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Ellen Chances
The Curious Adventures of a Literary Scholar’s Romp through Translationland, or Balloons, Bassoons, Jazz Improvisation, Essays, Poetry, Memory, Rough Drafts, a Shave on a Ship – and the Meaning of Life? What I Learned from Translating a Bit of Contemporary Russian Writer Andrei Bitov’s Prose

about the author 

This essay is dedicated to Andrei Bitov, to Susan Brownsberger,
and to all those extraordinary people who have been involved
in the sacred enterprise of translation.

Ellen Chances

This is a personal essay based on my experience of translating a bit of Bitov’s prose. Before that, I had translated only one thing – a poem by Russian Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok.
First, a bit of background – I wrote the first book (Andrei Bitov. The Ecology of Inspiration [Cambridge University Press]) in any language about the works of this important Russian writer. (Last year, a translation – not mine – came out in Petersburg.)
One sunny day, during the summer of 2008, Bitov called me up and asked me to translate two essays. The idea was exciting. I am writing a second book on his writings, and here was an opportunity to explore his works through a different lens. Since I write non-scholarly things – poetry, fiction, essays, and memoir –, in addition to scholarship, it was intriguing, in terms of the challenges of language. BUT I think so highly of Bitov, as a writer and as a person, that I hesitated. I didn’t want to disappoint him or his text. I wanted to be true to his text, to the inner music of his prose. I didn’t want the translation to be flat, flabby, and bland. I didn’t want it to sound like a translation. I wanted the English text to convey Bitov’s vital energy.
I accepted the challenge.
Bitov is in the tradition of the great Russian writers – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov – asking the big questions: what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Yet his big questions are those of the twentieth and now, twenty-first centuries. His novel, Pushkin House, deals with the psychological effects of Stalin on the generations that lived through that era, and on Bitov’s generation, those who came to consciousness after Stalin’s death. He spoke, in his novels, about ecological concerns before people had really begun to talk about ecology. His novel, The Monkey Link, asks the questions: what is the relationship of the human being to other biological species? What is the relationship of human beings to other human beings in a societal setting? What is the function/purpose of the human being? In addition to novels, Bitov writes short stories, essays, poetry, and travelogues, including Armenia Lessons, a powerful account of authentic cultures that are connected with all other authentic cultures; and Georgian Album, on cultural figures, nature, death and life. He has written works on Pushkin. His works have been translated into well over twenty languages. Farrar Straus & Giroux publishes his novels and travelogues in English, in the excellent translation of Susan Brownsberger. She captures, brilliantly, the texture of his writing.
Bitov has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize. He was instrumental in having the Nabokov house in Petersburg made into a museum. He is passionately interested in preserving the legacy of Pushkin, Nabokov, Mandelstam, Platonov, and other major writers. He is a public intellectual. AND he performs with a group of jazz musicians (bass, bassoon, drum, and trumpet). They call themselves the “Pushkin Band.” Bitov reads rough drafts of Pushkin poems, and the jazz musicians improvise. (They once performed in Cami Hall, next door to Carnegie Hall.)
This is where our present tale begins.
Little did I know, when I had innocently agreed to translate the essays, that sunny summer day, how my life would be changed. I lived and breathed those pages. Bitov had told me that the translations would go along with the material that would accompany a CD set of the performances of the “Pushkin Band.” One essay was on the history and escapades of the “Pushkin Band.” The other was called “Memory as Rough Draft (A Controlled Experiment).” In that essay, Bitov describes his attempts at memorizing poetry. He had asked a friend, Russian emigre writer Alexander Blok, how he stays in shape. Blok (known in France as Jean Blot) had said that he swims every day and that he memorizes a poem a day. Bitov, in his essay, describes the experience as he decided that “the time had come for me to exercise my sclerotic brain.” He chooses two poems, one by Mandelstam, “Insomnia. Homer. Tautened Sails” (“Bessonnitsa. Gomer. Tugie parusa”); and one by Pushkin, “Recollection” (“Vospominanie”). And one night, when he can’t sleep, he starts to memorize them. “I assure you,” he writes, “this was better than counting sheep.”
He discovers that the memorization process is like the creative process of the poet. The memorization process – the things Bitov can’t remember at first, and the things that he can, the things he mixes up, the words that don’t easily come to him – all of that, he concludes, is the equivalent of the poet’s rough drafts. When there are no actual rough drafts of the poems, the process of memorization is duplicating the rough draft process as the poet was creating the poem – “a kind of virtual archaeology worthy of the secret laboratory of the FSB [contemporary equivalent of the KGB – E.C.].”
Along the way, Bitov reproduces his own process of memorization – the lines and words and phrases that he could remember easily; the line from another poem that flashed into his mind; and the line from the end of the poem that came to him easily. Along the way, he notices that Pushkin’s epithets are dictated by music, by meter, whereas Mandelstam tried to find vivid epithets that, in Bitov’s words, are as “shiny as the heads of nails.”
How did I prepare for the translation? I decided that the only sensible thing to do would be to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary and read all of Shakespeare, in order to brush up on my English; to read all four volumes of Dal’’s Russian dictionary; and to reread all of Bitov’s works, and all of Susan Brownsberger’s translations, comparing her every word to his Russian. This wasn’t practical, given the upcoming deadline. Therefore, I did what any sane human being, faced with that daunting task, would do – I avoided doing it. I did errands that I knew didn’t have to be done. I read some of Bitov’s works, in Russian, and some of Susan Brownsberger’s translations. I knew, as I did so, that this was an avoidance tactic.
…And finally, … I sat down to work. At that point, the translation took over my life. It was like the obsession of doing a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. But this felt as if it was a 500,000-piece puzzle, and as if I couldn’t find the one piece that went into the one place in the puzzle. OR it seemed that there were two puzzles of 500,000 pieces each, and the pieces of the two puzzles were all mixed up – and I couldn’t find any piece that belonged anywhere. Words sometimes seemed like stuffed animals, cuddly and soft, when they fit just right; and like porcupines with needle-like quills, when the words didn’t fit. At moments, I felt like the clumsy ballerina who makes angular movements instead of the gliding movements of the graceful ballerina, the white swan in “Swan Lake.” At times, I felt as if what I was creating was akin to a chaotic jumble of jagged shards, whereas what Susan Brownsberger creates, in her translations of Bitov, is equivalent to the elegant, smooth, perfect sculptures of Rodin. I now call her Rodin-Susan.
I started rounding up my troops, for consultation during my journey through translationland. There was Rodin-Susan (lots of e-mail messages with subject headings like “HELP,” “I’m desperate”). There was the bilingual United Nations interpreter - “Would you look over my translation?” Her response: “The Russian in this essay is hard. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” There was the Russian native speaker who is interested in translation and in Bitov – “What’s the exact nuance, in Russian, of this word?” There was Olga, a bilingual colleague, who graciously answered my list of questions. She also said, “This is really difficult Russian.” And there was the friend who knows no Russian – “How does the translation read in English?” And of course, there was Bitov.
Everywhere I went, I was constantly mulling over alternatives. And anyone I bumped into or anyone who called or came to visit had to get an earful of how one word rather than another would sound. One example – I bumped into Jennifer, in front of the grocery store, Citarella’s, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (I live in New York). I immediately spoke about the frustration of not being able to find a satisfactory equivalent, in English, to the first words of the essay, “Memory as Rough Draft.” In Russian, they are, “V moi stalinskie vremena v shkole…,” literally, “In my Stalin times, in school…” (Bitov was born in the Stalin era, in 1937.) Obviously, the English is awkward. So I started thinking of other, no more satisfactory possibilities. “As a schoolboy, in the Stalin era” - too neutral, and blah. No oomph. It didn’t capture the flavor of the original. “In my Stalinist times, at school” – but that makes it sound as if Bitov was a Stalinist, which he definitely is not. “When I was at school, during the days of Stalin.” Yuck. Too wordy. Finally, I called Bitov and told him that I was frustrated because when I translate those words into English, they sound awkward. His reply: “But it sounds awkward in Russian.” So I left it, in its awkwardness in English: “In my Stalin times, at school…”
It was a real luxury that I could consult with Bitov. I realize that people who are translating writers from the past, are not as fortunate. …So there we were on the phone – Manhattan to Moscow – once, from 1:30am-4:30am, Moscow time, talking about the BBC TV program Bitov had just seen on some of the parallel times of the discovery of the microscope (seeing the smallest things) and the telescope (seeing stars, things that were the farthest away). And there we were, in the same conversation, discussing the paragraph that Bitov wanted to add to this essay from another essay, “Apologia of a Pugdog” (“Apologiia mos’ki”) – all about 50-50 equivalence.
This went along with points he was making in “Memory as Rough Draft” – that it is hard to memorize, at the same time, two words (50-50, he said) that mean the same thing. If you memorize one, you’ll forget the other. It seemed perfectly appropriate to me that we were discussing his essay when he couldn’t sleep – at 3:30am, Moscow time -, since the essay dealt with Bitov’s description of memorizing two poems about insomnia when he couldn’t sleep.
Then there was the time that Bitov asked me to call him on his cell phone at midnight. I did. He was on the train from Moscow to Petersburg, …and I woke him up. There were the few weeks when he was out of the reach of cell phone and internet – in the countryside. He gave me the e-mail address of Viacheslav, who lives in Petersburg. Viacheslav said that he would transmit my questions to Bitov – “It’s only thirty kilometers away,” and then would e-mail the answers to me. And then there was the Cyrillic/ Latin alphabet syndrome, as I call it. Sometimes, when one receives an e-mail message in Russian, because of the incompatibility of different software programs (or fonts, or whatever – I’m low-tech), only question marks instead of the Russian letters of the alphabet, appear on the screen. The solution is to write in Russian transliteration, but in Latin letters. …So there Bitov and Viacheslav were, deciphering my Latinized Cyrillic and then composing Latinized Cyrillic responses.
The first essay was called, literally, “A Crazy Ship,” or “An Insane Ship” (“Sumasshedshii korabl’”). I thought that maybe Bitov was referring to “Ship of Fools,” and that that was the title, in Russian, of that work. I asked him. In Russian, he said, that work is called “Korabl’ durakov” (“Ship of Fools”). (And of course, there is the building, in Petersburg, which was called “Sumasshedsii korabl’,” where struggling artists and writers were allowed to live in the early years of the Soviet era.) Bitov loved the idea of “A Ship of Fools” for the English title of his essay, so that’s what it is.
What’s “A Ship of Fools” about? In “Pushkin in New York (Annotation to the First CD)”, Bitov gives a history of the collaboration between him and the jazz musicians. He first talks about how they met, and about how the idea of combining word and music first came up when he met the drummer, Vladimir Tarasov, on board the ship, “Taras Shevchenko,” on the Mediterranean Sea during the summer of 1989. Bitov writes, “This was still under Gorbachev, still in the USSR!” (I’ll come back to that “still in the USSR.”)
I include here a few paragraphs, so that you can get the flavor. So there he and Vladimir Tarasov – Vladimir the drummer (not Joe the Plumber, in Sarah Palin’s words) – were on the ship. Bitov writes, “It was fabulous! A veritable ship of fools.”
“I don’t know who had laundered money enough to provide food and drink, from Odessa to Riga, for fashion models and gypsies, artists and archbishops, musicians and writers, professors and publishers, ‘business’ school’ musclemen and a museum of wax personages a la Madame Tussaud…, but even if our benefactor was unsavory, we savored our good fortune and raised our glasses to him, in gratitude, since the great classicist Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov [an eminent scholar of the classics and of Russian poetry – E.C.] had, for the first time, caught a glimpse of Athens and Rome.
“But we did have to earn our keep. For so select an audience, Tarasov and I proposed the lecture, ‘The Drum and World Culture.’ He illustrated, with his precise rhythms, my more approximate than firmly grounded views – that it was precisely the drum that was the very first, if not ‘the very most important of the arts’ [I had to put a footnote there. There is a famous quotation of Lenin’s. He said that cinema was most important of the arts.' -- E.C.]; that it is, first and foremost, rhythm that lies at the foundation of everything; that in the final analysis, it is precisely the heart … and so forth and so on. Our performance was graciously received.
"Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, in sight of the African shore, Tarasov and I showed Pushkin (of the Tropinin portrait) his historic homeland. [another footnote - Pushkin liked the portrait that Tropinin had painted of him. -- E.C.]
All these escapades ended in what may have been the final revival of the renowned Ganelin Trio (Chekasin, too, was on board; Molokoedov filled in for Ganelin). Our performance was called 'Perebroika' ('Reshaving'). [Another footnote. This, of course, is a play on the word, "Perestroika" ("Restructuring"), Gorbachev's political and economic reform program. -- E.C.]
“Having dug up a portrait of Karl Marx in the storeroom of a former Communist Party meeting room (the ‘red corner’), we borrowed Peter the Great from Madame Tussaud, and under his austere gaze, and to the accompaniment of the revived trio’s improvisations, we shaved each other (we had beards at the time), and we shaved the founder of Scientific Communism (except that under his mat beard, there turned out to be another beard).” The essay continues in that tone.
I promised that I would come back to the words, “This was still under Gorbachev, still in the USSR!” I could have said, “This was still under Gorbachev, back in the USSR!” (“eshche pri Gorbacheve, v SSSR!”). In that way, I could have played with the music theme – the Beatles’ song, “Back in the USSR,” (which, by the way, was very popular in the USSR, even before the Gorbachev era. A Beatles record album with that song used to go for about 100 rubles on the black market, when the average monthly salary of an average Soviet citizen was about 150 to 200 rubles). However, I didn’t. Although that would have been going along with Bitov’s playful tone, it would have felt a bit like overkill, given the many humorous sections (which I quoted above) that immediately followed.
I asked Bitov which variant he preferred, and he said that it is up to me, that I am the transmitter of language in the translation. I realized that being a translator is like being an actor. One has to lose oneself and become the other person. Yet one has to use one’s own energies and gifts to convey that other person to an audience.
Sometimes that was hard and sometimes, a bit easier. For instance, near the beginning of the essay, “Memory as Rough Draft,” Bitov speaks about the memorization of poetry having been one of the holdovers, in Soviet schools, of the pre-revolutionary gymnasium. He then talks about still remembering bits and pieces, “little horns and little hooves” (“rozhki da nozhki”), of some of the poems that they had had to memorize (and for that reason that he had come to detest). The translation of the words, “little horns and little hooves,” was one of those serendipitous gifts that fall from the heavens. In Russian, the words “rozhki da nozhki” rhyme. I couldn’t keep the rhyme, in English, but it was wonderful that “horns and hooves” both begin with the same letter, so that I could at least retain some of the symmetry.
In Russian, that phrase comes from a children’s song in which a gray wolf eats a grandmother’s goat, and all that is left are “the little horns and little hooves.” I wanted to find an equivalent in English, so I asked the director of Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library; I went to a children’s reading room in a New York library; I browsed the internet; I searched through Dr. Seuss books. No luck, so again a footnote. (I tried to have as few footnotes as possible, so you are reading almost all of the footnoted passages because those were some of the most challenging in terms of translation.) Now this was only the second sentence of the essay, “Memory as Rough Draft.”
The rest of that sentence contained examples of the bits and pieces that remained in Bitov’s memory from his childhood forced memorization, in school, of certain Pushkin and Lermontov poems. These were a real challenge to translate - and part of my obsession, for weeks. Some of these lines came as a gift. I was able to find a bit of rhyme (“told,” “old;” instead of “nedarom,” “starom” – not a direct translation, of course), and the same number of syllables (eighteen) in the English, in the line of the Lermontov poem, “Borodino,” that Bitov misquotes (as children fooling around would do) – “So, old fella, I should be told why it’s not in vain that you look so old…” (“Skazhi-ka, diadia, ved’ nedarom, ty vygliadish’ nastol’ko starym…”). [The line, in Lermontov’s original, is “—Skazhi-ka, diadia, ved’ ne darom/ Moskva, spalennaia pozharom” {“…Moscow, scorched by fire”}.]
One of the other “little horns and little hooves” - bits and pieces – was a misquotation from Lermontov’s poem, “The Death of a Poet” (“Smert’ poeta”). Lermontov writes, “with lead [a bullet – E.C.] in the chest [or breast]” (“s svintsom v grudi”). Bitov writes, “s vintsom v grudi” (“with wine in the chest [or breast]”). The child, Bitov explained to me, in order to avoid the awkward repetition of two “‘s’”s, might say, “s vintsom v grudi,” “with wine” instead of a bullet, in the breast/chest. That’s why I wrote, “with wine in chest.” And I said “wine in chest” rather than “in his chest” or “in a chest,” to retain an ambiguity, in English (another gift from the heavens) of “chest” as in “breast;” and “chest,” as in a container in which one might keep wine.
The line of poetry that Bitov quotes from the Pushkin poem, “The Upas Tree” (“Anchar”), is “The poor slave at his feet” (“Bednyi rab u nog”), but Bitov quotes it as one word, “rabunok.” “Rabunok” is a nonexistent word, the kind of mistake a child would make. The child might hear it pronounced phonetically. (In Russian, “nog” (the genitive plural of “feet,” is pronounced “nok,” as if it ended with a “k” instead of “g.”) The child might hear the words as if they were blended into each other – thus, “rabunok.” In the text of the translation, I wrote “Poor Little Rabunok,” as if “rabunok” were a last name. I wrote a footnote, explaining what I just said, and explaining that an English equivalent, for a child, might be something like “Poor Little Slave Addhisfeet.” “Gorb” is the word for “hunchback.” “Konek gorbunok” is a famous children’s story, “The Little Hunchback Horse.” Thus, “rabunok” combines “rab” (“slave”) and “-unok,” from “gorbunok” (“little hunchback”), making it almost “the little hunchback slave.” An English equivalent of the word play might be the child’s hearing of “hunchback” as “lunchbag,” and therefore, saying, “Poor Slave Little Lunchbag.”
Within the text, there were those lines that I couldn’t get right, no matter what. I started writing down, on a separate piece of paper, under the heading, “Scrap Paper Possibilities,” a line or phrase or sentence, in Russian, that was particularly difficult to translate – that is to say, that was causing me to go round and round in circles; to spin in figurative vertigo; to consult the Thesaurus and find no solutions; to write down a million (I exaggerate – only three thousand and two) possibilities; to read the sentences aloud; to e-mail an SOS message to Rodin-Susan; to reread the Russian sentence over and over again; to consult the same two Russian-to-Russian dictionaries and the same two Russian-to-English dictionaries and the same English-to-Russian dictionaries that I had consulted countless times – and to expect a different result (I recalled the saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”). More than once, I woke up in the middle of the night and jotted down yet a different version. More than once, I took out pen and paper on the cross-town bus to jot down a new variant that had just popped into my head. (And I don’t even want to think about the number of trees – at least, eight – that sacrificed their lives to my ecologically incorrect practice of accumulating “Scrap Paper Possibilities” and of printing out the eight, nine, ten, and eleven rounds, versions and variants, - rough drafts – of my translation.)
And I would write down, on the “Scrap Paper Possibilities” pages, all of the horrible, unsatisfactory alternatives, in English, that I was coming up with. There was the “whip” line, describing Bitov’s memorization of the Pushkin poem. The translation of what Bitov writes, is, literally, “…although somewhere up ahead, hanging through life, the memorized, like a whip, line” (“… khotia gde-to vperedi visela skvoz’ zhizn’ zapominavshaiasia, kak khlyst, stroka”). So there I was, in my frenzied state, with the “Scrap Paper Possibilities” of the line about the whip. “A line was hanging through my life, being memorized, like a whip.” “A line that I was memorizing kept, like a riding whip, hanging through my life.” “One line that I had memorized hung, whip-like, permeating my life.” “A line … hung through my life.” “One line that I was memorizing hung, like a whip, permeating my life.” “A line that I was memorizing, recurring like a whip, was permeating my life.” “The line recurring like a whip” – or is it “being memorized like a whip” - was hanging through my life,” – or was it “the line that kept being memorized?”
I went back to a Russian grammar book for speakers of English. Horace Lunt, the author of that book, wrote, “the imperfective past active participle means an action which started in the past: it may or may not still be in progress. The tense of the main verb and the participle are usually the same.”
I kept picturing a whip cutting through the text of the poem like a knife cutting through a curtain. I finally asked Bitov what he meant by the whip. He said that the line of poetry was like a “khlestkii” (“sharp”) whip, “bol’no” (“painfully”) and “zvonko” (“ringingly”) hanging through life. I continued my dizzying enterprise. “One line that kept being retained in memory, like a whip, permeated my life.” “The line that kept sticking in memory, whip-like, permeated my life.” “One line that I was memorizing, whip-like, kept dangling over my life,” “…hovered over my life.” But the Russian word was “skvoz’” (“through”) and not “over.” “One line that I was memorizing, whip-like, was hanging through my life,” “…was penetrating my life, piercing my life, hung fluttering in the air.” And finally, after Bitov had come up with his explanation, emphasizing the sound, his words about the whip permeated my life like – the crack of a whip. I came up with, “Although somewhere up ahead, one line that I had memorized was, like the crack of a whip, piercing my life.” (That line, by the way, was, “But the sad lines I do not wash away.” [“No strok pechal’nykh ne smyvaiu.”])
Then, there were those parts of my translation adventure that entailed entering into realms unknown to me. One of these parts I call “In Search of the Elusive ‘Labukh.’” Let me explain. At one point in the text of “A Ship of Fools,” Bitov talks about his having felt obliged to say a few words at the unveiling, in Petersburg, of a monument to Dostoevsky. (He had asked Solzhenitsyn, who wasn’t able to come.) While at the podium, Bitov suddenly saw his jazz friends trying to get by the security guards in order to get to the platform. He had forgotten that he had asked them to improvise during his speech. He writes, “How on earth had they managed to sneak past a double cordon with objects that looked more like terrorist weapons than musical instruments? That was a feat that only true ‘labukhi’ could have pulled off.” (“Kak oni sumeli probrat’sia skvoz’ dvoinoe otseplenie s predmetami bolee pokhozhimi na oruzhie terroristov, chem na muzykal’nye instrumenty?”)
First of all, I had never before seen or heard the word “labukh.” It wasn’t in any of the dictionaries in which I looked. My Russian native speaker informants (those who had heard it – not all of them had) told me that it’s slang, and that it’s very hard to convey, in English, what it means, something like “underground musicians,” “musical hippies,” or “hippy musicians.” But that made no sense. Why would hippies be especially qualified to sneak past a double cordon? The UN interpreter asked her Russian-born husband, and they came up with “music guys,” “musician friends” or “music friends.” Rodin-Susan said that a slang dictionary had an entry, “slang for musician,” and another dictionary had “jazz musician, cat.” Her suggestion: “real cool cats.” I could say, “true musicians,” and leave it at that, she wrote. She also said, “Awkward slang can be painfully distracting.” Awkward slang, in terms of translating it into English, was exactly what “labukh” was. But I wanted to find a word, or words, that made sense. …My obsession with translating these essays was – obsessive, so I allowed myself to be distracted, in spite of the looming deadline.
I started asking everyone I knew, giving all of them the definition that Bitov had given me: the most ordinary, rank and file member of an orchestra (in a restaurant, movie theater, at a wedding). This meaning was different from the underground musician, slang dictionary suggestions that I had received.
I asked a friend who plays violin in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. He said, “Gig musician,” or “Pick up musician.” He put me in touch with a Russian emigre violinist who plays in the City Opera orchestra. She said, “A background musician.” A neighbor, who is a jazz saxophonist, said that he knew what I meant, but he couldn’t think of the word. My physical therapist, a former trombonist, who loves to think about what he sees as the connections between Proust and Mahler, couldn’t think of the word, but said that there definitely is one.
I went into Central Park and approached a group of street musicians, playing jazz. When I described the word for which I was searching, explaining what Bitov had told me, one of the musicians said, “Oh, Russia is a class society.” We proceeded to get into a protracted political discussion about the distinctions, or lack thereof, between Russian and American class societies. Another member of that jazz group said, “A busker.” I had never heard that word for street musicians who play for money. But that didn’t fit the Bitov text. During my discussion with the buskers (Note to the reader: practicing a word that one doesn’t know makes it stick – that’s what I’m doing), I noticed that a woman on a nearby bench was speaking Russian to a toddler. Aha. I asked her the “labukh” question. She said that she didn’t have the foggiest.
In another part of the park, on another day, a lady trumpeter was displaying a sign, “Middle-aged Overweight Trumpeter Looking for Work. Plays Salsa and Klezmer.” (That’s one of the many things I love about life – you can’t make it up.) I figured, “What more logical choice than to ask her for an answer to my question? Stumped again. Near the Boathouse in Central Park, a man with a thick Brooklyn accent was playing the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” on the harmonica. When I asked him, he told me that I was interrupting his artistic train of thought. No luck there either.
I asked Richard, my chiropractor, who said, “A pit musician.” That finally made sense, given the preceding sentence in Bitov’s text: “How on earth had they [my jazz friends – E.C.] managed to sneak past a double cordon with objects that looked more like terrorist weapons than musical instruments?” Now I could add, “That was a feat that only true ‘pit musicians’ could have pulled off.” Of course, pit musicians are invisible to the audience because they are – in the pit. I realize that the term applies to musicians in, for instance, an opera orchestra. However, it seems logical to think that the pit musicians could sneak past a double cordon because they are used to being invisible. So I finally had a solution, although the frustration of not finding the precise word, the perfect solution still haunts me.
Sometimes, during my travels through translation, I felt as though I was living in a no man’s land, a land that existed between two languages. I started to have doubts about how to say things in my own native language. I got entangled in English. “How do you say this in English?” I asked all of the unfortunate souls who happened to be with me at any point during my sojourn in that country between two languages. “Is it ‘on’ the Mediterranean or ‘in’ the Mediterranean?” “Is ‘accessible only to’ the same as “worthy only of?” In English, do we say, “visible ‘from’ the window,” or “visible ‘through’ the window?” “Do we say ‘in’ the ocean, or ‘on’ the ocean? I was in a world of floating prepositions – in English!
As I walked along the streets of Manhattan, I started seeing floating people. In real life, Sasha, the bassoonist in the “Pushkin Band,” wears his straight brown longer-than-shoulder-length hair in a pony tail. I started seeing him floating, or flying, through the air (Mary Poppins-like), bobbing along, holding multi-colored balloons that bobbed along with him. Life and art were getting all mixed up, as if a clown were juggling all of the pieces of art, life, and language – two languages, Russian and English, English and Russian – throwing everything up into the air and not knowing where anything would land.
At that point, at the point at which I saw floating balloon-carrying bassoonists floating above Manhattan brownstones, I knew that it was time to embark upon the journey – not back to the USSR, but - back to my life and my language. After all, I could have spent the rest of my life attempting to find the absolutely correct word, solving one of the pieces of the multidimensional, multilingual jigsaw puzzle, and I still would not, in my own mind, have reached absolute perfection.
So after all that, where was I? In a real state of panic… I would never finish. I would disappoint Bitov… because my translation was worse than any translation in the history of the universe. …You get the gist…
In this mood, I sent off a particularly agonized e-mail set of questions to Rodin-Susan: “Should it be this, or should it be that? Should it be that, or should it be this?” Her response – “Print it out. Amazingly, the sense of it WILL become clearer to you. Some of the questions about phrasing can’t be answered until you’ve established a rhythm and can HEAR where the emphasis should lie. Each time you revise and reread, you’ll understand it better.” And then – bless Rodin-Susan, the Wise – “What you should do now is stop going round and round in circles.” And then – “Trust yourself.”
What a wise life lesson. That was exactly the right thing to say. And that is such a wise lesson in life in general. Listen to your inner voice. It’s one of those things – like the idea of karma – a lesson to be learned – that keeps coming back so that one can work on the lesson some more. And Bitov, as you’ll recall, had told me the same thing. When I had asked which variant, in English, he prefers, he had said that I am the transmitter of the text in English.
I learned another life lesson, too, during this experience. It’s something that I’ve grappled with all my life – the attempt to attain perfection, in work and in life. For instance, I know, from experience, that whatever I write cannot be perfect. Therefore, I have to finish it – the article, the book, the essay - and put the rest into the next article, book, essay. I can’t put everything into one book. Otherwise, I would end up writing one book all my life, and still not be finished… The more I know, the more I see new possibilities, the more new windows open; the more I know, the more I know that I don’t know and all of that…
…So don’t try to be perfect, I told myself. Improvise. Make the music. Don’t hold back. Live.
P.S. And one more thing… Bitov reads rough drafts, as the jazz musicians improvise. One of his essays was about improvisation, and the other was about rough drafts. Rough drafts can be thought of as improvisation.
P.S. again. The two essays were about jazz improvisation and about rough drafts. I learned that translation is like rough drafts – and like improvisation.
And so is life…

© Copyright  Ellen Chances
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