Friday, March 01, 2013
Whenever I read about Constance Garnett, doyenne of Russian-to-English literary translation, sitting in the garden and banging out her work with scarcely a break for reflection (“She would finish a page,” D.H. Lawrence tells us, “and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up...”), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Garnett’s reference sources must have been sparse, if not nonexistent, and her method could hardly have encompassed the sometimes frustrated mania for pinpoint accuracy that besets so many of her descendants in translation and has only intensified with the advent of the internet. She was also, sadly, unable to fire off an email to a colleague (or, even better, the author) with “Huh?” as the subject line. And as a result, she should surely be forgiven for misreading, misconstruing, and outright omitting words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that would only have slowed her down.
In my work over the past year on Dmitry Chen’s The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas (Montpelier, VT: RIS Publications, 2013), I had no such leeway. There is really no excuse for getting things hair-curlingly wrong these days. And whenever I did, my actively involved author let me know it, for which I will be endlessly grateful. As a stranger barging into such a strange and wonderful land, I needed all the help I could get.
My research, be it into obscure language or elusive facts, follows no discernible plan. Basically, I flail around, beginning with my favorite online sources, widening my search in an effort to confirm or refute, and bugging my colleagues mercilessly when all else fails. Beyond that, I have no particular desire “to open up a corner of my workshop,” as Dmitry Chen, in his afterword to Hawk, tells us he always yearns to. It’s way too messy in here.
But let’s look at just one of the topics that the author and I batted to and fro before reaching a conclusion we could both live with.
The problem, I learned to my dismay, was that back in the eighth century C.E., there was no such thing as a Byzantine Empire. Who knew? Well, probably every historian worth his or her salt and, of course, Dmitry Chen. The term “Byzantina” was apparently first used in print – to refer to the city and the territory it ruled – by a German historian in 1557.
Byzantium had been the name of Emperor Constantine’s capital, but he renamed it Constantinople in the fourth century, replacing a nod to the city’s reputed but probably mythical founder Byzas with a name that, Constantine must have thought, gave credit where credit was due.
During the period in which Hawk is set, the people who lived in what we now call the Byzantine Empire firmly believed they were living in the Roman Empire – which they actually were. Or, to be more precise, the eastern Roman Empire, since the better-known western part was on History’s ash heap by the fifth century. But, I mused, the term “Roman Empire” would be associated with Julius Caesar informing us that all Gaul is divided into three parts, in any normal reader’s mind. (And a normal readership, trust me, is what most translators aspire to.) That wouldn’t work at all.
But the translated text, which by that point was almost ready for prime time, was peppered with Byzantiums. So, after much soul- and internet-searching, a round of compromises was hammered out, which my long-suffering author may not have relished but has graciously tolerated. And in the interests of spoiler-avoidance, I shall smile coyly now and leave it at that.
Of course, this was just one of the numerous tough decisions that had to be made (and ditched and remade) in the months it took to bring Hawk to press. And the book, I believe, deserved no less. Constance Garnett may even be envying me just a little.
For over 100 years, most of the science fiction produced by the world’s largest country has been beyond the reach of Western readers. This new collection changes that, bringing a large body of influential works into the English orbit.
A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
A look at the life and work of Bulat Okudzhava, King of the Bards. Thematic sections have short introductions, and all poems and stories in this volume are presented side by side in English and Russian.
Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
The very word Siberia evokes a history and reputation as awesome as it is enthralling. In this acclaimed book on Russia’s conquest of its eastern realms, Benson Bobrick offers a story that is both rich and subtle, broad and deep.
Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
This coffee table book is the photographic journal of an epic 6000-kilometer road trip. The book includes over 200 compelling images of Russians and Russian places met along the way, plus a dozen texts (in both English and Russian) on everything from business to education, from roads to fools.