The Russophone reader will search in vain for a work by Nina Berberova entitled anything resembling “The Tattered Cloak.” Yet not only did I publish a long story by her under that title, but the volume in which it appeared, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991, used it as the title for the entire collection. I fear it is my fate—assuming a continuing interest in Nina Berberova, a much-praised but belatedly discovered Russian emigré writer—to be excoriated by generations of Russian scholars to come, who will assume I have taken an unconscionable liberty and foisted my own title on Berberova’s work.
Allow me to set the record straight.
My association with Berberova began in 1981, when Richard Sylvester asked me to co-translate, with him, Berberova’s biography of Moura Budberg,[*] a femme fatale somewhat Berberova’s senior who had been, successively, the mistress of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, the British representative to St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik revolution, then Maxim Gorky, and finally, in London, H.G. Wells—all the while possibly working as a spy. It did not take long for me to realize what a fine writer Berberova was and to wonder whether she had written fiction as well.
That conversation began with her assertion that although she had written fiction, she was done with fiction personally and her only interest now was in writing nonfiction (she subsequently updated and revised her autobiography, The Italics Are Mine, and also wrote a book about Russian Masons, Liudi i lozhi [Men and Masons], that has not been translated into English), but here was a volume of what she considered her best fiction and would I like to have it?
The book was Oblegchenie uchasti. Published by YMCA-Press in Paris in 1949, it consists of six long stories and forms the core of—but is not identical to—The Tattered Cloak. She considered it her most mature work of fiction. Several of these stories posed difficulties with respect to their titles, beginning with the title story.
The phrase oblegchenie uchasti has the general meaning of an “easing of fate,” but Berberova insisted on emphasizing the legal sense of “commutation,” even though the story, about a sleazy young emigré who makes a great success selling life insurance to Paris’s rich Russians by preying on their fear of death, has no direct connection to the justice system. After lengthy discussion, she approved my translation, “Sentence Commuted,” thus demonstrating her understanding that retaining grammatical forms from one language to another does not necessarily produce a sound translation. The original title consisted of two nouns: the first, “easing,” in the nominative, the second, “fate,” in the genitive, thus “commutation of fate.” Even if “fate” is replaced by “sentence,” the form is incomparably weaker in English than Russian. To give it more muscle in English, I cast the sense of the first word in a deverbalized form, thus “sentence commuted.” This type of change was well within my mandate as a translator; Berberova gave me the key to it, however, when she narrowed the associations of “commutation.” Another example of the superiority of the specific and concrete over the general and abstract.
The title “The Lackey and the Slut” (in Russian, lakei i devka) too, arose from extensive discussion with Berberova. In Russian the title is, if not shocking, then certainly blunt. The problem, oddly enough, was not with the second noun, which matched the Russian meaning well, but with the first, which covers a broader, or at least different, range of meanings than does the English word. A lakei is a “lackey” or “flunky,” but it is first a servant, even a footman, or, as here, a waiter. Indeed, the character in question is a waiter, so why didn’t I go with “The Waiter and the Slut”?
Although lakei can mean waiter, according to Berberova, that is not the word a Russian waiter in between-the-wars Paris would have used as a self-description; the word is old-fashioned and, in this context, demeaning. Secondly, lakei and devka have more equal weight in the original title, whereas “waiter” and “slut” create a decided imbalance. The former is almost neutral, the latter an insult.
So, although, English readers don’t know from the title that the man in question is a waiter—well, they find out soon enough. The story is about degradation, not restaurants.[†]
Now to the picaresque journey that led to the title “The Tattered Cloak.”
The last story in Berberova’s original collection was entitled, in Russian, “Plach.” After translating the story, at one of our many afternoons spent at her Princeton faculty apartment working out our questions for each other, I broached the issue of the title, which I suggested would have to be “The Lament,” or “The Wail,” or, God forbid, “The Moan.” Her original intent may have been to convey profound grief, but the effect in English was maudlin. Berberova saw my point immediately and proceeded to explain that, although she had used the word plach, her mental association had been to a similar-sounding word, plashch (cape, or cloak), a prominent image in the story. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I cheerfully changed the title to “The Cloak”—and thought we had seen an end to this problem.
The final set of stories based on this collection were first published in the U.K. in two volumes with perhaps the most bizarre titles I’ve ever encountered.[‡] After deciding to publish them in the States as a single volume, Knopf made two proposals for correcting the British misstep. First, what if we changed the title “The Cloak” (as it appeared in the U.K. edition) to “The Tattered Cloak”? Both Berberova and I readily agreed, as the image was lifted directly from the story. Second, how about making this the title of the whole collection?
Knopf's instincts were good. The hardcover edition came out in 1991, Vintage published it as a paperback in 1992, and since 2001 it has been available as a New Directions Classic. My reputation is as much in jeopardy as ever, but the story of at least one title is now on record.
[*] Nina Berberova, Moura: The Dangerous Life of Baroness Budberg, translated by Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
[†] The U.K. publisher was adamant that “lackey” would not work in British English, so the story in the U.K. edition is entitled “The Waiter and the Slut.”
[‡] Three Novels (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990) and Three Novels: The Second Volume (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991).