Sunday, February 20, 2011

Red Herrings in Strawberry Sea

Strawberry seas

A man in the wilderness asked me, 
How many strawberries grew in the sea. 
I answered him, as I  thought good, 
As many red herrings as swim in the wood.

(The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie.)

This is one my favourite nursery rhymes. I read it to the children, both in Russian and in English when I found it in the Opies' anthology. 

Here is how it goes in Russian:

Кто-то спросил меня в дикой стране, 
"Сколько клубники в море на дне?"
Я постарался ответить попроще:
"Сколько селедок в дубравах и рощах". 

The translator has changed the metre slightly, but the rhyme and the rhythm are retained. 

There are two clever finds in the Russian version.

First, instead of one word 'wood' two rarer and poetic Russian synonyms are used, 'дубравы и рощи' roughly meaning 'groves and copses', which gives a nice rhyme, проще – роща, and also accentuates the absurdist element in the rhyme. With just the 'wood' it may not be immediately clear how impossible it is for herrings to swim on dry land. 

Then, in the second and fourth lines the verb (grew and swim) in the sentence is dropped. Russian sentence structure allows this, the meaning is implied – it is clear what is going on without actually using the word for it. Russian words are generally longer than English, so applying this trick helped to preserve the metre.

'Red herrings' in the rhyme is not just tit for tat, you throw something silly at me, I throw even sillier something at you. The idiom in reply is also a clue: I understand that you are trying to pull my leg and showing that to you. It is not easy, maybe impossible to find a corresponding Russian idiom without losing the original imagery. Here the translator decided to keep the herrings in literal sense and drop 'red' altogether. 'Red herring' would mean nothing to a Russian reader, herrings in the woods is hilarious as it is.

The Russian anthology with the rhyme was published in the 90s, when sloppiness in publishing was wide-spread. While many other entries have attributions, this one doesn't. I couldn't find the name of the translator anywhere on the internet. Please let me know if you are familiar with it.

The Russian-language version of this post is on "Тетрадки".

Update: And a friend sent me a link to Natalie Merhant's song version of that rhyme.


Jamie Olson said...

Fascinating analysis of a fascinating nursery rhyme! Whoever translated it was quite clever and knew both languages intimately. I'd never seen it before either in English or Russian, so I really appreciate your post.

Alexander Anichkin said...

thanks, Jamie,
let me know if you come across anything that can throw more light on this.

Jamie Olson said...

I'm curious about the Opies' anthology that you mention. I've looked it up in a few places, but I can't find much information about it. Is it a multilingual anthology?

Alexander Anichkin said...

Jamie, hi,
thanks for commenting.
no it's not multilingual, it's authentically English.
Iona and Peter Opie are the famous English folklorists, who collected hundreds of rhymes. There is an article on them on wikipedia:

My book is a tattered 1963 Puffin edition of 220 pages. (the post links to it on Amazon). But I believe there are many more detailed ones out there.

Even though my children are well past the nursery stage (32, 16, 14), I always get butterflies in my tummy when I start 'There was a crooked man' (Жил на свете человек, скрюченные ножки) and they pick up 'and he walked a crooked mile'('и ходил он целый век по скрюченной дорожке').

Thanks to Chukovsky and Marschak many of the English rhymes went deep into Russian culture, even though there are some that the English won't know. One striking example is 'Hey, diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle' which has never been adequately translated/adapted into Russian, while 'Robin and Bobin, two big-bellied men', little known in English, is very popular in Russian as 'Робин-Бобин барабек, скушал сорок человек'.

I did a follow-up post with American folk-singer Natalie Merchant singing 'The Man in the Wilderness' – have you seen it?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...