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    The Russian Tongue: Talking Tolstoy

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    Along with “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” from Pride and Prejudice and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities, Lev Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina is probably one of the top three most recognizable first lines in modern literature for English speakers.

    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.)

    Along with “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” from Pride and Prejudice and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities, Lev Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina is probably one of the top three most recognizable first lines in modern literature for English speakers.

    Interestingly, a friend told me that when he asked his Russian students to quote the first line of Anna Karenina, almost all of them gave him what is actually the second line: Все смешалось в доме Облонских. The verb in the sentence is the reflexive form of смешать, which means either to physically mix things together, or metaphorically mix them up, cause confusion.

    (The confusion being caused in this case by the wife discovering that her husband had had an affair with the French governess.)

    So Constance Garnett, the classic early 20th century translator of Russian literature, has the line: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.” For this line, I like Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 version a little better: “Everything had gone wrong in the Oblonsky household.”

    Whichever line readers choose to focus on, it is only the first of many phrases or words that Tolstoy popularized or created. Even the man’s name has become part of the Russian language – толстовство, толстовцы, толстовка. The first two words – Tolstoyanism, Tolstoyans – refer to followers of the author’s philosophical and religious beliefs, which included pacifism, vegetarianism, and breaking away from church and civil authority. The толстовка, on the other hand, is actually a garment – that long peasant shirt belted at the waist that Tolstoy liked to wear.

    A number of the author’s characters are so evocative of a particular type that they have become commonly understood symbols. Two such characters from War and Peace are Platon Karatayev and Natasha Rostova. Karatayev was the epitome of folk wisdom, the peasant totally at peace with his lot who espoused turn-the-other-cheek pacifism.

    He embodies a main principle of Tolstoy’s, непротивление злу насилием (not resisting evil with violence). Those who disagree with not fighting back against an ill or enemy can use the word каратаевщина disparagingly. The suffix -щина carries a negative connotation in and of itself (for example, дедовщина, the system of control and hazing in the army).

    Natasha Rostova, as she was depicted before her marriage, has become a symbol of innocent, youthful enthusiasm; one especially enduring image is of her getting ready for her first ball, as you can see in this passage from a Soviet-era Russian text: А как он радовался первому этому выезду в капстрану – как Наташа Ростова своему выпорху на первый бал. (He was so delighted to be traveling to a capitalist country/abroad, he was as excited as Natasha Rostova before her first ball.)

    As for phrases that Tolstoy popularized, a play he wrote was titled Власть тьмы. This is originally a Biblical quote, from the Gospel of Luke; in the King James version it is translated as “the power of darkness”.

    But this isn’t a widely recognized phrase in English, as it is in Russian, where it has come to mean a state of ignorance and backward thinking in certain areas/strata of society; this meaning is based on the events of the play.

    The Moscow journalist Vladimir Gilyarovsky, writing after Tolstoy’s play was staged, worked this phrase into a line now widely familiar: У нас в России две напасти: внизу власть тьмы, вверху – тьма власти. (We have two misfortunes in Russia: the power of darkness below, and the darkness of power above.)

    Tolstoy also invented, or was the first to use in print, new words. In Anna Karenina, a servant tries to comfort the husband of that unhappy family, Stepan Oblonsky, and says: Ничего, сударь, образуется. (Don’t worry, sir, it will turn out all right in the end.) The verb образуется is now a recognisable colloquialism thanks to this introduction, but at the time this use sounded new, as we see from Oblonsky’s reaction: А может быть, и образуется! Хорошо  словечко: образуется…Это надо рассказать. (Maybe it will turn out all right! That’s a good word; I’ll have to pass it on.)

    In their article on Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations of Russian classics, Michele Berdy and Viktor Lanchikov suggest a translation of “things’ll righten up” for this word, because it sounds suitably unusual but still makes sense.

    In addition to all these individual words and phrases, there are of course numerous quotations that Tolstoy has made famous. I’ll end with one of the author’s many comments on human relationships, from War and Peace: Мы не столько любим людей за то добро, которое они сделали нам, сколько за то добро, которое сделали им мы. (We love people not so much for the good they have done us, but for the good we have done them.)

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    Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of www.themoscownews.com, where they appear every two weeks.

    Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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