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From OCR to Text: the mirage becomes real

The following article is for the poor, the penniless translator who likes re-inventing the wheel and making lemonade when juggling lemons.

All others will not be interested.

Part One: Image Text to Real Text

I was translating an application form written in Arabic into English. The application form came to me as a PDF, and within this PDF there were a few embedded jpegs/slides/graphics that had some text which needed to be translated.

So in order to transform the “mirage” of image text into “real” text, an OCR (optical character recognition)  conversion was needed.

(Why? You might ask. Because I do not read Arabic and must rely completely on a CAT. Well, I’ll be specific: Google Translate. )

For languages such as Arabic, there is a free online OCR converter: Not all OCR software can handle Arabic. But those that use Tesseract do.

(Aside: There’s a price for free. Note that the free OCR conversion website limits you to 10 image files per hour. )


This was a little bit of a challenge because I was translating a bar-chart graph that had a dozen labels placed sideways (at a 90-degree angle from horizontal) under each bar in the graph, and the y-axis was also vertical.

So I decided to take a little screenshot of each label, save it as an individual jpeg, and upload each file individually for OCR conversion.  I used the open source software Gadwin Printscreen to do the screenshots, because I can’t get the Windows Printscreen function to work on my computer.

When I reached 10, I still had a few more jpegs to OCR, and had to go away for an hour (or go to a computer at another location with a different IP address).

Part Two: After catching the moonbeam, send it on its way

After grabbing the converted source text and doing the translation, the next problem was to put the English translation back into a PDF format exactly like the source file.

If this had been a regular document with lots of words and not many images, I would have put the translation into a Microsoft Word document and “printed” it to a PDF file.

But this was an application form with several boxes with lines in and around the boxes, and a header image/logo, and several photo images with captions inside the various boxes.

So I chose to make a duplicate copy of the source PDF file and paste the English translation on top of the Arabic.

There is a free online PDF editor:

Using this PDF editor is very laborious because you only have one option to overwrite the source text — you have to “erase” the original text by drawing a white box over it (it’s called ‘whiteout’), then you place your translation text on top of this whiteout box, and finally you save  and download the ‘overwritten’ translation to a new PDF file.

Well, “all’s well that ends well.” (Shakespeare)


Or maybe we can say “all’s well when it ends.”

This method worked for me. It was very slow, but it worked. Wishing you success and speed with your translations.


When Word Goes Wacky – Fixing mysterious format problems

Fox photo by Jiri Sifalda

I’ll put the answer at the beginning to save the reader some time:

If your Microsoft Word document has some strange format problems that you cannot fix, try saving it as a .htm document. Then open the .htm file in a text editor (like Notepad or an editor used for computer programs) and look carefully at Word’s formatting codes. Many times you can find the code that is making the problem and delete or change it in the htm file. Save your changes in the htm file. After that, open the htm file in Word. Save it as a .doc file. Problem solved.

Here’s an example. I usually do document translation by making a draft that has two columns, the source language in the left column and the target language (always English for my translations) in the right column.

One document was being translated from French to English, but the author is in Israel and (I assume) has Microsoft Word set up for Hebrew. All kinds of weird things were happening with the text. If you tried to left-align a paragraph, it would right align. When trying to highlight a word or phrase with the mouse or using the shift-arrow keys, I would have to move across the text in the opposite direction from what I would normally do. For instance, if I wanted to highlight the word ‘cat’ I would have to start highlighting from the end at ‘t’ and shift-right-arrow over to ‘c.’

I saved the .doc file as a .htm, opened it in a text editor, and discovered there were ‘rtl’ style codes all over the document. As in ‘right-to-left’ (for Hebrew). So I globally substituted the rtl text with ltr. Voila. Fixed.

Here is an example of the html text before changes. Note the line of code that says direction:rtl;

/* Style Definitions */
p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal


font-family:”Times New Roman”;}

And after editing,  the line in question now has:



Editing a .doc file saved as an htm file has helped me to solve other problems with line-spacing and table formatting as well

Politics and Prose – Q Comes after K

Q Star Trek John Delancie

When does prose become politics? While working on translating a Kazakh short story into English, I was recently asked by the author if we could change my spelling of Kazakhstan to Qazaqstan, and Kazakh to Qazaq.

Hmmm. Does he know that it is usually spelled Kazakhstan? I saved two recent examples from the Washington Post and the New York Times. But before responding, I reflected this past weekend on ‘romanization’ as related to transcribing Chinese.

Mind your P’s and Ps

The standard way to represent Chinese characters alphabetically used to be Wade Giles. From the late 1800s through at least the 1960s, this type of romanization was used. It was rather mysterious to the uninitiated. An apostrophe was used to indicate a ‘hard’ sound, so ch’ was the ch of church, while ch without the apostrophe was the j of jar. Likewise, a t’ was the t of tip while t without the apostrophe was the d of dip. And also p: the capital of China was known briefly during World War II as Peip’ing (a ‘b’ sound followed by a ‘p’ sound).

Thus the beloved panda Bao Bao, who was sent to her ancestral Chinese home from Washington DC’s National Zoo in 2017 , is actually spelled Pao Pao in Wade Giles. And in Wade-Giles lingo, Mao’s name was spelled ‘Mao Tse Tung’ and one form of martial art was spelled ‘T’ai chi’ (hard t followed by a soft j sound).  During an interim from the 1940s to the 1980s, Yale romanization was used in many language textbooks. Yale dispensed with the apostrophes and denoted ‘d’ sounds with d;  ‘j’ sounds with  j; and ‘dz’  (which was tse in Wade Giles) was written dze.

Pinyin was created by Zhou Youguang in the 1950s. (Mr. Zhou, God bless him, lived to age 111 and passed away in January 2017. Linguists live longer!) The mainland Chinese government supported the development of Pinyin as an aid to teaching the many millions of Chinese citizens who could not read Chinese characters. Westerners persisted with the older forms of romanization, but eventually we all came around to the Chinese Pinyin system, and now Mao’s name is spelled Mao Zedong. And to this day I mispronounce Taiji. I say “tie chee.”

Aside: Pinyin uses ‘q’ in an unusual way — the q is a hard ‘ch’ sound, like ‘tch.’ So the Chinese yoga formerly known as Ch’i Kung is now Qigong.

If it quacks like a…

Not being very worldly, at least about the Russian and Kazakh side of the world, I initially thought favorably about using Qazaqstan instead of Kazakhstan for the simple reason that it seemed to be just like a Wade-Giles to Pinyin progression: Kazakh was the archaic way and Qazaq represented the modern way to spell things. I also thought of the q version of the Koran (Quran).

But until today I had no idea that the spelling of Kazakhstan as Qazaqstan has become a political issue, a symbol of freedom from Russian and Cyrillic dominance. A couple of articles from last year describe the situation:

The fight over the letter Q as the debate is known began in July 2004 after Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with former head of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaymiyev and said that Kazakhstan must shift the Kazakh language from a Cyrillic-based script to a Latin one”  [“Fight over Kazakhstan or Qazaqstan (in English Transliteration) Heating Up” by Paul Goble]

The former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Kassym Jomart Tokayev, believes that “the English version ‘Qazaqstan’ more accurately reflects the essence of our state, rather than ‘Kazakhstan’.”  [Kazakhstan или Qazaqstan? in, November 3, 2016]

More than you want to know, unless you’re a philologist

A blog article about this goes into the philological-political views of Kazakhstan vs Qazakstan:

In Kazakh, the country name is “Қазақстан.” The first and fifth letter in the word is a “Қ“, a letter that exists in the modified Cyrillic script used to write Kazakh in Kazakhstan, but not in Russian Cyrillic. The closest Russian letter is a “К“, which looks pretty similar but lacks the small tail on the bottom right of the letter.

The Cyrillic “К” makes the same sound as a K in English. The Қ” represents a sound that does not exist in either English or Russian. In Arabic that sound is represented by a Qaaf (ق) and when that Arabic sound is transliterated into English, it is usually transcribed with a “Q.” (A Qaaf, for example is the last letter in “Iraq” and the first letter in “Qur’an”). … The reason why we spell Kazakhstan like we do is because it is a direct transcription from Russian, that doesn’t have the Қ” or a Q, so Russians just convert it to a К.”

“But wait,” you say, “that doesn’t explain the ‘h’ in Kazakhstan.” The “h” in Kazakhstan comes from another transcription issue that further shows how much the English word “Kazakhstan” is the product of the Russian linguistic concerns.

In Russian, Kazakhstan is spelled “Казахстан.” You’ll note that the Russians only transcribed the first “Қ” as a К.” The second Қ” they turned into an “Х.” An “Х” in Russian (and Kazakh) makes a different sound from a К.” It makes that sound that English-speakers associate with the middle-east. Hebrew words with that sound in it often get transcribed with a “ch.” Arabic words with that sound often get transcribed as an “kh.” But it is a single sound denoted by those letter pairings, like the “ch” in the Scottish “Loch” and denoted in Arabic as a Khaa (خ).

But anyway, why did the Russians stick an “Х” in there when they could have just gone with another “К“? Because the word “Казак” was already taken. In Russian, “Казак” means what we spell in English as “Cossack.” Thus they could not just substitute both “Қ”s with “К” without making every reference to Kazakhs look like a reference to Cossacks (and vice-versa). The purpose of the “Х” in the Russian spelling is to distinguish Казак from Казах (i.e. Cossack from Kazakh). “Казакстан” to a Russian-speaker would look like the country of the Cossacks, not the land of the Kazakhs.

[“Qazaqstan” on Rubber Hose blog, March 23, 2014]

Politically Correct Prose

I’m still on Q’s side. But now it’s more of a wish to be on the politically correct team. As Shakespeare’s Juliet said:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d.

Found Objects: Translators and translation in film and television

Translator! (Interpreter!) In the flickering shadows of cinema and the vast flatland of video, you are eternally brilliant, funny and beautiful. Below is a selection of films and TV programs that deal with language translation.

Lost in Translation (2003 film starring Bill Murray) [The Suntory whisky commercial, translation scene]

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging American movie star who arrives in Tokyo to film an advertisement for Suntory whisky. Charlotte (Scarlett Johanssen), a young college graduate, is left in her hotel room by her husband, John, a celebrity photographer on assignment in Tokyo. Each day Bob and Charlotte encounter each other in the hotel, and finally meet at the hotel bar one night when neither can sleep.

In the scene where the Japanese are making the commercial, the American is mystified at the difference in length between the Japanese director’s instructions to him and his translator’s short English interpretation.

Spelling it out: The English text of the scene is here.

Who’s funny? You are!

Twenty Twelve (BBC comedy TV miniseries, 2011-2012) Season 1, Episode 2 translation scenes

2012 Hugh Bonneville and Karina Fernandez

Twenty Twelve is a mockumentary about preparing for the 2012 summer Olympics in London. In this episode [at minute 7:00] Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) of the British “Deliverance Commission” for the 2012 Olympics meets the Brazilian delegation in London and welcomes them. In a comic twist, Ian speaks to the Brazilians in Portuguese while the interpreter (played by Karina Fernandez) utters the English “translation” of Ian’s speech.

Later [at minute 15:20], the Brazilians are being taken by bus to the Olympic stadium site. The Portuguese interpreter distills a detailed 30-second English explanation to 7 words.

2012 2nd scene




The Catherine Tate Show (BBC comedy series 2004) [Offensive Translator scene – translating into 7 languages]

The Catherine Tate Show


Helen Marsh (played by Catherine Tate) convinces her boss that she can be the translator for a meeting of international executives from seven countries.

Please help us now!

Uti Vår Hage (Norwegian TV, comedy episode about the Danish language)

Uti Var Hage

Uti vår hage (English: Out in Our Meadow, named after a folk song) was a Norwegian sketch comedy television program which ran in 2003 and 2008 on the Norwegian state channel NRK. The show starred three well-known comedians: Atle Antonsen, Harald Eia and Bård Tufte Johansen. In this segment, a man claims that the Danish language was always impossible to understand by most Scandinavians, but now things are so bad that not even the Danes themselves understand Danish. (Warning: I laughed until I cried.)

Bananas (1971 Woody Allen) [The interpreter scene]

Bananas - Woody Allen

Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) is a neurotic blue collar man who tries to impress social activist Nancy (Louise Lasser) by trying to get in touch with the revolution in San Marcos. He visits the republic and is nearly killed by the local caudillo and then saved by the revolutionaries, putting him in their debt. Mellish then learns, clumsily, how to be a revolutionary. When the revolution is successful, the Castro-style leader goes mad, forcing the rebels to place Mellish as their President.

Time for a little romance…

The Interpreters / Les Interprètes (Chinese TV comedy series)

The Interpreters (China)

Qiao Fei (played by Yang Mi) is a French postgraduate who dreams of becoming a famous interpreter. She coincidentally meets a professional French interpreter, Cheng Jia Yang (played by Huang Xuan), and the two start their mentorship on the wrong foot. She earns his praise when she continuously overcomes his challenges and the two gradually develop feelings towards each other. In Episode 6 they find themselves in a compromising situation.

…Gone too far

El Pasado (The Past) 2007 Argentina

El Pasado / The Past

After twelve years of marriage, Rimini (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Sofia (Analia Couceyro) decide to divorce. Rimini, who is a translator, has no trouble moving on and finding another woman. Sofia, however, is neither able to rebuild her life, nor forget Rimini, and so she begins to stalk the new woman in Rimini’s life. (See the trailer here.)

Oh you beautiful thing!

Russian Translation (Русский перевод) TV miniseries

Russian Translation

This 2006 Russian TV miniseries is based on the novel The Journalist by Andrej Konstantinov (1996). The plot is set in the 1980s and follows Soviet military advisors and translators working in Arab countries, specifically in Yemen and Libya.

Journalist-orientalist Andrey Obnorsky (played by Nikita Zverev) is a military interpreter who goes to South Yemen and then Libya. In both countries, danger lies in wait for him at every step. First, Obnorsky unwittingly is at the epicenter of an operation selling large quantities of weapons to the Palestinians. Then, investigating the strange suicide of a best friend, Andrey goes to a group of war criminals who are stealing planes from a Libyan airbase…

The Interpreter (Nicole Kidman) 2005 – Translation scenes at beginning

Nicole Kidman

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter working at the United Nations in New York City. She was raised in the Republic of Matobo, a fictional African country, but has dual citizenship. The U.N. is considering indicting Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), Matobo’s president, to stand trial in the International Criminal Court. A security scare forces the evacuation of the U.N. building, and, as Silvia returns at night to reclaim some personal belongings, she overhears 2 men discussing an assassination plot in Ku (an East-Africa dialect she understands).

Poetry in motion…

Shelby Mitchusson’s ASL interpretation of Eminem’s Lose Yourself (from the 2002 film 8 Mile)

Shelby 3  Eminem

That’s All, Folks!

This article first appeared on The Open Mic, here.

Deconstructing Harry: Translating Harry Potter

Harry Potter cover-JapanI was going to do something about the translations of the Harry Potter series of books, but I found an article by Steven Goldstein that did it better than I ever could… and he did it 12 years ago!

Goldstein wrote a two-part article in Translorial, the journal of the Northern California Translators Association ( in December 2004.

Translating Harry, Part I: The Language of Magic
Translating Harry, Part II: The Business of Magic

Goldstein’s Part 1 describes two problems in translating fiction and fantasy novels. One is what I like to call the Dumbledore – Humlesnurr problem.


How do you translate the things that are commonplace and well understood by the source readers into something comprehensible to the target readers who are far, far away from the environment and culture of the original? (Please see the Goldstein article for the back story to Dumbledore’s name in Norwegian.)

The second problem that maybe is more exclusive to fantasy translation is how to translate the made-up vocabulary? J.K. Rowling was very inventive with her creatures and locations, and the translators also stepped up to the challenge. The ‘skrewts’ became ‘escregutos’ in Spanish, while ‘Diagon Alley’ became ‘Winklegasse’ in German. But perhaps you, gentle reader, are more interested in the dark side of translation. Then you should turn to Part 2 of Goldstein’s article…


When Warner Brothers bought the Harry Potter franchise in 1999, they forced the translators to give up their translation copyrights for any future translation (i.e., do it Warner Brothers way or the highway) AND they forbade the translators from making up any new terms/proper names in the target language. (No more Humlesnurr for you, Norway!)

Sal Robinson wrote an editorial about the Warner Brothers thing in 2012 which says:

Gili Bar Hillel, the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter books, describes a meeting of the international translators of the Potter series where the “running theme was that of insult, hurt, and rage directed towards the Harry Potter machine—the wall of lawyers surrounding J.K. Rowling, her agents and Warner Bros.—who had gone out of their way to disenfranchise translators of their intellectual and moral rights.”
Her own experiences mainly consist of Warner Brothers demanding that she sign agreements waiving all rights to her translations, which were then used as subtitles for the dubbed movie versions without crediting or any other kind of compensation either to her or the Israeli publishers.

Goldstein, appropriately, ends his article with this quote:

First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.
Next, tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?

from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 31, The Third Task

Thanks to Steven B. Goldstein for doing the Harry Potter articles. Steve is an advertising copywriter and creative director/principal of

This article originally appeared on here:

Literary Translation, Art and Christopher Hampton

I discovered Christopher Hampton on an audio CD (L.A. Theatre Works production of Art) that I was listening to for a book club discussion. We were reading two plays by Yasmina Reza — Art and Carnage — and Hampton translated both of them from French into English.

You can listen to the Hampton interview here.

Pretentious art is funny

Art is a comedy about three guys who are friends, and their reactions when one of them spends all of his savings on a painting that is completely… white.

Robert Irwin - Untitled - 1963-65

Robert Irwin – Untitled – 1963-65

Translating a successful living playwright can be a bit of a minefield, at least if the author is Yasmina Reza. Hampton and Reza watched the preview of Art in London, and this is what happened:

Chris Hampton: “They started to laugh before anyone had spoken because the spectacle of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay standing looking at this white painting started people laughing right away. And at the end of the piece she turned and said to me, ‘What have you done to my play?’ And what I’d done is translated it. We just find, the English find, pretentiousness about art very, very amusing, probably more so than the French.“

Literary translation is like a crossword puzzle

One thing Hampton said about literary translation made me feel like we were kindred spirits: “What makes it fun to do is that it’s like doing a crossword puzzle or a maths conundrum.”


I’ve always thought translating was like doing a puzzle: a crossword puzzle or one of those cryptograms that used to be in newspapers on the comics page.

In various interviews Hampton notes how valuable the translator is, while mostly being overlooked:

“I think that in general translators perform an extremely valuable social task, which is that they explain one culture to another. And I’m often shocked when I read a novel in translation — you have to search for the name of the translator, which is in very small print, and you often find that the translator has been paid some small lump sum to do this really demanding, difficult work. It’s just as difficult as writing, in a certain way.” [L.A. Theatre Works interview]

“The translator is the person who is directly mediating the language to you and giving you access to all these worlds that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter.” [New York Times Artsbeat, April 23, 2009]

Christopher Hampton Christopher Hampton

Chris Hampton is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter — he won an Academy Award for the 1989 film Dangerous Liaisons, an 18th century drama of intrigue and seduction among French nobility.

Read more about him on the LitBirthdays authors calendar.

Listen to a short excerpt of the American English version of Yasmina Reza’s play Art on YouTube:

Watch the French production of Art on YouTube:

Listen to the L.A. Theatre Works production of Art:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Note: This article originally appeared on The Open Mic ( here

Literary Translation, Part 2 – The Brothers Karamazov

A previous blog article compared Constance Garnett, who in the early 20th century translated great Russian authors into English, with the translation team of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, who in the 1990s again translated into English several Russian classics, starting with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Humor: Lost in Translation

Volokhonsky and Pevear felt that Dostoevsky’s humor as well as his lively expressiveness had been ‘lost in translation.’ As an example, they referred to a passage in the novel where a pompous doctor comes to visit the boy Ilyusha, who is very sick and dying.

In particular, Richard Pevear emphasized the joke/pun of the doctor saying “Be pre-pared for any-thing” which was immediately followed by the doctor himself “prepared to step across the threshold to the carriage.” In the Garnett translation, she had overlooked the joke and instead of repeating the word prepared, had written “about to step out to the coach.”

Below, side-by-side, is Constance Garnett’s and Volokhonsky & Pevear’s translations of this excerpt. The Russian is after the English. (From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Book 10, Chapter 7)

Translation by Constance Garnett.
Online version here
Translation by Larissa
Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear
The doctor came out of the room again, muffled in his fur coat and with his cap on his head. His face looked almost angry and disgusted, as though he were afraid of getting dirty. He cast a cursory glance round the passage, looking sternly at Alyosha and Kolya as he did so. Alyosha waved from the door to the coachman, and the carriage that had brought the doctor drove up. The captain darted out after the doctor, and, bowing apologetically, stopped him to get the last word. The poor fellow looked utterly crushed; there was a scared look in his eyes.
“Your Excellency, your Excellency… is it possible?” he began, but could not go on and clasped his hands in despair. Yet he still gazed imploringly at the doctor, as though a word from him might still change the poor boy’s fate.
“I can’t help it, I am not God!” the doctor answered offhand, though with the customary impressiveness.
“Doctor… your Excellency… and will it be soon, soon?”
“You must be prepared for anything,” said the doctor in emphatic and incisive tones, and dropping his eyes, he was about to step out to the coach.
The doctor was just coming out of the room, already wrapped up in his fur coat and with his hat on his head. His face was almost angry and squeamish, as if he were afraid of dirtying himself on something. He gave a cursory look around the entryway and glanced sternly at Alyosha and Kolya. Alyosha waved to the coachman from the doorway, and the carriage that had brought the doctor drove up to the front door. The captain rushed out after the doctor and, bending low, almost writhing before him, stopped him to get his final word. The poor man looked completely crushed, his eyes were frightened.
“Your Excellency, your Excellency . . . can it be. . . ?” he began, and could not finish, but simply clasped his hands in despair, though still making a last plea to the doctor with his eyes, as if a word from the doctor now might indeed change the poor boy’s sentence.
“What can I do? I am not God,” the doctor replied in a casual, though habitually imposing, voice.
“Doctor . . . your Excellency . . . and will it be soon, soon?”
“Be pre-pared for any-thing,” the doctor pronounced, emphasizing each syllable, and, lowering his eyes, he himself prepared to step across the threshold to the carriage.

The Russian text
of Book 10, Chapter 7, Karamazov:

Доктор выходил из избы опять уже закутанный в шубу и с фуражкой на голове. Лицо его было почти сердитое и брезгливое, как будто он всё боялся обо что-то запачкаться. Мельком окинул он глазами сени и при этом строго глянул на Алешу и Колю. Алеша махнул из дверей кучеру, и карета, привезшая доктора, подъехала к выходным дверям. Штабс-капитан стремительно выскочил вслед за доктором и, согнувшись, почти извиваясь пред ним, остановил его для последнего слова. Лицо бедняка было убитое, взгляд испуганный:
— Ваше превосходительство, ваше превосходительство… неужели?.. — начал было он и не договорил, а лишь всплеснул руками в отчаянии, хотя всё еще с последнею мольбой смотря на доктора, точно в самом деле от теперешнего слова доктора мог измениться приговор над бедным мальчиком.
— Что делать! Я не бог, — небрежным, хотя и привычно внушительным голосом ответил доктор.
— Доктор… Ваше превосходительство… и скоро это, скоро?
— При-го-товь-тесь ко всему, — отчеканил, ударяя по каждому слогу, доктор и, склонив взор, сам приготовился было шагнуть за порог к карете.

Constance Garnett and the Idiots Karamazov

I was surprised. David Remnick’s New Yorker article The Translation Wars
opened with the following about Constance Garnett:

In the first production of The Idiots Karamazov, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Garnett was played by a student at the drama school named Meryl Streep, who portrayed the aged ‘translatrix’ as a muddled loon. The mangling of the translator’s craft is a main plot point.

Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter filmsWith an introduction like that, I immediately thought of Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter films. Miss Trelawney was a bespectacled doom-sayer, a professor of divination at Hogwarts school, always looking into her crystal ball and returning bad news for Harry (and getting it wrong).

And Vladimir Nabokov said such nasty things about Constance! Well, catty things. But in my quick scanning of Garnett vs P/K, I did not see very much difference. I certainly did not see an archaic and awkward translation in Garnett’s work.

Acorn photo by Aaron Burden

But perhaps you will find something, if not in the vocabulary then in the patterns of speech or the way the phrases are constructed.

What grows on a tree, is gathered and given to everyone?

Below is a short vignette from Book 12, Chapter 3 of The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri (Mitya) is on trial for murder. Three doctors are called as expert witnesses about Mitya’s sanity. One of them is an elderly German who has been the village doctor for more than 30 years. Dr. Herzenstube testifies that the mental abnormality of the defendant is obvious, because when he entered the courtroom he kept his eyes in front of him instead of looking to the left at the ladies, of whom he was a great admirer. But then the doctor remembers a story…


Translation by
Constance Garnett.
Online version here

Translation by
Larissa Volokhonsky
and Richard Pevear

…highly prizing his flat, dull and always gleefully complacent German wit. The old man was fond of making jokes.
“Oh, yes, that’s what I say,” he went on stubbornly. “One head is good, but two are much better, but he did not meet another head with wits, and his wits went. Where did they go? I’ve forgotten the word.” He went on, passing his hand before his eyes, “Oh, yes, spazieren.”*
“Oh, yes, wandering, that’s what I say. Well, his wits went wandering and fell in such a deep hole that he lost himself. And yet he was a grateful and sensitive boy. Oh, I remember him very well, a little chap so high, left neglected by his father in the back yard, when he ran about without boots on his feet, and his little breeches hanging by one button.”
A note of feeling and tenderness suddenly came into the honest old man’s voice. Fetyukovitch positively started, as though scenting something, and caught at it instantly.
“Oh, yes, I was a young man then…. I was… well, I was forty-five then, and had only just come here. And I was so sorry for the boy then; I asked myself why shouldn’t I buy him a pound of… a pound of what? I’ve forgotten what it’s called. A pound of what children are very fond of, what is it, what is it?” The doctor began waving his hands again. “It grows on a tree and is gathered and given to everyone…”
“Oh, no, no. You have a dozen of apples, not a pound…. No, there are a lot of them, and call little. You put them in the mouth and crack.”
“Quite so, nuts, I say so.” The doctor repeated in the calmest way as though he had been at no loss for a word. “And I bought him a pound of nuts, for no one had ever bought the boy a pound of nuts before. And I lifted my finger and said to him, ‘Boy, Gott der Vater.’ He laughed and said, ‘Gott der Vater’… ‘Gott der Sohn.’ He laughed again and lisped ‘Gott der Sohn.’ ‘Gott der heilige Geist.’ Then he laughed and said as best he could, ‘Gott der heilige Geist.’ I went away, and two days after I happened to be passing, and he shouted to me of himself, ‘Uncle, Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn,’ and he had only forgotten ‘Gott der heilige Geist.’ But I reminded him of it and I felt very sorry for him again. But he was taken away, and I did not see him again. Twenty-three years passed. I am sitting one morning in my study, a white-haired old man, when there walks into the room a blooming young man, whom I should never have recognised, but he held up his finger and said, laughing, ‘Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn, and Gott der heilige Geist. I have just arrived and have come to thank you for that pound of nuts, for no one else ever bought me a pound of nuts; you are the only one that ever did.’ And then I remembered my happy youth and the poor child in the yard, without boots on his feet, and my heart was touched and I said, ‘You are a grateful young man, for you have remembered all your life the pound of nuts I bought you in your childhood.’ And I embraced him and blessed him. And I shed tears. He laughed, but he shed tears, too… for the Russian often laughs when he ought to be weeping. But he did weep; I saw it. And now, alas!…”
“And I am weeping now, German, I am weeping now, too, you saintly man,” Mitya cried suddenly.

* Promenading.

…prizing all the more his potato-thick and always happily self-satisfied German wit. And the dear old man loved to be witty.
“Oh, y-yes, that’s what I am saying,” he picked up stubbornly, “two heads are much better than one head. But no one came to him with another head, and he even sent his own head for . . . How do you say, where did he send it? This word—-where he sent his head-—I’ve forgotten,” he went on waving his hand in front of his eyes, “ah, yes, spazieren.”
“For a walk?”
“Yes, for a walk, that’s what I am saying. So his head went for a walk and came to some deep place where it lost itself. And yet he was a grateful and sensitive young man, oh, I remember him still as such a tiny boy, left alone in his father’s backyard, where he was running in the dirt without any shoes and just one button on his little britches.”
A certain note of sensitivity and emotion was suddenly heard in the honest old man’s voice. Fetyukovich fairly started, as if anticipating something, and instantly hung on to it.’
“Oh, yes, I myself was a young man then. . . I was. . . well, yes, I was then forty-five years old, and had just come here. And I felt pity for the boy then, and I asked myself: why shouldn’t I buy him a pound of. . . well, yes, a pound of what? I forget what it‘s called. . . a pound of what children like so much, what is it—well, what is it. . . ?” the doctor again waved his hand. “It grows on a tree, they gather it and give it to everyone. . .”
“Oh, n-n-no! A pound, a pound——apples come in dozens, not pounds. . . no, there are many of them, and they are all small, you put them in the mouth and cr-r-rack…!”
“Well, yes, nuts, that is what I am saying,” the doctor confirmed in the calmest way, as if he had not even been searching for the word, “and I brought the boy a pound of nuts, because no one had ever yet brought the boy a pound of nuts, and I held up my finger and said to him: ‘Boy! Gott der Vater,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Gott der Vater.’ ‘Gott der Sohn.’ Again he laughed and said, ‘Gott der Sohn.’ ‘Gott der heilige Geist.’ Then he laughed again and said as well as he could, ‘Gott der heilige Geistf’ And I left. Two days later I was passing by and he called out to me himself: ‘Hey, uncle, Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn,’ only he forgot ‘Gott der heilige Geist,’ but I reminded him, and again I felt great pity for him. But he was taken away, and I did not see him anymore. And now after twenty-three years have gone by, I am sitting one morning in my study, and my head is already gray, and suddenly a blossoming young man comes in, whom I would never have recognized, but he held up his finger and said, laughing: ‘Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn, und Gott der heilige Geist! I’ve just arrived, and have come to thank you for that pound of nuts; for no one bought me a pound of nuts before; you are the only one who ever bought me a pound of nuts.’ And then I remembered my happy youth, and a poor boy in the yard without any shoes, and my heart turned over, and I said: ‘You are a grateful young man, for all your life you have remembered that pound of nuts I brought you in your childhood.’ And I embraced him and blessed him. And I wept, He was laughing, but he also wept . . . for a Russian quite often laughs when he ought to weep. But he wept, too, I saw it. And now, alas . . . !”
“And I’m weeping now, too, German, I’m weeping now, too, you man of God!” Mitya suddenly cried from his place.

The Russian text
of Book 12, Chapter 3, Karamazov:

а, напротив, еще весьма ценя свое тугое, картофельное и всегда радостно-самодовольное немецкое остроумие. Старичок же любил острить
.— О, д-да, и я то же говорю,
— упрямо подхватил он,
— один ум хорошо, а два гораздо лучше. Но к нему другой с умом не пришел, а он и свой пустил… Как это, куда он его пустил? Это слово
— куда он пустил свой ум, я забыл,
— продолжал он, вертя рукой пред своими глазами,
— ах да, шпацирен.
— Гулять?
— Ну да, гулять, и я то же говорю. Вот ум его и пошел прогуливаться и пришел в такое глубокое место, в котором и потерял себя. А между тем, это был благодарный и чувствительный юноша, о, я очень помню его еще вот таким малюткой, брошенным у отца в задний двор, когда он бегал по земле без сапожек и с панталончиками на одной пуговке.Какая-то чувствительная и проникновенная нотка послышалась вдруг в голосе честного старичка. Фетюкович так и вздрогнул, как бы что-то предчувствуя, и мигом привязался.
— О да, я сам был тогда еще молодой человек… Мне… ну да, мне было тогда сорок пять лет, а я только что сюда приехал. И мне стало тогда жаль мальчика, и я спросил себя: почему я не могу купить ему один фунт… Ну да, чего фунт? Я забыл, как это называется… фунт того, что дети очень любят, как это
— ну, как это…
— замахал опять доктор руками,
— это на дереве растет, и его собирают и всем дарят…
— Яблоки?
— О н-не-е-ет! Фунт, фунт, яблоки десяток, а не фунт… нет, их много и всё маленькие, кладут в рот и кр-р-рах!..
— Орехи?
— Ну да, орехи, и я то же говорю,
— самым спокойным образом, как бы вовсе и не искал слова, подтвердил доктор,
— и я принес ему один фунт орехов, ибо мальчику никогда и никто еще не приносил фунт орехов, и я поднял мой палец и сказал ему: «Мальчик! Gott der Vater»,
— он засмеялся и говорит: «Gott der Vater.
— Gott der Sohn». Он еще засмеялся и лепетал: «Gott der Sohn.
— Gott der heilige Geist». Тогда он еще засмеялся и проговорил сколько мог: «Gott der heilige Geist». А я ушел. На третий день иду мимо, а он кричит мне сам: «Дядя, Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn», и только забыл «Gott der heilige Geist», но я ему вспомнил, и мне опять стало очень жаль его. Но его увезли, и я более не видал его. И вот прошло двадцать три года, я сижу в одно утро в моем кабинете, уже с белою головой, и вдруг входит цветущий молодой человек, которого я никак не могу узнать, но он поднял палец и смеясь говорит: «Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn und Gott der heilige Geist! Я сейчас приехал и пришел вас благодарить за фунт орехов; ибо мне никто никогда не покупал тогда фунт орехов, а вы один купили мне фунт орехов». И тогда я вспомнил мою счастливую молодость и бедного мальчика на дворе без сапожек, и у меня повернулось сердце, и я сказал: «Ты благодарный молодой человек, ибо всю жизнь помнил тот фунт орехов, который я тебе принес в твоем детстве» И я обнял его и благословил. И я заплакал. Он смеялся, но он и плакал… ибо русский весьма часто смеется там, где надо плакать. Но он и плакал, я видел это. А теперь, увы!..
— И теперь плачу, немец, и теперь плачу, божий ты человек!

What do you think? Was Constance Garnett a hapless Miss Trelawney? Are Volokhonsky & Pevear capturing the real Karamazov?

Tree Road photo by Aaron Burden

Note: This article originally appeared here on The Open Mic (

Photo credit: Photos of apples, acorn, and trees by Aaron Burden on

Literary Translation – A Tale of Two Translators

While reading about the despicable translation practices of Constance Garnett, I confess to having a few ‘uh-oh’ moments, as in, “Uh-oh, I do that all the time!” Am I a terrible translator too? Would Hemingway love me as well? Let me explain. This morning’s Google surfing turned up a New Yorker article written by David Remnick in 2005, titled “The Translation Wars.”

Constance Garnett, translator of great Russian literature into English

Constance Garnett

It starts off seemingly as a bio piece about Constance Garnett (1861-1946), a Victorian-era British translator who brought the great Russian classics into English. Always a frail and sickly woman (who rivaled James Joyce and Aldous Huxley for poor eyesight), Garnett studied Russian with her husband’s friend, Felix Volkhovsky (Russian socialist revolutionary exile) in 1891 while she was ‘in the confinement’ of her first pregnancy.

She went on to translate into English the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and more. The ‘and more’ includes winning the admiration of Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield… Constance Garnett’s were the go-to translations for the literati of the early 20th century Lost Generation.

Here is Katherine Mansfield’s 1921 letter to Garnett:

“Dear Madam,
As I laid down my copy of War & Peace tonight I felt I could no longer refrain from thanking you for the whole other world that you have revealed to us through these marvelous translations from the Russian. Your beautiful industry ends, Madam, in making us almost ungrateful. We are almost inclined to take for granted the fact that the new book is translated by Mrs Constance Garnett. Yet my generation (I am 32) and the younger generation owe you more than we ourselves are able to realize. These books have changed our lives, no less. What would it be like to be without them!”

The New Yorker article says:
A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”

Hemingway recalls telling a friend, a young poet named Evan Shipman, that he could never get through War and Peace—not “until I got the Constance Garnett translation.”

And yet…
I say unto thee, a translator goeth unloved by her source language readers.

In Remnick’s article Vladimir Nabokov just about spit nails whenever he looked at her work:

Vladimir Nabokov (Влади́мир Набо́ков) with boxing gloves

Vladimir Nabokov

“The typescripts of Nabokov’s lectures, which he delivered while teaching undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell, are full of anti-Garnett vitriol; his margins are a congeries of pencilled exclamations and crabby demurrals on where she had ‘messed up.’ For example, where a passage in the Garnett of ‘Anna’ reads, ‘Holding his head bent down before him,’ Nabokov triumphantly notes, ‘Mark that Mrs. Garnett has decapitated the man.’”

And Remnick quotes the poet Joseph Brodsky as saying: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

Enter the New Wave of a new age of translators: Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian emigré). The married dynamic duo decided that the English translations (several, including Constance Garnett’s) of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov could be vastly improved.

Brothers Karamazov by SpoonyBards

Brothers Karamazov by SpoonyBards

According to the New Yorker: “Larissa wrote out a kind of hyperaccurate trot of the original, complete with interstitial notes about Dostoyevsky’s diction, syntax, and references. Then, Richard, who has never mastered conversational Russian, wrote a smoother, more Englished text, constantly consulting Larissa about the original and the possibilities that it did and did not allow. They went back and forth like this several times, including a final session in which Richard read his English version aloud while Larissa followed along in the Russian. Their hope was to be true to Dostoyevsky, right down to his famous penchant for repetition, seeming sloppiness, and melodrama.”

All well and good. But if you translate it, will publishers go for it?

Random House: “No, thanks. Garnett lives forever. Why do we need a new one?”

Oxford University Press: Turned them down after one of their university dons marked up the manuscript with ‘corrections.’

Another six publishing houses later…

“There was only one bite: Jack Shoemaker, from North Point Press, a small house in San Francisco (now defunct), called, offering an advance of a thousand dollars—roughly a dollar per page. They estimated that the translation would take five to six years—more than twice as long as it took Dostoyevsky to write the novel. Although translators of long-dead authors do not have to share royalties, the arithmetic was unpleasant. Pevear called back and shyly asked if, perhaps, North Point could come up with a bit more money. Shoemaker offered six thousand. “P/V,” as they would come to be known in the academic journals, went to work on The Brothers Karamazov.”

This is what P and V had to say about it:

We thought, if we can do this together, we should start with the book that meant the most to us and had suffered the most from previous translators,” Pevear said. “Dostoyevsky’s marvellous humor had been lost. The Divine Comedy is divine, a religious work, but it’s also funny; there are comic moments. The same with Dostoyevsky, and the comedy comes when you least expect it. Ilyusha is dying. His shoes are outside the room. His father is banging his head against the door. A prestigious German doctor comes from Moscow to treat the boy. The doctor comes out of the room after seeing him and the father asks him if there is any hope. He says, ‘Be prepared for anything.’ Then, ‘lowering his eyes, he himself prepared to step across the threshold to the carriage.’ Dickens would never have joked at such a moment. He would have jerked all the tears he could have from us.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Larissa said. “Translators too often look for the so-called Russian sensibility, and, lo and behold, they find it: the darkness, the obsessiveness, the mystic genius. All of that is there, of course. But there is also a lightness, a joyful Christian lightness, too. There are deaths, suicide, the death of a child, Ivan goes mad, Mitya goes to prison—and yet the book ends with joy.”

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, new translations of Russian classics into English

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

After the success of Karamazov, they continued translating Russian works, and in 1998 finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Their publisher, Penguin in the U.K., was less than enthusiastic and the couple found themselves in copy-editor wars, where an editor who was sensitive to the double-entendre of such words as ‘balls’ and ‘come’ thought it might be a good idea to make substitutions…

Pevear told Remnick: “And then they started blue-pencilling in alternate translations from Rosemary Edmonds, dozens and dozens of times. I was out of my mind with rage. There were more than a hundred cases of that. It took me two weeks, working twelve-hour days, to restore everything.”

Okay, Karenina came out in 2000 in the U.K. and didn’t sell. But Caroline White of the New York branch of Penguin ordered a print run of 32,000. Obviously Mrs. White was of the faith that ‘if we print them they will buy them.’

And you’ll never believe what happened next…

Then, one day in the spring of 2004, White called Pevear in Paris. She had big news. Oprah Winfrey was selecting ‘Anna Karenina’ for her book club. Neither Pevear nor Volokhonsky quite understood the commercial implications. In fact, they had no idea who Oprah Winfrey was. ‘I thought she was a country singer,’ Richard said.

Oprah Winfrey, angel to book authors

White informed them that Viking-Penguin would print an additional eight hundred thousand copies of their translation in a single month. Soon the buses, subways, and coffee shops of America were filled with people reading Tolstoy.

I asked Richard and Larissa what ‘the Oprah moment’ meant for them.

‘It means I have an accountant,’ Richard said.

* * *

To sum up, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have tried to restore, to recapture, some of the original Russian rhythm and nuance. They were not trying to make it simple, they were making it more ‘real.’

For example, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace there are phrases and even a speech that appeared in French in the Russian original. Most English translators have brought it all into English. But Volokhonsky had other ideas.

“Tolstoy used French for a reason, or for several reasons: to give the tone of the period; to play on the ironies of a French-speaking Russian aristocracy suddenly finding itself thrown into war with France; to suggest a certain frivolity and uprootedness in characters like Prince Vassily and the witty Bilibin. . . . Interestingly, when Napoleon banters with his troops, he does so in French, but when he talks seriously, Tolstoy lends him Russian.”

Double entendres about going to balls and recently coming aside, keeping things real led the duo to make conservative choices about translating curses and obscenities. They chose to be circumspect because they felt it was a more accurate rendering of the author’s Russian writing. Anthony Briggs’ translation of War and Peace has General Kutuzov using the f-word.

P and V wrote the following to Remnick:

We’ll do as Tolstoy did. He would never have written out “fucking bastards,” and in any case Briggs has not been very inventive. None of us can figure out what epithet Tolstoy had in mind for Kutuzov, but it seems to have involved the mistreatment of mothers.

To return to Constance Garnett, here is my ‘uh-oh’ moment: David Remnick writes, “when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on.”

Yes. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Anyways… back to the sins of Constance Garnett. It is an eternal problem faced by — not specifically translators — but any communicator bringing complex knowledge to simpler folk. You could be Lao Tzu trying to communicate Taoism. You could be a Christian missionary trying to bring religion to a heathen tribe. You could be Gabriele Veneziano trying to explain string theory to six-year olds. Or you could be Constance Garnett trying to make the rich tapestry of Russian writing accessible to English readers. How do you do it? On which side do you err? Too much complexity or too little?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the accused touched the hearts and souls of many with her translations. If her translations were simplistic or awkward, they did not offend or besmirch the names of her sources. Quite the contrary.

Marc Chagall Le Quai aux Fleurs 1953 detail

Note: This article originally appeared here on The Open Mic (