“’…So who are you, after all?’
‘I am a part of that power,
That ever wishes evil,
and ever accomplishes good.’”
This a quote from Faust, but is also found at the beginning of the first chapter of a Russian novel I am translating. As I realized that I was translating a Russian translation of a German work I felt I was playing a game of ‘Whisper Down the Lane’, and wondered how I was contributing to a departure from the original statement.
The novel, Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is one of the best known novels from the Soviet period. The story combines satire, farce and absurdity in ways that are both playful and dark at the same time. This follows a particularly Russian literary tradition (of which Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol is an outstanding example), that is often argued to be a response to efforts by the state to suppress dissent, and criticisms of political leadership. Russian writers learned they stood a better chance of getting away with such commentary by masking it with comedy, satire or fantasy, and readers learned to appreciate the underlying meanings.
The translation is slow going, but I love how each passage unfolds in the process, allowing me to more fully appreciate the art as well as the literal meaning of each sentence. This slow approach combines with my study of Russian history, culture and politics to give me greater insight into where Bulgakov is coming from and what he is trying to say. One passage that I especially love provides the first critique I’ve found by a Russian of what has become part of the Western narrative of Russia—an underlying streak of xenophobia, and mistrust of foreigners, that defines Russian society’s view of its place in the world. Continue reading “The “Foreigner””
Aluminum Cucumbers, or Алюминиевые Огурцы (pron.- Alyumienvye Ogurtsy)
This is the title to a catchy tune from the 1980s by the Russian pop phenomenon Viktor Tsoi, and his band Kino (pictured above; Tsoi is second from the left). Tsoi was hugely popular in the Soviet Union in the era of glasnost (“openness”), but died at the age of 28 in 1990. Since that time he has lived on as a cultural icon in Russia, somewhat like Elvis in the U.S. When I was visiting St. Petersburg in 2012, there were new posters of Tsoi everywhere—in the Metro station, along the sidewalks, in shopping malls—with the slogan, “We are with you”, and announcing the celebration of what would have been his fiftieth birthday. On the sidewalk along Nevsky Prospect I saw a busker, three nights in a row, singing and playing old Kino songs, with crowds of people singing along.
As I struggled to translate the lyrics of this song I found any kind of meaning to be so elusive that I started doubting my grasp of the Russian language. But looking at a number of discussion boards, in Russian, I found that native speakers seemed to have no better success at getting what this song was about. I soon found a number of references to a 1987 interview with Tsoi, where he commented: “there is not any kind of meaning in the lyrics, in fact it was an attempt at completely deconstructing reality.” Looked at this way it fits perfectly into the mold of pop music in the West in the 1980s; Continue reading “Aluminum Cucumbers”
A friend of mine turned me on to this collection of color photographs from the Russian Empire between the 1905 Revolution and the 1917 Revolutions. Most of these were taken between 1907 and 1912, with some taken in 1915, during World War I.
These are all the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian chemist and photographer who received a commission from Tsar Nicholas II to travel in a specially equipped train car to document the people and places of the empire using his own method for taking color photographs, a method that involved using three cameras to take the shots, and three projectors to show the final prints, each equipped with a red, green or blue filter. Prokudin-Gorskii’s original glass plates are part of the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. The images available on the web have been digitally processed using a technique described on the Library of Congress website. Most of these images can also be viewed, and more easily scrolled through, on the Boston Globe website. I’ve included a sampling of them below.
I want to write a little about literary translation of Russian to English. I will focus here on how I go about formulating written translation, and what I get out of it. Discussions of particular forms—mainly the novel and verse—and of specific works, will follow in future posts.
Recently I’ve somehow hit on the joy of translation. Its appeal for me is the same as that of word puzzles. But instead of an ordered grid of unrelated words and black squares, the product of cracking a tricky translation is a story, somebody’s brilliant idea, a work of art. Since starting on a translation of a Soviet-era Russian novel, I haven’t touched my Times Crossword app.
Speaking of apps, I love that what twenty years ago would have been a bookshelf full dictionaries and references can fit in my shoulder bag and weigh no more than two pounds. Continue reading “On Literary Translation”
The purpose of this blog is to chronicle my continued pursuit of an understanding of Russia, Russian and Russians. My background is that of a student of Russian language and teacher of Russian history. My main interests, then, are focused on language, literature and history. These topics, however, can’t help but inspire at least a curiosity about things like Russian culture, politics and current events. And I believe that deeper insights into any one of these subjects requires at least some knowledge of others.
My apologies to those who visit this site expecting it to be about poetry. The name—Russian Tumble—is a wordplay on the second line of a mnemonic for remembering four different kinds of meter in English verse: “The iamb saunters through my book, trochees rush and tumble, while the anapest runs like a hurrying brook, dactyls are stately and classical”. Continue reading “Russia- it’s what this blog is about”