Malahat editor John Barton talks with Andrew Wachtel about the pleasures and challenges of translating a contemporary Russian author into English. Wachtel is the president of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Previously he was dean of The Graduate School and director of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. He has translated poetry and prose from Russian, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Bulgarian, and Slovenian. Currently he is working on a project relating to cultural nationalism in Central Asia, particularly Kyrgyzstan.
How long have you been translating the work of Anzhelina Polonskaya? When did you first encounter her work and what drew you to it?
I first encountered the work of Anzhelina Polonskaya in 1999. At that time, I was organizing a poetry festival at Northwestern University entitled “The Lands, Three Generations,” which brought poets from Poland, Russia, and Slovenia together with translators and critics. We asked Andrei Voznesensky for a recommendation of a poet of the youngest generation and he proposed Anzhelina. I translated her work for the conference booklet that we produced for the occasion. Subsequently, she asked me to produce more translations and we began to work closely together. What I liked about her work (and still do) is that it is authentically her own. Although she is knows the Russian poetic tradition well (and also the Spanish and Anglo-American traditions), she is not a member of a “school” or trend. She does not try to please anyone but herself and her readers with her work. This makes her quite unusual in a Russian context, in which it often seems that poets are more interested in impressing other poets and writing themselves into the tradition than they are with trying to say something of their own with their verse.
In “Greenland,” an essay you translated for the Malahat’s Summer 2015 issue, Anzhelina deploys winter images to evoke—or even counterpoint—the high-octane intensity of her psychological state. The essay is also very eclectic, referencing the exile of Varam Shalamov (which to an outsider like me recalls the exile of other Soviet Era intellectuals), Catherine Deneuve’s film Indochine, and René Magritte’s painting The Lovers. As a reader, I came away with a sense of the struggles that a woman living in Moscow faces today. Does this strike you as an apt characterization of Anzhelina’s intentions and what other attributes does this essay exemplify of contemporary Russian writing?
I am not so sure that the essay reflects the struggles of a woman living in Moscow in the generic sense. It reflects, rather, the intensely difficult situation of a cosmopolitan woman of great insight living in a world that has been taken over by caricatured versions of self-important nationalists, nativists, and self-righteous kulturträger, who make life miserable for anyone who wishes to see a world outside the one they are trying to create. Anzhelina’s prose, like her poetry, is rather unusual against the backdrop of contemporary Russian literature, which if it is serious tends to be ironic. It harks back to the kind of poet’s prose that was characteristic for the great Russian modernist poets of the 1920s and 30s, especially Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam. Like these predecessors, Anzhelina manages to combine the intensely personal (autobiographical) with a detached perspective that allows for her position to be generalized (which may be why you took it as the perspective of a “woman living in Moscow”).
How difficult is it to create a faithful facsimile of a Russian poem in English? Using Anzhelina’s poetry as an example—in particular “So Now the Soldiers Have Gone,” a poem that appeared in the Malahat’s Summer 2010 issue—how amenable was it to being rendered in English? Were many attributes lost, formally and thematically?
As all translators know (at least ones that know the language they are translating from—I won’t speak here about translators who don’t because I have a hard time taking them seriously as translators), it is impossible to create a “faithful facsimile” of a poem in translation. However, we still try to do our best, with the emphasis being on “faithful” rather than “facsimile”. To me, “faithful” in this context means producing something like what I imagine the author would have written had he/she known English as I do. If we turn specifically to the poem you are asking about, the first thing that strikes the translator is that the poem is “easy.” That is, it does not contain such things as metre and rhyme, which are pretty standard in contemporary Russian poetry but hard to render without sounding ridiculous in English.
On the other hand, what is hard here (and it is always hard in Anzhelina’s poetry) is capturing the elliptical sparseness of the diction in English. If you are not careful, the English version will just be flat, because English wants more words and has trouble with too much ellipsis. The poem also has a narrative element, which has to be balanced by the lyric moments, and that balance is also quite tricky to achieve. In the end, translating Anzhelina’s poetry is a bit like translating Chekhov. At first glance it seems like it should be not so hard, but then it turns out to be so difficult to work with the terseness of the material that you sometimes wish that there were more conventionally “difficult” problems to deal with.
In a 1999 interview I found on her website, Anzhelina comments that, ten years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, poets were no longer filling stadiums in Russia as Yevgeny Yetuskenko for example had in the Soviet era. I construed from the rest of the interview that the status of the poet in Russia was not too different than it was (and remains) in the west—i.e., a hand-to-mouth passion pursued and read by a small community of practitioners and devotees. What would you say the status of poets is present-day Russia? Where does Anzhelina’s work figure in contemporary Russian poetry?
When the communist system collapsed, most authors announced that they were thrilled no longer to be public spokespeople and would be free to “write what and how they wanted.” What they forgot was that in the “bad old” communist days, it was possible to make a living from literature, while in the world of market capitalism this was highly problematic. I wrote a book on this topic called Remaining Relevant after Communism (University of Chicago Press), which precisely describes this period in which it gradually dawned on writers that freedom to write also meant freedom to be ignored (or overshadowed by the kind of trash writing that communist countries had never allowed . So now indeed, for the most part writers in Russia (and in general in the post-communist world) find themselves in a similar position to writers in the U.S. or Europe.
However, there are two things that make their situation worse. One is that they still have expectations that a relatively large reading public should take them seriously, read, them, listen to their pronouncements, etc. This creates a kind of crisis of expectations. Second, where the U.S. has invented the concept of “creative writing” programs to allow writers to survive (not created consciously but rather grown up more or less haphazardly over the years) and Europe uses government subsidies for this, no replacement for the Soviet support system has appeared Russia. As a result, writers are in an even worse financial position than they are in Europe and the U.S. Furthermore, what used to be a rather monolithic system has fragmented into many different poetic scenes. As a result, it is hard to say that there is a “Russian poetic scene” for Anzhelina to fit into. She writes what she writes, but I think that her work is far better received in the U.S. and Europe than it is in Russia.
After an established academic career at Northwestern University in Chicago, you are the president of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. What is literary culture like in Kyrgyzstan and how is it viewed and influenced by its larger Russian neighbour? Has your own perspective of your role as a translator of Russian changed, now that you are closer to the literary culture that Russian writers have created before and after the Soviets, especially in the shadow of Putin?
There really is no literary scene in Bishkek these days. There is a very lively visual arts scene and a somewhat less lively musical and film culture, but there is not much of a literary world, neither in Russian nor in Kyrgyz. This can perhaps be explained by the general post-literary turn of societies that for too long were highly literocentric. Or it can be explained by the fact that the Kyrgyz are turning away from Russian but have no developed models for Kyrgyz as a contemporary literary language. In any case, I don’t find a very active literary world around me. However, I don’t have a lot of time to translate, so for me, the fact that I have a good relationship with Anzhelina (who is quite productive) means that when I do have time, I have work to translate, and that is all I really can do right now.
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