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 “My Approach to Translating Russian Prose to English”
“Mother teaches heart phone morgue” is how google-translate renders the seventh line of another glasnost-era Russian pop song that recently caught my attention. I had a Russian radio stream playing as I puttered around the house one day this summer, but wasn’t really paying attention until a repeated line in the chorus of a song grabbed my ear. I stopped what I was doing and thought, did they just sing “Alain Delon speaks French?” In fact, that was exactly what they were singing. I felt the urge to know why a Russian band would record a song about a French actor speaking French. A little research into this song revealed a degree of cultural interconnectedness that I was unaware of in the nineteen eighties when this song was produced in the still existing, and I presumed still closed, society of the Soviet Union.
It turns out that this song–A Look from the Screen (Vzglyad s Ekrana, which google-translate gives as “Sight Screen“)–by the group Nautilus Pompilius, was inspired by, and is even described as a “free translation” of, the song Robert De Niro’s Waiting, by the 80’s British pop band Bananarama. The line repeated in the chorus of the Brit song—”Robert De Niro’s waiting, talking Italian”—becomes, in the Russian song, “Alain Delon is speaking French” (Alen Delon govorit po Frantsuzkiy). Continue reading ““Alain Delon is Speaking French” (in Russian)”
The following is a poem by Osip Mandelstam that I translated recently. This poem has particular appeal to me for a number of reasons: it is inspired by a city that I lived in long enough for it to get into my heart, and become a friend; it speaks to the history of the name changes it has gone through in the 20th century-from St. Petersburg, to Petrograd, to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg; the imagery in this poem is dark, and intimate at the same time.
Here is my translation:
(1930) Continue reading “Leningrad, by Osip Mandelstam”
I am amused, and sort of reassured, when I use Google-translate to try get the meaning of a Russian sentence, and it comes up with something like, “Here insane laugh, so that over the heads of lime sitting sparrow fluttered.” Usually one can sort of see the meaning of the original in the translation generated by Google, but often only on a basic level. Continue reading “Googlisms- Russian to English”
“’…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”
Sentences from Master and Margarita, by Bulgakov, with google-translate’s result (“googlism”), and my translations.
original– Тут безумный расхохотался так, что из липы над головами сидящих выпорхнул воробей.
Google-Translate– Here insane laugh, so that over the heads of lime sitting sparrow fluttered
me– Here the lunatic burst out laughing such that a sparrow perched in the linden above their heads fluttered off. Continue reading “Google-translate: original Russian vs Google vs Me”
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”