All creatures great and small – Братьев наших меньших
Idioms are often very difficult to translate because they sit so deeply within the cultural context of the source language and often carry an emotionally or politically charged baggage. If you use an equivalent idiom of the target language, you may lose the cultural colours of the original. If you translate the idiom as it is – as a syntax sequence and not as an idiomatic unit, you may lose the expressivenes of the original. ‘French leave’ (to be absent without good reason)and ‘filer a l’anglaise’ (to leave without saying goodbye) are of the same origin, but no longer mean the same and contain national type-casting which has to be either avoided or qualified in translation. Finding the balance isn’t always easy.
Here is one example where I think I found a pair that play together well.
One Russian idiom for animals is ‘our little brothers’ (“братья наши меньшие”). It comes from the beautiful 1924 poem by Sergei Yesenin ‘We are leaving now, little by little’ (“Мы теперь уходим понемногу”)
Счастлив тем, что целовал я женщин,
Мял цветы, валялся на траве
И зверье, как братьев наших меньших,
Никогда не бил по голове.
I am happy, I have kissed a woman,
I have slept in grass and flower-bed,
And I never, like a decent human,
Hit a dog or kitten in the head.
(tr. Alec Vagapov)
The expression is widely used, often as a neutral alternative – just to avoid the repetition of the word 'animals'. It’s reached the point where it has become a cliche. Perhaps that is why ‘all creatures great and small’ popped up in my mind when I was translating a Russian text with the phrase into English.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is a wonderful 1848 Anglican hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander, but unfortunately, as with all overpopular pieces, it, too, has reached the cliche stage when it is parodied and used in satire. Monty Python made it into ‘All Things Dull and Ugly’.
So, for translation purposes, we have corresponding meaning, widely recognised idiomatic status, an allusion to Christian and ecological message – and a stale flavour of overuse.
I haven’t seen a translation of ‘All Things’ into Russian, but ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Coleridge, which is said to have been the inspiration for Mrs Alexander’s hymn, was translated in 1919 by Nikolay Gumilev.
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.
In Russian (from here):
Прощай, прощай! Но, Брачный
Словам моим поверь!
Тот молится, кто любит всех,
Будь птица то, иль зверь.
Словам моим поверь!
Тот молится, кто любит все -
Создание и тварь;
Затем, что любящий их бог
Над этой тварью царь.
Here is a video with the 'Bright and Beautiful' music by William H. Monk based on traditional English melody 'Royal Oak'
And this is a choral adaptation by John Rutter: