Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anton Chekhov 1860-1904
Chekhov, Lost in Translation, the Right Word

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word. . .is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." 
                                                                              Mark Twain

While reading a short story by Anton Chekhov, called Heartache,  I was moved by his depiction of loneliness and grief, his concentration on character and mood.  And much later I read this story again by a different translator, Constance Garnett, and noticed that several key words in the version I had read earlier had been translated differently.  And what a difference it made.  

Translators have a difficult job; languages do not translate literally very well and the translator then must choose the right word to stay true to the original language, yet make it meaningful for the reader.  Vladimir Nabokov had written scathing critiques of Ms Garnett's translations.  And, as a dabbler in writing, not a true writer, it's interesting for me to compare the two versions to note how important the right word can be.

The story begins with the title, and epigraph, both different for each.  Ms Garnett--Misery and "To whom shall I convey my grief?"  The unknown translator of the second version--Heartache and "To whom shall I tell my sorrow?"  Already, I was suspicious.  Are you miserable when you have lost someone close to you or does your heart almost literally ache?

The story, set in the winter of  the late 19th century in St. Petersburg, is about a cab driver.  He has just lost his son and is trying to continue working, waiting with his horse and sleigh to take fares from here to there around the city.  It's twilight and snowing hard.  As the evening wears on, he has a few fares and he tries to tell them about his son, but they don't listen and are dismissive.  This continues with no one really understanding.  He finally decides to go back to the stable and as he is bedding down his horse for the night, he talks to the horse and. . ."tells her all about it."  (Constance Garnett) or. . ."he tells her everything."  What a difference between "all about it," and "everything."

I thought about this story for a long time.  I realized how important it is to listen.  My husband lost his best friend last week.  How patient my husband was when his friend would often call and talk about his aliments and how miserable he was feeling.  My husband would listen intently to his friend, asking just the right questions, trying hard to be supportive.

I found a You Tube video of  "Misery," read by Kenneth Branagh.  His reading is from  the Constance Garnett's translation.

Comments about the right word, struggles with writing, translations?


  1. wonderful post--everyone needs a good listener sometimes and to be one sometimes---we don't even need the right words for that:)

  2. From the few small lines that you wrote here, I can already tell that the unknown translator did a much better job. Translating is tough work. I'm fluently bilingual, I'm a writer, I'm a language teacher...but I do not think I'd be a good translator. It's about translating ideas, not words.

  3. So true. Now, all I need to do is to re-learn Russian and check that story. I think some languages are harder. Would love to know if Swedish translates easier than Russian. And I can see that "all about it" might sound better in the Russian meaning than English.