Inspektor Mors and Mis Marpl : the May 2020 Slavonic item(s) of the month

Having initially wanted our lockdown-era posts to focus on e-available material only, I am now going one step yet further away myself by writing about books held by the UL neither electronically nor physically…  This post instead looks at Slavonic translations of British detective fiction I have picked up for myself over the years.  Getting used to reading in another language can take time, and I for one found that worrying about the plot as well as the words really held me up.  What I came to discover was that reading a familiar detective novel translated into the language took the pressure off, and it’s a trick I have stuck to ever since.

My first proper cover-to-cover read in Russian was Colin Dexter’s Last bus to Woodstock (Posledyĭ avtobus na Vudstok), a 1997 translation published by Armada.  Its price label on the back reflects some of the economic turbulence experienced by Russia in the 1990s, with two figures (18,000 and 18.00).  The second price was for the new Russian rouble introduced in 1998.  The book also reflects a lack of awareness of British newspaper culture; its cover includes a mock-up of a front page showing the murder victim in an advanced state of undress.  Guessing the sensibilities of the average library blog reader to be substantial, the Microsoft Paint programme and I have added some clothing to the reproduction shown here.

When I started at the UL nearly 10 years ago, I needed to learn Ukrainian and Polish, Cambridge’s main Slavonic languages along with Russian.  In my first year, the focus was on Polish, which I found utterly baffling in its use of the Latin script (z, ź, and ż?).  In the summer of 2011, though, I was fortunate enough to be given a scholarship to attend a Polish summer school in Wrocław, which really brought the language to life (thanks in no small part to pani Dorota, our teacher, who spoke to us only in Polish).  Imagine my delight when I found Ostatni autobus do Woodstock in a bookshop there.  For the second time, albeit over 10 years later, Colin Dexter’s Last bus to Woodstock provided my first full read in another language.

Next was the turn of Ukrainian.  I have to admit that my Ukrainian reading has never been as keen as my Polish – could this be because the magic of Morse failed to come through?  For Ukrainian, my translated crime acquisition was not the now-admittedly-getting-a-bit-repetitive Morse novel but instead an Agatha Christie: Ubyvstvo v budynku pastora (Murder at the vicarage), featuring of course Mis Marpl of the village Sent-Meri-Mid.  The novel was translated by Viktor Shovkun, an extraordinarily prolific translator of literature from English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.  Kovtun, who died in 2018, translated most (and maybe all?) of Christie’s work into Ukrainian.

I usually pick up a crime translation or two on holiday, for a slightly lazy but not entirely unvirtuous read once I’ve finished the books I travelled with.  A trip to Belarus in 2017 proved a challenge in this respect due to the prevalence of Russian-language books in the shops, but Minsk eventually furnished me with Znak chatyrokh (The sign of four) by Arthur Conan Doyle.  In 2018, second-hand copies of Agatha Christie’s terrifying And then there were none (I nie było już nikogo) and a collection of Holmes stories (Przygody Sherkocka Holmesa) provided reading matter during a trip to the Polish coast and Warsaw.  Most recently, a trip last autumn to Ohrid in North Macedonia produced an Agatha Christie – Treta devojka (The third girl), featuring Herkul Poaro.

The lockdown has given many people a chance to catch up with reading (and the UL’s Instagram account has in fact got a “shelfies” feature, contributed to by CAL colleagues among others), but I must admit that this has not been so much the case for me so far.  Bar a brief flurry of reading over Easter which allowed me at last, at last, at LAST to finish Voĭna i mir (War and peace), a read that had lasted for an embarrassing length of time thanks to Tolstoĭ’s occasional insertion of lengthy reflections on history and historians (and a read that was only 20 years too late for a finals paper in which I elected to write an essay about the point of the novel), my reading has been rather minimal so finishing some of the books above will need to wait a while longer.

I hope that our readers have all been able to get down to plenty of reading during this very strange period.  For Cambridge staff and students, thanks to temporary access to even more platforms than we usually have, our ebook stock currently provides many hundreds of thousands of titles if you run out: http://libguides.cam.ac.uk/cambridgeebooks/access  For anyone who would like to read Tolstoĭ or other Russian literature specifically, the free FEB (Fundamental Electronic Library) provides huge numbers of critical editions: http://feb-web.ru/ 

Mel Bach

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