Friday, September 2, 2011

Russian: A Love Story

A dangerous admission: I am actually not that good at Russian.

No doubt this sounds odd coming from a self-identified translator, but it's true. At best, I'd put my language abilities at "low-advanced" to "high-intermediate". My favorite and strongest skills are interpretive: reading (which I do all the time, with a dictionary at my elbow) and listening (which I don't do that much). According to a Russian friend who I have tea with every once in a while, my speaking is about on the same level as a 17-year-old. My writing is awful. Altogether, I have a pretty solid vocabulary and a sound, if not totally intuitive knowledge of Russian grammar. I'm certainly not hopeless, but I recognize that there's huge room for improvement.

How, given these limitations, can I possibly have the cheek to translate Russian books - and not just any books, but the classics, the high points of pride in one of the most religiously bibliophillic countries in world history? How could I have I presumed to write an English version of Pushkin, the greatest and in some ways most subtle Russian prose writer? Have I no shame?

Actually, shame has been one of the ground-notes in my relationship to Russian since I started learning it 17 years ago. A snotty and distractible student, I had little patience for the memorization and painstaking work that all language-learning requires (I still don't, which is probably one of the reasons my Russian's been stuck at this level for years). What I did have was curiosity - a curiosity that was only increased by my wonderful high-school Russian teacher, Keith Moon. Anyone who's been in school long enough has had (or should have had) a teacher like Mr. Moon. From the first minute of the first day of class, he bounced around the room, pulling answers from our tiny class (there were five of us in Russian 1 and barely twice that in the entire four-year Russian program, maybe a twentieth of the recruits for French and Spanish). On that first day, without speaking a word of English, he taught us the Cyrillic alphabet and a dozen vocabulary words. Walking out of his classroom, I felt like my head was going to go flying off at any minute. 

The scant gifts I have to offer the world of Russian translation can all be traced back to that class. In my opinion they boil down to a passion for something that I have come to understand as "Russianness", in all its various forms: music, food, language, people, and of course, literature. 

What to say about Russian literature? After I graduated high-school, I took the not-that-unorthodox step of going to live with a family in Moscow for the fall and winter. The Lyubopitovs (whose name means "curious" - I am not making this up) were warm and welcoming, eager to share their culture with me. The father, who worked for the military and had therefore not been paid for over three months (this was smack in the middle of the huge currency crash of 1998, during which the ruble was devalued drastically), had neat grey hair and sad eyes. One night, while the rest of the tiny apartment was asleep, he asked me which Russian writers were my favorite. I answered Tolstoy (I'd read Anna Karenina through cover to cover earlier that year, on a three day bus trip from Connecticut to California) and Pushkin (whose Eugene Onegin I was reading in Charles Johnson's acrobatic translation). He smiled and recited, effortlessly - though with a fair amount of eyebrow waggling - Tatyana's love letter to Onegin. 

If I wrote a novelization about my experiences as a young expat in Moscow, this scene would probably not make the cut. It's too obvious - too stereotypical and predictable. But it happened, in that small, dimly-lit kitchen, with the Lyubopitov's electric-blue budgerigar Keyasha watching from behind Mr. Lyubopitov's shoulder. When we finished our tea, I went back to my bedroom (by far the biggest in the apartment, with a huge picture of mid-scream Freddy Mercury hanging above my bed) and, after reading a few stanzas of Johnson's Pushkin's Onegin to get my juices going, wrote three terrible Pushkinian stanzas about the experience. 

I wrote a lot of those while I was in Russia - more than I'd ever written before, about anything. In fact, looking back I think I can say that Johnson's Eugene Onegin was the book that prompted me to take that first step from wanting-to-be-a-writer to writing. The regular, rhymed stanzas just seemed so unassuming - so flexible and attractive. Pushkin applied them so liberally to his world (and that's really what EO is: a world) that it encouraged me to try and create my own tiny planet. Poetry could be fluid, witty, light. It could cover everything, animating memory and experience and transforming the thousand-thinged world into a gigantic, glistening chandelier. And I could do it. Badly, but I could do it. So what if I didn't do it a fraction as well as Pushkin, or Johnson, did. I could try. And there was something worthy in that. 

Twelve years later I am still trying, and failing, to write like Pushkin, like Kuprin, like Zabolotsky. Translation is a losing proposition, especially for someone like me, with less-than-prodigious linguistic abilities - and though I understand and agree that the coin of great literature should not be debased unnecessarily, I am wary of voices who would deny people like me (that is, essentially, amateurs, meaning lovers) the chance to add something valuable to the constellation of Russian-in-English. Translations are not monuments - not even great ones, like Johnson's Onegin or Volkonsky-Pevear's Karenina, or Nabokov's Lermontov. They are attempts, doomed at the outset, to make express in one language what was originally expressed in another. 

I approach my own translations with humility, excitement and, yes, shame. I know I won't be good enough. At the same time, I have too much respect for the human spirit of curiosity and passion to simply give up the race before it's been run. Translation is failure - but that's what makes it so wonderful. Like marriage, it's a process that can seem doomed at the outset - to the unsympathetic viewer, at least. Which is what makes both marriages and translations so quixotic - even heroic. 

I pray that I'll be given more opportunities to publish my translations, not only because the process has become so important to me, but because I honestly believe I am a good translator. Russian has been one of my great, hopeless loves since I was a young teenager. No matter which book of hers I open, she's there, floating seductively in an area whose accessibility I can't determine for sure. Is she beyond my reach, within it? Will she ever be? Who knows. But I know she's there. 

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