Sep/Oct 2018 Current Moscow Time: 04:05:22
26 September 2018


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Little Golden Calf: From the Translator

 


One of the reasons I undertook this translation is because it had been out of print for so long, when it is actually, according to many readers, the better of the two novels about Ostap Bender (the first novel being The Twelve Chairs).

Also, there can be a sense that Ilf and Petrov are “too Russian” for others to understand. I don’t agree — for one, the writing duo is not just Russian, but also Jewish, in the person of Ilya Ilf — but it is true that the Anglophone world has never quite understood what all the fuss is about. I have always blamed this disinterest on inadequate translations that treat Ilf and Petrov like an in-joke: if you don't already get it, there’s no point in explaining it to you. This approach is not only condescending, it is unjust to both the novel and the reader. You don't have to have lived in the Soviet Union to appreciate the glee with which Ostap Bender takes official Soviet “Newspeak” and twists it to serve his own ends — like an aikido master, Bender takes the force of the enemy's attack and directs it back against him. And readers don't have to have been bombarded with Soviet-era propaganda to appreciate the way Bender deliberately misquotes famous slogans (“you have nothing to lose but your extra chains”), or makes up new ones (“don't make a cult out of food”), or even just appropriates an extant phrase (“I will command the parade!”).

And finally, the novel's reception history is truly fascinating. As one would expect from any self-respecting satire, the Bender novels have been claimed by both sides of the political spectrum: they were called “anti-Soviet slander” and “classics of Soviet satire,” depending on the decade. But they have also provoked bitter arguments over the role of the Russian (and Jewish Russian) intelligentsia; enriched Russian culture with dozens of proverbial sayings and archetypal figures; inspired three “third novels about Ostap Bender,” as well as many film and stage adaptations, puppet theater adaptations, operettas, and radio shows (including one pitting Ostap Bender against Sherlock Holmes); prompted the creation of the People's Museum of Ostap Bender in St. Petersburg; caused a smattering of statues of Bender and other characters to appear all over the FSU; and spawned an entire industry of commentaries. At least four different commentated Russian-language editions have been published since 1989, all of which pale before the monumental commentaries of Yury Shcheglov (think Nabokov's commentaries to Eugene Onegin), which are themselves the target of Alexander Wentzell's fascinating hybrid genre of “memoirs-as-commentary,” his 2005 Commentaries to the Commentaries, Notes to the Notes of Y. K. Shcheglov, in which he expresses the hope that others will keep the game alive by writing their commentaries to his commentaries to Shcheglov's commentaries... all of which is another reason the novel had to be equipped with what is, really, the minimum possible number of endnotes.

In sum, these novels are key texts for understanding Soviet culture, which, of course, makes them indispensable for understanding the post-Soviet sphere as well. This edition is meant to:

  • make the book's cultural and social significance fully available to the English-speaking reader for the first time, and
  • render the hilarious, witty, acerbic text so well that English-speaking readers can just enjoy it for what it is: a great read.

— Anne O. Fisher

 


Anne O. Fisher first tried reading Ilf and Petrov’s Ostap Bender novels in 1995, as an undergraduate exchange student at Petrozavodsk State Pedagogical University, where patient friends spent many hours explaining the books to her. Ten years later, she defended her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Michigan on the novels’ reading and publishing history from 1928 to the present. She will soon complete her new translation of The Twelve Chairs. Her most recent award is an NEH grant to support her next project, a collaboration with Alexandra Ilf on a biography of Ilya Ilf and a translation of his writer's notebooks.

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