»  The New Criterion

February, 2009

  On Being Translated into Russian


This all began some weeks ago with an email out of the blue. "Russian translation of PRIME OBSESSION," declared the subject line. The sender was identified as Alexei Semikhatov. Prime Obsession is a book I published five years ago, an attempt to give a popular account of a great unsolved problem in higher mathematics. The book was more successful than a book of that kind has any right to be, and there had already been translations into several languages.

As a sentimental Russophile who had an all-too-short exposure to the Russian language in my youth — a one-year supplementary college course, of which I have retained very little more than an ability to sound out words written in the Cyrillic alphabet — I was pleased to know of this Russian translation. In the spirit of the late Bernard Levin, who had great fun with the names of Soviet dignitaries ("Trapeznikov — what a daring young man he must be!" etc.) I bestowed a brief smile on the translator's surname. Given that "kh" is just a hard Russian "h," in my mind's eye I saw a fellow with his headgear precariously awry.

The body of the email informed me that something called the Dynasty Foundation had acquired Russian rights to my book and that a translation was nearly complete. Dr. Semikhatov, who is the translator, then added some generous words about the book, and asked me if I would like to write a preface for Russian readers. He appended some notes he had made concerning technical issues encountered in the translation.

From those notes, and the general tone of Dr. Semikhatov's communication (which was in faultless English), I got the impression of an exceptionally conscientious and thoughtful translator, who had gotten real pleasure from my book, and taken great pains to transmit that pleasure to Russian readers.

I tried to reply to that original email in the proper spirit, asking what kind of points it would be appropriate to make in my preface. Dr. Semikhatov replied promptly and informatively, and we entered into a long correspondence … which is still going on as I write, three months later. We were on first name terms in no time: beyond them, in fact, at least on the Russian side, as Alexei became Aliosha. Why is English so poor in these informal-without-being-intimate diminutives?

The notes were entertaining as well as instructive. There is a good deal of history in my book, including some Russian history, which I had not always got precisely right. (Look, I was writing to a deadline. Bad history in a math book is anyway much less blushworthy than bad math.)

Aliosha was gentle with my errors. Ernst Johann von Biron, court favorite of the horrible Empress Anna (reigned 1730-1740), was, he pointed out, technically Latvian, not German, as I had said. This was, however, highly forgivable: "Referring to Biron as a 'German' actually sounds very Russian, since from pre-Peter times until … the early 19th century Russians indiscriminately referred to many foreigners just as 'Germans,' nemtsy (the underlying etymology, and hence the reason for this usage, is quite nice)." I guess he is referring here to the derivation of nemtsy from nemoy, "a mute," people who cannot speak one's language being little better than mutes. However, some sources say this is a folk etymology, the true root of nemtsy being the Nemetes, a German tribe mentioned by Tacitus and Caesar.

Some of the notes were spiced with a nice sly wit. In my book I retail the old story about Descartes' death from pneumonia, brought on by the necessity for Descartes, a chronically late riser by habit, to get up early and cross freezing open courtyards to give philosophy lessons to Queen Christina of Sweden. Noted Aliosha: "I believe at least some readers, those inclined to working late, will find this information … perversely reassuring."

He added some tiny grace notes to my text too, improving it in every case. At one point I try to elucidate, at some length, the difference between discrete and continuous quantities — between numbers used for counting, and numbers used for measuring. In dealing with nouns, I point out, the world's languages tend to favor either the one thing or the other. English considers nouns to be mainly countable, but: "The Chinese language, by contrast with English, takes very nearly the whole of creation to be measurable. One of the minor chores of learning Chinese is memorizing the right 'measure word' … for each noun: one head of cow, two sticks of fish, three plinths of mountain, four fans of door, five grains of star." Aliosha: "I couldn't resist continuing the discussion of Chinese counting with 'and six mouths of people' in a note." How did I forget that one?


The Dynasty foundation, I learned, is a nonprofit established in 2001 by entrepreneur Dmitry Zimin with the aims of supporting science education in that country, preventing the "brain drain" of Russian talent, and — I quote here from their web site — "creating conditions for intelligent people to live and work in Russia." Hard to object to that. Making enquiries among friends who might know, and browsing the internet, I could find nothing but praise for Dynasty and its work. It seemed to me, in fact, that I had fallen into good hands, not only in the case of my translator, but also of my publisher.

I had better say here that I intend no slight on translators in general. (Publishers I shall leave to another time.) Translation is deeply unglamorous work, mostly thankless and ill-paid. The definition of "Grub Street" in Dr. Johnson's dictionary — "the name of a street near Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet" — might as well have included "translators." An author can only hope for the best with his translators. I have actually found the standard (so far as one can judge these things) higher than I expected. The fellow who translated my book into Greek, Tefcros Michaelides, has just published a rather good novel in English: Pythagorean Crimes. With Dr. Semikhatov, though, I got really lucky.

In compliance with his request I wrote up a brief preface, praising the work of the Dynasty foundation in "carrying forward the magnificent tradition of Russian science and mathematics" — no hyperbole there — thanking them for having selected my book to translate, and adding personal thanks to Aliosha: "The author of a book of this kind aims to give both pleasure and instruction. The pleasure can all too easily be lost in translation. I am confident this has not happened here. Indeed, I suspect my translator may have left the book better than he found it."

As an example of the kinds of pains Aliosha had taken, here is a passage from my book, from that same section where I am trying to clarify the counting-measuring distinction.

As a final example, one that used to puzzle me in my Church of England schooldays, consider the three days that Jesus Christ lay in his tomb before being resurrected according to his own prophecy: "After three days I will rise again." Three days? The Crucifixion occurred on a Friday — Good Friday. The Resurrection occurred on a Sunday. That's 48 hours, measure-wise, but of course 3 days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) counting-wise, which is how the Hellenized intellectuals who compiled the New Testament reckoned it.

Now, in one of our exchanges with Aliosha I mentioned that I had friends among the Seacliff Russians. Seacliff is a small town on the north shore of Long Island, a few miles from my own home. A number of "white" Russians settled there after fleeing the 1917 Revolution, and there is now a strong community centered on the Orthodox Church. "Well," replied Aliosha, "those Seacliff Russians will be interested in the footnote I added to page 89 — that's how my grandmother spoke, how they speak, but how no-one speaks in Russia these days (and some people even totally misunderstand)."

I hastened to page 89. It was the page with my "three days" example on it; but the Russian of Aliosha's footnote defeated me. I passed the footnote on to an erudite Russian friend. He came back with the following translation.

Note.  The Russian language as spoken by educated people at the beginning of the 20th century clearly demonstrated the same effect, using tretievo dnia, "the third day," to indicate the day before yesterday. Nowadays this term has been almost completely supplanted by the word pozavchera, "day before yesterday." The word pozavchera was formerly considered as belonging to the speech of the common people.

My helpful friend added: "I have probably heard this expression tretievo dnia, but never used it myself. I always use pozavchera. In my opinion, this shows that your translator loves the Russian language."

So many of them do! Any literate person of course feels an affection for his native tongue, but with Russians the sentiment seems to go beyond mere affection. The canonical statement of this fact, so far as English readers are concerned, is probably the sentence with which Vladimir Nabokov closed the Afterword he appended to the extracts from Lolita published in the 1957 Anchor Review. (The Afterword has been included in all subsequent printings of the novel, including translations, since the 1958 Putnam's edition.)

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

(Nabokov's annotator, the indefatigable Alfred Appel, Jr., informs us that frac is French for "dress coat." And Aliosha tells me, in one of his illuminating asides, that Nabokov translated the Gettysburg Address for Russian readers.)


The pons asinorum (to borrow an ancient mathematical metaphor) for translators of this book has been the song, which I included in an appendix.

Mathematicians, as everybody knows, are fun-loving people, and more than normally musical. Tom Apostol, who was Professor of Mathematics Emeritus at Caltech, wrote a song with the same subject as my book, and performed it at a mathematical conference held in June 1955. I thought it would be instructive to include the song's lyrics in my book.

The particular math problem I took as the topic for my book was posed by a 19th-century German mathematician, Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann, and so it is called the Riemann Hypothesis. It concerns the precise locations, in a certain plane, of the zeros of a certain mathematical object — the inputs, that is, that cause that object to take the value zero. The object is named the zeta function, and the inputs are identified generically by the letter s. Well, here is the first stanza, of ten, of Tom Apostol's song, which goes to the tune of "Sweet Betsy from Pike":

Where are the zeros of zeta of s?
G.F.B. Riemann has made a good guess:
"They're all on the critical line," stated he,
"And their density's one over 2π log T."

It actually gets worse — I mean, punnier, and more allusive — and proved mighty resistant to translation, to the degree that my email exchanges with Aliosha began to center on "the song problem."

Enter Bill Everett, an American polymath who lives near Moscow. Among his innumerable interests, Bill is an admirer of the Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980), whom he describes as a combination of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Paxton, with the mass popularity of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Aliosha knows Bill, and reports that: "Among all translations of Vysotsky into English, Bill ranks not more than half a dozen as real good. Two or three of these belong to Serge Elnitsky** … [who] has been living in [Canada and] the USA since a rather early age, but [whose] mother tongue is Russian."

Hearing of the song problem from Aliosha, Bill recalled that Serge Elnitsky is actually a former mathematician. He suggested Aliosha write to him about the song problem. Aliosha did so. It turned out that Serge owns a copy of my book, in English of course. In no time at all he whipped up a Russian translation of the song. Problem solved! (The Riemann Hypothesis itself is proving more of a challenge — it is still "open" after 149 years.)

Here is a transcription of that first stanza in Serge's Russian version. (To which I have added the stresses. Stress is an extremely important feature of Russian pronunciation, and a formidable enemy to learners of the language. A fairly good rule, I have found, is that the stressed syllable in a Russian word is the one you least expect to be stressed. How many English readers of Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales know that the dreadful region is pronounced "kally-mah"?) The first stanza:

Gdye zhye nul-i u funk-tsii dze-ta?
Nam Ri-man ost-a-vil do-gad-ku pro e-to:
"Na kri-ti-cheskoy li-nii, tam oni vsye,
A ikh plot-nost' — o-din-na-dva-pi ell-en teh."

Aliosha: "Not quite Pushkin, maybe, but the original isn't either." He is trying to arrange for a full musical rendering of the song, in Russian — balalaika accompaniment, perhaps? — to be posted on YouTube for promotional purposes. I may venture an a cappella version myself, if I can get those darn stresses right.


I doubt I shall ever meet Aliosha. I have no occasion to go to Russia, and could not justify the expense. If he is taking translation work, he is probably even more hard up than I am. We have passed like ships in the night, Aldis lamps briefly flashing courtesies across the dark water.

These kinds of encounters are common enough in the literary life. I am always heartened by them. The nations of the world are great lumbering behemoths ridden and directed, more often than not, by gangsters, poseurs, or buffoons. Nestled in their coarse hides, though, are parasites like myself and Aliosha, not much bothered by great matters of state or the antics of vapid "celebrities," but endlessly fascinated by language, history, mathematics, music. We must be baffling to the gangsters and buffoons, as baffling as they are to us. Sometimes the rougher kind of rider will, with a flick of his crop, flatten a few of us. "Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed." So quipped a Russian poet, shortly before being killed himself by one of the biggest gangsters of all.

My own country is not like that, for which I am everlastingly grateful. In matters of national leadership, we trend much more towards the poseurs and buffoons than to the gangsters. Should thing ever change, I hope, without of course being able truly to know, I should go on doing what I am doing, taking my pleasures as I take them now, and cherishing the freemasonry of thoughtful, bookish, skeptical, humorous, and unworldly people everywhere — the only fellowship of the spirit that means anything to me.


**   All of Serge's Vysotsky translations, with audio clips, are here. There is a video of Vysotsky performing his best-known song here. This is "The Wolf-Hunt," narrated from the point of view of a wolf, but widely interpreted as a metaphor for life in the U.S.S.R. There is a translation of the lyrics here.