If you had to choose one sentence from all of English-language literature which made the most shocking impression upon the reader when it was printed, and which still delivers a measurable jolt even after influencing generations of American writers, a sentence which created at one stroke an “immortal vernacular” that changed English-language literature forever, it would undoubtedly be:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
As almost any English speaker could tell you, that is the opening line of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens). The sentence contains not one but three crude errors of grammar, the likes of which had never been seen in print before. “Without” should (must) be “unless” and “ain’t no” has both forbidden slang and a forbidden double negative – it should (must!) be “does not” or “doesn’t.”
Now let’s look at this sentence in the published Russian translation:
“Вы про меня ничего не знаете, если не читали книжки под названием Приключения Тома Сойера, но это не бедa.”
There are not three but zero crude errors of grammar in this translation. The word “about” has been translated “про,” which is informal Russian but perfectly correct, like using “doesn’t” instead of “does not.” The phrase “ain’t no matter” has been translated “не беда” (no big deal), exactly the same phenomenon as with the first, merely informal but not incorrect.
That’s right: In Russian, Huckleberry Finn doesn’t make grammar mistakes.
Incidentally, the Russian paragraph also contains a more pedestrian error: “You don’t know” has been translated as “Вы ничего не знаете.” This actually contains two errors of translation. First, the word “Вы” in Russian is only used when speaking formally or talking to more than one person. But any English reader knows that Huck Finn never speaks formally, and knows that in the opening sentence he is clearly talking only to the individual reader who holds the book in his hands, that’s part of the point of the book. Clearly, the informal/singular “Tы” would have been the proper choice. Plus, the translator has added the word “ничего” which means “nothing” in Russian, changing the sentence from “you don’t know about me” to “you don’t know anything about me” or “you know nothing about me.” In fact, the reader very easily could have heard something about Huck Finn without reading Tom Sawyer, and simply not know the really important information Huck was about to reveal. Huck knew that.
If Russians rely in forming their impressions about foriegners on the statements of their translators, could at least some of their xenophobia be based on mistakes? You bet. Do they care? It doesn’t seem so. Butchering translation fits perfectly with xenophobia.
But back to the main point: In the first paragraph of Twain’s text, there are 10 ghastly grammar errors among 106 words; in other words, nearly 10% of the text is error. In the Russian translation, there are no errors of that kind. The Russian text contains only some informal or colloquial language, which Twain’s paragraph has plenty of too (for example, he uses the word “stretcher” repeatedly to mean “fib” or “white lie” and he uses highly informal word order and sentence structure).
Let’s put the two paragraphs side by side and compare them:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly-Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is-and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said
Вы про меня ничего не знаете, если не читали книжки под названием “Приключения Тома Сойера”, но это не беда. Эту книжку написал мистер Марк Твен и, в общем, не очень наврал. Кое-что он присочинил, но, в общем, не так уж наврал. Это ничего, я еще не видел таких людей, чтобы совсем не врали, кроме тети Полли и вдовы, да разве еще Мэри. Про тетю Полли, – это Тому Сойеру она тетя, – про Мэри и про вдову Дуглас рассказывается в этой самой книжке, и там почти все правда, только кое-где приврано, – я уже про это говорил.
Russians find it impossible to put Twain’s language properly (that is, improperly) into print for the same reason that Twain’s publishers fought him tooth and nail about doing so: their idea is that the printed word is holy, and grammar errors can’t be intentionally printed.
This idea meshes nicely with the Soviet (and neo-Soviet) dictatorship. Twain once famously exclaimed: “It’s a man with very little imagination who can only spell a word one way.” And indeed, when a man is free to speak as he likes, breaking any rules he likes whenever he feels like doing so, he may well be difficult to govern. Can you imagine Josef Stalin giving orders to Huckleberry Finn? How about to a little boy (or girl) who grew up reading the real Huckleberry? How about tens of thousands of such little boys (and girls). Is it just an accident that America has never has a Stalin, while Russia has had many of them?
So Huckleberry Finn wasn’t allowed into the Soviet Union, and he hasn’t been allowed into the Neo-Soviet Union either. Only his poor relation Harry Finster – which is like making Raskolnikov into a Little Rascal – ever saw Red Square.
Even today, a Russian would be likely to assert that “ain’t no matter” can’t be translated into Russian, so not doing so is perfectly logical. This is that depressing residue of totalitarianism: Of course it can be translated! Especially by a nation of brilliant writers like Russia has. Of course, Russians make ghastly errors of grammar! Russian has plenty of hard slang, and a variant of “ain’t” could be found. And where English bans a double negative, Russian demands it; so the Russian translator could simply omit the double negative and create an equally shocking error.
But to put it in print would mean admitting it exists, admitting Russia has a flaw, and admitting that it’s OK to break rules sometimes, that the sky won’t fall. And Russia finds that very hard to do. The denial that Finn could be translated properly (that is, improperly) puts the author of these words to mind of the old Phil Donohue show. In one episode, produced with Vladimir Posner, groups of Russians and Americans engaged in trans-Atlantic jabber over common problems. At one point, defending her country from a question about whether it had venereal disease, a frustrated young Russian girl declared boldly: “RUSSIANS DON’T HAVE SEX!!”
Just think of the possibilities! The Russian translator could plumb the depths of ignorant Russian speech, starting with Mikhail Gorbechev and working his way down, until he found a little Russian boy who doesn’t know conjugation of nouns from a hole in the ground, and just quote him. Just like Mark Twain did in America. Why, doing so might even bring the two countries closer together, might even make war (cold or hot) less likely. Or the translator might go out on his own and invent something. To take a simple example: Instead of “если не” (“if you haven’t”) he might use the preposition “без” (“without”). It would strike the Russian reader as really weird at first, disorienting, but thinking about it, they’d figure it out. After all, if Russians understood “Гекльберри” they could certainly master “без” in a strange an unexpected place. In other words, it would be just like it is for the English reader of Finn’s immortal vernacular. That’s just one idea, there are hundreds of other possibilities to be considered.
But doing any of them would mean freedom. Thinking in new ways. Challenging authority. And as we know, that just can’t be allowed in Russia. Ironically, Russians think that doing so would make their country weak, when if fact it’s NOT doing so that has given Russia a declining population and a third-rate economy addicted to crude oil like a heroin fiend.
You might very well be asking yourself at this point: Well, if they’re going to look at it that way, what’s the point of translating Finn at all? Good question, I doubt anybody knows for sure. But I have a theory. You see, stripped of its immortal vernacular, Finn is a very ordinary book, hardly worthy of being called literature. Reading it without the vernacular, the Russian would be likely to say (and they do): “THIS is one of the most famous and well-respected volumes of American literature? Egad, it’s a nation of cretins!” Particularly a Russian well-versed in Russian classics from Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky would be likely to react this way, and at least until recently most Russians did get pretty well versed in school. My hypothesis is bolstered by the crude, childish illustrations on the covers of various volumes published in Russian, which stand in stark contast to the American verision pictured above.
And such a reaction, of course, that Americans are boorish Neanderthals with no culture and not erudition, wouldn’t be entirely displeasing to the Soviet (or neo-Soviet authorities) who are, as Huck might say, as anti-American as the day is long. Let me predict the neo-Soviet, propaganda response to my conclusion: “Americans also mistranslate Russian literature, so you can’t criticize us.” You can delete “mistranslate Russian literature” and replace it with any other Russian fault, like “commit acts of racism” and you have a response that works for anything in the mind of the neo-Soviet man. It’s a hypocritical response, of course, because Russians don’t hold themselves accountable for American virtues, rather they say when American virtues are brought up that “America is a different country” and Russia can’t be expected to follow suit. Odd, isn’t it, how this response doesn’t let America off the hook for its vices. And odder still that the neo-Soviet man can’t understand that impoverished suffering Russians don’t feel better knowing that America is also suffering. But let’s not go there now.
It’s certainly true that Americans mistranslate. I’ll never forget discovering that a phrase from Maxim’ Gorky’s famous Soviet novel “Mother” had been translated into English badly. Gorky wrote that “the love of a баба is a selfish love,” using a well-known Russian epithet, which the lazy or ignorant or just plain incompetent translator simply replaced with “woman.” The word “woman” is a translation for “баба” in the same way that grape Kool-Aid is a substitute for Bordeaux. It doesn’t come remotely close, and it’s not what Gorky meant to say at all. All women are not бабаs, it’s a subset of women, and Gorky certainly didn’t mean that all women love selfishly. If he had meant that, he would have said it. But despite all the errors in the translation of “Mother” it still comes across as a powerful, brilliant, serious work of literature in English (if a bit benighted by Soviet idealism). Mark Twain, on the other hand, is reduced to a comic book.
So let’s see now: Americans viewed Russians as having created powerful, serious literature, and Russian viewed Americans as witless drones. I wonder which side was better prepared to fight and win the Cold War. I wonder which side actually did win? Hmmm . . .
And now? Have Russians learned their lesson as they proceed to Cold War II by funneling aid and comfort to arch American foes like Hamas, Iran and Iraq? Well, let’s ask Huck Finn, shall we?
Feminazi Post Script: But let me ask you this, dear reader: Who are the Russian Toni Morrisons, Jane Austens, Willa Cathers, Pearl Bucks, Emily Brontes, and so forth? Hard to think of, aren’t they? The first thing a neo-Soviet man will say is “Anna Akhmatova.” She’s a poet, dear fellow, I asked about novelists. America has two Nobel laureate female novelists. Why doesn’t Russia have any? Are you going to tell me, neo-Soviet man, that Russian women don’t WANT to write great novels? They don’t WANT status any higher than that accorded to Tolstaya, they don’t WANT to be thought of as equal to Tolstoy, Dosteovsky, Solzhenitsin and Sholokov?