Volume 8, No. 2 
April 2004

  Mark Hooker

Mr. Hooker with a samizdat copy of The Hobbit.


  Front Page  
Select one of the previous 27 issues.

  From the Editor
A Unique Resource
by Gabe Bokor

Index 1997-2004

  Translator Profiles
The Dinosaur Hunter's Tale
by Ingrid Gillmeier

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Alicia Gordon—1950 - 2004
by Robert Killingsworth
In Memoriam: Emilio Benito—1947 - 2004
by Danilo Nogueira

  Translation Nuts and Bolts
Navigating through Treacherous Waters: The Translation of Geographical Names
by Gilberto Castañeda-Hernández, Ph.D.

  Science & Technology
English ⇔ Spanish Maritime Glossary
by Ana Lopez Pampin and Iria Gonzalez Liaño

  Legal Translation
Réflexions sur la traduction des formes de sociétés
by Benjamin Heyden

  Biomedical Translation
Características del discurso biomédico y su estructura: el caso de las Cartas al director
Esther Vázquez y del Árbol, Ph.D.
Translating SOPs in a Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Environment
by Anne Catesby Jones

  Literary Translation
The Translator's Dilemma—Implicatures and the role of the translator
by Antar Solhy Abdellah
Bridging the Cultural Divide: Lexical Barriers and Translation Strategies in English Translations of Modern Japanese Literature
by James Hobbs

His Excellency and His Interpreter
by Danilo Nogueira
Some Advice on Preparing for Simultaneous Interpretation of Current Political Themes
by Igor Maslennikov
Bibliography on the Profession of Interpretation
by Heltan Y.W. Ngan, Ph.D.

  Translator Education
To Be a Good Translator
by Leila Razmjou
The Importance of Teaching Cohesion in Translation on a Textual Level
by Aiwei Shi

  Book Review
The Talking Parcel Learns to Speak Russian
by Mark Hooker
Science in Translation
by Beverly Adab, Ph.D.

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

  Translation Journal

Book Review


The Talking Parcel1 Learns to Speak Russian

by Mark Hooker
he Talking Parcel by Gerald Durrell tells the story of three children—Simon, Peter and Penelope—who have an adventure in the land of Mythologia, where they meet the lively, learnedly loquacious Parrot, who holds the title of the Keeper of the Words; a French steam locomotive named Madame Hortense, whose accent is intense; a group of gryphons, whose "Herr Parrot" suggests a relationship with the German-speaking gnomes of Zurich; and Ethelred the toad, a Cockney-speaking, spy-school drop-out, who drops his 'H'-s everywhere. Durrell's linguistic parlor tricks, while entertaining for his young audience, are a considerable challenge to his translators. In Russia, the challenge was taken up by Natalia L. Rakhmanova, whose claim to fame is that she is the first—and the best—Russian translator of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.2

Word Games

Looking over a good translator's shoulder from time to time is just another way of honing one's skills.
The first real challenge for the Russian translator was the Parrot's introduction, in which he chides the children for calling him "a parrot." "I'm not a parrot, I'm THE parrot." (p. 11) This particular piece of linguistic hide-and-seek is a major hurdle for any translation into Russian, because Russian does not have either a definite or an indefinite article. Rakhmanova skillfully keys on another element in the dialogue with the children and uses that as the point of contention instead of the difference between 'a' and 'the.'

Durrell's Simon says: "It was just a parrot, an ordinary talking parrot," (p.10) to which the Parrot replies: "let's have a tiny bit less of this 'a parrot' stuff, shall we?" Rakhmanova's Parrot replies with: "Couldn't we have less of this 'plain, ordinary parrot,' huh?" (Нельзя ли поменьше всяких этих "простых, обыкновенных попугаев", а?). She uses this tactic again, a few sentences later, when it is time to translate "I'm not a parrot, I'm THE parrot." Her Parrot says: "What's all this idiotic, disgr-raceful blather-ring about an 'ordinar-ry' parrot. I am an Unordinar-ry parrot!" (Что за дур-рацкая безобр-разная болтовня про "обыкновенного" попугая. Я — НЕобыкновенный попугай!). The solution is elegant and unobtrusive.

Letter Games

The next hurdle comes on the same page. Durrell likes to play with letters, and he has some fun doing it, while introducing the Parrot. "... but I'm the Parrot. The initials alone should have told you." When the children incredulously ask what initials, the Parrot, taken aback by their apparent lack of intelligence, explains that his names are: "Percival, Archibald, Reginald, Roderick, Oscar, Theophilus," (p. 11) which, when put together as initials, do indeed spell P.A.R.R.O.T. Rakhmanova dealt with this linguistic parlor trick with ease. The Parrot in her translation is named: "Percival, Oscar, Peregrin, Urban, Harold, Archibald, Ikebod" [Персиваль Оскар Перегрин Урбан Гарольд Арчибальд Икебод], which spells P.O.P.U.G.A.I., the Russian word for parrot (попугай); Harold being spelled with an initial G (Г) in Russian.

Rakhmanova missed the next linguistic alphabet trick, however, but to give her her due, this trick was a bit more subtle than the first. Durrell's weasels are mostly extras in the crowd scenes. A basket full of infuriated weasels here, fifty weasels there. (pp. 188, 111, 192) A few, however, do have named speaking parts. The Duke of Weaseldom, for example, is named Wensleydale, after the cheese. 3 "His father was devoted to cheese," explains the Parrot. (p. 111) His wife, the Duchess, is named Winifred. (p. 112). The sentry at the border to Weaseldom is known as Wilfred. (p. 117) The great apothecary of the Weasel Court is called Wormwood. (p. 116) The under-gardener, who is to be the guinea pig who gets to test the effects of rue on weasels is Wilberforce. (p. 173) In the close proximity of this paragraph, it is easy to see that all the names all begin with the same letter as the word weasel, that is with the letter 'W.'

To replicate this trick in Russian, where the word for weasel is горностай [gornostaj], all the names would have to begin with the letter 'G.' Rakhmanova's name for the Duke is: Roquefort (Рокфор), Wensleydale apparently not being a particularly recognizable cheese name in Russia. The other weasels' names are the same as in the original: Winifred (Уинифред), Wilfred (Уилфред), and Wilberforce (Уилберфорс), the court apothecary's name being, unfortunately, lost in translation.

The key to the Russian solution was hiding in plain sight in the original. Durrell said that the Duke was almost named "Gorgonzola, but his mother put her foot down." (p. 111) Had Rakhmanova simply swapped Durrell's 'almost name' for the Duke (Gorgonzola) with his real name (Wensleydale), then she could have trumped Durrell, because the Russian word for Duke begins with a 'G' as well. She would have been able to produce Горгонзола герцог горностайский [Gorgonzola gertsog gornostajskij]. Instead, she had two French cheeses: Roquefort and Camembert.


The Parrot is the Keeper of the Words, a very important job, that requires him to recite the dictionary once a year so that all the words in it will get some exercise. Being very conscientious about his job, however, during the course of the year he tries "to use as many as possible because, really, one outing a year is not enough for the little fellows." (p.15) Due to his job and his upbringing, he has a propensity for using very verbose verbiage, which is quite often alliterated. His vocabulary, as is to be expected of anyone brought up by a dictionary, is prodigious, occasionally, obviously outstripping ordinary readers' vocabularies. The book is aimed at ages 9-12.

Some of the Parrot's alliterative strings are only two words long, and others are as long as four. Rakhmanova simply translated most of them without trying to replicate the alliteration. When the children do not understand what being the Keeper of the Words means, the Parrot says: "You are a singularly obtuse, obdurate sort of girl,' said Parrot, 'besides being inconsequential, incomprehensible and incoherent." (p. 13) Peter did not know what half of those words mean, "but he did not like the sound of them."

Rakhmanova's Parrot said: 'You are an exceptionally slow-witted, muddle-headed, dumb girl,' said Parrot angrily, 'besides being stubborn, aggressive, inconsequential and illogical.' (— Ты исключительно непонятливая, бестолковая, несмышленая девочка, — рассердился Попугай, — к тому же еще упрямая, агрессивная, непоследовательная и нелогичная.) Rakhmanova's adjective strings are longer, and are indeed full of big words, but they are not alliterative. The initial letters of the words in the first string of Russian adjectives are: N B N. In the second string, they are: U A N N. The sense of the Parrot's utterance is preserved, as is his use of big words. What is missing is the sense of play that the alliteration suggests.

In a fit of pique, the Parrot calls his housekeeper a "stupid, superannuated, singing spider." (p. 16) This verbose, vexing verbiage is nowhere near as funny in Russian, where the initial letters of the string are B N S P. Rakhmanova's Parrot calls Dulcibelle "a brainless, absurd, feeble-minded little spideress" (безмозглая, несуразная, скудоумная паучиха).

It is likewise loudly lamentable that Durrell's delightful phrase "lovely, loquacious library" (p. 100) lost something in translation. While the back translation from Russian into English is exactly the same as the original, the initial letters of the words in the Russian phrase are O S B. (очаровательная словоохотливая библиотека). The thought was there, but the extra layer of fun was gone. Almost every time the Parrot opens his beak he produces an alliterative string. Unfortunately, this feature of Durrell's linguistic playfulness was lost to the Russian reader.


Durrell's love of linguistic games is also clearly visible in the scene in which the children meet Oswald the sea serpent, who "is a bit hard of hearing." (p. 145) The Parrot is trying to convince Oswald that the thing that they are sailing in is a boat. Oswald's horribly hopeless hearing makes him think that the Parrot said that they are sailing in a goat, which is patently absurd. "No, no, my dear Parrot. I hate to contradict you, but I saw a goat once and it looked nothing like that. Besides, goats don't float and they're not green." The Parrot is exasperated and complains to Oswald that Oswald needs to get out his ear trumpet, because the Parrot cannot keep shouting like this. "I'm getting hoarse," says the Parrot. Of course, Oswald misunderstands this as a reply to his comment about the goat, and says: "It's not a horse either." (p. 148) It is a wonderful comic sketch of the type that can be almost impossible to replicate in another language, but Rakhmanova gives it that old college try.

The Russian word for boat is lodka [лодка] and Rakhmanova has Oswald confuse it with the word selyodka [Селедка], which means herring. The word selyodka is less than ideal as a mistake for lodka, because it has three syllables while lodka only has two. A quick look in the reverse Russian dictionary4 shows that she did not have much choice from among the few two-syllable words that end in -odka/-yodka. The only one among them that is a tangible object is vodka (водка [vodka]), which is clearly not appropriate in a children's story. The two-syllable words that end in -otka/-yotka look more promising, because there are more of them, but none of them is an improvement over herring for playing the game of 'what did you say?' with a sea serpent who is hard of hearing.

For the hoarse/horse round of this game, Rakhmanova paired "I'm losing my voice" (Сейчас я потеряю голос [Sejchas ya poteryayu golos]) with grass snake (полоз [poloz]). This preserves the same connection as the one that exists between goat and horse (they are both animals), and matches the accent and syllable count.

Choosing a different word for boat is another tactic that can be used in resolving a problem of this sort, but none of the possibilities investigated seemed to produce an improvement to Rakhmanova's solution. The word sailboat—парусник [parusnik]—proved a dead end, because there was nothing else that sounded enough like it to play the game with. Another alternative for the word boat—ладья [lad'ya]—is marked as poetic, which would not have been entirely out of place for the Keeper of the Words, but the sequence that resulted from it was less absurd, and therefore less funny, than either the original or Rakhmanova's solution. The pair to ладья [lad'ya] is bucket (бадья [bad'ya]), which the author would have followed with to hear (слу—ушать [slushat']) and tub (ушат [ushat]). Boat, bucket and tub are all things that actually can float, so Oswald would have made more sense than he did in the original or in Rakhmanova's version, which, while it has a slight limp, is, nevertheless, a good solution.

Accentology: French

In the second chapter of the book, the children are introduced to Madame Hortense, a steam engine of French extraction. She speaks with a French accent worthy of the British stage. "Mon Dieu! Oh, it's you,' said Madame in a husky voice with a strong French accent. 'Mon Dieu, 'ow you 'ave frightened zee life from me, creeping about like zat in zee night." (p. 30) The Russian version conveys the idea well enough, but it is devoid of the non-standard spellings that convey the sound of her accent to the reader, counting more on the presence of French expressions like Mon Dieu—which she footnotes (*)—in the text to convey the sense of Frenchness. (— Mon Dieu! * Да это ты! — произнесла мадам хрипловатым голосом с сильным французским акцентом. — Mon Dieu, и напугал же ты меня до самой смерти, кто же так подкрадывается среди ночной поры? [* Mon Dieu (франц.) — бог мой.]) The next paragraph, however, does have a non-standard verb form that is typical of foreigners speaking Russian. "You know yourself, that a steam engine that is so good looking and is in such good condition, can't but help to attracts attention, n'est-ce pas?" (Сам понимаешь: паровоз с приятной наружностью, в таком хорошем состоянии, ну как не привлекайт внимание, n'est-ce pas? *) The effect is there, but it is not laid on as thickly as Durrell does it.

Accentology: German

As the preparations for the battle of Castle Cockatrice progress, the children are introduced to the pseudo-German-speaking gryphons, who run a gold mine and smeltery. Durrell presents the reader with another theatrical foreign accent, complete with German grammar, which the verb at the end of the sentence puts. "Goot morning," said the Gryphons in greeting. "Ve are much pleased to see you, Herr Parrot." (p. 121) Rakhmanova has a very good imitation, based more on word choice and word order than altered, non-standard spellings. Her Gryphons say: "Morning good," using the correct spelling and grammatical agreement, but a non-standard word order. They, too, are pleased to see Herr Parrot (Герр Попугай). The sentences that follow demonstrate a number of ungrammatical constructions, such as a verb-number mismatch, and a double infinitive at the end of a sentence that no native would ever produce. When the Gryphons express their sorrow at having heard the rumor that the Parrot was dead, they say: "we was very, very sad" (мы очень—очень горевал). Upon learning that the Cockatrices might prohibit the use of gold as a nest building material, the Gryphons retorted: "We that not to permit to be" (Мы этого не допускать стать), which shows a good understanding of a grammar point that is difficult for foreigners to grasp (genitive case after negation), a good grasp of Russian spelling, but a horrible feel for Russian syntax. All-in-all, a good match for Durrell's ersatz German accent.


Accentology: English

Durrell shows off his skill with accents more subtly in the character of the head mermaid, Miss Smythe-Smythe-Browne, whose triple hyphenated name with its posh spelling reflects the same unjustified pretentiousness that can be seen in the British television program Keeping Up Appearances. The key to her character is a shift in the stylistic register of her speech in mid utterance. She is politely responding to what she perceives as an insult on the part of the Parrot, and suddenly shifts register at the end, showing what a fraud she is, just as Mrs. Slocombe is wont to do in Are You Being Served?. "It's very seldom I get a chance to talk to people of culture and refinement, and I am sure that they are interested, and even if they weren't they're far too well bred to say so, unlike you, what's behaving as common as dirt." (p. 140) Rakhmanova missed the shift, letting Miss Smythe-Smythe-Browne remain posh the whole time. "I very seldom get a chance to talk with people of culture and refinement. They are, I am sure, interested in listening, and even if they are not interested, then they are so well bred, that they won't show it. Not like you, conducting yourself like a common lout." (Мне крайне редко выпадает случай побеседовать с людьми культурными и утонченными. Им, я уверена, интересно послушать, а если и неинтересно, то они так хорошо воспитаны, что виду не покажут. Не то что ты — ведешь себя, как простой мужлан.) The ideal solution here would have been a grammar mistake, and not just a word that is marked as substandard colloquial.

Accentology: Cockney

Durrell's Cockney-speaking, spy-school drop-out, Ethelred, however, was another story. His stylized speech pattern immediately marks him as a member of the working classes, and someone whom the pretentious Miss Smythe-Smythe-Browne would say was "as common as dirt." (page 140) Ethelred's accent is particularly pronounced as he describes the interior of Castle Cockatrice: "Well, 'ere we 'ave the dungeon wot 'as got the Books in,' said Ethelred, 'and right opposite it is a long corridor wot slopes down to the moat. [...] At the bottom of this 'ere corridor,' Ethelred went on, 'there's the moat, see. [...] Well, we comes into this dungeon 'ere, see,' said "Ethelred, 'and then I goes out and attracts the guards' attention, like." (page 91)

In Rakhmanova's translation, on the other hand, Ethelred's speech is not marked at all. He says: "Well, they keep the books in this dungeon. And right across from it is a long corridor that slopes down in the direction of the moat. [...] At the end of the corridor,' continued Ethelred, 'will be the moat, is it clear now? [...] Well, see, we go into the dungeon, and then I come out and distract the guards somehow." (Значит, в этой темнице они держат книги. А прямо напротив нее идет длинный коридор, и он понижается в сторону рва. [...] В конце коридора, — продолжал Этельред, — будет ров, теперь понятно? [...] Значит, так: мы заходим в эту темницу, а потом я выхожу и как бы отвлекаю часовых.) The tone is conversational, but the speaker is articulate. He is every bit the frog-prince that Durrell brings into the story at the end. (page 196)

This approach is somewhat understandable, as there is no readily recognizable equivalent of Cockney dialect in Russian. In English, even George Bernard Shaw quickly gave up his attempt to convey Liza's dialect in phonetic spelling, and shifted to a normalized spelling after only three exchanges of lines with Liza, marking the shift to normalized spelling with a 'stage direction,' enclosed in square brackets: "[Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]"5 The Russian translation by E. Kalashnikova6 makes no attempt to replicate Shaw's galant effort at phonetic transcription. While Shaw's flower girl says: "Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e?", the Russian flower girl's speech is clearly intelligible, the Russian stage, after all, being located well outside London. Her line is: "And that's your son?" (А, так это ваш сын?). Shaw's stage direction about Liza's dialect likewise takes a holiday.

Shaw, nevertheless, continues to throw in a grammar mistake here (... if you was talking ...), a phonetic spelling there (Don't let him lay a charge agen me). (pp. 717, 718) In the Russian translation, these two lines are normalized. (pp. 200, 202) It is only when Shaw returns to a dialectical transcription of what Professor Higgins is to read out of his notebook that the Russian translation uses a non-standard spelling.

THE NOTE TAKER: I can. [Reads, reproducing her pronunciation exactly.] "Cheer ap, keptin; n' baw ya flahr orf a pore girl." (p. 718)

ЧЕЛОВЕК С ЗАПИСНОЙ КНИЖКОЙ: А я разберу. [Читает, в точности подражая ее выговору.] Ни расстрайвтись, кэптен; купити луччи цвиточик у бедны девушки. (p. 202)

Kalashnikova's phonetic transcription is amazingly effective. Only three of the nine words are spelled correctly. The first is captain, which is not translated, but taken over lock, stock and phonetic barrel from English. The second is the preposition from, which is only one letter in Russian and would be hard to reconfigure while keeping it recognizable. The third is the last word in the sentence: girl. Shaw did little better. He also had three unaltered words out of eleven.


All in all, Rakhmanova's translation is an excellent one that conveys the sense of the story well enough. Her successes with Durrell's linguistic parlor tricks are a testimony to her skill as a translator. Her failure with the weasel names beginning with 'W' is a mere oversight of not being able to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Her aversion to the Parrot's pathological predilection for a little alliterative alignment is a much graver problem that robs the Russian reader of a good linguistic joke. Her treatment of Durrell's accentology is more a reflection of Russian literary norms than of Rakhmanova's personal style. Looking over a good translator's shoulder from time to time is just another way of honing one's skills.