Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Translating the "untranslatable book'

(LitHub) - Some translators might prefer their authors to be dead or reclusive, but I’m perfectly happy with alive and talking. Hearing my authors’ Russian voices, whether in person or via the Internet, helps me create English-language voices for their fiction. The intonations I hear in their spontaneous conversation and email—whether “intonations” are conversational contours I hear with my physical and internal ears, or the shadings I interpret from word choices—feed my intuition as I translate.

My intuition craves feedings, so getting to know Eugene Vodolazkin early in the process of translating his Lavr, a novel about a man in the Middle Ages, into the English-language Laurus was a real feast. Though many Russian readers told me they thought the novel was impossible to translate, I loved the book so much that I agreed to translate some samples, and, later, the whole book. I was only a couple months into the work when organizers of a translator conference in Moscow sent out a pre-event message last year asking which authors I might like to meet at the conference. Eugene was first on my list. I didn’t know then that Eugene had asked to meet me, too; he’d already read my sample translations from Laurus and wanted to talk. Our first meeting wasn’t at the conference, though. We met on the street instead, something we’ve joked about because, in Russian, saying you first met someone on the street can sound a bit unsavory.

I’d stepped outside the hotel after breakfast to check the weather, and Eugene and his wife were approaching the hotel, pushing a suitcase after a night train. I recognized Eugene because I’d seen his picture on the Internet. He immediately asked if I was Lisa, though in Russian he calls me Leeza and I now call him Zhenya, a diminutive form of his name. Our conversation, which must have gone on for about an hour, was perfectly savory, indeed, because we talked a lot about how he wrote Lavr and how I was translating it into Laurus.

What I learned standing on the street, with Eugene, his wife, and their suitcase, is that intuition was an important factor when he wrote the novel. Laurus is set in the Middle Ages and the main character, Arseny, talks a lot with a friend about the concept and existence of “time.” Eugene reinforces his theme of timelessness by creating a unique combination of archaisms and contemporary slang, as in this passage.

And you, O brother, what is necessary for thy life? Ask me and I will geue you a good rewarde.

Arseny was silent and then holy fool Foma said:

If I chose for him, will you geue the rewarde?

Mayor Gavriil answered:

I will geue it.

Then geue him the great burg of Pskov, said holy fool Foma. And sufficient it shall be for his sustenance.

The mayor did not utter another word, for he could not give the entire city away to Arseny. And holy fool Foma began laughing when he saw Mayor Gavriil’s distress: 

Take it easy; jeez. If you can’t give him the city, then don’t. He’ll get it without you anyway...
Complete article here.

1 comment:

  1. great book. I don't know how much of it was lost in the translation, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.