Friday, May 29, 2015

Feeling Levin. The scythe, the swath and the hired men.

(three translations compared)

Anichkin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments... 

It then came back to me, both the technique and the enjoyment. A friend came to help with clearing the garden, he had a scythe, and I had a good go. My uncle, a forester in a small village near Pskov, taught me to mow with a scythe and explained how it worked. 

It also made me ‘feel Levin’, and I looked up the famous mowing scene (hay harvesting) in Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, when Levin joins in with the muzhiks. (Watch the hay harvest scene in a clip from the Soviet screen version of 'Anna Karenina', 1967 at the end of this post)

This is the passage from Tolstoy:  
Тит освободил место, и Левин пошел за ним. Трава была низкая, придорожная, и Левин, давно не косивший и смущенный обращенными на себя взглядами, в первые минуты косил дурно, хотя и махал сильно. Сзади его послышались голоса:Насажена неладно, рукоятка высока, вишь, ему сгибаться как, —сказал один.— Пяткой больше налягай, — сказал другой.— Ничего, ладно, настрыкается, — продолжал старик. — Вишь, пошел... Широк ряд берешь, умаешься... Хозяин, нельзя, для себя старается! А вишь, подрядье-то! За это нашего брата по горбу, бывало.

Same passage in Constance Garnett’s translation:
Tit made room, and Levin started behind him. The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously. Behind him he heard voices:"It’s not set right; handle’s too high; see how he has to stoop to it," said one."Press more on the heel," said another."Never mind, he’ll get on all right," the old man resumed."He’s made a start... You swing it too wide, you’ll tire yourself out.... The master, sure, does his best for himself! But see the grass missed out! For such work us fellows would catch it!"

Same passage in Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation:
Titus cleared his place and Levin followed him. The grass near the road was low, and Levin, who had done no mowing for a long time and was embarassed by the looks directed at him, mowed poorly for the first few minutes, though he swung strongly. Voices were heard behind him:
‘It’s not hafted right, the handle’s too long see how he had to bend,’ one voice said.‘Bear down on the heel,’ said another.‘Never mind, he’ll get himself set right,’ the old man went on. ‘See, there he goes... The swath’s too wide, you’ll get tired... He’s the owner, never fear, he’s doing his best! And look at the hired men! Our kind would get it in the neck for that.’

Same passage translated by Nathan Haskell Dole:
Sef opened the way, and Levin followed in his track. The grass was short and tough; and Levin, who had not mowed in a long time, and was confused by the watchful eyes of the men, at first made very bad work of it, though he swung the scythe energetically. Voices were heard behind him:
"He does not hold his scythe right: the sned is too high. See how he stoops like," said one. "Bears his hand on too much," said another. "No matter, it goes pretty well," said the head man. "Look, he goes at a great rate ! Cuts a wide swath! .... He'll get played out. The master is trying it for himself as hard as he can, but look at his row! For such work my brother was beaten once." 

(upd: see the Maudes' version a the end of this post, 9 Dec 2015)
Russian scythe
Photo by Vladimir Menkov
Garnett and Dole are Tolstoy’s younger contemporaries, and perhaps they could visualise the scythe and may have seen mowers at work with it. Pevear/Volokhonsky’s translation was published in 2000, when few, except a number of country dwelling aficionados would have good acquaintance with the scythe, especially with the old Russian type of the scythe. It has a long, straight, not curved, wooden shaft, a relatively narrow but long blade, longer than the modern Western garden scythe, and a V-shaped wooden handle, that grips the shaft somewhere around the middle. It can be clearly seen in this modern photo (2006, Nizhny Novgorod region on the Volga).

The V-shaped grip was tightened by a piece of rope, or leather, or sometimes with strips of fresh soft bark, as my uncle did. The trick was to adjust the handle on the shaft, higher or lower, in such a way that you could hold your back practically straight while making the right-left, left-right swaying movements, keeping the ‘heel’ (the place where the blade is attached to the shaft) as low to the ground as possible and stepping forward step by step. The grass would fall neatly in a row to your left. A team of mowers would move across the field in a staggered formation, leaving the rows across the whole harvested area. Now, these rows are called подрядье - podrYAdye. (Подрядьеср. Край скошенной полосы, ряда. Толковый словарь Ефремовой. Т. Ф. Ефремова. 2000.), i.e a swath, edge of the line of mowed grass or crop. A swath is also, of course, the width of grass that the mower catches in one swing, which in Russian in this sense is ряд, same as row. The muzhiks are criticising the messiness, untidiness of the swaths that Levin is leaving behind him. 

As you see, the two Tolstoy contemporaries caught his meaning regarding the set-up of the scythe and the mowing techniques, while the modern duo of Pevear/Volokhonsky completely missed both. From their translation it appears that they took the scythe to be hafted incorrectly and its shaft too long, while in fact it was just the V-shaped grip for the right hand (рукоятка), that apparently wasn’t adjusted to suit Levin’s height. It also shows in the incorrectly ‘corrected’ word that Tolstoy uses: рукоятка высока — the handle’s too long, instead of the correct translation in two other versions: handle’s too high (Garnett) and the sned is too high (Dole), though the latter uses a rarer word (Collins’ definition here).

Dole stumbles on придорожная grass, omitting this detail and adding ‘tough’ unnecessarily, while Garnett understands Tolstoy’s meaning — near the road. And in Dole’s, there is a really funny misunderstanding of the phrase ‘наш брат’ at the end of the passage. The expression is quite common and simply means ‘our lot’ (compare ‘all men are brothers’), not our or my brother.

Pevear/Volokhonsky boldly translate подрядье (swath) as ‘hired men.’ They were probably thrown off by the previous sentence ‘He’s the owner, never fear, he’s doing his best!’ (for himself as opposed to the hired mowers). Подряд (podryad) means contract, so the translators must have read подрядье as a collective noun for ‘men on contract’ without suspecting that there may be another meaning.

Out of the three, based on this passage, the winner is Garnett. Apart from being correct, to my, admittedly non-native ear, her translation flows more naturally, has a rhythm resembling Tolstoy’s. But that, of course, is a matter or taste.

Add. 9 Dec. 2015 (read a short analysis on Tetradki here):

And here is the corresponding passage by Louise and Aylmer Maude (from the Oxford University Press / Humphrey Milford edition, the World's Classics, 1926):

Titus made room for Levin, and Levin followed him. By the roadside the grass was short and tough, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long time and was confused by so many eyes upon him, mowed badly for the first ten minutes, though he swung his scythe with much vigour. He heard voices behind him:
'It's not properly adjusted, the grip is not right. See how he has to stoop!' said one.
'Hold the heel lower,' said another.
'Never mind! It's all right: he'll get into it,' said the old man. 'There he goes...'
'You are taking too wide a swath, you'll get knocked up.' ... 'He's the master, he must work; he's working for himself!'... 'But look how uneven! ... 'That's what the likes of us used to get a thump on the back for.'

Hay harvest scene from 'Anna Karenina', 1967 —


mab said...

Thanks so much for this! Great translation analysis -- and once again, good old Connie comes out ahead! (I absolutely agree that being a near contemporary -- and working with native Russian speakers every step of the way -- made a tremendous difference in her understanding and the quality of her translations.)
And thanks for the explanation of how to do it right. Everyone (well, every Russian neighbor) has explained it to me and shown me. It's very hard to keep your back straight and move only your arms. After I cut the grass at the dacha, I'm immobile the next day!

Alexander Anichkin said...

To me, it's also the laziness of the aforementioned duo. What does it take these days to look up the various translations? And, if you are working on a classic, have the commission from the huge publishing machine, and surely thinking of posterity, to check around?
Two obvious mistakes in a short passage, and the arrogance that comes through, considering that there is a wealth of other translators' experience. Hard to believe.

Alan Shaw said...

Yes, in the face of current doctrine about the lifespan of translations (less than a hundred years?) it's nice to see old work vindicated.

And that P & V wouldn't even think to check their wild guesses with someone who might actually know - arrogance is really the only word for it.

Alexander Anichkin said...

Thanks, Alan, I can't agree more.

Jamie Olson said...

I was rereading the mowing passage today and found it very helpful to revisit your post. Much thanks! And yes, Garnett always wins. She comes out on top each time I do a translation comparison.

Alexander Anichkin said...

Thanks, Jamie!

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