Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Translators’ Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian… Finally!

If you were to ask me what I enjoyed most at the Translators’ Coven, which I attended at St. Antony’s College in Oxford, England, last month, I’d probably say something like “everything” or “all of it.” Those two days of formal and informal discussion about translation, Russian, and English—mostly Russian-English translation, but with one panel about English-Russian work—were even more fun and informative than I’d expected. Though it’s always difficult to explain what’s so fun and informative (I’ve already tried and failed quite a few times), the lively official coven report, compiled by Boris Dralyuk and available online here in PDF form, should give you a sense of why I had such a great time and why I hope so very much there will be another coven next year. I’ll use this post to amplify and complement certain points in Boris’s detailed report…

So many translators… I think it’s safe to say that everybody was surprised the coven drew so many people: in his opening remarks, Oliver Ready said he and Robert Chandler had expected a much smaller gathering so had to reserve a larger room when it turned out that over 120 people (!) wanted to come. I’m tremendously grateful to Oliver and Robert for organizing the coven, and to sponsors CEELBAS, the Prokhorov Foundation, and the Russkiy Mir Foundation for funding the coven and supporting my travel, care, and feeding. It was a wonderful treat to have a chance to meet, speak with, and listen to so many colleagues from what feels more and more like a true community: the coven added to my impression that Russian-to-English literary translation is experiencing something of a boom, to borrow a word from conversations with one of you. It was especially encouraging to hear how busy everybody is translating and, yes, publishing. I’m already taking entries for the 2014 new translation list.

A chance meeting… Speaking of the value of community, Boris’s report notes that the coven provided a chance for Peter France and Anatoly Liberman to learn, by virtue of speaking on the same panel, that they’ve both been translating Baratynsky (a.k.a. Boratynsky)… but without knowing of each other’s work. I mentioned Peter’s work on Mandelshtam in a previous post about poetry translation events in London the week after the coven; Peter also translates Batiushkov and Annenskii, who was one of my big favorites in grad school. Anatoly spoke of handling various technical problems of poetry translation, such as differing quantities of syllables in Russian and English. Anatoly, by the way, writes the “Oxford Etymologist” columns for the Oxford University Press blog: you can learn about words like “pumpernickel” and “flute” here.

Retranslations… Though I’ve never retranslated anything beyond isolated lines of classics that pop up in contemporary work, I loved the panel on retranslations. Rosamund Bartlett spoke about her work on Anna Karenina, offering very practical bits on topics like Tolstoy’s use of repetition, which she sometimes preserves and sometimes does not, depending on shades of meaning, the value of switching word order in exceptionally long sentences, and the vexing question of feminine surnames. I also appreciated Oliver’s account of spending about five years translating Crime and Punishment, which he wrote out by hand; Oliver, too, mentioned repetition, saying he kept a glossary so he could preserve repetition, as appropriate.

Collaborative translation… Discussion of collaboration was a highlight, too: Anne Fisher spoke about translating poems by Maxim Amelin with her husband, poet Derek Mong: she showed us drafts, beginning with a crib and ending with polished lines, and acknowledged disagreements. After Anne spoke, panel chair Robert Chandler added that he and his wife, with whom he collaborates, sometimes try “something silly” when they’re stuck. I like that approach, too: I often repeat lines over and over to myself, out loud (and, hmm, usually staring blankly at the wall), trying out new words. It often works for me. Robert is, of course, an active collaborator: I’ve been enjoying working on a Platonov story with him and am just getting started on a play. It’s been especially instructive seeing how Robert draws on opinions and advice from experts on Platonov and railroad technology from the early twentieth century. But back to the coven itself! Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, both of whom are co-editing Anthology of Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky with Robert, spoke of their work together, using the example of Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Field Hospital” and some of Irina’s poems. It was fun hearing how they work on poetry that Irina did not write: Irina gives Boris a summary of elements in the poem she sees as crucial. I liked Irina’s metaphor of “the bristles of each line” in a poem that the translator should feel.

“Productive” and “rowdy”… Boris’s summary uses those adjectives to describe Chris Tauchen’s presentation about his work on Nikolai Kononov’s short story Аметисты (“Amethysts”). Chris asked attendees to look at a problematic passage and offer translation ideas. As Boris notes in the report, “there is little translators like to do more than translate.” He’s right: it was fun talking over ideas with the people sitting nearby… this involved, of course, repeating lines over and over, out loud, trying out new words. I drew on that theme in my own talk about translating dialogue for plays, too, highlighting the importance of intonation.

English-Russian translation… The panel on translating Julian Barnes and Peter Ackroyd from English to Russian was a nice change of pace on the second afternoon: Anna Aslanyan’s observations on looking to Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler for help when she was working on Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, which is partially set in the eighteenth century and uses spellings like “fabrick” and “agonie,” was reassuring after my work on excerpts from Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Laurus, which contains bits of archaic Russian. Alexandra Borisenko and Victor Sonkin’s presentation on retranslating Flaubert’s Parrot was filled with humor, some of which drew on passages from Soviet translations where meaning was overshadowed by what Boris neatly summarizes as “the prudishness of the Soviet approach.”

The non-coven cows… Finally, I can’t help but mention how much I loved walking around Port Meadow in Oxford with Anne Marie Jackson and dozens of cows the day before the coven. It was just the thing to shake off one plane flight and two bus rides.

Other posts about the coven:
Alan Shaw on Prosoidia, here.
Erik McDonald on XIX век, here

Disclaimers: The usual. And, again, my profuse thanks to coven’s sponsors and organizers!

Up Next: Back, finally, to writing about books! Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Orphics, Iurii Buida’s Thief, Spy, and Murderer, and then, at some point in the future, Maxim Kantor’s huge (608 large pages) Red Light/World, which I started last Sunday and am finding very intriguing so far… it reads like a combination of a dishy contemporary novel, a historical novel, and a sociopolitical rant. We’ll see how that goes.

Photo Credit: Sarah Charlesworth, Creative Commons, via Wikipedia


  1. Thanks for the write up, really interesting! I live vicariously through your travels...

    1. Thanks, Andrea G.! I hope we somehow, someday, end up in the same place so we can finally meet!

  2. Wonderful write-up - and I love the photo of the cows on Port Meadow!

    1. And thank you, Ani, for taking me to Port Meadow -- that was a lovely afternoon!

  3. Catherine Cauvin-HigginsAugust 14, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    Thank you for sharing your trips with us, and thank you for all those titles... Where to find the time to catch up?

    For now, having not much time to sit down with a book, when I am not busy translating, I "read" while cooking and knitting listening to

    A nice way to visit with "old friends," mostly classics. In Denver we are blessed with a huge audiobook reserve on CDs from the public library, including contemporary Russian lit. Probably true of other cities with a large Russian-speaking population.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Catherine, I'm glad you enjoyed the post and are listening to lots of Russian books!

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