Nailed to a bar

Tom the Amateur Reader, the author of the Wuthering Expectations blog, quotes from the 1970 collection of translations from Alexander Blok by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France:

I am nailed to a bar with liquor.

It’s the first line of this poem from 1908. (I tried to translate it in 2006.) Its second word is the translator’s first challenge. Yes, пригвоздить means, technically speaking, to nail: the root –гвозд- corresponds to nail and the prefix при- indicates the act of attaching. However, Russians don’t use пригвоздить to describe, say, the nailing of a board to a wall: the word belongs in a loftier register. “Alas, a stray arrow nailed the noble hero to his chariot”: that sort of narrative.

On the other hand, the “bar with liquor” is actually a bar in a трактир – simply put, a cheap restaurant patronized by all matter of society.  (Originally, a roadside inn.) That’s where Dostoyevsky’s characters hold philosophical debates. It’s decidedly democratic, mostly plebeian but not off-limits to gentlefolk, especially the poorer sort. The word sounds common, undignified, low. Yet the clash of registers does not produce a comic effect. The line borders on the pompous and pretentious but sends no one laughing. Quite the contrary: the reader feels this business of drinking at the bar is deadly serious for some reason.

What’s a translator supposed to do with this? I don’t know – at least give it a thought.

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