Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Translation Squared: Liudmila Ulitskaya’s “Daniel Stein, Translator”

I began reading Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) with a metaphorical deep breath that I’d been gathering for months. Knowing the book’s history of awards and sales, I was afraid of disappointment. Knowing Daniel Stein focuses on religion, I was afraid my undistinguished Sunday School education would fail me.

Fortunately, both Ulitskaya and the fictional Stein are translators who make even the densest theological ideas and passages in this utopian book accessible (or short!) enough that they don’t hinder reading comprehension or flow. That’s fitting for a book and hero stressing understanding, kindness, and love among all people, including nonbelievers.

At first glance, Daniel Stein looks like literary proof of the existence of entropy: Ulitskaya tells her title character’s story through 170 fictional documents, presenting new sources and twists until the end of the book.

Ulitskaya’s method, however, is anything but chaotic. Careful planning means her polyphonic approach reveals details of Stein’s life bit-by-bit through recollections, from Stein and people who knew him. Though the book’s mock documents aren’t always offered in chronological order, they generally follow stages in the life of the paradoxical Stein, who was born a Polish Jew but works for a Nazi officer, and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel.

Daniel Stein covers, in 500 pages, more big and serious topics than might feel realistic for several books: World War 2 and partisans, religion in the former Soviet Union, national and religious identity, doctrine and heresy, sexuality, language, misunderstanding, and masks people wear to survive. Much of the book takes place in Israel, and Ulitskaya also fits in a potential Messiah, the Jerusalem syndrome, and religious violence.

Ulitskaya succeeds in corralling highly divergent topics, views, and characters to reach an emotional overarching conclusion that might appear naïve in a more traditional novel: people of all beliefs should simply behave well and love one another.

Daniel Stein works as a novel because Ulitskaya never lets the reader forget she controls her material. Lives and narratives intertwine more successfully than in some of her previous novels (notably Медея и её дети (Medea and Her Children)), which sometimes feel more like undisciplined collections of characters than novels.

With Daniel Stein, Ulitskaya appropriates the history of a real person – Stein is based on the life of Oswald Rufeisen – to write fiction, and she decides which pieces of his history belong in her book. In case the reader forgets who’s in charge, Ulitskaya includes, within the novel, letters to her literary agent, describing progress on the book. These letters reveal Ulitskaya’s efforts: what’s real, what’s imagined, and her own feelings.

Some readers may not like these metafictional intrusions, but I think they solidify Ulitskaya’s message. Not only does she glue together shards of divergent and complex philosophical material with her own thoughts about organized religion, she reinforces the writer’s role as creator. Daniel Stein, Translator, would not have existed without Ulitskaya’s translation of Rufeisen into Stein.

I hope Daniel Stein will soon be translated into English and other languages so non-Russian readers can also learn from Ulitskaya, Stein, and Rufeisen. For now, those who read English have In the Lion’s Den, Nechama Tec’s (nonfiction) biography of Rufeisen, a book that Ulitskaya cites in her novel as an important source. My husband read it while I read Daniel Stein, and our discussions uncovered many, many commonalities.

Summary: An unusually rewarding and unified polyphonic novel that examines why and how organized religion and kindness do not always coincide. Despite its structure and heavy-sounding topics, the book generally reads very smoothly thanks to Ulitskaya’s tremendous discipline in piecing together a novel from diverse witnesses. Even if Daniel Stein is not always easy to read or describe, it can be read on many levels, and its positivity and emotion are difficult to resist.

Edit, February 21, 2008: For readers who understand Russian well, I recommend this interview with Ulitskaya on Эхо Москвы's "Книжное казино" show. Among other things, she speaks about Daniel Stein and tolerance. I agree with my friend who called the interview a treat.


  1. I found your page on searching for information on Ludmilla Ulitskaya after hearing a very enthusiastic critique of this book on Deutschland Funk (Cologne).

    I was hoping to find an English translation but after reading your comments may take on the German version - which was published recently.


  2. Dear Iris,

    Thank you for your comment. I'm glad to hear that Daniel Stein is now available in more languages. It is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it.

    Readers occasionally ask me about translations of this book, so here is a page from Ulitskaya's agent's Web site that summarizes the book and lists translations.
    Daniel Stein

    Thank you for your visit. I hope you enjoy the book!