More On the Strange Results from Free Online Translation Sites: Bulgakov’s “Varenukha,” A Spicy Fruit Liqueur? Or “The Blizzard Gets Stronger?”
In earlier posts I’ve hinted at my fascination with the strange and humorous forms that language sometimes takes in online translation applications (see posts-Google-translate: original Russian vs Google vs Me; Googlisms- Russian to English). These delight me on a number of levels: for the assurance I get that there is still something a human can do better than a computer, for the comedic value I see in this sort of verbal slapstick, and for the insights into the nature of language I gain from looking at how and why it can go so wrong.
Recently I discovered another free translation site that I find even more entertaining than Google or Bing (formerly Windows Live Translator); translation.babylon.com is especially notable for its greater tendency to insert proper names, often unnecessarily, and to translate a single word as an entire phrase, occasionally an English quote or idiom. I was especially struck, and remain puzzled, by its preference for rendering the name of one character from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita–Varenukha, (Russian- Варенуха)–as the English phrase “the blizzard gets stronger.” Continue reading
A View of the Revolution and its Aftermath in Contemporary Russian Literature
I recently started translating a novel called Казус Кукоцкого (pron.-Kazus Kukotskovo) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who won the Russian Booker Prize for this work in 2001. This novel, whose title I’ve chosen to translate as The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky, begins with a focus on the life of one Pavel Alekseyevich Kukotsky, who is, at the beginning of the book, a boy coming of age at the time of the Revolution of 1917. Not having any idea what this story was about before I started working on it, I am surprised and excited to find that, in addition to presenting some juicy translation problems, it addresses questions that I hope to find answers to in contemporary Russian literature: how do today’s Russians view the Revolution of 1917, the history of Communist Party rule, and life in Russia, generally, in the Soviet period? Here I will discuss one early passage from the novel in terms of both its challenges to translating it into English, and how it speaks to these questions.
The two paragraphs I will look at come at a point in the story when Pavel is of an age to attend university. It is just after the Revolution, and the Civil War is on. (These paragraphs are separated by one short one discussing Pavel’s character as a student, which I will not include here): Continue reading
I want to examine the methods I have developed, to this point, for translating Russian prose to English. As mentioned in an earlier post, I am currently working on a translation of the Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I will use a single paragraph from this novel to illustrate each step in my process of transforming Russian writing into what I hope is a readable English that accurately and fully captures the meaning and style of the original. Continue reading
“Mother teaches heart phone morgue” is how google-translate renders the seventh line of another glasnost-era Russian pop song that recently caught my attention. I had a Russian radio stream playing as I puttered around the house one day this summer, but wasn’t really paying attention until a repeated line in the chorus of a song grabbed my ear. I stopped what I was doing and thought, did they just sing “Alain Delon speaks French?” In fact, that was exactly what they were singing. I felt the urge to know why a Russian band would record a song about a French actor speaking French. A little research into this song revealed a degree of cultural interconnectedness that I was unaware of in the nineteen eighties when this song was produced in the still existing, and I presumed still closed, society of the Soviet Union.
Nautilus Pomplilius (Наутилус Помпилиус)
It turns out that this song–A Look from the Screen (Vzglyad s Ekrana, which google-translate gives as “Sight Screen“)–by the group Nautilus Pompilius, was inspired by, and is even described as a “free translation” of, the song Robert De Niro’s Waiting, by the 80’s British pop band Bananarama. The line repeated in the chorus of the Brit song—”Robert De Niro’s waiting, talking Italian”—becomes, in the Russian song, “Alain Delon is speaking French” (Alen Delon govorit po Frantsuzkiy). Continue reading
I am amused, and sort of reassured, when I use Google-translate to try get the meaning of a Russian sentence, and it comes up with something like, “Here insane laugh, so that over the heads of lime sitting sparrow fluttered.” Usually one can sort of see the meaning of the original in the translation generated by Google, but often only on a basic level. Continue reading
Sentences from Master and Margarita, by Bulgakov, with google-translate’s result (“googlism”), and my translations.
original– Тут безумный расхохотался так, что из липы над головами сидящих выпорхнул воробей.
Google-Translate– Here insane laugh, so that over the heads of lime sitting sparrow fluttered
me– Here the lunatic burst out laughing such that a sparrow perched in the linden above their heads fluttered off. Continue reading
I want to write a little about literary translation of Russian to English. I will focus here on how I go about formulating written translation, and what I get out of it. Discussions of particular forms—mainly the novel and verse—and of specific works, will follow in future posts.
Recently I’ve somehow hit on the joy of translation. Its appeal for me is the same as that of word puzzles. But instead of an ordered grid of unrelated words and black squares, the product of cracking a tricky translation is a story, somebody’s brilliant idea, a work of art. Since starting on a translation of a Soviet-era Russian novel, I haven’t touched my Times Crossword app.
Speaking of apps, I love that what twenty years ago would have been a bookshelf full dictionaries and references can fit in my shoulder bag and weigh no more than two pounds. Continue reading