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Robert Chandler: Parking in tight spaces yet letting your thoughts run free

My wife, expert at parking in tight spaces, often used to make a hash of parking in large, easy spaces. I would joke, 'Oh no, you'll never get in there. There's far too much space.’ Faced with an apparently easy task, Liz would lose focus and get things wrong.

I have noticed the same paradox with regard to translation. While compiling my Penguin Classics anthology of Russian short stories, I initially decided not to include 'The Steel Flea' by Nikolay Leskov (1831–95). This is a masterpiece and, in many respects, an obvious choice – except that it is long and every paragraph is dense with puns and malapropisms. I was afraid I might spend six months on the story and still feel my translation deserved only to be binned. I decided instead to include one of Leskov’s shorter and simpler stories. And then I came across a truly brilliant out-of-print translation of ‘The Steel Flea’ by one William Edgerton, an American academic I knew only as a historian. I decided at once to republish it. Until then I had not found a single translation of a nineteenth-century story that I truly liked. Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, Tolstoy etc are all, on the face of it, easier to translate than Leskov – and yet all the existing translations of these writers seemed dead. In each case I had decided to retranslate afresh. The apparently untranslatable story appeared to be the only one to have been translated successfully.

Similarly, I know people who have done outstanding translations of rhyming and metrical verse but who struggle with apparently simple prose. There is, I believe, an explanation for this. Translations fail when translators go about them mechanically, when they see their task simply as a matter of doing something to a block of words in one language that will turn them into a block of words in another language. If you are translating something seemingly straightforward, it is easier to slip into this mechanical approach. Faced with the constraints of metre and rhyme or the demands of reproducing complex word play, you are more likely to realize you can only succeed if you fully engage your intelligence and imagination.

There are many ways of staying fully engaged with our work and we all have to discover which helps us the most. Tighter disciplines can help – and so can a greater degree of relaxation. And the involvement of others, at least at some stage, is nearly always helpful. Don Bartlett, the BCLT mentor for Norwegian, writes, ‘Face-to-face work with a mentee always produces the best results. Ideas are sparked off; points which lie dormant come to the surface; questions which seem too basic are asked, often bringing up far more interesting issues than those originally planned for the session. Skype can reproduce this situation to some extent, but it is more tiring and less productive.’ My own current mentee, Alex Fleming, thanks me for bringing home to her the value of reading a translation aloud – and also of going out for regular walks while she is working (!). These two pieces of advice are simple enough, one might think, yet all too often people end up staying hunched over their computers while their thoughts spin round in circles.

Grim determination is perhaps the least helpful of all states of mind; even sleepiness can – perhaps surprisingly – be more productive. If I am tired, I may stumble while reading aloud an awkward phrase that I might have coped with better had I been more alert – and it is often these stumbles that alert me to what needs revision. Or I may misread a sentence when I am tired, and my careless but spontaneous misreadings are sometimes improvements. As for frivolity and stupidity – feeling free to make silly jokes, to ask what may be stupid questions – these can lead one to unexpected places. As Don Bartlett suggests, it is the stupid questions that sometimes most need to be asked.

Recently I was looking through a translation by my friend and collaborator, Boris Dralyuk, of a poem by the Soviet poet Lev Ozerov (1914–96). Ozerov tells how another Soviet writer, in the room of a Moscow hotel, puts a finger to his lips and looks up at the ceiling, indicating that there are probably bugging devices there. Later in the poem, the writer puts a finger to his lips and looks down at the floor. I felt slightly puzzled by this, thinking that bugging devices on the floor would get damaged by people walking about the room. But the Russian was entirely simple and there was no doubt that it meant ‘at the floor’. Asking about this felt both stupid and pointless. Eventually, though, I did. Boris replied that there were often bugging devices behind skirting boards. I at once realized this was the phrase we needed. Not only would it make the image more precise but it also gave us the kind of off-rhyme we needed more of:

A finger to his lips,
he points to the skirting boards -
a few whispered words.

In another poem, Ozerov remembers sitting in, as a young man, on rehearsals of theatrical productions by the avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold:

The scenes have yet to fall into place;
they’re still
just getting used to one another.
And Meyerhold is getting used to them,
sculpting a performance.
It comes together in the strangest fashion –
out of guesswork, non sequiturs,
everything we find hard to predict.

When Boris read these lines to me a week ago, I remarked that they perfectly describe the process of working on a translation, especially when one has the good fortune to be doing this with others – with a teacher, with a student, or with a colleague.

Together with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, Robert Chandler is an editor of the PEN-supported anthology The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. He works as a mentor for the British Centre of Literary Translation and will be teaching on the summer school ‘Translate in the City’ (6–10 July 2015) which this year includes courses in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

Find out more about The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry on the World Bookshelf:

Posted by Erica Jarnes, Tuesday 26th May, 2015


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