Thursday, February 04, 2010

"A march is clean business," or, Yet another reason to love your local bookstore!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about a catchphrase repeated by a character in War and Peace, and the different ways I have seen it translated. Not knowing the underlying Russian, I could only guess at the reason the translations varied . . . but last night Jeff Waxman, Joyland author and bookseller at my favorite bookstore, 57th Street Books, put the question to a Russian-speaking friend, Olga Romadin, and she offered a detailed and interesting answer:
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 and Peace completely and cannot verify the relation of the man in question to the Rostovs, I believe that it might be Dunnigan'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.
Many thanks to Olga, who managed to fill what I had thought were surely vain hopes for answers, and to Jeff, too, for putting her on the case. In a week when the debate about online versus independent bookselling has unexpectedly flared up once more, what better demonstration could there be of the importance of the local?

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