The ProsenPeople

The Curious Case of Professor Barabtarlo

Friday, December 18, 2009 | Permalink

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his previous posts, Michael wrote about the reception of his work in Russia and the challenge of self-translation. He has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

The plan was for me to write this post about The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s unfinished final work – on the logic that, as a first-time self-translator from English to Russian, I might have something original to say about it. I don’t. Is it a great novel? No, because it’s not a novel at all. It’s a great diary of writing one. Should it have come out? Sure. It should have been published decades ago, quietly, tucked into the fans-only section of the novelist’s bibliography well behind the letters to Edmund Wilson and somewhere next to the handwritten recipe for “Eggs a la Nabocoque” (“Boil water in a saucepan… Consult your wristwatch”). As things stand now, we’ve slathered an adolescent dream of secret treasure – Swiss vault! Tormented son! The big reveal! – all over a text that cried out for dignified academic obscurity. We’ve taken a Nabokov manuscript and written a Dan Brown manuscript about it.

But I’ve long noticed that everything having to do with Nabokov has a tendency to turn uniquely Nabokovian. Real life begins to teem with temporal pretzels, unreliable narrators and phantom doppelgangers. And so the twisty story of Laura continues in the most amazing case of its Russian translator, Gennady Barabtarlo.

Professor Barabtarlo teaches Russian Lit at the University of Missouri. He only dabbles in professional translation, and when he does, he translates almost exclusively Nabokov. His superb version of Pnin is, without a doubt, the most splendid act of Nabokov repatriation to date. (Western readers don’t give it too much thought, but the main irony of late-career Nabokov is that he is virtually untranslatable into his native tongue; there still isn’t a half-decent Russian Ada.) So it was no surprise when Barabtarlo was hand-picked by Dmitry to translate Laura, whose first Russian chapter appeared in Snob magazine in November. This is when Gennady Barabtarlo began to exhibit signs of… well… I don’t even know how to say it without sounding ridiculous. In short, he began turning into Vladimir Nabokov.

He gave his interviews Nabokov-style, by demanding questions in advance and preparing florid, alliterative replies in the manner of you-know-who (“In the slightly salinated Moscow of my youth…”). Mutual friends reported his rising use of archaic Russian – equivalents of “thine” or “giveth.” It all culminated in a recent Q&A with Chastny Korrespondent, which Barabtarlo insisted on conducting entirely in pre-Revolutionary grammar. The poor publishers had to re-import three long-extinct letters into their font in order to print it. Barabtarlo pulled this stunt in order to underscore a point that the only salvation for the Russian culture would be to denounce everything Soviet (no matter that the work on the grammar reform has been going on since 1911). Along the way, he also informed the reading public that “No masterpiece… has ever been, or can be, written by anything other than the desnitsa (ancient term for right hand)”. Damn the “Remingtons and Macintoshes,” suitable only for typing drivel.

A Nabokov reader will experience a shudder of recognition here. Prof. Barabtarlo has, basically, become Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire, a deranged presence inserting itself between the text and the reader. In fact, this is all a bit too perfect, since Kinbote’s real identity is Vseslav Botkin, a Russian professor at an American university. The question remains whether Prof. Barabtarlo is doing this as a practical joke on the Russian reader or has gone genuinely bonkers. I’m afraid the former is a more upsetting proposition than the latter. God knows the publication of Laura was surrounded by enough gimmicks. That said, I’m almost sorry that the U.S. readers don’t get to experience this highly Nabokovian sideshow. Something is always lost in translation – except the fun of losing it.

Michael Idov is the author (and the Russian translator) of Ground Up.

A Kind of Homecoming

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 | Permalink

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his last post, Michael wrote about the challenge of self-translation. He’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Russia is incredibly small. Yes, I know it’s the world’s largest landmass. But the visible and audible Russia – the Russia emitting the light and noise we call culture – is tiny, comprised of a few thousand people in Moscow and St. Petersburg with occasional outposts in places like Perm and Krasnoyarsk. And even in Moscow, the chattering classes are small enough to fit into two or three smoke-filled bistros (where they, in fact, do spend most of their time).

This makes the processes of literary hype, as I recently found out, churn much faster than in the U.S. – at an almost comic speed. The Russian translation of Ground Up – now called Kofemolka (“The Coffee Grinder”) – came out in mid-November. The reception was… remarkable. It went from “Who is Michael Idov?” to “Who does Michael Idov think he is?” and back in the space of, roughly, two weeks. I am still feeling the double whiplash from being discovered, denounced and rediscovered all before Thanksgiving.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, I had been a little worried that the book’s very specific focus on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, its Jewish history and its most recent generation of hipster arrivistes would glaze any foreign reader’s eyes. At best, I was hoping, the readers would follow my flailing characters like they would a couple of fish in a fishbowl – amusing, pretty perhaps, completely unrelatable. I was completely wrong. Globalization, it seems, has created a phenomenon wherein every culture is foliated into very thin layers, but each layer has much more in common with its equivalents in other cultures than its neighbors above and below. As a blockbuster economic theory, this needs some work: it’s a kind of Big Millefeuille of Long Tails. But I’ve watched it at work in Moscow.


Michael Idov, photograph by Misha Friedman

My first readers seemed to overlap with the audience oAfisha Magazine, a youth-oriented biweekly that takes its trendsetting responsibilities seriously: its first slogan was “As we say, so it will be.” They got every tiniest reference, be it a parody of the Antifolk musician scene at the Sidewalk Café or a passing mention of a 2006-2007 Williamsburg vogue for lumberjack beards. This was their world – much more so than the reality outside. These were the people that read Gawker at work and ordered Chinese delivery at home; each lived in his or her own private Manhattan, just like the hip youth of America used to live in their own private Paris. They had been starved, like most of us perennially are, for a book about themselves – and, paradoxically, found it in a story of two hapless New York yuppies. I’ve had two Q&As with readers in Moscow – one at a very Americanized coffeehouse called Coffee Bean and another at a great independent book shop called Dodo (the name both quoting Lewis Carroll and hinting at the enterprise’s endangered status). About 30 percent of the questions were about the book. The rest were about the finer points of New York nightlife, fashion, etiquette, renumeration for certain trades, etc. I have unwittingly found myself a tour guide.

Then (in a week or so) the backlash came. Even the head of the publishing house that put out the book referred to it in an interview as “Afisha’s favorite toy.” By the time newspaper reviews rolled around, they were almost entirely reacting to the blog hype. My name caused further confusion: was I an American writer or a Russian one? The story of the book informed every judgement: one critic wrote that my language, “preserved” by living in “exile,” was cleaner than the average Russian novelist’s; another – that I had forgotten it. “One of our best novels this year has been originally written in English,” marveled one. Another looked up the original’s meager sales rank on the Barnes&Noble site as proof that the king was naked – the book wasn’t a blockbuster Stateside, so why should we care about it? We’re being duped, people!

In the end, though, I came back to New York exhilarated with the Moscow trip. It felt fantastic to be a Controversial Novelist for a week, one whose very status as a part of the culture was subject to media debate. The Russians still take all things literary with utmost seriousness. At times I remind myself of Holly Martins, the main character of The Third Man – a writer of breezy Westerns who meets with his readers in Vienna expecting an autograph session, only to get hit by a volley of wheedling psychoanalytical questions. In my case, the questions I was not ready to answer were about identity. I have no idea whetherKofemolka is “a Russian novel” or not. I’m just glad someone cares enough to claim or disown it.

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

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.