The train went on further.

Agryz, Butrysh, Sarapul…

The children began to die first. One after another, as if they were playing tag, all the unfortunate peasant’s children passed to the other side — first the two babies (together on the same day), then the older ones. His wife followed them, and by that time she could not distinguish the border between that world and this one very clearly. That day, the peasant himself beat his head against the wall of the car — he was trying to split his head open. They carried him away, tied him down, and held him until he calmed down.

Yanaul, Rabak, Turun…

They buried the dead next to the railway in common graves. They dug them themselves with wooden shovels  under the sights of the guards’ rifles. At times, they were not able to finish digging a grave or cover the bodies with rubble — the command would ring out, “All abo-o-oard!” They would leave the bodies lying in the open, hoping that someone on the next train would be kind enough to cover them. They themselves always covered the open graves left by others when they stopped next to them.

Bisert, Chebota, Revda…

Zuleykha Opens Her Eyes, Guzel Yakhina

The train sequence in Zuleykha is devastating  — there’s no other word for it. It’s the early scenes in the taiga where the novel went off track. Later, the chapter “The Black Tent” is where the (to me) unmotivated changes in Zuleykha herself come to a head. I struggled to understand how her choices in that chapter can be explained given who Yakhina makes her out to be earlier — the several hints that this chapter is coming never rang true for me.

Based on Goodreads reviews and blog posts, I’m clearly in the minority on this, and even given my reservations about the book, it was well worth reading. Not of prize-winning quality for me, but good.

Original text:

Покатили дальше.

Агрыз, Бутрыш, Сарапул…

Первыми начали умирать дети. Один за другим, словно играя в салки, убежали на му сторону все дети несчастного крестьянина — сначала оба младенца (разом, в один день), затем старшие. Следом отправилась его жена, к тому времени уже не совсем ясно различавшая границу между тем миром и этим. Сам крестьянин в тот день бился головой о стену вагона — хотел расколоть себе череп. Оттащили, связали, держали, пока не успокоился.

Янаул, Рабак, Турун…

Умерших закапывали вдоль путей, в одной общей яме. Копали сами, деревянными лопатами, под прицелом конвойных винтовок. Бывало, вырыть могилы или прикрыть трупы щебнем не успевали — гремела команда «По вагона-а-ам!». Оставляли тела лежать открыто — надеялись, что в следующем эшелоне найдутся добрые люди, присыплют. Сами, когда стояли у таких открытых могил, всегда присыпали.

Бисерт, Чебота, Ревда…

«Зулейха открывает глаза», Гузель Яхина

“Zuleykha Valiyeva!”

“That’s me.”

She had never said “I” or “me” so many times in her entire life as she did in that first month of imprisonment. Modesty is beautiful — it was not fitting for a decent woman to talk about herself without reason. The Tatar language even worked in such a way that you could live your entire life and never once say “I”: past, present, or future, the verb could be fitted into the necessary form, the ending of the word would change, making the use of that vain little word superfluous. It was not like that in Russian; there everyone was constantly trying to stick in “I” and “me” and then “I” again…

Zuleykha Opens Her Eyes, Guzel Yakhina

I’ve finished Zuleykha and have one more translation post after this one to share from the book. Yakhina is a talented writer, and the first half of the book was incredible. Unfortunately, the ending didn’t live up to the expectations set by the beginning or the lineup of awards the book has run. Ultimately, Zuleykha is too inconsistent a character, and the novel becomes too plot driven and procedural. Yakhina tries to grow Zuleykha out of the painful modesty illustrated in this passage, but does so in jarring ways that don’t seem to fit the earlier development of the character.

Still worth reading, however, for the beautiful writing and the strength of the first half.

Original text:

— Зулейха Валиева!

— Я.

За всю жизнь она не произнесла столько раз «я», как за месяц в тюрьме. Скромность украшает — не пристало порядочной женщине якать без повода. Даже язык татарский устроен так, что можно всю жизнь прожить — и ни разу не сказать «я»: в каком бы времени ты ни говорил о себе, глагол встанет в нужную форму, изменит окончание, сделав излишним использование этого маленького тщеславного слова. В русском  — не так, здесь каждый только и норовит вставить: «я» да «мне», да снова «я»…

«Зулейха открывает глаза», Гузель Яхина

These people had many names, each one stranger and more incomprehensible than the last: the Grain Monopoly, HarvAssessment, the Requisition, HarvTax, the Bolsheviks, HarvTroops, the Red Army, Soviet Power, provincial Chekists, the Komsomol, the GPU, Communists, Representatives Plenipotentiary…

These long Russian words came difficult to Zuleykha, and she did not understand their meaning completely, so she called all these people the Red Horde. Her father had told her many stories about the Golden Horde, whose cruel, narrow-eyed emissaries collected tribute from the people of those parts for several centuries and brought it back to their ruthless leader, Genghis Khan, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The Red Horde also collected tribute. But to whom they brought it, Zuleykha did not know.

Zuleykha Opens Her Eyes, Guzel Yakhina

Yakhina just won the Big Book and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker prize for her debut novel. About a quarter of the way in, I can see why. The book starts off quiet, slow, pastoral, in a village outside Kazan. The harsh realities of post-revolutionary Tatarstan begin to creep in early, with references to the Great Famine of the early 20s, but they are distant enough that it’s almost possible to forget the book is set in the Soviet era. With the two paragraphs above, the novel shifts gears and the Red Horde comes riding in.

I have only the vaguest sense where the book will go from here — mainly from reviews and Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s short introduction, which boldly frames the book as “women’s literature,” noting Zuleykha’s background of “the work camp, a hellish reserve invented by one of the greatest villains humanity has ever known.”  I do know that I am hooked and eager to spend the holidays finding my way to the end.

Original text:

У этих лиц было много имен, одно другого непонятнее и страшнее: хлебная монополия, продразверстка, реквизиция, продналог, большевики, продотряды, Красная армия, советская власть, губЧК, комсомольцы, ГПУ, коммунисты, уполномоченные…

Зулейхе сложно давались длинные русские слова, значения которых она не понимала, поэтому называла всех этих людей про себя — красноордынцами. Отец много рассказывал ей про Золотую Орду, чьи жестокие узкоглазые эмиссары несколько столетий собирали дань в этих краях и отвозили своему беспощадному предводителю — Чингисхану, его детям, внукам и правнукам. Красноордынцы тоже собирали дань. А кому отвозили — Зулейха не знала.

«Зулейха открывает глаза», Гузель Яхина

The list of her acquaintances was incomprehensibly large, multilayered, and complex. You could run into almost anyone hanging out with Vladka. She had even managed to make friends with Felik Schumacher, the neighborhood loony. Puny, short, with an enormous nose, he wore a hat with earflaps and always had a smashed-up aluminum tea kettle full of water in his hand. He would run around the city for days at a time, riding the trolley buses and talking about everything he saw, not stopping for even a second. He would get on a bus at the front door and announce himself:

“I’m a composer, I also write poetry, I can dance the foxtrot to ‘Anechka.'”

People said that Felik was from a respectable family, his parents were professors at a technical institute. But their son unhappily suffered from meningitis during childhood. Polite, kind, but the victim of beatings from brutal, ignorant people more than once, he shied away from close friendships with others.

One of the few people he let get close to him was Vladka. Now and then, for pure, thoughtless fun, she would let him tag along behind her, and that was a sight to be seen—a sight to end all sights: a wild child, her curls flying in all directions underneath a green knit cap pulled down to her eyebrows, wearing an open maxi-dress, her gait chic and attention-grabbing… And nearby, a step behind, his prow of a nose cutting a wake through the crowds on the street, with his smashed-up kettle full of water and his floppy hat, stumbled Felik Schumacher. 

Russian Canary: Zheltukhin, Dina Rubina

This excerpt sat in draft form for a while; I got sucked into other things after finishing the first Russian Canary book and had a hard time getting back. This passage gives a sense of how odd the characters are, and how relational the characterization is. As I mentioned earlier, the first book is not super plot-driven, but the book still flies thanks to great writing and fascinating characters. 

I’m hoping to get to the next book in the trilogy on vacation, but for now I am racing through the second volume of Valerij Zalotukha’s incredible «Свечка».

The state of contemporary Russian literature is awfully good; it’s tough not to get pulled in a dozen directions by great books. Even restricting my recent reading to 2014 and 2015 releases is not helping much!

Original text:

Список ее знакомств был неохватным, многослойным, витиеватым и сложносоставным. В компании Владки можно было столкнуться с кем угодно. Она умудрялась дружить даже с Феликом Шумахером, районным сумасшедшим. Маленький, щуплый, с огромным носом, в шапке-ушанке и всегда с мятым алюминиевым, полным воды чайником в руке, он целыми днями бегал по городу, ездил в троллейбусах и говорил, ни на мгновение не останавливаясь, обо всем, что видел. Входил в салон с передней двери и представлялся:

— Я композитор, пишу стихи, могу достать фокстрот «Анечка».

Говорили, что Фелик — сын почтенных родителей, преподавателей политеха, а сынок просто неудачно переболел в детстве менингитом. Вежливый, милый, но не раз битый грубыми людьми, он уклонялся от близких знакомств.

Одной из немногих, кого к себе подпускал, была Владка. А та иногда просто так от несметной душевной гульбы, брала его с собой «на прицеп», и это была картина — это была всем картинам картина: пламя огня, кудри вразлет из-под зеленой вязаной шапочки до бровей, шиковая походочка праздных ног, расстегнутое макси-пальто… а рядом, отставая на шаг, своим носом-форштевнем разрезая бульварные волны, с мятым чайником, полным воды, в шапке-ушанке семенит Фелик Шумахер.

«Русская канарейка: Желтухин», Дина Рубина

However, one physical smell did distinguish our block.

The large open yard in the middle of our block, where children played hide-and-seek, footbag, gorodki, and stander-stop, where the women hung their laundry and gossiped, where every day scandals flared up and burned out, where people on the go dissected the chess matches played the previous day in Zurich or somewhere or  discussed the recent change at forward on FC Chernomorets—the yard buzzed continuously: the rattle of dominoes, the distinct sounds of adults’ and children’s voices, the bell of the garbage truck, collecting pungent waste by which, as Andersen’s story has it, one can always tell who ate fish today.

It buzzed with the hoarse voices of the junk dealers, the glass cutters, the knife grinders coming in loud bursts; cheerful and lyrical “songs by request from our listeners” played, discordant, from almost every window. The yard buzzed, powerful and carefree, singing and humming, hacking and loudly blowing its nose, beating rugs, shaking out doormats in the lobby (in spite of a menacing sign: “Have no fear!!!”). The yard buzzed and buzzed, only falling quiet for the two or three hours before sunrise, when sleep is sweet and you crave silence, but that silence can be broken by any bazlan (loudmouth) who cannot sleep and who feels the urge to chat about the weather with someone coming home late.

“Whassit look like? Rain?”

“Nah. Thunder, but it ain’t really raining.”

As I was saying, our yard reeked of melted polyethylene.

Russian Canary: Zheltukhin, Dina Rubina

I raced through the last two-thirds of this book, and even a fast (DHL) plane from Moscow can’t bring the next two volumes here fast enough. After hundreds of pages of investment in fascinating characters across two sprawling families (and their neighbors and friends), the plot of Rubina’s Russian Canary trilogy is just picking up steam at the close of the first part. Her narrator—who has a fascinating voice that is hard for me to capture in these short excerpts—does acknowledge how florid his/her(?) story and style are at one point. But thus far it has been worth it, despite requiring a lot of working memory to keep everyone straight!

The above passage gives a little taste of how quickly the narrator jumps around, with an extended non sequitur on sound in the neighborhood of the House of Etinger in Odessa wedged right in the middle of a note about burning plastic in the yard. I’m not doing Rubina’s powerful characterization any justice in quoting these past two sections on physical environment, though her talents for landscape are also prodigious. I will try to translate a couple of paragraphs soon about a young man (possibly autistic) who flits in and out of the narrative in the space of a page but stands out in perfect relief thanks to some very sharp writing.

I’m hoping to squeeze in a rereading of Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Imbeciles («Школа для дураков») while I wait for volumes two and three of Russian Canary to make their way to the States. See the comments to Lisa’s recent post for more on the title of Sokolov’s book, and hopefully a translation or two here following the last one from Zheltukhin.

Original text:

Впрочем, один материальный запах отличал-таки наш двор.

Наш большой двор, где дети играли в прятки, маялки, цурки и «штандер», где хозяйки развешивали белье и чесали языки, где каждый день вспыхивали и гасли скандалы, где на ходу разбирали вчерашнюю шахматную партию, сыгранную где-то в Цюрихе, или обсуждали недавнюю замену нападающего в «Черноморце», — этот двор звучал непрерывно: стуком костяшек домино, разновысокими голосами детей и взрослых, колокольчиком мусорной машины, забиравшей пахучие отбросы, по которым, как в сказке Андерсена, всегда можно было узнать, кто сегодня готовил рыбу.

Он звучал раскатистыми, зычными, хриплыми призывами старьевщиков, стекольщиков, точильщиков; лирическими и бодрыми вперебивку «песнями по заявкам радиослушателей» чуть не из каждого окна. Двор звучал мощно и легкомысленно, напевая и хмыкая, отхаркиваясь и громко прочищая нос, выбивая ковры, вытрушивая половики в парадном (невзирая на грозную надпись: «Не трусить!!!»). Двор звучал и звучал, умолкая лишь на два-три предрассветных часа, когда так сладко спать и так хочется тишины, но и ее может нарушить любой базлан, которому не спится, которому приспичило интересоваться за погоду у припозднившегося соседа:

— Шо? Дощь?

— Та не, гразь есть, но лично не идет…

Так вот, этот наш двор пропах плавящимся полиэтиленом.

«Русская канарейка: Желтухин», Дина Рубина

But more than anything else, the air was heavy with the overpowering scent of aport apples.

The aport was called the symbol of Almaty: the apple weighed nearly a kilogram. Round, fragrant, gigantic fruits, streaked in reds from crimson to wine, with greenish, sweet-and-sour flesh—they could stay fresh until February just sitting on the sideboard. Grandma told how they used to sell them from wagons, packed in straw—mountains of poppy-colored apples, each covered in a thin layer of wax.

At the train stations, people carried aport apples in buckets to the trains, sold them by the bucket on the approach to the bazaar; gold-and-crimson mounds swelled the shelves of the fruit stands at the Green Bazaar.

On Abaya Street, where the apples grew along the banks of the aqueduct, dropping fruits into the water, where they swam and swam, turning over rapidly like a bobber, and piled up in the channel, you could simply put your hand into the cold water and fish out the prettiest and most fragrant apple, washed and ready to eat: get it and take a bite, and wipe off the sweet juice with your palm before it drips down your chin.

Russian Canary: Zheltukhin, Dina Rubina

This quick attempt at a translation doesn’t do justice to Rubina’s style, I’m afraid—but just more than halfway through the first novel in her Russian Canary trilogy, I’m hooked. The writing is beautiful, if occasionally too florid, and Almaty is a beautiful setting. (I’m waiting for Rubina to hook me on Odessa, the other main locus for the book.) That and a buck will get you a coffee at Dunkin Donuts—but roughly a third of the way through, the story and characterization really pick up. I can barely put the book down, and I have the next two on order already.

Original text:

Но главное, по всей округе воздух закипал всепобеждающим ароматом яблок сорта апорт.

Апорт называли символом Алма-Аты: яблоко весило чуть не килограмм. Гигантские, круглые пахучие плоды, красно-полосатые от малинового до бордового, с зеленоватой кисло-сладкой сердцевиной – они до февраля могли храниться просто в серванте. Бабушка рассказывала, что раньше их продавали с телег, выстланных сеном, – горы пунцовых яблок, покрытых тонким слоем воска.

На вокзалах апорт ведрами выносили к поездам, ведрами продавали на подходе к базару; золотисто-малиновыми курганами пузатились прилавки фруктовых рядов на Зеленом базаре.

На улице Абая, где яблони росли вдоль арыка, роняя в воду плоды, а те плыли, плыли, стремительно кружась, как поплавки, и скапливались у коллектора, можно было просто опустить руку в холодную воду и выудить самое красное, самое пахучее и уже мытое яблоко: бери и надкусывай, успевай лишь отирать ладонью сладкий сок с подбородка.

«Русская канарейка: Желтухин», Дина Рубина

My translation of Tolstoy’s novella Childhood is now out in paperback! Please check it out at the links below:

Childhood, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (paperback)

Childhood, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Kindle ebook)

This was a fun project for me, and hopefully also adds something to the fairly limited pool of English translations of Tolstoy’s early works. The Kindle ebook is DRM-free, and the book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. I self-published, doing the typesetting myself in LaTeX, which was an enjoyable experience.

My path to completing a (short) book-length translation ran through a lot of years of dabbling, starting as an undergraduate almost fifteen years ago. I undertook this project with serious intentions and hope the translation stands up as a serviceable first effort. I’m doing what I can to improve my craft as a non-professional translator. Please let me know what you think — corrections and actionable feedback will be taken seriously and will feed into improved editions of this book and future translations!

I think my next project will be to tackle Gogol’s “The Nose” and Dostoevsky’s The Double together.

The Joy of Translating

I’m grateful to Erik McDonald of XIX век for spawning an interesting discussion of translation and communication based on Masha Gessen’s December NYT piece on Anna Karenina. That branching conversation over the past couple of months led me back to a transcript of  a talk by Eliot Weinberger, a translator of Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges among others, given in Iowa City almost fifteen years ago. Its conclusion raises an important question for me–why don’t we talk about the joys and thrills and pleasures of translation? (Emphasis mine.)

Translation is the most anonymous of professions, yet people die for it. It is an obvious necessity that is considered a problem. (There are never conferences on the “pleasures of translation.”) Yet it is a problem that only arises in the interstices when one is not casually referring to some translated bit of literature: the Bible, Homer, Kafka, Proust. . . Could it possibly be that translation essentially has no problems at all? That it only has successes and failures?

A lot of the conversation around Gessen’s piece has focused on the act of interpretation being done by readers of the original and by translators. Reading is an active process, of course: texts do not convey meaning without a reader, and in the back and forth  between reader and text, numerous legitimate interpretations are created. The author floats out there somewhere, playing an ambiguous role in all this. The interpretive act of translation adds another layer of activity, some of it difficult and problematic. But why do we never seem to talk about the thrill of this additional layer of engagement?

For me as a translator,* the task of translation provides an opportunity to do two things I can’t or don’t really do as a reader. First, it compels me to engage with the text at a much more granular level than I ever would as a reader. I get to obsess over the meaning of words in English and Russian. I get to think about household hierarchies and types of carriages in 19th century Russia. I have good reasons to delve into secondary literature that I would ordinarily pass by as a reader. Second, once I’ve crafted an interpretation of the work I’m translating that seems to have integrity, I get to rewrite a book I love for English-language readers in a way that preserves my interpretation (not arbitrary or uninformed, but nevertheless personal) for posterity.

This last point is worth unpacking a bit, because it’s what makes me love translating. It’s the reason I now spend an hour or more most nights after work engaging with Tolstoy. Late last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sologub’s The Petty Demon for the first time. But the interpretation I built in my head while reading it is now gone, and I only shared it with a few people back then; I would have to re-read it to describe to someone else what it meant to me in detail, and the result would be slightly different from my 2014 interpretation. By contrast, my interpretation of Childhood brought me a lot of enjoyment while creating it, and it’s now on Amazon for anyone to read. When I next re-read Tolstoy’s original, I’ll receive it in a slightly different way. But my 2014-15 interpretation of the book is still out there.

If literary translation were my life’s work instead of an avocation, I would likely feel the slights translators discuss more deeply. But even after experiencing all the slings and arrows of the translator’s lot, we ought to hear more about why literary translators love this work. It excites me, and I’m sure it excites those who do it for a living. We should celebrate what makes literary translation beautiful and empowering for readers-turned-translators.

* I am a newly (self-) published translator of Tolstoy, see here. A full announcement on the blog is coming soon, but I want to get the paperback version prepped and released first.

впопыхах – helter-skelter, hastily

ВПОПЫХА́Х нареч. попыхивая от усталости и спеху; торопко, торопливо, в недосуге; крайне спешно и как ни попало.

One of those words that just sounds good, and it reminds me of my daughter’s favorite phrase from The Pokey Little Puppy (“tumble-bumble”), purely because of the relationship between sound and meaning.

(Found: «Двойник», Ф.М. Достоевский.)

All of them were obedient little boys from good families, only Kasymov was capable of doing what was suggested by the close proximity of glass and brick, not thinking of the consequences for even a second. And later, after years had gone by, he could with ease bring to life whatever was in the air, about which others merely talked, or even simply thought.

Translation from a Literal Paraphrase, Evgenij Chizhov

It brings me pure, unadulterated joy when an author can jumpstart a characterization with a couple of sentences that immediately lock a character into my imagination. Tolstoy is a great master of this–just a few phrases can snap a character into such sharp focus that you realize you know exactly who they are. Even when such characters are minor and fade soon after their debut on the page, it enriches my reading to feel that jolt of connection.

Now that the Russian Booker Prize winner has been announced, I’m dipping back into more contemporary literature. I was not able to get into the winner, Vladimir Sharov’s Return to Egypt, nor could I really enjoy Sharov’s earlier book, Before and During. I am, however, reading Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Paraphrase (Перевод с подстрочника), which did not make the Booker shortlist but was on the Yasnaya Polyana shortlist, and am loving it–in large part because the characters are clear and sharp very early on.

This two-sentence bit of characterization is a great example. One of the novel’s main characters (I assume from the first few chapters) has snuck into a construction site with the protagonist and other friends when the two were children. They see huge panes of glass waiting to be installed, sitting right next to a pile of bricks. The obvious suggests itself to all the boys, but it is Kasymov, who will become PR man for a Central Asian dictator, who sets things in motion.

Original text:

Все они были послушными мальчиками из приличных семей, один Касымов, ни секунды не размышляя о последствиях, способен был сделать то, что напрашивалось из соседства стелка и кирпича. И позже, спустя годы, он с лёгкостью воплощал то, что носилось в воздухе, о чём другие лишь говорили или даже только думали.

«Перевод с подсточника», Евгений Чижов