Sunday, February 24, 2013

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov: a note on translation(s)

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1978), translated by Anthony Olcott

In reply to a comment from Miguel I ended up linking three articles related to Platonov and translator Robert Chandler, info I think worthy of its own post.

The first article is an interview with Chandler at the Guardian, mostly focused on his second translation of The Foundation Pit. Yeah, that’s a book I HAVE to read soon.

The second article is at Ready Steady Book, posted in October 2005. In it he mentions working on a translation of Chevengur, a project I hope is still in the works. Chandler’s work on translating short works by Nikolai Leskov and Pushkin, works that have been reviewed often by other book bloggers, are worth noting. The hopeful takeaway related to this article, besides the notice of translating Chevengur: “Platonov, nevertheless, remains surprisingly little known in the English-speaking world. This will change.”

The interview at the School of Russian and Asian Studies provides the most in-depth information of the three as it focuses on translation in general. The particulars on Platonov, though, are what I wanted to focus on here. Chevengur may have been “only” 333 pages in the translation I read (and for what it’s worth, Chandler has noted his displeasure with Olcott’s translation elsewhere, although usually in more diplomatic terms than I’m making here), but they are a very dense, difficult 333 pages. Or at least I thought so. Chandler’s take on Platonov’s style and the difficulty in translating him explain a large part of the challenge in reading (and obviously translating) his work:
But here are a couple of paragraphs I wrote earlier, in my introduction to The Portable Platonov:

"The ideal translator of Platonov would be bilingual and have an encyclopedic knowledge of Soviet life. He would be able to detect buried allusions not only to the classics of Russian and European literature, but also to speeches by Stalin, to articles by such varied figures as Bertrand Russell and Anatoly Lunacharsky (the first Bolshevik Commissar for Enlightenment), to copies of Pravda from the 1930s and to long-forgotten works of Soviet literature. He would be familiar with Soviet-speak, with the rituals and language of Russian Orthodoxy, with everyday details of Russian peasant life, with the terminology of mechanical and electrical engineering, and with the digging of wells and the operation of steam locomotives. This imaginary translator would also be a gifted and subtle punster. Most important of all, his ear for English speech patterns would be so fine that he could maintain the illusion of a speaking voice, or voices, even while the narrator or the individual characters are using extraordinary language or expressing extraordinary thoughts. Much has been written about Platonov’s creativity with language; not enough has been written about the subtlety with which—even in narrative—he reproduces the music of speech, its shifts of intonation and rhythm. If Platonov's command of tone and idiom were less than perfect, his infringements of linguistic norms would by now seem self-conscious and dated. In short, Platonov is a poet, and almost every line of his finest work poses problems for a translator. A perfect translation, like the original, would sound not only extraordinary and shocking, but also—in some indefinable way—right and natural."

And so . . . I realized long ago that the only way to go about the task of translating Platonov was to find collaborators.


Lisa Hayden Espenschade said...

It's been fun to read your posts about Chevengur, a book I have on the shelf but have not yet read, though I enjoy Platonov very, very much.

I was especially happy to see that you quoted from Robert Chandler's comments about translating Platonov: I've been collaborating with Robert on a Platonov story and can only concur with that list of items he says a translator needs... particularly "the operation of steam locomotives"! Platonov is a wonderfully mind-bending challenge.

Dwight said...

It's funny that the article I recommend the most by by Natalia Poltavtseva has an illustration of two steam engines about to collide. There is a scene in the novel where that literally happens, but, as I title my next post, there is a metaphorical collision happening throughout the novel--according to Poltavtseva the focus of which is between ideology and utopia, but there are other collisions happening (not least of which includes human nature).

I'm happy to hear of your collaboration with Mr. Chandler. More of Platonov's works need to be translated (as well as more of his works need to be made available for translation). A mind-bending challenge: that is an accurate description of reading Platonov, regardless of the language!