Friday, January 29, 2010

"Fair field, clear course!" or, Hunting for good translations

One minor hope I had for the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace was that it would remove a source of silly, but real, irritation in the first translation I read, Ann Dunnigan's 1968 translation for Signet Classics. When the Rostovs lead a hunt at their country house, they're joined by a distant relative whom they address as uncle, and in Dunnigan's translation he is always referred to as "Uncle," with the quotation marks around the name to remind us that he's not really their uncle. As you can imagine, the repetition of those quotation marks is incredibly grating--almost fingernails-on-a-chalkboard painful--by the end of that scene.

Fortunately, Pevear and Volokhonsky dispense with the quotation marks, but they make another change to that scene that is frustrating in its own way. Uncle is an enthusiastic hunter, and, like an incidental character in Dickens, he is distinguished almost exclusively by a verbal tic, a constantly repeated favorite exclamation of delight--which, in Dunnigan's translation, was rendered as "Fair field, clear course!"

Pevear and Volokhonsky render Uncle's favorite phrase much more simply, as "Right you are!"--which offers some of the same tone, but none of the individuality or memorability of "Fair field, clear course!" Constance Garnett (who also dispenses with the quotation marks around Uncle), I find, translated it as, "All's well and quick march," which seems somewhere in between the two approaches. I don't have Anthony Briggs's 2005 translation at hand to consult, but I recall it being criticized for making the Russian soldiers sound too British, which makes me suspect his version probably falls closer to "Fair field" than "Right you are."

Not knowing Russian, I don't have any real idea which of these versions is closest to what Tolstoy intended, and their sheer range suggests a certain untranslatability at the core of the phrase. But I'll happily admit to still being partial to "Fair field, clear course!" There's an unquestionable tinge of the English countryside in that phrase, but it's memorable and effective nonetheless--when I idly think of War and Peace, as often as not I find myself thinking, "Fair field, clear course!"--and it succinctly conjures up a picture of a hearty, bluff, hail-fellow-well-met sort of character in a way that I imagine Tolstoy, a fan of Dickens, must have intended.

Any readers of Russian want to weigh in with their own translation?


  1. Levi,

    My first language is Russian, but English is my primary language, and when I read Russian I always find myself struggling to translate some of the most interesting parts of the text. It's frustrating because there are many instances when a phrase or paragraph I want to share with my English-speaking friends just cannot be said with the same effect in another language.

    Now, having said that, the case of the uncle with the verbal tic unfortunately happens to be one of those things that is untranslatable in any way that would make sense. Literally, it means "A clean business march." (Or "A march is clean business.")

    I think it's correct to compare these idioms to a Dickens character because Tolstoy's characters, I noticed (I am currently reading Anna Karenina), as well as other gentry speaking in this era of Russian literature have these phrases that are essentially along the lines of British quips such as "I do say so" and cannot be understood by literal translation except as just decorational additions to their conversations. The author would never write a phrase like that except in dialogue, unless he/she was understood to be in a dialogue with the reader directly (like Dostoevsky does in many of his novellas, although I've never noticed him using these conversational 'enhancers').

    Also, I'd like to point out that the Russian word for "uncle" does not necessarily mean that the man referred to is even related to the person calling him that. It's a term of endearment for close friends of the family, mostly used by children. The same goes for aunts.

    While I haven't read War & Peace completely and cannot verify the relation of the man in question to the Rostovs, I believe that it might be Dunningan's reason for using the word in quotations, though I personally would have tried to squeeze in a footnote or mentioned in in a preface.

    1. Olga, does it make sense in Russian?