Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Free Translations

I've had a bit more time to think over the quote ascribed to Tolstoy: "Nietzsche was stupid and abnormal." Unless someone can point out the original Russian source from which this exact quote comes, I’m assuming, as I mentioned in my previous post, that it’s a modification of the following passage from “What is Religion and of What Does its EssenceConsist?,” which Tolstoy wrote in 1902:

Some disjointed writings, striving after effect in a most sordid manner, appear, written by a daring, but limited and abnormal German, suffering from power mania.

Again, I assume the phrase “stupid and abnormal” is a variant of this translation and that “Nietzsche was” is tacked on because Tolstoy was clearly talking about him. This brings up a couple of issues that I face myself, particularly since I frequently have to abbreviate some of Tolstoy’s quotes to fit the 140-character limit on my Twitter account.

First is the matter of word choice. In Russian, the phrase “limited and abnormal” is “ограниченного и ненормального” (ogranichennogo i nenormal’nogo). According to the Smirnov Russian-English dictionary, “ogranichennyi” means “(1) limited, scanty; (2) narrow, hidebound. According to the Ozhegov Dictionary of the Russian Language, “ogranichennyi” has two definitions: (1) insignificant, small; and (2) someone with a narrow outlook, little knowledge, narrow interests.” “Little knowledge” reflects ignorance, not stupidity. One site does list “ogranichennyi” as one of about a hundred synonyms for the Russian word for stupid, “glupyi,” and vise-versa. If we go back to the Dal’ Dictionary of the Russian Language, published in 1881 and containing the definition closest to Tolstoy’s understanding of the word, we find that the noun “ogranichennost’,” when applied to a person, can refer to “something that limits a person, such as mind.” So you could argue that “stupid” is a satisfactory translation. However, it does seem like an unjustifiably harsh translation, particularly since there is an equivalently harsh word in Russian (“glupyi”).

Next comes the word “abnormal.” Again going to Smirnov, it is rendered in English as (1) abnormal; and (2) insane. I know myself from my extensive reading and multiple extended stays in Russia that whenever this word is used to describe a person, the second meaning is always implied. In fact, “normal’nyi” is not the English equivalent of “normal” but rather “sane.” So even the translation from “What is Religion?” that I quoted above misses the mark.

Third is the issue of altering a passage in order to get a pithy quote out of it. To illustrate this, let’s take another “quote” ascribed to Tolstoy that appears on many websites:

The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.

These two variants appear all over the internet. Actually, neither is precisely correct. It’s a quote from War and Peace, spoken by General Kutuzov:

"But believe me, my dear boy, there is nothing stronger than those two: patience and time, they will do it all.” (Book Ten, Chapter 15)

At a later point he says something similar, but it’s still not either of the exact quotes above:

"They must understand that we can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions," thought Kutuzov. (Book 13, Chapter 17)

Tolstoy says "there is nothing stronger" than time and patience in one quote, and calls them "warriors" in another. I’m not sure it's appropriate to fuse two quotes together and then claim Tolstoy wrote it. And if it isn’t, then certainly the quote about Nietzsche is inappropriate.

When I tweet quotes, most of them are my own translations from For Every Day. I only leave words out if it doesn’t affect the meaning of the quote, and in fact every day I sit and try unsuccessfully to sculpt a quote that I like, give up, and move on to the next one. The same thing applies to quotes from other sources when I tweet them: if leaving out a word or a phrase doesn’t alter the meaning, I’ll do it. But again, there are a lot of great quotes out there that just won’t fit into 140 characters without the meaning being altered, so I don’t tweet them.


The patience and time quote brings up another question: just because Tolstoy puts it in Kutuzov’s mouth, does it mean Tolstoy believes it too? This to me is a more serious issue, since there are a lot of “Tolstoy” quotes floating around that are actually lines spoken by his characters, many of which most decidedly don’t reflect his views. I’ll talk about that in a future post.