Robert Chandler (R). Donald, I am sure that you have read Dead Souls at least four or five times. You have probably taught it dozens of times. It goes without saying that translating the novel will have helped you to see many details more clearly — but did it change your understanding of the novel in any important way? Does the novel mean more to you now than it did before?
Donald Rayfield (D). When you translate a text, I suspect, you read it properly for the first time, and very slowly. I not only saw thousands of telling details that I had skimmed over before; I realised that I had been talking a lot of nonsense when I taught the text to students. In some way, the 'naïve' realists of the nineteenth century now seem to be not so naïve: Gogol was not just inventing a phantasmagorical Russia, he was describing a very real one, too. But perhaps I had always suspected this — whenever I had an encounter with a Russian customs officer I would remember that Chichikov began his career as a customs officer.
R. You have published the novel together with Chagall's engravings. These engravings are lively and earthy; it is hard to imagine anyone not enjoying them. But did they add to your understanding of Gogol? Would your translation have been any different if it were not for Chagall?
D. Probably Chagall did influence me: his pictures have so much vitality and humour, so much pleasure in movement, in eating, in dancing, that I was encouraged to keep Gogol's prose in English moving, alive. Quite often, Chagall portrays the minute detail - furnishings, horse's harness — so convincingly that it helps the translator choose the right word for the thing that Gogol describes.
|Marc Shagall. Manilov ('Dead Souls'). 1923-26
R. If a lecturer reads, rather than speaks, his lecture — and especially if he reads it fast and mechanically — I all too often fall asleep. As you can imagine, this often causes me embarrassment at conferences. It is the same with books; if I cannot hear the intonations of a living voice, I quickly get bored. I find many translations of classic novels unreadable — not because they are especially clumsy, but simply because I cannot hear a human voice. D.S. Mirsky once said of Gogol, 'He wrote with a view not so much to the acoustic effect on the ears of the listener as to the sensuous effect on the vocal apparatus of the reciter'. You have reproduced this aspect of Gogol wonderfully, Donald. I have read several chapters of your translation out loud to my wife, and we have both greatly enjoyed it. How did you achieve this strong, vivid voice? Did you read the Russian out loud at any point? Or the English? I was particularly struck by your rendering of the famous comparison of the tailcoats at the governor's soiree to flies buzzing around a loaf of sugar. Can you give me any idea how long you spent over those 12 lines, or how many versions you went through?
D. Thank you for saying that: it means I did at least partly achieve my aim. Gogol's contemporaries constantly remind us in their memoirs that Gogol loved to read aloud, often improvising a text from a blank piece of paper. The twists of his syntax are, in fact, devices to keep the listener intrigued. I tried to imagine Dead Souls being read as ' A Book at Bedtime' on BBC Radio 4, and if it didn't strike the ear as well as the eye, I would try to make it more effective. As for working on particular passages, I always try to get something, however bad, on the computer screen and then hammer at it until I can read it without pain: Gogol's embedded images can be very tricky to render in English, which lacks the participles you need to embed them, but English can play much more freely than Russian with punctuation. The flies and sugar episode is famous in the critical literature, so you have to try and get that right.
R. Was there any aspect of the work that you found unexpectedly difficult?
D. Two aspects. One is the Gogolian rhetoric and pathos that begins in the middle of the work: I wasn't sure whether to attempt a rhetorical pathos of the sort you find in English romantic fiction of Gogol's day, or to assume, as do many critics, that Gogol was unconsciously parodying himself and this genre. In the end, I chose the first option, and as Gogol is often 'over the top', any element of self-parody emerges by itself.
The second aspect is the substantial vocabulary that Gogol acquired as he travelled through western Russia and the Ukraine — names of dishes, games etc. Very often you doubt if the word actually had the meaning Gogol attributed to it. I had to choose between Dal' and a dialect dictionary, or the probable meaning imposed by the context. Quite often, English lacks the thing, let alone the word for it, so there were failures, but there were also successes, such as English 'twat' for Russian 'fetiuk', where you had exactly the right degree of obscenity needed for Nozdriov's expression.
R. While I was working on my anthology Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, I translated at least a few thousand words by most of the main Russian writers. I ended up with a very clear sense of whom I would like to go on translating and whom I would not. It is not simply a matter of whether I admire a particular writer; it is more a matter of whether I would like to live for any length of time in that writer's world. I greatly admire Shalamov, for example, but I do not want to translate any more of his stories; they terrify me too much. More suprisingly, perhaps, I do not want to translate any more Zoshchenko; his stories are as perfect as any stories I have ever read, but his world is too closed — I can't breathe there. Andrey Platonov's world, in contrast, seems to me a very open world; I can breathe freely in it. And I can breathe freely in Pushkin's world. What was it like, Donald, to live in Gogol's world for a year? Would you like to return there and translate any other of his works? Have you learned anything from Gogol — about literature or about life in general?
D. To live in Gogol's world is to respect him all the more, and to recognize that very great writers have very great flaws — for instance, Gogol cannot do heroines: his Ulin'ka is a botched job, waiting for a Turgenev or a Goncharov to put it right. I learnt to value Part II much more: it is not just Turgenev and Tolstoy who emerge from under his overcoat, it is Chekhov, too: Gogol's Platonov is the ancestor of many a Chekhovian anti-hero. I don't think, however, that I feel the urge to translate more Gogol: Leskov seems the natural next level and you, as the translator of 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk', know how difficult that is, and yet how necessary. If I tackled Leskov, it would be to attempt a new version of Soboriane (previously translated as Cathedral Folk), which I believe is one of the five or six greatest works of Russian literature, and a selection of his 'Byzantine' short stories.
There are a few Russian writers I would not and could not attempt: Pasternak, for instance. It's odd, because he was so much in sympathy with the sensuality of English poetry, but whether it is his virtuoso rhyming, his musical construction of a poem around certain syllables, or the obscurity of his associations he seems to defeat English translators.
As for learning about Gogol, after a year's absorption you end up only realising how completely impenetrable he was: you only learn what he was not. He was not an idiot savant, he was not a stand-up comic, he was not a prophet. He was perhaps the greatest spinner of linguistic threads of his time. On life in general, and on life in Russia, perhaps you learn that almost everyone, including oneself, is at heart a con man, an impostor and that few of us are redeemable.
R. I have a friend, Adam Thorpe, who is a well-known poet and novelist. After living in France around 15 years, he is now working on his first translation — of Madame Bovary. I talked to him about this a few weeks ago. He is greatly enjoying the work, and he now admires Flaubert more than ever — but he seems to be finding it deeply exhausting. He is used to being able to sit at his computer for two or three hours at a stretch when he is working on a novel, but he's finding he can't do this when he is translating; he has been getting terrible back ache. He thought that this might be because, when he is translating, he has to use both his analytic intelligence and his creative imagination, and he has to keep switching between the two. When he is writing a novel, he slips into a more trance-like state, and this is, in a way, less demanding. I told Adam that I never work more than an hour on a translation without at least going out for a few minutes walk. What about you, Donald? Have you found translating more tiring than you expected?
D. Oddly enough, I find it easier to translate (or, for that matter, to edit) other people's work than to write my own original prose. The challenges are clearer and better demarcated, and plundering one's native language to make it do what an alien language has already done is quite an adventure, even if it is rarely totally successful. I have the same rhythm for any writing, though. If it goes well, then I can spend three hours at a stretch, before going into the garden. If it goes badly, then it's three hours in the garden before returning to my desk. Or you make an excuse and get lost in Dal's dictionary or on an internet discussion of Russian card games in the nineteenth century.
R. Do you have any advice for other translators of Russian literature?
D. 1) Forget Dr Johnson's advice about 'only a blockhead writes except for money'. No good translation can be done quickly enough to earn a living from it. You have to have another source of income;
2) Forget the Byzantine and Nabokovian rules of translation which imply that your version should be so close to the original that, if the original were ever lost it could be reconstructed from your work. Forget also the Robert Lowell school, in which the translator might ask 'Suppose Gogol was born in the USA in 1950 — what would he have written?' Remember that each generation will need its own translation, but still try to use a language that doesn't pin you down to a particular period;
3) For older literature use the old dictionaries: Dal'/Baudouin de Courtenay, Pawlowsky's Russian-German dictionary (Riga, 1899).
R. I was delighted to hear you say you might translate Leskov's Cathedral Folk. You've tried more than once to persuade me to do this, but I already have work lined up for years ahead. Sometimes this feels oppressive. Can I hope that you will be doing Leskov soon? Or are there other works, in Russian or Georgian, that have to come first?
D. Leskov's Soboriane is the work of Russian literature that most urgently needs a full, sympathetic translation (but we need to find a new title for it in English): well translated, it should have enormous appeal — it is Trollope and Thomas Hardy in one, plus a political dimension of great wisdom. But if you start on it first, I yield it to you.
At the moment, however, I am working on Georgia's finest living novelist, Otar Chiladze. It seems to me that his Avelum of 1995, about a Georgian writer whose 'empire of love' collapses together with the Soviet 'empire of evil' may appeal to the British reader. If I am right, I shall next attempt his first novel of the 1960s, A Man Went down the Road, which looks at the Jason and Medea myth from the point of view of Medea's parents and would feed the British appetite for reconstructions of Greek legend.
Panteleimon Romanov's short stories are also on the horizon: 'A Russian Soul' should be required reading for everyone concerned with Russia but who would prefer to laugh than to weep.
R. Thank you, Donald — I and, I am sure, many others, look forward to reading your versions of Chalidze, Romanov and Leskov!
[Donald Rayfield was born in 1942; he studied a range of modern languages at the Univerity of Cambridge but found employment as a lecturer, then professor of Russian. In the 1970s he took up the study of Georgian. He has written books on Przhevalsky, Chekhov, the history of Georgian literature and, most recently, on Stalin's henchmen, as well as numerous articles in the field of comparative literature. He has translated Russian and Georgian poetry (Mandelshtam, Galaktion Tabidze, Vazha Pshavela), but is currently translating prose. He was the editor-in-chief of 'A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary'. He is chairman of the trustees of the charity Medical Aid and Relief for the Children of Chechnya.
Robert Chandler's translations of Sappho and Guillaume Apollinaire are published in the series 'Everyman's Poetry'. His translations from Russian include Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate and Aleksander Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter. His translation of Hamid Ismailov's The Railway won the AATSEEL (the American Association of Teachers of Slavonic and East European Languages) prize for 2007 and received a special commendation from the judges of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize. Andrey Platonov's Soul, of which he is a co-translator, won the AATSEEL prize for 2004, as well as being shortlisted for two translation prizes in the UK. Robert Chandler is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and the author of Alexander Pushkin (in the Hesperus 'Brief Lives' series).]