Barbara Heldt on How Translation Can Give a Book a Second Life

Karolina Pavlova’s 1848 novel made a splash when it first appeared, and for good reason. It is interesting in form, mixing prose and poetry, and full of sharply ironic insights about Russian society of the day, especially the lives of young women. This beautiful new edition of Barbara Heldt’s translation offers the chance to appreciate a work of nineteenth-century Russian literature that deserves attention, the writing of a remarkable poet and author.

~Sibelan Forrester, Swarthmore College

Today, we honor women in translation month with a guest post by Barbara Heldt, translator of Karolina Pavlova’s 19th-century Russian society novel A Double Life. In alternating prose and poetry, A Double Life follows Cecily, whose only escape from the increasing constraints of her aristocratic milieu are vivid, poetic dreams. In this piece, Heldt reflects on how the meaning of a work can change once it’s translated and introduced to a different audience.

Remember to enter our drawing for a chance to win a copy of the book!

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What happens when great literature is translated and read by “outsiders?” Surprisingly, or not, at certain times it can take on more depth and popularity than when it was originally published in the home country. Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett, and read by the Bloomsbury group in London and then by readers of English throughout the world, had a huge influence on non-Russian writers from Conrad to Camus. It could even be said that Dostoevsky has never since had the clout in his own nation that he has had abroad. Similarly, Karolina Pavlova’s life and novel come into clearer focus in our own times both because of her own independence and her heroine’s lack thereof.

Pavlova’s novel A Double Life has probably been read more in translation than in its original language. For one thing, it has never been published separately from her poetry in Russian. This is partly because she is a very good poet and this novel has a poem at the end of every chapter, one which is linked to the plot and to the subconscious of her heroine. For another, Russians are not as interested in a novel by a woman of the mid-nineteenth-century when there are so many hefty novels by men, full of social problems and asking the “accursed questions” of the day, like “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” Since these questions have remained on the table for Russia before, during and after the Soviet period, women writers have generally been relegated to their own area, called “the woman question;” a debate mostly among men about the proper role of women in Russian society.

Karolina Pavlova’s life and novel come into clearer focus in our own times both because of her own independence and her heroine’s lack thereof.

A novel about a trusting young woman from the upper classes being gently but steadily coerced into a terrible marriage was not seen as all that important then. But, times have changed. Women are news, and the stubborn question of gender remains a cross-cultural issue. And those who measure literary greatness by a good read in any language will be glad to seek out a book like this one, written in Russia in 1848, by a woman who was so criticized in her own world that she was literally hounded out of her own country to die abroad. Pavlova had committed the sin of fighting back against her husband, who had mortgaged her property in secret and was having an affair with her younger cousin. Husband Pavlov was briefly punished because his library contained some banned books, but later returned to live with the cousin. Pavlova the wife retreated to a life of poverty abroad and died worse than reviled—forgotten. She was no passive victim: she had some friends and at least one younger lover. She kept writing, but in isolation. She was no longer at the center of things Russian. And she still isn’t.

Pavlova had committed the sin of fighting back against her husband, who had mortgaged her property in secret and was having an affair with her younger cousin.

The Dictionary of Russian Women Writers, edited by Marina Ledkovsky, Charlotte Rosenthal and Mary Zirin, and my own book, Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature, as well as many more recent studies, have demonstrated the depth and breadth of women’s writing in Russia throughout its history. We still await anything comparable in Russian. The country that proclaimed equality for women and launched the first woman in space stopped at the grand gesture and gave its women the double burden. (See the short Soviet novel Just Another Week, by Natalya Baranskaya.) In Russia today, feminism is not a nice word.

The country that proclaimed equality for women and launched the first woman in space stopped at the grand gesture and gave its women the double burden.

A reader in English might well share the perspective and hear the voice of a nineteenth-century Russian woman writer more clearly than a reader from the Russian-speaking world for all these reasons. So it is important that we listen to Pavlova, to her irony and to her hope that no one, not even a girl programmed by her mother and her best friend’s mother to partake of the relentless class-based materialism of her surroundings at the expense of her own future life, not even the heroine of A Double Life, is without the consciousness of an alternate life of awareness and of dreams.

Pavlova’s ironic journey into this world begins with one of the best fragments of society dialogue to grace any novel: “But are they rich?” Who today is immune from such consideration?

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