Robert Chandler: The minds of others
Robert Chandler on the necessity and enjoyment of collaboration and co-translation
Literary translation is sometimes thought of as an occupation for near-hermits. ‘Isn’t it difficult, sitting alone all day long with a few books and your computer?’ people ask. I usually reply that, at least during the last twenty years, I have seldom worked entirely on my own.
I collaborate in many ways and for many reasons. Often, I simply need help in understanding the original text. Few English-speakers of my generation (I was born in 1953) began learning Russian much before the age of 15 or 16, and few of us had the chance to spend more than a year in the Soviet Union. This is not long enough to acquire solid knowledge, either of a language or of a society. Things have, of course, changed, but it is still easier to live for several years in an EU country than in Russia. Also, every aspect of Soviet daily life was profoundly different from daily life in a western country. Shops, schools, hospitals, factories – all functioned in ways hard to imagine. The Soviet Union is long gone, but both mindsets and institutions have proved resilient. Even if one is translating contemporary literature, one will often come up against much that is hard to grasp.
The inner vision of many of the greatest Soviet writers is more elusive still. Here I need a deeper level of help. One of my most important collaborations has been with the Russian-American scholar Olga Meerson. Together we have worked for many years on the writer Andrey Platonov. Brought up in the Soviet Union, Olga understands his brilliant distortions of Soviet idiom. A Jewish convert to Orthodoxy, and the wife of an Orthodox priest, she knows his religious allusions and can explain them articulately. A gifted musician, she is sensitive to his tone, rhythms and changes of register. Having lived over thirty years in the USA, she knows English well enough to notice most of the failings in my drafts.
Olga’s explanations are always precious – but the questions she finds hard to answer have sometimes proved more fruitful still. Thanks to my persistent questions about a particularly bewildering phrase in Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, Olga discovered a crucial biblical subtext, running through the entire novel, that no previous scholar had noticed. In the story ‘Among Animals and Plants’, set in Soviet Karelia in the 1930s, I discovered an equally important subtext relating to the construction, by slave labour, of the White Sea canal. I would not have found it had not Olga’s complaints about my ‘normalising’ of Platonov’s language forced me to think about the story more deeply. A scholar is free to focus on the passages he or she understands well. A translator, however, has to respond to everything in the original. Being forced to focus on what one might otherwise pass over can be valuable.
Collaboration can, of course, be emotionally demanding. We all have pet understandings that we don’t want to let go of. Nevertheless, exchanging a narrow personal vision for a broader shared vision can be rewarding. Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, with whom I have been co-editing an anthology of Russian poetry for Penguin Classics, have jointly translated several poems by Arseny Tarkovsky (the father of the film director Andrei Tarkovsky). Asked in public whether collaboration with another person might not be detrimental to the ‘integrity’ of a translation, Boris suggested that it might be the very gaps between him and Irina that allowed space for Tarkovsky to come through.
Asking for help, collaborating on equal terms, teaching students – for me these do not differ fundamentally. One of the joys of teaching translation is that even beginners can sometimes come up with versions far better than one’s own. For this reason, I often use as teaching exercises the texts I am currently working on. In the published text of our translation of Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter the captain’s ebullient wife says, ‘Our only sorrow is Masha: the girl should be marrying by now, but what does she have for a dowry? A fine-tooth comb, a besom broom and a three-kopek coin (God forgive me!) so she can go to the bathhouse. All very well if a good man comes her way, but otherwise she’ll remain an old maid till kingdom come.’
In our draft I had translated the last words more literally: ‘remain an eternal old maid.’ This is not glaringly wrong – but for that very reason it would probably not have occurred to me to try to improve it. But when I read ‘till kingdom come’ in a translation submitted by Irina Zolotaryeva, a student at Queen Mary, I seized on the phrase with delight.
An aspect of my work that people find hard to understand is the closest of all my collaborations, with my wife Elizabeth. On being told that she knows no Russian, they often say, ‘Oh, I see, she’s an extra editor’ – to which I firmly reply, ‘No, she is a co-translator.’ Few people realise that understanding the original is only the first – and easiest – part of the process. Even managing to reproduce some subtle piece of word play isn’t really what makes a translation succeed or fail. Most important of all is a constant attentiveness, sentence by sentence, to clarity and vividness, to tone and register. Can one, or can’t one, hear – in the English text – the voice of the author, or of a particular character? Nothing helps more in this work than being with another person, trying out different versions of a sentence, hearing their different versions, batting the sentence to and fro until it sounds convincing, until the emphases are clear, until there are no ambiguities except those intended.
Russia does not have an efficient literary infrastructure. There are no websites similar to New Books in German or Fiction France. There is much corruption; positive reviews are easily bought. Still more than translators from other European languages, Translators from Russian end up working as scouts, agents, editors and general cultural diplomats. This can be exciting, but also burdensome. There is already a good sense of community among translators from Russian, but we need to do all we can to foster this. My new monthly workshop at Pushkin House is intended as a forum both to discuss translation problems and to exchange information about books and publishers. And if participants don’t bring enough questions to fill the two hours, I always have more than enough of my own.
About the author
Robert Chandler studied Russian at Leeds University and spent the academic year 1973-74 as a British Council exchange scholar in Voronezh, a large city 200 miles south of Moscow. His translations of Sappho and Apollinaire are published in the series ‘Everyman’s Poetry’. His own poems have been published in the TLS and elsewhere, but he is best known for his translations from Russian. These include Alexander Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter, Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows, The Road and Life and Fate, many works by Andrey Platonov and Hamid Ismailov’s novel The Railway, set in Central Asia. He has compiled two anthologies for Penguin Classics, of Russian short stories and Russian magic tales. A third anthology, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, will be published in February 2015. He is also the author of Brief Lives: Alexander Pushkin. For the last seven years he has taught classes in literature and in translation at Queen Mary, University of London. He also works as a mentor for the BCLT mentorship scheme. His translations have won prizes in both the UK and the USA and his co-translation of Vasily Grossman's An Armenian Sketchbook is currently shortlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.
The next meeting of Robert Chandler’s Pushkin House workshop is 22 July.
Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s long out-of-print translation of Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter will be republished in August by NYRB Classics, together with an article about the process of translating the novel.
Robert & Elizabeth Chandler have also contributed several translations to the just-published Subtly Worded (Pushkin Press), a collection of stories by Teffi (1872-1951) compiled and largely translated by Anne-Marie Jackson, once Robert’s mentee under the BCLT mentorship scheme. Clare Kitson and Natalia Wase, both former summer-school students of Robert’s, have also contributed to this volume. The title story was first published in Index on Censorship. Reviewed in the Guardian by Nicholas Lezard.
An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman (tr. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler) has been shortlisted for the 2014 PEN Translation Prize selected by judges Ann Goldstein, Becka McKay, and Katherine Silver. An Armenian Sketchbook is published in the UK by MacLehose Press and in the US by NYRB Classics.
This week Robert Chandler has been teaching on the summer school at City University, ‘Translate in the City’.