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 Idovs blogs. He is the author (and the Russ­ian trans­la­tor) of Ground Up.