old maid till kingdom come.’
No single sentence here was especially difficult, but it takes a great deal of attentive listening to make a speech like this sound convincing. And even when a phrase sounds acceptable, there are nearly always improvements that can still be made. At one stage, this passage ended: 'she'll remain an eternal old maid'. It did not occur to me to question this until a student in one of my translation classes came up with the far more expressive 'Till kingdom come'.
In the case of her husband, Ivan Kuzmich, the biggest stumbling block was not so much the overall rhythm of his speech as a single phrase, 'Slysh ty' – literally 'Hear, you!', that he comes out with again and again, in situations that move gradually from the most casual to the most tragic. John Bayley memorably refers to this phrase as 'the Captain's invariable and unavailing exhortation to his wife'. It was easy enough to find a satisfactory translation for each occurrence of the phrase but difficult to find a translation that worked for all of them. Both 'Hear, you!' and the slightly less literal 'Do you hear me?' sound too aggressive. In the end we came up with 'Yes indeed!' Like the original, this suggests that the captain feels that his wife may not be taking in what he says and that he must struggle to make himself heard. It fits easily into the comedy of the earlier chapters and is appropriately incongruous in the darker chapters at the heart of the novel, after the outbreak of the rebellion:
‘The soup’s been on the table for ages, but you seem to have gone quite deaf.’ ‘Vasilisa Yegorovna!’ replied Ivan Kuzmich. ‘I do have my duties, yes indeed! I was drilling my old boys.’
Ivan Kuzmich, of course, agreed with his wife. He kept repeating, ‘Yes indeed, Vasilisa Yegorovna is right. Duelling is expressly forbidden by the Code of War Articles.’
Ivan Kuzmich looked at his wife and said, ‘Yes indeed, my dear, hadn’t I better send the two of you out of the way while we sort out these rebels?’
Pugachov looked at the old man sternly and said, ‘How dare you defy me, your sovereign?’ Ivan Kuzmich, weak from his wound, summoned up his last strength and said, ‘You are no sovereign to me; you are a thief and an impostor. Yes indeed!’
Pushkin's skill in finding a distinct tone of voice and linguistic register for each character was brought home to me especially vividly when I asked my third-year students to translate a passage of dialogue between Pyotr, the young aristocrat, and Pugachov the rebel Cossack leader. They translated Pyotr's clear, correct speech almost faultlessly but were floored by Pugachov's succinct, idiomatic, riddling knowingness:
Pugachov gave me a sharp look. ‘So you don’t believe,’ he said, ‘that I am Tsar Pyotr Fyodorovich? Very well. But does not fortune favour the bold? Did not Grishka Otrepyev reign long ago? Think what you like about me, but stay by my side. Why trouble your head over this, that and the other? Whoever the priest be, we call him Father. Serve me in good faith, serve me truly – and I shall make you a prince and a field marshal. What say you, your Honour?’
One student or another misunderstood almost every sentence. People often imagine that it is rare or complicated words that give a translator most trouble. Usually, however, it is apparently simpler phrases like 'Slysh ty!' or, in the passage above, ‘Kto ni pop, tot bat’ka’ (literally: 'Whoever be priest, he father') that are hardest. Liz and I had particular difficulty with the three simple words with which Pugachov ends both the passage above and another speech to Pyotr at an equally critical moment: ‘Kak ty dumaesh?' The literal translation, 'What do you think?', seemed too flat. In the end, we decided to translate the first passage as above, ending with 'What say you, your Honour?’, and to translate the second passage as follows: 'Pugachov noticed my apprehension. “Well?” he said with a wink. “My field marshal, it seems, is talking good sense. What say you, your Honour?» Pugachov’s sly humour gave me back my courage.’
To convey Pugachov's tone of voice in a way that would justify the subsequent reference to 'his sly humour', it was necessary to make several small departures from the literal. We changed 'think' to 'say', we inverted verb and pronoun, and we added the words, 'Your Honour', with which Pugachov addresses Pyotr on many other occasions:
Much of the novel’s wit derives from the way Pushkin juxtaposes the linguistic registers associated with the different characters and social strata. Some of these effects are simple. The following sentence, which comes just before the third meeting between Pyotr and Pugachov, poses no problems to a translator. Our translation is entirely literal: ‘I entered the hut or – as the peasants called it – the palace.’ The following exchange, towards the end of Pyotr’s first meal in the commandant’s house, proved a little harder to translate. It was difficult to strike the right balance, to find a way to bring out the clash of linguistic register without resorting to caricature. Shvabrin is being false but not blatantly so; Ivan Kuzmich is being simple and direct, but he should not sound like a fool:
‘Vasilisa Yegorovna is a lady of exceptional courage,’ Shvabrin declared solemnly. ‘Ivan Kuzmich can testify to that.’ ‘Yes indeed,’ said Ivan Kuzmich, ‘the woman’s no faint-heart.’
Many scenes in the novel are extremely funny, but the humour needs to be rendered delicately. An actor in a stage farce usually needs to keep a straight face. Similarly, it seemed important when we were translating the following lines not to create the impression that Ivan Ignatich, the garrison lieutenant, himself intends to be funny:
After briefly explaining that Aleksey Ivanich and I had quarrelled, I requested Ivan Ignatich to act as my second. Ivan Ignatich listened, eying me intently with his one eye. ‘So what you are so kindly telling me,’ he replied, ‘is that you want to run Aleksey Ivanich through and that you would like me to witness this? Is that so, may I ask?’
The humour is Pushkin’s not Ivan Ignatich’s. As John Bayley has written, ‘the old lieutenant does not even understand the function of a second, and the duel is reduced to the status of a farce by (his and the family’s) impenetrable good sense.’ It is Ivan Ignatich's clarity and straightforwardness that make the duel appear so absurd; if he were simply clowning, the effect would be different.
We had similar difficulties with the final paragraph of chapter nine, when Pyotr and Savelich are setting out on their way from Fort Belogorsk to Orenburg. Pugachov has just sent Pyotr a gift of a horse and a sheepskin coat:
I put on the sheepskin coat and mounted the horse. Savelich sat behind me. ‘See, master,’ said the old man. ‘I was right to hand the rascal my petition. His heart knows shame after all – not that a spindle-shanked Bashkir nag and a sheepskin coat are worth half of what the bandits stole and what you were pleased to give the rascal yourself. Still something’s better than nothing – and there’s worse than a tuft of fur to be had from a mad dog.’
The last sentence could be translated more literally as: ‘but it still will be useful, and from a wicked/bold dog even a tuft of wool!' The second half of this is a Russian saying; two approximate English equivalents are 'something is better than nothing' and 'half a loaf is better than no bread'. It is only rarely, however, that a translator of Pushkin can get away with such rough equivalents. The literal meaning of this saying is important; Pugachov has more than once been seen as wolf-like – and can therefore be identified with the 'wicked dog' – and Pyotr has just received from him a gift of sheepskin coat – that is, of a tuft of wool. One of our earlier versions was 'Still something’s better than nothing – and there’s worse to be had from a wicked dog than a tuft of fur.’ The trouble with this is that it creates the impression that Savelich, entirely uncharacteristically, is trying to be funny. Once again we had to find a way of making it clear that it is Pushkin, rather than one of his characters, who is making a joke. The solution was simple, but it took us time to find it. Changing the word order to bring the emphasis onto ‘mad dog’ – ‘and there’s worse than a tuft of fur to be had from a mad dog’ – makes Savelich appear to be moved more by anger and less by the desire to be witty. It also somehow makes the phrase sound more like a pre-existing idiom and less like something that Savelich has come up with himself. The suggestion of the danger of catching rabies may not be present in the original, but a slight inaccuracy seems preferable to having Savelich talk out of character.
Less obvious than the clashes of register are the many occasions, some of them moving, when one character unconsciously echoes the words of another. The main difficulty here lay simply in recognizing these often delicate echoes. Had I failed to hear them in the original, we would probably not have translated the phrases identically and so would have torn some of the delicate threads that bind the novel together. Both Pugachov and Savelich, for example, use the phrase ‘to all four sides’ in conversation with Pyotr Andreich. After sparing Pyotr's life in Belogorsk, Pugachov says, 'Go free to all four corners of the earth, and do what you will.’ When Pyotr declares that he wants to ride through country held by the rebels from Orenburg to Belogorsk, Savelich says, 'Just wait a little. Reinforcements will be coming soon. They’ll round up these rascals – then you can ride to all four corners of the earth.' Both Pugachov and Savelich, in their different ways, are fathers to Pyotr; they educate him in Russian ways and, like true fathers, are willing to release him into freedom when the time is right.
Pushkin’s webs of repetition are as complex as they are delicate. When Pugachov says, ‘So be it! When I hang a man, I hang him; when I pardon a man, I pardon him. That’s the way I am. Take your sweetheart, go with her wherever you wish and God grant you love and concord!’, he is not only echoing the sense of the speech we have just been looking at; he is also unwittingly repeating some of the last words Ivan Kuzmich ever says to Masha, shortly before his death: ‘Well, Masha, may you be happy. Pray to God: he will not forsake you. If a good man comes your way, God grant you love and concord. Live with him as Vasilisa Yegorovna and I have lived together.’ This repetition is moving – Pugachov is taking the place of the young couple’s absent fathers – but the generosity masks a poignant irony: had Pugachov not executed Ivan Kuzmich, there would be no call for him to be playing the role of surrogate father.
It is possible to tease out still more of these delicate threads. Ivan Kuzmich’s ‘If a good man comes your way’ is itself a repetition of a phrase used by Vasilisa Yegorovna in a speech we have already looked at: ‘All very well if a good man comes her way, but otherwise she’ll stay an old maid till kingdom come.’ The way Ivan Kuzmich unthinkingly echoes his wife’s words confirms the reality of the ‘love and concord’ between them. Here, of course, there is not a trace of irony; Pushkin's attitude towards the captain and his wife is respectful and affectionate.
As well as repeating phrases from earlier scenes, characters also sometimes repeat or contradict phrases from the chapter epigraphs and other poems. During the snowstorm in the second chapter Pugachov says to Pyotr, ‘I know this land well enough’. As Viktor Shklovsky has pointed out, these words directly contradict a line from the epigraph to that chapter, ‘Land unknown to me!’ Pugachov is as at home in the world of the steppe as Pyotr is lost in it. In the original the echo is strong yet unforced; 'storona mne znakomaya (land to me known) echoes storona neznakomaya (land not known). This particular echo, needless to say, is one that we were unable to reproduce.
Although Pyotr does not, like Pugachov, speak in riddles or extravagant metaphors, he uses language with equal skill. This is apparent, above all, in his response to Pugachov’s question: ‘Do you not believe that I am the great sovereign?’ For Pyotr to answer ‘No’ would mean death; for him to answer ‘Yes’ would be a betrayal. Instead, he uses allusion and equivocation to clear himself a narrow path down which he can walk to freedom. Firstly and most importantly, he enters into Pugachov’s world; his opening words, ‘Listen. I shall tell you the whole truth’ are an almost exact quotation from a song – a dialogue between a Tsar and a thief – that Pugachov loves and that he and his companions have just sung. The implicit parallel between, on the one hand, Pugachov and Pyotr and, on the other hand, the ‘true sovereign' and the ‘true thief’ of the song is, of course, flattering to Pugachov. Second, with the words, ‘Judge for yourself: how can I acknowledge you as my sovereign?’ Pyotr invites Pugachov to enter into his world, to see the world from his point of view. Third, Pyotr flatters Pugachov once again – and avoids giving a direct answer – with the words, ‘You’re no fool – you’d see straight through me.’ All three of these points were lost in our earlier drafts. Struggling to bring the folk song to life in English, I had cut out much of the crucial sentence about truth: ‘And I shall tell you, my Lord, I shall tell you, my Tsar, I shall tell you the whole truth’. We had translated ‘Rassudi:' (Reason!) as 'Think for yourself:' rather than the weightier 'Judge for Yourself'. And, rather than 'You'd see straight through me', we had 'you'd see I was lying' – which is far too direct and explicit. It is only possible to reproduce writing as finely textured as this if one has taken in every detail of the original. In this case I had missed a great deal and would have torn several threads of Pushkin's fabric had not an American Slavist, Polina Rikoun agreed to send me an advance copy of her outstanding article about Pyotr as a trickster.
My appreciation of The Captain’s Daughter has moved through several stages. At first, as I have said, I saw the novel as being rather casually structured – a patchwork quilt, a random collage of fictional letters, historical detail, and poems in a variety of different styles. Next, I became aware of such larger-scale symmetries as the parallels between Pyotr’s meetings with Pugachov and Masha’s meeting with Catherine the Great (Pyotr does not know Pugachov’s identity when they meet in the snowstorm, nor does Masha know Catherine’s identity when they meet in the park – and neither Pugachov nor Catherine has a true claim to the Russian throne). There are many other such symmetries (the two gifts of coats, the two attempted gifts of half a rouble, the two occasions, in the first and last chapter, when the elder Grinyov reads the Court Almanac). Thirdly, I became aware of the repeated phrases that I have just been discussing. Lastly, I began to notice the way Pushkin plays with repetitions of individual sounds.
Some of Pushkin’s effects of alliteration extend only the length of a single sentence. These leave a translator with little room to manoeuvre. Our original version of the first sentence of chapter nine, Pyotr’s account of the morning immediately after the fall of Belogorsk, was as follows: ‘Early in the morning I was woken by the sound of a drum.’ The Russian, however, is an unobtrusive but perfect example of onomatopoeia: 'Rano utrom razbudil menya baraban.’ We tried, naturally, to reproduce this effect, but we found there was little we could do. Our final version, ‘Around dawn I was woken by the sound of a drum’, has the merit of concision and contains some play on the sounds ‘D’, ‘N’ and ‘R’; nevertheless, it falls far short of the original.
Other examples of Pushkin’s sound play are more extended. Pyotr’s French tutor, Beaupre, carries with him his own sound world, centred on two of the consonants from his own name. Pushkin’s first description of him begins as follows: Beaupre v otechestve svoem byl parikmakherom, potom v Prussii soldatom, potom priekhal v Rossiyu pour etre outchitel. This aura of ‘PR’ proved oddly easy to reproduce; for the main part, in fact, we reproduced it unwittingly, before I had even consciously noticed it in the original. Only after coming up with the word ‘pronouncing’ for a sentence about Beaupre’s love of vodka cordials – ‘even came to prefer them to the wines of his fatherland, pronouncing them incomparably better for the digestion’ – did I realize that at least part of the word's appropriateness came from the way it harmonized with such words as ‘Prussia’, ‘prefer’, ‘prod’, and above all with Savelich’s scornful repetition of Beaupre’s repeated requests to the housekeeper for vodka: ‘Madam, zhe vu pri, vodkoo’.
The first paragraph of chapter eight contains a supremely moving example of alliteration. Pugachov has just captured Fort Belogorsk. Pyotr’s life has been spared, but he has no idea what has happened to Masha. He enters her home to find that ‘it had been laid waste. Chairs, tables and chests had been broken up; crockery had been smashed; everything else stolen. (…)Her bedclothes had been ripped and her wardrobe broken open and ransacked (…) But where was the mistress of this humble, virginal cell? A terrible thought flashed through my mind; I pictured her in the hands of the brigands. My heart clenched tight. I wept bitter, bitter tears and called out the name of my beloved.'
The first ten lines of the original sound staccato and harsh. There is a great deal of assonance, alliteration and some syllables are repeated several times: pere… pere… ras… perer… razb… razl… grabl… braz… razb… gor… gor… grom.. roiz…' Then the harsher consonants drop away and are replaced by repeated ‘P’, ‘L’ and ‘Sh’ sounds at the moment that Palasha the maid, as if reborn out of the sounds of her own name, suddenly takes centre-stage: 'I heard a soft rustling and from behind the wardrobe appeared Palasha, pale and trembling.’ ('poslyshalsya legky shum, i iz-za shkapa poyavilas Palasha, blednaya i trepeshchushaya.’ Until this moment, the narrator has consistently referred to as PalashKa, using a familiar form of her name that fits her lowly status; she is, after all, a mere serf and has, at least to some degree, been a figure of fun. Now for the first time she appears as PalaSHa, and the narrator will continue to use this more dignified form of her name for the rest of the novel. Her owners have been killed and she is free to act in her own right; she will show both courage and initiative and will play a crucial role in enabling Pyotr to rescue Masha from the hands of Shvabrin.
Alliteration is often a mere surface effect, a veneer. I know of no novel where the sound patterning is so integral, where thought, sound and feeling are so inextricably interwoven. The most remarkable of Pushkin’s sound patterns extends throughout the length of the novel and gathers together all its central themes. An astonishing number of the most important words in the novel are made up of permutations of the letters P, L and T. Clothes are platye and a coat is tulup or pal’to; a crowd is tolpa, a noose is petlya, a handkerchief (Pugachov waves a white handkerchief as a signal for his executioners to hang someone) is platok, and a raft (at one point Pyotr encounters a gallows on a raft) is plot; to pay is platit’ and a half-rouble coin (another item that plays an important role in the plot) is poltina; a rascal is plut and a crime is prestuplenie. Patronage is pokrovitel’stvo and to show mercy is pomilovat’. I doubt if anagrams have ever been used more subtly and with deeper meaning. Every element of sound and plot metamorphoses into another. The coat Pyotr gave to Pugachov saves him from having a noose put round his neck in front of a crowd of rebels; the coat Pyotr receives from Pugachov leads to him being arrested by the Tsarist authorities. The entire story turns on these coats – and on the ensuing allegation that Pyotr is a turncoat. This is not Pushkin’s pun; I like to think of it, however, not as my own discovery but as a small gift from the English language that a translator would be churlish to spurn.
Pushkin’s novel is about giving and forgiving. Translating it has been a joy and it would be graceless not to acknowledge not only the help I have received from friends and colleagues but also the giving and forgiving qualities of language itself. We tend to talk too readily of ‘what is lost in translation’ and I have probably dwelt too much on passages we found difficult to recreate. What is perhaps more remarkable is how welcoming the English language has been towards much of The Captain’s Daughter. The following chapter epigraph, for example, slipped into English as if of itself:
Our lovely apple tree
Has no young shoots and no fine crown;
Our lovely bride
Has no dear father and no dear mother.
No one to dress her
In a wedding gown,
No one to bless her.
It was as if English were a perfectly fitting garment waiting to welcome this poem. The line ‘In a wedding gown’ is not there in the original, but it begged to be added; our version seemed incomplete without it. Russian trees have peaks rather than crowns, and so the pun on ‘crown of a tree’ and ‘wedding crown’ is also unaccountably absent from the original. And the English language brought other gifts. Our use of the word ‘honour’ both as an abstract noun and as a form of address (‘Your Honour’) made it all the easier to emphasize one of the novel’s central themes; were a translator to backtranslate our version into Russian, he might well feel frustrated at having to use two different words where English has one. And the word ‘turncoat’, of course, is an extraordinary gift for a translator – so much so that I managed to remain blind to it until the last stages of revision. After finally realizing how perfectly it encapsulates the central theme of the novel I needed to think for a long time about how often to use it. In the end I decided it was important to exercise restraint; as Pushkin shows us, the acceptance of gifts can lead to accusations of betrayal. In our final version the word occurs only twice. Both times it is the father who uses it – in the first chapter, when he is sending Petrusha off to serve in the army, and in the last chapter, when he believes his son has failed in his service. The symmetry of this is, I believe, Pushkinian.
There is one last thread to hold up to the light. As an epigraph to this essay I chose a sentence quoted in the complete Oxford English Dictionary as an example of the use of the word 'turncoated'. This scornful view of translations, this feeling that they are 'turncoated things at best', has persisted over the centuries – and not only in the English-speaking world. About half of the articles I read about translation in non-academic publications mention either the Italian pun on 'traduttore' and 'traditore' (translator and traitor), the French idea of 'les belles infideles' (i.e. that translations are like women – either beautiful or faithful, but never both) or Robert Frost's irritating dictum that 'Poetry is what gets lost in translation'. My hunch is that this hostility towards translators and their work arises not from the entirely justified view that most translations are imperfect but from a suspicion of translators per se. Translators are, by definition, at least relatively at home in two or more cultures and their loyalty to any single culture is therefore questionable. It is interesting that Pushkin, apparently somewhat irrelevantly, tells us that Pyotr Grinyov is himself something of a translator. Not only does he, as a child, teach Beaupre to speak Russian; not only does he mediate between the world of the aristocracy and that of the Cossacks and peasants; he even, while serving in a remote steppe fortress, studies French and – most surprisingly of all – does regular translation exercises.
Translators are always vulnerable to criticism. If they do not make full use of their creative imagination, they will betray not only themselves but also the life and spirit of the original. If they do let their imaginations play, they are likely to be accused of presumption. Fidelity, however, is never simply a mechanical matter; to be faithful to a person, a belief, a cause or a work of literature, we must do more than simply obey a set of rules. There will always be times when we need to think more deeply, to ask ourselves questions about what it is we want to be faithful to and why. The best I can do by way of being faithful to Pushkin's P-L-T logogram is to use the word 'turncoat' at two significant moments. Like Pyotr Grinyov, we may sometimes need to be tricksters; perhaps, rather than worrying about being called turncoats, we should simply try to be more accomplished tricksters.