Reading and Teaching Tolstoj in Translation: The Problem of Pity

In an editor’s note to the Maude translation of Tolstoj’s Resurrection, R. Gustafson comments that the concept of žalost′ is “central to Tolstoj’s ethics, for empathetic compassion is the ground for moral behavior” (490). In the same note, he calls into question the felicitousness of translating žalost′ by pity, suggesting that the Russian word is “perhaps better translated as ‘compassion’ or ‘feeling for’” (490). This is not a suggestion generally put into practice in translations of Tolstoj, nor do the great majority of bilingual dictionaries indicate that the words might not be exact translation equivalents.

How do the semantics of žalost’ and pity differ, and how might these differences influence readers of Tolstoj in translation? I propose to examine the first question by analyzing the terms in light of selections from the linguistic, psychological, and philosophical literature on emotions; specific sources will include de Rivera, Kovecses, Solov′ev, Wierzbicka, and Zaliznjak as well as the results of linguistic surveys on the semantics of žalost’ and pity given to native speakers of English and Russian. An answer to the second question will follow from the first and from a systematic look at how the terms žalost′, žalet′, žalkij, and others, when used to refer to people, are translated in the Maude versions of The Death of Ivan Il′ič and Resurrection.

While both žalost′ and pity imply recognition of the misfortune of another human being, they are associated with different cultural evaluations of the status of and the evaluator’s reaction to the other’s misfortune. With žalost′, the other person is typically understood to be (potentially) the same as the evaluator (in the sense of a “tovarišč po nesčast′ju”) and the emotion is generally a positive one; with pity, the other person is considered fundamentally different from the evaluator and the resulting emotion is often negatively charged (akin to contempt or scorn). Other relevant differences in the meanings of the two concepts derive from differences in semantic range, frequency of usage, their value or relative position in the system of emotion concepts in each culture, and each term’s relation to other cultural concepts. It could also be pointed out that žalost′ is clearly a key concept not only in Tolstoj’s thought but in Russian culture in general—Šmelev calls žalost′ an “osobenno značimoe slovo” for Russians (86)—while the same cannot be said about pity in modern American culture. Given such distinct “interpretants” (see Andrews) for žalost′, on the one hand, and pity on the other, the meaning of Tolstoj’s texts in English translation is considerably distorted. At the very least, textual cohesion suffers because a whole range of English terms need to be used to render the žal- words in various contexts; at its worst, translations of žal’ terms which rely on pity evoke emotional interpretants for the American reader which seriously undermine the original meaning.

This proposed paper has important implications for the teaching of Tolstoj in English and is also intended as a strategic contribution to the fields of linguistic semantics and cultural translation. It is part of a larger comparative study, which I am currently undertaking, of the semantics of English pity, Russian žalost′, and Czech lítost.

Andrews, E. 1990. “Peirce’s Emotional Interpretant: A Key to Bilingualism”
de Rivera, J. 1977. A Structural Theory of the Emotions.
Kovecses, Z. 1990. Emotion Concepts.
Šmelev, A. 1996. “Leksičeskij sostav russkogo jazyka kak otraženie “’russkoj dushi.””
Solov′ev, V. 1899. Opravdanie dobra.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1994. Resurrection.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1991. Tolstoy’s Short Fiction.
Wierzbicka, A. 1992. Semantics, Culture, and Cognition.
Wierzbicka, A. 1972. Semantic Primitives.
Zaliznjak, A. 1992. Issledovanija po semantike predikatov vnutrennego sostojanija.