I won a translation award for Viktor Shklovsky: Reader!
First things first: why would a native speaker of Russian (or Russian and German) translate into English? The bit in brackets is a whole other discussion: if only Russian or both Russian and German should count as my native languages if I moved to Germany aged twelve and the language feels natural to me? But English is certainly not a native language for me in the strict sense. Granted, translator databases that define native languages according to a proficiency tests do define me as a native English speaker. Still, I only lived in the UK as a student, not as a child, and the usual unwritten rule of translation is that it’s best done into your first language. So why do I translate into English at all?
Well, first of all, definitions like “first language” and “second language” are not subtle enough. I might prefer talking to my children in Russian, but when translating texts on certain topics – above all the arts and humanities, for instance, art catalogues or articles on sociology or psychology – I’m most comfortable with the English terms and formalities. Second, I think there is a certain freshness to a not-quite-native speaker’s experience of language; I’ve often been told that I’m good at finding a striking new phrasing. This quest for novelty is, in fact, a crucial concept for Shklovsky.
The essay in which he develops it had been published in English before, but I felt the existing translation was too academic for “Art as Device,” a text written by hot-headed young man to be read out loud at an artists’ café. Also, only a tiny fraction of his other work existed in English. Moreover, considering Shklovsky’s longevity and productivity, a student or a lay reader wouldn’t know where to start. All of these were reasons why I wanted to create and translate a selection of his work. Well, the official reasons. The deeper ones were: a) translating a text is my favorite way of (re)reading it, and b) the title Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader came to mind, and I could never resist a pun.
Neither could Shklovsky. Before I began, I thought the main challenges of translating his work would be his penchant for word play and rhymes. For instance, he writes: “Tolstoy said that Dostoyevsky’s characters did everything suddenly. Every character in Dostoyevsky who is supposed to do one thing is bound to do something completely different – ‘suddenly’…” And then he goes on to say that the Russian word vdrug (suddenly) also means also means an abrupt joint action, and builds his reading of Dostoyevsky around this.
To give another example: “According to the symbolists’ theory, a literary work mattered because it transfigured the order of life into a swarm of analogies.” This seems straightforward enough (for Shklovsky), except that the words for “order” and “swarm” rhyme in Russian, stroy and roy.
Initially, I worried if I could manage such puzzles. But it turned out they were great fun. “All at once” means both “suddenly” and “together”, and the passage about symbolism could be reasonably translated as “the form of life transformed into a swarm of analogies.” Staring at the screen didn’t always help, but the puzzles stayed with me, and the solutions came – all at once – when I was falling asleep or taking a shower. Translating the poems that came up in Shklovsky’s texts was pure joy, especially as most of them were rather playful.
The greatest challenge for me was, to my astonishment, something completely different – namely practicing restraint.
Encountering unexpected expressions from domains as different as army and agriculture, I was tempted to explain or neutralize them.
Encountering self-contradiction, terminological inaccuracies and overstatement, I was tempted to correct.
Encountering unidiomatic Russian, I was tempted to make the English less strange than the original.
Encountering repetition, I was tempted to introduce variation.
But I managed to resist these temptations most of the time: after all, I wanted Anglophone readers to meet a Shklovsky who was as close as possible to the one I love. I have been a freelance translator for English, German and Russian since 2002, but no other project has mattered to me as much as Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader. Oh, and just to make my stance on translating into what is not my first language quite clear: a second pair of eyes is always a boon for a translation, and I’m often cooperate with American or British native speakers who proofread my translations to make them even better – but this “two pairs of eyes” rule also holds for Russian and German.
(This is a revised version of a blog post for my publisher. The original is online at http://bloomsburyliterarystudiesblog.com/continuum-literary-studie/2018/01/happy-birthday-viktor-shklovsky.html.)