Friday, May 03, 2013

Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz

I posted my initial impressions on the event with Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz presented by the Center for the Art of Translation that same evening, but have waited to post any of my transcriptions from the event. The Center has a podcast available of the audio on their blog: Two Voices: Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz in Conversation with Scott Esposito, along with a few highlights of the evening. More about the event and a video playlist can be found at Litseen.

I’m going to provide a rough outline and summary with notes and some transcriptions of the event. I hope to make it easy for anyone wanting to listen to all or parts of this wonderful event. Any errors in transcription are mine. All ellipses are my addition to smooth the written dialogue’s flow. Only sections in quotes are attempts to capture exact language. I’ve excised “yeah,” “and,” and “uh” for reading purposes. While I’ve thanked him separately, I have to say this was one of the best moderated events I’ve attended. It’s clear Scott Esposito had done a lot of preparation for the event, for both the author and the translator, and it shows in how he kept things moving and focusing on important topics.

After Scott Esposito (SE) introduced Mikhail Shishkin and Marian Schwartz they began a bilingual reading of the early passages in Maidenhair (this section runs from 4:10 to 15:54). They each read the epigraph, then a passage from pages 17 to 19 of the novel. Their readings gave the same feel of the interpreter's question and answer format in the passage. If you only want to listen to part of the recording, I recommend the first 16 minutes for a feel of the book.

(16:04) Was Maidenhair successful in Russia? Shishkin: Define success…sales, impact? These are very American ways to define success. He reluctantly admits it met with success.

(16:40) SE: “I read about one of your critics, and this story may be familiar to you, he said that he would eat his underpants in public if your book sold more than 50,000 copies in its first year. And it did.”
Shishkin: “No, he didn’t.”
SE: “No, but the book did.”
Shishkin: “Ah. … But these are critics. Yeah, they never, you see, do what they, what they promise. Yeah, unfortunately he didn’t.”

(17:30) SE: “So we were just hearing was you and Marian reading part of the interpreter’s section of the novel. There’s kind of, it’s a very difficult novel to summarize, but there’s more or less three main parts—“
Shishkin: “May I interrupt? It’s not difficult novel.”
SE: “Well…it’s a difficult novel to summarize but not difficult to read.”
Shishkin: “OK, good. No, I think it’s a simple novel very simply written, just some difficult…I mean, some different stories are told, but nothing difficult.”

(18:09 to 19:46) SE and Shishkin talk about the interpreter’s part of the novel and how it mirrors Shishkin’s own experience as an interpreter for asylum-seekers in Switzerland [from Russia and former Soviet states]. Shishkin notes how it was a bad job, although well paid. You’re supposed to come home at night and tell your family fun stories about your work, but his job provided nothing funny at all.

(19:46 to 21:17) How Shishkin ended up Switzerland.
Shishkin: “I will never go to Switzerland, how could a Russian writer live in this boring culture? Nothing happens. A Russian writer needs Russian stories. Russian pressure. In Russia, you see the atmosphere pressure is quite different. And so I came to Switzerland and through my job I came into the middle…of Russian stories, of the Russian pressure, because if you are in Russia you have a lot of such stories, you can’t just close the window… . No newspapers, no internet, no TV, but here the story is sitting in front of you and telling itself. You have no way out. You can’t escape, you just must take all this story inside, and for me it was clear from the beginning the only way to survive this job was to write about it. So for me it was the beginning of the novel.

(21:17 to 25:00) Scott Esposito raised my question [Thanks!] about why Shishkin includes a fabricated diary of Izabella Yurieva. I found this section intriguing, not just for the reason Shishkin chose her (which is important) but his personal reasons, too.
SE: “And there’s another plotline. I guess the interpreter finds a journal of this dancer, Bella Dmitrievna, who, I guess I’ve read that you had encountered some journals of your mother that you were reading and did that kind of get you interested in the whole format, kind of trying to explore that in literature, or how that whole part of the novel come about?”
Shishkin: “Izabella Yurieva was a very famous singer, not opera singer but romance singer. And she was actually the favorite singer of my father. We had her discs at home when I was a child. She was a famous personality. She was born 1899 and she died 2000. So she lived the whole horrible Russian 20th century. Actually after she died nobody knew anything about her. For example, where did she spend the civil war? Was she with the Russians? Was she with the Whites? After she died there were no information, no diaries, no memoirs, no letters, because people who lived at that time in Russia in the ‘30’s, 40s, 50s, they were so afraid of their past. Because you would never know what from your past could be dangerous tomorrow. And so they tried just to get free of their past. And for me she was this symbol actually of the epoch, because she lived in the country of slaves, like my parents were slaves, the parents of my parents they were slaves and she was singing for these slaves. She sang for them about love, and it was so important for them to survive. The singing was, for my father, much more important than money, than food, because singing about something very simple, about love, she gave them, these slaves, their dignity back. I invent that I got, from a publisher in Moscow, her diaries and her memoirs, and actually I’m writing her life. I’m inventing her life, I tried not to invent anything, but I had to. And I write in this novel her memoirs about her childhood in Rostov-on-Don before the First World War, then First World War, Civil War, ‘20s, 30s. It’s a very important part of the novel. It’s very simply written.”

Note: See here for more detail on Isabella. I don't know the sources for this information but it’s interesting to see how much of it matches or dovetails with the Isabella of the novel. To hear her sing “O Lubvi I druzbe,” click here.

(25:05 to 33:28) Marian Schwartz answers questions on how she got interested in translating this book and her process of translating it. She had translated two stories by Shishkin and she felt there was a “stylistic affinity,” that she “understood his voice.” Her initial reluctance to translate it centered to some extent on the difficult/not difficult issue. (See Scott’s entry on the Center’s blog for Schwartz’s process on translation, including 40 pages of notes from Shishkin that were answers to previous translator’s questions.) There’s an interesting section on the process of choosing a translator for The Light and the Dark. This section is highly recommended for anyone interested in the process of translation as well as providing Shishkin’s desire for what he hopes the translation accomplishes. Plus the reason Schwartz left out one sentence from the original book in her translation.

(33:28 to 36:08) SE: “So Mikhail, how long were you at work on this book before you were satisfied that it was complete?” … Shishkin’s reply focused on the frequency of his output—one book every five or six years instead of a “professional writer’s” output of one a year. “Actually there are two types of writers: the master of the novel and the servant of the novel. The master wakes up and after breakfast he takes the bell, he rings the bell, and the novel is running. ‘Master, what will we write today?’ And the master is dictating. And then the servant of the novel—I’m sitting and waiting for the bell, and then I hear the bell and I’m running. ‘My master what will we write today?‘ And he’s dictating, and it’s absolutely wonderful because the master is always, you see, cleverer than the servant. I don’t have to think why should I write this or why should I not write this, just writing. The main advantage of this is that I just have to obey. I don’t think. When he says, the master says ‘So that’s the end of the novel’ it’s the end. And the disadvantage is a servant could sit and wait for the bell, and wait, and wait, and one year, and two years, and three years, nothing comes. And then it could be very unpleasant. … I worked on this novel, actually, my whole life and I started it—It’s impossible to say when I started it because all the stories, I’m not professional because I can’t invent the stories so I just write what was in my life, what was with my parents, what was with my mom, with my brother, and so on. About five years just writing down.

(36:08 to 38:30) This section covers SE’s question about Shishkin being a master or servant of the Russian language. I don’t want to transcribe too much of this, although the struggle with his first love declaration is something I think many can identify with—it’s impossible to express what you feel in words. I mentioned some of these comments in my initial impressions and they capture some of the main themes of Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark. One focus is the role of the writer, resurrecting words in order to give them life again. He makes an important point on translation: he lets the translator “understand the book in the way which a normal Russian reader can understand the book. After that I can’t help them anymore, and they have to struggle against their enemies, against their languages, as I do in struggling against Russian to say anything, to resurrect words. So four times I’ve succeeded, just four times with four novels. Will my translators succeed or not? Who knows, I can only pray.”

(38:30 to 42:10) SE asks Shishkin about his experience living outside of Russia and how much he keeps up with the country and language. Shishkin: “For me as a writer it was very important to leave my country. Now I see it was the crucial point, actually, because I think it’s very important for everybody not to spend his whole life in his own country but to live abroad. Not for just a couple of months as a tourist but for some years. If you don’t do this I compare it just with living in a house without mirrors, without looking glass. You can’t understand yourself. So living abroad helps you understand what is your background, what is your country, what is your language, what is your history, what is your nation. Everything. In Russia the language in the last years is changing very quickly because life the last twenty years, such changes in the life. I compare the changing of the Russian language in the last twenty years with a running train. … Leaving Russia helped me to understand that are you in the train or are you not in the train? The main thing is not to run after the language but to create your own language, which will be fresh and cool always, even after your death. And I would come to this idea in Russia, too, just leaving Russia helped me to come to this idea … .”

(42:11 to 51:10) SE asks Schwartz about any foreign “feeling” in her translation. Schwartz wasn’t concerned about letting the Russian come through on this novel. Her biggest concern was using English to its fullest extent to cover the scope of the book. Using English well will convey the meaning of the original in place of needing to add a foreign “gloss.” Shishkin joined in, noting that allowing all three possible translators for The Light and the Dark to proceed he would have three different novels in English. “I wrote actually this novel [thumping a copy of Maidenhair] and this novel was written by Marian Schwartz. … If you like this book, it’s my novel, sure. If you don’t like this book this is translation. I’m joking. If you like this book, of course it’s only because of the translation.” He notes that his Bulgarian translator asked no questions. The Bulgarian publisher said the translator thought everything was clear to him. “I have very bad feeling that if the translator understands everything it couldn’t be good.” The book was well received in Bulgaria and Shishkin met the translator. Asking why there were no questions, the translator answered “And what if I were translating Homer?” Shishkin joked the best writer for a translator was a dead one.
Schwartz tells about one issue in translating Maidenhair. In one case she was concerned with what English word to use until she found out the Russian word was a reference to a counting rhyme, which helped her come up with the right word to use. It wasn’t a question of literally translating the word, it was a question of what the English required.

(51:10 to 55:06) SE recalls a story about Schwartz translating Shishkin’s story “Calligraphy Lesson” and a dilemma she faced on how a particular word was used and how it tied into the physical act of writing—should she rewrite the passage to convey all of this? See the translator’s note in the linked story for more detail.

(55:06 to 1:07:10) SE has Shishkin talk some about his recent comments regarding his refusal to represent Russia at Book Expo America. Shishkin goes into detail. SE followed up, asking Shishkin if he was comfortable visiting Russia now. Believing Putin to belong to the past, he has no problem returning.

(1:07:10 to end) Q & A session. See Litseen’s link for more detail on these.
(1:15:53) Shishkin’s mention of Gogol’s Dead Souls and how it relates to Russian society.


Lisa C. Hayden said...

Thank you very much for this post and all the links! I haven't yet had much of a chance to read/watch them but hope to soon, particularly since I wasn't able to make it to Boston for a Shishkin event.

Dwight said...

I thought I would do one more post on Shishkin...the short story linked here and one more I found available online. And if there are more, I'm happy to read and review those, too! Sorry you didn't get to make the Boston event, but at least you can enjoy the SF one.