Russian Dinosaur interviews translator Bryan Karetnyk
As regular readers know, this blog loves Gaito Gazdanov, one of the most important - and least remembered - of Russian émigré novelists. Previous posts include this guest post by Gazdanov translator Justin Doherty, and my review of Bryan Karetnyk's version of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (Pushkin Press, 2013). I'm therefore delighted to follow these up by interviewing Bryan Karetnyk himself. I believe in resisting extinction: Bryan K does just this on a literary scale, by turning a largely forgotten Russian writer into a contemporary publishing success. His Spectre garnered some splendid reviews, notably in the Guardian, the LRB, and the Independent. His translation of Gazdanov's 1950 novel The Buddha's Return (Возвращение Будды) is just out with Pushkin Press.
Bryan, welcome to the blog! Your work as a translator is very much in harmony with our interests. But what led you to choose Russian translation as a career? Tell us about your background.
Why Gaito Gazdanov?
You’ve now translated two Gazdanov novels. What are the most difficult aspects of working with his prose? What do you find most rewarding?
You’ve published both your Gazdanov translations with Pushkin Press, a small but highly regarded publisher very active in publicizing less well-known authors from Antal Szerb to Teffi. How did you and Pushkin Press find each other?
They’re certainly a fantastic publisher to work with, and I can’t thank the whole team enough for having had such faith in Gazdanov and me from the very outset. As it happens, I’d been working with Pushkin for some time, even before Gazdanov came onto the scene. After the major success of Rosemarie Tietze’s translation of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf in Germany in 2012, we began to discuss the possibility of reintroducing him to the English-speaking world in a new translation, and things progressed from there.
You have worked in publishing yourself. What do you think the future holds for small publishers like Pushkin, Angel Classics, Noise Trade or And Other Stories, to name a few? Will they remain financially viable? How can they adapt to changing markets?
Reacting to the eBook-versus-paper debate, of course, you have to innovate and adapt to the market and changing reading habits; I think Pushkin in particular have reacted well to this, apprehending the need for both high-quality production and beautiful design: to make people part with hard-earned cash, you have to offer them something that looks and feels as good as it is to read; their books, as well as those from And Other Stories, are universally acclaimed for their design as well as content. As far as eBooks are concerned, they can actually be a great asset to publishers, if only they embrace them: the production costs are relatively low in comparison with print publishing (effectively there’s only a single production cost): the rest is revenue. There are also a lot of innovative things that can be – and indeed is being – done with eBooks: for example, multimedia formats, dramatic readings, commentary and expanded apparatuses… Just look at the iPad app Faber produced for Eliot’s The Waste Land.
As a translator, what’s your philosophy?
You must have a certain degree of daring, I think. There are so many layers to a text: first, the author and his (or her) voice, but also how this voice has developed along the author’s career; secondly, the world created by the book itself, and where the book is situated within the author’s oeuvre; finally, the rhythms, cadences, semantics and aesthetics of the text – all of this has to be accounted for in some way in a translation.
In striving for this, I always hold close two principles: invisibility (of the translator) and mirroring (of the text). By mirroring, I mean that the translation ought to be a reflection of the original in as much as it can be: if something sounds odd in the original, the English should sound equally odd; if it’s obscene, then make the English obscene (but always beware that an eye for an eye isn’t always equal in the world of ‘verbal transmigration’!). If we take Gazdanov, for example, his writing is very much situated in a specific time, place and literary tradition; of course, no modern-day translator is going to be able to recreate the prose a contemporary English writer might have produced – to strive to do so would be folly, I think – but that doesn’t mean that a translation cannot suggest all these things; you can hint at them through word choice, phrasing, and so on. It’s all about finding the appropriate tone.
Who’s your favourite translator – living or dead?
Nabokov has to be a favourite, if only for his vision of what a translator ought to be; naturally, however, the vision and its result were quite different when it came to translating his own works. But then, there’s quite a different magic involved in self-translation, which is wholly admissible.
That aside, the two translators I’d have to point to are Anthea Bell and Len Rix. Any readers unfamiliar with Bell’s work need only digest her recent interview in the Guardian to see why: her work has been so prolific and consistently inspired over the years as to humble every aspiring translator. And it is to Len Rix that we owe so much for bringing Antal Szerb so elegantly and sensitively into the literature he loved so well – English.
Can you share your forthcoming projects? Do you have a wish list of would-be translatees?
Do you have a favourite writer – not necessarily Russian? Or perhaps a (very short) shortlist of favourite writers?
Thank you, Bryan!
You can read Bryan Karetnyk's translation of a Gazdanov short story here on Pushkin Press's website.