The Talking Train

The great thing about learning a language, is experiencing those small steps of success in between more important milestones. One of those baby steps – almost quite literally – is the ability to read (parts of) a book written in a foreign language. It really doesn’t matter what type of book or Internet site you’re using here – it feels great to comprehend entire sentences, to dissect certain grammar parts while hearing yourself recite certain words phonetically.

Personally, once I felt a little bit confident about my Russian reading skills, I tried to deviate from my language course’s textbook by picking up a standard-issue dictionary and a few Russian books, specifically written for children. The limited number of pages, the helpful hints in form of both text and pictures and the simple storyline – all of these helped me to understand and appreciate the language a bit better. Sure, it’s a long way from being able to read Dostojevski’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in its original form, but hey – one step at a time, right?

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a few simple poetic verses in an entry-level book; very basic rhyme, but rhyme nonetheless, and as such easier to memorize. Below is the excerpt I’m referring to, encountered in Arkady Gaidar‘s “Chuk and Gek” (Чук и Гек), a children’s book from Soviet Russia (1939).

…Гек видел очень странный сон:

Как будто стал живым вагон.

Как будто слышны голоса
От каждого от колеса.

Бегут вагоны – длинный ряд –
И с паровозом говорят.

Первый: Вперёд, товарищ! Путь далёк

Перед тобой во мраке лёг.

Второй: Светите ярче, фонари,

До самой утренней зари!

Третий: Тогда закончим разговор,

Когда придём Синих гор.

My rather weak translation follows next:

…and so, Gek dreamt the strangest dream:

as though this very wagon came to life to breathe in steam

as though voices could be heard
from all wheels, ploughing through the dirt

The wagons, they raced on – and endless row –
and hailing their companion, cutting through the snow

1st Wagon: Onwards, comrades! A journey o so long

awaits us in the darkness, still so very strong

2nd Wagon: Shine bright, headlights

Till nighttime has died

3rd Wagon: We’ll catch up again, good as new

Right there and then; near Mountains-coloured-Blue

That’s an impressive surplus of words not found in the original. So yeah: I realize it’s probably too elaborate a translation. Perhaps I should try this one in Dutch instead?

…Gek had een hele vreemde droom:

‘t was of de wagons tot leven kom’n

Net of er stemmen hoorbaar werden
Vanuit het 1e wiel; ‘t 2e en ‘t derde

De wagons snelden voort – een lange rij –
Door de loco ook aangehoord, die zei

1e Wagon: Voorwaarts, kameraden! Een lange nachtelijke reis

ligt voor je rad’ren, te wachten in het avondgrijs.

2e Wagon: Schijn fel, blijf aan, lampen

dein snel totaan d’eerste dauwdampen.

3e Wagon: We spreken elkaar weer, moet je weten

als we zijn gearriveerd, bij die Blauwe Bergketen.

Regardless of anything, it goes to show that writing for children does pay off in the long run, even if one of those kids happens to be 29 years old by now. For those interested: I picked up this cute little book (and a few other ones like “Chuk & Gek“) in my local library. Apparently, they were printed in the 1970’s by a variety of national publishers – “Wolters Noordhoff” printed a few of them for distribution in the Netherlands, for instance. There’s three “difficulty” levels: A (easiest), B and C. “Chuk & Gek” rates as “A”, although I found it a bit more difficult to comprehend than “Bez svidetely” (“Without witnesses“), another “A”-level novel originally aimed at kids.

The best part of all: there’s NO translation included anywhere. You’re all on your own – it does make you feel like a Russian 6-year-old, judging from that perspective. The illustrations and footnotes probably won’t give a novice reader enough to go by, so keep a dictionary at hand. Try to practice your basic grammar skills during reading/translating as well. When you do encounter a poetic diversity like this “Talking Train” bit, praise yourself lucky and take your time to properly enjoy the experience. There’s so much to look forward to in Russian literature, you’re just getting warmed up here.

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