The Big Think talks to translator Christian Wiman on the publication of Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, who died at 47 in a Siberian work camp during the Stalin regime.
BT: In your afterword you call these poems “versions” rather than “translations.” Could you explain the distinction and describe your process in working with Mandelstam’s poetry, including your collaboration with poet Ilya Kaminsky?
CW: I think of translations as passing some scholarly smell test: you can read the words of the translation and be reasonably sure of what the words are in the original. Not of the tone, mind you, and rarely of the form, but you can get the words. The translator is effaced, for better or worse, for the sake of the original. I don’t think that someone who does not speak the original language can ever expect to produce a real translation in this sense.
A version aims at other things, depending on the translator. Usually, though, it’s the tone that he’s after, which of course is paradoxical if he doesn’t speak the language. The tone has to be gleaned from other sources: the poet’s prose, comparing multiple translations, working with native speakers, gut instinct.
I don’t speak or read Russian. I did these versions from word-by-word translations provided by Ilya or Helena Lorman (a scholar at Northwestern) as well as transliterations of the originals (the Cyrillic changed to the Roman alphabet) so that I could tell where the rhymes were happening and get a sense of the sounds. I also worked with a lot of scholarly sources to help me think about the context of individual poems.
I wanted to call my poems versions, but as I say in the afterword, the marketing department wasn’t keen on that, for sound reasons. They won.
Read the rest here.
Susan Bernofsky on “The Woman with the 5 Elephants,” playing this week at Film Forum in New York.
Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary The Woman with the 5 Elephants is quite possibly the most beautiful movie ever made about a translator. The film’s protagonist, Svetlana Geier, who died last year at the age of 87, is famous for her translations into German of Dostoevsky’s five huge novels (the “elephants” of the title). But this film is no mere biopic - it is a gorgeous essay on the art of translation and the complex and often fraught ways in which the life’s work of this talented woman resonates with the self-transformations she herself underwent, having been born in Kiev, where her world was turned upside-down first by Stalin’s purges, then by the German occupation.
Crazy interesting stuff over at Granta, where six translators of Russian talk about what they’re working on now.
I also translated excerpts from diaries of the period. One diarist, an Orientalist working at the Hermitage, wrote: Somewhere around the 26th and 28th December 1941 I finished an incredibly stupid story… ‘Two Travels to the Big House’. He wrote the last six words in English. Their coded meaning tells us that he was twice called in for interrogation at secret police headquarters. His assumption that the local NKVD would not understand English must have proved correct, because he not only survived the siege: he escaped the gulag and the firing squad too. Perhaps an instance of translation saving a life.
Novel you’d most like to read in its original language:
Anna Karenina. When I was researching and writing Winter Garden, I fell completely in love with the Russian poets and writers. I was stunned to discover how much difference there was in the content based on the various translations.”