Coats and turncoats: translating Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter

Translating Alexander Pushkin’s novel The Captain’s Daughter launched Robert Chandler on a journey of revelations into this ‘most subtly constructed of all nineteenth-century Russian novels’. The story leads Chandler to reflect on the fate of translators: as mediators between two cultures, maybe they will always be suspected of being turncoats against their own
Robert Chandler
19 July 2010

‘Translations are but as turn-coated things at best, specially among languages that have advantages one of the other.’  Howell, c1645 (from Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘turncoat’).

Five years ago, a Russian friend, hearing I was intending to translate ‘The Queen of Spades’, said, ‘That will be very difficult, harder even than translating Andrey Platonov.  You’ll find you can’t afford to change a single comma.’ My friend proved only too right; every slightest liberty I had allowed myself in the first draft came to seem unacceptable.  I imagined, however, that The Captain’s Daughter would prove easier. I remembered it as being less deliberate, less precise in both style and structure, than ‘The Queen of Spades’. I could not have been more wrong.  Like the novel’s young hero, Pyotr Grinyov, Pushkin is a trickster. The Captain’s Daughter, apparently a mere historical yarn, is the most subtly constructed of all nineteenth-century Russian novels. It took me some time, however, to realize this.


Yemelyan Pugachev, leader of the most dangerous peasant revolt in Russian history.

The Captain’s Daughter is presented as a memoir, written towards the end of his life by a provincial nobleman, Pyotr Grinyov. The plot turns on a number of gifts and their unexpected consequences. On his way to serve as an officer in the south-eastern province of Orenburg, the sixteen-year-old Pyotr gets lost in a blizzard and is guided to safety by a mysterious peasant. Pyotr generously expresses his gratitude by giving the peasant a hare-skin coat. In Fort Belogorsk, where Pyotr is posted, he falls in love with Masha, the captain’s daughter, and fights a duel against a jealous rival, Lieutenant Shvabrin. A rebellion breaks out; its Cossack leader, Yemelyan Pugachov, captures Fort Belogorsk. The treacherous Shvabrin goes over to Pugachov and advises him to hang Pyotr along with the other officers. Pyotr’s servant realizes that Pugachov is the peasant to whom Pyotr gave the hareskin coat. Despite Pyotr’s refusal to recognize him as Tsar, Pugachov spares Pyotr’s life and allows him to go free; he even gives Pyotr the gift of a horse and a sheepskin coat. A few months later, Pugachov shows still greater generosity, allowing Pyotr to return to Belogorsk and rescue Masha from the hands of Shvabrin, who is trying to force her to marry him. After the rebellion has been put down, Shvabrin denounces Pyotr, making out that Pyotr deserted to Pugachov just as he did himself; Pyotr’s acceptance of Pugachov’s gifts is used in evidence against him at a tribunal. In the last chapter, Masha goes to Petersburg, speaks to the Empress and persuades her of Pyotr’s innocence.


Catherine II

Catherine II. In the last chapter of the novel, Masha goes to Petersburg, speaks to the Empress and persuades her of Pyotr’s innocence.

My appreciation of The Captain’s Daughter has moved through several stages. At first, as I have said, I saw the novel as being rather casually structured – a patchwork quilt, a random collage of fictional letters, historical detail, and poems in a variety of different styles. Next, I became aware of such larger-scale symmetries as the parallels between Pyotr’s meetings with Pugachov and Masha’s meeting with Catherine the Great (Pyotr does not know Pugachov’s identity when they meet in the snowstorm, nor does Masha know Catherine’s identity when they meet in the park – and neither Pugachov nor Catherine has a true claim to the Russian throne). There are many other such symmetries (the two gifts of coats, the two attempted gifts of half a rouble, the two occasions, in the first and last chapter, when the elder Grinyov reads the Court Almanac). Thirdly, I became aware of the significance of a number of repeated phrases. Lastly, I began to notice the way Pushkin plays with repetitions of individual sounds.

Some of Pushkin’s effects of alliteration extend only the length of a single sentence. These leave a translator with little room to manoeuvre. Our original version of the first sentence of chapter nine, Pyotr’s account of the morning immediately after the fall of Belogorsk, was as follows: ‘Early in the morning I was woken by the sound of a drum.’ The Russian, however, is an unobtrusive but perfect example of onomatopoeia: 'Rano utrom razbudil menya baraban.’[1] We tried, naturally, to reproduce this effect, but we found there was little we could do. Our final version, ‘Around dawn I was woken by the sound of a drum’, has the merit of concision and contains some play on the sounds ‘D’, ‘N’ and ‘R’; nevertheless, it falls far short of the original.

Other examples of Pushkin’s sound play are more extended. Pyotr’s French tutor, Beaupré, carries with him his own sound world, centred on two of the consonants from his own name. Pushkin’s first description of him begins as follows: Beaupré v otechestve svoem byl parikmakherom, potom v Prussii soldatom, potom priekhal v Rossiyu pour être outchitel.[2] This aura of ‘PR’ proved oddly easy to reproduce; for the main part, in fact, we reproduced it unwittingly, before I had even consciously noticed it in the original. Only after coming up with the word ‘pronouncing’ for a sentence about Beaupré’s love of vodka cordials – ‘even came to prefer them to the wines of his fatherland, pronouncing them incomparably better for the digestion’ – did I realize that at least part of the word's appropriateness came from the way it harmonized with such words as ‘Prussia’, ‘prefer’, ‘prod’, and above all with Savelich’s scornful repetition of Beaupré’s repeated requests to the housekeeper for vodka: ‘Madam, zhe vu pri, vodkoo’.[3]


The first paragraph of chapter eight contains a supremely moving example of alliteration.  Pugachov has just captured Fort Belogorsk.  Pyotr’s life has been spared, but he has no idea what has happened to Masha. He enters her home to find that ‘it had been laid waste.  Chairs, tables and chests had been broken up; crockery had been smashed; everything else stolen. (…)Her bedclothes had been ripped and her wardrobe broken open and ransacked (…)  But where was the mistress of this humble, virginal cell?  A terrible thought flashed through my mind; I pictured her in the hands of the brigands. My heart clenched tight. I wept bitter, bitter tears and called out the name of my beloved.'

The first ten lines of the original sound staccato and harsh.[4] There is a great deal of assonance, alliteration and some syllables are repeated several times: pere… pere… ras… perer… razb… razl… grabl… braz… razb… gor… gor… grom.. roiz…'   Then the harsher consonants drop away and are replaced by repeated ‘P’, ‘L’ and ‘Sh’ sounds at the moment that Palasha the maid, as if reborn out of the sounds of her own name, suddenly takes centre-stage: 'I heard a soft rustling and from behind the wardrobe appeared Palasha, pale and trembling.’ ('poslyshalsya legky shum, i iz-za shkapa poyavilas Palasha, blednaya i trepeshchushaya.’[5] Until this moment, the narrator has consistently referred to as PalashKa, using a familiar form of her name that fits her lowly status; she is, after all, a mere serf and has, at least to some degree, been a figure of fun. Now for the first time she appears as PalaSHa, and the narrator will continue to use this more dignified form of her name for the rest of the novel. Her owners have been killed and she is free to act in her own right; she will show both courage and initiative and will play a crucial role in enabling Pyotr to rescue Masha from the hands of Shvabrin.


Alliteration is often a mere surface effect, a veneer.  I know of no novel where the sound patterning is so integral, where thought, sound and feeling are so inextricably interwoven.  The most remarkable of Pushkin’s sound patterns extends throughout the length of the novel and gathers together all its central themes. An astonishing number of the most important words in the novel are made up of permutations of the letters P, L and T. Clothes are platye and a coat is tulup or pal’to; a crowd is tolpa, a noose is petlya, a handkerchief (Pugachov waves a white handkerchief as a signal for his executioners to hang someone) is platok, and a raft (at one point Pyotr encounters a gallows on a raft) is plot; to pay is platit’ and a half-rouble coin (another item that plays an important role in the plot) is poltina; a rascal is plut and a crime is prestuplenie.  Patronage is pokrovitel’stvo and to show mercy is pomilovat’.  I doubt if anagrams have ever been used more subtly and with deeper meaning.[6]  Every element of sound and plot metamorphoses into another. The coat Pyotr gave to Pugachov saves him from having a noose put round his neck in front of a crowd of rebels; the coat Pyotr receives from Pugachov leads to him being arrested by the Tsarist authorities. The entire story turns on these coats – and on the ensuing allegation that Pyotr is a turncoat. This is not Pushkin’s pun; I like to think of it, however, not as my own discovery but as a small gift from the English language that a translator would be churlish to spurn. 


Some of Pushkin’s effects of alliteration extend only the length of a single sentence. 

Pushkin’s novel is about giving and forgiving. Translating it has been a joy and it would be graceless not to acknowledge not only the help I have received from friends and colleagues but also the giving and forgiving qualities of language itself. We tend to talk too readily of ‘what is lost in translation’ and I have probably dwelt too much on passages we found difficult to recreate. What is perhaps more remarkable is how welcoming the English language has been towards much of The Captain’s Daughter.  The following chapter epigraph, for example, slipped into English as if of itself:

Our lovely apple tree

Has no young shoots and no fine crown;

Our lovely bride

Has no dear father and no dear mother.

No one to dress her

In a wedding gown,

No one to bless her.

It was as if English were a perfectly fitting garment waiting to welcome this poem. The line ‘In a wedding gown’ is not there in the original, but it begged to be added; our version seemed incomplete without it. Russian trees have peaks rather than crowns, and so the pun on ‘crown of a tree’ and ‘wedding crown’ is also unaccountably absent from the original. And the English language brought other gifts. Our use of the word ‘honour’ both as an abstract noun and as a form of address (‘Your Honour’) made it all the easier to emphasize one of the novel’s central themes; were a translator to backtranslate our version into Russian, he might well feel frustrated at having to use two different words[7] where English has one. And the word ‘turncoat’, of course, is an extraordinary gift for a translator – so much so that I managed to remain blind to it until the last stages of revision. After finally realizing how perfectly it encapsulates the central theme of the novel I needed to think for a long time about how often to use it. In the end I decided it was important to exercise restraint; as Pushkin shows us, the acceptance of gifts can lead to accusations of betrayal. In our final version the word occurs only twice. Both times it is the father who uses it – in the first chapter, when he is sending Petrusha off to serve in the army, and in the last chapter, when he believes his son has failed in his service. The symmetry of this is, I believe, Pushkinian.

There is one last thread to hold up to the light.  As an epigraph to this essay I chose a sentence quoted in the complete Oxford English Dictionary as an example of the use of the word 'turncoated'. This scornful view of translations, this feeling that they are 'turncoated things at best', has persisted over the centuries – and not only in the English-speaking world. About half of the articles I read about translation in non-academic publications mention either the Italian pun on 'traduttore' and 'traditore' (translator and traitor), the French idea of 'les belles infidèles' (i.e. that translations are like women – either beautiful or faithful, but never both) or Robert Frost's irritating dictum that 'Poetry is what gets lost in translation'.  My hunch is that this hostility towards translators and their work arises not from the entirely justified view that most translations are imperfect but from a suspicion of translators per se.  Translators are, by definition, at least relatively at home in two or more cultures and their loyalty to any single culture is therefore questionable.  It is interesting that Pushkin, apparently somewhat irrelevantly, tells us that Pyotr Grinyov is himself something of a translator.  Not only does he, as a child, teach Beaupré to speak Russian; not only does he mediate between the world of the aristocracy and that of the Cossacks and peasants; he even, while serving in a remote steppe fortress, studies French and – most surprisingly of all – does regular translation exercises. 

Translators are always vulnerable to criticism. If they do not make full use of their creative imagination, they will betray not only themselves but also the life and spirit of the original. If they do let their imaginations play, they are likely to be accused of presumption.  Fidelity, however, is never simply a mechanical matter; to be faithful to a person, a belief, a cause or a work of literature, we must do more than simply obey a set of rules. There will always be times when we need to think more deeply, to ask ourselves questions about what it is we want to be faithful to and why. The best I can do by way of being faithful to Pushkin's P-L-T logogram is to use the word 'turncoat' at two significant moments. Like Pyotr Grinyov, we may sometimes need to be tricksters; perhaps, rather than worrying about being called turncoats, we should simply try to be more accomplished tricksters.

Author: Among the poet Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian are Pushkin’s novel Dubrovsky,  Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate and several volumes by Andrey Platonov. His translation of The Captains’s Daughter is published by Hesperus Classics in 2007

[1] Рано утром разбудил меня барабан.

[2] Бопре в отечестве  своем  был парикмахером,  потом  в Пруссии солдатом, потом приехал в Россию  pour être outchitel.

[3] Мадам, же ву при, водкю.

[4] Всe было пусто; стулья, столы, сундуки были переломаны; посуда перебита; всe растаскано.  (…) Я увидел ее постелю, перерытую разбойниками; шкап
был разломан и ограблен (…) Где ж была хозяйка этой смиренной, девической кельи? Страшная мысль мелькнула в уме моем:  я вообразил ее в руках у разбойников... Сердце мое сжалось . . . Я горько, горько заплакал, и громко произнес имя моей любезной...

[5] В эту минуту послышался легкий шум, и из-за шкапа явилась Палаша, бледная и трепещущая.

[6] This list of words is abbreviated.  It is taken from an article by Sergej Davydov, ‘The   Sound and Theme in the Prose of A.S. Pushkin’, SEEJ, 27.1, (1983).  Davydov refers to what Pushkin does with P-L-T as a ‘logogram’, citing F. de Saussure’s definition of this as ‘a “gram” (Greek “gramma”), constructed around a subject which inspires the whole passage, and is more or less its “logos”, its rational unity, its function.

[7] i.e. ‘честь’ and ‘благородие’.

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