Teaching Russian Short Fiction in Practice

My eight-week online course is now underway, with two meetings and several short assignments under our belts. As the class satisfies a number of requirements in the Arts and Humanities and World Cultures categories, the students come from all over the university and have lots of different backgrounds, career trajectories, skill sets, levels of preparation, and interests.

Out of the thirty-some enrolled (“some” because some have yet to show up, and I can see they have never visited the Canvas page, so who knows whether they will turn up ever), there are individuals all class levels, from first-year to (two) grad-student auditors, with majors from finance and sustainability studies to kinesiology, arts management, biology, chemistry, and history. Their backgrounds are all over the place — a number come from Indiana, a couple from Bloomington proper, but others are from other states (Illinois, New York, and South Carolina are those I know of at this point) and countries (China, Korea, Mongolia, and India), with one military veteran (there could be more I haven’t learned about yet), and at least one transfer student.

Two of the students seem to have had some Russian in high school, but most have no background or particular knowledge about Russian literature, culture, or history. Their hobbies — I know some of this because I had them make introductory videos or write introductions of themselves for their classmates — include fencing, stock market investing, rock climbing, music (listening and performing), yoga, vegetarian cooking, and — surprise — reading. Actually, quite of few have noted how much they like to read, and a few have read these stories before in Russian.

So far the two-and-a-half-hour Zoom meetings have sped by, and several of the students in our one-on-one conferences have said they were surprised by this, just as I was. I’m still trying to decide why they seem to go so fast. At this point, I think it is due to multiple things.

First, since this is all online and I need to be super-prepared, I have really super-prepared and lined things up so that we move from one thing to another without my needing to check my notes or think what’s next. This doesn’t mean I’m always moving fast, only that I’m not fumbling over my notes. There’s enough fumbling with the technology already, so no one needs more fumbling.

Second, I’ve been using regular in-class reading and writing moments. So we might have a twenty-minute discussion of a passage they read before class, using questions I gave them beforehand (plus, I either put those questions up on my shared screen or post them in the chat to remind them).

But then, when we do get to that discussion, I have used the “tag” method that my colleague Rebecca Spang recommended, where I say, okay, now we’re going to be using that discussion “tag” method we used last time, where I tag someone, who answers the question, and then that person tags someone else, who answers or spins off from what the first person said. One reason I like this method so much is that I get out of the way and give the students the opportunity to take things in directions I might not think. It also lets me triangulate a bit, zeroing in on issues that several people have mentioned. I’m never really out of the discussion obviously, but that little bit of distance helps a lot.

Sometimes I break this up by reading to them, and as long as they have adequate connections and are not struggling with audio quality (some of them are struggling at times with such quality), these moments are a little like a podcast, and my semi-pro headset mic is doing exactly the work it needs to do.

And then beyond the in-class discussion and reading, I give them time to read sometimes on their own, timing the availability of, let’s say, the end of the story we’re reading, such that they can’t read it before class starts, only when I say go. Then we all get quiet for some time (10 minutes or so if the passage is long) while they read, then return to talk about it: for instance, how does that ending change the things you were thinking about before? It’s short fiction, so the ending almost always does change something fundamental. This was a surprise discovered during my prep, but now that I’ve used it a couple of times, I think I can fine tune it a bit and use it more effectively.

Then there’s writing. I decided I wanted to give the students a variety of different kinds of writing to do, not just analytic expository essays. So they’re doing a number of other things, e.g., an adaptation exercise where they create the ancillary materials (cast list, advertisement, soundtrack) for a film adaptation they would like to see made on the basis of one of the stories, along with a one-page rationale for how they’ve approached the piece (got this idea from Tom Beebee’s essay years ago in Teaching World Literature); or, one I devised years ago myself, they create their own version of the first paragraph of Notes from Underground, either compiling it on the basis of multiple translations I provide for them, or creating something brand new, potentially changing the medium as well. In the past I’ve had students create dramatic settings (the U-man is split into different characters, or different versions of himself) or innovative language experiments (the monologue in Tweets, or Nadsat, or LOL Cat) along with, here again the most important part, a rationale and explanation for what they’ve created, from whom (audience), and how they’re choices follow from that.

But in class these are too elaborate and require too much time. What they can do is short reflective pieces, so we’re taking class time to do these, and I’m having them turn them in within a half-hour after class is over. I don’t want them spending a lot of time on these in the wee hours. I’d rather have them think and write (and write and think, because these two work together), turn something in, then get my comments. From these, they’ll be able to pick two to polish and expand (but not a lot) to turn in at the end of class. Basically, they get to pick which stories they want to return to in this way. So far this is working exactly as I envisioned, and since that almost never happens, here it is for future me to remember, especially later in the class when future me might be doubting all this. And obviously for anyone interested–feel free to take anything you think might work for you.

Translating Amanda Gorman

Non-translators might not have paid much attention to the recent controversy over the projected translation of U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s first book of poetry into Dutch, but many of us who translate have been following and discussing it quite a bit. The basic story is that the contracted publisher (Meulenhoff) hired author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to do the job, a choice Gorman appears to have supported. Rijneveld announced being excited about taking on the work on social media, then some folks criticized the choice, including Dutch journalist Janice Deul, who wrote in de Volksrant, “Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? She is white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff is still the ‘translator of dreams’?” and elsewhere: “Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — a spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black?” (I’m afraid I don’t know who translated these quotes from Dutch; they are in many of the English-language stories online, however, so thanks to you, invisible Dutch-English translator!) Rijeneveld resigned over the criticism, and the publisher announced that they’ll be working with a team of (as yet unnamed) others to do the work.

Rather than re-hash some of the most often repeated (and rather superficial) reactions about the pernicious cancel culture that forced the translator to resign, etc., I’ve been drawn, as always, to more fundamental translation issues in this episode.

One is an unstated but ubiquitous implication that translators, especially translators of poetry, need to have some sort of deep “simpatico” relationship with their author, even to the point of being of the same age, race, gender, political persuasion, and so on. I’m not pronouncing judgment on this idea, only pointing it out, because, as I just noted, it is often there without our perceiving it clearly. (In any case, Lawrence Venuti has critiqued it quite a bit already, and anyone interested in this line of thought should consult his books with an eye toward the use of the word “simpatico.”)

The forms that this basic notion takes are wide-ranging and can sometimes be spotted in translator introductions and afterwords. One of the most fascinating instances I have read was in Ciaran Carson’s brief preface to his translation of Dante’s Inferno, where he notes, with disarming frankness, that when he began his work, he really didn’t know any Italian, and then proceeds to make a case for his experience in the Troubles of Northern Ireland as somehow akin to those of Dante in 13th-century Florence: the implication that two poets with kindred experience trumps the mere linguistic expertise of the Italian specialist is hard to avoid.

This move, I say, is more common in poetry translations, where the persona of the translator often matters a great deal, than it is in prose, where the translator’s role is frequently erased altogether, such that we might think we are reading the words of the author, not those of the translator. It’s a fascinating kind of translation-reading magic that publishers, especially large publishers, have tended to encourage historically, often neglecting to even note the presence of a translator in the book’s creation, putting a picture of the author on the cover, not including the translator in the publicity materials, and generally doing everything they can to encourage the illusion that the work has not been filtered through another’s mind and writing practice, let alone the editing, publishing, and broad political context of the receiving culture, which transforms it into something “acceptable” (so publishers hope) to readers in that culture. Let us call this the illusion of limpidity (thanks to my friend David Depew for coining this phrase), which is especially strong in what are often thought of as canonical works of world fiction.

Poetry, however, especially the poetry of well-known authors, seems to often require more of the translator’s ethos in order to be accepted. In some ways, this is a marketing and publicity phenomenon, which is on display in the Gorman-Rijneveld case as well, as publishers are hoping to put books into people’s hands, and that won’t happen if readers and critics reject the product out of hand. This means that either the publishers need to find a well-known name in their own publishing environment whose credentials are likely to be accepted as adequate to the task (e.g., a poet refugee from East European totalitarianism translating another East European poet refugee), or they need to pick someone whose background and public persona are perceived as somehow matching that of the individual whose work is being translated. If they can do both, that is of course ideal. It’s worth noting that doing both is likely to be much easier in a place like The Netherlands or France (partly because of their colonial past) than in a place like Japan or Saudi Arabia, where the notion of “simpatico” translation, if it exists at all, is likely to take very different forms from in New York, Paris, or London. (This is probably also why readers in Japan, for instance, read translations with greater charity, as it were, knowing that the translators are almost invariably Japanese by both birth and heritage, and not having any expectations to the contrary.)

These sorts of marketing and publicity motivations, however, are for the most part, short-term attempts to capitalize on the moment. They are about selling books in the first months (it used to be years but now it’s months) of a release and getting good revues from prominent voices in important venues, which are all key aspects of the contemporary publishing business. It is in this context that the optics of who is selected as a translator for an up-and-coming artist with an enthusiastic following tend to be very important. The longer term, however, is anyone’s guess. It could be that the book becomes extremely popular in another culture over time, but that is very difficult to know, and publishers are generally not thinking about such things these days, when the idea of “building a back list” is rather rare. In the same way that time has tended to annihilate space in our hyper-commercial culture, so the timeline of what counts as success in publishing has tended to become shorter and shorter. Perhaps the time is coming when such success will happen even before the book comes out. Maybe we’re already there.

Of much greater interest to me are the embedded assumptions, in these discussions, about the skills of translators as being either portable or not, as well as a clash of sorts between those who think of translation as art and those who think of it more as a trade or vocation. The portability and vocation advocates might make a claim such that, in principle, any experienced translator should be able to translate anything by anyone. Those who claim for translation the status of art may very well cringe at such an idea, which makes it sound like all one needs is to be certified by an appropriate body, pass some tests, hit some numerical markers, while such intangibles as inspiration and poetic sensibility, which are frequently the reasons a poem ends up “singing” or not in the receiving culture and becoming part of that culture over time, cannot, in fact, be measured, let alone certified. It’s entirely possible, moreover, for one person to hold all these views at the same time. Translators are a complex lot — talking and listening at one and same time does things to you.

An additional divide, no less stark in my experience, tends to set freelance translators (those who make a living from translation) against those who have day jobs, e.g., as editors, teachers, publishers, and so on. The former rely on translation to pay the bills and often simply cannot afford to turn down a job. While they are also all (in my experience) highly ethical people who care about the social and cultural effects of the works that they translate, it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of a translation one takes on, for whatever reason. In this context, I cannot help thinking of the negative example of the distinguished translator Angelo Treves, an Italian Jew, who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Italian for Bompiani in 1934. How could he know? The divide here comes at least in part from the fact that some have another job that pays the bills, which allows a kind of distance and critical stand that might not be as readily available to those who need that translation contract. It is easier for those of us with day jobs to critique the actions of those who live by translation, an often unstable and inconsistent way to make a living.

Finally, this episode has brought to mind a rather contentious exchange between Cherrie Morraga and Bob Shacochis that I witnessed at a conference on the promise of empathy at the University of Iowa in early 2002, in which Shacochis insisted he could “imagine his way” into the point of view of anyone as a way of writing a piece of fiction, including, for instance, an antebellum slave woman on a Georgia plantation, while Morraga equally insistently claimed that he could not, and if he did, he would be exploiting the suffering of people who really had experienced that imagined point of view. At the time, at least, there was no common ground. The artist claimed he could do it. The activist said don’t you dare.

While I suspect the conversation would be different today, I have found myself thinking about how a translator’s role might fit such a situation, especially when it is assumed, as the Gorman-Rijneveld case highlights, that the translator in important ways can stand in for the poet in the receiving culture, taking on not just the poet’s message but also the poet’s mission.

Workshop Meets Gogol

The fifth of the seven chapters in George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which, I will repeat here for those who have not been following, I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot from) features Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This was a risky move on Saunders’ part because the basically rational and construction-focused approach he has adopted, exploring “the physics of the [short story] form,” for his book does not seem to match up well with much of Gogol’s work, “The Nose” perhaps least of all, with its tendency to veer away from rationality and structural consistency, to exhibit — let’s call them — bulges, protrusions, and assorted eccentricities that make it difficult to analyze from any sort of efficiency-minded standpoint.

In part this is because Gogol’s language is idiosyncratic, which highlights issues of language per se, making it difficult to translate, on the one hand, but also difficult to discuss without invoking language, on the other. Saunders appropriately brings in the notion of skaz here, and remarks, parenthetically, that there are “American variants” of this narrative technique in Mark Twain, Sacha Boren Cohen, and others: an intriguing idea, but this supposed parallel is mostly about point of view, not language. And if one is approaching the text as if it were written in English (see this earlier post), then we’re left with a conundrum, something Saunders indicates with disarming frankness when he remarks, “It’s kind of problematic to be talking about the language of a piece we can read only in translation” (p. 286). My inner translator wants to agree with him with something like what he writes in response to the narrator’s admission that “there is much that is improbable in [“The Nose”]”: “‘Uh, yeah.” But another, more rational voice has a better response: “Well, it depends on what you want to say about it.”

I recall the rigorous reading practice of a fiction writer colleague of mine, who used to help me evaluate stories for publication at The Iowa Review: if he noticed a rich, exuberant style at the beginning of a submission, he would immediately be on the lookout for structural flaws; if he read through the whole of it and found the piece structurally sound, he would read back through it to see whether the language held up all the way through. This is a version of Saunders’ approach, which is focused on the form’s perfection, its lack of superfluousness, where every detail is where it is for a reason, and one can always ask the question, as he does often in the book, usually to good effect, “What is this doing here?” Saunders refers to this as a “rather hard-ass model of a story [that] says that every part of it should be there for a reason” (91), an idea of the form that is consistent throughout the book — except for in the chapter on Gogol, where it falls apart.

Notions of rationality and efficiency anchor this approach to writing, which some have critiqued as the “workshop model” or, in Mark McGurl’s formulation “program era” fiction, a sort of institutionalized high Modernism whose best precursors include writers like, well, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. This approach is on display in Saunders’ attempts to read “The Nose,” which comprise the only twenty pages or so of the 400 plus in the book that seem to ring false. He asks many perfectly reasonable and rational questions about how and why things are the way they are here — “How did [the nose] get out of the river?” “Why does the nose feel the need to leave town?” “Why is Kovalyov thwarted [at the newspaper office]?” “What caused [the nose’s] reversion to nosehood?” And so on. Much of this is the sort of questioning that would take place in a workshop, where, as Saunders notes, “one of the first critiques that will be made about a story is that it doesn’t make sense.”

This story, says Saunders, again in a perfectly rational comment, “doesn’t add up.” All this is fine and correct enough, but by comparison with the nuanced analyses of the formal aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy that we might have got used to in the earlier portions of the book, here one could easily lose patience. The amount of time spent on this somehow does not seem worth it, such that when he notes, about a short segment in the newspaper office, that it is “not essential to the action of the story,” I even grow a bit frustrated: What in the world is essential to the action of this story? The question, which comes out of the particular method of writing short stories, has completely overtaken the manner in which we read short stories, and with this story it is inadequate and mismatched.

The method of reading we’ve grown accustomed to in earlier portions of the book, where we analyze pieces and see how they fit, does not work well here, and Saunders is left making grand generalizations about how Gogol is a “supreme realist,” but for no demonstrable reason other than that, for example, “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.” Well, yes, that could be, but the person making the claim hasn’t offered evidence of the same quality as that used for the other big claims regarding Chekhov and the others. The basic problem here is that this story doesn’t align with the conception of the short story introduced in this book. It doesn’t fit.

And when Saunders tries to make it fit by attempting to make “sense” of the irrational in Gogol’s story, he essentially makes the rather sweeping argument of Vissarion Belinsky regarding the stretching of reality via the grotesque, which, Belinsky claimed (in the 1840s), was a way of making a social critique that reached into the everyday and reflected its distortions. Life was so out of whack (because of serfdom and the other deformations of humanity produced by the Russian autocratic state) that everything in the world was distorted, and Gogol was simply describing that distorted reality: he was a “supreme” realist. While Saunders updates this idea of what it all means to include the horrors of the mundane in the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and Stalinist purges, it is still a version of Gogol as a social satirist who uses the grotesque in ordinary life as his primary tool.

This could be a reasonable way to make sense of Gogol’s work — others have used it — but it is just one way, and the narrowing of Gogol’s rather open-ended verbal slapstick, nonsense, lyricism, sloppiness, caricature, absurdity, sound painting, and sometime carnival wackiness down to this one idea is unfortunate. The strengths of other parts of the book, moreover, come from the closeness of the connection between the manner of reading, the specifics of the details analyzed, and the claims about the overall effects of the stories, their broader meanings, expressive richness, and emotional impact. That connection is largely lost in these twenty some pages, I think, because there’s no real way to do it well without delving into the language.

But then, just as I find myself giving up hope that Saunders might have anything new to tell me about Gogol’s story, he has an afterthought (No. 5), and in the course of the six pages that follow, a bit like a Bach chorale in the St. Matthew Passion, he gathers up the loose threads and launches me into the next section. It is almost not even about Gogol, at least not ostensibly, and feels more like a set of free associations on his own writing practice, where he “follows the voice.”

An idea for a voice appears, and off you go. You just ‘feel like’ doing that voice. (And you find that you can.) Sometimes the inspiration for that voice might be a real person. Sometimes it’s a tendency in myself that I’ll exaggerate […]. Sometimes it’s a fragment of language that came from elsewhere” (306).

Here I’m making associations with things I know about Gogol’s writing practice: his tendency to keep lists of unusual words and expressions; his notoriously entertaining readings, where he would do the voices of his characters; his inability to come up with plots of his own, imploring his friends to give them to him — all he needed was a start and off he would go. And I’m waiting, for three pages of this afterthought I wait, and there’s no mention of Gogol, only reflections on Saunders’ own practice, on stories he’s written through this method, until he gets to this:

So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have an original conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, (and, I like to imagine, for Gogol, when he was in skaz mode) that method is to “follow the voice.” (p. 308)

This little remark, in a parenthetical aside no less, seems the strongest part of the entire analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose,” a story so clearly rooted in voice that structurally it would not hold up in workshop. Because it does not make the right kind of sense or exhibit the typical coherence, measure, and balance of the workshop’s models or pristine products.