Post-Short Russian Fiction 2021

I finished grading the short Russian fiction class last week, and, having used a little new material and more new methods, wanted to write a few things down before I forget them.

First, one surprise was the Lyudmila Ulitskaya story “Happy” (Nadya L. Peterson, tr.), which was surprisingly easy to teach, probably because it is so packed full of life experience and history. It also paired well with Bunin’s “Light Breathing” and allowed me to talk more about frames and the way fabula and siuzhet can make a story more interesting. A double surprise was that some students read right through aspects of the story, even after I thought we had spent enough time doing the slow reading method that we began with. This meant that some of them didn’t even notice that the couple was Jewish. I guess this is what class discussion is for, as other students certainly did notice and had plenty to say about the Holocaust as a sort of backdrop to the story.

Another surprise for me was Konstantin Ryabov’s story “Spit” (in Victoria Mesopir’s translation) which I have taught before but this time found unsatisfying, even if it is well crafted. It seems a bit gratuitous and lacks any moment of rising above. But some of the students defended it, and one or two said they found it the most interesting story we read all semester. Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t interesting, only that it wasn’t satisfying. I am glad I included it.

I only taught one story each from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “Notes from Underground,” respectively, and the latter was the longest and the last thing we read. NfU still works fine, but I find it harder and harder to teach because of the general nastiness of the second part, which makes me feel more and more like I need to bathe. The translation exercise that I have used several times (where I give them several versions of the first paragraph and have them craft something of their own) did not work as well this semester, and I’m not sure exactly why. Possibly I didn’t sequence enough of the reading of NfU before asking the students to do that first paragraph paraphrase.

The film adaptation exercise, on the other hand, worked very well. The most popular choice was Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” (one anime version was especially good), followed by Gogol’s “Nose,” Isaak Babel’s “My First Goose,” and Natalya Klyuchareva’s “One Year in Paradise” (in Mariya Gusev’s translation).

The tendency of many of the students to skip details and just read right through things that they didn’t understand was common, even though we spent time at the beginning of class reading very slowly. I hoped to make it if not a habit then at least a pattern for following in this class. Some students got it, or maybe already had it before they arrived, and some only did it for the slow reading parts. As soon as I assigned a whole story, even if it wasn’t long, many went back to a cursory and superficial reading method, so to really bring this home, probably the only thing to do would be to reduce the number of pages even more than I already have, something I will think about for the next installment of the course.

There was some plagiarism, even on the short reflection exercises that were due after each class. When TurnItIn flagged something, I would have a look and, when it was clear, give the students a zero, remind them that there was no need to look anywhere else but inside for a reflection piece, and give them the opportunity to do it again. A few people kept their zeros, and a few gave it another try with predictably better results.

The stories and authors students responded to were all over the place. Some loved Pushkin, others Gogol, others Chekhov, while some preferred Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and some, as mentioned above, took to the more contemporary authors like Ulitskaya and Ryabov.

Translation and Exile

Many metaphors for translation seem to imagine it as a kind of travel, a movement with baggage across some national, cultural, linguistic, and/or geographic boundaries, usually from an imagined foreign territory to one’s own home turf. In that foreign territory—so these metaphors often go—one discovered something or was given something, and in translating that something, one tries to carry it across from over there to right here, provide it a new home perhaps, new neighbors, if not a new life altogether.

This set of spatial relationships has created a very fertile ground for metaphors of translation, with some of the oldest tapping into the notion of the translatio, or transfer, of a saint’s relics from a site of discovery in the Ancient World to a newly created cathedral as part of a city’s myth of origin. St. Mark in Venice comes to mind, and that episode adds the intriguing idea of thievery to the mix, as two Venetians supposedly stole the remains from Alexandria in the 9th century, bringing them to the Lagoon as part of the official origin of the city. Translation and/as theft is a topic for another post.

I suspect these sorts of travel and new life metaphors, in the U.S. and perhaps the Americas in general, have been inflected somewhat by the notion of immigration. The roots are over there; we are transplanting things to this soil; there is rupture involved, great distances, perhaps some heartache, something like nostalgia for a lost past, regret, displacement. A lot like exile. But I want to ask what has been exiled exactly? The text itself? The translation is a new text, another text. The source is back safe at home and hasn’t gone anywhere at all. Or is the idea that its spirit somehow still exists latent in the translated version, despite the fact that all the words are different? Does a translated text evoke nostalgia for its own lost past or for some sort of ghost or doppelganger of itself? How else might translated works be thought of as exiles from their homes?

The problem I find in such notions has to do with a kind of instability at their center, which we tend to turn into certainty, definiteness, especially when we talk about that thing we always seem to talk about when we talk about translating: the original. Textual scholars, people who study the histories of individual works, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to the poems of Emily Dickenson, any serialized nineteenth-century novel, and so on, have developed a detailed and sophisticated apparatus for discussing how unstable and variable the genesis of any work actually turns out to be. As Karen Emmerich has rightly pointed out, all of that instability of the source disappears as soon as we start talking about translation. At that moment, the original becomes one thing, when it never was one thing—it was always a mixture of things, editorial versions, and authorial revisions, textual redactions, and second, third, fourth editions, and so on.

The unstable nature of the source also pertains to the metaphors used as the basis for talking about translation. Who this St. Mark actually was is not entirely clear; whether those stolen or “liberated” bones were actually his is even less clear; and what relationship the bones might have to the person, even if they were once located inside the body that was his, is probably the least clear thing of all. I want to ask, what do bones mean? What is their relationship to spirit, let alone soul? Don’t you have to invent a story, perhaps lots of stories, about them in order for them to mean something? And of course this pertains at least as much if not more to the stories of immigration to the new world, the sort that might evoke nostalgia, which in turn is based on stories about the old world, that dubious source once again, invented stories, interpretations that only come to look definitive when we translate them, turning them into “the original.”

So far I’ve only been referring to the source. Once I start thinking about the act of translation, things become even less stable. Say you have a source, just one, and you read it carefully, study it, look up all the words and references you might not have known, then what? It’s in your head in what form exactly? Presumably you’ve somehow made sense of it to yourself, which means you have an interpretation, at least an implicit one, and it’s sitting there in your head. Now what? Well, if you’re a translator and not merely a reader, you’re going to have to write all that down. And as we all know, things immediately start to change as soon as one begins to write. You start making little changes, interact with the author and/or a series of reference works, colleague-readers, maybe a group of workshop participants, an editor, a copyeditor, a teacher, a designer maybe, a marketing department maybe, and the book that results—we’re assuming you finish it despite all these distractions—turns out to be a mixture of many different people’s ideas, suggestions, agendas, theoretical engagements, as well as the conventions of editing, publishing, and literary production and consumption in the receiving culture.

After all this, it’s no wonder if the translation feels it is an exile! Or rather, if it feels like an exile. (These metaphors are never really adequate.) Not all translations, however, are like exiles in the same way. They are more akin to expatriates in this regard. Some expats wear an eternal mask of carefree nonchalance on the outside, but they are alone and yearning for home underneath. I would put Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin here. Others are completely happy in their new home, even more than that, they are happier than they were where they started out; they’ve found a new community of peers, not to mention readers, one they never had before. I would put Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in this category, or Barbara Wright’s translation of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

Translation as an activity, I suspect, often makes translators feel like exiles, too. They travel to that other place, the place where the source lives, often physically and at a young enough age for it to be formative and transformational for them, and there they discover or are given something, and they try to bring it back with them. They try to give it to others, the whole thing, just as they experienced it because they want to share that experience. They accept it in a way into their heads, and sometimes their hearts, and then they try to write it down so others can take it into theirs. I won’t say that this is an impossible thing to do—that’s too simple.

But there is something fundamentally unstable with the basic terms here as well. As if translators were the same in one culture and at one point in their lives, as they are in another. We are barely the same when we move from one social role to the next in a single culture. It’s a bit ambitious to assume we might maintain even greater identity when moving across different ones, taking up different verbal and meaning making systems, socializing with different friends, using different gestures, tones of voice, experiencing a different pace of life itself. Why would we assume a work would mean the same thing to us there and here, even if we could somehow make it the same thing in both cultures? The instability of the source points to the instability of us, and if there is nostalgia for some lost source in this scenario, it might just as well be for our own past selves as for some supposed original text.

I have moved us from a spatial to a temporal metaphor, I realize, from exile in space to exile in time, and to the inevitable nostalgia that accompanies such displacement. It is not the way I usually think about translation; it does not make me happy to think about it in these terms. I prefer to focus on translation as being more about creation and gain than about transfer and loss. But nor do I think that it is wrong—the baggage you bring back with you from that other culture, that other life, is with you still; it has a weight to it even if it is immaterial, and it has a volume despite its lack of extension in space. Inside that volume are thoughts and ideas, experiences, and desires that are or were your own experiences of reading and understanding that culture and now this work comes to stand in for them, maybe just a little bit, maybe a lot. And they make it clear to you that you never completely came back from there, and also that you did, and as a translator you’ll never be either altogether there or altogether here again.