In a previous post I mentioned how excited I was to take up George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain as I prepared for my Russian short fiction class. I still am, and there are plenty of strong points I have discovered so far. The book comes out of a fiction writing context, and Saunders’ approach focuses most often on questions of how the stories he’s chosen do what they do, how we experience them as readers, and how the choices made by the author create the various emotional responses we have as the stories move from one line, paragraph, and page to the next. There are plenty of quotable passages, short descriptions of technique, and clever analogies to help students understand such principles as when a story feels like a story and when it might not yet, why not, and what might still need to happen in order to get to the point at which it is, in fact, story.
But (you knew that was coming), it also has some drawbacks, the main one, which is rather a global concern, being its conflicted approach to the fact of translation. While Saunders notes from the beginning that he is not a scholar and doesn’t approach these stories from a scholarly standpoint (fair enough), he only mentions in passing that these stories were all written in Russian and that he’s working with them as translations. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. He seems to want to approach them as translations and, at the same time, as if they were written in English, and this presents a conflict as we read claims about the “effects” of certain word combinations that the author created. Here is a key moment in the opening frame:
The stories were, of course, written in Russian. I offer the English translations that I’ve responded to most strongly or, in some cases, the versions I first found years ago and have been teaching from since. I don’t read or speak Russian, so I can’t vouch for their faithfulness to the originals (although we’ll do some thinking about that was we go). I propose that we approach the stories as if they were originally written in English, knowing that we’re losing the music of the Russian and the nuance they would have for a Russian reader. Even in English, shorn of those delights, they have worlds to teach us.p. 6
The acknowledgment of the Russian source and the author’s lack of access to it is fine and good, and I really don’t have any misgivings at all about using the translations that speak most to you (indeed, why would anyone in this context use translations that were somehow less evocative to teach from?). And I suppose admitting that he’s not going to have much to say about the accuracy of the translations he’s using is also fine. But then the paragraph, and the thinking, goes down a rabbit hole and gets lost in it, as if this “faithfulness” bugaboo flipped a trap door. Now we have shifted to a “rhetoric of loss” that clashes with the book’s overall tenor and, it seems to me, purpose. It’s as if he’s saying this is the best we can do, these texts being in their derivative Englished form, “shorn of the delights” of the Russian sources with their attendant “music” and “nuance.” I mean, are we going to approach them as if they were written in English or not?
If we do in fact approach them as if they were written in English, then they haven’t “lost” anything. We are looking at what they do in English, how they resonate in and by means of the English language, among the body of English-language literature. There is a source context we need to be aware of, that of the period and the place where they were created, but we’ve now put the language outside of this domain by approaching these works as if they were not written in that source language context but in this one.
Questions of effect now take on a different aspect. An example will help, I hope. On page 5, in the context of arguing for the renewing power that “fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” (those of well made short stories) can have on the ways we appreciate our place in it, Saunders quotes Isaac Babel: “‘No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.'” That’s a great line. The thing about it is that the right place might be different in different languages. Thinking that the sentence period works the same in one language as in another would be like thinking the music and rhythm of one language are the same as another’s. And who decides where to put the period in the English text? Not the author of the Russian text, certainly not the author of the nineteenth-century Russian text.
The English stories we are now working with, in this rhetoric of fullness and effectiveness that we’ve adopted to sell the idea of this book, comes from the way all these periods have been placed in the English texts. And obviously not just the periods, but the titles, the possible synonyms, the word order, sometimes the paragraphing, the dialog markers, the dashes, and commas, and more. Who made these decisions that have created these English-language effects, the phrasing, the pace, and so on, in short that have helped these English stories to be effective as stories in English by means of the language itself?
Sixty-two pages in, and I haven’t read one of their names mentioned even once.