Getting Students to Stay With Me

Keeping students motivated to come to class and do their work is one of the most challenging aspects of online teaching. Since I’m teaching a course that requires reading, encouraging them to read is yet another challenge. This semester I’ve tried a new teaching method and a different way of reading and writing with them that has seemed so far to work well.

Basically, I’ve used the “scaffolding” approach that education scholars have written so much about, where one assignment leads to the next, each building on skills and ideas that have come earlier. I noted in an earlier post that I had decided to read a lot few pages than usual, focusing on short texts that don’t require multiple meetings to discuss, though I do go back to review things we’ve picked up in the past, especially after I read the student essays, which give me a chance to see how they’re doing, what they’re responding to, and what they might be missing.

This class meets twice a week, and thirty minutes after every class they have a reflection piece due. These are short, no more than a page (300 words), and I’ve generally been asking them pretty narrowly focused questions (e.g., about the rain in “Gooseberries” or the personality of Gogol’s storyteller in “The Nose”) because I don’t want them to recount the plot for me or tackle the MEANING of the story. I have also asked them very simple things like which of these four stories that we just finished did you like the best and why, and which did you like the least and why. The why is of course the crucial part.

There are three other parts to this exercise that are essential–I’ve been adjusting as I go. First is that they don’t know exactly what the writing assignment will be until we are in class that day. I have it prepared already, but they just can’t see it yet. The topic and the “criteria for success” become available about 10-15 minutes into our class. In the meantime, however, we have already been discussing one or more aspects of the writing assignment without their knowing that it will be the writing assignment. And most often, we actually take time in class to write. For instance, I will ask them to put on their comparison caps and write for ten minutes on the similarities between this story and the one we just read, then they come back, and we play a little “tag,” with three or four of them offering their thoughts and passing the baton on to someone else.

We might do this two or three times in class on a given day, with writing time followed by discussion time. This is the second of the three essential parts–writing time in class. At some point, I actually say, “and this is what I want you to reflect on in your writing today.” They should be able to see the assignment by now on our Canvas site, and I also copy and paste the writing prompt in the chat. Then I give them some additional time to write and we come back to discuss. Sometimes I throw in an additional piece to it–I have warned them that I will do this, and this also helps to keep them coming and alert.

I don’t really care that we tend to get the same volunteers (though I’ve been happy that it seems to be a variety of about 10 students out of the 30 or so) because I want the students who might not have any ideas to hear the students who do. If they borrow each others’ ideas for reflection pieces, that’s great. By-products of these writing periods are that (a) we don’t need to take any scheduled breaks; and (b) class time goes by strangely fast. This last was a surprise to me, and some of the students have remarked on it as well. Filling 2.5 hours of class time is not a struggle. In fact, I sometimes feel that we don’t quite have enough time–just like a face-to-face class…

The third of the three parts to this that seems to me essential is that these short reflection pieces are due (again through the online system) 30 minutes after class is over. I do this for several reasons. First is that I don’t want them putting them off and then trying to remember what we discussed and then staying up all night to finish them. Second is that we have the class time, so why not use it? Third is that we are doing a lot of these, one for every meeting, which means I need to read them and give them back some comments and a score (out of 10, which is based primarily on their answering the question, using examples from the text, and demonstrating that they’ve thought). Then I post their grades ASAP. Those who might be inclined to skip see what happens to their score in the class very quickly when they get a 0, and while there were a few at the beginning who weren’t showing up or turning in their papers, most of them have shaped up. It is not hard, but they have to stick with me, which might in fact be the main benefit that I’ve seen.

The scaffolding for this comes partly from the fact that once I’ve asked the same question a couple of times, they start to get the hang of it, and I can ask slightly harder questions. And then partly it’s because at the end of class, I want them to take two of these reflection pieces and polish them as basically mini-essays of 500 words each. We’ll see how that goes.

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.

Teaching Tolstoy’s Master and Man

In the three decades or so that I have been teaching works by Tolstoy, I don’t remember ever teaching the one known in English as “Master and Man.” This could be because it didn’t speak to me when I first read it or because I have consistently felt there were other, more effective works that I already had in my classes, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it more seriously as I’ve been reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which I’ve already written about a few times in these posts (with maybe two more to go–I can’t skip what he has to say about “The Nose” and “Gooseberries” so more soon). Having thought about it, I still think I won’t teach this story, but the exercise has clarified some things for me.

First, the existing best-known translation has some serious flaws, not least of which is the title itself, which I don’t want to delve into too much at this point: titles are always tricky, and this one appears to have been filtered through the “Tolstoy the great spiritual thinker” prism, distorting it a bit from something in fact rather mundane into the grand sounding (please imagine my voice dropping a full register to pronounce) MASTER AND MAN! Well, it could be that, but Хозяин и работник could also be “Owner and Laborer” (Tolstoy the anti-capitalist) or even “The Owner and the Worker” (Tolstoy the fabulist). But this is for another discussion.

Now, I have frequently written about my distaste for the translation police tactic of cornering a single word or phrase to pronounce a translation inadequate, and I refuse to do that here. But there is a key line in the story, in fact the line on which the entire story pivots, when the main character appears to be transformed. So getting this line right is very important.

The two principal characters, lost in a blizzard, are in a crisis. One (the worker) appears to be near death. The other, the hitherto selfish owner, opens his coat and lies down on top of the first in order to warm him. This is done, as Saunders characterizes it in his reading and I agree, as “kind of a miracle of writing,” after Tolstoy has put himself “in a tough spot,” needing “to pull off a transformation [of the character] in which we can believe, one that mimics the sort of transformation a real-life stinker might actually undergo” (239). So far so good.

But then Vasily Andreevich speaks a line that overwhelms him and makes the transformation meaningful: “‘There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way….,” upon which “tears came into his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only not unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy as he had never felt before. ‘That’s our way!'” he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness….” This is the Maude translation, which is what Saunders uses, and the passage is on pp. 211-212 of his book. (I’ll have more to say about the translations Saunders uses in another post.)

I sensed there was something off about the awkward phrase “that’s our way” even before looking at the source text. Tolstoy’s writing is nothing if not natural sounding, including in dialog, and when it isn’t, there is generally a reason for it in the characters. Here “that’s our way” takes readers, as it does Saunders, down a side path that leads away from one of Tolstoy’s constant preoccupations, a combination and complication of the internal and external states of a character that often makes it hard to say where an apparent transformation comes from.

Saunders wonders, “What does he mean, ‘that’s our way’? The Russian way, the way of Russian masters, the human way?” and notes “It’s beautiful: it doesn’t occur to him that this has never been his way, not at all, until this moment right now.” The problem with this line of interpretation is that the key phrase, Вот мы как (Vot my kak), doesn’t have anything about a way in it and is actually rather hard to pin down in terms of its meaning. My sense is that it has more of an emotional aspect than a denotative one (and thanks to Tatiana S. and Vika T. for confirming this for me). It strikes me as the sort of thing that a parent might say to an ailing child, comforting the child and trying to make him feel better. “There now” might do it, or maybe “Here we are then,” all comfy and warm, no need to be afraid anymore, just lie still, and you’ll feel better soon…. In other words, it’s mostly emotional, an endearing little flourish tacked on to V. A.’s, “There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm….” It does not hinge on anything especially Russian, on a Russian way, or a Russian master, or even on an explicitly “human way.” But it is a trigger for the character, as if the action of comforting another, saying these words aloud, makes him feel something has hasn’t felt before, or at least for long enough not to remember it anymore.

How to interpret this is, as often in Tolstoy, a good question, and Saunders quite rightly wonders more about the “transformation,” including the possibility that Vasily Andreevich might be being consistent with his previous self in this behavior and not really exhibiting any especially radical change at all, though he himself interprets it as such. This is a good line of inquiry for a Tolstoy work. Vasily Andreevich’s emotional state here could be seen as akin to that of little Tanya Oblonsky, in Anna Karenina, when she secretly shares her dinner with her brother Grisha, who’s being punished for misbehavior, and a sense of her own “noble action” brings tears to her eyes.

Tolstoy routinely taints moments of apparent spiritual transformation, making them “real” by embedding them in specific sets of conditions that might have been different, sometimes linking them to bodily injuries, lack of sleep, and misinterpretations of someone else’s words or the natural world. This case appears to be another example, rather understated and mundane like the story’s title, complexly interwoven with the outside world (the raging snowstorm), and the imperfect but powerful words we use to say things, especially the most intimate kind, to others and to ourselves.

On Fairytales, Folktales, Wondertales, and… Tales

Vladimir Propp makes clear in his Исторические корни волшебной сказки (Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki) that the subject of his study is indeed the волшебная сказка [volshebnaia skazka] announced in its title. However, in his exposition, he often uses the term сказка [skazka] without any attribute. This term happens to be the word used for “folktale,” “fairy tale,” and simply “tale” in English, which led my colleagues and co-translators Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and me to a lot of discussion about how best to render the term in our on-going translation of Propp’s book. Alternate translations for the term volshebnaia might be “fairy,” “magical,” “enchanting,” “bewitching,” or “fantastical.” As “wondertale” has gained currency in translations into English, and as the author’s use is primarily technical rather than poetically descriptive, we have been using it as both the title of the translation and in many of the initial instances of the term skazka in the text, where it is clear he is using it as something of a short-hand for the longer, more descriptive term. But this only helps a bit around the margins and does not provide a definitive strategy for rendering the much more frequently and variously encountered skazka (without attribute) throughout the book. 

Propp’s Morfologiia skazki is known as Morphology of the Folktale in English. It is regularly cited and has come to occupy a central place in global folklore studies as such. This title rests upon an interpretive move that is not often remarked upon, an assumption about what the author intended without noting explicitly, namely, that the word skazka was an abbreviated version of narodnaia skazka (folk tale) and therefore equivalent to “folktale” in English. This is a reasonable assumption and a reasonable interpretation, but it is an interpretation all the same, as the word “folk” is not to be found in the Russian title of that book. 

While such an observation might seem on its face inconsequential to the overall translation of the work, it gathers additional weight when we turn to the translation of the continuation of Propp’s earlier begun study, which is in fact this work, with its more explicit title: Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Historical Roots of the Wondertale). Here, in his introductory chapter, the author explicitly notes, “By ‘wondertale’ [volshebnaia skazka] I shall intend those tales whose structure I examined in The Morphology of the Folktale [Morfologiia skazki], a book that sets out the genre of the wondertale [volshebnaia skazka] with adequate precision.” 

Now, it could be assumed that the previous book delineated a variety of folktale categories in equal measure, naming the wondertale as one of them but leaving the specifics of analysis for later. This is not the case. Actually, in fact, the entire book known by the English title Morphology of the Folktale was concerned with the wondertale (or, as rendered by earlier translators, the “fairy tale”), and the issue of the title’s ambiguity was not only known to earlier translators but remarked upon, as in Louis A. Wagner’s preface to his revised version of the book for its second edition: 

The expression narodnaja skazka has been rendered as “folktale,” volšebnaja skazka as “fairy tale,” and the words skazka (noun), skazočnyj (adjective) simply as “tale.” The chief departure from this practice is in regard to the title itself (Morfologija skazki), since a change here might have led to undue confusion. The morphology presented by the author is, of course, a morphology of the fairy tale specifically and he is careful to make note of this fact in the Foreword and in Chapter II. Thus the title of the work is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. It is evident from the text that the unqualified word skazka is used by Propp both in the sense of tale in general and in the sense of fairy tale, depending upon context. The reader must infer the appropriate meaning in each instance. (Propp 2009: ix, emphasis added) 

In other words, Morphology of the Folktale perhaps should have been called Morphology of the Fairy Tale in its first English translation since that was its subject, and indeed the first edition’s introduction, by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, opened with the clear declaration, “The subject of this study, the Russian fairy tale…” (Propp 2009: xix). 

What is not clear is why the first edition’s translator, Laurence Scott, or perhaps that volume’s editor or publisher, chose to specify “folktale” in the title when everyone seems to have understood that the book’s subject was actually narrower and more specific. This strategy, moreover, had a long-term impact on the field, as evidenced by one reader of our text, a prominent folklorist who does not happen to work with Russian sources, emphasized in his comments that “skazka equals folktale.” Well, no it doesn’t, even if it might look that way from the English title of Propp’s earlier book.

The opposite tack was taken in the 1984 translation—by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin—of an excerpt from the Historical Roots of the Wondertale published as part of the book Theory and History of Folklore. Here the translators chose to render every instance of skazka in the source as “wondertale” in their translation, despite Propp’s sometimes more expansive use of the term. Actually, Propp uses the same word (skazka) to refer to the tales collected by Russian nineteenth-century ethnographers as well as the “fairy tales” of the Brothers Grimm, Native American stories collected by Boas, Micronesian, African, and Australian tales, and stories from the Rig Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By contrast, he uses the full “wondertale” [volshebnaia skazka] relatively infrequently in his book—many times in the first chapter, then not at all from chapters two to nine, then again a few more times in chapter ten—and as we asked ourselves upon encountering each successive instance of the much more commonly used skazka whether he had in mind “wondertale,” “folktale,” or a broader and more general “tale” or even “story,” we found ourselves occasionally hesitating. It is clear that it does not always simply refer to “wondertale,” but it is not always clear from context what he might have had in mind for each instance.  

Essentially, we have found ourselves in the hermeneutic dilemma set out by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century: namely, whether to bring the text closer to readers in the receiving culture, by interpreting for them (the strategy adopted in the Martin and Martin translation), or bring the readers of the receiving culture closer to the original text, by introducing aspects of the source, including its very ambiguity and polysemy, into the English. Faced with this choice, the Scott translation, in effect compromised by translating skazka as “tale” without differentiation and leaving it to readers to decide based on the context of its usage what Propp might have meant in each case. Except for in its title, that is.

Recent translation practice has favored different interpretive and expressive strategies on the part of translators, who, recognizing the implicit cultural power and expressiveness of particular words, phrases, and other linguistic features, often leave them untranslated in the new text. We considered this idea and even partially revised our version leaving skazka or the plural skazki in the English wherever Propp used those terms without an adjective but then pulled back: it’s already a complicated text with lots of terms in it; did we really need to add another? Do we?

Intentional Fallacy, Meaning It, and Generous Ways of Reading

Robert Allen Papinchak’s LARB review of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is mostly filled with praise. Among the two objections he notes (the other being Saunders’ tendency to be overly self-deprecating) is what he characterizes as his “bête noire” and the “one persistent objection” he had, in his many years of teaching, to discussions and analyses of fiction. This is the intentional fallacy, which students committed when they “claimed to know what a writer had in mind,” “when they presumed an understanding of a story that even its writer might claim not to have.” Papinchak points out a number of occasions where Saunders’ does precisely this.

In commenting on Turgenev, [Saunders] wonders if “technically rickety” parts of “The Singers” make it a “clumsy work of art” by intention. Did Turgenev “intend” the story to “serve as an apologia for his lack of craft”? With Chekhov, he surmises that the relationships in “The Darling” were “intentionally” carrying forward “some set of variables.” With Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” he brings up intention at least six times, even attempting to rewrite the story to what he considers Tolstoy’s intentions might have been.

In response, Papinchak notes that “a story is what it is” and “it has a mind of its own,” and quotes D. H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” I suppose he means by this that what we have access to is the story itself and any presumed understanding of the author’s ideas outside of that is speculation on our part, something Tolstoy once suggested in a response to a reader who asked him what he meant in a particular passage of Anna Karenina: “If I wanted to tell you want I meant in that passage, I would have to write the whole book again from the beginning.” In other words, the story is on the page. Read it. Don’t ask me to reconstruct what I “meant” to say, especially after the fact, when I might not even remember what I had in mind at the time. There’s a similar, perhaps apocryphal, line attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what I was thinking, myself and God. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that!”

Papinchak moves on rather too quickly for me, but fine, it’s a relatively brief review, and, as I noted to begin with with, a basically positive one — indeed he calls his objections “minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book.” The reason I find the observations too fast and perhaps based on too cursory a reading is, mainly, that Saunders brings up the intentional fallacy almost immediately after one of these instances, in “Afterthought #2” to “The Singers,” where he notes:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. ¶The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. (p. 110)

What I find so interesting in this passage is how, by the end of it, the point of view has shifted from that of reading to that of writing. This, I think, explains the page-before instance of what looks a lot like the intentional fallacy:

Did Turgenev intend ‘The Singers’ to serve as an apologia for his lack of craft? While he was writing it? After he had written it? I’m pretty sure he didn’t ‘aim’ to produce an apologia–didn’t start out to do that. I doubt he realized what he’d done, and I don’t know that he’d necessarily bless our assessment of it. But here’s the important thing: I don’t think it matters. He did it, and then he let it stand. Which is a form (the ultimate form, for an artist) of ‘meaning to do it’ (of taking responsibility). The blessing an artist gives the final product (which he gives by sending it out into the world) is his way of saying that he approves of everything within it, even parts of it that may, in that moment be hidden from him. (p 109)

Besides the fact that “he did it” isn’t too clear (he did what? produce an apologia? or write what he wrote?) and that there are a lot of male pronouns here standing in for “the artist” (let’s just assume this is Saunders writing based on his own experience), what I find especially remarkable is the pull of perspective from reading to writing, which is constant throughout the book, such that sometimes, if we’re not paying close attention, we might get stuck squarely between the two.

The book’s pattern is to begin with reading, and this makes it look like it’s about about how to read, how to interpret, and this is where Saunders’ references to what Chekhov or Turgenev were “trying to say” look like instances of the intentional fallacy pure and simple. But this reading is always in the service of how to write, and its intended primary audience is writers who want to create their own stories. So he consistently moves quickly past these interpretive moments and turns them to the service of writing. When, for instance, he writes about “the actual process” in the passage above, he has shifted over to the process of creation, away from where he started, which was with the process of discussing art (“we often discuss art this way”). Well, of course, one might object, since this is a book billed as a master class for writers. But that is only partly the case: it might have emerged from a fiction writing class, but somewhere in the process of taking on its final form, it became a “master class on writing, reading, and life” (my emphasis, but it’s the subtitle of the book, so it’s not at all unfair). This is where it raises larger questions.

When you’re the one doing the creating, you’re faced with different questions from those of all other readers, mostly about your own intention, and these will include how much control you need to feel you have over the story you’re creating, and the responsibility you take for what you leave on the page as the final version. This, I think, is what Saunders means by “meaning it,” confronting those moments “when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve” (108). I understand this, and I certainly appreciate both the sense of responsibility it seems to want to emphasize authors should take for their creations, and the way that it complicates the intentional fallacy for them in their practice. Not so much for readers who aren’t thinking of writing, where I agree with Papinchak: it’s the intentional fallacy.

What I’m still trying to fathom is a habitual manner of reading the words of others that is so implacably turned toward expressing oneself. As Saunders jokes (“and yet not”) on the opening page, “we’re reading to see what we can steal” (p. 3). The book is certainly consistent in this sense. A writerly approach to reading, I suppose, one perfectly suited for a fiction writing workshop, where the works explored are there as models and examples. This is the master class on fiction writing.

But reading and life? I suppose one could argue that life is like a short story, but that is not an argument Saunders employs. In fact he frequently points out the opposite, the starkness and efficiency of the form as such, which is highly artificial. This reading-for-writing-fiction clearly counts among the various ways one might read, and it wouldn’t preclude learning other things from the texts read that might be helpful to one in life, if only by happenstance. But it’s not a generous way to read. In fact, in its own way, it is as narrow as that used by students and scholars when they are focused on writing an analysis, where they ignore all the parts of the story that don’t support their argument and emphasize only those that do. Aren’t these stories worth reading in a more open spirit? For their history, and beauty, and critique, and richness, and subtlety, and tragedy, and all the other things you might discover if you weren’t focused on taking something to use? This is the biggest problem I see: I have doubts about being able to read both ways at once.

To put it more bluntly, I’m afraid that you narrow down the stories when your readings turn, again and again, to what you can use as part of your “own” stories? The approach reminds me a bit of those people we have conversations with sometimes who (we can sense it) are really only listening in order to be able to respond, a little like if someone learned a foreign language only in order to tell people things in it. I find myself hoping for a more generous approach, in which one is ready for anything the text might bring, because, I think, this kind of reading is what results in challenges to one’s accepted notions, in deeper engagement with the perspectives of others, in discovery and empathy.

This would be the master class on reading and life.

Prelim Praise for Kin

Here, from the Calvert Journal, is one of those pre-release teasers about “books to look forward to in X year” (which, in this case is the year 2021). Matt Janney calls it, appropriately, a “time-travelling, place-hopping epic, […] at once a history of family and an ode to Yugoslavia.” This is, well, a teaser.

Kin_PRH_Rev2.jpg (450×540)

Of a bit more substance is a starred Kirkus Review published on Feb. 10, which calls Jergović’s book a “vast, generous-spirited story of family across the face of the 20th century in the turbulent Balkans” and a “masterwork of modern European letters.” I can agree with this assessment too, and especially appreciate the notion of its “generosity of spirit.” It’s one of the reasons I have long been attracted to his work.

Both of these gesture towards the rather difficult question of the book’s genre, what it is and how to approach reading it. An epic of sorts, yes, certainly in terms of its vast size and historical scope. A history of a family, yes, especially through the domestic lenses it uses to look at what Mikhail Bakhtin, in another context, calls “great history.” An ode to Yugoslavia perhaps, but also, I would say, to the Habsburg Empire, to pre-1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Sarajevo of the author’s youth, and to the Dubrovnik of his family’s history there in the early 20th century. A masterwork of European letters, yes, this too, through its embeddedness in European literature and thought, its many references and allusions to historical and contemporary works of architecture, art, literature, music, and to the figures–some real, some imagined–who created all this.

We in the English-reading world often have trouble with this sort of expansiveness (which some might call amorphousness), feeling the need to pin it down as either “fiction” or “non-fiction.” This is a distinction that doesn’t apply consistently enough to be helpful in reading such a book, it seems to me.

There also appears to be a longish excerpt from the beginning of the book available at its Amazon page, and while the formatting is not especially attractive, it’s possible to read a bit there and get a sense of what the prose is like, at least in this part of the book.

Lontan Da

This piece, which at the moment I’m calling “Lontan Da,” just flowed out of me and still feels like it’s flowing. I couldn’t tell whether I was working with a melody or the counter melody first, then the acoustic section expanded with the guitar and oboe d’amore, then the choir oohs and strings, and of course it’s not a Ba Ren Chi piece if it doesn’t have any drums in it. Anyway, just put it on Soundcloud, which seems to be the easiest for a lot of people. It’ll go to Spotify and the others eventually (and as soon as I can figure out an uploading glitch at Jamendo, there too).

Shared it with boy no. 1, who said, “If Game of Thrones didn’t already have theme music, this could work.” (Boy no. 1 is into fantasy.) Found this cool pic by Fabian Struwe that seems to go well with it.

As If Written in English

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.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction

I’ll be teaching what is called a “second 8-week” class this semester. This is a special format that my university came up with to address two problems. The first one is that sometimes a professor offers a class that doesn’t get enough students to sign up, such that it has to be canceled. The second is that some students find that the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the term are not for them, so they need another class to take (often in order to maintain their full-time student status, which is important for such things as financial aid, scholarships, and so on). I was hoping to teach a graduate seminar, but I didn’t get enough students, so instead I’ll be teaching “Russian Short Fiction,” an intro-level course that I taught once before. The title sounds like an oxymoron to some, but there’s actually quite a bit to choose from, and I’m looking forward to it.

As part of my preparation for the course, I began George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which just happens to include four of the stories I use in the class: Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and “Gooseberries,” Turgenev’s “The Singers,” and Gogol’s “The Nose.” The book is based on a course he has taught for over twenty years in the MFA program at Syracuse, which means it is perfect for the sorts of students who are likely to take my course: interested in a general way, probably without Russian language or at least not enough to read the stories in the original Russian, and likely to respond to a practical approach that asks questions about what Saunders calls “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?'”

I have been surprised in the past by how a new book can come out just at the moment when you can use it in one of your classes, and this one has me really excited. While I know the material from having studied and taught it for many years, and from having written about it in a scholarly vein, I anticipate learning things from Saunders, who comes at it from a different perspective. I also anticipate sharing more here as I find little gems of concise, effective writing like this:

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind” (p. 4).