Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner in our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago and which I shall report in its proper context.
Opening line of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880, translated by David McDuff (1993)
This famous book actually has two beginnings. The first is an epigraph from John 12:24, words which are also engraved on the front of Dostoyevsky’s tomb in St Petersburg.
The second is the opening line of Part One, Book One, as quoted above in a translation by David McDuff. When I first read this translated line, I thought it was Aleksey who’d had a tragic and fishy death. Comparing McDuff’s words with those of Constance Garnett who in 1912 published the earliest English translation of The Brothers Karamazov, I noticed not just the different spellings, Aleksey/Alexey, but I also learned a lesson about ambiguity. The same sentence in Garnett’s translation makes it immediately clear that the father, Fyodor, had died:
Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.
In the McDuff lines, Aleksey is first placed in his family context and the rest of the sentence therefore must be telling us why he was ‘noted in his time … for his tragic and fishy death’. On the other hand, the Garnett lines speak clearly of Fyodor, the father, as ‘a landowner … still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death’. No confusion.
Little lessons like this one are invaluable for translators. The risk of ambiguity is reduced with each pair of fresh eyes reading the words. Of course, The Brothers Karamazov is 971 pages long, so if the translator couldn’t find many friends to proofread so long a manuscript, we would understand.
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.
1 Kings 10:1
I have this painting on my living room wall. When I first saw it in the Art Gallery of NSW I fell in love with it, already being enamoured of Orientalism with its hot, deep colours and ancient drama and mystery. This painting is massive; it’s exhibited in an equally impressive broad gold frame, but even unframed, the painting measures 2.3 x 3.5 metres. Perhaps it was the size of it that had me suspending disbelief and imagining myself as a spectator in King Solomon’s court. I bought the print from the gift shop, had it framed, and over the years have put it up and taken it down. I’ve developed an occasional discomfort with the bare-breasted queen, lower in the space than the king, and approaching only because he bids her. Right now it’s up.
However, reading the opening line of this biblical story leaves me more impressed with the Queen of Sheba. After all, she was there to test the king with ‘hard questions’. This is good, it got me in, it’s exactly the kind of opening line that makes us read on.
She is, in a few alternative English translations of just this one verse, portrayed as quite a powerful and mysterious queen. Some translators have her trying him with subtle questions, with difficult questions, with riddles, or with enigmas. I particularly like this one in the Wycliffe bible:
But also the queen of Sheba, when the fame of Solomon was heard, came in the name of the Lord to assay him in dark and doubtful questions.
Can you imagine what kind of question would be dark and doubtful? Edward Poynter was evidently taken in by this opening line, whichever version he read (probably the King James bible). From the first, he was drawn into the story and stimulated to paint it for us all. May you read a great opening line like this, and may it lead you to an even greater achievement.
From the fourth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
– translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, an epigraph opening Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
This post is about a great opening line, but also about a great title.
When I was twenty, I watched a movie with Mum. An average Friday night movie, with cups of tea, relaxing together in the loungeroom I spent so much of my life in. The movie was Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, based on the novel by William Styron. When the story turned to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and the gassing and systematic elimination of Jews, I turned to Mum and said “Did this really happen?”. Of course she said yes, but nothing more.
There had been plenty of talk in our household about wars. My father was a soldier in the second world war, his father was in the first. Various uncles and older relatives had also played their part. I had only heard them talk about fighting against the Germans, you know, gunfights and bombings on battlefields. Why had I never heard about concentration camps and the wilful destruction of Jews and various other unwanted people? Mum didn’t say much after this (she never talked about anything dark) and I was so horrified at my fellow humans that I asked no more questions.
The words Sophie’s Choice will always remind me of that night, that piece of knowledge I acquired. I’ve since read the book, a hard read, some of which I skipped. The climax is in this exchange between a Nazi doctor and Sophie, his victim, a mother of two:
…the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children.’
‘Bitte?’ said Sophie.
‘You may keep one of your children,’ he repeated, ‘the other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’
‘You mean, I have to choose?’
‘You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege – a choice.’
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’
This week I was casually browsing The Canberra Times when I came across the entertainment guide, with this on the cover:
The article inside about a woman named Sophie Monk is written by the journalist Michael Lallo. The opening line is not one of the great ones that will make my collection, but is worth quoting here:
When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men’s magazine, she cried in the bathroom.
And what choice did this particular Sophie have to make? Lallo writes:
She began to question previous choices. ‘Why not?’ she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach.
Michael Lallo has taken Styron’s title and made it his own, rather than making up his own. It might be forgivable if the topic of his story had some relevance to the original. I guess he used it because it had already made a big impact, and I suppose it got my attention. If Lallo wanted me to reflect on life, then it worked. I reflected immediately on literary appropriation and Nazis torturing and gassing people.
This is a writing lesson for me. Be careful not to inappropriately use analogies.
Once, I read two sentences that had a silent “Oh wow” effect on me; they were by Turgenev, in his story “The Tryst”. I had never read Turgenev, but now I wanted to know him better. I met Turgenev through Rebecca McClanahan in her very useful book, Word Painting. She quoted from “The Tryst” to illustrate description-by-negation, or rather she quoted from Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation of Turgenev’s story, without crediting Hapgood. But she should have, for without the translation she would not have known about Turgenev’s skilful repetition in “It was not … not … not”, describing the sound of rustling leaves. Ivan Turgenev’s sketches of provincial Russian life are stories I’ve read and read again in English. Not only are they compelling vignettes of a country I’ve never been to, but his descriptions of closely observed Russian hunters and other forest frequenters hold my attention from beginning to end.
Wondering whether the beauty lay in the translator’s words or the author’s, I went searching for other translations of the same passage. Here are four versions of Turgenev’s description, followed by the translator’s name:
The leaves faintly rustled over my head; from the sound of them alone one could tell what time of year it was. It was not the gay laughing tremor of the spring, nor the subdued whispering, the prolonged gossip of the summer, nor the chill and timid faltering of late autumn, but a scarcely audible, drowsy chatter. (Constance Garnett, 1897)
The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner overhead; from their sound alone one could tell what season of the year it was. It was not the cheerful, laughing rustle of spring-time, not the soft whispering, not the long conversation of summer, not the cold and timid stammering of late autumn, but a barely audible, dreamy chatter. (Isabel F. Hapgood, 1903)
The leaves scarcely rustled above my head; by their very noise one could know what time of year it was. It was not the happy, laughing tremolo of spring, not the soft murmuration and long-winded talkativeness of summer, not the shy and chill babblings of late autumn, but a hardly audible, dreamy chattering. (Richard Freeborn, 1967)
The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. (Charles and Natasha Hepburn, 1992)
Which is the best?
Garnett: Her choice of ‘not … nor … nor’ is as good as Hapgood’s ‘not … not … not’. Each word in the two sentences is individual, and most consist of one or two syllables.
Hapgood: While it’s the translation chosen by Rebecca McClanahan to illustrate the suspense in ‘not … not … not’, it would be better if Hapgood hadn’t used ‘barely audible’ in two consecutive sentences. And ‘rustling’ and ‘rustle’.
Freeborn: Yes, he uses ‘not … not … not’, but there are too many words of three or four syllables, like ‘long-winded talkativeness’. But then ‘The leaves scarcely rustled’ is more concise than Hapgood’s ‘The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner’.
The Hepburns: They repeat ‘whispering’ and ‘whisper’ in the first sentence, and later in the same sentence their choice of ‘you’ is less literary, less poetic, than ‘one’ which keeps the reader at a distance. Also, ‘could have told the time’ at the beginning of this clause had me thinking of hours; I had to read it again.
So, for this little exercise, Constance Garnett is the better translator, and the one I admire. Or is it Turgenev I admire? Since I can’t read Russian, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that comparisons of translations often send me back to Constance Garnett.
P.S. I’m writing this in autumn, but not in Russia. There are no shy and chill babblings nor is there a cold, frightened rustling. It’s a stunningly beautiful day here in Canberra where the only rustling is from the currawong, shifting branches as he eats my figs!
A writing exercise: Describe something you see differently from others.
My vision allows me a clear view of everything within about a foot; beyond this, the world blurs. Yet when I lie in bed sleepless at two in the morning, without my glasses on, I can distinguish something through my sheer white curtains. Two stars, literally twinkling, catch my eye. They’re the pointers, signposts to the Southern Cross, the constellation Crux. And if I sit up and push the curtain aside, my poor eyesight can make out the five stars of the Cross, so brightly are they shining.
At 10 o’clock when I go to bed, Crux is on my horizon, just above the southern rooftops. I’m comforted by its presence, it helps me fall asleep. When I wake again at 2 o’clock, it’s at just the right angle to shine in my window. Often I’ll sit up and write or translate for a couple of hours until 4 o’clock, when the Cross is so high in the sky that I have to stretch my neck to see it almost above my house. If I’m still awake before dawn, I have to put on my glasses, go outside and look straight up.
For locations south of 34°S, that is, anywhere in the southern hemisphere south of Sydney, the circumpolar Crux is always visible in the inland night sky, even in this city of Canberra, for our population is small and produces only a little light pollution. In the dark sky the five stars of the cross – named in decreasing order of brightness from the bottom star, Alpha, then Beta on our left, Gamma at the head, Delta on our right, and the small one Epsilon – are easy to see.
These Greek names are scientific and logical, but the awesomeness of the Southern Cross has turned some star namers into poets. The blue-white star, Beta, is also known as Mimosa, from the Latin mimus, mime. Near it is a blue, red, orange and yellow star cluster called the Jewel Box, and just below it is a dark nebular, a cloud of interstellar dust called the Coalsack, a black fish shape in the whiteness of the Milky Way. And of course there’s the name of the Southern Cross which came from Christian European sailors exploring the southern oceans in the 15th and 16th centuries, discovering that this star pattern, which resembled the Christian cross, was a useful navigational guide.
But back to the pointers that accompany me as I write in the wee hours of the morning. Furthest from the cross is Alpha Centauri, the closest active galaxy to the earth. Yet, Beta Centauri, a hundred times further away, is brighter. To my dim eyes they seem the same distance from my window, both glowing with the same intensity.
Science is not my cup of tea, I’m not blinded by it, but I am dazzled by the two points of light shining through my curtains, the ones that, in all my former life in the northern part of Australia, I had never really noticed.
Postscript: My son is soon to be married, and the wedding breakfast will be at the Southern Cross Club.
A writing exercise. Describe nature imitating art.
I thought how pleasant it would be to pass through the quiet town and take a solitary ramble on the sands while half the world was in bed. […] Nothing else was stirring – no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands; – nothing before had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday.
Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë
Late afternoon, south coast, New South Wales. The last waves of the ebb tide roll in, low impact waves thinning out as they feebly stretch their way up the shore. They wash back, and watery fingers gouge long grooves, dragging rutile particles from a pinpoint, down and out in fine sinuous curves, crisscrossing and lying darkly over each other. Peppery grains gather at the edges of the patterns, sharpening the lines. People and dogs tread obliviously over the etchings; not one is without a footprint. On this beach, unmined for mineral sands, the waves retreat and carry some of the lighter sand into the ocean, leaving rutile behind, a heavy mineral that resists movement and forms patterns like fine charcoal sketches. Mined beaches have the rutile sifted out and the whiter quartz grains put back where they were found, making a new beach that is strangely light, where there are no artworks at sunset.
Next morning, I go early to the beach to look for lines in the sand. They’re all gone, the art has been washed away and the rutile is no longer gathering in dark rivulets. The night tide has stirred and blended it with the regular quartz grains. As I, like Agnes, make the first footprints in the sand, I see the dark specks that soften the glare. In the late afternoon the sketches will reappear, no two lines ever twisting the same way twice, not drawn with a pencil or brush or sculptor’s tool, but with the ebb tide.
PS I posted this piece yesterday about nature imitating art, and today the WordPress Photo Challenge is… Life imitates art. That’s a coincidence.
A writing exercise. Describe something never before described. Something that makes you look twice.
I’m sitting on a park bench, my feet tucked up on the seat to keep away from large two-centimetre ants wandering about looking for their nest. I can see it, in the soil to my right. Nearby, a crowd of regular-size ants crawls over and under a small Christmas beetle, devouring its innards. The beetle’s iridescent elytra – its hardened forewings – were intact when I arrived, but now one elytron is hanging loose, barely attached. It’s a small and pretty beetle, yellow with blue and purple tints like a tiny metallic-painted VDub. I look back to the large ants that have found their nest, a broad depression in the dry soil. In it is a bed of eucalyptus leaf litter, and at its centre, a jewel, a deep emerald green beetle. Can’t tell if he’s dead or just playing dead. I want to save him from the marauding ants, take him to my safe home.
I have nothing with me except a paperback novel; I pick him up on two gum leaves and sit them on the book, and his little black legs stretch out. Not dead, sleeping. He tries to walk away but the plastic film of the book cover is slippery and he can’t get a grip. I walk towards home, holding the book horizontally, tipping it repeatedly, watching him slide back towards my fingers. He never tries to fly away. Christmas beetles are clumsy fliers anyway; he probably wouldn’t get far before slamming his tiny body into an obstacle. At night we hear them hitting the windows, flying blind. It sounds like someone tap tap tapping. In the mornings there are always a few upside down on the ground beneath the glass. If they’ve survived, they just need flipping over and off they go. Otherwise they’re trapped on their backs and die. Reminds me of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Resigning himself to fate, he crawls underneath the larger leaf where he thinks I can’t see him, and hangs on for the remainder of the walk.
Back home, I put the book on the table and the leaves and beetle fall off.
I encourage him to walk on top of a leaf but he doesn’t trust me, crawls beneath the longest one and hangs upside down.
I take his photo and release him into the native garden in my back yard.
A writing exercise. Describe something never before described.
Someone at work or play. Or trying to sleep.
Insomnia. A Chekhovian professor in A Boring Story, which incidentally isn’t boring, suffered from it. He says:
“If I were asked: ‘What is now the chief and fundamental fact of your existence?’, I would reply: ‘Insomnia.’ ”
And for the next 28 lines the professor describes his nights when he doesn’t have the right to be awake.
Yes, insomnia has been described before. However, there’s no insomnia like one’s own.
Why does it take me so long to fall asleep now I’m in the second half of my life? Chekhov’s fictional professor goes to bed every night at midnight and wakes at one o’clock. And that’s it. That’s all the sleep he gets. The rest of the night he paces and reads and waits for the cock’s crow. Here in my bedroom it’s presently 12.30am and I’m thinking of the professor. Two hours I’ve been in this bed. My mind is busy, buzzing even, anything but tired, yet my body is weak and exhausted. Yesterday was hot, and the heat lingers. My feet are too warm, puffed up; I’ve kicked off the quilt and even the sheet.
At 10.30 when I lay down, my window was open wide, but so was the neighbours’. They had guests, and their games and laughter and loud voices carried across the night air into my room. An hour and a half had passed before the guests departed and all went quiet next door. Now, despite another half an hour of a fair silence, I’m still awake. The night breeze picks up. In the next bedroom, the bed empty for now, the blind on the open window blows in and falls back with the gusts, bang bang bang, as its plastic base rod hits the window frame. It’s too hot, no point shutting it, the man who will sleep in that empty bed will only open it when he finally comes home. Minutes later, he does. I hear his feet gingerly treading on creaky floorboards as he comes down the hall, puts his keys in his room, then makes his way to the bathroom and back again. Far off in the distance, leftover fireworks from New Year’s Eve illegally explode every ten to fifteen minutes. In the emptiness of the town they sound much closer, like gunshots. Across the street someone walks a dog past the fence of the government flats where another dog picks up the scent and barks out a repetitive warning. The walking dog responds for as long as its adversary is in sight, the barking echoing in the tunnel of the street. Outside my room all at last is silent, but the bathroom light has been left on and is shining under my door. I can’t ignore it. I get up and turn it off. It’s now 1.30.
‘Not to sleep at night means to be conscious every minute that you are abnormal, and that is why I wait impatiently for the morning and the day, when I have the right not to sleep.’ A Boring Story, Anton Chekhov
At 6.30am I wake to the sound of creaking floorboards, the shower running, doors opening and shutting as the man from the next bedroom gets ready for work. I rise and prepare for a two-hour journey to another town to visit an aunt. I can’t cancel her; she’s 88. I’m a zombie, but fortunately I won’t be the driver. Sitting up in the front seat of the car, I can sleep.