In Conversation: Carol Apollonio on Serving the Spirit of Communication in Translation

"We read translated literature to access a common humanity that transcends borders."

Carol Apollonio translated the first Dagestani novel available in English, The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva. Anglophone readers will find much to relate to in the novel’s premise—a rumor that the Russian government is building a wall between the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus and the rest of Russia. In this free-wheeling, clear-eyed interview with Hannah Weber, Apollonio takes an impassioned look at literatures in translation, and at the simplest yet most complex human propensity—the desire to read.

Hannah Weber (HW): You’re a scholar of Russian literature and translate works from both Russian and Japanese. What led to your interest in these particular languages?

Carol Apollonio (CA): Most of your life path is luck. I knew early on that learning languages came easy to me, so I kept on doing it. After French, it was quite a shock to realize that for Russian you didn’t just plug the words into grammar you already knew. You had to change everything around in your brain. Plus, all the words were different. Anyway, if you’re rebellious enough, you decide it’s worth putting in the effort. It helped that I’d studied some Latin early on.

So, why Russian? Here’s how a Cold War eighteen-year-old radical hippie thinks in 1973: “The Russians are our enemies; the only problem is that Americans don’t know Russian. I’ll learn Russian, become president of the USA, we’ll all learn to love one another, and that will solve the whole problem.” So, I went to college and studied Russian and politics. As it turned out, I was too impatient and tactless for politics. As for Russian, at that time basically there were three paths for Russian-language students: one, learn about the complicated grammar and crazy vocabulary—recoil, and turn to economics or psychology; two, learn the language, recoil from the politics, and go into national security; three, learn the language, love it, read the literature and have your head explode. I’m one of the survivors with the exploded heads. Interestingly, even as our current political environment brings on thoughts of Apocalypse, I see that nothing essential has changed: another reason to keep reading Russian literature.

Japanese was pure luck, too. I had the opportunity to study the language while living in Japan as a trailing newlywed at the perfect time: when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation in Russian literature. Call it the mother of all procrastinations. For me the procrastination took the form of studying in an intensive summer course, then spending a year at International Christian University’s intensive immersion program in Mitaka, outside of Tokyo; auditing Japanese literature classes for Japanese college students at Nanzan University in Nagoya; getting a tutor and reading some books, and translating one of the books.

I do think that all that effort was directly related to my intense desire at the time not to write a dissertation. That said, it was beyond exciting to be living in Japan. Here I’ll interject with some advice to your readers—if an opportunity comes up, just grab it and ride the wave. It’s all about luck.

HW: Your most recent translation, The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, has been touted as the first Dagestani novel available in English. Do you feel this is a significant milestone? 

CA: I do feel it’s an extraordinary moment, and that the novel is an extraordinary piece of writing, for multiple reasons. Because it’s about Dagestan, which is an unfamiliar and seductive culture, and because it’s politically relevant by being about radical Islam. But mostly because it’s a wonderful novel.

Most critics of the novel (at least in English) have focused on the provocative and relevant topic of radical Islam in the Caucasus region. This is, of course, important. But in doing so, they may miss the novel’s true beauty—the overlaying of different times and spaces to convey the profound message that there’s a deeper, abiding reality that we don’t notice around us, except at key moments when all the barriers melt away. Ganieva does this by deploying the exact same elements in scenes from different times and places. For example, she presents a discussion in a Makhachkala newspaper’s editorial office that is repeated verbatim, with different characters, in a Soviet-period Dagestani village council meeting. Setting, too, is subtly overlaid, where elements of a description of a modern-day urban apartment building echoes that of an ancient mountain village—the mythical mountain of our title. A deeper Dagestani prehistoric and mythical reality underlies everything, and these scenes open up apertures through which we experience the reality, while not leaving our current place and time behind. Translation just adds one more layer.

If you read slowly, you will recognize these scenes when they come up, because they bring on a sense of déjà vu. And then, awe.

HW: Have you noticed any difference between translating work based in the Russian Caucasus and other areas in Russia?

CA: Such a great question. Of course, there’s a great Russian tradition of literature about the Caucasus. It’s a literature of uneasy outsiders (i.e. occupiers) wielding power that feels uncomfortable and wrong. I won’t dip into the tedious clichés of “post-Colonialism” so mandatory in the academic world, or the ongoing issues in 2017 relating to Russia’s border politics. The real point is, again, about deeper meanings.

About how the book feels: Ganieva loves and knows her culture, and takes her reader into traditional Dagestan—before post-Soviets, before Soviets, before Russia, before governments. So we are taken to a village where metalsmiths keep up the traditional crafts; we also learn about young entrepreneurs who create quick knock-offs to sell to unwitting tourists. Purely on the level of language, The Mountain and the Wall has an abundance of non-Russian words. But that’s just the surface—and in fact, the feel of these words in the English translation will be somewhat equivalent to the original because the words are unfamiliar to Russian readers as well. That part was actually pretty easy—after all, I didn’t actually translate these words; the only labor went into figuring out what the transliteration would be, and how these words would fit into English sentences.

Anyway, what is beautiful in Ganieva’s work is the sense of common humanity that we get from the best literature. The book takes you inside the characters’ heads, where you find out that they are just like you.

HW: The book is set in Dagestan, a region unfamiliar to most Anglophones—perhaps culturally unknown to many Russians, even. Was this an obstacle in your translation?

CA: That’s another great question. With luck a reader might pick up the book to learn what Dagestan is. For translators, it’s all about the language. The language leads us into the culture beyond—where, yes, we have to do some research and make sure that the translation reflects the underlying reality. The main benefit to me was the opportunity to get inside a really good book and help conduct it into a new language without destroying what is most important—its spirit. And the book taught me just about everything I know about Dagestan.

When I worked as a Russian interpreter for the government I had to jump into completely unfamiliar fields—nuclear energy and weapons, marine biology, economics, furniture manufacturing, export control, hunting and fishing, education policy, electronics, cooking, you name it. I learned that, yes, you cram mightily before a job, reading about the subject matter, and memorizing vocabulary specific to the field, so as to be armed and ready for whatever they might want to say. When you’re doing the actual work, though, the main goal is to enable communication to take place: they have something they need to learn from each other, and you are there to help them do that. Each time is different, the words are different. But unless you serve that spirit of communication you are only adding stones to a wall, like the one that goes up between Dagestan and Russia in the book.

What was really difficult about the novel was doing justice to its many different levels of speech. For example, there are several long quotations from a novel in verse written by one of the characters in the Onegin stanza—a very demanding sonnet form; an episode “quoted” from a Soviet-era children’s school textbook; traditional folk tales told by grandmothers; a newspaper article about traditional Dagestani culture; references to customs and rituals in different branches of Islam—you name it. The experience overall has something in common with, say, an embroidery sample in which you must demonstrate mastery of the full set of stitches. I’m here to say, it’s not possible—but you do your best. Worst (or best) of all are the extended dialogues consisting entirely of Dagestani youth slang, which is completely unique to the time and place. Google something from this and you end up in a hall of mirrors: the only thing that pops up is the very quote from the novel you’re trying to translate. Shouting out gratefully here to Veronique Patte, the French translator of the novel, with whom I shared many questions and answers; my amazing editor, Jeremy Davies; and Alisa Ganieva herself, whose patience, brilliance and kindness—not to mention her impressive fluency in English—know no bounds.

HW: You’ve been working in your field for several decades. Have you perceived any changes during that time in the American audience’s reception of contemporary Russian literature, particularly of politically-charged work such as The Mountain and the Wall, which has borders as a main theme?

CA: The real challenges are, I think, not related to the theme so much as the general problems related to reading. Why should we read when we can watch and listen instead? I know I’m preaching to the choir here at Asymptote because obviously you and your readers care about reading. But will people even read fifty years from now? Most people in the history of the world lived without reading. Why do we need it? As book people, we need to have an extremely good answer to this question. As a teacher, I make it my mission to nurture the quietness of soul and powers of concentration that are necessary to mine literature for what it alone can offer: a deep connection to other people’s minds, including the thoughts that cannot be communicated, for whatever reason, in ordinary ways.

Another layer is the lack of interest in the United States to translated literature generally. Shame on us. Recently in the New York Times, famous American writers offered their recommendations for summer reading, and not a single one of the recommendations was translated from another language. If our own literary elite show no interest in foreign literature, what hope is there for the rest of us? It’s not for the lack of great books out there, or great translators. Do stay tuned for The American Literary Translators Association’s longlist for the National Translation Award, due out at the end of June.

Now for your actual question: we have completely different readers now. They’re just as smart as the ones who came before, though their cultural literacy is different, and some of the synapses have been damaged by social media and whatnot. We’re kind of lucky right now that U.S-Russia relations are in the news, as happens periodically through history. This always sparks new interest in everything Russian, and always brings new generations of readers to the literature. The fun part is when they get sucked in and cannot escape. Maybe the cycle is like that of those seventeen-year cicadas, underground most of the time, but with periodically epic breakouts. That’s what happened to me.

We do not read translated literature to learn how people in different countries are different, so that we can learn how to do business with them, or wield our political power effectively with or against them. We read translated literature to access a common humanity that transcends borders. So I guess somehow I answered your question. The Mountain and the Wall conveys an extremely important theme about politics and wall-building. But that’s not the half of it. Go ahead and try to build the wall. It will not keep us apart.

HW: As a scholar of Russian literature, do you see any clear influences in Alisa Ganieva’s work?

CA: Her concerns align with those of the Russian greats: the human capacity for violence (Dostoevsky); the value of the everyday (Chekhov and Tolstoy); an enduring preoccupation with what is going around here and now and how it connects with the eternal. She is a great humanist like her predecessors. But with literature, influence is really about language and style. Her style is to a degree classical, meaning it’s clear and free of obstacles to communication. Her recognition of the existence of a deeper reality links her up to Dostoevsky, for example, without the frenzy and sensationalism. There is some crafty riddle-making that reminds me of Nabokov, without his elitism. But her awareness of her predecessors is clear-headed and dignified, and not derivative. She has her own voice. Because of this I believe her writing is only going to get better and better in the future.

HW: Are there any up-and-coming translation projects you are excited about, or contemporary Russian writers we should look to in the coming years?

CA: Well, there are two underway: I have the good fortune to be entrusted with Ganieva’s second novel, Bride and Groom, which is due out in the fall of 2017 from Deep Vellum. This is a beautiful book about, I guess you could say, matchmaking in Dagestan. The hero’s parents have made a reservation for a wedding hall for their son for a particular date, but there is no bride. The pressure is on. The premise is Chekhovian in its humor; all kinds of hijinks can be predicted. But again something much deeper is going on. The plot unfolds against the background of rising Islamist fundamentalism in Dagestan, and people are taking sides. And much is at stake: not just who is going to win, not just whether you’ll get married, but what is going on in your mortal soul. I love everything about this novel, which focuses more insistently than its predecessor on two central protagonists, who, as we see in, for example, a Jane Austen novel, must be brought together. The enduring Russian question of “who is to blame” inheres at the novel’s center. This novel, too, has its hidden depths, which I hope readers will discover. Beyond the love story, the book tells of the spiritual life, rooted in very specific and exhilarating references to Sufism. Everything leads to a mind-blowing conclusion, where the bottom drops out and leaves us in awe.

I usually work on my scholarly projects simultaneously with literary translations. I’m currently co-editing, with Radislav Lapushin, a book of essays on Chekhov’s letters. For this, I am translating a number of articles by Russian scholars. In this kind of project, I always try to work with student “apprentices,” so there’s usually a pedagogical aspect to the work, which I enjoy a lot, in spite of the extra effort. Except for minor annoyances, such as terminology, scholarly works are much easier to translate than literature. The rewards are proportional.

Russian literature is alive and well, and it thrives in difficult times. Current favorites are the works of Andrei Gelasimov (translated by Marian Schwartz) and Eugene Vodolazkin (translated by Lisa Hayden).

Carol Apollonio is a specialist in Russian literature, Russian and Japanese translation, and language pedagogy. She has worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Government, and serves as president of the North American Dostoevsky Society. Her next translation, Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva, will be published by Deep Vellum in September, 2017.

Hannah Weber is freelance writer, editor, and doctoral candidate based in Brighton, U.K. Her current research focuses on critical theory and European border literature. More of her writing on contemporary fiction can be found at The Calvert Journal.

****

Read more about Russian Literature:

  • Krislyn Lyon

    Wonderful interview, dorogoi professor! Love reading about your work!

    • Carol Apollonio

      Thank you, Ksenia!