Winner of the inaugural English PEN Literature in Translation award in 2010 for Anna Politkovskaya's Putin's Russia (Harvill Press), Arch Tait has worked with many well-known Russian writers including Ludmila Ulitskaya, Vladimir Makanin, Victor Pelevin, Peter Aleshkovsky, Andrey Volos and Anatoly Kurchatkin. He was the UK editor of Glas New Russian Writing translation series from 1993 to 2000, and still translates for the Moscow-based publishing house.
PW talks to Tait about the Russian language, challenges in Russian-English translation, shifts in Russian writing and much more.
What prompted you to study Russian and make it your vocation? What fascinates you the most about the language?
I was lucky to attend Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, London, whose French master, F.W. Gregory, decided during WWII that Russia was going to be an important language in the post-war world. He taught Russian grammar and Natasha Wilde, a Leningrader who had married an Englishman, taught conversation. They were a powerful combination, and many Latymerians went on to study Russian at Oxbridge.
A school visit by a mysterious and slightly sinister delegation from the Moscow City Soviet further deepened my fascination with a culture that was clearly more alien than that of our West European neighbors.
The sounds of Russian were also mesmerizing. When Wilde said Brits could not pronounce ‘ы', I practised it in the shower and demonstrated it—to gasps of admiration I like to imagine—the next day at school. A later insight revealed that the language was best spoken as if you had a gobstopper in your mouth. The vocabulary was something else: learning ‘zhivotnoe' for ‘animal' was like trying to memorize a random nine-digit number, and Russian verbs had two infinitives, perfect and imperfect. Wow! Geek paradise.
All modern languages evolve and expand. How has the Russian language changed, and how do you keep up with its colloqualisms and nuances?
Russian language has changed perceptibly, often, like English, becoming less precise. After perestroika did away with the prurience of the Soviet era, a whole new vocabulary became ‘printable', some of it obscene and already familiar, but much of it regional or simply demotic and completely baffling. There were a few perplexing years when specialist and supplementary dictionaries had to be consulted until the internet brought helpful digital portals, and much later, dictionaries and discussion forums provided the answers to nearly every query. The few conundrums that remained could almost always be cracked using Google search engine, which would probe the murkiest recesses of Russian army chatrooms for scurrilous or discreditable slang and provide sufficient context for working out the meaning. If a Google search produces only quotes from the book that I am translating, then I know that it is a neologism.
What influenced the type of work you first read or translated back in 1986?
The USSR regime, in striving for total misrepresentation of Soviet reality, tried to exercise absolute control over writers' living and working conditions. Pliant sycophants did well out of the arrangement while genuine writers were regularly forced out of the country. Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, was once asked why Soviet publishing houses distributed in the West so many books by abysmally boring authors, to which he replied: "If a girl goes to a party and nobody wants to dance with her, her brother has to". A number of universities still have their shelves weighed down by fiction that can only ever be of interest to a social pathologist.
There is a need to be watchful that the present Russian government investment in promoting translations does not lead to a relapse into old ways. Publishing programmes such as those advocated by philanthropic oligarchs Andrei Skoch [who founded the Pokolenie Foundation that has gone on to support the Debut Prize] and Mikhail Prokhorov [of the Prokhorov Foundation and Transcript translation program] are a necessary counterbalance.
So works by young Russian authors such as those by Debut Prize-winners must have been a breath of fresh air?
Three recent translations that I did for Glas have been of Debut Prize-winners. Although they were mere toddlers during the Gorbachev era, these writers have inherited a healthy disrespect for political chicanery, and bring a much-needed directness and lack of self-censorship to their writing. My latest translation was of Sense, Arslan Khasavov's tongue-in-cheek survey of the youth-orientated oppositionist political groupings that are denied the status of political parties by the regime. Currently, Arslan appears to be the target of an officially orchestrated smear campaign to misrepresent his family as Islamist extremists. Some naïve Western bloggers and comment-posters seem to have swallowed the bait.
I am completing a translation of Debut Prize-winner Alexander Snegirev's Petroleum Venus, a deeply felt and intricately constructed story about a 15-year-old boy with Down's syndrome, which also has a lot to say about present-day Russian morality.
You have translated 20 books, 35 short stories and 30 articles by leading Russian writers. What are the biggest challenges and issues you faced in translating these works?
A problem confronting translators of Russian texts is a belief, widespread in the culture, that if a little is good, then more must be better. The emotionality of writing often needs toning down if it is not to grate with the English reader, even when what is being translated is almost as upsetting for the translator as it must be for the writer. Rapturous, ecstatic and delirious ephithets have to be discounted by at least a third, and 80% of exclamation marks and 98% of ellipses to be deleted. Russians, by the way, retaliate by italicizing words in texts translated from English.
Perhaps because writers used to be paid by the ‘printer's signature', a unit for measuring the area of paper covered, they tend to be prolix, and still begin every line of dialogue on a new line. And they have not been taught at school not to begin a sentence with ‘and'. Or ‘or'. Or ‘but'.
The internet also makes it practicable to venture into semi-technical areas. I have been able to translate a lively popular manual of public speaking and a more challenging volume on cultural economics. My translation of Gennadiy Zyuganov's Globalisation and the Future of Mankind contained many quotations from American geopoliticists that needed to be tracked down in the original rather than translated back into English from Russian. Searching the internet by guessing at words that imperialist idealogues might have used often did locate the original.
Mikhail Shishkin in a PW interview (on April 2) said that "a sample translation of [his novel] Letter-Book made by three independent translators had no single phrase alike." Is this normal in translation?
If you ask three translators to translate the same piece, they will produce three different texts. Shishkin understands "that this does not mean that they are good or bad translators", and that he "has to leave them alone to struggle with their own language". I totally agree with Shishkin's comments and I am happy to say that most authors take the same view. There are always a few ambiguities or obscurities that do have to be referred back to them, but these are invariably answered speedily and helpfully.
How do you decide how much time to spend on a project, and do you worry when the translation goes slowly?
When negotiating a deadline, I usually base my calculation on a thousand words per day, including weekends. So 50,000 words could be completed between, say, April 1 and May 20. An even more lenient deadline for longer works is helpful as I would then be able to fit in smaller commissions.
There is always a worry when progress is rather slow at the beginning of a project. It usually speeds up as you get to understand the characters and style. Translation is such that for each project, there will be five or six drafts that take out most unevenness or errors. Still, it is immensely helpful to have the final text edited by someone else. My favorite editor and publisher are Andrea Belloli and Christopher MacLehose respectively. The latter generously allowed one year for the translation of Irina Prokhorova's volume 1990.
Do you read through a book prior to translating it?
I do not, so for the first draft there is the added interest of not knowing how everything will end. I have discovered that quite a few translators work in the same way. There is plenty of time to coordinate earlier and later chapters during the subsequent drafts.
Is it easy dealing with the author, editor or publisher of the translated work?
Editors are usually extremely respectful of the translation. The one exception I encountered was an academic publisher whose staff seemed to regard the translator as a serf who had no business asking to see proofs, and they ended up producing something in egregriously broken English that I am not proud of. Translators get defensive when treated as verbal technicians required to manufacture to specification. They do often find themselves acting as editors, depending on the nature of the text. I have recently abridged half a million words of reminiscence and commentary to 150,000 words.
I particularly enjoyed working with Ludmilla Ulitskaya on Daniel Stein, Interpreter, her epic documentary novel about a Polish Jew who worked for the Gestapo, saved the lives of many Jews, and then became a Roman Catholic priest in Israel.
What assumptions, if any, do you have to make while translating?
A translator, perhaps even more than a writer, has to make assumptions about his reader's familiarity with the source culture. Does everybody know what a dacha is? A matryoshka? A babushka? Thanks to the nineteenth-century classics, Russian is not the most unfamiliar of cultures for the Anglo-Saxon world, but in order to avoid the horror of adding footnotes, you slip in the occasional elucidatory word or two where the context is insufficient.
After a book you translated is finally out at the bookstores, would you get a copy and agonize over the translation? Or do you go "It's done and over with. Next, please?"
I rarely look back at a book after translating it, but if I do leaf through one a few years later, I am usually quite pleased.
After spending so much time translating Russian works, do you pick up a Russian novel or nonfiction to read for leisure?
I read a lot of books about Russia, mostly depressing journalism such as the Guardian's former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding's Mafia State about FSB attempts to intimidate him, Misha Glenny's Dark Market on internet fraud, Edward Lucas's Deception on post-Soviet industrial and political espionage, and Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face on the rise of Vladimir Putin. I also enjoy reading novels about Russia such as James Meek's The People's Act of Love [about the Skoptsy sect in Siberia] and A.D. Miller's Snowdrops [a Westerner's perplexity at Russian ways].
No translated Russian works on your reading list?
I am allergic to translations from Russian because I keep trying to guess the original wording. However, I do enjoy translations from other languages.