Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

Tea or coffee? Cat person or dog person? Seer of the flesh or seer of the spirit? There's something so invitingly easy about the dualistic approach to literary criticism that it's no surprise that so many major critics of Russian literature appear to settle for it, including Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, Isaiah Berlin and of course George Steiner. I am returning to the latter's 1959 Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? not to decide which goes best with a chocolate biscuit, however. (I'd be disappointed if that was my plan; despite its title, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? explores the resonances and contrasts between those two nineteenth-century giants, rather than trying to rank them in a photo-finish). Steiner - long retired to Cambridge and discreetly famous, but reviled by many, justly or not, as an egregious name-dropper - is one of the few critics both qualified and unafraid to explore Tolstoy's Homeric and Platonic influences. As I am about to participate in a conference panel on Tolstoy and the classics at this year's ASEEES convention, I find Steiner's elaboration of the same topic from more than fifty years ago freshly relevant.

'Both the Homer of the Iliad and Tolstoy saw action whole; the air vibrates around their personages and the force of their being electrifies insensate nature. Achilles' horses weep at his impending doom and the oak flowers persuade Bolkonsky that his heart will live again. This consonance between man and the surrounding world extends even to the cups in which Nestor looks for wisdom when the sun is down and to the birch-leaves that glitter like a sudden riot of jewels after the storm has swept over Levin's estate. The barriers between mind and object, the ambiguities which metaphysicians discern in the very notion of reality and perception, impeded neither Homer nor Tolstoy. Life flooded in upon them like the sea' (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? p. 77).

Too florid? Too clever? Despite these very allowable criticisms, Steiner reveals throughout the book a passionate reader's vivid appreciation for both writers' creative and spiritual abundance. As he enjoys recounting, this enthusiasm for reading over the nitty-gritty of footnotes and references cost him his PhD first time round. He was rescued by the Fellow in English at Wadham College, Oxford, the intriguingly named Humphry House (to whose memory Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? is dedicated). House, best remembered today for the dubious privilege of having an affair with Elizabeth Bowen during the 1930s (he was described by one of their mutual Oxford friends as a 'large slightly bent & rather forbidding young man')*, was by all accounts an inspiring academic. A leading expert on Coleridge, Hopkins and Dickens, he taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, served in the Royal Armoured Corps during the war, and later lectured for the BBC's Third Programme. When he discovered that the youthful George Steiner, then a doctoral student at Balliol, had failed his viva and taken temporary refuge from academia on the staff of The Economist, he arrived like the cavalry 'in a long black overcoat and wide-brimmed black hat'* to re-educate the renegade in the niceties of dissertation discipline. Steiner graduated successfully in 1955, but House did not live to see it, dying suddenly of thrombosis at his house in Cambridge's elegant Bateman St at the age of only forty-seven, only days before Steiner's largely formal viva. The dissertation became The Death of Tragedy (1961).

Sharing, as we do, a love of Russian literature, old-fashioned bibliophilia and Wadham College, George Steiner and I have plenty to talk about. Hedgehog or fox, anyone? Or as old dinosaurs like George and I like to say, coelacanth or plesiosaur? I'll be reporting back soon on both types of Russianist scholar from the ASEEES convention.

Me with George Steiner at his Cambridge home
* Cited from a letter by Mary Fisher, daughter of the Warden of New College, 27 June 1933, in Isaiah Berlin, Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, ed. by Henry Hardy (Random House, 2012).
* See Steiner's Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 143-4, for an account of his work with House.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Rewriting the Female Orgasm: Translating Gazdanov

I remember reading my first edition of The Ghost of Alexander Wolf (Prizrak Aleksandra Vol’fa), a smooth-bound tome from a multi-volume set of Gaito Gazdanov’s novels, in the public library of Krasnoyarsk. Having ordered this book purely because it had the word ‘ghost’ in its title, I persevered evening after long winter evening, verb-surfing my way through a crumbling Russian-Russian dictionary (probably because the Russian-English dictionary was missing), surrounded by student teachers bemusedly blunting their English on the best of George Moore and Jack London. I also remember buying my first Russian copy of the novel, in a magazine kiosk in a metro station under a major junction in Moscow’s Garden Ring. It was a compact green Azbuka Klassika edition, with a more or less entirely inappropriate front cover image of Dali’s Partial Hallucination: Six Ghosts of Lenin on a Piano (probably also chosen for the word ‘ghost’ in its title). I forgave Gazdanov the long dictionary chases, and his publishers the awful cover, because for no reason that made sense, I loved this book. Enter Pushkin Press, an innovative small British publisher. They print new translations of obscure, usually foreign writers (think Antal Szerb) in cunningly designed palm-sized editions with discreet French flaps and Baskerville type. Here was my beloved book, suddenly, in a new translation (as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf) – and this time, what a cover! A soldier drooping in crumpled uniform, a pale horse, a blasted tree, an open volume whose red ribbon trailed into a voluptuous trickle of blood – in other words, a rare cover by an illustrator who understood the book’s odd rhythm. I flipped tremblingly to the first page. How had the book's first line, ideal for tormenting first year translation students because of its multiple clauses and unrelenting cadence, been rendered?

Из всех моих воспоминаний, из всего бесконечного количества ощущений моей жизни самым тягостным было воспоминание о единственном убийстве, которое я совершил.

Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed. 

Onerous for тягостный! What a stroke of sheer good sense! Reader, I bought it –  planning to enjoy one of my favourite Russian novels in a new medium that apparently matched its unique (and more than slightly eccentric) mood. Alexander Wolf makes little sense: it’s probably the least organized of Gazdanov’s major novels. After that thunderclap of an opening, the narrator recedes almost two decades into the past to describe an incident in Crimea at the tail end of the Civil War. Chap A shoots Chap B (it is never quite clear why). Chap B, who is not in fact wounded, shoots and kills Chap A and rides off on Chap A’s horse. Much later, now working as a jobbing journalist in France, Chap B (our narrator) reads a short story which recounts the shooting from Chap A’s perspective. Chap B makes exceptional efforts to trace the author, one Alexander Wolf, only to draw a blank with the latter’s publisher, who assures him that Wolf cannot possibly be a Russian exile, as he is undoubtedly an Englishman; then adds enigmatically that it was a shame all the same that Chap B hadn’t aimed better. Meanwhile, Chap B meets a girl at a boxing match he's reporting, whom he doesn’t realize is also Russian until she tells him (one senses Chap B isn’t very good at accents). This is rather like Nina Lecerf/Rechnoy in Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight - a book which resonates with Alexander Wolf on several levels - whose Russian identity is only betrayed to the narrator by a trick involving an imaginary spider on her neck. Meanwhile, in a Russian restaurant, Chap B falls in with a garrulous exile called Voznesensky, who retells the events of the original  shooting from yet a third perspective, that of ‘Sasha Wolf’s’ anarchist comrade-in-arms. Chap B's relationship with the girl, Elena, becomes passionate, although she admits she’s in hiding from a former lover who almost drove her to suicide through morphine and nihilism. She also admits that she likes our narrator because he’s the emotional antithesis of her ex. Voznesensky, unaware of Chap B’s role in Sasha Wolf’s near-demise, introduces the two men – and the narrator confesses his role in their shared history to the pale, reserved, elegantly funereal Alexander Wolf. A peculiar confidence develops between the two men; Wolf admits he’s come to Paris to solve a ‘complex psychological problem’ by, if necessary, ‘destroying’ its cause. The denouement, as abrupt as it is predictable, is artificially delayed by a non sequitur straight out of the film noir genre: Chap B witnesses a dangerous criminal shot to death by les flics.  

Alexander Wolf is perhaps the least organized of Gazdanov’s novels because it strives to embody them all: the social history of Night Roads, the Parisian roman and émigré nostalgia of An Evening with Claire, the absurdity of The Buddha’s Return, even the tragicomedy of Pilgrims. Neither its barely coherent heterogeneity nor its abuse of happenstance have prevented me from loving this book. There is even a particular Russian restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road where I like to imagine a modern-day Voznesensky might sit, flirting with the waitresses, sluicing vodka with a generous hand, and recounting Crimean derring-do with his old pal Sasha Wolf. The Guardian critic, Nicholas Lezard, felt the same way when he read the Pushkin Press edition, calling it a 'masterpiece' that 'will stay with you for the rest of your life'.

Hence I approached Bryan Karetnyk’s new translation with the trepidation one always feels when one has taken prior ownership of an artwork. And, as usually happens, I was mildly disappointed. Karetnyk has done an extremely thorough job (he had to cope with блатный Parisian argot as well as Gazdanov's rolling clause structures), and I cannot fault him for accuracy nor, in the majority of cases, for style. He should also be praised simply for returning a neglected postwar minor classic to currency (as a translator of even more obscure Russian writers, I appreciate the work of others in the field!). But I felt that all too often for my taste, Karetnyk became hypnotized - for want of a better word - by Gazdanov's complex syntax. Instead of using transposition or modulation to simplify the sentence structures, Karetnyk tended to produce something either still more involved or more wooden-sounding than the original. For example, take this passage immediately following the opening sentence:

С той минуты, что оно произошло, я не помню дня, когда бы я не испытывал сожаления об  этом. Никакое наказание мне никогда не угрожало,так как это случилось в очень исключительных обстоятельствах и было ясно, что я не мог поступить иначе.Никто, кроме меня, вдобавок, не знал об этом.

Ever since the moment it happened, I cannot remember one day passing when I haven't regretted it. No punishment for it ever threatened me, because it occurred in the most exceptional of circumstances and it was clear that I couldn't have acted otherwise. Moreover, no one other than I knew about it. 

The tone of the original is stiffly declarative, like a formal deposition. Why, then, enhance the rigidity with slightly awkward units like 'one day passing' rather than 'a single day', 'no one other than I' for 'no-one else/no-one but me', and the 'of' in 'most exceptional of circumstances'? I found multiple similar instances where Karetnyk voluntarily lengthened or formalized Gazdanov's lexical structures . Similarly, conversation, although generally quite true to register, sometimes seemed unduly leaden. Here's Yelena barging in on the narrator in the latter's Parisian garret:

- Здравствуй, - сказала она, осматривая комнату, в которой я работал, - я хотела застать тебя врасплох и, может быть, в чьих-нибудь объятиях.

"Hello", she said, looking around the room where I was working. "I wanted to catch you unawares and, perhaps, in another woman's embrace."

The Russian mixes the colloquial (врасплох) with the archly high-toned (в чьих-нибудь объятиях); the English, to my ear, feels to match this playfulness. The three units of Yelena's raillery - 'catch you unawares', 'perhaps', and 'in another woman's embrace' - sound overly formal and somewhat unnatural. Too often, I feel, we tolerate and even praise translations that never quite settle into an equivalent narrative 'voice' in the target language, like an instrument that's slightly out of key. We assume that all foreign authors write English with an accent, and we silently make allowances for their 'handicap' (the way nineteenth-century readers had to accept that Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky all wrote fluent Constance Garnett). Karetnyk's translation falls victim to this tendency, albeit occasionally and unevenly - and to do Karetnyk credit, in many cases he is simply exposing the occasional turgidity (dare I say it?) of Gazdanov's prose. Here's a 'naughty' bit that's a particularly good example:

Ее нельзя было назвать - по крайней  мере, по отношению ко мне - замечательной любовницей, у нее были медлительные физические реакции, и последние секунды объятий нередко заставляли ее испытывать какую-то внутреннюю боль, - и тогда глаза ее закрывались и лицо делало невольную гримасу. 

She could never be called - at least as far as I'm concerned - an excellent lover; her physical reactions were sluggish, and the final seconds of embrace frequently caused her to experience some sort of internal pain; next her eyes would close and her face would involuntarily grimace.

(Hmmm - I think that's called an orgasm). This sort of bemusedly clinical approach to female sexuality, and female behaviour generally, is common among twentieth-century male authors voiced by male narrators (C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series is full of it, to give a random example). Far from blaming Karetnyk for the torpidity of those lines, he should be hailed for refusing to translate объятий (here 'embrace') as 'congress'. That would just be too much seventies sex manual. Forget Alexander - let's hope the spectre of Naomi Wolf never catches up with Gazdanov in the afterlife.

Nerds' Corner: Selected bibliography of Gazdanov's major works in translation

Вечер у Клэр (1929)
            Jodi Daynard, An Evening with Claire (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1988)
Ночные дороги (1939-41)
            Elena Balzamo, Chemins nocturnes (Paris: Viviane Hamy, 1991)
            Justin Doherty, Night Roads (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009)
Призрак Александра Вольфа (1947-8)         
            Nicholas Wreden, The Specter of Alexander Wolf (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1950)
            Jean Sendy, Le spectre d'Alexandre Wolf (Paris: R. Laffont, 1951)
            Miguel A. Calzada, El espectro de Alejandro Wolf (Barcelona: Luis de Carralt, 1955)
            Rosemarie Tietze, Das Phantom des Alexander Wolf (Büchergilde Gutenberg, 2012)

            Bryan Karetnyk, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf  (London: Pushkin Press, 2013)
Возвращение Будды (1949-50)
            Nicholas Wreden, Buddha's Return (New York: E.P. Dutton &Co, 1951)
            Chantal Le Brun Kéris, Le retour de Bouddha (Paris: V. Hamy, 2002)
            Bryan Karetnyk, The Buddha's Return  (London: Pushkin Press, 2013)



Friday, 13 September 2013

A translator's tale, Part Three of Three

Early in the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, there is a wonderful passage I have never been able to forget. Frodo and his friends are being hunted by the Black Riders; though ignorant of the latter's true purpose, the hobbits are intuitive enough to hide. Here are the lines that lodged in my imagination:

Frodo crawled to the edge of the road and watched the rider, until he dwindled into the distance. He could not be quite sure, but it seemed to him that suddenly, before it passed out of sight, the horse turned aside and went into the trees on the right.

There it is, that beautiful detail: 'suddenly, before it passed out of sight, the horse turned aside and went into the trees on the right'. There's been no lack of signals that the Riders are not good chaps: we've had psychic Ring-muttering, odd compulsions, strange intuitions (and of course they're wearing black, with black hoods, on enormous black horses, so they're probably not fundraising for Save the Children). Nor is there any later plot justification for the Rider leaving the road for the forest (the Black Horses preferring to feed on tree lichen or subarboreal moss, for example). And Frodo isn't even sure what he's seen. It's the uncertainty itself that signals, in mental neon, that we should all be very afraid. Nor does it really matter whether the horse goes into the trees, or into the air, or joins Cristina Aguilera in a pink Daimler. What matters is the apparent fact of action we don't understand and can't explain (why would the stranger ride into the trees?). The uncertainty of Frodo's perception both augments and aggravates the froideur of the moment.

Bring on Todorov and his definition of the literary fantastic as unresolved hesitation between the real and the unreal (and his wonderfully baroque, increasingly obscure examples from French Romanticism and Jan Potocki). Bring on the Master's slightly less well-known prescription for ghost-story writers: that is, M.R. James's recommendation that 'Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it'. James, whom Lovecraft called 'an artist in incident and arrangement', and who once concisely scolded E.F. Benson for the sin of occasionally 'stepping over the line of legitimate horridness', is my gold standard in ghostly fiction. His ghosts and ghouls (and occasionally worse) are rarely seen; if seen, more rarely recognized. Think of the gown-ripping, night-howling nasty of 'An Episode of Cathedral History', whose existence the Dean of Chapter steadfastly refuses to acknowledge despite its brief reign of terror, or the hideous guardian invoked in 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas'. Yet once these creatures are glimpsed, heard, touched, or smelt, there is a (brief) instant of apocalyptic anagnorisis that compensates by a bolt of terror for the narrator's archly understated tone: 'But of the face which was now rising to within a few inches of his own no feature was discernible, only hair' ('The Diary of Mr Poynter').*

Uncertainty and reticence are my own criteria for perfect ghost stories, and although I will condone forays into illegitimate horridness, I prefer the inferred to the explicit. Many years ago, when I was casting around for a thesis topic during a sunny Lent term in Cambridge, a diplodocus friend pointed out that I liked both ghost stories and Russian. I tended to read one instead of studying the other. Why not, he suggested, study Russian ghost stories? Almost ten years and one doctorate later, Stalin's Ghosts came along, a book which argues that Russian Socialist Realism was 'multiply vulnerable to phantomization', the more so because of its neoclassicist aesthetics and aggressive positivism. Not only was it impossible for Soviet writers to seamlessly discard Russia's rich Gothic-fantastic literary tradition, any programmatic hyperrealism is spectral by default - because it describes a non-existent world. I supported my argument by tracing the use of Gothic-fantastic tropes (villains, monsters, haunted properties) through the fiction of well-known early Soviet-era writers like Bulgakov, Gladkov, Platonov and Zamiatin; I also looked at uncanny technologies (Fedorovian resurrection fantasies, Lenin's tomb, rejuvenation, hybridity and eugenics) which flourished in Soviet children's literature, Red Pinkertons, and science fiction. And I rediscovered the intriguing forgotten writers discussed in a previous post, whose prose eventually deserved a book of its own. One of the pleasures of simultaneously editing two thematically related books was being able to cite my own translation when performing a close reading in Stalin's Ghosts, with my favourite example being my analysis of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii's The Phantom, a major story that deserves more critical attention. One of the mixed pleasures ofsimultaneously publishing two books is watching helplessly as critics favour one child.* Greg Afinogenov's LRB review, for example, is extremely kind to Red Spectres - but allots Stalin's Ghosts only one sentence (surprising, since I thought the LRB reviewers get about 15 000 words per book). Since Afinogenov is a doctoral candidate, he may yet feel the same pangs a few years down the line when reviewers pass over his doctoral opus for the baseball team.

Although Stalin's Ghosts risks being overshadowed by the Gothic glamour it shares with Red Spectres, I'd be happiest if it were read as a reinterpretation of early Socialist Realism and contemporaneous Soviet genres. There is a new school of such books emerging, including the lovely and learned Boris Dralyuk's recent Western Crime Fiction Goes East on the Red Pinkerton phenomenon and Eric Laursen's brand-new Toxic Voices (Northwestern University Press, 2013), an analysis of pre-war Soviet prose villains. Despite my grouchiness, however, at times the Gothic does merge with real life scholarship, and happily. When finishing the final draft of Stalin's Ghosts in Petersburg in summer 2012, I was casting (!) about for an anecdote to kick-start Chapter One. Then I remembered the large box I passed every day on my way to my shared office in Pushkinskii Dom, one of Petersburg's many literary institutes. I asked my colleagues to tell me the story behind the box, and more or less as they recounted it, I translated and wrote my chapter opening:

In a neglected annexe of Pushkin House, the Institute of Russian Literature in St Petersburg, there is a shadowy first-floor landing where literary scholars gather to smoke. A large unlabelled plywood box, festooned with spider plants, towers over their ashtrays. Unseen inside the box lingers the bottom half of a plaster cast for a statue of Maksim Gorky, the mentor, godfather, and chief standard-bearer of Soviet Socialist Realism. The reasons behind Gorky’s exile to a box on the stairs are already obscure. The post-Soviet decades were hostile to statues of Soviet icons; and although Gorky, originally
commissioned for the Institute’s Literary Museum, remained museum property and could not be discarded, nothing was done to repair or maintain his cast. First Gorky’s arms crumbled away; next his head disintegrated; and finally, only the legs remained, preserved perhaps by some superior
ingredient in the plaster. Since Gorky’s remains, however grotesque, could not be buried, they were boxed up instead and relegated to a semi-spectral afterlife on the landing. Gorky’s artistic influence may be defunct, but his legs still invisibly preside over modern scholars of Russian literature, like
an ancestral skeleton content to remain in its closet. 

The aesthetic experiment that was Socialist Realism – a national neoclassicist ideal, designed for an impossible cohort of ineffably perfect citizens – was multiply vulnerable to phantomization.

This posts ends my triad of translator's tales, although I will continue to translate actively and post on related topics - my publisher and I are currently laying groundwork for a sequel to Red Spectres. Ghost story lovers not averse to crossing a $5 paywall can read my newest translation of Georgii Peskov's chilling 'Kum' here. As I remain busy with the giant saurian gene preservation project, and as I am currently starting a new university lectureship, I will continue to post irregularly. Lots of new reviews and commentary coming up as and when, including a new translation of my all-time favourite Gazdanov novel, and some controversial Bulgakov and classical Tolstoy!

*Never base your wallpaper design on human hair.
*This is mere grumbling. I remain pathetically grateful that anyone, ever, has read even one of my books.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

A translator's tale, Part Two

In the current (Spring #13) issue of the New Ohio Review, Rosamund Bartlett has a delightful short piece about the tribulations of translating Tolstoy. (She is currently completing a new version of Anna Karenina for Oxford World's Classics.) It describes her experience of 'spending a long time staring' at Tolstoy's 'inimitable, participle-laden, congested sentences'; two passages on bees prove particularly convoluted. Previous translators of AK produced their own unique versions of each sentence; they couldn't all be right. In the end, it was Bartlett's prior research into Tolstoy's hobbies (including, for some time, beekeeping) for her biography that helped her to unlock his prose: two peculiar verbs were exposed as highly specific beekeeping terminology, rather than ambiguous grammar. Another problem was Tolstoy's use of the singular noun pchela (bee) in a context that suggested multiple bees. Finally her 'apiarial research' led to the revelation that Tolstoy was, unusually but correctly, using pchela to signify an entire hive rather than a solitary insect. This insight allowed her to translate the 'bee passage' from Chapter Twelve of Part Two correctly, perhaps for the first time in the history of Tolstoy translation. One wonders what she would make of the Moscow/beehive passage in War and Peace.

I can't claim similarly research-intensive breakthroughs in my translation of Aleksandr Chayanov or the other authors featured in Red Spectres. However, I did repeatedly confront three perennial problems of translation: what do you do when your author's prose just isn't that good? How can you be sure you're getting it right? And, last but not least, how can you check whether to pay copyright fees? As every translator can be sure to stumble up against at least two of these, I'll describe my (fairly Jurassic) approach to all three.

First off, the aesthetic conundrum. Dons may sneer at Tolstoy's grammar, but no-one would dare to call him a bad writer. I was not so lucky with my chosen translatee, Aleksandr Chayanov. It helped that I knew he was writing pastiche, and that I enjoyed the prose he was pastiching - the best of Gogol, Hoffmann, Odoevsky, and others. Nonetheless, this still meant that I had to translate pastiche, sandwiching multiple levels of intercultural interpretation. In pragmatic terms, I learned to channel Bulwer-Lytton as I wrote. Chayanov was rocking a certain high-Victorian groove, with considerable panache and a level of irony that frequently collapsed under his own unrelenting intellectual curiosity. Those chapter intertitles in The Venetian Mirror (CHAPTER THREE: Being relatively peaceful, thus affording a pause not only for the author and the heroes of his tale, but also for the reader) are charming if you like that sort of thing, infuriating if you don't. But take Chayanov's first story, The Hairdresser's Mannequin, a wonderfully off-beat tale of a successful Moscow architect who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin and sets off on a quest to find its original - who just happens to be one half of a pair of Siamese twins.  At the tragic climax, as the love-child is born in Venice, Chayanov's hero takes a train to Piacenza to visit an agricultural show. Here's a typical paragraph from that section: 'Stocky, sturdy tillers of the soil laughed and chatted loudly about super-phosphates and Randall’s disc harrows, complained about their agronomist, referred respectfully to men called Bizzozero, Luzzatti and Poggio, and swore loudly, spitting on the floor, about a breed of horned cattle, which they called the bergamasco.' Did I mention that Chayanov's day job was agronomy? Sometimes it shows. A more pedestrian variant on the issue of stylistic quality is what the translator should do when an author keeps re-using a word or phrase (in my limited experience, every writer has a favourite verbal crutch). Even in Russian, where it may have more nuances of meaning than its direct English equivalent, repetition of the same word weakens literary prose. Only Dostoevsky, as Oliver Ready has argued, can make this a strength. Chayanov often fell into this sin, forcing me to choose between translating absolutely honestly (matching the repeated word with a repeated word in translation) or tweaking (choosing, each time, from a range of words similar in meaning to the original) to improve the text. I wanted my readers to like Chayanov, so I tweaked. A related problem is how to renew a pre-existing translation: Bulgakov's The Red Crown (Krasnaia korona) is one of only two previously translated tales in the collection. The narrator, a former White officer living on a psychiatric ward, regularly hallucinates the sound of heavy artillery. He uses the phrase 'chastyi, chastyi stuk'. I translated this as 'endless thudding', not because it was necessarily the best translation - stuk gives numerous possibilities, from tapping to knocking and thumping - but in order to distance my own opening lines from others' versions. The worst passages in Red Spectres, the ones that tortured me most, belong to Aleksandr Grin's The Grey Motor-Car. This story begins:

On the evening of July 16th I went to the cinema, hoping to banish the unpleasant impression lingering from my latest conversation with Corrida. I had encountered her as she was crossing the boulevard. From some way off I had recognized her energetic stride and her distinctive way of swinging her left arm. I had bowed, trying to discern a shade of friendliness in those large, slightly surprised-looking eyes, gazing so sternly from under the proud curve of her hat.

I have lost count of the number of times I revised that %$£""!!! 'left arm'. 'Distinctive' is too fine a word for Grin's phraseology here. Let alone the awkwardness of the clause structure, and the ambiguity of Russian (where ruka can mean either 'hand' or 'arm'), how can anyone turn the phrase 'Еще издали я узнал ее порывистую походку и характерное размахивание левой рукой' into elegant English? I eventually reasoned that Grin's propensity for dry, torturous syntax in this story was intended to convey the 'distinctive' character of his high-functioning, Aspergerish narrator (convinced that the woman he loves is an animate, escaped wax mannequin). So, what should you do if an author's prose is simply not very good? Either hope the remainder of the story justifies the bad patch, or don't translate the piece in the first place.

Second question: getting it right. I can candidly admit that Red Spectres would be a tassel of embarrassing errors were it not for the generous efforts of those friends and colleagues, including my editor, who read and re-read each of the stories, catching my mistakes. For example, in Peskov's The Messenger I originally translated 'vylo v trube' ('the wind was howling in the chimney') as 'as if the wind were blowing through a trumpet'. Truba can, of course, mean 'trumpet' or 'chimney-pipe', but I think I was subconsciously over-influenced by the homonym with 'tuba'. When working on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii's grimly grotesque The Phantom, however, I had to defend one of my lines from nearly every reader who saw it: they objected to my version of the narrator's disclaimer 'Впрочем, я буду лишь пересказчиком:  мне принадлежат только слова, а факты  ему' as 'As it happens, I am no more than the retailer of this tale; I provide only the words, while the facts are his'. It was that phrase 'retailer of this tale' that stuck out: they just didn't like it. But I did, and I fought to keep it in because I knew Krzhizhanovskii for an angular and pun-happy composer of sentences (as his premier translator Joanne Turnbull can confirm). I also liked how 'retailer' contains a double pun on 're-telling' and 'retailing', evoking the faintly monetary notion that the owner of experiential facts can sell them on to a word-dealer. (Perhaps an analogy for the writer/translator relationship). The passage on the high-stakes poker game in  Grin's The Grey Motor-Car was read by one of my first-year students who, it emerged, had been something of a poker champion at his public school. His corrections proved invaluable. On the other hand, when we reached the final proof stage, my editor consulted a family friend with a PhD in electrical engineering with a view to adjusting Pavel Perov's 1924 scientific shocker Professor Knop's Experiment. Professor Knop's plan to achieve immortality involves much bandying of terms like 'nuclei', 'current', 'electrons', and 'static' and 'positive electricity'. My editor wanted to correct Knop's terminology for the sake of consistency and clarity. I resisted, as I strongly felt that Western stories of a similar epoch and theme were just as merrily incompetent with technical terms. This returns us to my argument in the previous paragraph that a translator should not over-improve. Indeed, while I was translating yet another Red Spectres tale, a teacup-tempest broke out on the Slavic Studies mailing list SEELANGS over how one should translate the word fortochka - is it a small window, part of a windowpane, or part of a door? In Russian winters, when glass has to be sealed for insulation, the fortochka remains accessible as a crucial channel for communication and occasional airing. Lacking the energy for the apiarial approach pace Bartlett, I guiltily continued translating this as 'the small window'.

The final problem, how to secure copyright, is one of the most entertaining - and often insoluble. When it came to the more obscure authors such as Pavel Perov, who boasts just one incomplete entry in one émigré authors' dictionary, my publisher, Angel Classics, and I simply covered our rumps by stating that we had made every attempt to secure copyright. In other cases, the path to establishing copyright is all too clear: would-be translators of Krzhzizhanovskii should be aware that copyright is held by the French publishing firm Verdier, who nipped in quick while the Anglophone world were still indifferent to the rediscovery of this major writer. Verdier must therefore receive an agreed fee for every new translation. With still other authors, one feels almost like a missing persons agency. Georgii Peskov (the pen name of Elena Deisha) was, with Perov, my jointly most obscure author. An early émigrée to Paris, she published one novel and several dozen delicately spooky, psychological ghost thrillers, mostly about middle-class Russians struggling with the economic and emotional damage of revolution and emigration. I was in St Petersburg researching an unrelated article when I discovered a detailed biographical dictionary of Russian émigrés in France, including not only my author, but short bios of her son and granddaughter, both of whom were very much alive. This meant they still held Peskov's copyright. As we were on the verge of going to press, I scrambled to contact the latter at her work address, the Orthodox Institut St Serge, Paris. Unfortunately, it was August, when everyone in Paris disappears en vacances. Panic! When we did contact Mlle Deisha, she very generously waived a fee, expressed her pleasure that her grandmother was still being read today, and graciously pointed out that I had mistyped said ancestor's year of birth, aging her a decade (we still had time to fix that, just about).
Picture credit  http://thenoiseoftime.blogspot.co.uk

In my next and final post on writing Red Spectres, I'll talk about why I wandered into the ghost story business, and what happens next.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A translator's tale: Part One

In After Babel, his monumental study of translation theory, George Steiner reminds us that the complete interpretation of any text by any critic is 'both a linguistic and an emotive act' where 'two principal movements of spirit conjoin'. Translators face an even steeper challenge. Neither encyclopaedic biographical knowledge of the original author nor exhaustive hermeneutic de-encryption of the original text replace that happy spiritual connection which Steiner calls 'the sum of insight, the intuitive thrust to the centre'. When I chose to start translating for love, rather than for money (departing from previous one-off, indifferently lucrative commissions), I implicitly believed I could make that 'intuitive thrust' to my translatee's original dreamscape. I began by translating Aleksandr Chaianov, an obscure Russian agronomist who wrote and published, between 1918 and 1928, five Gothic-fantastic short stories and one science fiction novel. The quintet of tales had never been translated into any language, probably because Chaianov was tried in the early thirties and executed as an anti-government conspirator in 1937; his work was, consequently, suppressed. I had stumbled on his fiction while doing  PhD research on the Russian twentieth-century Gothic (a story for another day). As I scrolled down the first pages of Venediktov on lib.ru, I realized ecstatically that my thesis - which had begun seeming rather spectral - was now assured by the mere existence of these outré, overblown, audaciously otiose stories - loyally and lovingly written in the best tradition of European Gothic-fantastic. They appeared under a pseudonym - Botanist X - that possibly harked back to one of E.T.A. Hoffmann's tales, and Chaianov's earliest story, The Hairdresser's Mannequin (1918), was explicitly dedicated to Hoffmann. A highlight of the first year of my PhD was perusing the Penguin translation of Hoffmann's selected tales in the walled garden of a university library, silently entranced by a book I couldn't even borrow: the Sandman, the mines of Falun, Mademoiselle de Scudéri. Chaianov loved this legacy too. This was my kind of writer.

Like Steiner, Chaianov was a polymath and something of a polyglot, and during the early years of Soviet rule, protected by Lenin and later Bukharin, he had been able to travel abroad as a member of a commission on agricultural reform. He lived in Berlin in the early 1920s with his family. In the summer of 2009, I sat at a cafe table in Berlin, under a colourful awning in a district still favoured by émigré Russians. Slowly sinking a tall Eis-Kaffee, I started translating one of Chaianov's tales, the third in chronological order - The Venetian Mirror. I wrote roughly, without a dictionary, scrawling faster and faster. I was convinced I was channeling Chaianov's own drifting mind as he'd worked in Berlin ninety years previously, fantasizing about Venetian sunlight. I was re-entering the writer's world via the Berlin sidewalk, coming up in the cellar of a Venetian antiquary with the canal sparkling outside the windows, surrounded by baroque cupids and Florentine tables, about to meet my own gaze in a haunted mirror. The hero buys the haunted mirror and brings it home to Moscow, only to have his reflection take over his life and destroy his beloved. The story flowed: 'Afterwards, Aleksey never could explain his mirror experiences to his friends using the ordinary ideas and images of our world. What’s more, his badly shaken mind retained almost no recollection of the days just before his terrifying adventure in the mirror.' If only I had checked the last line of the story: The Venetian Mirror was actually written in London, during Chaianov's posting there in 1922. So much for the sum of insight; I couldn't even get my dates right.

N.P. Feofilaktov's Autumn (1902)
Yet insight, however delusional, is vital. Without that sense of (misguided) affinity, without that imaginative quickening and the sense of appreciation and gratitude I bore for Chaianov, his stories would still be seeking a translator. But I found the tasks of actual translation to be strictly practical. My initial ambition to publish all five stories in a discrete volume foundered on the pragmatism of the publishing industry. The first firm I approached with my proposal, a mainstream medium-sized press, turned me down. The second turned me down but forgot to tell me. After three wasted months I wrote to them again; I used this lacuna to guilt-trip the manager into recommending a press which might welcome my idea. He suggested Angel Classics - a one-man London-based firm that produces new translations of not-so-esoteric prose and poetry by Russian and German writers from Andrei Bely to Georg Heym that have slipped, temporarily and undeservedly, under the Anglophone cultural radar. I wrote to Angel, and the rest is history. The editor gently disillusioned me about bringing our a Chaianov-only volume: it wouldn't sell. Instead, with the help of Angel's external reader, we chose eleven stories by a mixture of high-profile writers and unknowns: Bulgakov, Briusov, Krzhizhanovskii, Pavel Perov, Georgii Peskov, and three by Chaianov himself. I found an elusively sinister cover illustration by the Symbolist artist Nikolai Feofilaktov.  Finally I chose a title, too: Red Spectres. In my next two posts, I'll describe the experience of translating these eleven tales and why I chose the Gothic-fantastic genre (that is, the ghost story).

I did stumble, after all, into Chaianov's imaginary. Not in Berlin, nor in Venice, nor even London. The donkey work of translation was behind me; I'd just seen the first galleys from Red Spectres's American publisher, Overlook. On a street corner in New Orleans's French Quarter, between drifts of blowsy yellow bougainvillea and overhanging Boston fern, I found an antique shop cluttered with ornate bric-à-brac, including a compellingly OTT oil of two wrestling cupids in a densely wrought gilt frame. Dust contended with kitsch in every crowded corner and aisle: velvet, brass, redwood, teak and gilding sparkled in the gloom. The owner lacked the ingratiating qualities of his Venetian equivalent: judging from his sour monosyllables, his irritation seemed to be increasing as a function of tz (where t=time customer spends in store, and z=objects not purchased). In the very back of the store, where progress was constricted by junk, I caught someone's eye in a tall, broad mirror with an oak-leaf frame. I looked and looked again: but every time, the same strange woman was staring back at me.


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A Few Words to Honour Joseph Frank

My redoubtable fellow blogger XIX век recently alerted me to the death of Joseph Frank (which the Slavic Studies mailing list SEELANGS, distracted by the drama currently surrounding author Mikhail Shishkin, seems to have overlooked). Joseph Frank, who has died aged 94 of pulmonary failure, was Class of 1926 Professor of Comparative Literature (Emeritus) at Princeton; a noted literary theorist and inspiring educator; even, according to his Washington Post obituary, briefly a fiction writer. He is most admired, however, for his monumental five-volume Dostoevsky biography, which has guided several generations of Dostoevsky scholars. Never pedantic, yet meticulously researched; never dogmatic, yet broadly insightful; entertainingly written and infused with vivid sympathy for the writer's complex and sometimes torturous mindset (notwithstanding the paradox of a Jewish scholar lovingly writing the life of Russia's most respected anti-Semite), these wonderful books with their imposing individual titles (The Seeds of Revolt; The Years of Ordeal; and my favourite, no. 5, The Mantle of the Prophet) were compressed into a single magisterial one-volume edition by Mary Petrusewicz in 2009. Caryl Emerson, a former student of Frank's and now herself a professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, suggests convincingly here that the secret of the biography's catholic appeal was its intellectual breadth: 'Joseph Frank was not a Russianist; he was a Europeanist who fell in love with Dostoevsky's life and brought the whole of European culture to bear on it. For those of us trained more narrowly, this was a revelation'.

Joseph Frank 1918-2013
For me, Frank's biographies were priceless because they combined critical analysis of the fiction with clearheaded summaries of the writer's state of mind and financial affairs, with supporting citations from the diaries and other records of Dostoevsky himself besides a range of family and acquaintances. For instance, Frank quotes Dostoevsky's 1877 diary to conjure up the 'exalted state of rapture' (Frank's phrase) the 24-year-old writer experienced after his first meeting with Belinsky  in 1845. But despite this affinity with the young Dostoevsky's naive excitement, Frank doesn't spare his subject when describing his reaction to Belinsky's later criticism: 'Every word of qualification struck a mortal blow at Dostoevsky's boundless vanity and overweening sense of self-importance'. Frank is equally good on the many other stirring periods in Dostoevsky's life; I particularly enjoyed his accounts of the bungled affair with Polina Suslova in 1863 as the pair travelled from Paris to Italy, and of Dostoevsky's stint a decade later as editor of The Citizen, seen through the eyes of a young journalist, Varvara Timofeyevna. Compare Leonid Grossman's one-volume 1962 Dostoevsky: His Life and Work - the only major Russian biography at a time when Soviet Communism determinedly ignored Dostoevsky's legacy. Grossman doesn't integrate textual analysis with biography as thoroughly, and his fly-on-the-wall approach to historical narration is actively obtrusive: 'Pressing his thin clean-shaven lips together officiously, Gagarin darted a piercing look at the prisoner from his inquisitive, cunning eyes. he held his head a little to one side, as Catholic priests do during confession while they listen piously to the penitent sinner's voice' (from the chapter on Dostoevsky's court-martial, translated by Mary Mackler).

Joseph Frank will continue to be sincerely valued by readers and students of Dostoevsky for his contribution to the field. On a sly note: I loved this presumably inadvertent slip from the New York Times obituary: 'Before undertaking his Dostoevsky project, Mr. Frank was a wide-ranging intellect'. Future scholars, be warned! Reading Dostoevsky shrinks your brain...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Before and During Vladimir Sharov

I have to apologize to my loyal readers for my long and unexplained absence. Burned out after finishing and launching two books (more on which in a future post), I was invited by some kindly scientist acquaintances from a company called InGen on a tropical island holiday, where I've been soaking up the sun all winter. All I had to do was give up a few tissue samples - no idea why they wanted them.

Nikolai Fyodorov painted by Leonid Pasternak
Since my return I've been racing to catch up with Slavonic literary events; after attending a packed-out lecture in Cambridge by Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko (still best known for her 1996 novel Field Work in Ukrainian Sex), the next highlight was an intimate lecture by Vladimir Sharov. Sharov, a trained historian, is also possibly the most important Russian novelist you may never have heard of. Although he has been writing since the 1970s, his unusual novels only began attracting critical attention in the 1990s and have long lacked a translator; I first read an extract from Sharov's 2003 novel The Raising of Lazarus (Voskreshenie Lazarya) in translation several years ago. He interested me then because of the unusually explicit resonance between his plotline and the extraordinary thinking of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov (one of the world's all-time great eccentric librarians), which I was then researching for my doctoral thesis. I was therefore not entirely surprised when Sharov's talk last week in Cambridge, which was supposed to be about his career as a novelist, branched into a half-hour lecture on the theories of Fyodorov. The latter, although superficially barmy, have nonetheless informed the majority of major Russian writers and artists from the late nineteenth-century to the present day, not forgetting the rocket designer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who benefited - as a penniless youth - from Fyodorov's book recommendations and encouragement to explore the cosmos. Sharov reminded us of Fyodorov's far-reaching and undying influence, adding his own unique perception that the house style of the Soviet newspaper Pravda was identical to the turgid and repetitive paragraphs of Fyodorov's own The Philosophy of the Common Task (Filosofiia obshchego dela), a two-tome monster assembled from the philosopher's notes after his death in 1903 by two of his disciples. Unwittingly following Zabuzhko, who had rather charmingly believed we expected her to single-handedly define the purpose of literature, Sharov volunteered his opinion that literary prose was an 'instrument for living', or perhaps for decoding life; yet, like life, literary prose abounds in nameki, lakuny, molchaniia, otkazy, nezakonchennye kartiny  (implications, omissions, silences, refusals, unfinished pictures). Thus the best prose, like life itself, requires a commentary for accurate interpretation, or sotrudnichestvo - companionship - as Sharov expressed it. It was a sign of Sharov's modesty, therefore, that rather than discuss his own prose he preferred to limn Fyodorov's contribution to culture and describe his personal favourite historical period - the reign of Ivan the Terrible and the confused smutnoe vremia, or Time of Troubles, that succeeded it. I was longing to ask whether Sharov, as a historian and novelist, knew the location of Ivan's famous lost library - but something made me hold my peace.

Me and Vladimir Sharov
Sharov is present at this week's Slovo Literary festival in London, organized by Academia Rossica, and for more on his activities there check out this page. You can even book online to see him in conversation with his translator, Oliver Ready, whose thoughtful approach to translating Dostoevsky has featured in a previous blog post. Oliver's translation of Sharov's 1993 novel Do i vo vremia, as Before and During, will be released later this year by Dedalus Press.