Thursday, 3 April 2014

Don't Translate The War: Bulgakov in Kiev

From an email written by a friend's son in February 2014:

‘In Kiev everything is very bad… I wasn’t even allowed through with my passport and my pass… yesterday I came under fire on Arsenalnaya; fighting broke out just as I was on my way home, stones and grenades were flying, I hid myself with some other people behind a kiosk, and made it home by running from shelter to shelter [перебежками].’

Here’s Nikolka Turbin in December 1918:

‘Panting heavily and feeling his legs weakening and giving way under him, Nikolka ran along the empty Razyezhaya Street and made his way without incident as far as the crossroads at the junction of two streets […]. By the side of a pillar he saw a pool of blood and a pile of manure, together with two abandoned rifles and a blue student’s cap. […] The crackle of machine-gun fire from the Upper City was now constant.’

Modern reality and Mikhail Bulgakov's fiction dissolve into each other on the strange, steep, seductive streets of Kiev, as civilization blurs into chaos overnight and two young men, a century apart, flee sniper fire through the same ancient capital city. Roger Cockrell’s definitive new translation of Bulgakov’s The White Guard (1925-9; Alma Classics, 2012) has appeared at a tragically apposite time for those who frame Ukraine’s current conflicts in the context of her even more turbulent transition from Tsarist to Soviet imperial possession. The White Guard, Bulgakov’s first novel, follows the Turbin family – elegant Elena, deserted by her callous, tergiversating husband; dourly patriotic Alexei (the author’s alter ego); naïve Nikolka, and a coterie of colourful neighbours and friends – through the bitter winter of 1918-19. They occupy the first floor of a townhouse modelled precisely on Bulgakov’s own, down to the famous caricatures and doggerel inked on the tiles of the Dutch stove and the well-loved volumes of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Nat Pinkerton in the family library. Bulgakov hymns the middle-class luxuries of home, although clearly on the ebb, in contrast to other, inimical cultural riptides: the Jew-hanging, cadet-shooting nationalist army commanded by quasi-mythical Semyon Petlyura; the desperately decadent nightlife of billetless officers and cash-rich refugees from Bolshevized Moscow; the grief of the newly bereaved; and the sudden, senseless deaths of loyalist Ukrainian forces, abandoned by their own high command as the latter follows its government into exile.
Bulgakov in 1913
Bulgakov’s novel is confusing, winding, structurally flawed (he later reworked the plot into Stalin’s favourite play, The Days of the Turbins). It is also enticing, richly evocative, and in places maddeningly skilful (such as the constant sub-audible dialogue with Tolstoy). I don’t mean the intentional echoing of War and Peace; the resonances are subtler. A minor character – an archetypally downright, inspiringly simple sergeant-major, not even a character proper as he predeceases the narrative by two years – is named Zhilin after the similarly ordinary hero of Tolstoy’s novella The Prisoner of the Caucasus. This is typical intertextual finesse. On the other hand, Bulgakov’s lyrical descriptions of the magical ‘City’, or melodramatic scenes like Elena’s passionate bargaining with the Virgin Mary for her dying brother's life, are beautifully written but feel forced; their intensity distracts. I prefer more plebeian set pieces such as the burgling of Vasilisa (the Turbins’ avaricious downstairs neighbour) or the wonderful inanities of Lariosik, their bumbling country cousin who turns up in the middle of the civil war with a canary and a sheaf of currency, and falls quietly and immediately in love with Elena. Lariosik’s mini-Bildungsroman unfolds in the second half of the book, unfairly but perfectly concealed behind the storylines of other family members.

This new translation goes further than the previous versions by Michael Glenny (1971) and Marion Schwartz (2008), and succeeds better than either. Cockrell’s version is more rigorously authentic than Glenny’s very good translation, even where accuracy challenges the capacity of the language. To give just one example, he is the first translator to find an English equivalent for Colonel Nai-Turs’s distinctive Serbian accent. For Schwarz, Nai-Turs is simply the 'burring, laconic colonel' (p. 146). Glenny ducks the issue, thus ignoring Bulgakov’s comic portrayal of this otherwise repressively gloomy character. When Cockrell’s Nai-Turs is forcing a senior officer at gunpoint to release footwear for his men, he says, ‘You pick up phone, you sirry old man, and my gun shoot you in head… Then you rie on froor.’ Even dying in front of terrified Nikolka, Nai-Turs is laughable: ‘Don’t be so damned heloic’ are among his last words. 

Cockrell also pulls off the novel’s difficult introduction (original here); this is one of several places where Bulgakov’s deliberately elegiac style, keyed to the Book of Revelations, teeters constantly on the verge of tendentiousness. Translators can easily fall over the edge. Here’s Cockrell: ‘Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, the second year after the revolution. The summer was abundant with sun and the winter with snow, and two stars stood especially high in the sky: the shepherds’ star – the evening Venus – and red, quivering Mars. […] that very same week the white coffin containing the body of [the Turbins’] mother had been carried down the steep St Alexei’s Hill to the little church of St Nicholas the Good in Podol, on the Embankment’. Glenny tumbles off the cliff, or rather, the embankment: ‘Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars, quivering, red. […] the white coffin with the body of their mother was carried away down the slope of St Alexei’s Hill towards the Embankment, to the little church of the [sic] St Nicholas the Good’. Schwartz is oratorical: 'Great was the year and terrible was the Year of Our Lord 1918, the second since the Revolution has begun. Sun had been abundant in the summer, snow in the winter, and two stars had risen particularly high in the sky: Venus, the Evening Star; and Mars, red and quivering. [...] a white coffin with his mother's body was carried down steep Alexeyevsky Slope toward Podol and the little church of St Nicholas the Good, on the Embankment'. Here as throughout the novel, Cockrell restrains Bulgakov's rhetoric whenever it becomes incompatible with English literary prose, without sacrificing accuracy. Such skilled compromises more than justify his new translation.
‘I will be terribly sorry if I’m mistaken and if The White Guard is not an exceptional piece’, Bulgakov, modest as ever, confided to his diary on January 5, 1925. Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters (Alma Classics, 2013) is the latest of Cockrell’s Bulgakov translations (which include The Fatal Eggs, also for Alma). It is beautifully presented (every page headed by the year of composition, making navigation easier) and thoroughly endnoted, as is The White Guard. As a cold-blooded reader, I prefer footnotes (endnotes force you to break the flow of concentration by flicking to the end, or else they generate guilty guesswork if you refrain and read on). Their sheer plenitude in this edition is distracting. Two other immediately striking points about the presentation reflect the unstable status of translation in the UK: Diaries and Selected Letters was subsidized by the Arts Council, a sobering reminder that literary translation is a niche, unsustainable activity; and the disappointing absence of the translator’s name from the front or back covers (it is sequestered, instead, on the flyleaf). 

Unlike The White Guard, however, this volume begs an existential question: was there any need to replace Julie Curtis’ groundbreaking translation of largely identical material, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: A Life in Letters and Diaries (Bloomsbury, 1991)? Moreover, Curtis’ translations were made at a time when the goodwill of Bulgakov’s widow (the apparently adipose Lyubov’ Evgenyevna – see below) was required to obtain original documents, not forgetting the goodwill of an intimidating network of Soviet scholars. Manuscripts Don’t Burn  remains a more important scholarly resource, primarily because it provides fuller historical context by including letters from Bulgakov’s family and acquaintances (and helpfully prefaces each chronological section with a characterful commentary). Curtis’s collection, however, achieves its range by omitting or editing sections of Bulgakov’s own correspondence. These are restored in Cockrell’s new translation, which excludes all voices except Bulgakov’s own. The writer emerges through his own words: bitter, observant, whimsical, flippant, conceited, bizarrely unjust to his first wife (he asked her not to acknowledge him if she ever saw him in the street with another woman; she apparently consented), extravagantly uxorious toward his third.
Bulgakov and poklonnitsa [female admirer]
Curtis’s and Cockrell’s books complement, rather than replace, each other; moreover, Cockrell is probably the better stylist, reproducing Bulgakov’s suave yet idiosyncratic flow in absorbingly natural English. But because he is less literal than Curtis, he is also, in places, less strictly accurate. This sample comparison demonstrates both Cockrell’s  smoother style (and tact, in his choice of adjective for Bulgakov’s wife), and his slightly misleading version of the phrase ‘
унижаюсь даже до легкой ревности’. Here's the original (and my deliberately 'straight' translation):

 Ужасное состояние: все больше влюбляюсь в свою жену. Так обидно--10 лет открещивался от своего... Бабы,  как бабы. А теперь унижаюсь даже до легкой ревности. Чем-то мила и сладка. И толстая. Газет не читал сегодня.

A dreadful state of affairs: I'm falling more and more in love with my wife. It's offensive - for 10 years I've been swearing off my... Women are women. And now I'll even humiliate myself to the point of feeling slightly jealous. There's something nice and sweet about her. And plump. I didn't read any newspapers today.

Julie Curtis:

I'm in a dreadful state: I'm falling more and more in love with my wife. It's so infuriating: for ten years I've refused to have anything to do with... Women are just women. And now I am demeaning myself to the extent even of slight jealousy. Somehow she's very dear to me and sweet. And fat. [last line omitted from translation]

Roger Cockrell:

I'm in a terrible state: I'm falling more and more in love with my wife. How annoying: for the last ten years I've kept on turning away from anyone close to me... a woman is just a woman, after all. But now I allow myself to be humiliated by even the slightest twinge of jealousy. She's sweet and lovely. And large. Didn't read the newspapers today.

Lyubov' Evgenyevna, Bulgakov's second wife. Large? Fat? Or just plump?
Comparisons like these may seem petty, but they highlight the importance (and elusiveness) of total accuracy in non-fictional translation. Nuance is crucial when so much of Bulgakov’s prose, already involuted, had to be guarded and self-censored. The watershed moment in Bulgakov's diary comes in spring 1926, when an infamous OGPU raid on his flat confiscated both the manuscript of Heart of a Dog and the author's diaries. Understandably, Bulgakov never wrote another diary entry. Cockrell continues the story with Bulgakov's letters, his OGPU interrogation statement of September 1926 ('I love the intelligentsia and consider it a weak but nevertheless very important social group in the country. The fates of its members are close to my own, and their experiences are dear to me'), and the famous letters sent in 1930 and 1931 respectively to the 'Government of the USSR' and to Stalin. It remains extraordinary that Bulgakov said what he did as publicly as he did; it is astonishing that even The White Guard, published (with cuts) in the Soviet Union in 1925, honestly reflected Bulgakov’s contempt for the Bolsheviks and sympathy with the Turbins’ class (which was, of course, his own).
Bulgakov in 1928
He pulled off political blasphemy by historicizing it: The White Guard can be anti-Bolshevik because its characters, and their milieu, are understood to already be as extinct as, well, me. Perhaps because his novels and plays are so successful at showing the real man, Bulgakov’s diaries and letters disappoint, for all their charm. Their glittering brevity affords only glimpses of Bulgakov: the writer's truth shines through his fiction. 

Disclaimers: Julie Curtis is a personal friend. Roger Cockrell has previously written kind reviews of my work. Many thanks to Alma Classics for sending me review copies of both books, and to YK for sharing her son's message with me. RD

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  1. Thanks for this post, Russian Dinosaur! I've just started Белая гвардия so it's interesting to read your take on the novel and its translations. The text feels very dense, perhaps because its starts off with the references to the Book of Revelations, along with all those measures of time... in any case, I'm enjoying sorting through things and taking my time. (I've tried many times over the years to read White Guard and only now, on what must be at least the tenth attempt, did it hit me right. I failed with the play version many times, too, an even more egregious omission from my reading because it was on my grad school reading list!)

  2. Thank you for your comment, Lisa! I don't blame you for saving this novel up - I've always found it the most difficult of Bulgakov's prose works to enjoy. Thankfully, I finally (mostly) do...

  3. The oddest thing is that books like this that I "save up" are often the ones I end up enjoying and respecting the most. We'll see how this one fares! The enjoyment certainly isn't the same type as from Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog but I think that makes me appreciate White Guard--and Bulgakov--all the more.

  4. Thanks for posting! Very interesting. And it was also really intriguing to compare the style of translation of the extracts from Bulgakov's correspondence with his wife.