Advertisements are the translator’s hell. Only the other day, I struggled with a Russian analogue to “a patient journey to asthma management:” each version sounded either too Western or too Soviet. That fruitless exercise has put me in mind of Victor Pelevin, one of the most popular contemporary Russian authors, whose books are often tributes to his early career in advertising.
A classic example is Generation “П,” originally published in Russian under this funky title in 1999. The П is for P, which is for Pepsi. It traces a copywriter’s journey (sic) to greatness in the formative days of Russian capitalism. Andrew Bromfield’s version, published by Faber and Faber, is called Babylon, referring to the name of the protagonist, Vavilen Tatarsky (his pet name, “Vavan,” is rendered as “Babe” here), which brings up a whole host of Sumerian associations in the book. The book’s US title, Homo Zapiens, is Pelevin’s own invention: a term for a model consumer, it appears in a text communicated by the spirit of Che Guevara by means of an ouija board, where it’s abbreviated to ХЗ, a shortened form of the Russian equivalent of “fuck knows.”
On January 17th—just as the country was getting ready to celebrate MLK and his legacy—a swarm of Russian poetry fans hosted a celebratory (and yet very uncommon) evening of its own. The twofold event, which combined the Compass Translation Award ceremony and the launch of the long awaited 4th volume of Cardinal Points journal, an event occasioned under the auspices of the the StoSvet literary project as well as the Mad Hat Press and the Russian-American Cultural Center.
Set in Manhattan‘s venerable Poets House, the event commenced by honoring two major literary figures that both passed away in recent months: George Kline and Nina Cassian. Hailed as one with an “impeccable ear for translating Russian poetry,” particularly that of Joseph Brodsky, Kline’s multi-decade work made Russian poets better known to the English reader.
He was remembered by Larisa Shmailo, as well as by Irina Mashinski, the event’s main organizer. Furthermore, Nina Cassian, a Romanian poet and translator, who lived in New York City since the late years of the Ceaușescu regime, was honored by her husband, Maurice Edwards, who read two of her recent poems. READ MORE…
“We discuss endlessly and sometimes it becomes a nuisance because we return to it again and again even after the manuscript goes off. But we really don’t quarrel. It would be much more interesting if we did.”
— Larissa Volokhonsky, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal
Over the last several decades, the married translation team of Richard Pevear (native English speaker) and Larissa Volokhonsky (native Russian speaker) have proceeded through the masterworks of Russian literature from Dostoyevsky to Pasternak with ruthless efficiency, skill, and finesse. But one morning, the couple embarked on an audacious new project that threatened to tear them apart: that of the Sandovar restaurant. (What follows is wholly invented, of course.) READ MORE…
I. Evgeny Nikitin
The candle flame is trembling and in sway
As, catching fire, a moth melts in to kiss her.
My friend stopped writing—he is like a whisper,
A beast that runs his hunter’s way.
Winter is closing in, drawing its shutters.
The timid gas with little azure tongue
Spurts from the burner, lightly stutters,
The dying moth forgotten before long.
Nobody had told her how bright it would be. Cold, yes, dangerous, of course (this was 1894, after all). But the light! It surrounded them like an ocean, assaulting the tiny sled with a relentlessness that would have been painful for anyone but was torture for her, whose eyes had been sensitive from birth. Later in life this photophobia would become so bad that she would have to hire someone to read the pages she was translating out loud (a method one amanuensis described as “very tedious and exhausting”). But at this point, there weren’t any assistants: there was just Russia, which shone during the day but emitted a soft glow after dark, like a horse steaming in its stable. When the sun went down, the sled stopped at a village for directions, and a peasant whom Constance Garnett described as having “an ivory face and jet black hair and beard, rather like some picture I have seen of John the Baptist” invited her into his hut:
I was blinded by the steam on my spectacles at first, then I saw the interior of a Russian izba for the first time. Two women and several children got up from their lockers on which they had been asleep… In the middle of the fearfully hot airless hut swung a sort of large birdcage covered with a large red cotton cloth, and from it came the miauling of a baby… I could not stay more than a few minutes in the izba—I was afraid of fainting—so I went out and sat in the sledge where the temperature was somewhere about zero under the immense dark blue starry sky. The peasant directed our driver. I remember one of the women ventured to put in advice—and was at once told to hold her tongue—that this was not a woman’s business .
It was a scene straight out of Turgenev, a writer whose unexpected vogue in late 19th-century England turned out to be the first wave of a fascination with Russian literature that would grip the anglophone world until the late 1920s. Over the course of its thirty-year run, this “Russian fever”  would influence not only specific artists, but also the way that writers, and readers, thought about fiction. It would transform the novel in English, swinging interest away from corseted descriptions of late-Victorian drawing rooms, and towards what D. H. Lawrence, writing about Anna Karenina, called “the bright book of life.” And it would do so, for the most part, in the voice of a single translator: Constance Garnett.
A sunny winter in Florence.
Early morning—blue and gold, and
the black Florentine air—eeny meeny miney moe—has completely vanished from the city: and is now wrapping up and flowing down the hills that are more orbital than surrounding.
Above the hills—the still-white night sky slowly turns blue. And between the hills, red Tuscan brushwood burns, which will soon become gold…
The conjoined sky.
The mooing hills.
The well-defined valleys.
The cypresses are like folded umbrellas,
and the stone pines—unfolded.
Under the stone pines and cypresses, Italians brushed the drips from their gray hair in the rear-view mirrors of their own and others’ motor scooters and sang sweetly with voices as hoarse as though they had an Italian three-day stubble.
Writing is a notoriously penny-pinching métier, unless you’re Canadian Nobel winner Alice Munro—whom the Canadian government has graced with a $5 commemorative coin of her very own. Don’t count on making literary purchases with the coin any time soon, though: the coin costs $69.95, which—granted, we aren’t mathematicians here at Asymptote—seems like a not-so-smart investment. READ MORE…