Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Russian word shum from the Noise of Time by OSIP Mandelstam

These notes are about the difficulties encountered by the translator with the Russian word shum in the
the book, The Noise of Time, by OSIP Mandelstam

Book: The Noise of Time by OSIP Mandelstam
Translated by Clarence Brown
The translator had difficulties translating the title of the book.

He wrote:

The Russian title of The Noise of Time is Shum vremeni. The translation of shum is difficult out of all proportion to the miniature size of the word. My first choice was “noise,” and it found favor with some but there was impressive insistence that shum is best rendered by “sound.” On the point of yielding, I was stopped by that dean of scholiasts, Vladimir Nabokov, whose four-volume translation of and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (New York, 1964) arrived in the nick of time. In his annotation of line 9 out of One: xxxv – Prosnulsja utra shum prijatnyj, rendered by him as “Morn’s pleasant hubbub has awoken” – Nabokov provides us with a characteristic little essay on the various nuances of shum. The transliteration in what follows is his:

“An analogous line occurs in Poltava (1828), pt. 11, 1. 318: razdálsya útra shúm igrívïy, `morn’s frisky hubbub has resounded.` Compare these epithets with those used by English poets, e.g., Milton’s ‘the busy hum of men’ and John Dyer’s ‘the Noise of busy Man.’

“Generally speaking, the sense of shum implies a more sustained and uniform auditory effect than the English ‘noise.’ It is also a shade more remote and confused. It is at heart more of a swoosh than a racket. All its forms – shum (n.), shumnïy (adj.), shumyashchiy (part.), shumet’ (v.) – are beautifully onomatopoeic, which ‘noisy’ and ‘to noise’ are not. Shum acquires a number of nuances in connection with various subjects: shum goroda, ‘the hum of the city,’ ‘the tumult of the town’; shum lesov, ‘the murmur of woods’; shumyashchiy les, ‘the sough of forests’; shumnïy ruchey, ‘the dinning stream’; shumyashchee more, ‘the sounding sea,’ the rote, the thud, and the roar of the surf on the shore – ‘the surgy murmurs of the lonely sea,’ as Keats has it in Endymion 1. 121. Shum may also mean ‘commotion,’ ‘clamor,’ and so forth. The verb shumet’ is poorly rendered by ‘to be noisy,’ ‘to clatter.’” (Vol. 2, 143f.)

The solace which I find in this is not, of course, what Nabokov has to say about “noise,” since he specifically rejects it in favor of “hubbub.” It is the evidence of his uneasiness with the latter, which produces the delightful change-ringing on the various shades of shum. As in all such cases, the final choice is a matter of taste.

The relevance of these deliberations to Mandelstam’s work is central. The insipid word “sound,” which is virtually without overtones, cannot serve to describe the disjointed, elliptical style of these memoirs. If the faint but deliberate cacophony that arises from this mumbled juxtaposition of Finnish sleigh-bells, strolling brass bands, the alpine chill of concerts by Hofmann and Kubelik, the wheezing of Julij Matveich, and Vladimir Gippius’s bellowing summons to the hack seems to the reader, as it does to me, inadequately reflected in “noise,” let him contemplate in Nabokov’s note some of the things to which Mandelstam’s inner ear was attuned when he named his work Shum vremeni.

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