War and Peace: The Missing Footnote
I finally read War and Peace - a great book of course, but one minor bit of self-censorship on Tolstoy’s part caught my eye.
The context is just before the Battle of Krasnoi as the Russian army is about to crush the last remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée retreating from Moscow. Field Marshall Kutuzov first tells his gathered troops to consider that the French are human too and have suffered along with them. Then, after a dramatic pause he continues:
“But, that said, who invited them here? It’s their own doing, f… th… in the f…”, he suddenly said, raising his head.” (Book 4, Chapter VI, p. 1089 of this edition.)
So what could this be: “f… th… in the f…” ?
This translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, has been highly praised for its faithfulness to Tolstoy’s original, and as well-documented as it is, there was no footnote indicating what the literal meaning might be here. I went back to some older translations to see how they handled it, but they were even more redacted:
(1904) “To tell the truth, who sent for them? Serves them right those ————————,” he suddenly said, raising his head.
(1928) “But after all who asked them here? Serves them right, the b… b… ! …” he cried, suddenly lifting his head.
(1930) “But after all who asked them here? Serves them right, the bloody bastards!” he cried, suddenly lifting his head.
(2008) “But, that said, who invited them here? It’s there own doing, f … th … in the f …”, he suddenly said, raising his head.
I looked up the original text to see if Tolstoy himself had censored it, and (as I expected) it was:
— А и то сказать, кто же их к нам звал? Поделом им, м… и… в г…. — вдруг сказал он, подняв голову.
Clearly this had to be some standard, idiomatic phrase, so I turned to some of my Russian colleagues to see if they recognized it, but even they were stumped. After some looking around they came across a paper (in Russian) with the phrase spelled out:
” - А и то сказать, кто же их к нам звал? Поделом им, м[ать] и[хъ] в г[узно], - вдруг сказал он [… и] галопом в первый раз за всю компанию поехал прочь от радостно хохотавших и ревевших ура […] солдат” (IV, 4, VI; 1951-1953, 7: 194).
So this is the original phrase:
“мать твою в гузно”
The reason my colleagues didn’t recognize it is that it is a rather old fashioned phrase, and one that would have only been used by an old man, such as Kutuzov, even back then; but the literal meaning still carries a sting:
“Mother’s ass fuckers.”