Ross Ufberg is cofounder of New Vessel Press (www.newvesselpress.com) and the translator of several titles including The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, which was originally written in Russian.
Choosing a book to translate is a big commitment. What is the selection process generally like for you, and how was it with this book?
It’s a big commitment, for sure, and it is also a culmination of sorts of another long process. Michael Wise, New Vessel cofounder, and I spend an incredible amount of time researching interesting titles. We go through foreign publishers’ catalogs; we talk with translators about what interests them; we solicit opinions from friends who read in other languages, and who have a good general sense of what’s being published, or what was already published a long time ago but forgotten about in other countries. For The Good Life Elsewhere, I must have read 50 Russian language books, or excerpts of books, before I settled on this novel. It’s not just a question of liking something. The difference between being a reader and being a publisher is that, for the first time, you have to ask yourself, will others like it too? Of course, sometimes we as readers buy books as a gift or, as teachers, assign a book to a group of students, and hope it’s well-received—but as a publisher, there’s a lot more riding on the answer.
Are there English-speaking writers you looked to as models when you were translating Lorchenkov?
That’s a good question. Because Lorchenkov’s book incorporates so many different writing styles, there wasn’t one writer I would compare him with. There are parts of the novel that are written as farcical medieval religious chronicle. For that, I consulted some of my old course notes from a class I once took on Medieval Russian literature. So, something like the Kievan Caves Patericon and other texts that discuss the lives of monks, the adventures of warriors, religious battles. Granted, they weren’t written in English, but many of them have been translated. Some parts of Lorchenkov’s novel read like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I reread that book while I was translating The Good Life Elsewhere for inspiration. I needed to make the language plastic enough so that it could contain both humor and tragedy.
Do you ever feel the temptation to revise or rewrite the source material to make something, particularly a joke or reference, clearer to an English-speaking audience? What parts of your most recent work were the most difficult to translate?
Not only do I feel the temptation, I often give in to it. A very important part of being a translator is understanding not just the text, but who will be reading it. So, for instance, there is a hilarious chapter in the book that satirizes Moldovan politicians. Lorchenkov didn’t have to add many details to identify these well-known figures for his Moldovan audience—but as a translator knowing that an American reader probably doesn’t know much about Moldovan politics, I added clues—this one was the former speaker of the parliament, that one was president of a breakaway republic, etc. If I hadn’t, the humor would have been lost. One thing a translator has to learn is to relax a bit. Yes, you have to be faithful to the original. But you also have a larger job to do: communicate the sense of the book. Without that sensitivity not just to meaning but also to context, a story loses its bite. Jokes are also notoriously difficult to translate, on the one hand—after all, it’s not easy to be funny in any language, and the essence of a good joke so often rests on a linguistic pun. on the other hand, American English has such a wonderful comedic history, from Mark Twain to Joseph Heller to comedians like Foster Brooks and Red Buttons—that when you’re in a bind, there’s always somebody to look to who can help you loosen up your funny bone.
How do you determine if a translation has stayed true enough to its source?
When we publish a translation from a language that one of us knows—Michael speaks German and French, I speak Russian and Polish—we check to make sure the work is not only accurate, but also captures the spirit of the original. But of course there are languages—most of them!—we can’t do that with. A lot of it comes down to plain and simple trust. We make sure somebody else who knows the language does some checking for us, but it really does boil down to having faith in the translator. Unless you really trust the translator, you are left wondering: is the author being playful and inventive with language, or is this just an off translation?
Who are some writers you would like to see translated? Will New Vessel be publishing any of these writers?
There’s a brilliant Polish author named Edward Stachura whom I’d love to see translated. Stachura was a prose writer, poet, and a singer and songwriter working in the ‘60s and ‘70s, then died young by his own hand. His short stories are beautiful, eerie things, incredibly difficult to translate but haunting and prescient. And New Vessel Press is publishing two young German-language writers this fall that we’re quite excited about: Marjana Gaponenko, who was born in Ukraine but now lives in Austria and Germany, and Milena Michiko Flasar, who lives in Austria, and whose father was Austrian and mother was Japanese. Their respective novels, Who is Martha? and I Called Him Necktie, are great examples of meaningful, moving, at times funny and tragic, literature that, when translated, can help to invigorate English-language prose.