The Happy Translator with Many Heads

Because we were many, our golden moments were also many.

At the time of Teffi’s famous dinners with Rasputin in 1916 (memorialised in an unusual, humanising account), she was at the peak of her renown, one of the most celebrated and beloved of Russian writers. Her admirers came from across the political spectrum and included not only Vladimir Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II but also many writers. Following Teffi’s death in Paris in 1952, her work sank into oblivion—perhaps because she was a woman and an emigrée, and because some wrongly thought her work too witty to be serious. Fortunately, after long years of obscurity, Teffi is being rediscovered. Three volumes of her work are now available in English translation: Subtly Worded (2014), Memories (2016)[i], and Rasputin and Other Ironies (2016) (published as Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me by NYRB in the United States) This is largely thanks to the efforts of expert translator and my former mentor, Robert Chandler, who is one of the principal translators and a great advocate of collaborative translation.

Each book has been translated collaboratively and is the product of anywhere from three to six hands—or heads—and that’s only counting the translators named on the copyright page.In the case of ‘Rasputin’, the number is probably closer to ten, as Robert took the text to translation summer school and his entire group had a go at it, multiplying the golden moments in translation. While Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have been a central guiding presence throughout, the rest of us have been involved in some books but not in others or have played different roles from one book to the next.

With so many translators involved, it’s not surprising that some readers wonder how we held it all together. Good question—how?

Much of the credit has to go to Teffi’s voice—strong and perfectly pitched, it tells us exactly how she should sound in English: as translators of Teffi, we are all her understudies. As important as this is, it’s also a great challenge. I first encountered Teffi’s work at a translation workshop that Robert held in 2011. As he said then, and continues to say now, it’s very easy to translate Teffi badly. It’s by no means easy to take a text that is perfectly pitched in one language—whose author revels in the language and avails herself of all its gifts—and then get it right in another. But challenging texts are where collaborative translation really comes into its own: it’s not a case of too many translators spoiling the text, but of many translators being better than one.

Thanks to our many heads, our work has been subject to many readings. In the cases of Subtly Worded and Rasputin and Other Ironies, each story had one main translator. When our translations seemed ready, we would exchange them and carefully read one another’s work alongside Teffi’s Russian. Our multiple readings of the same text amounted to alternative translations—what filtered through in my reading would be slightly different from what filtered through in someone else’s. With the best will in the world, a lone translator is less likely to identify as many nuances in a text as can a group of dedicated translators. By sharing our impressions, we were able to make our translations better, more accurate, more complete. This doesn’t mean that we never disagreed, but when we did, we continued our dialogue until we were able to agree—sometimes sooner, sometimes later!

I’m reminded of the pompoms on Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s shoes (described in The Merezhkovskys). At the beginning of this short memoir, Teffi relates how Andrei Bely dismissed Merezhkovsky as someone who wore shoes with pompony. “Pompoms” is the obvious translation, but I simply could not picture shoes with actual pompoms on them, and even less, shoes with pompoms being worn by someone as peevish as Dmitry Merezhkovsky. I was relieved when my research suggested that pompony could refer not only to pompoms but also to tassels, which frequently are found on shoes. Merezhhkovsky would have ended up with plain old tassels on his shoes if Rose France, one of the three translators of Rasputin and Other Ironies, hadn’t questioned my use of “tassels”. She had been quite struck by the mental image of this grumpy litterateur wearing shoes “with pompoms on”. Rose then located a photograph of some dandy from the period wearing shoes with pompoms. The case for using “pompoms” was now much stronger—we could see with our own eyes that men of the period were actually wearing shoes with pompoms. And the translation is better for it. Teffi loved the absurd, which may be why the pompoms grabbed her attention in the first place. More importantly, these absurd pompoms tell us there is something unusual about Merezhkovsky, something the reader won’t have a full sense of until they have read the entire memoir. Finally, these pompoms make Biely’s contempt for Merezkhovsky obvious. Tassels might have left the poor reader wondering, “but what’s wrong with tassels?”

Our multiple heads meant we not only contributed multiple readings of the original text but also acted like a monolingual writing group, critiquing one another’s English texts and spotting unintended ambiguity, clunky writing, and even unrealised potential. This was invaluable, because how I hear what I’ve written is not necessarily how someone else hears it. I know very well where I want the emphasis to fall, for instance, but unless I’ve done a good job setting up the text, the reader may place the emphasis elsewhere.

Reading out loud also helps, and reading out loud together is even better. During my mentorship with Robert in 2011-12, he recommended not adding any vocal emphasis, letting the words themselves do the work. Wherever I found myself hesitating or stumbling, the translation usually wanted some extra attention. I was lucky to be able to meet with Robert in person to go over a number of the translations in Subtly Worded. We took turns reading them out loud, and the texts I brought home were covered in ink and all the better for it. Robert has read all of the Teffi translations out loud at least once to his translation partner—his wife, Liz. Liz has a very sensitive ear and contributes excellent and extensive edits. It would be hard to overestimate Liz’s contribution to the unified voice the reader hears in these translations.

Even when we finally felt satisfied with our translations, we were not finished collaborating. Now it was time to invite as many readers as possible to comment on as many of the stories as possible.[ii] Many of the acknowledgements in the books recognize the efforts of the readers who came on board at this stage. These were fresh readers who were seeing the texts for the first time, and often they could see what we no longer could.[iii] Even this late in the process, the collaborative approach was throwing out gold nuggets. Only after we had acted upon the feedback of a small army of readers were we done.[iv]

In sum, having many strong collaborators can make a big difference when translating a writer whose work is deeply embedded in the source language, and whose voice is so precisely pitched. Teffi’s writing told us what she should sound like, and because we were many, we were more likely to notice when we weren’t getting it right. Because we were many, we were able to contribute multiple readings and act as multiple editors. Because we were many, our golden moments were also many. Finally, our collaborative approach not only helped us to translate Teffi better, but it also gave us the opportunity to learn from each other.

Anne Marie Jackson began her career as a translator in 2011, when she began a mentorship with Robert Chandler. Since then, she has collaborated on translations of work by Teffi—three volumes so far—and translated works by contemporary writers Alexei Nikitin, Maxim Osipov and Olga Slavnikova, and by classic Soviet writers Daniil Kharms and Mikhail Zoshchenko, among others. She was once shot dead by Chechen rebels in a Russian film but lived to tell the tale.


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[i] Memories differed from the two collections. Irina Steinberg had already translated the entire text into English. Robert and Liz then collaborated on revising the translation, and I assisted them.

[ii] Although sometimes a wonderful reader would turn up earlier in the process! Irina Steinberg, one of the translators of Memories, read and commented on every story that went into Subtly Worded. Not only is Irina a native speaker of Russian with native command of English, she is also a huge fan of Teffi. Irina did a lot to help shape these translations at an early stage.

[iii] Most of these readers came from Robert’s network. A task for me as a translator early in my career is to build my own network.

[iv] Or perhaps not… After the translation was submitted to the publisher and the editor had marked up the text, we collaborated once again to go over the edits.