Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reading books in several languages....

has the disadvantage that, if you find an author you like and buy his books in one language, you are never quite sure when you buy books by him in another language that they are not the same. Even with Amazon you cannot always look inside fiction books. Titles are rarely translated word for word. And it's irritating when you grab a book to take on your travels and then find that you have read it before - and you don't have enough other books to last the trip!

So I had taken a collection of Chekhov's short stories 'The Steppe' (Oxford World Classics edition) with me to Kiev. I am not generally fond of Russian writers (though I have also read few) but I like Chekhov: he writes nice stories which describe the world of 'ordinary folk' in the Russian countryside very beautifully and probably also very accurately. The translator, Ronald Hingley, describes these stories as studies of the Russian underclass (of the time) to which he estimates 80% of the population belonged. I suspect that life for this group of people, living in the countryside, has not changed much in the last over 100 years. Isn't that frightening? No development in over 100 years? Yes, there may be cars, TV sets and things, but many people still survive on subsistence farming, the healthcare is limited and access to social protection - it is such that the social protection is almost not worth accessing. I am not sure what the subsistence farmers of today can do to protect their pension rights for tomorrow. But then, in Russia the life expectancy for men in particular is probably less than the pension age now (as it was in Germany in Bismarck's days when old age pensions were first introduced).

Many of his stories don't really have a result or happy/unhappy end - they often describe a day in the life of someone or a journey to a place - but what happens the next day, or when the people have arrived, no-one knows. His descriptions of the countryside and of people, even their tiniest actions such as a smile, are exquisite.

The translation is very interesting; it seems that country folk in Russia, as everywhere else, speak with different accents compared to city people. So here the translator has given some folk a British north country way of speaking 'it were', others sound more west country... The expression 'it would make a cat laugh' also pops up unexpectedly - the only person I ever heard use that expression (frequently) was my colleague Jean in Scotland. I was slightly taken aback by the presence of 'gophers' in Russia - not that I know what kind of critter a gopher is, but it was the sudden Americanism that puzzled me!

The translator says that this collection is not typical Chekhov - so 'll have to read some more. And yes, some of the stories were in a German collection of Chekhov stories, about the lady with the little dog and others.