Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Behind the Line: An Interview with Translator Marian Schwartz

2017: A Novel

It has been a while since I've done an interview for First Person Plural. But today we have a very special interview subject: renowned Russian translator Marian Schwartz. She is a prize-winning translator of Russian fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova and translated the New York Times bestseller The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov. Her most recent book translations are Olga Slavnikova's 2017 (Overlook Press), Mikhail Bulgakov's White Guard (Yale University Press) and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (Seven Stories Press), now out in paperback from Yale University Press. She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships and is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association. For more on Marian Schwartz, visit her Web site at http://www.marianschwartz.com/.

K.E. Semmel: You once said: "Russian literature has developed differently from the rest of Europe." What do you mean by that? How has Russian literature developed differently from the rest of Europe's?

Marian Schwartz: Under glasnost, beginning in 1987, Soviet publishers focused on putting out all the works that had been denied the public lo those many decades, virtually all of them works known in the West, leaving little opportunity at the outset for contemporary writers. Once that backlog had been covered and they turned to current authors--by this time in the post-Soviet period--their focus moved to kinds of literature that could not have been published before. Writers were drunk on the possibility of writing about sex and violence in particular, subjects that were no longer inherently provocative in the West but are there. Also, curiously, Russia produced a serious "women's fiction" genre into which they slotted most of the worthwhile women writers, though some, like Tatiana Tolstaya, had the wit to remain with the general pool. This curious departure highlights one important way Russian literature differs from Western European: gender relations. Russia generally favors the "separate but equal" view of gender status, and as a result, the romantic relationships can be hard for us in the West to swallow. The other marked trend in post-Soviet literature is a deeply intellectual focus on style per se that is studded with allusions to Russian culture and history in general and Russian literature in particular. Russian writers have retained the intensity that has always intrigued the West but it can be inward-looking.

KES: That's interesting, because as I was reading 2017 I got the sense there was a lot of Russian history and culture in there (some of which I may not have fully understood). The most obvious example is the fact that 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The novel won the Russian Booker Prize in 2006. Why do you think it was so well received in Russia? Was it the comic elements of the narrative which poke fun at society in a smart way? The social critique the book offers on the current state of Russia?

MS: All these qualities played a part, certainly. Slavnikova's social critiques are right on the money but they also acknowledge the all too human plight Russians have found themselves in since the Soviet Union's demise. She is sympathetic to the longing for glitz that goes hand in hand with people's feeling that they've lost their moral bearings and their alarm at Russia's fragility. So yes it's comic and smart but it also feels very real. Another aspect that struck me when I was translating was her deep connection with heartland Russia, here, the thinly disguised Urals and the city of Ekaterinburg. She was able to incorporate the local lore associated with prospecting and minerals into the plot and make a mythological creature one of her characters in a very appealing way. But beyond the incredibly engaging stuff of her stories, she is a remarkable stylist and has a tremendous sense of pacing. This book is very well put together.

KES: In a recent (and very informal poll) I conducted on The Writer's Center's Facebook fan page, I asked our fans to tell us what great books they'd meant to read but hadn't quite gotten around to yet. There was a wide range of great books named, but the largest segment actually were written by Russians. The classics like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. Besides Slavnikova, which contempory Russian novelists should the rest of the world be paying attention to?

MS: I know more about the more established fiction writers, some of whom have been published with some success in English already--Viktor Pelevin, Tatiana Tolstaya, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Boris Akunin, and, lately, Vladimir Sorokin and Ludmila Petrushevskaya. To these I would add, besides Olga Slavnikova, Mikhail Shishkin ("Maidenhair"), Leonid Yuzefovich ("Cranes and Pygmies"), and some of Dina Rubina's massive output, especially her relatively recent "On the Sunny Side," about growing up in Tashkent after her family was evacuated there during the war. And these are just the ones I'm familiar with. As for younger writers, I recently translated some of the stories in the forthcoming "Moscow Noir" anthology (Akashic Books) and was impressed in particular by Andrei Khusnutdinov, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Aleksandr Anuchkin. Russia's a big country with a vigorous literary tradition and I don't pretend to have the complete picture, but I do try to keep up.

KES: How did you get involved with Russian literature to begin with? When did you begin translating?

MS: I was an innocent, not to say naive, victim of Russian literature. I began studying the language as a freshman at Harvard and somehow it wouldn't let me go. Believe me, I am not the first American fly to be trapped in this particular web. I began translating in graduate school, at the University of Texas in Austin, where there were some remarkable translators--Paul Schmidt, Sidney Monas, Richard Sylvester--and a genuine appreciation for the endeavor as such. My first published translation was an excerpt from Vladimir Mayakovsky's travelogue, "My Discovery of America," about crossing into the United States from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas, originally published in a New York art magazine and then republished a few years ago in Two Lines.

KES: 2017 is a dense book that unfurls slowly (in my end notes I write "a strange, difficult, beautiful, rewarding book"). How long did it take you to translate the novel? And what were some of the challenges you faced while working on it?

MS: This book has had several incarnations, and excerpts have been published in Glas and Subtropics. An NEA grant allowed me to complete the full manuscript, which made finding a publisher a little easier. By the time I received the grant, Slavnikova had produced a somewhat shorter version for Gallimard, for the French translation, and this is the manuscript I eventually used for this edition.

One of the most interesting challenges I faced was one I faced once before, when I translated Lost in the Taiga, another book with extensive descriptions of geological formations. R. Michael Conner, a fine scientific translator specializing in geology, helped me both times to translate the terminology accurately. He explained the exact land and rock formations being described as well as the properties of the various minerals that appear. Precision on that level gives a text a conspicuous sparkle, or at least that has been my experience.

KES: On a very nuts and bolts level, what is your process for translating a project? What steps do you take?

MS: When I teach literary translation, I talk about the Four Passes.

In the first pass, after I know I'm going to translate it, I translate very quickly and put every inspiration--good and bad--down on paper. I look up very little, let some phrases stay as trots, even leave bits in Russian.

For the second pass I do a painstaking cross-check between the translation and the original, making sure I've got everything there and solving many of the issues that arose in the first pass. Because often a question that arose at the beginning will get answered by the text itself later on. Or the answer will have come to me. At this point there will still be things I can't figure out how to express properly as well as words and phrases, even situations, I don't understand at all. All of this is duly noted in the translation.

The third pass, I read only the English, keeping the Russian close to hand. When I'm wholly in the English, many more problems will jump out at me, so I do heavy rewriting and draw up a query list for the author or whatever native informant I'm using.

For the fourth pass, I incorporate the answers to my queries and polish polish polish. I think of this as one pass, but I often do it several times.

Last but not least, I find someone to read the entire translation to me out loud while I follow along with the Russian. A kind of fail-safe. If I can't get a live person, I use reading software, whose pace I can adjust and which works all kinds of crazy hours.

The first pass is by far the most exciting.

You can read my review of 2017 at Three Percent, the blog of Open Letter Books, here.

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