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!)