Translating Dead Souls and Persuasion
into Twenty-First Century America
I have embarked on a project that occurred to me while reading Gogol’s Dead Souls
last fall. At the time I was struck by the idea that Chichikov buys up something worthless to improve his status in society much the way bankers goosed the mortgage and derivative markets to create fragile wealth while shorting bonds with credit default swaps. I sketched a very basic outline modeled on Dead Souls
, chapter by chapter, and became convinced that the vague parallels could underpin a concrete transposition of the Dead Souls
plot to contemporary America.
During the fall and winter I was also composing a series of papers to elucidate the guiding principles of discourse and narration in German, Russian and English (the three languages I know). This study ultimately led to the conclusion that the preterit of indirect discourse in English narratives told in the past tense, as opposed to the present of Russian indirect discourse, gives the characters the ability to influence the narrative report and thus the potential commentary of the narrator on that narrative report. By gaining access to narration, the character can arrange a narrator to support him, and ultimately different characters can “possess” different narrators. The best example I know of an English narrative of this kind is The Bostonians
by Henry James where, to my knowledge, we have the first instance of two different first person commentators (narrators).
The upshot of this multiyear study was that I sought to explore this unique aspect of the English language not only in my recently completed novel Edge
, but also in this translation of Dead Souls
. To juxtapose one narrator with another, however, it was necessary to integrate a second novel into the project because Dead Souls
is told almost exclusively from Chichikov’s point of view. Primarily I was motivated by the two points that I will elaborate on below: finding a narrative with a plot “compatible” to Dead Souls
and one that stems from a different culture. Jane Austen’s Persuasion
seemed to be the ideal choice.
A) The Compatibility of Dead Souls and Persuasion
This effort to interweave two narratives was made substantially easier due to the similar length of the two works and the structure of Dead Souls
. Chichikov arrives in a town, goes around and buys up dead peasants, then leaves. Much of the plot involves his time at town gatherings and, above all, his negotiations with individual characters to buy their deceased peasants. This linear, progressive story lends itself well to the somewhat more elaborate structure of Persuasion
. Austen’s novel begins with the current situation of Sir Walter and his family (Ch. 1-3), then flashes back to Anne’s earlier relationship with Wentworth (Ch. 4), and then shifts to various locations. With only one novel only slightly more complex in terms of structure, I had little difficulty interweaving them in a different context.
Each novel also has a main character and a plethora of peripheral figures, which the combination and transposition of the narrative into a different context allows their merging into more prominent single figures. As far as the main characters go, the critical aspect facilitating the merger is the unobtrusiveness of Captain Wentworth coupled with the bachelor Chichikov, who can be joined without requiring the dissolution of one or the other. In Austen the peripheral characters appear and disappear at irregular points depending on the events whereas Gogol has Chichikov meet the important people at the beginning, then visits many of them individually and finally comes together with them one last time toward the end. The wide range of characters introduced at the initial gathering by the governor in Dead Souls
contrasts with Persuasion
where new characters appearing as late as part two of the novel. By blending the two novels, some of these later characters in Austen could appear right at the outset of the transposed Dead Souls
. Here for example is a very rough draft of the first scene in Dead Souls
where two peasants watch Chichikov's carriage ride into town:
Въезд его не произвел в городе совершенно никакого шума и не был сопровожден ничем особенным; только два русские мужика, стоявшие у дверей кабака против гостиницы, делали кое-какие замечания, относившиеся, впрочем, более к экипажу, чем к сидевшему в нем. «Вишь ты, - сказал один другому, -вон какое колесо! Что ты думаешь, доедет то колесо, если б случилось, в Москву или не доедет?» - «Доедет», - отвечал другой. «А в Казань-то, я думаю, не доедет?» - «В Казань не доедет», - отвечал другой. (Г 32)
The transposition replaces the two peasants with the governor's daughters (in Dead Souls
) and the specific characters of Louisa and Henrietta from Persuasion
His drive through Orange County did not stimulate any gossip and was only thought later to be noticed by the two daughters of the mayor as they schmoozed by the doors of the coffee shop across from the hotel.
“I love that model in black,” Louisa said to Henrietta.
“Wouldn’t you love to have one of those?”
“Totally,” Henrietta replied.
“But • like • definitely not in white.”
“Oh my god – no way!”
The same process takes place, for example, with Malinov from Dead Souls
and Charles Musgrove, who both become one character as Mr. Charles Friendly in the new novel.
The pragmatic need for compatible plots precedes the other affinities between the work for the composition of a new novel, but it is these other aspects that shape the subtleties of the project. Austen and Gogol wrote at roughly the same time in quite different social, political and cultural contexts, some of which sharply differ and some of which strongly relate to contemporary America. Both Austen and Gogol were extensive practitioners of irony, though they wielded it differently. The two narrators tend to restrict themselves to the scope of their main character and identify with him. The two authors also composed their respective narratives in an identifiable style that remains consistent throughout the work, yet the style of Austen differs somewhat from Gogol (primarily due to language obviously) and both differ to a greater (Gogol) or lesser (Austen) extent from twenty-first century American English.
B) How Can Austen be Translated into English?
Before I continue, you might, like my unintroduced interlocutors in real life, be wondering what I mean by translating Austen into English. While the translation of British English to American English and vice versa is quite common, with the most prominent example currently being the "translation" of the Harry Potter books from one English to the other, a discussion will clarify the fundamental process and differences from the Potter-type translation.
Here I am translating a narrative that was written almost two hundred years ago, when the English language assumed a form somewhat different from today. Every translator of the classics, usually from one foreign language to another, confronts this question when he seeks to render a past text in a contemporary translation. Over the last few decades there has been an increasing focus on "literal" translations, at least in the field of Russian-English translation. This in summary means that not only every word of the original appears in translation, but the sentence structure, complexity, idiom of the original are retained one to one in translation (See Nabokov, Volokhonsky & Pevear). This type of translation veers markedly from Elizabeth Inchbald’s translation of Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe
as Lovers' Vows
IT would appear like affectation to offer an apology for any scenes or passages omitted or added, in this play, different from the original: its reception has given me confidence to suppose what I have done is right; for Kotzebue's "Child of Love" in Germany, was never more attractive than "Lovers' Vows" has been in England. (Austen 469)
While Inchbald justifies her translation on the basis of its reception, a claim unthinkable with the classics today, I am partially seeking to convey the poetry of the original in its new translated context. To avoid a whole swath of untenable generalizations, this approach to translation means that a given source text is removed from its original context and placed in the context of the translator. Where the personal context of the translator says that his interpretation of a poetic passage in Dead Souls
cannot remain poetic by retaining the syntactic construction(s), such a passage is altered to suit his understanding of poetry in his native language. My reading of certain passages in Persuasion
as compared to my English tells me that certain constructions are not tenable for my readers.
The combining of the two narratives and the shift in context to the present also radically alters what can be copied from Austen. Wherever possible, I have directly copied the sentences, adjectives, nouns, etc. into the translation, but my understanding of poetic as well as the combination and shift in context has entailed that no more than 20% (rough estimate) can be lifted from the novel of 1816 (into the novel of 2011).
So then you might say that I have done nothing more than steal Austen’s plot, which is true in terms of the stealing, but not the nothing more. In order to sustain the translation character, I have used the syntactic construction as a template for the new novel. In other words, every sentence, every paragraph in the new narrative is based on the corresponding one in Persuasion
. Not only does this make it a translation, but it also facilitates the retention of an Austenian idiom that distinguishes itself from the Gogolian idiom developed the same way, albeit translated from Russian.
Returning to the point about poetry in translation, I am often baffled by the acolytes of the literal school who see literal only in terms of semantics when it is very possible that a sequence of words is partially determined by alliteration or, more frequently, internal assonance, rhythm, meter. A literal translation disregards this aspect, but reading such a translation recreates an experience as far removed from the original as possible, despite claims to the contrary by publishers and marketers, because the poetic reading of the Russian with its intentionally molded assonance, meter, etc. is eschewed in the name of identity in semantics and constructions. However, this agon with a camp of translation only surfaces as an implication of such a translation. The real fascination lies in the similarities and differences between Austen, Gogol and my narratives.
C) What Do We See in This New Novel?
Besides the aforementioned literary concerns, the new plot with an investment banker dealing in mortgages, derivatives and credit default swaps illustrates the continuity of dubious business practices to enhance prestige. The character that corresponds to Chichikov in the new novel currently called Dead Soul Persuasion
is also a socially accepted “aristocrat” who has the mannerisms and temperament that facilitate his integration into influential circles. As I have witnessed recently with great clarity, there is no less a tightknit coterie of bankers and politicians in my America today than with Gogol’s Chichikov in Russia where a man wishing to do business in powerful spheres goes to meetings and social gatherings to network.
A glance at Persuasion
shows how Austen’s narrative also possesses great similarity to my present on the larger scale. A woman recalls her former relationship with the belief that it can never take that form again, with anyone. Anne’s broken off engagement to Wentworth unfolds almost two hundred years later in a highschool friendship that ends with college. When they meet again, the bond uniting them has snapped and they relate to each other like acquaintances.
The social parallels extend well beyond the main characters of the novels. In Dead Souls
, the prominent landowners that Chichikov visits unveil a spectrum of types that existed in early nineteenth century Russia: e.g. Malinov personifies the friendly, happy man, Sobakevich – the materialist, Nozdrev – the brute, etc. As in Gogol’s Russia, my America also has a range of different characters, and perhaps with the exception of Nozdrev I can identify them in my immediate social circle. The bourgeois world described in Persuasion
seems hardly to need its continuity to middle-class America elucidated where families live quiet lives in houses and pursue their interests. These interests have changed to the extent that the continuity does not lie in every woman must be in want of a husband in possession of a good fortune and every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Today my female and male friends have careers that in many cases precede their concern for or about a partner. This difference is especially prominent from the Anne of Persuasion
to my Anne in Dead Soul Persuasion
, but in both milieus the conversation and content of their lives consists of personal and social topics – not of ideals, careers, etc. Various times this spring I caught conversations between friends sitting nearby me in Central Park. The topics involved dates, moving, Eastern spirituality, a couple that is perfect for each other, the cherry blossoms, problems with a mother, stress from worrying about what colleagues think about her and, once a woman briefly mentioned that her company did not want to pay for her to attend a trade fair and that she was going to Seattle next week on business. Even with the brief inclusion of business, these subjects mirror Anne Elliot's context: she or her friends talk about the new tenants, the move to Bathe, the beauty of Kellynch and even the navy profession and debt.
Especially this last topic resonates today, and Anne’s pragmatic approach to reducing her father’s debt by taking reasonable measures echoes the reason I hear from the middle class around me in the northeast. Reason is a defining characteristic of Anne Elliot, and on this level it is very easy for me to see her in the reasonable women I know with the photocopied shopping lists, garage tickets taped to the front door, a schedule for checking email, streamlined plans for the weekend. Furthermore, she is independent and emancipated in her own way, so although she may have been guided in adolescence, she won’t be later when she refuses to marry Mr. Musgrove or ultimately accepts Wentworth. My friends and I may not have been guided, but surely influenced, as Anne is by her college roommate in the transposed novel.
In terms of character, Chichikov also has his doppelgänger in my society two hundred years later. Granted, nobody I know spends the amount of time preparing for an evening gathering as Chichikov, and I don’t know anyone who has two servants that accompany him everywhere, but it is common for businessmen to have a routine and extensive service (assistance), both of a different kind, but still real. So while Joe in Dead Soul Persuasions
may not have a routine anything like Chichikov’s, he does have a chauffeur who picks him up at the airport, and he has a receptionist who will process and make reservations for him.
D) The Upshot of Combining Two Narratives by Different Authors
Categorizing classics by Austen, James, Joyce, Woolf, Goethe, Fontane, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Bely and Bulgakov reveals the tendency to favor one character and to primarily have the narrator support that character either in the role of omniscient or personal narrator.(1) The major exceptions to this domination by a single character are: Sense and Sensibility
by Austen (although Elinor certainly outweighs Marianne), The Bostonians
by James, Elective Affinities
by Goethe, Devils
and Brothers Karamazov
by Dostoevsky, and War and Peace
as well as Anna Karenina
by Tolstoy. While there are many differences between the narrators of these novels, the only narrative with contradictions in the position and values of the narrator is The Bostonians
. The story of all these novels may be fragmented and told primarily by an omniscient narrator, but each of these narrators at least avoids contradictions in narration and commentary, with the exception of The Bostonians
. It is common for the narrator to remain neutral, with the characters often disagreeing, and this disagreement may unfold in discourse or narrated monologue (free indirect style). But especially if the narrator comments on the narrative, this commentary will be consistent and help with the picture of the raconteur.
is, again to my knowledge, the first narrative to see a split in the narrator, his attitude toward the character shifting depending on the context. The occurrence of this event in English does not warrant surprise, especially with an experimenter like James, because the shift of indirect tense back one tense from the form it takes in direct discourse (transposition) means that a character’s discourse can become indistinguishable from the narrator’s narration (they both appear in the simple past). Commentary on such narration will inevitably be influenced by the (seeming) narration.
Nonetheless, James’s division of the narrator does not result in different idioms for different narrators. Here Joyce provides perhaps the first instance of multiple narrative styles in A Portrait of the Artist
. In Joyce, however, there is no contradiction between the different narrators except the implied one of style and approach.
The implications of my study of transposed indirect discourse in English and German is that the character can influence the narration by his transposed discourse becoming synonymous with the narration. This differs from Russian indirect discourse which is not transposed and consequently appears in the same tense as direct discourse and/or commentary. Each novel mentioned above contain characters whose views differ and whose disputes are argued either in direct discourse or presented as the position of Prince Andrey as opposed to that of Pierre Buzhukov. The bifurcation of Russian indirect discourse from English/German indirect discourse means that the reader and narrator of a past tense narrative know for sure that the past tense represents the authoritative account, i.e. narration, of the narrator. In English and German, this certainty vanishes and the possibility of a dispute becoming the core of the story, like Mrs. Luna's view that Basil Ransom is an oversized mediocrity and Basil Ransom's view that he is superior to both Mrs. Luna and Miss Chancellor, is very real as we see in The Bostonians
where the positive and deprecating views of Basil move from discourse to indirect discourse to personal narration and finally influence the narrator's commentary on Basil, seemingly supporting him when influenced by a positive context (i.e. personal narration) and deprecating him when influenced by a negative context (i.e. personal narration). This sets the stage for the spectacular dual narrator we see in The Bostonians
, but still the idiom of these two narrators remains similar.
My idea in combining Persuasion
and Dead Souls
was to set the two personal narrators (one for Chichikov, one for Anne) virtually at odds with each other not only toward themselves, but also toward the combined peripheral characters like Mr. Charles Friendly who is an outgrowth of Malinov and Charles Musgrove. The narrator in Dead Souls
mocks the character Malinov fairly heftily, whereas the narrator in Persuasion
offers a fundamentally neutral portrayal of Mr. Musgrove, perhaps overlaid with some sympathetic irony. In the structure of the new novel, with each chapter initially shifting from the perspective in Dead Souls
(i.e. chapter one) to the perspective in Persuasion
(i.e. chapter two), some juxtaposed views can abut in close proximity. By coincidence, Chichikov goes out to visit Malinov in chapter two of Dead Souls
, which Joe does in chapter three of Dead Soul Persuasion
, and near the beginning of Persuasion
, Anne goes to live with the Musgroves, which takes place in chapter four of the new narrative. This concatenation of events in both narratives captures the stylistic duality a la Joyce, with chapter three describing Malinov in Gogol's idiom while chapter four does it in Austen's idiom. Furthermore, the transposition of indirect discourse facilitates the justified division in perspective whereas the narrator mocks Malinov in the one context (chapter three) and sympathizes with him in the other (chapter four) because his view is shaped by the character. Using the idiom of Austen and Gogol as a template for the new narrative, even if far removed from the other translation aspects, also aids the distinctness of voice that should exist from one discourse to another. In general this distinction in voices takes place on a comparatively more subtle level in English (as opposed to Russian) due to grammar, dialect and other factors, but the mapping of a discourse on two different templates lends additional depth to the different voices.
E) What happens to a plot when it shifts locations
The act of translation has prompted many studies on the impact of a different language on the plot, the “impossibility” of translating a text from one language to another due to the inseparability of language and location made most famous by the book Lost in Translation
and the eponymous cliché.
But what happens when the plot shifts from the setting of the source language to the location of the final (i.e. target) language? This is by no means a revolutionary idea without precedence. As Lovers’ Vows shows, this approach to translation has already been pursued, and was in fact quite common at times (there were e.g. multiple translations of Kotzbue’s drama all published and staged at the same time as Inchbald’s version appeared). Similar to Inchbald, these translations often took the plot as a basis for the translator’s own knock-off with the ensuing omissions and improvements to the original text. In part, these decisions were surely made by the translator with regard to passages or sections that he considered superfluous, implausible or not relevant for his audience in the new country. While I naturally find no part of two classics superfluous or implausible, the change of context absolutely renders some parts poorly designed for a reader two hundred years later in my different social and cultural context. These parts extend from sentence structure to plot twists. For example, the extreme complication and turns of the Gogolian sentence are too much for a contemporary novel in America today while the chance meeting of Anne Elliot and her relative Mr. Elliot at the shore is extremely implausible in my dispersed America. So despite using Dead Souls
as a template and basis for transposition, parts are left out, simplified and altered to take into consideration my understanding of reader reception, poetry, plausibility, etc. Here is an example from the first rough draft of the new work:
...Петрушка ходил в несколько широком коричневом сюртуке с барского плеча и имел, по обычаю людей своего звания, крупный нос и губы. Характера он был больше молчаливого, чем разговорчивого; имел даже благородное побуждение к просвещению, то есть чтению книг, содержанием которых не затруднялся; ему было совершенно все равно, похождение ли влюбленного героя, просто букварь или молитвенник, - он все читал с равным вниманием; если бы ему подвернули химию, он и от нее бы не отказался. Ему нравилось не то, о чем читал он, но больше самое чтение, или лучше сказать процесс самого чтения, что вот-де из букв вечно выходит какое-нибудь слово, которое иной раз черт знает что и значит. Это чтение совершалось более в лежачем положении в передней, на кровати и на тюфяке, сделавшемся от такого обстоятельтва убитым и тоненьким, как лепешка. (Г 43)
…the receptionist had thin faded eyebrows from her Chinese facial, and - as usual in her profession - a thin nose and lips. She was quiet, but not shy; felt the strong desire to expand the reach of reason, that is, to watch television even if she did not understand its content. That was irrelevant – talk shows, news or special reports – she watched it all with equal interest; if she switched to a program on seagulls, she would enjoy those images too. She cared less for what she watched than for the watching itself, or, more precisely, the process of watching, how through those scenes she levitated to places that meant God knows what hardships in reality. All this watching in a slumped or reclining position on the couch in the livingroom left an imprint in the pillow like a dent in the hood.
We can see here just how far the final text is from the source when the time, context and language shift. Chichikov’s two servants and their tasks are implausible for a contemporary investment banker, but some service is definitely rendered. Chauffeurs and receptionists represent two very common types of service (it is very possible that I will change this receptionist to a secretary later). When the type of service changes, along with the time/context, the figures performing it change. No longer smelly readers like Chichikov's Petrushka, the receptionist is certainly a woman, pretty, dolled-up, who prefers the entertainment of television to reading in the twenty-first century. The pancake or wobbly piece of bread (лепешка) as a simile is replaced by a dent in the hood (of a car), with the pancake representative not only of the way Petruska sits but also an integral part of Russian epicurean culture comparable to the culture of cars that surrounds the receptionist (as opposed to culinary appreciation – after all she probably hardly cooks if she is really modern).
Linguistically, a problem every translator of Russian faces in any form of translation, is all the impersonal and passive constructions, the multiple clauses and subsequent injections. As we see above – and it is the approach I have favored in general, the impersonal and passive have been activized in accordance with the context of my readers, yet the turns have been retained on the basis of the template and translation. This decision for the final transposition will not be solely based on the solipsism of my America, but rather also an author or authors whose style shows affinities to the product of the transposition. Although set for a later stage of the process as I have not made a final decision on which American author(s) will serve as a subtemplate or subreality for the emerging transposition, the above passage recalls the turns we see in Paul Auster’s City of Glass
and Moon Palace
or Jason Waldrop's The Last Cigarette
. This, however, is a topic for another essay, and after a decision has been made.
I am going to attempt to chronicle this transposition process as much as time allows. The general outline of the project with some of the underlying theories will now be followed by periodic, more specific examinations of particular points on the basis of examples. Unfortunately, these examples will be little more than mediocre rough drafts at first, but the purpose does not relate to the fine points of translation/transposition. Those essays on e.g. the acoustic calibration of the original to the translation will be reserved for the time when I have settled all the stages and prepared drafts completed in accordance with all these stages. Currently the project is set to involve at least six:
2) Translation/transposition of content
3) Translation/transposition of non-content
4) Painting of physical description [occurs simultaneously to point 2)]
5) Overlaying of text on basis of American templates
6) Possible inclusion of “interludes” between chapters on basis of Finnegans Wake (but more intelligible) and contemporary "tangents" to add something for what is lost (also possible replacement of Finnegans Wake with German text as basis for interludes)
To a lesser extent this process has already been pursued in my recently completed novel Edge
where the basis for some parts is a real location while for others it is a place or person created in my paintings (which are in turn based on photographs of my context). The duality of the subreality being both real and artificial raises similar questions to this current project where the subreality consists of one text from another context and one from my present/past context. Many parts of my debut novel are based on a concrete context, just as many parts of this transposed novel will be grounded in a concrete context, but at no point can there be certainty about the signified object of the words. It remains constantly possible and often blatantly evident that the description does not mirror this context, but that context. Often, though, the words we are hearing are aligned with a context we or they want to hear or believe, the cited facts are likewise desired, but the picture has evolved from elsewhere or does not constitute the whole – that can only be obtained by including what is skewed and absent from the present, what lurks in the shadows, implied and threatening to collapse the whole edifice although it is really there, like my paintings skewing photographs of reality and then serving as a basis for the context of a narrative whose context should simultaneously be the objective reality signified by the words. The duality, triality, quadrupality of the context is right in front of us if we are willing to look: the words correspond to multiple contexts simultaneously and so while we think it is possible to link them to one event, they are in fact signifying another, and in the midst of one text another may burst like a bomb interrupting the daily trip to work - one text suddenly rupturing another, forming the context.
There are multiple underpinnings for the words and each one is capable of asserting itself at any time. The story behind Chichikov’s purchase of dead peasants is one of entrepreneurship, adventure in a world where dubious practices can lead to the accumulation of tremendous wealth and prestige just like investment banker Joe’s deals in the mortgage, bond and derivative markets. Chichikov's bubble bursts at the very fringe of his endeavor, due to an old lady he meets accidentally; Joe's bubble bursts independently of himself. And Joe modeled on Chichkov acknowledges the collapse, recedes and prepares for the next shady endeavor that circumstance permits. But the reasons for this cycle of endeavors according to Chichikov’s narrator correspond to a certain upbringing, a certain culture, certain sociopolitical factors (prestige based on owned peasants, a ranking system), the law, character, etc. With Joe, this is taken one step farther by having his statements and actions based only in part on a description of events taking place in a given location at a given time, as in some cases the events only occur in art, and only history can tell what takes place in one context and what takes place in the other, just as only history can tell you whether we are in the context of a depression or art.
1. Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Broadview Press, 2001.
2. Gogol, Nikolai. Мертвые души. Москва: Издательство "Правда", 1984.
(1)This statement, including exceptions marked as such, is based on the following specific novels by these authors: Austen: Sense and Sensibility
(exception), Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey
; James: Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians
(exception), What Maisie Knew, The Ambassadors
, Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses
(exception), Woolf: To the Lighthouse
; Goethe: Elective Affinities
(exception), Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
; Fontane: Effi Briest
; Gogol: Dead Souls
; Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment, Idiot, Devils
(exception), Brothers Karamazov
(exception); Turgenev: Fathers and Sons
; Tolstoy: Kossaks, Sevastopol Stories, War and Peace
(exception), Anna Karenina
(exception), Resurrection, Kreuzer Sonata
; Bely: Petersburg
(exception), Bulgakov: Master and Margarita