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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  Consciousness in Translation - Part Two

Consciousness in Translation - Part Two

By Henry Schroeder | Published  03/13/2007 | Literature and Poetry | Recommendation:
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Henry Schroeder
allemand vers anglais translator
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Consciousness in Translation

Henry Whittlesey

(A more readable version is available on request)

Part Two: The Translation of Consciousness


Both Russian and English translators face difficulties in the translation of interior monologue. A Russian translator must separate the past-tense thoughts of a character from the past-tense report of the narrator or author. An English translator must determine the mode in which a character’s consciousness is being communicated. In each case a given passage may contain anything from clear or subtle signifiers to completely ambiguous text.

The following section will examine the translation of some passages cited in part one. Primarily this review will focus on Russian to English translations, although the Russian version of A Portrait will serve as a comparison. In general the bulk of these translations will negotiate the realm between narrated monologue and quoted monologue in Russian, where careful readings are imperative and misinterpretation more likely to appear. An analysis of “traditional” work will then branch out to more experimental narratives in an effort to show how problematic the subject can be for a translator.

I. Narrated Monologue and Quoted Monologue

Interior monologue in Russian literature consistently translates to quoted monologue in English. Translators and editors thorough-out the twentieth century have affirmed their preference for the untransposed monologue as well as transposed indirect experience and oblique speech. Nabokov, Struve, Volokhonsky/Pevear, etc. have all by and large pursued this line of translation. It remains however a fact that the English language contains two different temporal structures for rendering the consciousness of literary characters, and the one that predominates in the English and American belles lettres (narrated monologue) is not preferred by translators of Russian literature.
Whereas English translators have a choice in the translation of consciousness, their Russian counterparts must use untransposed verbs for interior monologue (as well as indirect experience and oblique speech). The translation of A Portrait offers an illuminating illustration of what narrated monologue would look like in a past-tense narrative report in Russian:

He blessed himself and climbed quickly into bed and, tucking the end of the nightshirt under his feet, curled himself together under the cold white sheets, shaking and trembling. But he would not go to hell when he died; and the shaking would stop. (PA, 16; emphasis added)

Он перекрестился и быстро юркнул в постель, завернув ноги в подол рубашки, съежившись в комок под холодной белой простыней, дрожа всем телом. Он не попадет в ад после смерти, а дрожь скоро пройдет. (ПХ, 21; emphasis added)

He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he could think only of God. God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen . (PA, 13; emphasis added)

Он попытался представить себе эту огромную мысль, но ему представлялся только Бог. Бог – так зовут Бога, так же как его зовут Стивен . (ПХ, 18; emphasis added)

The Russian translator forges into the present tense to render the thoughts in Stephen’s head while retreating to the past tense for the narrative report. If his thoughts in English were relayed as (silent) direct speech, Stephen’s words in the first passage would literally take the following form of: “I will not go to hell when I die; and the shaking will stop.” The switch in perspective dictates the form of speech. In the second passage Stephen speaks of himself in the third person as you can do in narrated monologue. The transposition of these thoughts into direct discourse would produce a first-person account: “God is God’s name just as my name is Stephen.” In neither of these interior monologues in English could the tense be in the third person and untransposed because this would indicate a consciousness outside the narrative, a consciousness that is not Stephen’s in a narrative where he represents the sole voice: you do not think about yourself in the present and third-person.

The requirements of Russian however are different from English and the back translation of such a passage might retain the same tense structure, even when it is implausible. This approach finds its basis in works like Ulysses where the narrator switches from one tense to another in the midst of a paragraph:

Mr. Bloom admired the caretaker’s prosperous bulk. All want to be on good terms with him. Decent fellow, John O’Connell, real good sort. Keys: like Keyes’s ad: no fear of anyone getting out, no passout checks. Habeat corpos. I must see about that ad after the funeral. Did I write Ballsbridge on the envelope I took to cover when she disturbed me writing to Martha? Hope it’s not chucked in the dead letter office. Be the better of a shave. Grey sprouting beard. That’s the first sign when the hairs come out grey. (Ulysses, 135-6)

The first sentence explains what Bloom is doing while he relays his subsequent thoughts directly to the reader first with the inquit phrase Decent fellow, John O’Connell, real good sort and then later with a change in tense signifying the switch from the narrative report to quoted monologue. Bloom naturally does not speak about himself in the third person, so when his thoughts drift to himself, he speaks in the first person. This distinction becomes critical in Russian literature where all interior monologue is in the present tense. It is possible that a situation might crop up where a character speaks about himself in the present and in the third person like Stephen (as the translation of A Portrait showed). Here is a potential example from Sologub:

...Пака почувствовал новую для него досаду. Новые желания томили его. Знал, что эти желания неисполнимы. Учвствовал себя несчастным и обиженным.
Хотелось уйти из этого чинного дома в широкое вольное поле, и там играть с ребтишками. Быть на реке, войти в воду.
Вон там, внизу, у речки какие-то мальчики, - ловят рыбу, кричат что-то радостное. Право, лучше им живется, чем Паке. И почему доля его столь отлична от доли этих вольных и веселых детей? (ВП, 240; emphasis added)

…Paka experienced an annoyance new to him. New longings tormented him. He knew that these longings could not come true. He felt unhappy and injured.
He wanted to go away from this prim house into the wide, free fields, and play there with other children. To be by the river, to go into the water.
There, below, by the river, some boys are fishing, shouting something joyous. Really, their life is better than Paka’s. And why should his lot be so different from the lot of these carefree, gay children? (IB, 241; emphasis added)

Parallel to the Russian original, the English translation begins with a past-tense narrative report and then expresses Paka’s thoughts in the present tense. A potentially awkward switch dissolves in a transition sentence, which is in fact an inquit phrase (To be by the river…). The graceful shift coheres by voicing the interior monologue in a separate paragraph.

Yet precisely this present tense in combination with the character’s name raises the question of who is speaking here. Surely it cannot be Paka himself. Though possible, his thoughts would then have to be in the past tense in English. The Russian original however suggests that it is indeed Paka. Stephen spoke about himself in the third person in the past tense in the English original of A Portrait whereas he spoke in the third person in the present tense in Russian. Why is the situation different here? Is it different at all?

The Russian passages from A Portrait and this one from In Bondage do not ostensibly differ from each other. It would seem then that the translation of this interior monologue should be: “There, below, by the river, some boys were fishing, shouting something joyous. Really, their life was better than Paka’s. And why should his lot be so different from the lot of these carefree, gay children?” It is a minor change, but in English this would be the correct way to attribute these thoughts to Paka. The other apparent option, the present tense, would require a personal pronoun to replace the name: There, below, by the river, some boys are fishing, shouting something joyous. Really, their life is better than mine. And why should his lot be so different from the lot of these carefree, gay children?” This is how Paka would think directly, as Bloom does in Ulysses.

The lack of context does ultimately mask a critical distinction that allows Struve to translate this passage untransposed and with Paka’s name. By default Struve’s translation creates an authorial narrator and it is this narrator who shares the cited interior monologue. (19) The story of Paka up to page two where this passage appears is told exclusively from the protagonist’s vantage point (Paka’s). This style is strongly reminiscent of the reflector character mode in A Portrait where a narrator at least closely aligned with the protagonist recounts the events of the story, eschewing the omniscient perspective for a limited viewpoint. Sologub’s story does not maintain this stephenesque approach and the authorial narrator unabashedly intrudes into the narrative later. (20) This intrusion indicates the existence of a consciousness outside of Paka’s and hence the possibility that the cited passage stems from the mind of the authorial narrator. The notion of having an authorial narrator identifiably voicing his thoughts in a narrative is a peculiarity potentially found in numerous Russian novels, depending on interpretation.

The Master and Margarita offers an example where consciousness and its translation could represent either a telling narrator or a reflecting character. Here is Berlioz sitting on the bench at the Patriarch’s Ponds and thinking about the stranger Voland who is talking with them:

И опять передернуло Берлиоза. Откуда же сумасшедший знает о существовании киевского дяди? Ведь об этом ни в каких газетах, уж наверно, ничего не сказано. Эге-ге, уж не прав ли Бездомный? А ну как документы эти липовые? Ах, до чего странный субъект... Звонить, звонить! Сейчас же звонить! Его быстро разъяснять! (Мастер и Маргарита, 46; emphasis added) (21)

And again Berlioz winced. How does the madman know about the existence of a Kievan uncle? That has certainly never been mentioned in any newspapers. Oh-oh, maybe Homeless is right after all? And suppose his papers are phoney? Ah, what a strange specimen… Call, call! Call at once! They’ll quickly explain him! (Master and Margarita, 45; emphasis added) (22)

The first sentence of the paragraph situates the thoughts of Berlioz in the narrative report (past tense). Then the rest of the passage presents these thoughts as if they were being spoken out loud, as Struve did with Sologub. Accordingly, the English translators have followed this lead and not transposed the monologue. The primary difference between this passage and the one in Sologub’s story is that Berlioz’s thoughts do not make any reference to himself in the third person, but focus on someone else (Voland). The clear delineation of these thoughts from the narrative report also make it especially suitable for communication in the present tense and does not necessarily posit the existence of a telling narrator. (23) This is the prevailing approach to the translation of interior monologue from Russian into English.

Mirror translation does become problematic in certain instances. One of these arises with reflector characters (as might have been the case with Paka) and another comes in the form of less structured narrative reports that move from one perspective to another. In mixed narratives this may involve shifts back and forth from third-person narration to first-person narration and character narration (the communication of consciousness), while first-person narratives may see the reflector character (24) switch from one vantage point to another.

One intriguing passage in the context of mixed narratives appears in Zamyatin’s novel We (Мы), where first person narration in the past tense yield to first person narration in the present tense:

Вот один – стоял на ступенях налитого солнцем Куба. Белое... и даже нет – не белое, а уж без цвета – стеклянное лицо, стеклянные губы. И только одни глаза, черные, всасывающие, глотающие дыры, и тот жуткий мир, от которого он был всего в нескольких минутах...
У меня, к сожалению, плохая память на стихи, но одно я помню: нельзя было выбрать более поучительных и прекрасных образов.
Снова медленный, тяжкий жест – и на ступеньках Куба второй поэт. Я даже привстал: быть может? Нет: его толстые, негрские губы, это он... Отчего же он не сказал заранее, что ему предстоит высокое.... Губы у него трясутся, серые. Я понимаю: пред лицом Благодетеля, пред лицом всего сонма Хранителей – но все же: так волноваться... (Мы, 64-5; emphasis added)

There was one… standing on the steps of the Cube, the sunlight pouring down on him. His face was white, or no, not white, it was no color at all, his glass face, his glass lips. Just his eyes, dark, sucking, swallowing holes… and that terrifying world that he was only minutes away from.
I have a poor memory for poetry, unfortunately, but one thing I do remember: You couldn’t have picked more edifying and resplendent images.
Again the slow, heavy gesture, and a second poet stood on the steps of the Cube. I nearly rose from my seat: Could it be? No… those thick, African lips… it was him. Why didn’t he mention that he was going to have the high…? His lips trembled, they were gray. I can see that when you’re face to face with the Benefactor, standing before the whole corpus of the Guardians, you’d be… but still, to be that nervous… (We, 44-7; emphasis added) (25)

Here is a first person narrator relaying what he saw at the Cube initially in the past tense. Yet no sooner has he introduced the subject and situated the protagonist in time and space, than (in Russian) he recedes from the narrative report and enters the head of the character-reflector, actually himself, narrating in the real time of the story. This is more apparent in Russian where it is not his face was white, but rather his face is white. Again, the transition from the past to the present tense in Russian indicates this alteration in perspective far more clearly than the ambiguity of narrated monologue in English (and its preterite form). The reason for choosing ambiguous narrated monologue at the expense of differentiable quoted monologue becomes apparent from the passage as a whole. The translator needs to distinguish between the narrator in the story and the narrator as author writing the story. One speaks in the past tense and the other in the present. But if the narrator’s thoughts within the story remain untransposed in translation, they will be confused with the author's reflection of their thoughts in the present (afterwards, when they are writing the story).

This approach to narration in Zamyatin is similar to Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye. There a first-person narrative report in the past tense also switches to the present occasionally:

The book I was reading was this book I took out of the library by mistake…They gave me Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen. I thought it was going to stink, but it didn’t. It was a very good book. I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot. My favorite author is my brother D.B., and my next favorite is Ring Lardner… (Catcher in the Rye, 15; emphasis added)

Читал я ту книжку, которую мне дали в библиотеке по ошибке... Они мне дали «Прощай, Африка» Айзека Динесена. Я думал, дрянь, а оказалось интересно. Хорошая книга. Вообще я очень необразованный, но читаю много. Мой любимый писатель – Д.Б., мой брат, а на втором месте – Ринг Ларднер. (Над пропастью во ржи, 39; emphasis added) (26)

Holden Caulfield narrates primarily in the preterite, from the perspective of the young man, but adopts the present tense to express his current retrospective thoughts and opinions at the time of writing years later. The italicized present-tense verbs reflect this jump in time and the attendant change in perspective. In Russian, however, this distinction is lost because the present tense signifies interior monologue, the direct expression of the characters thoughts. (27) Subtly Salinger integrates the shift in a way that will cause a Russian to read the thoughts as stemming from the time of the events within the story. (28) Salinger and the popularity of his novel do demonstrate that the English language is capable of sustaining a fluid transition from the past to the present tense and back within one paragraph. Yet the different roles of tenses in English and Russian all but obliterate Salinger’s narrative effect. This confusion the translator of Zamyatin tired to avoid by relaying the interior monologue in the past tense.

II. Consciousness in Contemporary Russian Literature

While Salinger narrates from Caulfield’s point of view in the preterite and at the time of writing in the present, Russian narrators switch tenses in the narrative report to convey the protagonist's perspective woven into the report itself. In contemporary Russian literature a text often switches vantage points in the middle of a paragraph and even the middle of a sentence, in a way similar to the passage cited from Salinger. Andrey Dmitriev, Irina Polyanskaya, Pavel Maylakhs, Pavel Krusanov, Boris Akunin, Vadim Babenko to name a few have engaged in formal narratological innovations reminiscent of those at the beginning of the twentieth century. (29)
Andrey Dmitriev is one of the more prominent experimenters with modes for rendering consciousness. Here is a passage where the communication of characters' thoughts and speech are embedded in the narrative report:

И тогда Воскобоев пришел к ней. Опустившись на краешек плащ-палатки и с минуту помолчав, он вдруг принялся торопливо и подробно высказывать свои соображения о предстоящем застолье: кого позвать, кто сам придет, сколько купить водки, если учесть, что четверо вовсе не пьют, другие, есть и такие, предпочитают крепленое вино, а полковник Живихин – тот давно зациклился на коньяке, но главное, чем кормить, где достать такую прорву мяса; конечно, и рыбу можно сделать на уровне европейских стандартов, например, запечь... Тут Елизавета перебила мужа, стала соглашаться с ним во всем и успокаивать насчет рыбы. Разумеется, она запечет рыбу, да и по поводу мяса расстраиваться не нужно: Живихина нужно расшевелить. Он охотник, и пусть еще не сезон, но ведь есть же у него знакомые егеря – пусть застрелят кабанчика или лося или, на худой конец, поделятся из старых запасов... (Воскобоев и Елизавета, 302-3; emphasis added)

And then Voskoboev went up to her. He sat down on the edge of his raincoat and was silent for a minute, before suddenly beginning hastily and in detail to voice his thoughts on the upcoming dinner party: who to invite, who would come on their own, how much vodka to buy if you considered that four people didn’t drink at all, while the others – and there really were those – preferred strong wine. And then there was Colonel Zhivikhin – who had long since fallen for cognac; but the main thing was: what to eat, where to get an outrageously large portion of meat; and the fish, clearly, would have to be prepared in the European way, for instance, by baking it… At this point Elizaveta interrupted her husband, began to agree with him on everything and to reassure him with regard to the fish. Of course she would bake the fish, and he shouldn’t worry about meat at all: they just had to motivate Zhivikhin. He was a hunter, and although it wasn’t the season, it was impossible for him not to have some hunter friends – they could shoot a small wild boar or an elk or, in the worst case scenario, make something out of old leftovers… (Voskoboev and Elizaveta, unpublished; emphasis added) (30)

Dmitriev uses colons, adverbials and new sentences to introduce the interior monologues of characters. What starts as a narrative report gives way to modal ambiguity. Кого позвать may issue from Voskoboev and sound more like who should we invite. Yet it might also trace back to a narrator and embark on an Austenian summary of the sort: Who to invite. (31) Later in the Russian passage the verb разумеется and the third-person pronoun она dictate narrated monologue since this instance contains a character’s interior monologue about themselves. (32) Then a colon followed by Живихина нужно расшевелить or a period preceding он охотник bring back the possibility of translating the passage in either mode. The translator favors narrated monologue because of the one sentence where the third-person pronoun she appears and entails this form of monologue in that one sentence. For the sake of consistency they have then rendered the entire passage in this mode. Such an approach does not preclude the possibility of using quoted monologue in all but the one instance. (33)

First-person experimentation in a past-tense narrative report, like Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye, surfaces in Babenko's The Black Pelican (Черный пеликан). In this novel the first-person narrator regularly switches into the present tense to voice his current thoughts or philosophy on life, although not necessarily to juxtapose his views at the time of writing with his consciousness at the time of the events. Such narration in Russia comes closer to what Cohn describes as a digression: “the present tense discourse of the narrating self appears as a kind of illicit straying from the straight and narrow path of narration into a terrain that does not properly belong to it.” (Cohn, 187-8) Here is a passage with three modes we have explored in this article:

(Narrative report) Еще за несколько метров закралось сомнение – что-то фальшивило, плащ сидел не так и брюки слишком пузырились при ходьбе. (Narrated or quoted monologue) Быть может Юлиан сделался провинциален вдали от столицы, и вкус его опростился в угоду местным нравам? Или может он и есть таков на самом деле, а былой столичный шик – вовсе наносное? (Narrative report) Но нет, вскоре стало ясно: (Internal experience) слишком уж этот, в плаще, с серой спортивной сумкой, органичен окружающей толпе. (Oblique speech/thought) Он из местных, не иначе, подумалось уныло, (Narrative report) хоть надежда еще теплилась едва-едва, так что я подошел вплотную, задел будто ненароком, потом, извиняясь, заглянул в лицо и отвернулся с досадой – (Narrated or quoted monologue) ничего похожего, да и чего собственно было ждать, шанс безнадежно мал. (Narrative report) Незнакомец зашагал дальше вместе со всеми, спешащими на зеленый, а я зачем-то посмотрел вслед и удивился сам себе – (Narrated or quoted monologue) с Юлианом никакого сходства, что за странное наваждение. (Черный пеликан, 51-52) (34)

A few meters later, doubt stole over me – something’s not right, he didn’t wear his raincoat like that, and his trousers didn’t bubble up that much as he walked. Maybe Julian has become provincial far from the capital and his taste simpler to please the local temperament? Or perhaps that is his true identity, and his former fashionable self was entirely contrived? But no, soon it became apparent: too much – the coat, the gray training bag – was inherent to the surrounding crowd. He’s from here, definitely, I thought glumly, although the fragment of hope still smoldering impelled me to walk up, bump into him, as if by accident, and then, apologizing, I peered at his physiognomy and turned away in despair – no resemblance. And what was I to expect? The chance was ridiculously small. The unfamiliar man strode on with the others, hurrying across at the green light, while I, for some reason, followed them with my eyes and was surprised at myself – he and Julian don’t look even remotely similar. What kind of strange obsession do I have? (The Black Pelican, unpublished)

The narrator speaks in the past tense, whereas the character states his thoughts in untransposed time, that is, he says: ничего похожего, да и чего собственно было ждать, шанс безнадежно мал (Literally: no resemblance. And what was I to expect? The chance is ridiculously small). Babenko exploits the untransposed nature of all inner life in narration, blending the boundaries between narration and monologue. The ridiculously small chance yields to straightforward narration when the unfamiliar man strode on with the others. In Russian the passage shifts constantly from narration to consciousness through the flexibility afforded by verbs of internal experience and oblique speech. The different rules in English make it difficult to translate even monologue (where it would be theoretically possible) such as ничего похожего, да и чего собственно было ждать, шанс безнадежно мал without transposition. Whereas it is required for internal experience: But no, soon it became apparent: too much – the coat, the gray training bag – was inherent to the surrounding crowd. He’s from here, definitely, I thought; it is all but required for the monologue on resemblance and expectation: …no resemblance. And what was I to expect? The chance was ridiculously small. Otherwise the English will sound stilted and lose all semblance of a coherent whole.


The decision to render Russian monologues as narrated monologue or quoted monologues is often a subjective decision left to the translator. Logically, the bias will fall in favor of quoted monologue, which is especially the case for translators adhering to the literal method of translation promulgated by Vladimir Nabokov and others, since this approach lets the English version retain the untransposed nature of the Russian original. Sometimes, however, clues not only call for a certain mode in translation, but also raise questions about the prevailing preference for quoted monologue at the expense of narrated monologue. On the one hand, quoted monologue captures the colloquial nature of Russian monologues; on the other, it cannot always be applied in English due to differences in grammatical structures. Finally the role of the author speaking in the present tense as a teller character presents a peculiar nuance of Russian literature that will receive more attention in the following section.


(19) This idea of an authorial narrator participating in the narrative by voicing their own thoughts in interior monologue is taken up in part three with Bulgakov.
(20) This development takes place on page 248 where the authorial narrator tells the reader about the boys who had come to visit Paka. This information is beyond the scope of Paka.
(21) Булгаков, Михаил. Мастер и Маргарита (Санкт-Петербург: Издательство «Азбука-классика», 2006).
(22) Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita. Tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 1997)
(23) It would also be possible to express these thoughts in English by using narrated monologue on account of the reasons mentioned earlier, primarily the uniformity of the present tense for consciousness in Russian.
(24) i.e. the first-person narrator.
(25) Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, Tr. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books). Natasha Randal has also made similar decisions in her translation of We.
(26) Сэлинджер Д.Д., Над пропастью во ржи. Повести. Рассказы: Пер. с английского, Издательство АСТ, 2004
(27) This circumstance offers one compelling reason for translating Russian interior monologue as quoted monologue in English.
(28) And indeed the translation suggests that even the translator thought this since the shift to the present tense takes place one sentence earlier in translation.
(29) F.M. by Boris Akunin offers the following example: «Морщина перерезала чистый лоб. И Николасу стало жалко этого калеку с его вывернутыми набекрень мозгами. Представить только: время идет, меняется жизнь, взрослеют или стареют окружающие, а ты от них отстаешь, и с каждым годом все больше. Тови ровесники оторвались вперед, ты остался один в глухой чаще. Как это, наверное, гороько и обидно. Поневоле начнешь всех ненавидеть. Можно не сомневаться, что врачи признают этого преступника психически больным и без усилий Аркадия Сергеевича. (Борис Акунин, Ф.М., том 2, ОЛМА-Пресс, 2006): стр. 175 (Emphasis added).
(30) Дмитриев, Андрей. Дорога обратно (Москва: Вагриус, 2003).
(31) Mr. Shepherd hastened to assure him, that Admiral Croft was a very hale, hearty, well-looking man, a little weather-beaten, to be sure, but not much; and quite the gentleman in all his notions and behaviour; - not likely to make the smallest difficulty about terms; - only wanted a comfortable home, and to get into it as soon as possible; - knew he must pay for his convenience… (Jane Austen, Persuasion, London, Penguin Classics, 22)
(32) See pp. 9 and 10 as well as part four
(33) See part four for a direct comparison of this passage transposed and untransposed.
(34) Бабенко, Вадим. Черный пеликан. (Санкт-Петербург: Амфора, 2006)

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