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While reading War and Peace translators use variants of the phrase "rolling their eyes" in odd places. For example, one character is described as "rolling their eyes in terror". Another example is when a soldier rolls his eyes when speaking with respect. The use of the phrase in these examples makes me think that the translators are using it in a different way than the modern understanding. In some other translations, a soldier rolls his eyes face-to-face with Napoleon during a reward ceremony. Wikipedia says it used to be associated with passion/lust but that seems slightly off as well in these scenarios. What action are the translators describing when they say "rolling their eyes" and how should that action be interpreted?

Here are the sources for the scenarios mentioned above, all from the Rosemary Edmonds translation.

  • Book 2 - Part 4 - Chapter 11:

    "Oh! Oh!" screamed Natasha, rolling her eyes in horror.

  • Book 2 - Part 2 - Chapter 21:

    Then he approached Lazarev, who stood rolling his eyes and still gazing obstinately at his own Monarch.

  • Book 2 - Part 2 - Chapter 17:

    "Certainly, your Honour", the soldier replied complacently, rolling his eyes more strenuously then ever and drawing himself up still straighter, but not stirring from the spot.

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    What translation are you reading? And could you provide more specific page references to these uses of "rolling their eyes"? It will make it easier to compare the original and different translations to provide an accurate answer.
    – verbose
    Apr 19, 2023 at 19:49
  • I'm reading the Rosemary Edmonds translation. The terror example appears in book 2 part 4 chapter 11. I checked and Pevear and Volokhonsky translation and they do the same. The Napoleon example occurs in book 2 part 2 chapter 11. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation uses wide-eyes. Apr 20, 2023 at 1:00
  • Thank you for this information. Could you edit your question to add it, rather than leaving it in the comments? Comments are easily overlooked.
    – verbose
    Apr 20, 2023 at 3:13
  • @user3600107: in order to be able to provide better answers, please EDIT your question and add as much information as you can about your statements. What book do you exactly read, when was the book printed, who were the translators, where was the book printed etc. The same goes for "In some other translations" - which ones? It might even help to provide screenshots of those pages, so we can see the context also. If the word appears at the beginning / end of the page, then the previous / next page might be needed also - to get the context properly.
    – virolino
    Apr 20, 2023 at 6:50
  • please, provide full sentences. I found those chapters in Russian, there is something else: 2-4-11 Pelageja, Sonja, Nikolai, 2-2-11 Pierre, Knyaz Andrei
    – Andra
    Apr 20, 2023 at 9:01

1 Answer 1

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Seems to be a mistranslation.

Rolling one’s eyes is a gesture “used to disagree or dismiss or express contempt”. The Russian phrase for it is «закатывая глаза». The novel says «выкатывая глаза» (literally “rolling out the eyes”). «Выкатывая глаза» means to open one's eyes wide; stare (at). Discussion (in Russian) at HiNative website confirms this difference between two phrases and provides some exaggerated pictures.

There’s a tradition to find in War and Peace a distinction between Real life and Artificial life (life of Appearances). Natasha is full of life and vivid passions. The soldier in the hospital only stares at Nikolai: he says he obeys the order to give water to a patient, but doesn’t even move.

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    Perhaps not a mistranslation but an archaic turn of phrase? Rolling one's eyes in terror is certainly something I've seen in older (perhaps 19th-century) English literature.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 3, 2023 at 7:04
  • According to the comment, Pevear&Volokhonsky kept eye-rolling in the horror example, but went with wide-eyes in the third one. Eye-rolling implies upward movement, the original phrase is about eyes wide open/staring (in Rus Lit it’s often used when someone yelling). It’s harder to make sense of upward movement physically in the other two cases.
    – b4rtr
    May 3, 2023 at 8:08

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