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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Unsuspecting Titles Of the Western Canon

Sometimes I get tired of talking about Russian literature all the time. Especially when I get well-intentioned but wounding comments like:


"Why did you spend so much time studying Dostoyevsky when there is no chance that you will ever understand him?" -- which a sweet old woman asked me over shashlik last week. Why can't we spend more time talking about Western literature instead? Why can't I say things like, "Well, if you have to read Twain in translation, you might as well not bother."


I'll tell you why. Because we foreigners have not taken the trouble to learn how the titles of the Western classics have been translated into Russian. Therefore, we spend all our time talking about Voina i mir ("War and Peace"), and we ignore our own treasures like rozd'e gneva ("The Grapes of Wrath") or Alaya bukva ("The Scarlet Letter").


Before we begin a short excursion through some of the Western classics, I need to make a disclaimer. Many Western works of literature are known under more than one title, just as Dostoyevsky's novel Besy is alternatively translated into English as "The Devils" and "The Possessed."


One Russian example is my favorite Shakespeare comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is known both by the secular title Son v letnyuyu noch' and with reference to the Orthodox summer solstice holiday, Son v Ivanovu noch'.


As long as we are talking about Shakespeare, we might as well begin with some other comedies. "All's Well That Ends Well" is called Konets vsemu bylu benets. "Much Ado About Nothing" is Mnogo shuma iz nechego, and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is known in Russia as Vindsorskiye nasmeshnitsy.


Russians love talking about Hemingway, so you should probably also know that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is Po kom zvonit kolokol. They also have often read "The Moveable Feast," which has the charming Russian title Prazdnik, kotoryi vsegda s toboi (literally, "the holiday that is always with you").


Anyone intending to enter into a serious discussion of Western literature with Russians should also brush up on Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," known over here as Noch' nezhna. Other American classics worth mentioning are O myshakh i lyudyakh, Shum i yarost', and Khizhina dyadi Toma.


There's also Dickens's Bol'shiye nadezhdy, Emily Bronte's Grozovoi pereval, Proust's V poiskakh utrachennogo vremeni, and Remarque's Na zapadnom fronte bez peremen .


Finally, no survey such as this would be complete without mention of the Western classic that is arguably the closest in spirit to the weird universe that is life in Russia, Joseph Heller's brilliantly funny lovka 22 ("Catch-22"). Too bad Russians will never really be able to understand it properly.