Varlam Shalamov

Lysander Jaffe

“Writing as a Stranger:” Two Translations of Shalamov’s “The Snake Charmer”

Рукопись рассказа «Заклинатель змей»

“The writer is not an observer, not a spectator, but a participant in the drama of life,” writes Varlam Shalamov in his essay “On Prose.” [1] In “The Necktie,” however, he asserts that future writers “will tell only what they know and have seen.” Accuracy, he says, is “the force of the literature of the future.” [2] Shalamov’s commitment to authenticity, to the language of an inside “participant,” may seem at odds with his assertion that a writer must be a stranger or foreigner [иностранец], [3] and with his own tendency to tell the stories of others, as he does in “An Elegy,” “Cherry Brandy,” and numerous other stories. Indeed, the practice of “writing as a stranger” is widespread among Gulag survivors, who often had to transform observation, hearsay, and speculation into coherent narratives of their own. Naturally, no single one of these transformative retellings can completely capture the reality of the Gulag with the level of accuracy Shalamov demands. Collectively, however, these manifold accounts, perspectives, voices, and styles paint a stereoscopic picture of the Gulag as a whole. It is in this undertaking that writers are active participants, even as strangers to the material they describe. In “Through the Snow,” the opening sketch to his Kolyma Tales, Shalamov portrays this dynamic allegorically: he describes how each individual prisoner tramps down a new path through the snow so that “people on tractors and horses,” i.e., readers, may follow. [4] Indeed, in the collection of stories that follows, the Gulag is refracted through the lenses of many individual protagonists.

One story in Kolyma Tales, “The Snake Charmer,” begins with and revolves around the act of storytelling: Andrei Platonov, [5] formerly a scriptwriter and now a political prisoner, tells Shalamov’s narrator, a fellow political prisoner, about his time in the notorious Jankhara camp, where he survived by re-telling novels for the entertainment of the criminal inmates [воры]. Platonov tells the narrator that if he survives, he will write a story about his experience and title it “The Snake Charmer.” Platonov dies three days after this conversation, and the narrator decides to write down his story, “The Snake Charmer.” The rest of Shalamov’s text is told from Platonov’s perspective; it describes his first day at Jankhara, which ends with him becoming the camp “novelist” [романист].

Like many of Shalamov’s works, “The Snake Charmer” operates on multiple levels, and the title alone addresses at least three major themes: the power of language in the prison world, the re-negotiation of identity in the camps, and the dynamic process of shaping collective memory, of which Shalamov’s work is part. The snake may represent the danger faced by an educated person in a criminal camp, while “charmer” [заклинатель] describes Platonov’s ability to defuse that danger, through the spell of his storytelling. This may be taken as a concrete example of the magical power Dmitrii Likhachev attributes to speech in the criminal community, which functions as “both command and incantation” [приказание, но и заклинание]. [6] Platonov uses the term “snake charmer,” rather than the criminal expression “novelist” or the more neutral “reteller of novels,” to describe his storytelling role; his choice of title thus marks an important act of self-identification. It also represents a shift in narrative perspective: After Platonov’s death, Shalamov’s initial narrator disappears behind the “focalizer” of Platonov, whose working title “The Snake Charmer” is adopted as the title of Shalamov’s own text. [7] By thus including multiple perspectives within a single work, Gulag survivors transmitted the stories of fellow prisoners who did not live to tell their own tales, creating a collective record of the Gulag experience. “The Snake Charmer” both describes and participates in this process, implicating Shalamov himself in this dynamic of retelling.

What does it mean, then, to retell “The Snake Charmer” in another language? For translators, this challenge has proven formidable, not least because of the original text’s long, convoluted history of publication. “The Snake Charmer” and other Kolyma Tales first appeared in the Russian émigré journal Novyi Zhurnal in 1967, [8] and was not re-published until 1978. [9] The 1967 version differs drastically from all subsequent versions, omitting significant portions of Shalamov’s prose. John Glad first translated this and other Kolyma Tales into English in 1980, and his translation reflects many of these omissions. [10] Glaring inaccuracies also result from the many typos in the 1967 version; the most unfortunate of these is the line “Эх, скука, ночи длинные,” written as “Эх, скука, ноги длинные” in the first publication, and rendered by Glad as “It’s so boring my legs are getting longer.” (my italics) [11] It may be argued that on a small scale, Glad was working from a different original than Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson, who re-translated “The Snake Charmer” almost thirty years later. [12]

Any edition of “The Snake Charmer,” however, presents the same fundamental challenge to translation: the Gulag-specific realities Shalamov describes, and the specific language he uses to describe them. Attention to detail is typical of Gulag narratives, which represented both works of art and testimony at a time when the reality of the camps, to quote Solzhenitsyn, “found in the Soviet Union almost no expression whatsoever in the printed word.” [13] Prisoners-turned-writers took detailed stock of the environment to which they were confined, familiarizing their readers with camp geography, social structure, and daily routine. Shalamov’s economy of style and form, however, resists extensive description; the descriptive details he does provide are essential and highly functional. Thus specific language, often lost in translation, assumes great importance in translations of Gulag texts in general, and of Shalamov’s works in particular. The Glad and Chandler/Wilkinson translations of “The Snake Charmer” vividly illustrate two different approaches to Shalamov’s specific language, and to translation in general.

Shalamov, like many Gulag survivors, taps into the lexicon of prison slang to evoke the prison camp atmosphere. Such slang arguably requires “translation” even into standard Russian; naturally, the richness of its semantic and cultural meaning make it hard to translate into English. Slang could both create and reflect power dynamics in the Gulag, marking, in Shalamov’s words, “the beginning of the noncriminal’s intimacy with the criminal world.” [14] In “The Snake Charmer,” Shalamov’s use of certain criminal expressions underscores the gradual transformation of Platonov’s identity in Jankhara, as his “intimacy” with the criminal world begins.

The expression “тискать романы,” used to describe Platonov’s storytelling, is a prime example. In criminal slang dictionaries, “тискать” (literally “to press, squeeze”), is defined as “to say, tell, with invention” [говорить, рассказывать с выдумкой]. [15] In his Gulag Handbook, Jacques Rossi translates “тискать романы” as “to relate novels, stories, and the like in the unique prison and forced labor camp style,” adding that a skilled novelist had nothing to fear in a criminal camp. [16] This kind of storytelling is central to the theme and composition of “The Snake Charmer:” Platonov’s enthralling renditions of novels earn him food, a lighter work schedule, and immunity from physical violence. “Тискать романы” also introduces a layer of meta-fiction: the narrator, and by extension Shalamov, engages in the same process of re-telling as Platonov-the-protagonist. He relates Platonov’s story with a necessary amount of “invention,” since he did not experience it himself.

The 2007 Chandler/Wilkinson translation renders “тискать романы” as “pull novels,” which sounds somewhat awkward in a language equipped with comparable idioms such as “spin a yarn” or “drag out a story.” Far from sounding natural, “pull novels” preserves the foreignness of “тискать романы,” both as a concept and a phrase, to Platonov, who first hears it as a non-member of the criminal community. His continued use of this expression with Shalamov’s narrator, a fellow intellectual, shows the lasting imprint of the novelist role on his identity. Platonov still refers to storytelling in criminal terms, which the narrator, by contrast, deliberately avoids: when Platonov asks if he has ever “pulled novels” himself, the narrator replies, “I’ve never told novels for soup,” [За суп я никогда не рассказывал романов], using the neutral verb “рассказывать.” Shalamov’s word choice here reflects his narrator’s view of novel-pulling as “the ultimate humiliation, the end” [последнее унижение, конец]. [17] In Glad’s translation, this important distinction between criminal and non-criminal speech disappears; Glad renders “тискать романы” simply as “retell novels.” This may adequately capture the phrase’s literal meaning, but the linguistic metaphor of squeezing out a story to fill up more time is lost. More importantly, “retell novels,” unlike “pull novels,” melds seamlessly into neutral everyday speech; it tells us nothing about the criminal lexicon and social context from which it stems.

Another criminal idiom, “Ivan Ivanovich,” also aids in re-forming Platonov’s identity in Jankhara. Criminals used this generic nickname to address political prisoners, who were excluded from their community. [18] On Platonov’s first day in Jankhara, the gang leader Fedya summons him as “Ivan Ivanovich.” Platonov misunderstands, saying, “I’m not Ivan Ivanovich.” This misunderstanding underscores the foreignness of his new social and linguistic environment. The criminals continue to address Platonov as “Ivan Ivanovich,” linguistically marking him as an outsider as they abuse him and assign him the most demeaning tasks. Only after Platonov gains his “novelist” status does Fedya learn his actual name, Andrei. Chandler and Wilkinson translate “Ivan Ivanovich” in full, while Glad shortens it to “Ivan,” removing the patronymic. “Ivan” shows the criminals’ disrespect toward Platonov, insofar as they call him the wrong name, but not their categorization of him a political prisoner, an intellectual, and thus deserving of special contempt.

In addition to prison slang, Shalamov draws on Gulag-specific vocabulary used by criminals, political prisoners, and guards alike. In “The Snake Charmer,” the most problematic of these words, for translation purposes, may be “нары,” “the continuous wooden shelves used instead of bunks.” [19] English has no direct equivalent of “нары,” and only a recent tradition of translating it. [20] In “The Snake Charmer,” Glad renders “нары” interchangeably as “berths” or “bunks,” which is potentially deceptive. “Berths” immediately evokes the image of bunk-style beds on a ship or train, rather than the bare wooden planks used, according to Galler and Harquess, instead of bunks. [21] The Chandler/Wilkinson rendition, “bed-boards,” more authentically captures and indeed draws attention to the living conditions in the Gulag.

Much of Shalamov’s specific vocabulary comes from standard Russian, but nonetheless finds different expression in the two translations. Glad’s translation begins with the two friends sitting on a fallen pine; in the Chandler/Wilkinson version, it is a larch [лиственница] specifically. This seemingly minor detail speaks to the narrator’s knowledge of his natural environment and the vividness of the memory he describes. [22] A few paragraphs later, Shalamov specifies the medical treatment that could have saved Platonov’s life. Chandler and Wilkinson translate this prescription as “intravenous glucose and strong cardiac medicines,” [глюкоза внутривенно, сильные сердечные средства] while Glad reduces it to “proper treatment.” [23] This medical detail, far from being superfluous, points to the narrator’s medical expertise, which Shalamov, who worked as a medical orderly, would have shared. An accurate rendition of this prescription strengthens a meta-fictional reading of “The Snake Charmer,” in which Shalamov himself is “pulling” Platonov’s story.

These two English translations, as we have seen, “re-tell” Shalamov’s story very differently. Glad’s version tends to evade details that might escape or impede a foreign reader’s immediate understanding: bed-boards, larch trees, cardiac medicines, “pulling” novels. On the other hand, he renders certain phrases in greater detail than Shalamov himself does in the original. For example, “блатные” is expanded into “the criminal element in camp,” “якутская лошадь” into “the horses of the local Yakut tribesmen,” “на работе” into “at the worksite,” “на морозе” into “in subzero weather,” and “махорочный окурок” into “butt with its home-grown tobacco.” Chandler and Wilkinson opt for the more laconic “criminals,” “Yakut horse,” “at work,” “in the frost,” and “stub of makhorka,” respectively. Glad’s compensatory translations here aim to clarify details specific to “The Snake Charmer’s” geographic and socio-cultural context. “Criminal element” and “horses of the local Yakut tribesmen,” especially, come across as encyclopedic explanations, uncharacteristic of Shalamov’s own style. Glad’s expansion and retraction of Shalamov’s level of detail attempt to domesticate “The Snake Charmer,” or make it more accessible to readers from another linguistic and cultural background. The Chandler/Wilkinson translation, by contrast, more closely matches Shalamov’s word choice and phrasing, neither reducing nor augmenting his level of detail. As a result a number of details, from “Ivan Ivanovich” to bed-boards to Yakut horses, remain “foreign” to a Western reader even in translation. This later English rendition thus foreignizes “The Snake Charmer.”

These two approaches, domestication and foreignization, have long formed the crux of debates on translation practice. Translators and theoreticians have tended to advocate either “word-for-word” or “sense-for-sense,” “literal” or “free” translation. A more literal translation, such as Chandler’s and Wilkinson’s, tends to foreignize the original text by replicating its linguistic texture, which cannot link signifier to signified as organically in a new language. A more “free” translation, such as Glad’s, posits and prioritizes a “message, content, or concept.” “Free” from responsibility to the words themselves, such a translation transmits the chosen message using “substitute signifiers,” in Philip E. Lewis’s words, from within the target readership’s conceptual framework, thus domesticating the original. [24]

These two approaches have traditionally been framed as mutually exclusive. As Lewis writes, “an adequate translation would be always already two interpretations, a double interpretation requiring, so to speak, a double writing; and it is the insurmountable fact that these two interpretations are mutually exclusive that consigns every translation to inadequacy.” [25] Beyond conveying the language and content of the original, a third goal of translation has often been acknowledged: to “produce a new text that matters to one community the way another text matters to another,” as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. [26] In considering whether a particular translation fulfills this third objective, we must first consider the author’s relationship to his or her readership in the source language and culture.

Like many authors of Gulag narratives, Shalamov conceived of the Gulag as a separate world, with its own language, laws, and institutions. In “The Snake Charmer” he describes imprisonment as a “second life,” later comparing the world outside prison to “some distant America” [какая-то Америка], in which the prisoners barely believed. [27] Even in their native language, Gulag survivors struggled to convey this foreign, otherworldly reality to readers who had never experienced it themselves. Thanks to this cultural and experiential chasm, the painful process of putting these experiences into writing could resemble a translation process of sorts. Roman Jakobson’s distinction between “inter-lingual” and “intra-lingual” translation provides a useful framework here: [28] An intra-lingual translation of the Gulag reality, much like the inter-lingual translations discussed above, may be subject to different approaches, fraught with similar tension over which “message, content, or concept” to convey, and by which linguistic means.

Such “translation” of the Gulag experience into literary form took many years and great psychological distance. Evgenia Ginzburg described carrying her experiences for thirty years and then destroying her first attempt at a memoir, calling it “not a book but only the raw material for one;” in its final form, her memoir amounted to “the total alienation of the product from its author.” [29] As they alienated themselves from their traumatic experiences, temporally and psychologically, Gulag survivors employed various strategies to “translate” this alien reality into terms outsiders could understand. On a linguistic level, these techniques include in-text translation of prison slang and bureaucratic jargon. Solzhenitsyn was particularly adept at this, but this method also appears in the memoirs of Ginzburg, Hava Volovich, Tamara Petkevich, and many others. On a broader structural level, many writers not only described but also interpreted the Gulag reality, drawing parallels between the experiences of different individuals and situating them within the context of the Gulag system as a whole.

This contextualizing approach finds its apotheosis in Solzhenitsyn’s “literary investigation” The Gulag Archipelago. With its vast scope, this seminal work links numerous “islands” of individual suffering. Solzhenitsyn provides explicit, encyclopedic definitions of the Gulag’s linguistic and cultural peculiarities, explaining them for uninformed, uninitiated outsiders. By presenting the Gulag schematically, archetypally, The Gulag Archipelago renders atrocities conceptually accessible to readers in Russia and beyond. His “translation” can be said to domesticate the Gulag, creating, in Toker’s words, “a broad basis for a polemic that comes closest to a substitute for the Nuremberg trials.” [30]

Shalamov’s writing, meanwhile, seems to foreignize the Gulag even in the original Russian. Shalamov referred to his writing as a “new prose,” based on authentic inside experience as opposed to the “principle of tourism” [принцип туризма]: “the writer,” he asserts, “uses the language of those, whose spokesman he is. And no more.” [31] Indeed Shalamov, like Platonov in “The Snake Charmer,” continues to write in the language of the Gulag long after his release. His prose is studded with Gulag-specific terms (“тискать романы,” “Иван Иванович,” “Машка,” “блатные,” etc.), which he rarely fully explains. In terms of both form and content, Shalamov works in miniature: each short story paints a portrait of one prisoner, one day, one prison camp. Shalamov sometimes widens his focus, using individual experiences as stepping-stones towards larger themes, but these tend to be universally human, rather than Gulag-specific. In “The Snake Charmer,” for example, Shalamov uses Platonov to comment on human endurance and the power of language, but makes no explicit claims about the Gulag as a system. “The Snake Charmer” tells us a lot about living conditions, social structure, and morality in the camps, but this information is subsumed within the narrative and refracted through the prism of individual experience. In order to extrapolate information about the Gulag in general, an interested reader must consult additional sources, such as other memoirs, historical documents, and the kinds of Gulag dictionaries cited above.

Shalamov’s foreignization of the Gulag is especially effective in “The Snake Charmer,” where it underscores Platonov’s sense of alienation as a newcomer to Jankhara. The Chandler/Wilkinson translation, by matching Shalamov’s level of detail and refraining from undue explanation, conveys this sense of foreignness to English-language readers. If a successful translation affects a reader in the target language the way the original text affects its reader in the source language, then Shalamov’s foreignized “translation” of the Gulag experience seems to call for a foreignized, not domesticated, translation into English.

These two approaches have both played important roles in the literary legacy of the Gulag. Domesticated “translations” give a schematic view of the Gulag system and an analytical breakdown of its component parts. Foreignized “translations” give a close-up view of an individual’s experience, in the language of an insider. These goals seem incompatible within the scope of a single text, and neither translation approach can express the Gulag experience in its entirety. Shalamov himself acknowledged that some or all of his authentic detail might be lost in “translation:” in What I’ve Seen And Learned in Kolyma Camps, he asserts that “A writer must be a stranger, in the subjects he describes. And if he knows the matter well – he will write in such a way that no one would understand him.” [32]

The tendency to write as a stranger is what Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, and many other Gulag survivors share. Re-telling the stories of others is arguably one of the most widespread and powerful “translation” techniques in Gulag literature, and indeed epitomizes Jakobson’s concept of intra-lingual translation as rewording, or “an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs in the same language.” [33] This process occurs on multiple levels in “The Snake Charmer.” Platonov transforms a written novel into a spoken-word spectacle. Conversely, Shalamov’s narrator hears Platonov’s story and imaginatively expands it into a literary text. According to Chandler and Wilkinson, Platonov also domesticates the novel he “pulls” for his Russian audience, changing its setting from Paris to St. Petersburg. [34] Many Gulag survivors felt an ethical obligation to tell the tales of those who, like Platonov, did not live to tell their own. Solzhenitsyn expresses this sentiment on the first page of The Gulag Archipelago: “I dedicate this to all those who did not live to tell it. And may they please forgive me for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it.” [35] In “The Snake Charmer,” Shalamov mirrors this dedication on a smaller scale, addressing it not to the totality of Gulag victims but to a single friend: “I loved Platonov, and I shall try now to write down his story: ‘The Snake Charmer.’” [36]

Both these dedications admit a degree of imperfection and uncertainty, tied in with the subjectivity inherent to these acts of retelling. As strangers to the stories of others, Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn can only attempt to “divine” the whole truth, or “retell it with invention” [рассказывать с выдумкой]. [37] Authors of Gulag texts often acknowledge this incompletion in their works; Ginzburg writes, for example: “to be able to encompass the whole truth I had neither the range of information, nor the skill, nor the depth of understanding.” [38] Thus in its dual function as art and testimony, in the immense enterprise of truth-telling as both an inside expert and a stranger, any single translation of the Gulag experience into text is doomed to insufficiency. If, as Lewis writes, an adequate translation calls for a “double interpretation,” then the experience of this incarceration on an unprecedented scale calls for an unprecedented multiplicity of interpretations. Single texts, such as “The Snake Charmer,” may encompass multiple voices and perspectives. Likewise, discrete accounts complement each other, forming an ever-clearer picture of the Gulag in its totality. One can go so far as to say that The Gulag Archipelago clarifies the Gulag-specific phenomena and political-cultural context of “The Snake Charmer,” while Shalamov’s work, with its stylistic economy and thematic unity, develops and differentiates Solzhenitsyn’s archetypical zeks, situating their Gulag-specific stories within the human experience at large. “No single person’s testimony,” as Toker suggests, “is sufficient without at least a minimal contact.” [39]

Such contact can also be achieved through comparative analysis of texts, translations, and the different perspectives they represent. Examining multiple interpretations, such as the two translations of “The Snake Charmer” discussed above, raises new questions and invites cross-referencing with other texts. Moreover, it brings out levels of meaning that would not otherwise come to the fore, such as the social, metaphorical, and meta-fictional richness of a single phrase, “тискать романы.”

This potential for contact may be why Walter Benjamin describes translation as a vehicle for discovering the underlying kinship between languages. The liberation of a pure “language of truth,” he writes, cannot be achieved through any one translation, “but only by the totality of their mutually complementary intentions.” [40] In the context of the Gulag experience, these “intentions” include both original texts and their inter-lingual translations. The two translations of “The Snake Charmer” represent two different “intentions” toward Shalamov’s work: Glad strives to convey a message, while Chandler and Wilkinson aim to convey linguistic texture, as foreign as the message may remain. Paradoxically, these intentions seem to compliment each other, rather than being mutually exclusive. Comparing two sides of this “double interpretation,” as we have seen, unlocks possibilities embedded in the original text.

The totality of these intentions can be considered an authentic, ever-growing collective record of the Gulag. Each intra-lingual rendition of an individual’s story, whether told firsthand or “as a stranger,” resists that individual’s consignment to oblivion. In this sense, Benjamin’s metaphor of translation-as-“afterlife” [41] is both literal and apt: inter-lingual translation ensures a story’s continued life beyond Russia’s linguistic and cultural borders. Thus each new translation, whether intra-lingual or inter-lingual, reinvigorates the Gulag text and the historical-cultural conversation surrounding it. In sustaining, broadening, refining this conversation, each new addition to the “totality of intentions” paves a vital avenue towards understanding, or, to invoke Shalamov, a fresh path “through the snow.” In this iconic allegory, he calls for a multitude of unique accounts, voices, and approaches, of which “The Snake Charmer” is part: “Every one of them, even the smallest, even the weakest, must tread on a little virgin snow – not in someone else’s footsteps. The people on the tractors and horses, however, will be not writers but readers.” [42]


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Appendix: A Comparison of Russian editions and English translations of “The Snake Charmer”
1967, Новый Журнал (Russian) 1998, Вагриус (Russian) 1980, John Glad tr. (English) 2007, Chandler/Wilkinson tr. (English)
Мы сидели на поваленной бурей огромной лиственнице same as 1967 We were sitting on an enormous pine We were sitting on an enormous larch
Я им рассказывал, «тискал романы», как говорят блатные Я им рассказывал, «тискал романы», как говорят на блатном жаргоне I was the storyteller for the criminal element in camp; I used to retell novels I used to tell them stories, I used to “pull novels” for them, as the criminals say in their thieves’ cant.
единственное преимущество интеллигентности единственное преимущество грамотности that single advantage of an education the only advantage you get from being able to read and write
[omitted] Мне это казалось всегда последним унижением, концом. [omitted] To me that always seemed the ultimate humiliation, the end.
Но знаю что это такое. Слышал романистов. Но я знаю, что это такое. Я слышал романистов. I don't even know what that is. I have heard 'novelists' though. But I know what you're talking about. I've heard ‘novelists.’
[omitted] Голодному человеку можно простить многое, очень многое. [omitted] A lot can be forgiven a hungry man – a lot.
священную формулу священную фразу ritualistic formula sacred formula
на камень на камни on the stone ground against the rock
Сильные сердечные средства могли бы, наверное, вернуть его к жизни Глюкоза внутривенно, сильные сердечные средства могли бы вернуть его к жизни Proper treatment could probably have returned him to life Intravenous glucose and strong cardiac medicines could probably have brought him back to life
вовсе не все ходили на работу вовсе не все рабочие ходили на работу not everyone, by any means, had been at the work site by no means every worker had gone out to work
в дальнем углу на верхних нарах в правом дальнем углу на верхних нарах On the upper berths in the far corner In the far corner, on the upper bed-boards
качал их тени качал тени made their shadows sway on the walls rocking the shadows
А ну-ка, позови этого Ивана Ивановича Ну-ка, позовите этого Ивана Ивановича Okay, send that ‘Ivan’ over here. Well then, let's have a look at that Ivan Ivanovich over there!
по каким-то воровским счетам по каким-то воровским счетам when the thieves were settling scores in settlement of some kind of thieves' score
о еврее-инженере о жиде about a Jewish engineer of a Yid
сжавшись по двое свернувшись по двое huddled together in groups of two or three huddled up in twos or threes
Эх, скука, ноги длинные Эх, скука, ночи длинные It's so boring my legs are getting longer I'm bored…the nights are too long
закурил махорочный окурок сосал махорочный окурок he received enormous pleasure from the butt with its home-grown tobacco drew with painful pleasure on the stub of makhorka
О трактирах не надо. О тракторах не надо. But nothing about bars. None of that stuff about tractors.
Откровенные, может быть? «Отверженные», может быть? Something romantic, maybe? Les Miserables, perhaps?
Comparison of two longer passages:


1967 Новый Журнал

Лошадь ведь слабеет гораздо скорее, чем человек. Часто кажется, да так, наверное, и есть, что человек потому и поднялся из звериного царства, что он физически выносливее любого животного. Живуч «как кошка» — эта поговорка в применении к человеку неверна. О кошке правильнее было бы сказать — живуча, как человек. Лошадь не выносит и месяца такой зимней здешней жизни в холодном помещении с многочасовой тяжелой работой на морозе. Если это не якутская лошадь. Но ведь на якутских лошадях и не работают. Их, правда, и не кормят. Они, как олени зимой, скопытят снег и вытаскивают сухую прошлогоднюю траву. А человек — живет. Может быть, он живет надеждами? Но ведь никаких надежд у него нет. А чувство самосохранения, цепкость к жизни, именно физическая цепкость, которой подчинено и его сознание — спасает его. Он живет тем же, чем живет птица, собака. Но он цепляется за жизнь крепче их. Он выносливей любого животного.

1998 Вагриус

Лошадь ведь слабеет гораздо скорее, чем человек, хотя разница между ее прежним бытом и нынешним неизмеримо, конечно, меньше, чем у людей. Часто кажется, да так, наверное, оно и есть на самом деле, что человек потому и поднялся из звериного царства, стал человеком, то есть существом, которое могло придумать такие вещи, как наши острова со всей невероятностью их жизни, что он был физически выносливее любого животного. Не рука очеловечила обезьяну, не зародыш мозга, не душа – есть собаки и медведи, поступающие умней и нравственней человека. И не подчинением себе силы огня – все это было после выполнения главного условия превращения. При прочих равных условиях в свое время человек оказался значительно крепче и выносливей физически, только физически. Он был живуч как кошка – эта поговорка неверна. О кошке правильнее было бы сказать – эта тварь живуча, как человек. Лошадь не выносит месяца зимней здешней жизни в холодном помещении с многочасовой тяжелой работой на морозе. Если это не якутская лошадь. Но ведь на якутских лошадях и не работают. Их, правда, и не кормят. Они, как олени зимой, копытят снег и вытаскивают сухую прошлогоднюю траву. А человек живет. Может быть, он живет надеждами? Но ведь никаких надежд у него нет. Если он не дурак, он не может жить надеждами. Поэтому так много самоубийц. Но чувство самосохранения, цепкость к жизни, физическая именно цепкость, которой подчинено и сознание, спасает его. Он живет тем же, чем живет камень, дерево, птица, собака. Но он цепляется за жизнь крепче, чем они. И он выносливей любого животного.

1980, Glad

A horse weakens and falls ill much quicker than a human being. It often seems, and it's probably true, that man was able to raise himself from the animal kingdom because he had more physical endurance than any of the other animals. It's not correct to say taht man has “nine lives” like a cat; instead, one could say of cats that they have nine lives – like a man. A horse can’t endure even a month of the local winter life in a cold stall if it’s worked hard hours in subzero weather. It’s true that the horses of the local Yakut tribesmen don’t do any work, but then they don’t get fed either. Like the winter reindeer, they dig out last year’s grass from under the snow. But man lives on. Perhaps he lives by virtue of his hopes? But he doesn’t have any hope. He is saved by a drive for self-preservation, a tenacious clinging to life, a physical tenacity to which his entire consciousness is subordinated. He lives on the same things as a bird or dog, but he clings more strongly to life than they do. His is a greater endurance than that of any animal.

2007 Chandler/Wilkinson

A horse weakens much more quickly than a human being, although the difference between its previous life and its present life is, of course, immeasurably less than it is for human beings. It often seems, and probably it is true, that man rose up out of the animal kingdom, that man became man, the creature able to think up such things as this archipelago and our improbable life here, simply because he had greater physical endurance than any other animal. What made an ape into a human being was not its hand, not its embryonic brain, not its soul — there are dogs and bears who act more intelligently and ethically than human beings. Nor was it a matter of mastering the power of fire — that too was secondary. Man had no other advantage at this time except that he turned out to be considerably stronger, he turned out to possess greater endurance — greater physical endurance. It’s inaccurate to say that a man has nine lives like a cat. It would be more true to say of a cat that it has nine lives like a man. A horse can’t endure even a month of our life here in winter, in cold quarters and with long hours of heavy labour in the frost. Unless it’s a Yakut horse. But then Yakut horses aren’t used for work. Nor, I admit, are they fed. Like deer, they hoof up the snow and drag out last year’s dry grass. Yet man does stay alive. Maybe he lives on hope? But no one here has any hopes. No one here, unless he is a fool, can live on hope. That is why there are so many suicides. No, what saves man is his sense of self-preservation, the tenacity — the physical tenacity — with which he clings on to life and to which even his consciousness is subordinate. What keeps him alive is the same as what keeps a stone, a tree, a bird or a dog alive. But his grip on life is stronger than theirs. And he has greater endurance than any animal.


1967 Новый Журнал

По лицу Платонова что-то мелькнуло. Еще бы он не мог! Вся камера следственной тюрьмы заслушивалась «Графом Дракулой» в его пересказе. Но там были люди. А здесь? Но голод, холод, побои…

1998 Вагриус

Огонь блеснул в мутных глазах Платонова. Еще бы он не мог. Вся камера следственной тюрьмы заслушивалась «Графом Дракулой» в его пересказе. Но там были люди. А здесь? Стать шутом при дворе миланского герцога, шутом, которого кормили за хорошую шутку и били за плохую? Есть ведь и другая сторона в этом деле. Он познакомит их с настоящей литературой. Он будет просветителем. Он разбудит в них интерес к художественному слову, он и здесь, на дне жизни, будет выполнять свое дело, свой долг. По старой привычке Платонов не хотел себе сказать, что просто он будет накормлен, будет получать лишний супчик не за вынос параши, а за другую, более благородную работу. Благородную ли? Это все-таки ближе к чесанию грязных пяток вора, чем к просветительству. Но голод, холод, побои...

1980, Glad

Something flashed across Platonov's face. Of course, he could! The cell-full of men awaiting trial had been entranced by his retelling of Count Dracula. But those were human beings there. And here? Should he become a jester in the court of the duke of Milan, a clown who was fed for a good joke and beaten for a bad one? But there was another way of looking at the matter: he would acquaint them with real literature, become an enlightener. Even here at the very bottom of the barrel of life he would awaken their interest in the literary word, fulfill his calling, his duty. Platonov could not bring himself to admit that he would simply be fed, receive an extra bowl of soup – not for carrying out the slop pail but for a different, a more noble labor. But was it so noble? After all it was more like scratching a thief's dirty heels than enlightenment.

2007, Chandler/Wilkinson

A light gleamed in Platonov’s dull eyes. He could — and how! In the investigation prison, his whole cell had been spellbound while he told the story of Count Dracula. But they had been people. Whereas this lot? Should he become court jester to the Duke of Milan — a jester who was fed for a good jest and beaten for a bad one? But there was another way of looking at it all. He would teach them about real literature. He would enlighten them. He would awaken in them an interest in art, in the word; even here, in the lower depths, he would do his duty, fulfill his calling. As had long been his way, Platonov did not want to admit to himself that it was simply a matter of being fed, of receiving an extra bowl of soup not for carrying out a slop bucket, but for other, more dignified work. More dignified? No, he wouldn’t really be an enlightener — he would be more like someone scratching a criminal’s dirty heels. But the cold, the beatings, the hunger . . .



  • 1. Шаламов, В.Т. “О прозе.” In Собрание сочинений в четырёх томах. Т.4 — М.: Художественная литература, Вагриус, 1998, p. 365. English translation qtd in Leona Toker, Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2000), p. 159.
  • 2. Шаламов, В.Т. “Галстук.” In Собрание сочинений в четырёх томах. Т.1. — М.: Художественная литература, Вагриус, 1998, p. 98. English translation qtd. in Toker, p. 159.
  • 3. Шаламов, В.Т. “Что я видел и понял в лагере” In, accessed May 19, 2013.
  • 4. Shalamov, “Through the Snow,” tr. Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson. In Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 320.
  • 5. For a discussion of the “The Snake Charmer” in connection with the writer Andrei Platonov, see Robert Chandler, “Varlam Shalamov and Andrei ‘Fyodorovich’ Platonov.” Essays in Poetics (Keele University), no. 27 (Autumn 2007), pp. 170-186.
  • 6. Лихачёв, Д.С. “Черты первобытного примитивизма воровской речи” Язык и мышление no. 3-4 (1935), p 62., accessed April 1, 2013.
  • 7. Leona Toker describes this shift as the separation between the memoirist-as-narrator and the focal characters, or focalizers, who actually experienced the events described. See her discussion of “Gulag Literature as a Genre” in Toker, Return from the Archipelago, p. 77.
  • 8. Шаламов, В.Т. “Заклинатель змей” Новый журнал no. 86 (1967), pp. 10-15.
  • 9. Шаламов, В.Т. “Заклинатель змей” In «Колымские рассказы» (London: Overseas Publication Interchange, 1978), pp. 119-125.
  • 10. Shalamov, “The Snake Charmer.” In Kolyma Tales, tr. John Glad (New York: Norton, 1980), pp. 121-127.
  • 11. Other typos include: “о трактирах не надо” instead of “о тракторах не надо,” resulting in “nothing about bars” instead of “nothing about tractors;” “Откровенные” instead of “Отверженные, ” resulting in “something romantic” instead of “Les Miserables.” See Appendix for a detailed comparison of the 1967 Новый журнал publication and the 1998 Vagrius edition, which closely correspond to Glad’s and Chandler and Wilkinson’s translations, respectively.
  • 12. Shalamov, “The Snake Charmer,” tr. Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson. In Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics, 2007), pp. 323-328.
  • 13. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. 1918-1956. An Experiment in Literary Investigation, tr. Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willets; abridged Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), p. 198.
  • 14. Shalamov, Graphite, tr. John Glad (New York: Norton, 1981), p. 196.
  • 15. Скачинский, Александр Словарь блатного жаргона СССР (New York: Silver Age Press, 1982), p. 124.
  • 16. Jacques Rossi, The Gulag Handbook: An Encyclopedia Dictionary of Soviet Penitentiary Institutions and Terms Related to the Forced Labor Camps, tr. William A. Burhans (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 245.
  • 17. Шаламов, В.Т. “Заклинатель змей” In Собрание сочинений в четырёх томах. Т. 1: (Художественная литература, Вагриус, 1998), p. 79.
  • 18. Rossi translates “Ivan Ivanovich” as “Sobriquet for a pigeon, at times polite, at times derisive.” Rossi, The Gulag Handbook, p. 139.
  • 19. Meyer Galler and Harlan E. Marquess, Soviet Prison Camp Speech: A Survivor’s Glossary (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), p. 135.
  • 20. Thomas P. Whitney, as an early example, opts for “board bunks” in his 1973 translation of The Gulag Archipelago. See Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, pp. 245-46.
  • 21. Galler and Harquess, p. 135.
  • 22. Shalamov provides similar botanical details, for example, in “The Berries,” specifying the berries as “шиповник,” “брусника,” “голубики.” Glad translates these as “sweetbrier, cowberries, and blueberries,” while Chandler and Wilkinson translate them as “rosehips, foxberry, whortleberry.” See p. 107 of Graphite (tr. by Glad) and p. 322 of “The Berries” in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (tr. by Chandler and Wilkinson).
  • 23. Note that “Глюкоза внутривенно” is omitted in the 1967 publication of the original.
  • 24. Philip E. Lewis, “The Measure of Translation Effects.” In The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (London; New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 226.
  • 25. Lewis, p. 224.
  • 26. Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Thick Translation.” In The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Venuti, p. 339.
  • 27. Shalamov, “The Snake Charmer,” tr. Chandler and Wilkinson, p. 324.
  • 28. Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” In The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Venuti, p. 127.
  • 29. Eugenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, tr. Ian Boland (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 423.
  • 30. Toker, Return from the Archipelago, p. 122.
  • 31. Шаламов, В.Т. “О прозе” p. 365. English translation qtd. in Toker, Return from the Archipelago, p. 196.
  • 32. Shalamov, “What I’ve seen and learned at Kolyma camps,” tr. Mikhail Oslon and Dmitry Subbotin. In A New Book: Memoirs, Notes, Correspondence, Police Dossiers (Eksmo, 2004). , accessed December 16, 2012.
  • 33. Jakobskon, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” p. 127.
  • 34. See the translators’ endnotes to “The Snake Charmer:” .
  • 35. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, p. 1.
  • 36. Shalamov, “The Snake Charmer,” tr. Chandler and Wilkinson, p. 324.
  • 37. From Skachinskii’s definition of “тискать романы.” Skachinskii, p. 124.
  • 38. Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, p. 420.
  • 39. Toker, Return from the Archipelago, p. 100.
  • 40. Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” tr. Steven Randall. In The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Venuti, p. 78.
  • 41. Ibid, p. 76.
  • 42. Shalamov, “Through the Snow,” tr. Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson. In Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 320.