Since this blog serves as my online filing system (surprise!) and since I happened to read two interviews with Russian-to-English translators last week, I thought I’d devote a post (meaning this post) to them: translator interviews aren’t exactly uncommon but these two covered points I especially enjoy reading about. The death last week of Gregory Rabassa, who translated from the Spanish and Portuguese, reminded me of an interview with him that I especially enjoyed reading, too.
First off, from a brief Q&A on the Pushkin Press site, here’s the beginning of Robert Chandler’s answer the question “What does being a translator mean to you?”:
I was once introduced to an acclaimed French translator of Shakespeare. I was taken aback by my own entirely unexpected reaction: I felt envious of him. He could get close to Shakespeare in a way that I can’t.
The more I think about what Robert says, the more moving I find his answer and the more I envy that French translator, too! The closeness of which Robert speaks is one of my favorite parts of translating. There’s a technical closeness with the text that can result in remembering specific words and usage from specific books, and even where tricky passages are located on their pages, and then there’s an emotional side, too: some books make me cry on each and every draft because I feel the stories so deeply on every each and draft. I learned a lot about thoroughness and collaboration from working with Robert on a Platonov story, and it was a joy to observe and sense his closeness with Platonov.
When asked to recommend just one book from Russian literature, Robert began his answer with this:
Andrey Platonov, ‘The Return’: This short story about an army captain returning home to his family in 1946 is one of the wisest works of literature I know. It is also both tender and funny.
“The Return” (“Возвращение”), which I’ve written about in the past (here) is a beautiful story that I love recommending to anybody and everybody. It’s in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and it’s in Soul, in Robert’s translation. I’ll also mention that it makes me happy that Robert cites 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, which Boris Dralyuk is editing for Pushkin Press; I translated a short story by Mikhail Prishvin for the book. I can’t wait to see 1917 toward the end of the year.
Liesl Schillinger’s interview with Jamey Gambrell, on the Los Angeles Review of Books site, could keep me writing posts for an entire month! I have tremendous respect for Gambrell’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (previous post), which I should keep on my desk at all times: just opening Day to any random page is instant inspiration because a) I know this book had to be difficult to translate, b) Gambrell makes it look like this painstaking work was easy to do, and c) I can tell she had fun. Translation is painstaking fun.
I enjoyed the whole interview and—among other things—am glad to see that Gambrell thinks there’s been an upturn in the publishing of literary translations in recent years. (I share her belief so if I’m delusional, at least I’m not alone in my delusions!) Still, it’s Gambrell’s answers about process that felt closest. Nearly a dozen drafts sounds like a lot until I start thinking about how many times I go through my manuscripts, on the screen and on paper (they sure pile up fast…). Probably what I identify with most, though, in terms of process—this is something that has amazed me ever since it was part of my life as a freelance writer, too—is how the work seems to require hours of agonizing thinking about difficult passages but then resolutions seem to appear by magic. Meaning: out of thin air, despite the hours of agonizing thinking. After mentioning a specific passage from a Tolstaya story that’s filled with quotations from Pushkin, nursery rhymes, and all manner of other references, Gambrell says:
I must have spent three weeks on these three or four pages alone. I went back to it again and again. Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning and say, “That’s how I want to do it!” In that sense, I think that’s where being a translator and a writer overlap; when you are working on a piece like that, it sits in your head and simmers, and there is a process going on even if you are not aware of it. You will be in the middle of something, talking to someone, and you’ll suddenly break off and go, “Oh! That’s the word!” It is so wonderful when that happens — so rewarding.
This is one of the best feelings in the world. The shower seems to be where I make my biggest “policy” decisions about translations and cooking seemed to dredge up vocabulary insights and associations. The hows and whys of what goes on in my head are mysteries I don’t think I want to solve. Ever.
Finally, Gregory Rabassa’s death last week reminded me of Susan Bernofsky’s 2013 interview with Rabassa for The Rumpus. I read the interview when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and it’s stuck with me because, I suspect, of the liveliness of the conversation, the mention of similarities between translation and acting, and Rabassa’s multiple uses of the word “fun.”
Disclaimers: The usual, plus I’m feeling a bit lazy and sleepy after a beach outing this afternoon.
Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I’m still mulling over, trying to figure out how to write about it without giving away the whole story; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I am now officially calling Faith; Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which went to the beach with me this afternoon.