Saturday, November 30, 2013

Who You Callin’ Ignoramus?

Illustration by G. O. Valk / Image courtesy of Либрусек


A Russian-speaking colleague of mine once told me that she had to toss aside an English translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita because the character Ivan Bezdomny was presented on the page as “Ivan Homeless,” which drove her crazy. Bezdomny is his name, after all, and translating it seemed ridiculous. I agreed with her.

And yet, at precisely the same time, I was translating a poem by Timur Kibirov that included character names for which I felt compelled to find English equivalents. Hypocrisy! So how did I justify my choice? Well, for one thing, there was not just one information-packed name, but many of them, and for another, they had all been imported from an intertext beloved by Russian readers: Nikolai Nosov’s Neznaika books.

The popular children’s series dates to the 1950s, and two Moscow-based publishers put out English translations of it back in the early 1980s by Margaret Wettlin, an American expatriate who lived for five decades in the Soviet Union. (Surely, those editions are relics of the Cold War’s cultural battlefront.) In Wettlin’s translations, the main character Neznaika, whose name derives from the negated verb “to know” (не знает / не знаю), quite reasonably becomes “Dunno,” although Wikipedia also offers “Know-Nothing” as an alternative. He and his diminutive comrades live peaceably in a town sheltered by daisies, dandelions, and honeysuckle; hence, the first of Nosov’s stories is called—in Wettlin’s translation—“The Mites of Flower Town” («Коротышки из цветочного города»), but in my own translation the “mites” become variously “shorties” and “midgets,” depending on what I needed for the sake of rhyme or alliteration.

Kibirov’s poem approaches Nosov’s flower town at a slant. It is called “Fairy Tale” («Сказка»), and it concerns the missionary travels of Sir Reepicheep, a stout-hearted mouse that the poet has expropriated from C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Reepicheep sets about to visit every land in his jumbled yet familiar (to us) fairytale realm—from Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland—in order to spread the good news of Narnia’s Christ-like leader, the lion Aslan:

A small ship soars atop the swells,
the Narnian rodent at the helm.

The mouse must visit each and every
magic land to tell of Aslan’s glory.

Rejoice, Moomins! Looking-Glass, gleam!
O Emerald City, sparkle and shine!

(По синему морю кораблик летит, / Нарнийский грызун у кормила стоит. // Он должен объехать волшебные страны, / Чтоб всем рассказать о победе Аслана! // Ликуй, Мумми-долл! Зазеркалье, сияй! / О Град Изумрудный, лучись и сверкай!)


Neznaika postage stamp (Russian Federation, 1992) / Image courtesy of Wikipedia

His next stop is Pushkin’s Lukomorye, an archetypal folkloric landscape couched in lines memorized by every Russian I have ever known, where the “bookish cat” («кот ученый») feasts with Reepicheep under the green oak before sending him on his way. Only then does Reepicheep finally visit Neznaika and the others in Flower Town, where among the first figures he encounters is, in my translation, Doctor Pillgiver («доктор Пилюлькин»), the rationalist physician who hears in Reepicheep’s evangelism the hostile ravings of a madman:

But Doctor Pillgiver, huffy and anxious,
gives Reepicheep a shot for rabies.

“A clinical case! Delirium! Madness!
Lions, witches, Narnia—nonsense!”

(Но доктор Пилюлькин испуган и зол, / Велит он от бешенства сделать укол. // «Клинический случай! Горячечный бред! / Ни львов, ни колдуний, ни Нарнии нет!»)

Like Pillgiver, many other citizens of Flower Town look on the outsider Reepicheep with mistrust and even fear, and the mouse’s Christian-ish mission turns out mostly unsuccessful. For example, the hyperintellectual Znaika, or Know-It-All, who stands on the opposite end of the spectrum of “knowing” from Neznaika, gets a defensive, almost violent reaction from Reepicheep when he claims that the mouse’s religion amounts to mere “symbols, metaphors, and suchlike signs / for a certain Truth—be it Serpent or Lion…” (No doubt, the serpent reference didn’t help to quell the mouse’s anger.)

So it skeptically goes with most of the other townsfolk, whose names I had great fun translating:
  • Syrup and Doughnut fear that, if Reepicheep is “such a hothead,” surely “the Lion—that fierce, muscle-bound beast— / will rip our fat little bodies apart!” (Сиропчик и Пончик).
  • Screwhead and Groovetongue ignore the chattering mouse and his “petty concerns” so that they can get back to doing their real work (Винтик и Шпунтик).
  • The artsy trio Stringpluck, Tubesqueeze, and Floret-the-Scribbler find little of value in the mouse’s religion, since after all, “where’s the freedom of self-expression?” (Гусля, Тюбик, и Цветик-поэт).

Only one of the town’s citizens converts on the spot: the aptly named—but aren’t they all?—Hustler-Bustler (Торопыжка). He quickly becomes a “fledgling zealot,” calls one of his fellow shorties a “vessel of sin,” shreds to bits a book of poems by Floret, and fights with Maybe-So, “that waffling dolt” (Авоська). Surely, this was not the sort of conversion that Reepicheep had been hoping for. (But it does hit the historical mark, doesn’t it?)

Skepticism and irony may dominate in the poem up until this point, but as so often happens in Kibirov’s theological poetry, sincerity has the last word. Just when all hope seems to have been lost for Reepicheep and his evangelical mission, the voice of the poet steps in and addresses the hero, Neznaika, directly. He’s the town’s last chance. Though we never see or hear from him, the final couplet of the poem suggests that Neznaika’s naïve simplicity may offer the community a path toward salvation. And lucky for me, in translating those last two lines, I stumbled upon a slant rhyme that gave me the solution for what to call him in English:

But you, at least, my poor Ignoramus,
now don’t be smart—listen up, save us!

(Но ты-то, хоть ты-то, мой бедный Незнайка, / Давай-ка не умничай, слушай давай-ка!)

While I admire Wettlin’s translations of Nosov’s stories, especially the playful tone she maintains, and while I might have borrowed her clever solutions for those characters who appear in Kibirov’s poem (in her text, Dr. Pillman, Doono, Bendum, Twistum, et al.), I found it much more satisfying to strike out afresh. Sure, some American kids may not know the word “ignoramus,” but isn’t it fun to say? I certainly think so. And how things are said must always be the key criterion when translating a poem. Plus, I love the irony inherent in the rhyme: salvation by someone who knows not a thing. 

Come to think of it, that falls right in line with the Russian tradition of the holy fool! I doubt that is a coincidence: Kibirov is always trickier than he seems at first blush.

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