Ago versus earlier or previously, revisited.

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Thomas Tompion

Senior Member
English - England
I know that this issue is something of an old chestnut, but none of our threads on it quite addresses my problem.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translations of the classic Russian novels have received such critical acclaim that I thought I would try them. I have been struck by their repeated use of ago where I would have insisted on earlier.

The simple rule is that ago establishes a time back from now, and earlier establishes a time back from a moment in the past.

In past narration, therefore, we normally need to use earlier or previously rather than ago, thus:

I am sitting in my study. I know I wrote to her three days ago.
I was sitting in my study. I knew I had written to her three days previously.

Tolstoy in Anna Karenina uses the technique of the third-person omniscient narrator. The story is told as having happened in the past, so when a character wants to talk of an earlier time, I would expect the translators to use earlier or previously rather than ago, yet they don't. Here is an example from page 110 of the Penguin edition of Anna Karenina; Anna is irritated that some dresses which she wanted altered, to avoid having to buy new ones, have not been done either punctually or quite as she wished:

Anna was very annoyed. Before leaving for Moscow, she, who was generally an expert at dressing not very expensively, had given her dressmaker three dresses to be altered. The dresses needed to be altered so that they could not be recognized, and they were to have been ready three days ago.

I could repeat the example many times, and I find the usage strange, and so common that it needs explanation: can it really be a simple mistake? Ago would be fine had they been writing in the historic present. Had the passage started Anna is very annoyed, the last sentence could have gone the dresses had needed to be altered so that they could not be recognized, and they were to have been ready three days ago.

Richard Pevear was born in Boston and American educated, though the translations don't contain many obvious AE traits.

Maybe habits have changed about this, or maybe this usage is acceptable in AE but not in BE. Do other members find the example I give strange?
 
  • Gwan

    Senior Member
    New Zealand, English
    That seems fine to me in the context given. If, for example, it read 'Anna was annoyed... On Wednesday she had given the dressmaker three dresses to be altered, and they were to have been ready three days earlier', it would sound as if the dresses should have been ready three days before Wednesday, when she gave them to the dressmaker. 'Ago' seems to be the natural choice to me.

    In your 'sitting in your study' example, there's only one (unstated) time period involved. But in the Anna example, we have Anna, in the past, thinking about an earlier time (before leaving for Moscow), so perhaps that's what's muddying the waters. She's counting back from a time that's in the past, but later than another stated point of time, which seems to me to exclude using 'earlier' or 'previously'.

    I feel like there are some nuances that aren't coming to mind, so I'll be interested to see how you or others respond, or if you have any other examples of usages you find strange.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Many thanks, Gwan.

    Would you accept ago in the second example I invented?: I was sitting in my study. I knew I had written to her three days ago.

    I'm interested in the ways in which this differs from the example from the book.
     

    Gwan

    Senior Member
    New Zealand, English
    Many thanks, Gwan.

    Would you accept ago in the second example I invented?: I was sitting in my study. I knew I had written to her three days ago.

    I'm interested in the ways in which this differs from the example from the book.
    I think 'three days earlier' sounds better in that sentence, but I can't decide whether I'd have a problem with 'three days ago'. I think the main difference, for me, is the difference between having one or two time references. If we change your sentence to read:

    I was sitting in my study. I had written to her on Wednesday and I expected to receive a response three days ago.
    I was sitting in my study. I had written to her on Wednesday and I expected to receive a response three days earlier/previously.

    The second sentence doesn't seem wrong to you?
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    "Ago" doesn't sound right to me and personally I wouldn't use it the context of the book, although I might find it acceptable as sounding a little old-fashioned. But I also understand Gwan's objection to "earlier". It's probably the result of the translator following the Russian too closely and I think the sentences need to be reconstructed; I'd use something like "the work was three days overdue".
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think 'three days earlier' sounds better in that sentence, but I can't decide whether I'd have a problem with 'three days ago'. I think the main difference, for me, is the difference between having one or two time references. If we change your sentence to read:

    I was sitting in my study. I had written to her on Wednesday and I expected to receive a response three days ago.
    I was sitting in my study. I had written to her on Wednesday and I expected to receive a response three days earlier/previously.

    The second sentence doesn't seem wrong to you?
    I'm afraid I'd put earlier or previously in both your examples. I feel the need for a solidly established present to justify ago.

    One thing I wondered was whether some people use ago to provide immediacy, to hint at a present which they haven't actually established, just as some people use the historic present to establish, as they think, immediacy, so that what happened in the past can almost be felt as happening now.

    The problem with that suggestion is that in the case of those translators this use of ago is so frequent that it's hard to justify in this way. That's why I looked for some other explanation.
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    One thing I wondered was whether some people use ago to provide immediacy, to hint at a present which they haven't actually established, just as some people use the historic present to establish, as they think, immediacy, so that what happened in the past can almost be felt as happening now.
    I think that's often the right explanation.

    The problem with that suggestion is that in the case of those translators this use of ago is so frequent that it's hard to justify in this way. That's why I looked for some other explanation.
    I agree. It's one of those distortions that creep into the language from slightly mistaken translations. People who habitually read Russian novels get used to them and in the long run they become acceptable and part of the English language.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    That's all very well, Einstein, but these translations have been widely praised. One alternative suggestion is that the usage is more acceptable in AE than in BE. Not many Americans are on the forum yet.
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Well, the Americans are still in bed at the moment, so we'll see what they have to say.:)

    However, as for these translations being widely praised, I see no real contradiction here. The text can be generally good and free-flowing, but with certain differences, like this one, seen as giving a particular flavour to the story, rather than being wrong. And there's always room for improvement in a translation, however good.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, sure. Point taken. It's just strange that such a repeated mistake, if it really is a mistake, shouldn't have been spotted by an editor, or by a publisher's reader. This translation of Anna Karenina has won a PEN/BOMC Translation Prize. The War and Peace has many examples of the usage, as one might imagine (it runs to 1215 pages).
     

    ribran

    Senior Member
    English - American
    I'm still awake!

    I agree with you, TT. I always think of "ago" as counting backward from the present; however, this Oxford site seems to accept Pevear's use of the word...

    (used after a measurement of time) before the present; earlier
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm still awake!

    I agree with you, TT. I always think of "ago" as counting backward from the present; however, this Oxford site seems to accept Pevear's use of the word...
    You should have been in bed long ago, Riley, but thank you both for your backing and for the Oxford site. In the previous threads I looked at, the whole magisterial weight of WR opinion seemed to condemn the confusion of ago and earlier.

    A possibility which I'd considered but now reject, in the light of your post, is that times had changed and that it was only the over thirties who were fussy about this.
     
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    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Hi, TT

    I can only say two things:

    1. I agree with you. "Ago" is not the best choice here for the reasons given by you and others. I would probably not have noticed this small inaccuracy, of course, but I suppose when it comes to sensitivity to such detail you are in a league of your own. :)

    2. If the original Russian word used is the one I think, then it may be that this word easily, if not almost invariably, translates into "ago" although it is more inclusive than the English "ago". Of course, my Russian is rusty so I expect a Russian user will be able to confirm or refute this theory of mine. :)

    PS. My point here is that a translator could easily have been waylaid by the word in question...
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thanks for this insight, Boozer.

    Don't you feel that translators ought to be immune from such influences, though, particularly where they are a man and wife team, each one having one of the two languages on either side of the translation as their native tongue?
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Thanks for this insight, Boozer.

    Don't you feel that translators ought to be immune from such influences...
    Hmmm, this is a technical issue, TT. :) All I can say is that I always make conscious efforts to remain immune, as you say, from translating word-for-word, but nobody is perfect. And when you translate a huge book, as I have, you invariably drop your guard while thinking about other stuff.

    I checked the original and it really is the word I thought it would be. In fact, the original is a combination of two words that translates as "ago". So much so, that our dictionary only gives one English definition. You will have guessed this definition is "ago" :) There it is (definition two refers):
    http://www.wordreference.com/ruen/назад
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    TT: Have you heard of "free indirect style"? Because this seems like a clear-cut case of that. The narrator (or narration, as I prefer) isn't completely set apart from the characters, but instead the narration is able to weave in and out of the experiences and viewpoints of the characters (hence "indirect") without signaling any break (hence "free"). Let's watch:
    Anna was very annoyed. Before leaving for Moscow, she, who was generally an expert at dressing not very expensively, had given her dressmaker three dresses to be altered.
    So who is it who says, "she, who was generally an expert at dressing not very expensively"? Clearly it's Anna, talking to herself. She's in an upset state and the syntax reflects that. She goes over the facts: before I left for Moscow... then interrupts herself: before I left - me! me, and I'm the one who knows something about dressing on a budget. Well, at least most of the time... The key thing to realize is that the narration is ironizing a bit on Anna's claim to be a cheap or reasonable dresser, by showing her own perspective and thus framing the limits of that perspective.
    The dresses needed to be altered so that they could not be recognized, and they were to have been ready three days ago.
    And again, who is it who's saying "ago"? It's Anna. Not Pevear and Volokhonsky. Not the narration. Anna. Anna is the one who thinks to herself "Those dresses were supposed to be ready three days ago!" The narration, or the external speaker, would in fact probably have said "earlier," since the entire thing is in the past of narration. But that completely misses the point of SIL/free indirect style - you have access to the very thoughts and phrases that are running through the heads of the characters.

    Basically, think of the sentence: "Anna thought to herself, 'Those dresses were supposed to be ready three days ago!'" In SIL the shift into the character's mind would be completely unmarked, without the "Anna thought..." nor the quotation marks. Hence the unmarked turn to "... and they were to have been ready three days ago."

    In short, I believe you're right about the point of grammar, but you miss the point of the narrative style, which is grammatical once you realize it's not from the standpoint of an external evaluating entity but a force that moves in and out of the experience of the characters. Hopefully this clears up the issue, and lets Pevear and Volokhonsky (and Tolstoy) off the hook.

    Also, einstein, really? "People who habitually read Russian novels get used to them and in the long run they become acceptable and part of the English language." I severely doubt that there is a critical mass of "people who habitually read Russian novels" to the point where they can force linguistic change...
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Also, Einstein, really? "People who habitually read Russian novels get used to them and in the long run they become acceptable and part of the English language." I severely doubt that there is a critical mass of "people who habitually read Russian novels" to the point where they can force linguistic change...
    I expressed myself badly. No, I'm sure there's not an enormous mass of readers of Russian novels able to force linguistic change:D and I was really trying to make a general point, although on re-reading I did seem to be referring to Russian in particular. However, I've seen plenty of anglicisms spread into other languages and take root there as a result of poor translation and I think it's quite probable that this can happen in English too. Obviously the "innovators" would be habitual readers of the texts in question.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    TT: Have you heard of "free indirect style"? Because this seems like a clear-cut case of that. The narrator (or narration, as I prefer) isn't completely set apart from the characters, but instead the narration is able to weave in and out of the experiences and viewpoints of the characters (hence "indirect") without signaling any break (hence "free"). Let's watch:

    So who is it who says, "she, who was generally an expert at dressing not very expensively"? Clearly it's Anna, talking to herself. She's in an upset state and the syntax reflects that. She goes over the facts: before I left for Moscow... then interrupts herself: before I left - me! me, and I'm the one who knows something about dressing on a budget. Well, at least most of the time... The key thing to realize is that the narration is ironizing a bit on Anna's claim to be a cheap or reasonable dresser, by showing her own perspective and thus framing the limits of that perspective.

    And again, who is it who's saying "ago"? It's Anna. Not Pevear and Volokhonsky. Not the narration. Anna. Anna is the one who thinks to herself "Those dresses were supposed to be ready three days ago!" The narration, or the external speaker, would in fact probably have said "earlier," since the entire thing is in the past of narration. But that completely misses the point of SIL/free indirect style - you have access to the very thoughts and phrases that are running through the heads of the characters.

    Basically, think of the sentence: "Anna thought to herself, 'Those dresses were supposed to be ready three days ago!'" In SIL the shift into the character's mind would be completely unmarked, without the "Anna thought..." nor the quotation marks. Hence the unmarked turn to "... and they were to have been ready three days ago."

    In short, I believe you're right about the point of grammar, but you miss the point of the narrative style, which is grammatical once you realize it's not from the standpoint of an external evaluating entity but a force that moves in and out of the experience of the characters. Hopefully this clears up the issue, and lets Pevear and Volokhonsky (and Tolstoy) off the hook.

    [...]
    Thank you very much for this, Lucas. A very interesting and helpful post.

    I had indeed considered the solution you propose. I rejected it because the phenomenon occurs so frequently that I had taken the use to be one of the translators' quirks, and it is one of the few things about the books - they read wonderfully in general - which I find irking. I can see that your explanation could work in the example I gave - that was one reason why I chose it - and I'm interested that the ago should be acceptable to you there. I think the obvious thing is for me to wait until I come across another ago which cannot, in my view, be explained in this way, and see what you think of that. We may not have to wait long.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Here's another example, from the start of chapter XXI of Part Two. Vronsky is looking at the horses before the race. This is actually the opening sentence of the chapter:

    The temporary stable, a shed of wooden planks, had been built just next to the racetrack, and his horse was supposed to have been brought there yesterday.

    This is effectively the same mistake: yesterday for the day before, ago for previously. I find it disconcerting and don't believe the translators are doing it on purpose.

    Here's another translation I found online; irritatingly it didn't say who the translator was:

    The temporary stable, a wooden shed, had been put up close to the race course, and there his mare was to have been taken the previous day.
     
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    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    Hm. I suppose this could be a situation of SIL as well (I looked in my copy, and the next few sentences may very well be from Vronsky's perspective). It wouldn't surprise me if P&V were translating in a more "continental" style so as to emphasize Tolstoy's links to contemporary developments in French literature. Or, of course, it could just be their own particular preference, to use a more vivid (since present) adverb to lend more excitement to the past-tense of narration (basically, similar to the use of the historical present).

    We need to know what the original text says to determine whether this is a tic of P&V as translators or whether it's an attempt to render more precisely Tolstoy's style in English. (For what it's worth, I've heard nothing but praise from readers of the originals who have looked at P&V's translations.) Both explanations seem plausible to me - older translations of Flaubert, for instance, "resolve" a lot of the issues relating to SIL; it could very well be that an older translation of Tolstoy does as well, so comparing to other translations might not be appropriate in this case.

    Maybe you could find some allies in the Russian forum?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Reading The Scapegoat by Jocelyn Brooke this morning, I was struck by an example where ago seemed entirely apposite and I wouldn't have wished earlier substituted for it. Here's the passage:

    A vague, unseizable depression descended on him. Then he remembered, suddenly, a children's party he had been to years ago, where they had played hide-and-seek. He had hidden behind a thick curtain, in a dark passage;


    - and now the past perfect is established as the incident tense.

    Of course I'm interested in why I accept this when I find something apparently similar in the Russian translations unacceptable. I think the distinguishing features are:

    1. A greater general precision in the writing of the whole book: this is a difficult point either to establish or attack, but the effect clearly makes a great difference to a reader's mindset.

    2. Brooke encourages one to enter into the emotional world of this young boy, who is particularly vulnerable because his mother has died suddenly (not three months ago but three months earlier) by frequently describing his feelings, his sensations, his emotional reactions, his uncertainties. This makes the reader come to inhabit the mind of the boy (the he of the extract), in a way which makes the ago entirely acceptable, to me at least; the effect is reinforced by the switch into the past perfect as the incident tense for the flashback.
     
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