The ProsenPeople

The Act of Self-Translation

Monday, December 14, 2009| Permalink

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. He’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Any translation is a face transplant. In the best-case scenario, the patient will wake up with a nose, a mouth, two lips, etc. These are the objective criteria –- nostrils in place? Excellent! –- for the operation’s success; beauty doesn’t really enter into it. One is not going to end up with a Venus, and that’s OK -– as long as one doesn’t end up with Dora Maar.

Translating one’s own work is different. There’s a huge temptation, once the main procedure is over, to follow it up with a cosmetic one. After all, who’s going to complain -– the author? Earlier this year, I found myself with a somewhat rare opportunity on my hands – to translate my novel, Ground Up, from English to Russian. I write Russian-language journalism with some regularity, but haven’t attempted any fiction in the language of Tolstoy in over fifteen years. To be honest, I wasn’t sure my Russian was even up to the task anymore: on my last visit to Moscow, a cabbie asked me where I was from. Still, the theoretical laurels of the first writer to pull of an English-to-Russian self-translation since Nabokov were too much to pass up. Plus, I had just finished tweaking the original. I knew every page by heart. How hard could it be? I’d be done in a month.

Seven months later, I started to reconsider. The writer had become the translator’s worst enemy. The first layer of difficulty was my own writing style. Why the hell did I have to use so much alliteration? What’s with the puns? How do I suppose I should translate the line about a Chinese restaurant serving “a dim sum of shady parts?”

The second problem lay in the milieu: New York City’s Lower East Side. My characters, Mark and Nina, were Manhattan archetypes: a couple of young deluded yuppies blowing their savings on a terrible business idea – a pretentious Viennese coffeehouse. To a Muscovite, this café-owning impulse was as exotic as the motivation of a young Australian aborigine on a walkabout. Things I had taken for granted for most of my life suddenly demanded explanation. Let’s consider the innocuous words “community garden.” How do I get across the very specific picture of touching dreariness and naïve art they conjure up in a New Yorker’s mind? Not to mention that I was translating for a culture where, twenty years ago, these words would have been redundant.

The third hurdle was the oddest. Ground Up has only one scene that could be called erotic by any stretch of imagination. As I was working my way toward it, I could foresee the trouble pages in advance. You see, the Russian language, for all its astonishing wealth of synonyms and elasticity of syntax, doesn’t have a neutral, colloquial sex vocabulary. You have to pick between the obscene (and the Russian mat glossary is truly obscene, packing ten times the punch of the largely devalued English vulgarities), the coolly clinical, or simpering babytalk. It also lacks the word for a popular junior-high-school pastime that appears far less common in Russia than in the West. Yes, dear reader, as the deadline approached and then receded, I found myself locked in my room furiously brainstorming Russian terms for “handjob.”

In the end, I largely fought off the temptation to customize the novel for the Russian audience; I larded it with footnotes instead. I figured that once you start tweaking the original, there’s no logical stopping point; you might as well move the action to Moscow’s Garden Ring. It was beyond strange to treat my own text, the one I had just finished whipping into shape, as an immutable source material. But it was the only way to translate the thing without going insane.

Check back all week to read more of Michael Idov’s blogs. He is the author (and the Russian translator) of Ground Up.


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