The Nose Transposed (paper)

The Nose Transposed

Henry Whittlesey

(Originally published by Intranslation at Brooklyn Rail)

Introduction: Transposition in general

A transposition moves an original narrative to a new context with each sentence of the transposed text standing in direct relation to the commensurate sentence in the original. A transposition might look like this example from The Nose by Nikolai Gogol:

Original and translation:

Иван Яковлевич, как всякий порядочный русский мастеровой, был пьяница страшный.

Ivan Yakovlevich, like every proper Russian master, was a raging alcoholic. (The Nose 3)


Michele, like many a good American professional, was a friendly contrarian. (The Nose Transposed 3, unpublished)

If solely the content is transposed, then the transposition will try to retain the original’s form (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, clauses, prepositions, length, etc.) as we see above. Should the transposition also shift the form, then the original structure will be replaced, but in each case, the correlation of sentence to sentence will remain (otherwise it would become an adaptation).

In a categorization of derivative works, a transposition would fall between a translation and an adaptation. Like a translation, it incorporates each segment, i.e. sentence of the original. But unlike a translation, it alters the content: It might cause a man in the original to become a woman, a barber to metamorphose into an esthetician, a servant to be transfigured to a doorman, etc. In this sense, the transposition resembles an adaptation in literature, with its palpable similarities to the original: Protagonists retain at least the specter of their identity, character and consciousness; the setting permits commensurate relationships, and often the plot is shifted to a different time and place. In adaptation, however, the correspondence of the final text to each segment of the original is often lost: Entire passages and scenes are added, eliminated, altered for the new context. In transposition, on the contrary, the shift and potential addition, subtraction or alteration is pursued systematically on the basis of each original segment (sentence), creating a new text on top of the original.[i]

It should also be noted that while we will examine a transposition from one language to another, the genre of transposition also includes texts shifted within one language, such as a Jane Austen novel moved to the twentyfirst century, and some transfers from one medium to another, e.g. novel to film or vice versa.[ii] Furthermore, although it stretches beyond the scope of this essay and my work to date, a transposition could also occur from image to text, or from any media with segments to another that furnishes parallel segments.

As in the essay on the transposition of Dead Souls by Gogol and Persuasion by Austen, I will unfold central aspects of a narrative to see their composition in transposition. These aspects include the transposition of character, of setting, of identity, the continuity of consciousness, and the intangibility of voice, each of which appears in the shadow of the aforementioned transposition process. (My reworking is one suggestion – think it just needs more authoritative rhetoric and precision) For a more general discussion of transposition in relation to translation and adaptation, please consult the essay titled A typology of derivatives: Translation, transposition, adaptation.

Again I have chosen a story, The Nose, by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. His narratives offer a potentially rich source for transposition because his style of writing differs vastly from contemporary American English. It also presents difficulties for contemporary American readers familiar with personal narration modeled on discourse, but forced in Gogol to peruse translations with lengthy, complex, detailed, descriptive, omniscient narration not defined by discourse. Finally, the content of opulent bureaucrats, nefarious landowners, and lazy servants seems to be something we can safely relegate to the distant past, dismissing them as irrelevant today. By having this content transposed, however, we are able to recognize the similarities between two seemingly disparate ages. Although the scope of this essay does not permit a comparison of a translation of The Nose with a transposition of it, such an analysis (different font, is that on purpose?) would also offer insight into essential and metaphorical aspects of the narrative.[iii]

A. The transposition of character

i. Essence and genes informing profession

A given character in the original reappears in transposition. The character may see a change in gender, habits, mentality and will certainly undergo such a change in appearance. But only in rare cases will a character vanish completely. Unable to escape, reject or liberate themselves from their pre-existing type, the transposed character tends to imitate their predecessor, leaving the foreordained core untouched. This divergence from mimetic translation harks back to the quest for artistic altitudo in the seventeenth century, which Thomas Steiner describes as the freeing of thought from the narrow problems of linguistic reproduction (61-62) (is this a quote or are you paraphrasing?). In French theory at the time, this type of translation offered greater sensibility for the target language and the audience, and entailed paraphrase, alteration and even reduction or addition (62-66), i.e. the components of a transposition of form. Although we are addressing a transposition of content here, the non-mimetic approach treats its subject matter, whether form or content, as immutable: “sense is so stable that ‘words’ cannot alter it beyond recognition.” (Warren 501) It is this sense or essence that the transposition seeks to distill (I prefer the common American spelling).

In my transposition of The Nose, the character Michele renders services to the protagonist Bill. The original by Gogol proffers a barber: Specifically, the barber shaves Bill three times a week. Our transposed protagonist needs to receive some regular services to maintain the structural parallel to the original. Could the original barber remain a transposed barber? Do men go for a shave at least once a week? Here in our working class Brooklyn neighborhood, barber shops actually still exist and are patronized (as compared to the tony Upper West Side of Manhattan), but the clients do not have a shave every week. For that, there is a razor on the bathroom vanity. Nonetheless, the barber must evolve into some kind of personal (or another word that is more specific) service provider.

If a direct correlation of professions is not possible for the transposition, then a parallel can be sought in the sense or essence of the character’s profession.[iv] In the original Nose, the barber deals with appearance. A parallel in terms of essence might find the barber becoming an esthetician. Not only does such a profession fall within the evolution of the beauty sector, but it also fits the context of The Nose where the barber/esthetician must regularly cater to the needs of a man in a profession where appearance is critical: politics/real estate.

By focusing on each segment of the original, a transposition is structurally trapped by the past, and commensurately its characters are trapped. Unlike an adaptation, which might release them through a radical change, the characters in transposition must live with their genes. They are not cloned as in a translation, but their genetic makeup shows traces of their progenitors directly or atavistically.

ii. Essence and circumstance informing transposition

The sentence- or segment-based requirements coupled with a shift in context often preclude a transposition of “genetic” evolution as we just saw. This is the case with the civil servant in the original Nose, who, if transposed to some sort of twentyfirst-century bureaucrat, would certainly not be on the street nearly as much as his ancestor. At the same time, the protagonist should be able to retain the essence of having a respected profession, though one that affords a greater degree of freedom than a pure office job.

In the original Nose, the protagonist is a bureaucrat living in a society that Gogol describes as having the following characteristics:

– job brings him into contact with many different people (4, 7)
– professionals, bureaucrats, women, officers are often on the street (4)
– decorum requires a certain physical appearance in conformity with the accepted standards[v] (4, 7, 12, 14)
– attainment of protagonist’s status is possible through two paths: practical experience (in the mountains) or formal education (school) (5)
– the prospect of promotion comes through networking (4)

These characteristics can be found in many professions today:  The transposition of such a bureaucrat to a real estate agent furnishes the following essential parallels:

– a real estate agent is in contact with different people
– a real estate agent must often leave his office (be on the street)
– physical appearance assumes great importance
– a real estate agent could gain his knowledge practicing (in Las Vegas) or formally (at school)
– the money in real estate offers additional prospects for the future

B. The transposition of setting

As The Nose was originally set in Russia, and this transposition takes place in America, it is necessary to shift all the places and references to places. Along the lines of the transposition of character, this act seeks intrinsic properties of the Russian places that will apply in the context of the transposition. Here are the properties of some significant places in The Nose:

Place                                                    Properties

Saint-Petersburg                                   Central, urban metropolis

Nevsky Prospekt                                  Common place where people randomly meet

Isakievsky Bridge                                 Prominent bridge in city

Kazansky Sobor                                   Public place people frequent in the morning and symbol of religion

The city, street and bridge bear intrinsic properties that appear universal and conventional. But as you can see, the properties of Kazansky Sobor do not necessarily conform to its main function(s). Independently, the cathedral (sobor) would be described above all as a place of worship or of rest or spirituality rather than a public place people frequent in the morning. What we see in this description of the church, is an intrinsic property already informed by the transposition. Kazansky Sobor gives the man who lost his nose (Kovalev) the opportunity to talk with the person his nose becomes. Its religious significance is secondary and becomes metaphorical. In twentyfirst-century America, a man who runs into his lost nose on the street in the morning will follow him to places that a businessman might enter before work and allow for an encounter.

With regard to these four settings in Gogol, we find the following parallels in twentyfirst-century America:

Saint-Petersburg -> New York

Idea: Setting needs to be shifted to English-speaking city that is large and prominent, similar to the city in the original

Nevsky prospect -> Broadway / Roadhouse bar; Isakievsky Bridge -> Brooklyn Bridge

Idea: Main street in nineteenth-century Russia should become main street in twentyfirst-century America or, in the event of meeting familiar people on it, a single place (see following caveat).

Caveat: In New York, there is no contemporary equivalent to Nevsky prospect in the nineteenth century. Essential aspects of the street at that time, which included the collecting of the aristocracy in one place at a certain hour (on the sunny side in the winter), lend the boulevard a unique socio-historical character. Consequently, the transposition reflects the decentralization of society as a whole, which likewise requires consideration with regard to meetings. Where the concentration of familiar people on Nevsky prospect takes precedence, a transposition to the twentyfirst century must shift to a specific regularly patronized place like the Roadhouse bar.

Church -> Bank

Context: A random morning encounter takes place in a frequented place.

Idea: Church was this frequented place in Gogol; today it must be a grocery store, deli/kiosk, mode of transportation, gym or bank – as discussed above – i.e. places that a businessman might enter before work and that allow for an encounter. Since a spiritual element is linked to this place in The Nose, it seemed appropriate to choose a parallel that has some relation to “worship,” i.e. the worship of money represented by the bank.

C. The transposition of consciousness

Often the characters and the narrator possess a mentality that is not far removed from contemporary consciousness. The relationship, however, is obscured by antiquated details from a bygone time. In transposing consciousness, by which I mean the mental processes of the characters and narrator, we discover these parallels.

An example of congruity is the influence of smell on an individual and the ability of a husband or wife to influence their partner through subtle acts. In the given transposition of The Nose, some of the details are altered: a man becomes a woman, while coffee and bread are replaced or shifted to cereal and bacon.. The updates have the effect of focusing our attention on the non-material, i.e. metaphysical aspects of the text – such as influence or sense or cultural peculiarities, etc. – phenomena that bear no less significance today than two hundred years ago.

i. Continuity: Difference and subtle guidance

The husband and wife’s dialogue (I prefer this spelling though I understand both are correct) at the beginning of Gogol’s short story reveals a mutual desire to air independence, but be guided and subtly consent to guidance by the other (please note: their roles are exchanged in this transposition, that is, the husband becomes the wife and vice versa). Michele/Ivan Yakovlevich (hereinafter Michele Yakovlevich when reference is made to the character both in the original and transposition) is influenced by her/his spouse through a kitchen smell. Michele Yakovlevich accepts this influence, but affirms her/his independence by preemptively rejecting coffee in the original and bacon in the transposition.


Приподнявшись немного на кровати, он увидел, что супруга его, довольно почтенная дама, очень любившая пить кофий, вынимала из печи только что испеченные хлебы.

— Сегодня я, Прасковья Осиповна, не буду пить кофию, — сказал Иван Яковлевич, — а вместо того хочется мне съесть горячего хлебца с луком.

(То есть Иван Яковлевич хотел бы и того и другого, но знал, что было совершенно невозможно требовать двух вещей разом, ибо Прасковья Осиповна очень не любила таких прихотей.) «Пусть дурак ест хлеб; мне же лучше, — подумала про себя супруга, — останется кофию лишняя порция». И бросила один хлеб на стол. (1)


Raising himself a little in bed, he saw that his wife, quite a respectable lady, who very much liked her cup of coffee, was taking just-baked loaves from the oven.

“Today, Praskovya Osipovan, I will not have coffee,” said Ivan Yakovlevich, “but instead I’d like to have some hot bread with onion.”

(That is, Ivan Yakovlevich would have like the one and the other, but he knew it was utterly impossible to ask for two things at the same time, for Praskovya Osipovna very much disliked such whims.) “Let the fool eat bread; so much the better for me,” the wife thought to herself, “there’ll be an extra portion of coffee left.” And she threw a loaf of bread on the table.


Propping herself against the backboard, she saw her husband, a fairly respected man who really loved to eat bacon, pouring the just boiled water through a filter.

“Today, my love, I’m not going to eat bacon,” said Michele. “Instead, I want to drink hot coffee with sugar.”

(That is, Michele would have liked both this and that, but she knew it was completely impossible to demand two things at once. Her husband Steve did not like such impulsiveness.) “That’s what I thought; better for me,” her husband said to himself. “I can have an extra portion of bacon.” And he plunked her mug on the table. (1)

By transposing the consumption of bread to coffee (and then coffee to bacon), we are not distracted by the materially different breakfast in Gogol’s time. Switching address from first name and patronymic to just the first name brings the form closer to contemporary practice in English. Shortening sentences attenuates the difficulties of comprehending the text. Yet maintaining each segment of the original ensures that among others, the “influence of smell” and the “ability to influence” surface in commensurate fashion to the original.

ii. Modification and the return of generalizations

At the moment in New York, no sooner have you opened your mouth to voice a generalization or stereotype when an interlocutor douses you with a bucket of cold-water exceptions to the approval of bystanders. Gogol’s universals, generalizations and stereotypes do have to be modified for a transposition to twenty-first-century America. Within the scope of the transposition genre, it would be possible to modify them to the point where they cease to assume their original general form, becoming particulars instead. But what if Gogol observes New York society and tosses some tongue-in-cheek universals into his neobaroque text? What might these be? Surely not something like all Russian masters are raging alcoholics as we briefly mentioned in the introduction:

Иван Яковлевич, как всякий порядочный русский мастеровой, был пьяница страшный.
(Ivan Yakovlevich, like every proper Russian master, was a raging alcoholic.)

In this generalization about professionals, the narrator reveals a mind that perceives the world according to schema (in the Kantian sense: a rule or principle that facilitates understanding). It classifies Michele Yakovlevich as a certain type similar to many others. Suddenly, in an age of individualism, Gogol or Gogol’s narrator exerts his authority from the past to declare that Michele is not the individual she may perceive herself to be. The claim is then followed by an example of her contrarian character.

Michele, like many a good American professional, was a friendly contrarian.

Here again, the modification of the original helps draw attention to the subject of generalizations. When reading the Russian original or its translation, we quickly dismiss to the past the narrator’s claim about all Russian masters especially during its exposition of Ivan’s shaking hands. We laugh and are amused at how they survived back then, but this only further distracts the reader from the potential plausibility and relevance of universals as at least a frame of reference for an age defined by duality. In particular, it draws us away from uniform personal narration. This structure mirrors the nineteenth century relationship between the omniscient narrator/author and their narrative, where the raconteur shifts from omniscience to showing and various positions in between in order to recount the story. In transposition, consequently, we enjoy a revival of former macro structures, as even an extensive transposition of form could not incorporate the alteration necessary to remove the duality of omniscient and personal narration. (Again, in general, it is possible, but then the narrative becomes an adaptation.)

iii. A specific example: Bill Kovalev’s consciousness

If we take a specific character, Kovalev from the original and Bill from the transposition (hereinafter Bill Kovalev), the transposed narrative exposes the similarities between ambitious urban men living almost two hundred years apart from each other. Here is a list of continuities:


– Waking up early, going brrrr with your lips, stretching, checking appearance in the mirror (3)
– Visiting places regularly (4)

Action in the wake of an unpleasant surprise

– Disbelief, check, shock, act (4)
– Return of disbelief, check (5)
– Repetition of cycle again after failure to resolve unpleasant surprise (13)

Description of individual person

– Difference between professional coming from academic institution and those learning by practice (4)
– Desire for status: naming yourself differently (4)
– Habit of going some place to be seen (4)
– Hair and clothing as significant signifier of type (4); professionals in different spheres look similar:
officer has hair that resembles protagonist’s (14)

Consciousness of impression on others

– Uncertainty about approach in addressing stranger (6)
– Recollection that women will be horrified when they realize he doesn’t have a nose (7)
– (Newspaper’s refusal to print classified due to liability and reputation concerns also symptomatic of this) (10)

Distraction from present state

– Sound instantly shifts focus of mind (6)

Anxiety about possibility

– Worry that something may happen in the future (Mr. Nose may run away) (8)
– What if the nose cannot be attached? (16)

Ordering in anger

– Urges cab driver (8)
– Yells at servant/doorman (13)
– Yells at nose (16)

Revealing truth does not help!

– Failure to influence despite proof of truth (11)
– Protagonist ignores advice of doctor (16)


– Places look different than before (13)

Illogical action taken on account of unpleasant surprise

– Departure for police (4)
– Editorial office/newspaper (8)
– Visits частный (left untranslated on purpose?)/FBI investigator (11)
– Accuses friend of causing his nose to disappear out of revenge (13, 17)

This long list of continuity describes the intrinsic congruity between Kovalev in the nineteenth century and Bill in the twentyfirst century using identical words for both epochs. In the length of this list, we see the broad extent of the similarities.

D. The transposition of identity

i. Change of identity

Who is Michele Yakovlevich? In the original, Ivan Yakovlevich is an alcoholic professional. Michele from the transposition is also a professional, but not an alcoholic. Why? A quirk in Ivan consists of being a professional whose hands shake from alcohol. Through the generalization that all good Russian professionals are alcoholics, we encounter a narrator who perceives widespread acceptance of this phenomenon. This narrator in twentyfirst-century America does not share the same opinion due to the new context. We find lots of quirks in American professionals, but Michele reflects a phenomenon as widespread in our contemporary society as alcoholic barbers were in Saint-Petersburg (including by Gogol’s narrator): Michele is a mystical (not sure if mystical is right, did you mean friendly?) contrarian. Here we see the transposition of this repeatedly mentioned aspect:

Иван Яковлевич, как всякий порядочный русский мастеровой, был пьяница страшный.

Ivan Yakovlevich, like every proper Russian master, was a raging alcoholic. (my translation)


Michele, like many a good American professional, was a friendly contrarian.
In the original, furthermore, a regular state of intoxication leaves Ivan Yakovlevich wondering if the nose has ended up in his bread because he was drunk yesterday (2). Michele (his character transposed) wonders if the nose has ended up in her muesli because she was possessed yesterday. Between these two examples, the character trait that passes through multiple passages in direct or indirect reference to alcohol is lost. It is replaced by a common peculiarity accepted in contemporary society. Hence, the transposition of identity in the case of a change in that identity may mean a parallel of this kind from consistent alcoholic Ivan to contrarian Michele. As a result, consistency in narration commensurate with the barber will also be transposed to a type of narration that is commensurate with a contrarian. Against the backdrop of the sign in her salon’s window (Tarot card reading) and the names her husband calls her (sadist, fiend, sorceress), traits of a commonplace profession and a peculiar mindset parallel the original, even if the specific material differs.

Another example of this is Michele Yakovlevich’s clothing and appearance.  Ivan’s appearance and dress reinforce the implied years of drinking: He does not pay attention to either. Michele, true to her contrarian character, does not attend to her face, but dresses as if she did:


Ivan is a barber who never shaves, but shaves others daily. (3)
Michele is an esthetician who never receives her own facial treatments/masks/peels (not sure what a 4 layer facial is, let me know if you want something more specific than the suggestions above)


Ivan’s clothing is dirty from his profession and missing buttons. (3)

Michele’s clothing is ordinary, sexy and reveals pants buttons (don’t think this works, how about “tailored, steamed and pressed” or “bespoke/tailored and clinic white” as professional estheticians often wear white lab coats)

ii. Modification of identity

At various points in the original, the bureaucrat Kovalev is aggressive and rude to service providers like carriage drivers and servants, calling them names such as мошеник, свинья (translation?) and treating them as inferiors. In the transposition, Bill is also aggressive, but does not call them derogatory names (8, 13). Sometimes the modification entails a division into context-based plausible possibilities. This is necessary when something from the past no longer assumes a similar position in the context of the transposed composition.  For example, Kovelev’s servant becomes either a service provider, neighbor or even a conversation with oneself, whatever is plausible as a substitute in the given context of a real-estate agent without a team of hired domestic staff (13, 19, in general).

Bill Kovalev has no issue with actors criticizing professions other than his, but he speaks about the movies instead of the theater (12). The transposition furnishes a form of popular entertainment in harmony with the respective time.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in Bill’s understanding of himself. Practical experience forms the basis of his knowledge. For Kovalev, it is a few years in the Caucasus, while for Bill, it consists of work in Las Vegas. In Kovalev’s case, an academic foundation is absent. And almost two hundred years later, Bill is basically lacking it, too. Since the transposed Bill hasn’t been in the army, which is the start of Kovalev’s career, the parallel was moved from the Caucasus to Las Vegas, where he gained practical experience as a real estate agent.

iii. Retention of identity

In many instances, the transposition retains the identity of the original character without any or much modification. Bill, just like Kovalev, is proud of his profession (4), wants to look important (4), likes flirting with women (4, 7), wants to have a career, hence the move to a metropolis (5). These character traits are contiguous with the present day in this context. Others surface as well: Bill Kovalev wears nice clothing and has his hair cut in the fashionable way, albeit the details differ here (4). Bill is sensitive (12). Failure alters Bill Kovalev’s apprehension of his surroundings (12, however the details are transposed on account of the different context). When Bill loses his nose, he hopes for a miracle – the return of his nose – when all other options are exhausted (13). He also takes extreme measures – writing and accusing a friend of witchery (13, 17). Then there is joy in response to a miracle (14). Frustration at the realization that a problem is not resolved (15, 16). Later, with regard to the incident of a lost nose, scuttlebutt spreads (18). Finally, Bill Kovalev celebrates in the wake of the miracle (19, 20, 21).

E. The intangibility and alteration of the narrator’s voice

Although distinctions in the voice of the narrator show up in translation, it is difficult for American readers to distinguish e.g. between Gogol, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy’s style in translation, despite it being as clear as the difference between Jane Austen and Elizabeth Inchbald. Largely, this problem is due to the inevitable clumsiness of a translation, which at best (or worst, according to the literal school of translation[vi]) sounds awkward. One or two degrees of awkwardness are ignored in a fleeting critique: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy exhibit an identically complicated, longwinded style of writing, according to the reader of translation. By nature, translations also have great difficulty with wordplay. As Eichenbaum writes in How Gogol Created The Overcoat articulation, mimic and sounds play a defining role in the development of Gogol’s plot.[vii] Names are particularly important as are the shifts between humor, absurdity and seemingly conflicting pedantic declarations.[viii] In translation, the transliteration of the Russian names is the most common approach, and loses the etymological relationship between name and its signified.

In transposition, the degree to which the narrator and/or character’s voice is retained offers more flexibility. Depending on the requirements, the original can be substantially altered to accommodate the original’s voice. Irrespective of the scope of these changes, the original’s structure and orientation (position of narrator, point of view, etc.) continue to set boundaries in transposition like a template for a document. Although the transposition of The Nose attempts to retain the original’s form as much as possible in the narration, there are situations that required a shift in sentence structure. Nonetheless, through the modernization of individual sentence structure, but not the perspective or the structure of the paragraph in The Nose, the idiomatic features of Gogol’s voice are apparent:

– Descriptive, objective, omniscient narrator, with infrequent familiar address to reader
– Objective narration mixed with implausible events
– Light irony and humor

Let us examine a specific passage:

Он решился идти к Исакиевскому мосту: не удастся ли как-нибудь швырнуть его в Неву?.. Но я несколько виноват, что до сих пор не сказал ничего об Иване Яковлевиче, человеке почтенном во многих отношениях. (2) (translation?)

In this sequence, the narrator’s descriptive approach is reflected in sentences such as «Он решился идти…» and «Этот почтенный гражданин находился…» (translation?) where the narrator, similar to a stage director, moves the actors here and there. Both this directing and the address of the reader «Но я несколько вниоват…», (translation) followed by comprehensive characterization of the protagonist, showcase the omniscience of the narrator’s position.

Here is the passage in transposition:

The Brooklyn Bridge? It seemed likely she would be able to toss the bag in the East River there… But I am somewhat at fault here for not yet saying anything about Michele, a respected woman in many senses. (2)

First, we notice a slight attenuation of the descriptive approach by shifting the narration of «Он решился идти…» to the discourse of “The Brooklyn Bridge?” (this is (different font “this is” necessitated by what would otherwise be an intolerable repetition of  subject-verb-object across multiple sentences). This also reduces the omniscience. Against the backdrop of twentyfirst-century American literary fiction, with its preference for personal narration and sparse stage-directing, replacement of an occasional passage of narration with discourse facilitates the reading of a work and does not alter the overall impression of omniscience or the descriptive approach. Furthermore, such discourse is also found in Gogol (page 4/4: «нет носа» / “no nose”; page 11/11: «есть ли при нем синяя ассигнация» / “Does/Did he have a blue nose”; etc.). As in the original, the personal address of the reader “But I am somewhat at fault…” in transposition has a similar effect of emphasizing the aforementioned aspects of omniscience and description.

The narrator’s interweaving of objective narration and implausible events correlates in transposition. We see the parallel in the rumors related to Bill Kovalev’s nose:

Всем этим происшествиям были чрезвычайно рады все светские, необходимые посетители раутов, любившие смешить дам, у которых запас в то время совершенно истощился. Небольшая часть почтенных и благонамеренных людей была чрезвычайно недовольна. Один господин говорил с негодованием, что он не понимает, как в нынешний просвещенный век могут распространяться нелепые выдумки, и что он удивляется, как не обратит на это внимание правительство. Господин этот, как видно, принадлежал к числу тех господ, которые желали бы впутать правительство во всё, даже в свои ежедневные ссоры с женою.  (19)

These events were celebrated by all the essential members of upper-class clubs, who loved to confound the women whose reserves were running low at this time. A small number of respected and well-intentioned people were very dissatisfied. One woman said with displeasure that she did not understand how such dumb ideas could spread in today’s enlightened age, and she was surprised that the regulators were not paying attention to it. This woman, as we see, belonged to the group of those citizens who wanted to involve officials in everything, even in the daily arguments between couples.

The narrator emphasizes his omniscience by summarizing the views of diverse people in society. Similar to a report requiring objectivity, he outlines one group’s position, then another’s. For the latter, he paraphrases a person’s words «Как не обратит на это внимание правительство» (translation?). The author of the report inserts some contextual information: «Господин принадлежал к числу…» (translation?) Irony is sensed in the upper class’s joy at baffling nervous people and probably the desire to have the (incompetent) government look into the matter (narrator’s implied view: as if that would solve anything).

Despite changing some words, altering the form and completely shifting the context, each of these aspects surfaces from the original of the palimpsest and extends to the nuances of stressed socialites (reserves running dry) and the expectation for help from an incompetent source (the government), which is in turn reflective of a mentality that submits to and desires authority.

Regarding Gogol’s wit, we might revert back to the change of a “raging alcoholic” to a “contrarian.” The transposition does weaken the humor of the original. Yet this alteration of voice, which is required by the transposition’s context, also illuminates a significant difference between contemporary America and nineteenth century Russia: For all the apparent physical diversity in today’s society, the demands placed on the individual entail conformity to sober, orderly behavior with little trace of absurdity (exempting the length to which we go in an effort to stimulate). On the other hand, where we continue to evince independence, difference or diversity, is in our opinions, attitudes or views. This I would term mental diversity, even to the point of illogic (where we disagree for the sake of disagreeing, asserting our individuality), as opposed to the previous behavioral conformity. Hence the transposition here draws our attention to this type of change over time.


One of the central features of a transposition is the duality of cause for effect. The transposed sentence, i.e. the segment, does not represent the product of one primary cause, but rather two. It is shaped by the past context and segment as well as the contemporary context and possibilities for the segment. On the one hand, the constitution of such segments entails a high degree of uncertainty about source due to this dual influence which may also be amplified by intercontextual factors such as the circumstances of the narrative itself. On the other hand, the segment reflects the palpable existence of duality in any given phenomenon due to its history rooted in a different time, but interpreted in ours. One might also draw a parallel to indirect discourse in order to understand the nature of the transposed segment: In most indirect discourse we find a mixture of the narrator and character’s idiom, which has ignited an extensive debate in literary circles on the mode of this discourse. With the transposed segment, the original signified is as murky as a statement in indirect discourse: We know absolutely what the original segment is (as opposed to an original narrative where we do not know exactly which house or rock or tree the narrator is describing), but we encounter different details depending on whether the source is the original segment or the contemporary context or an inner-textual relationship. Transposition teems with uncertainties. There is no single cause.

Works cited

Augustine. De doctrina christiana. Trans. R.P.H. Green. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Bayley, John. “A New Dostoevsky?” The New York Review of Books. June 13, 1991.

Bowman, Herbert. “The Nose.” The Slavonic and East European Review. Vol. 31 No. 76 (December 1952) 204-211. Online. Accessed: March 20, 2012.

Гоголь, Николай. Нос

Gogol, Nikolai. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Steiner, Thomas and Langer, Suzanne. “Precursors to Dryden: English and French Theories of Translation in the Seventeenth Century.” Comparative Literature Studies. Vol. 7. No. 1 (March 1970). 50-81. Online. Accessed: April 11, 2012.

Warren, Michelle. “Translating Literary History.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol. 110 No. 4 (October 2011). 489-515.

Эйхенбаум, Б.М. «Как сделана «шинель» Гололя».


[i] The mutability of a derivative has been discussed since the Middle Ages. As Michelle Warren quotes Coldiron “for late medieval translators, such as Caxton, ‘acculturation’ disseminates knowledge to a broader audience than would be reached by other languages in England… Caxton’s occasional excuses and invitations to correction cast translation as provisional and perfectible (Warren 501).”

[ii] To date, a pure transposition within one language does not exist to my knowledge. I have attempted a still unpublished transposition of Austen’s Persuasion interwoven with Gogol’s Dead Souls.

[iii] Augustine discusses this at length in book two of De Doctrina Christiana with regard to the different translations of scripture: “Obscure passages are often clarified by the inspection of several manuscripts, like the passage in Isaiah rendered by one translator as ‘and do not despise the household of your own seed’, but by another as ‘do not despise your own flesh’. Each one confirms the other. One is explained by the other, because ‘flesh’ can be taken literally – so that one may consider this a warning not to despise one’s own body – and ‘household of your seed’ can be metaphorically understood as ‘Christians’, those spiritually born with us from the same seed of the word. But when the ideas of the translators are compared a more plausible idea suggests itself: that the command is literally about not despising your kinsfolk…” (Augustine 73). In light of transposition, the translations complement each other and thereby help with interpretation. The transposition as compared to the translation of an original passage would support a similar clarification of the original’s sense, essence or metaphysical character through the reading of translations and transposition to understand the author or character’s position with regard to the given statement.

[iv] While the term sense draws on Augustine’s distinction between “sense for sense” and “word for word” translation, Aristotle treats different languages as variable expressions of mental concepts that are themselves universal. (Warren 497)

[v] See Bowman’s essay “The Nose” for an analysis of the story with regard to the theme of appearance (206-7).

[vi] Bayley, John. “A New Dostoevsky?”  The New York Review of Books. June 13, 1991.

[vii] Eichenbaum writes: «…в ней (Шинели) комический сказ, со всеми свойственными Гоголю приемами языковой игры, соединен с патетической декламацией, образующей как бы второй слой.» (t?)

[viii] On Gogol’s approach in general, Eichenbaum continues: «…логическая абсурдность замаскирована еще обилием подробностей, отвлекающих внимание в сторону; каламбур не выставлен на показ, а наоборот — всячески скрыт, и потому комическая сила его возрастает.»(t?)