Nabokov vs. Набоков: A Literary Investigation of Linguistic Relativity

Published: October 19, 2010

I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he re ads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that’s about all.
—Vladimir Nabokov, from a BBC television interview, July 1962

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his autobiography in English. He published it piecemeal in The New YorkerThe Atlantic MonthlyThe Partisan Review, and Harper’s. He collected these chapters and published them under the unifying title Conclusive Evidence in 1951. In 1953, he published a similar autobiography, reliving many of the same memories—though sometimes in quite different ways. This book was called Drugie berega [Other Shores], written and published in Russian. In Speak, Memory (1967), he used some of the emendations from Drugie berega and ignored others. Speak, Memory was his last autobiography in any language. Nabokov describes Speak, Memory in its foreword as a “re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place” (12). Nabokov labels none of these inter-lingual changes “translations.” Instead, something in the essence of his recollections makes them “Russian memories,” and to get those memories into English, he must re-tell or even “re-English” them, while getting them to fit back into the Russian language requires a “re-version.” All this from an author who claims he does not think in any language (SO 14).

Nabokov’s autobiographies in Russian and in English are indeed quite different. Based on the sentence from Speak, Memory‘s foreword quoted above, we can assume that some of those differences are based on the language of creation. Other factors, such as two very different readerships and a drastic change in Nabokov’s reputation (Lolita appeared between Drugie berega and Speak, Memory), affect Nabokov’s writing in each. The present study recognizes this, but offers a framework for identifying which differences are directly related to language.

The impetus behind this investigation arises out of basic questions about the interplay between the language of creation and the literary output. Elizabeth Beaujour in her book Alien Tongues: Russian Bilingual Writers of the “First” Emigration asks, for example, why the memoirs of bilingual writers like Nabokov and Julien Green diverge drastically when nothing but the language changes (45). When Green says, “writing in English, I had become another person,” what metamorphosis does he have in mind (Green quoted in Beaujour 46)? Though the present study does not answer this question, it does analyze the differences in the English- and Russian-language works of a bilingual author as a step toward an analytical methodology. By keeping the literary mind constant, and isolating the differences caused primarily by language, we can better understand how, if at all, the language of creation influences literary production.

To isolate differences caused by language from those caused by extra-linguistic factors, we must identify those words which have a significant impact on expression of thought throughout that language. The work of theoretical semanticist Anna Wierzbicka provides a methodology toward this goal. In her book, Understanding Cultures through Their Key Words (1997), Wierzbicka isolates several culturally significant terms from each of five languages. She works with published usages of each word to distill all its shades of meaning down to a set of semantic primitives. Semantic primitives are words or phrases which cannot be further simplified, and whose meaning putatively remains unvaried even when translated, e.g. “I want” is semantically no different from “yo quiero,” “je veux,” or “ia khochu.” Each shade of meaning contained in a key word bears out in its explication, so that the set of semantic primitives that can define freedom, for instance, will not be the same set used to define svoboda, the Russian translation of freedom. By exploring the differences in the meanings of the key words used in different languages, we can thus better understand the cultures which use these languages as their primary means of expression.

Using Wierzbicka’s methodology, I have isolated and analyzed two key words which define the central themes of both Speak, Memory and Drugie berega. In my analyses of these words, I have relied on dictionaries, published usages, recognized linguistic corpuses, the reported opinions of native speakers, and my own intuitions. It is my hope that the subtle inter-lingual differences revealed in these analyses will help explain some of the less-than-subtle differences between Nabokov’s two autobiographies. The two pairs I have chosen are: (1) homeland – rodina; and (2) childhood – detstvo.[1] Perhaps other pairs could have been chosen, but these are the most relevant to this specific line of analysis.

1a. Homeland

In English, “homeland” is not a key word. It appears only five times in Kučera and Francis’s corpus of one million running words of English text (synonyms appear even less frequently: “motherland” appears once, and “fatherland” does not appear at all).[2] To the American English speaker, “homeland,” “motherland,” and “fatherland” sound like translations.[3] When spoken in English, it seems to refer to “the old country” or the birthplace of an immigrant. Weaker bonds tie Americans and perhaps even the British to their countries than those which tie other nationalities to their homelands. This is the case for two reasons. First, little hereditary ties us to our place of birth; second, no history has significantly strengthened that bond.

The concept of “homeland” as developed in other countries ties together nation (ethnic group) and state (political entity) in a way that seems impossible for Americans. Two essential elements in Wierzbicka’s explications of concepts glossed as “homeland” in other European languages are: “I was born here” and “I am like a part of this country” (Wierzbicka 196). These two are rarely as closely tied in English-speaking countries as they are in states with lesser traditions of immigration. In a situation where a German would answer, “I am German,” and a Pole, “I am Polish,” a person born in America to German and Polish parents is as likely to say, “I am German” or “I am Polish” as he is to say, “I am American.” Few Americans will say, “there is a part of me which makes me American;” rather, the American nationality is a coincidence of birthplace. As a nation of immigrants, the place of our birth rarely correlates with a feeling of belonging. Belonging is more likely to spring from a separate identification with a racial, ethnic, or religious subgroup without any immediate correlation to place. Any feeling we might have of being Americans could spring from an identification with political ideologies, a pride in our history, or a simple recognition of our citizenship. Claiming to be an American, however, rarely ties something inherent in the citizen to something intrinsic in the country.

Furthermore, the English language exists on isolated landmasses, with most largely protected from invasion. At no time since the Norman Invasion has any stronghold of the English language been physically invaded. During outside threats, language groups require a name by which to rally behind the defended land. In Russia, World War II, which in that country is known as the Great Patriotic War, caused an increase in the incidence of the terms rodina and otechestvo, both glossed as “homeland” in English. The United States’ experience in World War II was different, however. Without any real threat to American soil, soldiers often fought to “save Europe” or to “protect democracy abroad” instead of dying “za rodinu” [for the homeland], as Russian soldiers did. Even during the blitzkrieg, the Nazis never threatened to violate England’s sovereignty in the same way as they had Russia’s borders.

Homeland, then, becomes a muddled concept which evokes translated novels and translated ideas. Rarely is the word applied by native speakers to a country where English is the dominant language spoken. This, at least in part, explains this word’s remarkably low frequency. My explication in something approaching Wierzbicka’s semantic primitives follows:

(a)   this is a country
(b)   someone else was born there
(c)   that person is like part of that country
(d)   that person no longer lives there
(e)   that country is an important part of that person’s identity
(f)    that person often thinks about that country
(g)   when that person thinks about that country s/he feels something good
(h)   that person is like other people in that country
(i)    that person may not return to that country
(j)    that person could not feel this way about any other country

1b. Rodina

In contrast to the English “homeland,” the Russian word rodina appears frequently in the modern language. According to Zasorina’s 1977 corpus based on one million running words, rodina has a frequency of 172.[4] The word appears frequently in spoken language as well as in official contexts, especially in Soviet-era propaganda.

The word shares its root rod- with rodnoi (native or one’s own) and with rodit’sja (to be born). Indeed, the concept of birth is essential to the word’s meaning. In a survey of Khar’kov university students, 72% identified rodina as “the country (or territory) where one was born” (qtd. in Wierzbicka 192). In addition, many respondents mentioned the “familiar character of rodina, as a place where everything is ‘rodnoe, blizkoe, poniatnoe i privychnoe’ (that is, roughly speaking, [one’s own], close to one’s heart, understandable, and accustomed)” (Wierzbicka 192). Wierzbicka claims that rodina carries no implicit duties, which she assigns to the rough Russian synonym, otechestvo. However, Russian speakers[5] with whom I have spoken consistently rate their duty to defend their rodina as more important than their duty to defend their otechestvoRodina nurtures like a mother and when rodina-mat’ zovet [mother-rodinacalls], as she often did from World War II-era Soviet propaganda posters, you are expected to defend her as you would your own mother. This minor disagreement with Wierzbicka has necessitated my addition of point (i) below. The rest of the full explication is Wierzbicka’s[6]:

(a)   a country
(b)   I was born in this country
(c)   I am like a part of this country
(d)   I couldn’t be like a part of any other country
(e)   when I think about this country I feel something good[7] (f)    I think something like this when I think about this country:
(g)   this country is like a person
(h)   this country does good things for me, like a mother does good things for her children
(i)    I should help this country whenever it needs me
(j)    I know everything in this country[8] (k)   I am like other people in this country
(l)    when I am in this country I feel something good
(m)  I couldn’t feel like this in any other country

2a. Childhood

OED defines “childhood” primarily as “…the time from birth to puberty.” I disagree that childhood starts at birth. English has the word “infancy” to designate the time of the strictest dependence on the mother. Childhood, then, starts at about four years, the time of our earliest memories. The concept of childhood is, in fact, deeply tied to that of memory. When “childhood” is used as an attributive adjective, it often modifies the word “memories.” In fact, “childhood memories” is one of the most common collocations involving childhood (Kjellmer 574). Other attributive phrases like “childhood games” are not equivalent to “children’s games.” The latter means “games for children,” while the former means something closer to “games we remember playing during our childhood.” Thus, childhood starts not with birth, but with our first memory.

I would also argue that “childhood” is essentially reminiscent. We understand “childhood” as a concept after we outgrow it. The statement *”I am having a good childhood”[9] seems absurd. Statements like “she died in childhood,” though possible, sound like unedited versions of “she died when she was a child,” or errors in “she died in childbirth.” One cannot “die in childhood,” if childhood is a concept that has no meaning until one can reminisce about it.

“Childhood” also belongs to a relatively small class of nouns ending in the suffix -hood. These nouns include “father-,” “mother-,” “brother-,” “sister-,” “priest-,” “adult-,” “woman-,” “man-,” and “neighborhood.” This list provides a few clues to the interpretation of “childhood” in the context of this group. First, it seems that stages of life are important. No life can be monopolized by one of these concepts. In other words, no one can be in fatherhood, priesthood, adulthood, etc. for his entire life. All words in this category are transitory. Second, all terms in this list have positive connotations. Notice the absence of *lunatichood or *villainhood. Third, if we analyze the list’s final term, “neighborhood,” we understand that the suffix has less to do with interpersonal relations than with a certain collectivization. Everything in the -hood is exclusive from everything outside. All neighbors are in their -hood, just as all children are in theirs, separate from those outside their collective community. “Neighborhood” also points out the physical orientation of this group of words. Almost all of these words can take the physical verb “to enter into.” (“Neighborhood” requires a definite article, while *”to enter into brother-/sister-/childhood” are impossible, because these states of being require no agency from the one entering into them. Notice, however, that we can talk about “the end of childhood” by metaphorical extension as though it were a physical area with a distinct boundary.) This collective aspect of the suffix “-hood” allows us to talk about “their childhood,” while *”their childhoods” sounds less than standard without additional context (e.g. the title of a 1979 book, Growing Up in Minnesota: Ten Writers Remember their Childhoods, highlights that each writer’s childhood experiences were distinct from the others’).

An important distinction between “childhood” and nearly all the other “-hoods” illuminates another subtlety. With the exception of “neighborhood,” no other word ending in “-hood” can be qualitatively assessed. We can speak of a “bad childhood” or a “healthy childhood,” but any qualitative assessment of “fatherhood,” “brotherhood,” etc. is semantically unacceptable. (Note the exception that when “brotherhood” means fraternity or society, one can speak of a “strong brotherhood.”) We can also speak of “my childhood” or of “childhood” as a concept, whereas with the possible exception of “my adulthood” (?)[10] other words from this category work only as concepts. Therefore, “childhood” is both personal and conceptualized. It is rarely used in the plural.

I would further contend that, based on the abundance of family forms ending in the suffix “-hood,” we can deduce that “childhood” also has a family component. Childhood is that time when family looks after one’s well-being more closely than ever. The end of childhood, as defined by OED, is puberty. Puberty seems perfectly logical for two reasons. First, in puberty we are able to reproduce, and in no physiological way are we guaranteed to be the youngest generation. Once we can physically have children, we can no longer be in childhood. Being the youngest generation in a familial setting seems equally essential to the meaning of “childhood,” just as the definitions of many of the other “-hood” words depend on their relations to others, especially to other family members. Second, during puberty we gain an awareness of our sexual nature. In a very important sense, we lose our innocence. (At this point, I would argue, childhood branches into girl- and boyhood, later to become woman- and manhood.) Innocence, then, becomes an essential part of “childhood” as a concept.

All these considerations lead us to the following explication of “childhood:”

(a)   a time in life
(b)   this time started with my first memory
(c)   this time ended with puberty
(d)   I can understand this time only after it has ended
(e)   I can talk about this time only after it has ended
(f)    at this time I felt like everyone else who was in this time
(g)   my experience at this time could have been good or bad
(h)   at this time I should have been protected by my family
(i)    at this time I should have been innocent

2b. Detstvo

The Slovar’ sovremennogo russkogo literaturnogo iazyka defines detstvo as “from infancy to adolescence.” There seems to be no reason based on the meaning of “detstvo” to doubt this definition. This definition is similar to that for the English-language term “childhood,” although a person’s first memory defines the lower boundary of English “childhood,” while there seems to be significantly less evidence for such a boundary in the Russian detstvo.

The Russian sentence on umer v detstve [“he died in childhood”] is preferable to on umer, kogda on byl malen’kim [lit. “he died when he was a child”]. Native speakers do not even prefer the more elegant on umer rebenkom [“he died as a child”] and feel that dying during detstvo in no way precludes an understanding of that time of life as a concept. In other words, detstvoexists independently of the reminiscent aspect which is necessary in its English gloss. Furthermore, Russian derives no adjectival form from detstvo and therefore the term cannot be used attributively. Instead it must be replaced by detskij, which shares only the root det- with detstvo. This adjective carries no reminiscent weight and can be translated into English as the attributive “childhood” (detskie vospominaniia “childhood memories”) or the possessive “children’s” (detskie igry “children’s games”). Thus, we see that the necessary reminiscent aspect of the English term is not as deeply ingrained in the Russian.

However, the Russian word seems to emphasize the collective aspect of this time of life even more than its English counterpart. Detstvo ends with a very common –stvo suffix. This suffix is one of the two most common endings for abstract nouns and therefore does not allow any of the same types of deductions as the “-hood” suffix allowed in English. One of the peculiarities of detstvo, however, is a result of this suffix: nouns ending in –stvo do not often take the plural. Detstvo is no exception; this word cannot be pluralized. Thus, every child must exist in the same detstvo because no matter how different experiences in detstvo are, a speaker of Russian cannot separate his detstvo from his friend’s by using a plural form. For the same reason, native speakers of Russian invariably prefer u menya detstvo bylo schastlivoe [lit. “unto me childhood was happy,” closer to the English, “for me childhood was happy”] to moe detstvo bylo schastlivoe [“my childhood was happy”]. Using a possessive pronoun for detstvo strikes the Russian ear as sub-standard, further emphasizing a collective aspect of detstvo.

The Russian language judges detstvo by a different set of criteria than English judges “childhood.” While in English we often talk about a “good/bad childhood” or a(n) “un/healthy childhood,” Russian gravitates towards emotional modifiers. The first five collocations listed in the Uchenyi slovar’ sochetaemosti slov russkogo iazyka are schastlivoeradostnoebezradostnoetrudnoetiazheloe [“happy,” “joyful,” “joyless,” “difficult,” and “trying”]. This dictionary lists no collocations with khoroshee or plokhoe [“good” or “bad”], or with any other unemotional qualitative modifier. In my own investigations, native speakers of Russian invariably preferred schastlivoe detstvo to khoroshee detstvo. A positive detstvo seems to depend almost solely on the presence of emotions like happiness or joy.

The Slovar’ sovremennogo russkogo literaturnogo iazyka says that detstvo, like English “childhood,” ends at puberty. For the same reasons that this boundary was logical in English, it is logical in Russian. This leads us to consider both family and innocence as necessary features of detstvo. Furthermore, the collocation, lishit’ detstva [to deprive (someone) of childhood], usually means to deprive someone of either innocence or a position as family dependent.

Based on these important distinctions, I explicate the term detstvo as follows:

(a)   a time in life
(b)   this time follows infancy
(c)   this time ends with puberty
(d)   everyone in this time experiences this time
(e)   at this time I had a lot in common with everyone else in this time
(f)    when I think about my experience at this time I think:
(g)   this time was good if I was happy
(h)   this time was bad if I was not happy
(i)    at this time I was under the protection of adults
(j)    at this time I was innocent


After explicating these two sets of terms, we turn now to Nabokov’s two autobiographies, Drugie berega and Speak, Memory. The first of these was written by Nabokov, the Russian-language narrator, the second by Nabokov, the English-language narrator. In this section, I will select passages in which each of the relevant concepts (homeland/rodina, or childhood/detstvo) appears as a major theme. I will analyze these passages in the Russian and in the English (if parallel passages exist) to tease out salient differences. Nabokov’s Russian-language narrator and his English-language narrator often tint these and other key themes differently. I will investigate these differences according to the semantic explications delineated above. A more Russian-language treatment of themes in Drugie berega coupled with a more English-language treatment in Speak, Memory would suggest that Nabokov’s narrators are, at least to some extent, influenced by the language of creation.

Rodina/homeland appears often as a theme in both Speak, Memory and Drugie berega. Both explicit appearances of the word rodina and implicit appearances as a concept provide ample fodder for careful scrutiny of the interplay between Nabokov and his creative languages. Because rodina is by far the more frequently used term in the pair, I have begun with the 10 phrases where rodina appears in Drugie berega. For each of these phrases, Nabokov chooses a different English language equivalent. The following table charts the appearances of rodina in Drugie berega on the left, with their equivalents in Speak, Memory on the right:

Table 1
Drugie berega Speak, Memory
page chapter.section Usage page chapter.section Usage
20 1.4 vostorg vozvrashcheniia k rodine 28 1.4 returned to St. Petersburg
61 3.6 toska po rodine 73 3.5 Nostalgia
108 4.8 uterianaia rodina 115 5.7 her own lost homeland
182 10.2 na ego vtoroi rodine 201 10.2 in his adopted country
213 11.4 poteria rodiny 245 12.4 loss of my country
216 11.4 toska po rodine 250 12.5 Homesickness
223 12.2 nyne on u sebia na rodine krupnyi uchenyi 262 13.3 Today he is not unknown among his peers
228 12.3 na rodine futbola 267 13.4 in the England of my youth
232 12.5 tosku po rodine 271 13.5 Nostalgia
236 13.1 na novoi moei rodine 275 14.1 in my adopted country


Only once does Nabokov use “homeland” in English where he used rodina in Russian (SM 115DB 48) and only to refer to a non-native speaker of English talking about a country where English is not spoken—to Nabokov’s French governess as she waxes nostalgic about her time in Russia as if it were “her own lost homeland” (115). Furthermore, the very modifier “lost” for homeland aligns this particular usage with the explication of “homeland” above.

The English concept country lacks the personal implications of the Russian rodina. Therefore, when Nabokov translates rodina as “country” above, he modifies it with the participle “adopted”—from a verb primarily associated with familial relations—to emphasize the familial relationship implicit in the Russian concept of rodina (SM 201, 275). When he is unable to use “adopted,” Nabokov compensates with strong possessive undertones in “loss of my country” (SM 245). “Loss” implies past possession, while the possessive pronoun (absent in Russian) approximates the stronger bond implied by rodina. On three occasions, Nabokov declines even to attempt an English approximation, and in three others, he translates the stock phrase “toska po rodine” as “nostalgia” or “homesickness;” here I have given the English by location in the text (SM 28, 262, 267 and 73, 250, 271).

Nabokov clearly understands how to use rodina in Russian, and how to approximate the idea of rodina in English. All of his usages in English and in Russian are acceptable in native speech. But Nabokov also understands that the terms are not the same. He understands that when molding his “Russian memories” into English sentences, he cannot use “homeland” in the same way he can use rodina when he forms the same memories into Russian. Whether he thinks in Russian or in English (or in images instead of any language at all) matters little here. Once he faces the task of expressing those thoughts in a language, he starts to wrestle with how that language can best approximate his memories. Sometimes, however, Nabokov reaches outside the primary language of expression to capture the particular tint of these recollections.

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s verbal expression breaks free of the English language on more than one occasion. For instance, in describing a childhood return to Russia, Nabokov resorts to the Russian term rodina:

Against the background of winter, the ceremonial change of [train] cars and engines acquired a strange new meaning. An exciting sense of rodina, “motherland,” was for the first time organically mingled with the comfortably creaking snow, the deep footprints across it, the red gloss of the engine stack, the birch logs piled high, under their private layer of transportable snow, on the red tender. (96)

Nabokov’s use of the Russian term suggests one of two things: either he remembered feeling a very specific emotion that could only be explained in Russian, or he remembered a prior verbalization of that emotion in Russian, and that verbalization seemed apt. In either case, something in this memory made Nabokov use rodina in an English text. Furthermore, Nabokov suggests that while this particular moment might have been the first time he felt a “sense of rodina,” it was not the first time he considered the emotional implications of this concept. By inserting the adverbial clause, “for the first time,” Nabokov presents the “sense of rodina” as something he should have felt in the past. The fact that he feels “a sense of rodina” for the first time surprises the child Nabokov much more than the feeling itself—which, it seems, he might have internally articulated long before. In these lines, more than in other passages about rodina/homeland, the reader can see Nabokov retelling a pre-articulated Russian memory in the English language.

Even though Nabokov recalls Russian memories, the fact that he must express them in English affects the formulation of those thoughts. In the passage above, he seems to sidestep this problem by inserting Russian terminology. However, the paragraph’s last sentence suggests otherwise. “That particular return to Russia,” Nabokov concludes his paragraph, “my first conscious return, seems to me now, sixty years later, a rehearsal, not of the grand homecoming that will never take place, but of its constant dream in my long years of exile” (96). These lines express a completely different sense of rodina than do those earlier in the paragraph. In fact, the feeling expressed in the last phrases of this concluding sentence aligns almost perfectly with the explication of the English-language “homeland.” The nostalgia, the hopeless but necessary yearning, prevalent in the explication of “homeland” as something left behind, eclipses the familial relationship and the responsibilities contained in the explication of rodina.

Significantly, Nabokov focalizes this sentence differently from sentences earlier in the paragraph. As in many of Nabokov’s English-language works, the narration in Speak, Memoryvacillates between two major first-person focalizations. The critic James Phelan finds the same type of dichotomy in Lolita. In his work “Dual Focalization, Discourse as Story, and Ethics,” Phelan names the two focalizations in first-person narration; the first is the “experiencing-I,” and the second, the “narrating-I.”[11] We can apply Phelan’s distinction to Speak, Memory by assigning the “experiencing-I” to young Nabokov (anywhere from his first memory to age 41), and the “narrating-I” to Nabokov, the autobiographer.

Though Nabokov denies it, it seems plausible to think that the experiencing-I—a young Russian boy—would be more inclined to formulate his thoughts in Russian, while the narrating-I—a mature English-language writer—would be more inclined to formulate his in English. The difference in the two sentences analyzed above supports this intuition. The sentence containing the “sense of rodina” focalizes through young Nabokov. This feeling excites the child, not the narrator. Yet the paragraph’s final sentence explicitly focalizes through the narrating-I, by using the present tense and recording how this return to Russia “seems to [Nabokov] now, sixty years later.” The contrast between these two sentences suggests at least the plausibility that Russian tints Nabokov’s childhood memories, while English colors his reflections on those recollections.

Nabokov excludes the above passage from Drugie berega, but other passages in both works exemplify this dual focalization. If the English language really affects Nabokov the narrator during composition of Speak, Memory, then Russian should affect Nabokov the narrator of Drugie berega in a different way. Defense of this claim requires close examination of a passage in both languages. The fourth section of the first chapter in both Speak, Memory and Drugie berega offers a description of the lands around Nabokov’s family estate near St. Petersburg. The glowing description of Nabokov’s own countryside, as well as the passage’s importance in the narrative, correspond to the word pair rodina/homeland.

In this section, Nabokov’s father signs the Vyborg Manifesto, spends three months in prison, and returns triumphantly home. Nabokov (the narrator) describes his own recollections of this return and its surroundings in the Russian and English passages below:

The Russian passage from Drugie berega: […] i vspominaia imenno etot den’, ia s prazdnochnoi iasnost’iu vosstanavlivaiu rodnoi, kak sobstvennoe krovoobrashchenie, put’ iz nashei Vyry v selo Rozhdestveno, po tu storonu Orodezhi: krasnovatuiu dorogu,—sperva shedshuiu mezhdu Starym Parkom i Novym, zatem kolonnadoi tolstykh berez, mimo nekoshenykh polei,—a dal’she: povorot, spusk k reke, iskriashcheisia promezh parchovoi tiny, most, vdrug razgovorivshiisia pod kopytami, oslepitel’nyi blesk zhestianki, ostavlennoi udil’shchikom na perilakh […] (22)

My literal translation of the Russian passage: […] and remembering that exact day, I, with festive clarity, restore/renew/recollect my native, as my own circulating blood, path from our Vyra [Nabokov family estate] to the village of Rozhdestveno, along that side of the Oredezh [nearby river]: a reddish path,—at first going between the Old and New Parks, then through the colonnade of stout birches, by un-mown fields,—and farther along: the turn, the descent to the river, sparkling through the brocaded mud, the bridge, suddenly having conversed under hooves, the blinding sparkle of a tin can left by a fisherman on the rail […]

The English passage from Speak, Memory: […] and it is when I recall that particular day that I see with the utmost clarity the sun-spangled river; the bridge, the dazzling tin of a can left by a fisherman on its wooden railing […] (30)

As Nabokov burrows deeper into this paragraph-length sentence, he also digs deeper into his recollections. By the time I have cut him off in favor of ellipses, his Russian and English run parallel. More interesting, however, is the point at which the Russian and English texts are the most distinct. At the beginning of the passages quoted above, Nabokov writes, “remembering…I…restore/renew/recollect” (DB)/”when I recall…I see,” (SM), and firmly establishes focalization through the narrating-I. This very line affords fascinating differences. Recalling that particular day makes the English-language Nabokov “recall with the utmost clarity,” while his Russian-language counterpart, “s prazdnochnoi iasnost’iu vosstanavliva[et]” [with festive clarity restore[s]/renew[s]/recollect[s]]. Nabokov’s choice of two different verbs illuminates his different narrative perspectives. The Russian verb “vosstanovit'” has a much broader meaning than “to recall,” encompassing possibilities beyond the scope of memory, including “to recreate,” “to resurrect,” or even, as “vosstanovit’ kogo-libo,” “to rehabilitate someone.” The fact that Nabokov’s Russian-language narrator opts for this word over a more pedestrian equivalent of “to recall” bespeaks his different relationship to this memory. By using the verb “vosstanovit’,” the Russian-language narrator emphasizes his close relationship to this memory, and even suggests the possibility of personification. The neutral English-language verb, “to recall,” does nothing of the sort.

The respective direct objects of these verbs yield an even more interesting comparison. The English-language Nabokov recalls “the sun-spangled river.” Every American associates this particular participle with the title of our national anthem. In fact, this entire phrase—the object of the verb “to recall”—follows the exact verbal rhythm of “The Star-Spangled Banner” down to the syllable. Nabokov, probably consciously, associates this memory with patriotism, and his association communicates itself through an allusion dependent on American associations. Nevertheless, he glides back into the memory, and after the “sun-spangled river,” his English text parallels his Russian, and focalization returns to the young Nabokov. However briefly, the description of the river still focalizes through the English-language Nabokov remembering the river, not through the child seeing the river.

Drugie berega, on the other hand, focalizes through its narrator for a bit longer, suggesting a stronger relationship between the memoirist and the memory. Here, the primary direct object of “vosstanovit'” is “rodnoi, kak sobstvennoe krovoobrashchenie, put’…” [my native, as my own circulating blood, path…]. Rodnoi shares its root with rodina, and especially in a passage describing the surrounding country, calls to mind this very word. Furthermore, the simile inserted between the adjective “rodnoi” and the noun “put'” acts like a poetic enjambment, suggesting that “rodnoi,” the adjective, alone is the true object of “vosstanovit’.” The reader wonders what “rodnoi” the narrator resurrects with such clarity. The simile itself, “kak sobstvennoe krovoobrashchenie,” brings the recollection much closer to the narrator’s physical being than anything in the English language text. This physical closeness aligns with stipulations (c) and (d) of Wierzbicka’s explication of rodina, “I am like a part of this country,” and “I couldn’t be like a part of any other country.” Nabokov’s mind seems to have been hovering around the concept of rodina as his Russian-language narrator penned these lines. The lines which differ from their English counterparts show a distinctly more personal relationship to the memory (“vosstanovit'” instead of “recall;” and “kak sobstvennoe krovoobrashchenie”).

The remaining Russian lines, which never make their way into the English version, evoke classic symbols of the Russian rodina, including a “krasnovataia doroga,” a “kolonnada tolstykh berioz,” and “nekoshenye polia” [a reddish path, a colonnade of stout birches, and un-mown fields]. Shortly hereafter, the Russian slides back in line with the English, and focalization shifts back to the young Nabokov. Yet the differences apparent in those sections of the text focalized through the narrator cannot avoid conforming to a Russian conception of rodina. These lines bring the memory into close personal relationship with the narrator, use a word with the same root, and invoke symbols of the Russian rodina.

The fact that the narrators in the two separate languages have the same memory, but relive it in two different ways exemplifies Nabokov’s poetic. However, the fact that the way each narrator relives that memory aligns so well with each language’s conception of rodina/homelandindicates something less intentional, and perhaps linguistically motivated. When taken in tandem, these dual passages—along with the passage from Speak, Memory using rodina in English—reveal an interesting tendency in Nabokov’s two autobiographies. Nabokov’s memories remain constant (more often than not, “Russian memories”). The difference lies in those passages where Nabokov records his experience reliving those memories. When the narrative focalizes through the narrating-I, the language of composition sneaks in and Nabokov’s narrators seem to relive these memories under the influence of the language of creation.


The second pair of terms, childhood/detstvo, presents a different set of problems when applied to the text. Neither of these words is significantly more common in its own language than the other (“childhood” has a frequency of 55 per million words of running text; detstvo 85), and the two memoirs use the terms at almost even rates. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to follow the same methodology as with homeland/rodina, which required assigning primacy to one term and tracking equivalents in the other language. Instead, I have listed the instances of “childhood” in Speak, Memory, and of detstvo in Drugie berega independently of one another. A list of the appearances of “childhood” in the first hundred pages of Speak, Memory follows:

Table 2
Page chapter.section Usage
20 1.1 In probing my childhood (which is the next best to probing one’s eternity)
24 1.2 the harmonious world of a perfect childhood
25 1.3 some of my childhood recollections
26 1.3 the English word “childhood”
28 1.4 my childhood calls me back
36 2.2 childhood illnesses
66 3.3 In my childhood
68 3.3 in my childhood
76 3.7 in his childhood
76 3.7 of her Russian childhood
76 3.7 reliving his childhood
95 5.1 a childhood entirely unrelated to my own
97 5.1 of my childhood


The equivalent list of appearances of detstvo in Drugie berega:

Table 3
Page chapter.section Usage
14 1.2 Klassicheskaia poza detstva
15 1.2 garmoniia moego sovershenneishego, schastliveishego detstva
17 1.3 prostoe angliiskoe slovo “chail’dkhud” (detstvo)
20 1.4 zovet menia moe divnoe detstvo
29 2.2 V detstve
29 2.2 so smert’iu v detstve
30 2.2 s avtorom v detstve
34 2.3 k moemu detstvu zarosshaia plevelami i pogankami
39 2.4 s pamiat’iu sobstvennogo detstva
40 2.4 v rannem detstve
53 3.4 v rannem detstve
55 3.4 v letopisiakh moego detstva
61 3.6 toska po utrachennomu detstvu
65 3.8 v detstve
65 3.8 Perekladyvala svoe detstvo
79 4.5 bez nikh net detstva
85 5.1 meloch’ iz svoego detstva
89 5.2 detstvo geroev
93 5.4 v detstve
99 5.6 v detstve


Though not every instance of “childhood” in English aligns with an appearance of detstvo in Russian, when they do coincide, the differences in usage can be illuminating. The “harmonious world of a perfect childhood” from Speak, Memory‘s first chapter gets an extra adjective “schastliveishii” [happiest] in Russian. This appendage bespeaks the importance of happiness to a good Russian childhood. Drugie berega speaks of “smert’ v detstve” [death in childhood], while Speak, Memory will not allow it and instead substitutes “childhood illnesses.” This particular example echoes the semantic parsing of “childhood” and detstvo above remarkably well.

These examples taken from the first hundred pages of Speak, Memory and Drugie beregaillustrate that Nabokov’s conception of “childhood” and detstvo aligns with those arrived at in the first section of this paper. He uses each word in the way that native speakers expect and that the conventions of the language demand as outlined in the first part of this article. In order to examine the effect that the differences between “childhood” and detstvo have on Nabokov’s composition, we must scrutinize some salient examples from the text.

The following passage illustrates, perhaps more clearly than any other, the narrators’ different reactions to the same memories. The memory in question is firmly bound to the concepts of “childhood” and detstvo. Earlier in this same paragraph, Nabokov uses the word “childhood” three times in Speak, Memory and the word detstvo or detskii three times in Drugie berega. The word comes up only about thirty times in each book, so such a high concentration demands attention. We join Nabokov when he finds among his memories some volumes from the Bibliothèque Rose, which he loved as a child:

The Russian from Drugie berega: Vizhu nashu derevenskuiu klassnuiu, biriuzovye rozy oboev, ugol izpaztsovoi pechki, otvorennoe okno: ono otrazhaetsia vmeste s chast’iu naruzhnoi vodostochnoi truby v oval’nom zerkale nad kanape, gde sidit diadia Vasia, chut’ li ne rydaia nad rastrepannoi rozovoi knizhkoi. Oshchushchenie predel’noi bezzabotnosti, blagodenstviia, gustogo letnego tepla zatoliaet pamiat’ i obrazuet takuiu sverkaiushchuiu deistvitel’nost’, chto po sravneniiu s neiu parkerovo pero v moei ruke, i samaia ruka s gliantsem na uzhe vesnushchatoi kozhe, kazhutsia mne dovol’no aliapovatym obmanom. Zerkalo nasyshcheno iiul’skim dnem. Listvennaia ten’ igraet po beloi s golubymi mel’nitsami pechke. Vletevshii shmel’, kak shar na rezinke, udariaetsia vo vse lepnye ugly potolka i udachno otskakivaet obratno v okno. Vsë tak, kak dolzhno byt’, nichto nikogda ne izmenitsia, nikto nikogda ne umret. (66)

My literal English translation: I see our wooden classroom, the turquoise roses of the wallpaper, the corner of the tile stove, the open window: it is reflected along with part of the outside drain pipes in the oval mirror above the leather couch where uncle Vasia sits, all but weeping over a tattered pink little book. A feeling of utmost carefreeness, of prosperity, of thick summer warmth floods my memory and forms such a sparkling reality, that in comparison with it, the Parker pen in my hand, and my very hand with luster on already freckled skin, seem to me a rather tasteless fraud. The mirror is saturated with the July day. The shadow of the leaves plays along the white stove with blue windmills. A newly arrived bumblebee, like a ball on elastic, hits itself against all the plaster corners of the ceiling and successfully jumps back out the window. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

The English from Speak, Memory: I see again my schoolroom at Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror binges with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die. (76-77)

The place where “everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die” is not the schoolhouse; it is not even the recollection of the school house, the uncle and the bumblebee. This sublimely static place is Nabokov’s faculty of memory itself. The young Nabokov would know that things will change, that people will die. Only the memoirist, the retrospective Nabokov can cast his eyes into his memory and see that as the place of eternal protection against change and mortality. The faculty of memory carries much the same meaning for the Russian as for the English Nabokov. The identical final sentences in the two paragraphs reflect this similarity. Yet in each language Nabokov describes his memory—as affected by this particular recollection—quite differently.

In the second sentence of each passage quoted above, the recollection of these childhood volumes floods Nabokov’s faculty of memory with three feelings. (We know this is his faculty ofmemory, and not a memory as synonymous with “a recollection,” because the Russian equivalent is pamiat’ and not vospominanie.) The third feeling in each language is one of summer warmth generated by the particular setting of the recollection, but the first two feelings differ significantly in each language. Those that flood the Russian narrator’s memory are of “bezzabotnost'” and “blagodenstvie” [carefreeness and prosperity], while the same recollection gives the English-language narrator a sense of “security” and of “well-being.” The differences in these descriptions seem almost deliberately to point out the salient differences between the English concept of “childhood” and the Russian concept of detstvo.

According to stipulations (g) and (h) of the explication of detstvo above, a detstvo is only good insofar as it contains joy. This necessary aspect of a happy Russian detstvo occupies the Russian narrator’s memory, but this ingredient is not necessary in the English term “childhood,” which depends more on security and safety. Somehow, Nabokov’s English-language narrator manages to garner, from the exact same recollection, the necessary components of a healthy English-language childhood.


In each of these examples, Nabokov’s narrators discuss a theme closely tied to one of the explicated pairs; in each the Russian-language narrator treats the theme differently from his English-language counterpart; and in each the Russian-language treatment aligns more with the Russian-language term, while the English-language treatment aligns more with the English-language term. Though with such sparse evidence, we cannot say with anything approaching certainty that the language of creation significantly influences Nabokov’s creative process, we can start to see a pattern emerge. This pattern suggests that the method of investigation used in this paper can successfully isolate linguistic differences between bilingual texts. This method was able to move from an objective analysis of relevant semantic fields toward textual analysis, and it could be expanded to include other concept pairs in further investigation. Beyond that, this same method could be extrapolated to analyze works by other bilingual authors. For now, this article has helped us to further explore the complex interaction between language and experience in Nabokov’s autobiographies.


Works Cited

Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the “First” Emigration. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Denisov, P. N., and Markovkin V. V., eds. Uchebnii slovar’ sochitaemosti slov russkogo iazyka. 1 vol. Moskva: Astrel’, 2002.

Slovar’ Sovremennogo Russkogo Literaturnogo Iazyka. Institut russkogo iazyka. 1st ed. Moskva: Rossiskaia akademiia nauk, 1950-65.

Kjellmer, Göran. A dictionary of English collocations: based on the Brown corpus: in three volumes. Vol. 1. New York : Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kucera, Henry and W. Nelson Francis. Computational analysis of present-day American English With a foreword by W. F. Twaddell, a study by Mary Lois Marckworth and Laura M. Bell, and an analytical essay by John B. Carroll. Providence: Brown University Press, 1967

Nabokov, Vladimir. Drugie Berega. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1978.

_____. Speak, Memory: an Autobiography Revisited. New York: Putnam, 1966.

The Oxford English Dictionary. Apr. 2007

Phelan, James. Living to Tell About It: a Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 2005.

Wierzbicka, Anna. Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words: English, Russian, Polish, German and Japanese. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Zasorina, L.M. Chastotnyi slovar’ russkogo iazyka. Moscow: Russkii iazyk, 1977.



[1] The original version of this study analyzes a third pair, (sense of) humor – (chuvstvo) iumora.

[2] The Computational analysis of present-day American English, by Henry Kučera and W. Nelson Francis, otherwise known as the Brown Corpus, comprises 500 samples, distributed across 15 genres in rough proportion to the number published in 1961 in each of those genres. All works sampled were published in 1961and were written by native speakers of American English.

[3] Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the word “homeland” has gained a bureaucratic familiarity. But this was not the case for Nabokov nor for his mid-century readership.

[4] The Chastotnyi slovar’ russkogo iazyka collects approximately one million words from four genres of text published between 1950 and 1965 and written by native speakers of Russian.

[5] Here and elsewhere when I mention the opinions of native speakers, I am referring to the results of informal surveys and conversations with native-Russian-speaking colleagues.

[6] For a fuller exploration of rodina, and justification for the points in this explication, see Wierzbicka, Anna. Understanding Cultures through Their Key Words. pp. 191-195

[7] While true that many émigré Russians have more conflicted than categorically positive feelings about Russia, Wierzbicka’s analysis is based on usage by native speakers across the spectrum, only a small sliver of which would be émigrés. Her reasoning, to me, seems sound, and I think it would reflect a native speaker’s understanding of the word rodina even if that speaker might feel differently about his country.

[8]  Wierzbicka bases this conclusion on the association of rodina with rodnoi. She makes a compelling case based on linguistic associations of how Russians think about the word rodina.

[9] For non-specialist readers, I should clarify that an asterisk placed before a word or phrase in linguistics texts means “not generally accepted by native speakers.”

[10] The parenthesized quotation mark after a word or phrase in linguistics texts indicates that the author questions the acceptability to native speakers.

[11] Phelan, James. Living to Tell About It: A rhetoric and ethics of character narration. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2005.

About the author

Bradley Gorski

Bradley Gorski holds a degree in Russian from Georgetown University. Since graduation he has been living in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, working as the Russia Country Coordinator for EducationUSA. He plans to apply for Ph.D. programs in Slavic Studies to start fall 2011. His research interests are Nabokov, post-Soviet literature and the interplay between linguistics and literature.

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