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Matushki! What’s a Translator to Do?

In a 1916 publication titled The Russians and Their Language, the author, a “Madame N. Jarintzov,” blithely suggests that anyone who really wants to experience Russian literature must learn the language (“Let not the difficulty of pronunciation stop anyone”!). While she credits “Mrs. Edward Garnett” and a few other translators with conveying the “general meaning” of the original works “very well indeed,” she laments the subtleties that the reader of translations will be missing. On the other hand, anyone willing to learn the language and patiently study its literature will be rewarded with a “glimpse into the national Russian mind through seeing the possibilities which are open to the Russian speech.”

One set of possibilities comes from the Russian language’s ability to create highly expressive permutations of names and nouns to communicate attitudes and emotions. Whether you’re a doting babushka (accent on the first syllable, please!), bosom buddy, sibling, teammate, co-worker, or spouse, you have an extensive menu of nicknames to choose from that will offer you the requisite blend of affection, familiarity, approval, or disapproval. In translating Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s 1863 novel City Folk and Country Folk (Columbia University Press, 2017), I found that one of my greatest frustrations came from my strong desire to convey the entire freight carried by one such permutated word: matushka.

This word, a combination of mat’ (mother) and the suffix –ushka (expressing endearment), appears in the novel twenty-one times. The authoritative Soviet Academy of Sciences dictionary offers four definitions: 1. mother (archaic and colloquial); 2. a woman, usually elderly (archaic and colloquial); 3. a nun or the wife of a priest (colloquial); and 4. (in the plural form, matushki) an exclamation expressing astonishment, dismay, etc. (colloquial).

Every one of these twenty-one matushkas caused me a slight stab of pain and sense of helplessness. Far be it for me, a non-native speaker of Russian, to pretend to fully know the impact this word has on native readers as their eyes flit over it, but I feel certain that it evokes something deeper, richer, and warmer than the ma’am, dear woman, and granny other translators have used (when the word serves as a form of address, many fine translations simply leave it out as untranslatable).

Clearly this word, which has been translated by some (primarily historians—most literary translators seem to know better) as “little mother,” has almost nothing to do with actual motherhood. There is also nothing diminutive in the designation. As Madame Jarintzov adamantly states, “there is no vestige of belittling in these Russian nouns of affinity…‘little mother’…ought to be banished from the English translations by fire and sword!”

What English words could possibly help readers glimpse into the corner of Madame Jarintzov’s “national Russian mind” where this particular term of endearment resides? The diverse ways in which matushka is used in City Folk and Country Folk suffice to show that there is certainly no equivalent expression in English.  Nastasya Ivanovna, the novel’s main character, a fifty-five-year-old noblewoman, uses it to address her servant and confidante of approximately the same age, but also for two “city folk” noblewomen, her supposed betters. The servant also addresses her mistress as matushka. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Nastasya Ivanovna uses this word in addressing her seventeen-year-old (childless and unmarried) daughter. Not only is there no equivalent to cover all these instances, there is none to sufficiently capture even a single discrete usage.

I raise this issue not to offer any solution: I have none, beyond the judicious use of “dears,” “grannies,” and other English expressions of familiarity and affection. And yet I do not share Madame Jarintzov’s dire conclusion. A good Russian to English translation does indeed offer at least a “glimpse into the national Russian mind.” Furthermore, a good story can easily survive a few untranslatable words.