Worrying About Worry Beads

I have spent many years translating the work of Vasily Grossman and his slightly older friend, Andrey Platonov. Both are among the greatest of Russian writers. Grossman admired Platonov, and some of Grossman's last stories bear the imprint of Platonov's idiosyncratic style and vision. The trajectories followed by these writers, however, could hardly have been more different.

Platonov's first published book was a collection of poems. In the late 1920s he composed his first masterpieces—among them, the extraordinary and complex long novel Chevengur. From then until his death in 1951, he moved towards an ever-greater simplicity and transparency—or at least towards an outward appearance of simplicity and transparency. Grossman, by contrast, began his literary career as a journalist. His first novel, Glyukauf (1934), about life in a Ukrainian mining community, was as ploddingly realistic as most other Soviet fiction of its time. The prose style of Life and Fate (1952-61) remains straightforward; Grossman only occasionally uses language in unusual ways. It is as if he is suspicious of poetry for its own sake, as if he gives himself up to it only when he is certain that ordinary language is no longer adequate. And it is only in his very last works—in his last stories and the short novel Everything Flows ­(1955-63)—that he begins to allow himself a greater degree of poetic freedom.

And so these two writers present a translator with very different challenges. Platonov's style is so extraordinary that almost every translator—at least initially—is tempted to tone it down. For me and my collaborators, the process of revision has almost always been a matter of trying to capture more of Platonov's arresting strangeness. Thus the first sentence of our first version of Happy Moscow (Harvill, 1999) reads: "A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street on a bleak night in late autumn." Revised for our new edition (NYRB Classics, 2012), this sentence reads: "A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street into a boring night of late autumn." "On" and "into" are both possible interpretations of the original, but Platonov certainly wrote "boring" rather than "bleak"—and "boring" is a key word in the novel; people are constantly doing terrible things in order to escape their boredom. And it is characteristic of Platonov to make unusual use of the simplest and most ordinary of words—so the dynamism of "into the night" certainly sounds more Platonovan than the more conventional "on a night."

Grossman's language, on the other hand, is almost never startling. Sometimes, though, his apparently ordinary diction and syntax mask an extraordinary profundity. Near the end of a heart-rending chapter of Everything Flows, which tells the story of a young mother arrested and sent to a labour camp during the Purges, comes the sentence: "And hope, which until then had always oppressed her heart with its living weight, now died." Every word here is so very ordinary, and so ordinary in this kind of context, that many people (myself included!) sense the power of this sentence only after many readings. How many writers before Grossman have spoken of hope's living weight? How many writers have spoken of hope oppressing someone's heart? In passages like these, of course, the challenge for a translator is to preserve the apparent ordinariness. Anything unusual and startling would be wrong; the important thing is to reproduce Grossman's calm steadiness of tone.


Almost every worthwhile work of literature is, in ways that are often unpredictable, difficult to translate. If the original is remarkable for its terse concision, it can be hard to reproduce this concision. If the original is repetitive and ponderous, the translator has to make a difficult decision about whether or not to edit out some of the repetitions. Some of the more philosophical passages of An Armenian Sketchbook are, indeed, repetitive—and it was only late in the day, after criticism from my excellent editor, that my wife and I decided it would not be untrue to Grossman to abridge some of these passages. What mattered was to reproduce the careful clarity of Grossman's logic. If we could do that with a few less words, so much the better.

Another question one is faced with time and again is how to handle what is culturally unfamiliar. Is it, or is it not, acceptable to add notes? I have heard some good translators insist that one should, in a work of fiction, be able to do without notes. In nearly all cases, however, the people saying this have been translators from languages like French or German; the cultural realities they are used to dealing with are nowhere near as alien as those of Stalin's Russia. Earlier in the chapter from which I have already quoted, a helpful prison guard hands Yulia, the young mother who has been arrested, a thin slip of cigarette paper on which she reads the figures, "58 – 6 – 12". Our endnote tells the contemporary Anglophone reader what Yulia—and Grossman's Soviet contemporaries—would have understood at once: that she has been sentenced under article 58, sections 6 and 12, of the Soviet Criminal Code. Article 58 related to "counter-revolutionary activity" in general; section 6 to "espionage", and section 12 to "failure to report counter-revolutionary activity". This note is essential. Sometimes, a translator can unobtrusively slip a few words of explanation into a narrative—but not if he/she is limited to what might fit on a thin slip of cigarette paper.

The extract from An Armenian Sketchbook included in this issue of Asymptote was one of the less difficult passages to translate. The narrative is straightforward. There is no colloquial dialogue. And there are no politico-historical complexities. Nevertheless, we came up against two problems before we had even reached the end of the third line. "Women by the water pump, old men sitting under a stone wall and clicking their worry beads, chauffeurs (our twentieth-century cavaliers) laughing and shouting outside the restaurant [...] – everyone fell silent as I went by." The first problem was the word dzhigit, here translated as "cavalier". This is a non-Russian word, used in many parts of the Caucasus to mean "a young warrior on horseback". It would be legitimate to transliterate this word and provide a note. We, however, chose to simplify; Grossman's use of this word adds local colour, but he only uses the word once and it is of no importance to the book as a whole. And there were already more than enough notes that were essential. The more serious problem was with the word chetki, here translated as "worry beads". This is a word I have known for a long time—it is the title of Akhmatova's second book of poetry—and I am used to translating it as "rosary". For a long time we had these old men "saying (or praying) their rosaries". Then I sent a draft of the translation to a friend, who happens to have travelled a lot in Greece. He said that he very much doubted these beads had any religious purpose. He was sure that they were, in fact, "worry beads"; he backed this up with a quote from a Wikipedia entry: "unlike the similar prayer beads used in many religious traditions [...] worry beads have no religious or ceremonial purpose." An Armenian I consulted confirmed that all this was correct—and so the rosaries became "worry beads". A little more research—and I worked out that the correct verb to use with these beads was "click": "old men clicking their worry beads".

Grossman had an excellent memory; as a war correspondent in Stalingrad, he would conduct long interviews without taking notes, then write them down almost verbatim in the evening. His vision, in every sense of the word, is no less clear. He is seldom impressionistic; nearly all his work is in sharp focus. An important part of our work as translators is acquiring the background knowledge that will enable us to see his pictures and understand his arguments with absolute clarity. Only then can we present them convincingly in English.

Click here to read an excerpt of Vasily Grossman's Armenian Sketchbook.