Author's mistake

The standard of the book-publishing business in the West is impressive. Tough competition among authors and skilful editing and proof-reading makes even the work of a novice read as if it has come from the pen of a master. Writers are well aware of the importance of the publishing cycle (editing and proof-reading). It is not for nothing that the obligatory "Acknowledgements" section (in Russia, unfortunately, it is optional) always contains the writer's thanks to all those who turned the manuscript into a book.

Even so, slip-ups occur and more often than not they catch the translator's eye. Many of them are amusing. For instance, a character may appear in a scene wearing a cowboy hat which he had lost three chapters earlier. Or the heroine converts metres into feet and 70 metres ends up as 120 instead of 233 feet. You may come across a sentence that reads: "There was an awful smell of nitrogen", although nitrogen is an odourless gas. A character who is introduced as Cordelia at the start of the book becomes Rebecca towards the middle, and Horas becomes Harold.

The English word "gun" means both a pistol and a revolver. If the gun is mentioned several times, we may read on page 85, for example, that "a magazine of bullets fell out from it", ie it is a pistol, and on page 227 about the heroine "releasing the cylinder and emptying it of bullets", ie the gun miraculously turns into a revolver.

Translating an episode in which the characters are looking closely at a black-and-white photograph, the translator could not help smiling at the sentence: "He had a reddish birthmark on his left cheek." Yes, they used to retouch photographs with colour, for example, painting lips with rich cherry colour. But they did not do it to birthmarks. Perhaps the author should have been told about it.

Sometimes the writer neglects to do his homework. A fellow translator came across the following: "To my knowledge, there are only two studios in the world where such Virgins are painted," he said. "The first is the great Russian monastery of Zagorsk, not far from Moscow." These are two Italian monks talking in 1545. To a Russian it is clear that one of the monks is referring to the Trinity Monastery founded in the 14th century (it was renamed the Trinity-St Sergius Lavra in 1744), which became the focus of a settlement. It was much later, in the 18th century, that it came to be called the Sergiyev Posad. It was called Zagorsk (after a Bolshevik named Zagorsky) only comparatively briefly between 1930 and 1991.

Sometimes a mistake can pass for a sign of the author's sophistication. For instance, I read the following in an English detective story by Chris Ewan: "The object was a monkey figurine... The monkey sat on his haunches, knees up around his chest..." In English, of course, animals are usually referred to as "it". So when I saw "his" in the text I felt some unease. The thing is that in Russian the noun "monkey" is feminine gender. I thought that might create problems for me if it turned out later that the monkey was a male. I wrote to the author to clarify the situation. Chris replied: "I guess this was a style point for me. You're right to say that strictly speaking I should maybe have referred to the monkey as `it', but I was trying to give a sense of character to the figurines... Yes, `she' would work fine."

The translator is a very attentive reader who easily spots the author's mistakes. Unfortunately, no one corrects his mistakes, so they are left to the readers of the translated book.

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