Translator Update #2: Tightrope Walking

Translator Update #2: Tightrope Walking

If even gently pressed, I will readily admit to belonging to the Just Do It school of translation. I have never been big on translation theory, not least from fear of suffering the fate of the centipede who, on being asked how he managed to walk with so many legs, promptly fell over.

But I do know something about the domestication versus the foreignizing of a translation. Does one make it so smooth that the reader may be lulled into thinking he is reading something written in his own language, or does one ensure that “foreignness” of the source text shines through the translation at every turn? Well, first, I cannot accept that this is an either/or, zero-sum proposition. For me, the ideal solution is, rather, a balancing act. A compromise (perhaps the last refuge of the coward).

But what I have here is a dual level of foreignness—a tale written in Russian but about a time and a place far distant from modern-day Russia. And that, to me, renders the fact that its language of origin is Russian neither here nor there. The key elements I have to convey are the mystery and truth of Central Asia in the eighth century as the author sees them. It’s a thin tightrope to walk and (mixed metaphor alert) a hard row to hoe, but I believe the task to be achievable, given enough luck, hard work and sheer chutzpah.

Do you need to be a history buff, well versed in the backstory of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, not to mention Alexander the Great and other once-familiar historical figures? I would say no (I’m not). I think it’s enough to know that the events are firmly rooted in history and that the author may mystify and intrigue us, but will always provide us with enough background to keep our bearings in this vivid historical panorama.

So I should probably not have been surprised to learn, by a happy accident when idly Googling one night, that our fictional Nanidat Maniakh may have had a very real ancestor, a Sogdian leader with a vested interest in the silk trade, who was apparently gifted with an equally silken tongue. Here he is in the later-sixth-century History of Menander the Guardsman (Liverpool, UK: Francis Cairns Publications Ltd., 1985; translator, R.C. Blockley), having been sent by Sizabul, khagan of the Western Turkic peoples (called “Turkish” by Blockley), to the Roman Emperor in Byzantium after the failure of a similar embassy to Persia. The Emperor has been questioning Maniakh and his fellow envoys on the political realia of their native land. The delegation replies in considerable detail, and

“As they were speaking Maniakh and those with him raised their hands on high and swore their greatest oath that they were saying these things with honest intent. In addition they called down curses upon themselves, even upon Sizabul and upon their whole race, if their claims were false and could not be fulfilled. In this way the Turkish people became friends of the Romans and established these relations with our state.”

This record of mid-sixth-century events reminded me of a scene I translated recently, in which our own Maniakh is being queried on his knowledge of China by Abu Jafar, nicknamed Mansur, the notoriously tight-fisted treasurer of the House of Abbas. He begins by wanting to know if the Empire’s capital is “truly the best in the world.”

I began to gather my thoughts: What did that mean, the best in the world? Yes, I had seen the magnificence of Constantine’s city, and remembered a close-set array of fortress towers and below them water, heavy as oil, and emerging from that water, stones covered with something wet that had the look of light-green velvet. And beyond that expanse of water, more towers rising from the sea on the other shore, towers that clambered up the steep hillside there. And the smell, the smell of that sea—damp, redolent of fish, dizzying. . .

What passed for refreshments were brought to us then. It was only water, but I wanted naught else at that time. And I began to explain that I had yet to see many cities such as the flourishing Damascus, but Chang'an was the best I knew because... because nowhere else did life feel so serene, measured, sated, happy, and commodious in every regard.

Abu Jafar gave an energetic nod. “Just so!” he said, in a voice that was surprisingly resonant but unpleasant and grating too. “There is the thing we must discuss. How is such a city made? That word, for example, ‘Chang... An...’ It means peace?”

How is the city made? Surprise silenced me, but then I again collected my thoughts and nodded my assent.

“Yes, ‘Chang'an’ means long or everlasting peace.”

“So, then, noise is forbidden of an evening and by night?” was the next unexpected question. “Crashing and clattering and all manner of music?”

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