I have long thought that Alexander Pushkin's short novel 'The Captain's Daughter' is the best in Russian literature. At least in the sense that it has, in concise form, everything that Russian writing is great for: passion, depth, characters, historical scale, structure and, of course, the language.
Somehow I have taken for granted the beauty of Pushkin's prose. This is why I was surprised - and delighted - to read Robert Chandler's essay on translating 'The Captain's Daughter'. (Languagehat published a post about him and discussion continues there). Chandler looks at the poetic devices used in Pushkin's prose. This is what he says on Pushkin's soundwork:
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, Beaupré, 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: Beaupré v otechestve svoem byl parikmakherom, potom v Prussii soldatom, potom priekhal v Rossiyu pour être 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 Beaupré’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 Beaupré’s repeated requests to the housekeeper for vodka: ‘Madam, zhe vu pri, vodkoo’.Here, I am not quite sure why vodka in the comical phrase 'мадам, же ву при, водкю' is rendered into English as 'vodkoo' which is the phonetic straightforward of Accusative (водку)? Does vodkyu or vodqueue not sound right in English?