Dostoevsky's Novel "The Idiot"
July 15, 2013 8:48 PM   Subscribe

Reading the novel in English translation, I was surprised by the characters "blushing" in any number of situations. It seemed excessive and un-natural. Or perhaps the translator used "blush" for a word that doesn't have the same meaning in Russian. Can a Russian speaker, having read "The Idiot" in the original, tell me why this constant "blushing" in the English version?
posted by stirfry to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I looked up the Martin translation on Project Gutenberg and compared it against the Russian in a few places:
"No, no I—I—no!" said Gania, bringing out his lie with a tell-tale blush of shame.
— Н-нет… я… н-нет, — солгал Гаврила Ардалионович, и краска стыда залила ему лицо.

VII again.
Gania was much confused, and blushed for shame.
Ганя ужасно смутился и даже покраснел от стыда.

He was experiencing a last humiliation, the bitterest of all, at this moment—the humiliation of blushing for his own kindred in his own house.
Еще одно непредвиденное, но самое страшное истязание для тщеславного человека, — мука краски за своих родных, у себя же в доме, выпала ему на долю.

IX again.
The general blushed dreadfully; Colia blushed too; and Ptitsin turned hastily away.
Генерал покраснел ужасно, Коля тоже покраснел и стиснул себе руками голову; Птицын быстро отвернулся.

I'm certain that she's doing this to revenge herself on me, on account of the past, though I assure you that all the time I was blameless. I blush at the very idea.
…я упорно убежден, что она это из личного мщения ко мне, помнишь, за прежнее, хотя я никогда и ни в чем пред нею виноват не был. Краснею от одного воспоминания.
The Idiot is a novel of manners. I'd have to look at more examples to form a complete picture, but it looks like the translator didn't do a very effective job of conveying when people's faces color, or maybe blushing had other connotations in the translator's day. Blushing, for me, in English, connotes embarrassment, coyness, or guilt. Timid people blush. In modern English, one doesn't really "blush with outrage." We have somewhat broader expressions to convey strong emotion that is suffered silently, like "color flooded his face" or "her face flushed with anger." Dostoevsky mostly seems to have written the equivalent of "his face colored with […] or from […]," which the translator has in every case translated as "he blushed."
posted by Nomyte at 9:50 PM on July 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

Which translation did you read? Out of curiosity, I searched in Google Books and the translation I searched (Carlisle) only had it 7 times. While you're waiting on a native Russian speaker, I just want to point out that while modern day US culture doesn't portray the average person as blushing all the time, that hasn't been true in all places and times. Just watch anime, you'll see characters blush like 7 times per episode. You also see endless reference to blushing in 19th century English literature, too.
posted by cairdeas at 9:52 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The translator is Eva Martin. I haven't counted the "blushing hits" but not only the Prince of epileptic problems but also all other personages, including Generals and other "high ministers" blush for what I read as no good reason. Thus I wonder about the meanings of words and also Russian society of the time.
posted by stirfry at 10:16 PM on July 15, 2013

Something to bear in mind is that some writers have pet expressions they use a lot, apparently without being aware of it. In the early Harry Potter books JK Rowling often has people use the word "ickle" (for little) in sarcastic babytalk, and in the later books I seem to remember her using the phrase "shadowy alleyway" a little too often. (It stuck out to me because it's kind of a musical phrase.) Somebody pointed out that Rod Serling often has characters on The Twilight Zone say, "Hey, what's the gag?" I don't know if that was a common expression of the era, but he did use it a lot.

So, it could be a bad translation or a culture/era-specific thing, or it could be that Dostoevsky just had a weird blushing tic in his writing.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:34 PM on July 15, 2013

I'm seconding the idea that it might be a tic of 19th-century Russian literature (and perhaps of English translations thereof). Recently, I saw a production of a new musical called "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812," which was adapted from Tolstoy's "War and Peace," with most of the lyrics taken directly from Tolstoy. I lost count of the number of times the characters, particularly the young heroine Countess Natasha, described themselves as "blushing."
posted by clair-de-lune at 10:54 PM on July 15, 2013

Best answer: It's not a pet phrase or tic, it's an ineffective translation for sure. The passages quoted by Nomyte all sound different to my Russian ears, and I don't think using a single word like "blush" in English gets the right meaning across, with all the contexts. I agree that "flushed with anger" or something else that describes the change of color would have worked better instead of beating a one-word literal translation. Pity!

("... the color of shame flowed over his face..." is far prettier than just saying someone blushed!)
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 11:28 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a preface by Nabokov (I think!) to a book (I can't remember the title or author, but it was along the lines of a swashbuckling 19th century adventure story) where Nabokov goes on and on in a rather hilarious manner about the various colors and shades that people's faces are continually turning in this sort of literature: red, green, purple, white, pale, bloodless, yellow, dark, etc etc etc. He also goes into the various blushing, flushing, paling, darkening, blotching, and other remarkable changes that tend to come over characters' faces at the rate of several times per page.

He points out that we don't typically see these things in real life situations, certainly not so vividly or dramatically, certainly not so quickly, and certainly not so reliably tied to a person's emotional state.

His point was that the colors and changes in characters' faces was

#1 a common device/shorthand used by authors of certain eras and genres,
#2 designed to communicate or dramatize information about the characters emotional state and inner reactions, and
#3 although our faces do change color etc in real life in certain ways, the precise descriptions in this type of literature is better understood in terms of its life as a literary convention than trying to imagine the colors etc happening literally.

So sorry I can't give a better reference or source, but this explanation has always struck me as a useful way to understand those genres of literature where the faces various characters are always blushing, flushing, paling, greening, purpling, blotching, and all the rest. It's simply a type of commonly used shorthand used to convey a character's emotional reaction or emotional state.
posted by flug at 11:57 PM on July 15, 2013 [8 favorites]

I haven't counted the "blushing hits" but not only the Prince of epileptic problems but also all other personages, including Generals and other "high ministers" blush for what I read as no good reason.

Not necessarily relevant, but epilepsy is associated with blushing:
Especially temporal partial seizures are associated with autonomic dysregulation . Seizures may only manifest themselves as burping, pallor or blushing, feeling ...
and Dostoevsky was epileptic himself :
Seizures which occurred in the daytime were often preceded by an ecstatic aura, which has led neurologists to theorise that he had temporal lobe epilepsy with secondary grand-mal epilepsy.
posted by jamjam at 12:02 AM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Readers also have different opinions on how translations should be. Should they be particularly liberal and localized into the translated language? How strictly to the original should the translation be, is awkwardness permitted at times in order to be more faithful?

I'm a real stickler about translations, and actually prefer rather literal translations, which are the stereotypical results of a newbie translator. Maybe that fits. I took three years of Russian so I have some familiarity with the language, and love English-Russian dual language editions if I don't want to deal with only the Russian and instead want to read off of one language and supplement off the other. (For instances, this translator just lops off the second half of "Коля тоже покраснел и стиснул себе руками голову" and translates it as "Colia blushed too" leaving off the part about Kolya clutching her head with her hands. Like, who does that? I was reading Bunin, and glanced at the English translation. It read something as follows: "Like a flash of lightning in a storm, he died." The original Russian was literally, a simple: "He died suddenly." Bunin's short stories are also intentionally precise and concise. The English translation just utterly botched it all. Like honestly, how do you work as a translator and justify to yourself adding or removing content? This isn't your story!)

For instance, I actually prefer the translator's use of "blush." The Russian uses the same word, and I like that the English preserves it. It brings me closer to how the actual Russian is. They don't use different words, though the different usages bring different meanings. But as a native speaker of English, it's easy for me to take the repetitive use of "blush" which may mean a particular thing for us, but then come to understand it as a Russian word, as a more all-encompassing concept than a: "turn red in embarrassment."

Translation critics, even though they may not like generally literal translations, will pick up on this same idea. If the original text repeats a certain word, then the translation should too. (Of course, these are different situations, where the author consciously wants to emphasize a word. But I digress.)

Also, for what it's worth: I've commonly heard from people that English translations of classic Russian works are real stiff in general. I'm not quite sure what it is. But that's been my general impression of all translations of classic works anyways.
posted by SollosQ at 3:06 AM on July 16, 2013

Best answer: Russian was my major in college, and I agree with Tequila Mockingbird --- I wouldn't have used "blush" for all those phrases because "blush" doesn't describe what's going on emotionally all that well in all of those sentences.

и краска стыда залила ему лицо.
and a blush of shame poured on to his face

Ганя ужасно смутился и даже покраснел от стыда.
Gania was terribly confused and further reddened from shame

Еще одно непредвиденное, но самое страшное истязание для тщеславного человека, — мука краски за своих родных, у себя же в доме, выпала ему на долю.
He was experiencing one final humiliation, the worst of all at this moment, the humiliation of turning red for his own relatives in his own home.

Генерал покраснел ужасно, Коля тоже покраснел и стиснул себе руками голову; Птицын быстро отвернулся.
The general reddened terribly, Kolia also reddened, and Pitsin turned quickly away.

At least that's one way I'd have done them. The verb "to blush" in Russian literally translates as "to redden" or "to turn red." I think in some places using the more literal translation of the Russian verb would have conveyed the emotional aspects better to an English reading audience.

But then you get into the questions of how to successfully translate --- as literally as possible, idea for idea, do you as the translator "improve" the work or portray it only as it is? Those questions go on and on have taken up a lot of space in translation journals.

I translated a book of short stories from Russian to English for my senior thesis when I was in college, so I spent a lot of time not only translating but reading theories of translations specifically between Russian and English. I also read two different versions of "The Hobbit" translated into Russian, and Bilbo's last name in each version was a completely different word for "bag" in Russian --- neither of which fit with Tolkien's alliteration. It was definitely interesting to note that.
posted by zizzle at 6:40 AM on July 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I basically agree with SollosQ; I prefer, other things being equal, to use the same word in English for a given word in Russian—simply wanting to avoid repetition is not a good enough reason (I wrote about the issue here). But if using the same word in English gives a misleading impression, then you need to do something different, and I think that's the case here, because "blush" is much more restricted in usage than the Russian verb.

On the other hand, you have to bear in mind that literary conventions change, and presumably you don't want translators to pretend they're translating a modern novel and edit out the strangeness. I'm currently reading a bunch of early-nineteenth-century Russian novels (why are there no translations of Narezhny or Veltman, both wonderful, lively, engaging writers?), and one thing that's struck me is that people cry all the time in them. It's not just a Russian thing, weeping was part of the sentimental movement that swept Europe in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, but it really strikes you. Not just women, not just kids, everybody weeps at the slightest pretext: meeting a guy you served in the army with, being handed a bowl of borshch when you've been out in the cold, whatever. It's the default signifier for emotion of any kind. Which reads very weirdly after a couple of centuries, but you get used to it the way you get used to the frock coats and duels.
posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on July 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I took a few years of Russian in college. When we read Anna Karenina, my professor stopped after one line and declared it one of the most beautiful lines in Russian literature. I remember it in part because it was so short, "Анна краснеет."

Literally, Anna turned red. Or Anna blushed.

I haven't read the Idiot, but I remember there being a lot of blushing, smiling, and similar reactions in Tolstoy, so maybe it was a stylistic thing at the time.
posted by bubonicpeg at 6:53 AM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

> When we read Anna Karenina, my professor stopped after one line and declared it one of the most beautiful lines in Russian literature. I remember it in part because it was so short, "Анна краснеет."

I was curious about where this occurred, so I used CTRL-F on the Russian text and discovered (not greatly to my surprise—memory plays funny tricks on us!) that it doesn't. There are two two-word sentences about people blushing, but neither of them is Anna (Кити покраснела 'Kitty blushed'; Варенька покраснела 'Varenka blushed'); the closest we get with Anna is "Анна имела способность краснеть. Она покраснела и сказала..." 'Anna had a talent/aptitude/flair for blushing. She blushed and said...'

I wouldn't have posted that here, since it doesn't answer the question, but in the course of searching I discovered that the verb краснеть in its various forms is used at least a hundred times (I wish I'd counted). Every single character blushes multiple times; I particularly liked "'Который раз мне делают нынче этот вопрос!' -- сказал он себе и покраснел, что с ним редко бывало": '"How many times have people asked me that question today!" he [Vronsky] said to himself and blushed, which rarely happened to him.' I doubt I'll ever be able to read the novel again without noticing all the blushing and reddening.
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you folks. You've given some interesting insights as I go on my next hike with Friend Kindle and finish The Idiot. Ah, the poor excitable Prince!
posted by stirfry at 2:09 PM on July 16, 2013

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