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Archive for the 'Translation' Category

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Book Giveaway! The Book of Swindles

Book of Swindles

“In The Book of Swindles, Rea and Rusk give us hilarious and sobering proof that swindling isn’t just a contemporary concern but has been around for centuries. We are treated to stories of porters cheating officials who cheat porters, of conniving Taoists and gullible officials, of lusty widows who provoke their husbands’ death, and of debauched gentry who prey on poor locals. Yet many of these tales sound eerily familiar to today’s world, and especially today’s China. We are confronted with a widespread, ambient feeling of social mistrust in which people across the land feel that they are constantly being cheated. Besides giving insight into deep societal concerns, The Book of Swindles is a great read.” — Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

This week, our featured book is The Book of Swindles, by Zhang Yingyu, translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

An excerpt from A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden)

Book to Burn

“A rich translation of essays revealing Li Zhi as the epitome of dissent. His tragic suicide culminated Li’s life as a free thinker, but at the same time his enemies immortalized him as someone who had defrocked Ming autocracy of its elegantly woven orthodoxies. He also provided Ming precedents for political repression under the Republic of China and the People’s Republic. The PRC ironically appropriated Li Zhi’s rhetoric, pretending that everyone was now liberated, as long as they towed the party line. Later Pierre Bourdieu honored him as China’s homo academicus!” — Benjamin A. Elman, Princeton University

A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden) introduces the controversial Ming scholar Li Zhi through his letters, essays, poetry, and historical writings. Below, we excerpt the volume’s introduction, by editors and translators Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy.

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Capturing the tone in the translation of City Folk and Country Folk

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press blog! This week we are featuring Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, which has recently come out in the Russian Library series. Today Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, explores some of the decisions Nora Seligman Favorov made in translating the book.

As a fledgling translator, examining the work of other, more experienced translators is consistently an informative and reflective exercise for me. Translating a work of literature is more complex than simple transmission of meaning across language, for a story is more than the sum of its parts. Often there are cultural and political stakes in the game, factors not easily separated and compartmentalized thanks to the curious way in which words and their arrangement bear the weight of multiple and varied ideas. Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s novel, City Folk and Country Folk, is one such work that contains multitudes: It is a feminist novel, a satirical piece, a reflection on social change in nineteenth-century Russia, and, an entertaining read to boot. Nora Seligman Favorov is the first translator to deliver this literary gem to the English-speaking world, and she has done so with a keen ear for her Anglophone audience.

The beginning of a book sets the tone for the rest of the story. Any translator will tell you that the initial pages are crucial, that these early paragraphs introduce and establish both a sense of the author’s style from the original text and the translator’s stylistic sensibilities within the translation language. In City Folk and Country Folk, one of the first things a reader will notice is the narrative voice. At turns loving and sardonic, the third person omniscient narrator of Khvoshchinskaya’s novel tells the story using language that hints at familiarity. In the original Russian, the tone even feels conversational at times—Khvoshchinskaya practically concludes her opening paragraph with the colloquial “И что же?”, a Russian expression whose meaning, depending on context and intonation, can range from “so what?” to “big whoop” and “can you imagine?” This narrative style guides the audience with omniscient authority, but the tone conveys a figurative wink and a nod, the suggestion that the reader, like the narrator, gets it. Khvoshchinskaya employs the first person plural possessive “наш” (our)—a staple more of Russian speech than prose—to qualify the countryside, the climate, the food, and it ultimately invites the reader to consider these things from an internal perspective. The economic troubles of the day, the laughable habits and opinions of certain characters—these are presented to the reader as they might be to a friend or, perhaps fellow conspirator, and this implicit understanding between reader and narrator is what gives the novel so much of its charm.

Favorov’s English rendering of the opening pages of City Folk and Country Folk demonstrates her sensitivity both to Khvoshchinskaya’s Russian style and conventions of English writing. She maintains the inclusive “our” to bring the English reader into a sense of communion with the narrator, but she adjusts the colloquial quality in search of a more traditional English literary style. Nastasya Ivanovna, a landowner, country resident, and the leading heroine to whom we are first introduced, prefers traditional Russian ceramics and mushrooms to their more fashionable, Western European counterparts. By the social standards of her day, such tastes are “unrefined,” but Nastasya Ivanovna is only somewhat conflicted about this.

“Грубых вкусов своих она не выражала при всех, но зато с людьми, которые были ей по душе, смиренная и откровенная, она каялась в этих грехах своих. Она сознавалась сама, без чужих понуждений; не ясно ли отсюда, что она была способна совершенствоваться?”

[“She did not admit her unsophisticated tastes to just anyone, but, humble and frank, in the presence of people with whom she felt at ease, she repented these sins. Nobody forced her—she confessed them freely. Surely this suggests she was capable of self-improvement,” (Khvoshchinskaya, 4).]

The final line of this excerpt, the matter of improving oneself, is posed as a question in the Russian original: “не ясно ли отсюда, что она была способна совершенствоваться?” In the form of a question, the issue is framed in doubt, but it is unclear on whose part. If Nastasya Ivanovna’s, the question implies self-examination, a bit of desperation in the face of her failings before society; if the narrator’s, it reads more as an inference into Nastasya Ivanovna’s constitution. Favorov’s English translation does away with the question entirely, rendering Nastasya Ivanovna’s self-awareness as a rather definitive aspect of her character: “Nobody forced her—she confessed them freely. Surely this suggests she was capable of self-improvement.”

The switch from interrogative to declarative is a conscious move on the translator’s part, one whose intent I understand to be a departure from the more personal, dialectic quality of nineteenth-century Russian literature. (If you’re hungry for examples, see War and Peace.) With the declarative, Favorov’s prose shifts towards the English literary style. And while the frequent comparison may be tired, it is valid—City Folk and Country Folk is reminiscent of the works of Jane Austen, and Favorov’s choice in this instance seems to embrace the comparison. Treatment of Nastasya Ivanovna’s dilemma with a statement through free indirect discourse lends the translation the kind of third person narrative authority with which Austen presents the opinions of her British characters. As a result, some of the underlying anxiety Nastasya Ivanovna feels with respect to her own potential for “refinement” in the Russian text falls away, but what the translation gains is greater Englishness.

Favorov’s careful attempts to honor Russian and English stylistic norms operates at the word level, too. In the very first paragraph, the reader learns that Nastasya Ivanovna qualifies everything that happened that fateful summer using the word “напасть.” This word can be translated in English in various ways; its meanings including “tribulation,” “bad luck,” and “disaster.” But “напасть” also contains implications of action and transitivity. It suggests assault or attack. Favorov renders this word as “calamity,” a choice that initially seemed odd. For me, “calamity” carries connotations of natural disasters, but it also calls to mind ironic, almost cartoonish imagery (i.e., “Calamity Jane” or dialogue in Looney Tunes set in the Wild West). The latter implication stems from the rarity of this word in modern spoken English. It feels hyperbolic, old-fashioned. But given these considerations, “calamity” is in fact a rather apt translation. It works to convey an old-timey feel and the meaning of an onslaught of misfortunes. Nastasya Ivanovna considers the events of the story to have happened to her, events that were out of her control. Khvoshchinskaya’s Russian text implies this with the word “напасть” and a character named Nastasya, as they appear together in the old Russian saying “Пошла Настя по напастям,” a version of “when it rains it pours.” For Nastasya Ivanovna, there was no calculated attack on her peaceful country life, but rather these events were fated. Favorov’s English underscores Nastasya Ivanovna’s exaggerated perception of the events as a string of disasters imposed upon her: “It is… a shame that fate did not earlier, before the events of last summer, send Nastasya Ivanovna someone who could have prepared her for these events, who could have warned her, for instance, that proclaiming a fight for one’s convictions to be a disaster and a punishment from God is far more shameful than blurting out a preference for local mushrooms over truffles” (Khvoshchinskaya, 4).* These words are, of course, dripping with irony, throwing the intended meaning of “напасть” against a backdrop of absurdity, and this shows the choice of “calamity” in a favorable light: its semantic shades bridge the gap between expressions of misfortune and the nonsense of the circumstances.

Favorov’s translation is full of potential for this kind of analysis, but the opening moments of City Folk and Country Folk demonstrate Khvoshchinskaya’s style. Her comic and astute observations illustrate and poke fun at her nineteenth-century reality, and so landing the narrative voice in the English is key. Our introduction to Nastasya Ivanovna, with her simple tastes and her bouts of anxiety, sets the stage for the story to follow, but it is also a proving ground for style. These early pages show Favorov’s thoughtful work; her translation captures Khvoshchinskaya’s wit and wisdom. And though reflective of traditional English literary conventions, in her translation the novel’s charm—its Russianness—shines.

*After writing this piece, I learned that Favorov finally decided upon “calamity” after consulting English translations of the Bible. A brilliant insight into her problem-solving process, this fact also bolsters what Nastasya Ivanovna wishes to convey, that she was subject to greater forces.

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: City Folk and Country Folk as a Feminist Novel

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, introduces Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk as a 19th century feminist novel.

Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation of City Folk and Country Folk is the first of its kind—never before has this story been accessible to a strictly Anglophone audience. And yet it feels familiar to the English-speaking reader, for its headstrong heroines speak their minds and engage their male interlocutors with Jane Austen-esque confidence and wit. It would be unfair to qualify the heroines of this story as simply Russian interpretations of an English literary model, however, as the words—and actions—of the Russian characters have grand implications beyond the events of the story. City Folk and Country Folk is a feminist work. The women central to Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s novel do not fit the docile, domestic gender stereotype of their century. The youngest heroine, Olenka, makes no secret of her disdain for society’s expectations. The ease with which she rejects men of ostensibly superior social station and her desire to live a life in accord with what she—not social mores—finds to be appropriate, make Olenka a rather unnatural 19th century literary heroine, but a very relevant one in our modern world.

While limiting, the Austen connection is not a casual observation; Olenka’s stubborn, sometimes insolent nature and easy laughter in the face of urban socialite and occasional, albeit hopeless, suitor, the “enlightened” Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, recall aspects of Austen’s willful Marianne Dashwood. But unlike Marianne, Olenka never finds herself wounded by a man she loves. In fact, Olenka never even falls in love. Khvoshchinskaya’s female leads are more empowered than their fictional British counterparts most notably because they neither act nor reflect on their actions with regard for male opinion.

In Snetki, a village situated in a rural province outside of Moscow, the arrival of an eligible bachelor (the aforementioned Ovcharov) means different things to the female inhabitants of the small town—humorous curiosity, opportunity for hospitality, and even a means to assume a position of self-righteous indignation—but at no point does Ovcharov’s arrive incite any romantic story arc. What would have held romantic possibilities (or at the very least, possibilities for marriage) in Austen’s writing exists as a more of a nuisance for Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s heroines. Much of the comedy of City Folk and Country Folk comes from Ovcharov’s multiple frustrated attempts to ingratiate himself with the female residents of Snetki. He is more pest than protagonist; from his insistence upon a strict diet of thin soup and whey to his desperate epistolary cries for attention, Ovcharov is weak and needy to the point of absurdity. Khvoshchinskaya’s prose flaunts this absurdity as a direct response to the literary models of femininity written by her male contemporaries: women as fragile and emotional creatures, frequently victimized by men. City Folk and Country Folk turns this stereotype on its head. One of the most telling scenes of Khvoshchinskaya’s refutation of the delicate 19th century Russian woman takes place in chapter eight. Ovcaharov repeatedly insists that he carry Olenka across a dried up stream bed measuring only a few inches across. An exasperated Olenka, with “coarse candor,” rebuffs these pathetic suggestions of chivalry: “What on earth are you doing? I’m stronger than you are. If you like, it might be better for me to carry you.” (98).

Khvoshchinskaya doesn’t just undercut traditional gender roles through Ovcharov’s inferior strength, she also shows him to be fashion-conscious, emotional, and impetuous. When Olenka laughs at his “magnificent” panama hat, Ovcharov’s inner monologue is instantly petty: “The little fool—she failed to appreciate how stylish it was.” (155). Self-conscious to a fault, “despite all of his European courtesy,” when Olenka laughingly dismisses his flirtation, Ovcharov is “unable to control himself.” (98).

When Katerina Petrovna, a Moscow socialite and former acquaintance arrives in Snetki, Ovcharov agonizes when she does not contact him immediately. His emotional distress manifests as a childish cry for attention:

“Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov most humbly requests the most venerable and kind Katerina Petrovna to explain to him why she so ungraciously saw fit to fail to remember him this morning when he had the pleasure of seeing her carriage in the village of Snetki at the home of Madame Chulkova.” (110).

Katerina Petrovna’s reply is slightly (and understandably) defensive, but overall the inverse of Ovcharov’s irrational correspondence:

“If I was so ungracious as to fail to remember you, as you put it, Mr. Ovcharov, it was only because you seem to have arranged things so that your friends would not remember you. Please pay me a visit, and then you will be convinced of the unfailing and devoted friendship of yours truly, KPD.” (153).

As an aristocrat of considerable reputation, Katerina Petrovna’s acknowledgment signifies a great deal to Ovcharov, as it would grant him the thing he values most: validation of his own bloated sense of self-worth. He seeks validation of his philosophical and political opinions, both from potential publishers of his writings, and in his attempts to enlighten Olenka and her mother through written and verbal lectures on gender roles and the means of women’s education. The reader never learns how the publisher reacts to Ovcharov’s treatises, but Olenka and her mother are generally indifferent to both the lessons and the man.

And that is one of the most remarkable aspects of this novel—indifference to men. Ovcharov is the story’s lead male protagonist; the other principle masculine characters, at least, those who physically appear within the story, are limited to four: Father Profirii, a timid, non-confrontational priest; dull and portly Simon, the potential match for Olenka; George, Katerina Petrovna’s young son; and Fyodor Fyodorovich, Ovcharov’s surly German servant. These men play their supporting roles in near silence, exerting little to no influence on the protagonists. Their existence and activity are important relative only to the principle female characters. Ovcharov’s role is the most self-determined, though the only thing of consequence he manages to fully achieve is to get in the way.

Conversely, the women in this book—even the villains—exercise control over their own affairs independent of any male influence: Olenka rejects Katerina Petrovna’s manipulative plan to marry her off and maintains her right to choice; her mother, the widowed Nastasya Ivanovna, is a careful landowner and effective manager of the family estate who tries to keep the peace and finances in order; Anna Ilinishna, an opportunistic spinster, masks her social ambitions with false piety and secures herself a series of benefactresses; Katerina Petrovna, separated from her gambling addict husband and refusing to “live for the children alone,” maintains a reputation she built for herself by orchestrating financially and socially advantageous marriages.

City Folk and Country Folk is a feminist novel confronting the oppressive sexism of the 19th century, but it is also a work that resonates very strongly in the 21st century. Austen’s heroines shine with their witty repartee, but for all their self-assuredness, even the Dashwood girls and Lizzie Bennett are moved by the words and waning attentions of the men in their orbit. Khvoshchinskaya’s Snetki heroines never need to prove themselves to any man, nor do they feel the desire to do so, as the stakes are never romantic. These women are confident, carving paths for themselves with no aid or validation from husbands or suitors. Olenka’s character might have developed through a romantic story arc, but the sexual tension is purely one-sided, suffered by Ovcharov alone. Sex and romance aren’t unrealized potential—Khvoshchinskaya doesn’t allow it a meaningful place in her character’s lives—but rather shapes them into strong-willed intellectual creatures. And while Ovcharov feels acutely Olenka’s absence from the carriage, she does not “[give] him a moment’s thought.” (209).

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Ovcharov meets Nastasya Ivanovna: A City Folk and Country Folk excerpt

City Folk and Country Folk

“Order is necessary in all things, Nastasya Ivanovna. Germans understand this, but we Russians haven’t appreciated it. Why should you pass up an opportunity for gain, and why should I accept gifts or sacrifices from you? That’s nothing but Russia’s outdated lack of moral discipline—simple disorder. If I live on your property, there is no question but that I will pay you for everything. It would be better if you just told me whether or not I can live in your bathhouse.” — Erast Sergeyich Ovcharov

This week, our featured book is City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. Below you will find an excerpt from the book. Erast Sergeyich Ovcharov has planned to spend the summer on his country estate, but arrives to find it uninhabitable. Here he negotiates with his neighbor about staying with her for the summer, but not, heaven forbid, as her guest!

We originally featured this excerpt in our roundup of recommended reading for #womenintranslation month. See that list here. #WITMonth

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of City Folk and Country Folk!

Monday, August 21st, 2017

Book Giveaway! City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

City Folk and Country Folk

“Favorov’s brisk translation and helpful notes make the novel very accessible to present-day readers. This consistently delightful satire will introduce readers to a funnier, more female-centric slant on Russian literature than they may have previously encountered.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

This week, our featured book is City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Kyūzō and the Red Army

Beasts Head for Home

“During that night, however, Kyūzō’s mother went out to the back shed to find some empty packing crates. There she was hit by a stray bullet, shattering her back. They called for a doctor, but after administering an injection he hurried away without issuing any clear instructions. Everyone was in a state of high agitation. Not knowing what to do, Kyūzō merely remained at his mother’s bedside staring blankly ahead.” — Abe Kōbō

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book describing the chaos at the end of the Second World War experienced by the Japanese inhabitants of Manchuria.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Kyūzō Heads for Home

Beasts Head for Home

“The corner of an eroded sand dune could be seen where the river sharply diverged to again touch the edge of town. A few slanting Korean pine trees stood there, under which lay the unknown grave of his mother. When Kyūzō was in middle school, he had examined the sand dune’s movement as part of science class. He discovered that as the dune eroded with the annual spring floods, it moved northward by twenty or thirty centimeters. Before long it would overtake his mother’s grave, swallowing it up. After several hundred years, in the sandy plains created after the sand dune had swept through, what would someone think if they came across those crumbled, yellow bones?” — Abe Kōbō

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. In April, The Guardian featured an excerpt from the novel as part of their Translation Tuesday series. Today, we are happy to present a short piece of that excerpt. You can read the excerpt in full at The Guardian.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Kyūzō Heads for Home
By Abe Kōbō. Translated by Richard Calichman

Raising his head, Kyūzō saw light dimly shining in above the door. There was a hole about the size of his thumb, and a dusty light could be seen whirling about. Peeking through the hole, he noted that the fog had nearly disappeared, and that several sheets of mist that had failed to escape hovered close to the ground, moving south. By the horizon a milky white light had begun to shine.

On his left, a large patch of fog was burning off in swirls, exposing the lowland that stretched from the northwest to the southeast. This was Xinghe. Here and there the snow had become bare, revealing a surface of ice that gleamed like new sheets of zinc. Further to the right, the town of Baharin stretched out like a stockyard of black brick.

In such light, however, it would no longer be easy to change cars. Suddenly the train emitted a burst of steam. Kyūzō stood motionless, vacillating, when again he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. They stopped directly in front of him. Someone rapped on the door with a stick and spoke in Chinese, with a provincial Shandong accent, “What happened to the cargo that was supposed to have been loaded here?” (more…)

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

Introducing Beasts Head for Home

Beasts Head for Home

“By the end of the novel, Kō indeed appears to have lost all semblance of reason in his lunatic ravings, while Kyūzō, who is consistently described in bestial imagery—for example, panting like a dog, eating like a dog, potentially being killed like a dog, and so forth—seems to have surrendered all traces of humanity in being transformed into a howling, enraged beast. The pain that these two men suffer is extreme, and yet Abe steadfastly resists any notion that salvation is to be found through an ideal return to humanity.” — Richard Calichman

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present Calichman’s forward to the novel.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Beasts Head for Home!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Beasts Head for Home, by Abe Kōbō

Beasts Head for Home

“The earliest work by one of Japan’s foremost writers to appear in English, Beasts Head for Home tells the story of a young Japanese man who undertakes a harrowing journey in an attempt to reach Japan after the collapse of the Japanese Empire. The story is particularly affecting to read in this historical moment with so much forced migration all over the world. Calichman’s translation is flawless.” — J. Keith Vincent, translator of Junichiro Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight

This week, our featured book is Beasts Head for Home: A Novel, by Abe Kōbō, translated by Richard F. Calichman. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Art of Translation roundtable recap

There are still 2 days left in Russian Literature Week. Check out the remaining events here.

Art of Translation roundtable

Every year, Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week provides a variety of events for devotees of literature, from raucous panels on what’s new and hot on the contemporary scene to intimate, in-depth conversations on single titles. On Tuesday May 2nd 2017 the Russian Literature Week event The Art of Translation: A Literary Roundtable focused on translators. Moderator Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, began by inviting the participating translators to speak briefly about a recent translation and read a short passage from it. Thomas Kitson read from Rapture by Iliazd, the most recent publication in the Russian Library. Lisa Hayden commented that readers often assume that the most difficult part of translating Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin was the archaic language, but actually, getting the rhythm right was harder. Antonina Bouis read a passage from Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion, a novel that, in Nina’s words, “turned the collapse of the Soviet Union into a kind of poetry”. And Marian Schwartz was gracious enough to read to us from an as-of-yet unpublished translation of a book by Leonid Yuzefovich. It will come out in February from Archipelago and currently bears the working title Horsemen of the Sands. The book concerns the Far East and Mongolia, and Marian pointed out that this makes it work particularly well in translation because Yuzefovich has already explained the unfamiliar customs and history for his Russian readers, who are also on unfamiliar ground.

Ruth deftly steered the conversation to highlight common themes and differences between the works and the methods of the translators. We had a rousing discussion of realia, which, as Marian commented, can add or take away from the overall experience of reading the translation. She cautioned that the translator should ask herself: Why is it there? How is it being used? What’s the effect on the original audience?

One big dividing factor is whether or not the author being translated is alive. Lisa, Nina, and Marian all enjoy close relationships with these authors. This allows them to ask for clarification, of course, but more importantly, having the author’s explicit permission makes it much easier to alter the underlying work. Michael Wise, the co-founder of New Vessel Press, was in the audience, and he and Nina spoke about some tightening of the prose and in one instance even some rearranging that they were able to do with Lebedev’s blessing. This kind of liberty is harder to take with the work of a dead author. Tom Kitson added that since he was unable to discuss Rapture with Iliazd, he compensated by reading his other works and getting a sense of his relations with other Russian writers.

Ruth ended the event with a request for advice for aspiring or emerging translators:
Marian Schwartz: Pick a really good book. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good your translation is.
Antonina Bouis: Work with an author you like as a person.
Lisa Hayden: Listen for voices. Read out loud.
Thomas Kitson: Pick a book that you really love.

The Art of Translation: A Literary Roundtable was co-sponsored by Columbia University Press, the Columbia University Slavic Department, and the Harriman Institute

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

Interview with Thomas J. Kitson, translator of Iliazd’s Rapture

Iliazd’s Rapture is the newest title in the Russian Library, a series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Thomas J. Kitson will be speaking about Rapture with Jennifer Wilson on Thursday, May 4th at 5:00 PM at NYU’s Jordan Center. More information here

Enter the Rapture Book Giveaway here

Rapture

Today Veniamin Gushchin, CC ’18, Russian Library Intern interviews Thomas J. Kitson about his translation of Rapture by Iliazd

What makes Rapture a classic of literary modernism, worthy of being read alongside the works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others? Why has it been ignored for so long?

I’ll take your second question first. Rapture got off to a bad start in the politically touchy and rapidly shifting Russian publishing milieu of the late 1920s, both in the Soviet Union and in the Emigration. But Iliazd took a stance that tended to undermine his own cause – and eventually, this became a fully conscious campaign to create art that would “vanish idly,” like the storied hidden treasures in the novel. When Iliazd began writing his novel in 1926, there was every indication Soviet publishers wanted to establish ties with left-leaning émigré writers. Iliazd sent the first chapters to his brother Kirill in the USSR, expecting it would appear alongside works by “fellow travelers” like Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak and other authors who had been moving more or less fluidly between Moscow, Berlin, and Paris. Kirill submitted the manuscript just when those publishing opportunities started disappearing. A new “proletarian” campaign in literature, not just against fellow travelers and their favored journal, Red Virgin Soil, but also against the avant-garde gathered around the journal LEF, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, coincided with Stalin’s consolidation of power within the Party. Iliazd’s manuscript was rejected on a combination of aesthetic and ideological grounds (reads like it’s been translated, “clumsy,” even “illiterate”; opens with a monk, displays “aesthetico-contemplative indifference to characters” and entertains a “mystical state of the spirit”). Iliazd wrote an exaggeratedly tendentious, almost mocking rejoinder to the Soviet editors emphasizing his “internationalism” and asserting that he’d been in the crowd that greeted Lenin at Finland Station in April 1917. But under conditions in the Soviet Union in 1928, his avant-garde pedigree and émigré status made him profoundly suspect. To my knowledge, his contacts in the USSR never made another attempt to publish the novel, although copies of it circulated among a small group of admirers in the 1930s. So for the vast majority of Russian readers, the novel never existed at all.

In Paris, Iliazd had taken a resolute stance against the anti-Soviet émigré arbiters of culture who controlled access to the Russian-language press, and there simply wasn’t a sufficiently large Russian-speaking audience independent of those organs. Iliazd’s associates, like the Dada writer and painter Sergei Charchoune and the younger poet Boris Poplavsky, had, one by one, “compromised” for the sake of being able to publish. Again, as far as I know, Iliazd never made any overture at all to the main Russian-language publishers, and even preferred unrealized schemes to translate the novel into French. He gave away a large number of the 750 copies he published at his own expense in 1930, and Russian bookstores refused to carry what was left on the pretext that it included several obscenities. Iliazd’s marketing strategy was openly challenging to potential buyers: “If you’re that inhibited, don’t read it!” So it disappeared there, too.
When Iliazd later gained a reputation in France as a printer and publisher of artists’ books, Rapture didn’t have the visual appeal to overcome its inaccessibility to non-Russian readers. It’s an indication of how thoroughly forgotten the novel was that it didn’t have champions to publish it during the Glasnost explosion. Luckily, there have been connoisseurs over the last thirty years, in and outside Russia, to keep pushing it forward in small editions. I find myself thinking that this is probably the most high-profile publication the novel has ever had, and that puts a lot of responsibility on me.

The novel’s modernism lies primarily in its post-Great War, post-Christian exploration of human desire for transcendence. Humans are thoroughly unnatural, time-bound, dying animals whose relentless artifice inevitably creates nostalgia for Nature, or the Infinite, or Unchanging Eternity, or Ideal Beauty, and efforts to “recover” these unattainable states exact a certain quantity of violence of one kind or another. Beneath his entertaining adventure story, Iliazd introduces Freudian drives, linguistic minimal phonetic pairs, Nietzschean jenseits, chivalric quests and fairy-tale tasks, mythologies of metamorphosis, including Christian Transfiguration and Resurrection, Romantic and Symbolist longing for the Eternal Feminine, and various strains of apocalypticism, among other features, to generate layers of meaning. Iliazd considered his novel above all a “commentary on… poetry as an always vain endeavor.” It is full of allusion, but also poetically structured (circularly, like many other modernist works) with rhyme, inversion, and recapitulation. And it wears all this remarkably lightly.

What new insights about the competing literary movements at the beginning of the twentieth century can be gained from Rapture?

Laurence, the protagonist, is said to be a portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the bare storyline grows out of a transparent pre-war polemic in which Zdanevich (not yet known as Iliazd) described a film scenario called “The Fallen Man,” a melodrama about a promising young revolutionary’s utter degradation and dishonorable death. While Iliazd could still be intransigent, I think what he saw during the war took away his unforgiving polemic edge, and Rapture is suffused with sympathy and self-deprecation – all poets are necessarily failures. We know that when Futurist and Acmeist poets rejected their Symbolist fathers, they retained, as with any Oedipal response, many of their fathers’ techniques and attitudes. The French scholar Régis Gayraud is absolutely right to see in Rapture “a return to a species of Symbolism bearing the experience of the avant-garde.” I suspect there may be a much harsher inscription of Nikolai Gumilev, the Acmeist leader executed by the Bolsheviks, lurking in the novel, but that’s something I haven’t dealt with.

I also hope, since Iliazd was close to Paul Eluard and frequently attended Surrealist meetings where Freud, Gothic novels, and German Romanticism were among the topics, someone will put this novel in conversation with the Surrealist prose emerging at the same time, like Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and André Breton’s Nadja.

In translating Rapture, how did you navigate the multiple layers of cultural distance between the English-language reader and the text: first Russian, then Georgian?

Oddly, I didn’t feel that I needed to mediate much here. There’s an ongoing debate about where the novel is set (Soviet editors, to start with, didn’t like its lack of specified time and place). I lean toward agreeing with Elizabeth Beaujour that it’s simply set among mountain peoples, and there’s no need to specify more than Iliazd does. Iliazd loved the village culture of Georgia (and of the Anatolian areas he explored during a wartime archaeological expedition), but he also loved the Pyranees, and Petr Kazarnovskii makes a case for linking Rapture to the Albanian mountain settings that inspired Zdanevich’s first play. There are features that suggest a setting in the Russian Empire, but, once again, I don’t feel compelled to set that down in stone, and, in fact, I think the novel gains, especially on the mythical and fairy-tale levels, by leaving the question open. I deliberately translate vodka as “brandy” just for that reason. There’s a lovely interplay between the openness of “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away” and maddeningly detailed descriptions of seemingly fantastic ethnographic practices and beliefs that turn out to be lifted almost verbatim from Iliazd’s notes about specific villages he visited. I want English-language readers to be immersed in minute detail when Iliazd decides to give it without breaking the effect of fantasy – and the same holds for the urban settings with their commercial phantasmagoria and the Party’s revolutionary striving for “expedient coercion.”

Rapture is rich in literary and historical references, especially to the Russia literary scene at the turn of the century. For English-language readers with little to no knowledge of the Russian literary tradition, do you believe this text is truly accessible? To what extent?

I think the novel can be enjoyed without being able to catch all the allusions (I certainly haven’t). Many English-language readers are familiar with Dostoevsky and will certainly find that characters and situations from his major novels come to mind. Readers who know modern French poetry will find echoes of Baudelaire and Rimbaud (for instance, the monk Mocius sees a satyr gnawing a rifle barrel). I have incorporated some vocabulary and phrasing from the King James Version of the Bible, which I hope will sound in many English-language readers’ ears. Some allusions, like Laurence’s invocation of Boris Pasternak when he vows to wed the government’s soldiers to “our sister death,” are extremely fleeting, but will probably register with some readers. I think the book will reward any level of reading experience for curious, intelligent readers.

When I’m feeling very inadequate as a translator, I imagine Rapture could warrant something like Yale University Press’s simultaneous publication of two versions of Máirtín ´O Cadhain’s Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay), where the alternate version would focus sharply on another level of puns and allusions that results in an entirely different book.

Translators generally fall along a spectrum regarding how faithfully they believe a translation should adhere to a source text. Where do you fall on this spectrum of remaining to true to the text and making it accessible to the reader?

I don’t think of remaining true and making it accessible as mutually exclusive tasks. I think the text can have some odd features and still be accessible, especially because I imagine a reader with a generous tolerance for what’s unfamiliar. In part, remaining true to this text meant taking into account the specific kinds of incomprehension or bewilderment evident in the fragmentary accounts of the manuscript’s effect on its first readers. I was particularly drawn to the impression that the novel had been translated from another language into Russian. How should I handle that in my own, actual translation? I retained a few syntactic and punctuation features I thought might create just a slight edge of unease. They were flagged at the proofreading stage, so they were perceptible, but we agreed that they didn’t impede reading. But my sense of hitting the right balance depends on the text. If I were tackling Zdanevich’s beyonsense plays, I’d have a very different feeling for what I want readers to have access to.

What are your hopes for this publication? Do you have any particular expectations for its reception or impact both on academia and general readership?

As I mentioned above, I feel like this translation has the potential to introduce Rapture to readers on a scale it’s never achieved. Today, the sheer fact of making it available in English already provides a huge advantage. I fantasize that bilingual Russian speakers will encounter it and want to read Iliazd’s Russian.

At the same time, I hope Rapture finds a place for general readers alongside Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, but also alongside Woolf and Lawrence and Mann. And, in a sense, I hope readers will think of it not as a Russian novel, but as an important element in a much broader literary heritage.

Are you interested in translating any of Iliazd’s other novels or works?

I’m currently translating Iliazd’s Philosophia, set in 1921 among Russian refugees in Istanbul — a psychologically and referentially paranoid novel moving toward a terrorist plot to blow up Hagia Sophia. It feels very timely.

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Brother Mocius’s Funeral

Rapture

“Brother Mocius’s funeral was performed not by parish priests, but by monks who turned up from his own monastery, as well as from the monastery he’d been traveling to. The monks didn’t share lay opinion as to the ascetic’s violent death, since the expression in the dead man’s eyes bore witness that he had seen death, while people who die violently supposedly don’t see it; but since the monks weren’t convinced even of this (to Luke’s distress), they decided, in order to avoid any ambiguity, to accept the locals’ petition and bury the holy fool in the cemetery there. No one showed up for the funeral.” — Iliazd

This week, our featured book is Rapture: A Novel, by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the third chapter of Rapture.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Rapture!

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Book Giveaway! Rapture, by Iliazd

Rapture

“Magical… like a wizard’s spell.” — Aleksandr Goldshtein, Nezavisimaia Gazeta

This week, our featured book is Rapture: A Novel, by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Introducing Remains of Life

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“As one of the first contemporary literary works to address the scars left by the Musha Incident and its brutal suppression, the novel stimulated a renewed dialogue and cultural debate about the incident in Taiwan. After centuries of oppression, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan remain largely marginalized, and Remains of Life is one of the few literary works by an ethnic Chinese writer to address the plight of the island’s original occupants under both the Japanese colonizers and the Nationalist regime.” — Michael Berry

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Michael Berry’s introduction to Remains of Life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Introducing Meeting with My Brother

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“In his literary work, and in his private life, Yi not only responds to themes directly relevant to himself; he is also profoundly aware of the contemporary predicament of Korea—currently ranked the sixth most “wired” nation on the planet according to Bloomberg—in the age of the Internet and media manipulation. It is not only the younger generation of Koreans that is ruled by consumerism, narcissism, and hunger for fame and fortune. Yi’s work seems to be designed precisely to be disillusioning, and perhaps even traumatic, to such a readership because it dares to go against the grain of both popular and normative thinking.” — Heinz Insu Fenkl

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Heinz Insu Fenkl’s introduction to Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

The Musha Incident

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“[B]ut who would have imagined that the ‘civilized savages’ would turn around and send their civilized planes, cannons, and poisonous gases to the ‘savage primitives’ to show them the true face of civilization; customs and rituals in the end led to a horrifying and destructive cycle of revenge, the result was the historical-political entity known as the ‘Musha Incident’…” — Wu He

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are pleased to present an excerpt from the beginning of Remains of Life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

The Madame of Yanji

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“She lowered her voice and sneaked a quick glance toward the kitchen. ‘You’re from Seoul, so I’m sure you’ve heard,’ she said quickly, ‘but do you know how I scrounged to make that money? I made it washing bloody underwear for prostitutes and getting groped by drunkards while I was bussing tables at a hostess club. What else but money would make a married woman put up with that sort of thing?’” — Yi Mun-yol

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“Yi Mun-yol is one of South Korea’s most gifted writers, and this translation gives his simple style all of the elegant force it can bring to bear. This story of two brothers who find each other only after their defector father has died balances the weight of the country’s history on their meeting as effortlessly as only a master could achieve. Compelling and essential reading.” — Alexander Chee, author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh

“After spending ten years living in seclusion, Wu He began publishing a series of short stories, novellas, and novels that culminated in the publication of Remains of Life. The novel stands as a singular statement, at once profound and powerful, that could only come from the brilliant literary imagination of Wu He.” — Chu T’ien-wen, author of Notes of a Desolate Man

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Between Dog and Wolf in Translation

This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here

Between Dog and Wolf

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library intern and Columbia Russian Literary Translation MA student Elaine Wilson delves into Alexander Boguslawski’s translation of Between Dog and Wolf.

Sasha Sokolov’s novel Between Dog and Wolf is intimidating in its complexity: time is non-linear, character names are inconsistent, register moves along a wide spectrum from peasant dialect to sophisticated, even Biblical style, and the language is filled with neologisms. It is highly intertextual, astoundingly rich in its reference to Russian literary tradition across the centuries. Space, time, life and death are all uncertain—rarely is any one of them clearly demarcated—and events are told and retold from differing perspectives. And that’s just the content.

The structure likewise poses a challenge: dialogue, monologue and third person omniscient narration coexist on the page with no breaks, no indentation, no typeset cues or even general conventions of reported speech, but rather flow freely along in a train of associative (and sometimes seemingly unassociated) thought. Sokolov’s writing style belongs in a category all its own, a genre Sokolov himself categorizes as somewhere between prose and poetry, or “proetry.” And speaking of poetry, there are plenty of poems throughout, too—complete chapters of poetry tucked among the “proetic” sections of the novel.

How can something like this find its voice in a foreign language? For a long time, publishers and translators asked themselves that very question. When the Russian version of the novel was first published in 1980, critics gave it a rather mixed reception, and many within the literary community—capable translators among them—balked at the idea of an English-language version, suggesting it could never be done.

And yet it could. Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf is being published in English for the very first time, and so the idea of the “untranslatable” returns to the realm of translation mythology. Or does it?

I am a student of translation. Russian into English literary translation, to be specific, and so I feel a personal kind of victory in the release of this novel, a sense of celebration in a triumph over apparently insurmountable linguistic odds. Yet for all my excitement I still wonder about the inevitable losses that occur when we bring a literary work from one language into another; in the back of my mind I can’t help but hear Nabokov denouncing the “sins” of our “queer world of verbal transmigration,”* crying out that all translation but for literal, scholarly renderings are false. (Though perhaps Nabokov would find the most egregious transgression of all to be the lack of exhaustive notes on the same page of the referenced text, an organizational decision specified by Sokolov himself.)

Nabokovian doubt on the value of translation aside, can translation of something like Sokolov’s convoluted work be done well? The novel is difficult, packed with myriad obstacles that translators don’t frequently face, much less all at once. Puns, peasant dialect, a general sense of disorientation—translator Alexander Boguslawski tackles these challenges by the best means possible: culturally conscious creativity, or what Philip E. Lewis calls “abusive translation.” When a translator must force an idea from a unique mode of expression in the source text into a new linguistic framework, the translator’s job is to convey sense and meaning while still communicating the uniqueness of the source form in the receiving language. Often what “works” in Russian won’t work in English, and so the translator needs to “abuse” the text, that is, creatively engage the receiving language so that it can carry the meaning, the humor/ irony/ sadness, etc. and the unorthodox medium of the source in its new linguistic code. Consider Boguslawski’s translation of the Russian dva sapoga para: “two boots of leather flock together.” This is a clever blending of the Russian subject and English idiomatic structure to convey the literal scene—two characters sharing a pair of boots—and the spirit of collaboration implied by the Russian proverb Sokolov uses to describe them. The Russian, literally “two boots are a pair,” folds into “birds of a feather flock together” to create an English-Russian proverbial hybrid.

Why not simply use the English idiom here? Wouldn’t the spirit of the proverb be enough to convey the characters’ sense of comraderie? A translator could take this easy way out, but more than just sounding trite, the imagery would be lost, deafening the line’s descriptive power in Russian. Boguslawki does not take the easy road, and thank goodness, for his solution is lovely: it retains the visual and sense of the Russian while infusing some “foreignness” into the English text, an “abuse” that works in service of conveying the character and style that we experience in Sokolov’s Russian.

So much for linguistic obstacles. What about literary density? Again, Nabokov’s cynicism echoes in the back of my mind: the translator of a text “must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses.”* Between Dog and Wolf is packed with references to past and modern Russian artists, particularly Pushkin, something which only a reader with comprehensive, arguably exhaustive knowledge of Russian literary tradition would understand. Careful Russian readers have trouble identifying everything that is layered within the story, so how can we expect anyone but the most meticulous scholar to identify these layers, much less translate such a text? Of course, Boguslawski’s friendly relationship with the author establishes him as the closest thing to a Sokolov specialist for this translation, but Nabokov’s standards still reach impossibly high; in the case of this extremely learned text, is anyone capable of translation? Or perhaps the “untranslatable” does not exist, but is it possible that scholarly translation and Nabokov’s towering footnotes are the only recourse? If so, are there “prerequisites” in literary pedigree for both translators and readers of these works?

To silence this existential questioning I could turn again to literary and translation theory for inspiration, but I don’t need to. A novel’s complexity notwithstanding, translation is ultimately a dialogue between cultures and an exchange of ideas. And even though things are certain to get left by the wayside as they move from one linguistic and cultural framework to another, the receiving language and audience still gain. Perhaps readers won’t or possibly can’t identify all that the author has folded into the text, but this is an invitation to study, to revisit the story and look closer.. No matter how deep the reader chooses to go, reading a text in translation is an entry point into another literary tradition and culture that was previously closed; exhaustive research can be nice, but ultimately we have reason to celebrate because one group has gained insight into another, and that is a beautiful thing.

*Nabokov, Vladimir, (August 4,1941). The Art of Translation. The New Republic.
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