Marian Schwartz On Translating the Title of The Man Who Couldn’t Die

Today’s #TranslationThursday post comes to us from Marian Schwartz, who translated Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being. In this piece, Schwartz discusses the literary aspects she considered in translating the title from Russian to English.

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Olga Slavnikova creates bottomless treasure boxes. Look once and find a gem, look twice and find another—look the hundredth time, after the umpteenth reading, and you find a rock worthy of Lorelei Lee’s engagement ring.

Or, someone else does.

The Russian title of The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a single word, “Бессмертный” (Immortal), a masculine adjective that functions here as a noun to mean “an immortal man.” In English, “immortal” on its own reads only as an adjective, not necessarily masculine, not necessarily describing a person at all. The reader is immediately faced with ambiguity. An English-language novel entitled “Immortal” or, perhaps even worse, “The Immortal,” would have a rocky start, to say the least.

I translated the title as I did, both to avoid this hitch, and because I liked the dual meaning of “couldn’t die” for this story. By the logic of the novel, Alexei Afanasievich “couldn’t die”—first, because he was physically incapable of killing himself, try as he might. Second, he “couldn’t die” for his family, who both loved him and depended on his pension for survival in the exceedingly precarious economy of the immediate post-Soviet years.

Now I learn from the most careful reader I know—my son John—that Slavnikova buried another treasure in the very name of the Man Who Couldn’t Die: Alexei Afanasievich.  Or, to be more specific, in his patronymic.

Russian full names consist of a first name, a patronymic, and a last name. The patronymic is derived from the first name of the person’s father. In broad terms, we say a woman’s patronymic is formed by adding the suffix “-ovna” to her father’s first name; a man’s, by adding “-ovich.”

Alexei Afanasievich’s father, then, was Afanasy.

“Afanasy” is the Russian form of “Athanasius, which is Greek for… immortal.

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