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

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.