An interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky

David Moscovich

Photograph by Oleh Holovackiy

Yuriy Tarnawsky is the author of more than two dozen books of fiction, poetry, drama, and translations. Born in the Ukraine, he is a founding member of the group of avant-garde Ukrainian émigré writers, The New York Group, as well as one of the original Fiction Collective authors. An engineer and linguist by training—he holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from New York University—he worked as a computer scientist at IBM Corporation, specializing in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, and as Professor of Ukrainian literature and culture at Columbia University.

Tarnawsky's Modus Tollens, and his Placebo Effect Trilogy (Like Blood in Water, The Future of Giraffes, and View of Delft) were published in 2013. Each book in the trilogy, filled with the stinging complexities and densely packed prose that Tarnawsky is known for, is a collection of what he calls mininovels, a form that incorporates the precision and meticulous engineering one might expect from an author with a background in linguistics and computer science. The narratives of the mininovels are often disconnected from known reality and eschew a discernible, predictable plotline.

In our email interview, our discussion ranged from his past experiences using technology to develop translation machines, to the effect of the recent turmoil in Ukraine on his work.

—David Moscovich

The Placebo Effect Trilogy consists of several segments within the three books, which you term mininovels. How do you define a "mininovel?"

Each of the three books—Like Blood in Water, The Future of Giraffes, and View of Delft—carries the subtitle "five mininovels," that's all. So, formally speaking, these are collections of mininovels. I view the whole trilogy as one big, seven-hundred-plus-pages-long novel, which is unified not by characters or events, as happens in traditional trilogies, but by themes that, like motifs in music, bind it into a unified work. As I say in the synopsis at the beginning of each of the three books, "the trilogy is like a symphony in three movements—a symphony of semantics, rather than of sound." So each of the three collections, by itself, also constitutes a novel of this type.

I define the mininovel (I spell it as one word) as a short work of fiction, some fifteen to fifty pages long, that is, roughly a short story or a novella, which relies on deliberately omitted information necessary for interpreting ("getting") the work, which the reader has to provide himself, relying on his imagination and material from his personal life, becoming in the process a co-author of the work together with me. I call this missing information negative text, by analogy with negative space (void or concavity) in modern sculpture. The most common form of negative text is a gap in chronology between two events (say, the time separating two chapters), in which something important happens: for instance, two people get married, someone dies, and so forth. But it may also take on other forms, such as the names of famous persons used for characters in the work, which evoke the associations the reader has with the person, unrealistic situations (for instance, dreams), metaphorical use of language, and so on.

As to how this differs from the term "novel," I consider any long work of fiction a novel, regardless, whether or not it is based on a plot or develops full-blown characters. But it must be united into something coherent, whole. So, the trilogy, even though it isn't united by characters or events, to me still constitutes something similar to the traditional novel, since it is unified by common topics or themes.

And what are the themes exactly? The stories seem based on abstraction.

The three central ones, which are repeated in different variations throughout the three books, we have: screaming as a manifestation of existential despair; alienation, which is a contributing factor to existential despair; and fear of death, which is another contributing factor to existential despair.

Can you speak to the formatting of your work? Like many of the more innovative writers, you seem to consistently eschew traditional indentation, quotation marks, spacing, and punctuation. How important or intentional is this on your part?

I'm surprised sometimes myself why I drop commas or quotes, or use the script form for dialogue instead of the standard one. It seems superficial, but for some reason I feel I should use it, and in the end find it effective. I think it conveys to the reader my attitude—I thumb my nose at conventions, I'm an iconoclast and do what I please, and you should expect something new from me. So I put myself in this position and try to stick to it in the text itself. Perhaps that's why I and others do it. But ultimately I do it because it seems right and gives me pleasure. The fact that it's probably not profound doesn't seem to matter much.

Would you say that formatting is an aspect of being formally innovative? Is your aesthetic direction in terms of form inspired by the possibilities of formatting or is it more of a side-effect of the form itself?

Well, I think that formatting is part of form, so that if your formatting is innovative, you're innovative formally. Innovation must first come from a desire to be innovative. But once you set out on the innovative formatting path, the steps you've taken may lead you to make other formal innovations. You will see new possibilities which weren't apparent before. It's a recursive process. But what's more important is the question of whether or not formal innovation will make your writing, the overall nature of your work, innovative. And here, as I said, I feel that it may. I know this from my own experience. I have a cycle of poems (actually a book-length poem) in Ukrainian called Questionnaires, which is written in the form of questionnaire-type questions and answers to them. Choosing this form fundamentally changed the nature of the work. It made me say things I would have never said had I tried to write these poems in the standard verse form.

What's it like writing "experimental" work, which is seen as a negative term for mainstream publishing houses? In your opinion, is it a good time for publishers outside the mainstream, those who did something to break away, as, for example, Grove Press did, or Fiction Collective?

The term "experimental" has taken on a negative connotation of difficult and uninteresting, and the goal of the mainstream houses is to make money, not to promote literature. And it's true that some writing that is experimental is difficult and perhaps even bad. Experiments don't always succeed. But some might be terrific and have the potential of becoming generally acceptable if not quite mainstream in the end. Take Joyce's Ulysses, for instance. It was experimental at first and now it's a classic. And in addition, not everything that is labeled experimental is experimental but, rather, innovative. The two terms are not synonymous, but enemies of innovation label everything that's not commercial as experimental, thus barring its way to the general public.

I do experimental work, but don't generally show it to the public until it's fully finished. Then it's no longer experimental. Whether or not it's innovative is then for the reader and critics to decide. It's hard to properly define it, but I think that in the end everyone can tell the difference between a gimmick and "the real thing." Truly innovative works and techniques eventually become mainstream. It is time that finally sorts things out.

Unfortunately, I think that now is not the time for new New Directions and Grove Presses. We live in the era of global economy, where profits are not merely the main objective but the only one. I don't know when this will change, but I don't see anything stirring on the horizon.

With the conflict in your native Ukraine now, how does this factor in to your world as a writer? And related to that, aesthetically speaking, do politics or current events have much importance in your work?

It makes it difficult for me to write. I'm too absorbed by what's going on there. My writing has always been intensely personal, although not autobiographical, and for me to write about what's going on in Ukraine I would have to wait for my emotions to solidify and for me to be able to distance myself from them. But there is no sign this will happen anytime soon. I feel that in general the best literature has its roots in the author's personal life and emotions. Writing with the aim of satisfying political or social needs, in my opinion, makes it virtually impossible to create good literature.

Back in the 1960s you headed the Russian-to-English automatic translation project at IBM, which resulted in the first automatic translation system to have practical application. Tell me more about how that came about and, if you can, what was it used for?

Well, those were the heady early days of computer science. Computers were little toys compared to what they are now. Even the big mainframes were much smaller then than what you have on your desktop these days and there wasn't much CPU power and memory to work with. We also didn't understand much about language and translation issues at the time and were feeling our way along as in total darkness. I was lucky to be working at the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, practically a kid recently out of college, having been given a chance to work on this project because I knew Russian, having learned it on my own through reading Gogol and Dostoyevsky in the original.

The impetus for the project was a new optical disk technology which was being tested because it was much more promising than the magnetic tape, disk, and core memories then in use. (It turned out to be a dead-end effort and eventually was abandoned.) Because the available processing power was very meager, we concentrated on the huge memory capacity the disk offered and built the project around a very large automatic dictionary, which at that time had the amazing size of some half a million Russian words. No other project then in existence had anything close to it, so we were able to get lucrative government contracts.

The dictionary work was being done for us by a group of lexicographers, which I oversaw, at the U.S. Air Force base in Syracuse, New York, and the Library of Congress, as well as a group at IBM. This was largely a word-for-word translation, quite clumsy, but surprisingly useful, and was used by Air Force and CIA analysts mostly to follow political news and technological advances in the Soviet Union through official publications. It turned out that by reading these translations you got a pretty good idea of what they were about so that you could decide if you wanted to investigate them deeper. If you did, then the publication or the interesting passage in it could be translated by a person. We demonstrated the program at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, and it was used by the government for years.

While working on this project, we soon discovered that in doing translation, you not only need a big dictionary, capable of handling words as well as idiomatic phrases, and in addition good parsing algorithms, which would give you the correct grammatical structure of the sentence, but also mechanisms to handle the context in which sentences occur, which included world knowledge. This required a tremendous amount of processing power but also an ability to encode all of this information and to understand how it is used, which was an even bigger problem. Neither we, nor any of our competitors, were able to provide any of this at the time.

It took some thirty years before some of this was possible and significant improvements began to appear in automatic translation programs. But even now they are far from perfect. I haven't been following this technology for many years now, so I can't say much about its current state, but I think that the improvements here are due as much to hardware advances (faster processing speed of computers and bigger memories) as to theoretical ones—parsing techniques and the ability of programs to learn from experience. (One of the techniques to do this used to be the so-called neural networks; I am not sure they are still in use.) And I suspect that this latter ability is responsible for much of the improvement.

Of the translation projects you have been involved with, which ones were the most challenging? Do you find that you must also negotiate translating cultural codes in order for the language to match up? Can the linguistic and cultural even be separated?

I have translated technical publications as well as poetry, fiction, and drama, mostly from Ukrainian into English, but also from English and other languages into Ukrainian. All of these have challenges of their own. The problem with translating technical material is getting the right terminology and finding the proper style, but in general these issues are relatively easy to overcome. Poetry, at first glance, seems to be the most difficult to translate, but I don't think it is always so. Poetry written in a strictly defined form is extremely difficult because you have to deal not only with the issues of language but also of form. So, if you decide to reproduce the form, you have to compromise on language, and this will always complicate the translation and lead to questionable results. But if you are willing to compromise on form, then I think that translating poetry is no more difficult than fiction or drama.

But translating free verse into free verse, I feel, is roughly as difficult as translating prose. And translating prose in general isn't that easy either—you should try to render the rhythm of the original, which is as important as the prosody in poetry, and that is difficult. You have to match the syntax with the pattern of the semantics of the sentence (for instance, what is being stressed) to reproduce the effect of the original. In fiction and in drama you also have the problem of translating dialogue—speech—which is not an easy matter, since it should sound natural, as if it were spoken in the language of the translation.

To go back to the second part of your question—yes, the "cultural" part is very important in translation, and no less so than what you may call the "linguistic" part. In fact, I think you can't separate the two. Once spoken or written, language—an utterance or a written string—is a manifestation of culture and, in translating it, you have to take the latter into account. Optimally, every translation should read as if it had been written in the language in which it is heard or read. You have to translate idiomatic expressions in the source language by their equivalents in the target language and not by individual words, cultural taboos must be adhered to or violated, depending on the original and so forth. (What may sound rude in one language, may not be that offensive in another, and the other way around.)

In short, a translator should be like an actor who puts himself in the role of the author and pretends the author is writing in the language into which the translator translates. Ideally, a translator should be a native of both languages and cultures, or at least know both of them very well. But knowing the language and culture into which you translate is paramount. You should know both of them perfectly.

Do you ever write in both languages simultaneously? How do you go back and forth between Ukrainian and English and what problems have you run into?

I've been going back and forth between the two languages almost from the time I started writing (at the age of about 18). I started out writing in Ukrainian and almost always made English translations of what I wrote, and then for a while I wrote only in English, and eventually translated some of these works into Ukrainian. But there was one work I wrote simultaneously in the two languages, first in English, and then immediately afterwards, in Ukrainian—the volume of poetry This Is How I Get Well. As I recall, though, it didn't affect my writing process—it was essentially as if I had written the book in English first and then did the Ukrainian version.

There is a whole series of collections of poetry, however, I did first in English and then made Ukrainian versions—The Plumed Heart, Ideal Woman, Ingrown Poems, Grownup Poems, Photographs Are Like Flowers, Zeroes and Ones. They have all been published in Ukrainian and only parts of some in English. I never bothered trying to get all of them published in English. They are still waiting for a publisher.

As to my prose work, I wrote all but one book in Ukrainian—my first novel, Roads—and the rest in English. I made a Ukrainian version of the collection of stories Short Tails, and here there was a problem with the title. It was impossible to recreate the pun "tale/tail," so I did a literal translation, the Ukrainian equivalent of "tail." Amazingly, it came out, in my opinion, better that way. Imagine if the title in English were "Short Animal Rear End Appendages." It sounds totally absurd and it's a good title for a book of totally absurd stories. In English you see how I got to the title—through the pun—and understand why, but in Ukrainian it is just plain absurd and you accept it as such.

There was one peculiarly interesting language problem between English and Ukrainian in my translation, though. As you know, Three Blondes and Death is written in an artificial language, a proper subset of English, consisting only of simple and some compound sentences but of no complex ones. (This was partly due to my technical background.) It sounds stilted at first when you read it, but English language readers eventually get used to it and accept it for what it is. I made a Ukrainian language version of a few excerpts from it and they were "corrected" without my approval by the editor, "to make them sound natural." The poor soul couldn't accept the fact that "unnaturalness" was part of the work and that if you wrote it in a natural sounding language, it would have a different effect.

This is due to the difference in the two cultures—Ukrainians traditionally have thought of their language as mellifluous ("language of nightingales") and don't admit that anything awkward sounding could be written (or if written, then published) in it. That's one reason I've been writing only in English lately. I am driven by what I want to say and what I want to say these days is not exactly soothing.