A Tale of Two Translations

Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy
My writing pal, Miz Hawks, that’s Lyn Hawks, if you don’t already know her, recently posted on her blog, A Writer’s Journey, concerning the need for writers to, as she put it, “make it fascinating.” How do writers manage to do this? 

• First, there’s the gosh-awful command of grammar, as writers use it: concise nouns, strong, imaginative, action-related verbs, minimal use of adjectives and adverbs, variation of sentence structure, i.e., a mix of simple, complex and compound-complex sentences. 

• And story-telling always relates best if the teller/writer has command of a sense of drama. 

• Of course none of this matters much if a writer’s voice isn’t strong enough to draw story, teller, and reader together. 

 I certainly won’t accuse Count Leo Tolstoy of violating any of these writerly precepts; his skills are exemplary, without question. As an aside, translators should keep these bulleted points in mind when crossing language barriers between such adept writers as Tolstoy and his contemporary readers.
My first acquaintance with Hadji Murad occurred a couple of years ago, through a translation published by a small house, Cosimo Classics. 

And here I think I need to boil the story down for you:
This more or less true story concerns an insurrection in the Russian (not Soviet) empire of the 1800s by Chechnyan Muslims. One of the more prominent Muslims of that day, Hadji Murad, has become embroiled in a dispute with another of his kind, Shamil. Hadji Murad decides to cross over to the Russian side of this mini-war in hopes of bringing the formidable Russian forces to bear against Shamil.
But Hadji Murad and his small inner circle begin to get bad vibes from the Russians. 

Why? First, they’re held in close quarters by the Russians and not allowed to roam freely. 

Second – and this should prove the most intriguing aspect of Tolstoy’s story to modern readers – Hadji Murad and his band are so culturally removed from the Russians that neither group can conceal their mistrust of the other. 

Then news comes to Hadji Murad that Shamil has taken his family hostage. Shamil hopes to lure Hadji Murad back to Chechnya so the two can do battle and so, hopefully, Shamil can kill Hadji Murad.
By now, Hadji Murad is sick of his Russian “protectors” and he does attempt an escape. The ensuing chase ends in a very cinematic battle between Hadji Murad’s small band and the Russians. 

What made this story popular throughout the Russian empire of the day was the valor displayed by Hadji Murad’s band in this final battle – some half-dozen men against two hundred.
Harold Bloom called this early work of Tolstoy “the best story in the world.” Besides portraying a segment on Russian history (Tolstoy’s forte) the Count masterfully depicts the differences between these cultures: the European cant of Russia, with its faux-French sensibilities, the manner in which it used its military technology to hold a far-flung empire together. And his compelling depiction of the tribal, Asian mode of these Chechnyans, with their simple manner of living, their internecine feuds, their preference for simple weapons bravely used is a story in itself, a most pertinent one in the twenty-first century. 

But the irony of this story, as it applies to modern times, is how little part religion played in Tolstoy’s story of Hadji Murad. 

 Now back to the subject of translations:
The earlier translation mentioned left me cold. I hardly remember any of it, although it did register that Tolstoy had a good story on his hands.
Recently I read a new translation of the novella in a compilation of Tolstoy’s works by Pevear and Volokhonsky. The difference is stark, and here we fall back on Miz Hawks’ exhortation to “make it fascinating.”
To draw these two translations together in order to see how “making it fascinating” works, I’ll cite a passage from each translation.
This segment opens Tolstoy’s novella in its third paragraph, with a rather poetic metaphor for both Hadji Murad and the Chechnyan subculture – that of a thorn bush called a “Tartar.”
Cosimo Translation:

The Tartar plant had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it.

P/V Translation:

The “Tartar” bush consisted of three shoots. One had been broken off, and the remainder of the branch stuck out like a cut-off arm. On each of the other two there was a flower. These flowers had once been red, but now they were black. One stem was broken and half of it hung down, with the dirty flower at the end; the other, though all covered with black dirt, still stuck up. It was clear that the whole bush had been run over by a wheel, and afterwards had straightened up and therefore stood tilted, but stood all the same. As if a piece of its flesh and been ripped away, its guts turned inside out, an arm torn off, an eye blinded. But it still stands and does not surrender to man, who has annihilated all its brothers around it.

For my money, the P/V translation wins this translation Super Bowl. While the two translations are of a narrative segment, both humanizing the plant, the second does a number of things storytellers would do well to keep in mind: 

• In the first sentence it implies with “shoots” the inherent vulnerability of the plant. This is a wise and effective word choice. 

• A short, simple sentence draws attention to the flowers. 

• In the bush’s ensuing description, P/V use varied sentence structures, almost musically, to give information. 

• In the final sentences, any reader will surely be aware of the storytelling – the “drama of the telling” – which draws the teller, story, and reader closer together. In the first translation, these sentences seem clinical and distancing by comparison. 

I hope this rather long post echoes Miz Hawks’ expressed sensibilities as it informs on this early work of one of western culture’s finest storytellers. Making it fascinating has the effect of searing a piece of writing into a reader’s memory. The story has to be a good one, of course. But the telling makes it memorable.

My Rating: 5 of 5 stars


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