On Literary Translation

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. From a couch at the local coffee shop I was able to download the full text, in Russian, of Master and Margarita, by Mkhail Bulgakov (ignoring the ads for online porn long enough to cut and paste the text of the novel onto a Word document is not difficult); load a Google Translate app; decide on a Russian-English Dictionary app that combines the results of a number of online dictionaries; and bookmark “Vikislovar” (Wiktionary, in Russian) in my browser. Using these tools, a procedure has evolved that, for a novel, goes something like this:

First I read one chapter of the original Russian. Next I go back to the start of that chapter and see if I can get the full meaning of each sentence. Depending on how difficult that is I might either copy and paste a section of the paragraph into Google Translate, or just look up the meaning of individual words that I’m having trouble with. The result that Google Translate spits out is rarely adequate. One example should help illuminate this point: this line- “Ненавидимый им город умер, и только он один стоит, сжигаемый отвесными лучами, упершись лицом в небо.”  from Master and Margarita, is translated by Google as: “He hates the city died, and he alone stands burned steep beams, resting his face in the sky.”  Deciding that that would not do, I came up with, “His hated city was dead, and he alone remained, scorched by vertical rays, setting his face to the sky.”  And while I admit that this, too, might be improved upon, it works in the context, and at least makes sense. What I have to do to work this out is find all the connotations that make sense for the key words, then see how these work, taking into account the rules of Russian grammar, by which the endings of all the words determine their part of speech, gender, governance, aspect, tense, etc. This is where Google fails: it does not take into account the critically important function of  inflection in Russian—the functions and meanings implicit in the changeable endings of words.

The final step in the process is the most fun—putting what I determine to be the author’s meaning into English. Using the English language as a medium for expressing brilliant ideas, while not having to come up with those ideas, is a kind of exercise that I love. And a supremely enjoyable part of this game is balancing the preservation of the meaning and mood expressed in the original with the need to make it an enjoyable read in English. I could go on about the importance of word-order in this, but will save that for a later post.

So far, all of the works I’ve been translating have already been put into English by others. I am pretty disciplined about not looking at any of these translations while working on my own. A future project is to find out what are the great works of Russian literature that are being published now, and to translate one of these before it is published in English translation.

Keep an eye out for posts discussing each of the three things I’m currently working on: the already mentioned novel—Master and Margarita; a poem called Leningrad, by Osip Mandelstam, and a Gorbachev-era pop song called Aluminum Cucumbers.

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