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, 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.