A View of the Revolution and its Aftermath in Contemporary Russian Literature
I recently started translating a novel called Казус Кукоцкого (pron.-Kazus Kukotskovo) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who won the Russian Booker Prize for this work in 2001. This novel, whose title I’ve chosen to translate as The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky, begins with a focus on the life of one Pavel Alekseyevich Kukotsky, who is, at the beginning of the book, a boy coming of age at the time of the Revolution of 1917. Not having any idea what this story was about before I started working on it, I am surprised and excited to find that, in addition to presenting some juicy translation problems, it addresses questions that I hope to find answers to in contemporary Russian literature: how do today’s Russians view the Revolution of 1917, the history of Communist Party rule, and life in Russia, generally, in the Soviet period? Here I will discuss one early passage from the novel in terms of both its challenges to translating it into English, and how it speaks to these questions.
The two paragraphs I will look at come at a point in the story when Pavel is of an age to attend university. It is just after the Revolution, and the Civil War is on. (These paragraphs are separated by one short one discussing Pavel’s character as a student, which I will not include here): Continue reading
A ‘Playhouse Presents’ Production, ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook,’ Based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘Notes from a Country Doctor’
I was not sure what to expect from a British TV production of a series based on the semi-autobiographical sketches of Mikhail Bulgakov, written in the mid-1920’s in Russia (see earlier post—‘Harry Potter and Don Draper do Bulgakov’). This four-part Playhouse Presents production, ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’, was initially aired at the end of 2012 on Britain’s Sky Arts network. On viewing the first episode, I was not surprised to find it to be very British in many ways, but with an impressive stock of allusions to Russian literature and culture. A great deal of effort seems to have been spent to get a lot into the seemingly simple story of the arrival at an isolated, seriously understaffed rural hospital, of a newly graduated medical student from Moscow. Continue reading
Who the hell is Archibald Archibaldovich? And what is with that name? The introduction of this particular character in chapter V of Master and Margarita is so clever, and fun, that I am awed by it. The process goes something like this: the name is casually dropped, and quickly forgotten; later, a rather striking figure is described, but not given a name; toward the end of the chapter the person and the name come together, and the context is surprising. Continue reading
In chapter V of Master and Margarita, Bulgakov introduces a number of individuals, and their names present me with new translation problems, mainly concerning the translation of names for fictional characters. This chapter has brought me to consider how a writer of fiction chooses names for his/her characters: do they just pop into the writer’s head? Are they familiar names of acquaintances? Does the writer’s pet monkey leaf through a book of names and press its finger to one when needed? In some works of fiction the names seem somewhat random and unimportant, but in others the names themselves lend something to the story. I came across a review of a recently published book on the subject; Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature by Alastair Fowler, Oxford, September 2012. Colin Burrow writes a good review of it, on the London Review of Books website.
Names mean things. In English, last-names like Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor are common and have origins that are clear. But when translating from Russian, if I were to come across names like Plotnik, Ivanov, Kuznetzky or Portnoy, I would probably not change them to the English equivalent of their root meanings (Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor, respectively); I would just transliterate them. But in some cases the meaning of the name is important. Continue reading
I want to examine the methods I have developed, to this point, for translating Russian prose to English. As mentioned in an earlier post, I am currently working on a translation of the Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I will use a single paragraph from this novel to illustrate each step in my process of transforming Russian writing into what I hope is a readable English that accurately and fully captures the meaning and style of the original. Continue reading
Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and John Hamm (Don Draper) to star in a British series based on autobiographical notes of Mikhail Bulgakov.
The subject of some of my ramblings—Mikhail Bulgakov and his novel Master and Margarita—may become a little less obscure soon. A friend pointed me to a slate.com article about a British TV series premiering next month, called A Country Doctor’s Notebook, based on a collection of short stories of the same name by Bulgakov. Continue reading
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