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Marian Schwartz. Not Lost in Translation
Winner of “Read Russia” prize Marian Schwartz has translated over sixty items of Russian poetry and prose – from Tolstoy and Lermontov to Shishkin and Gelasimov. In her interview to Russkiy Mir, she told about her work, choice of writers and meeting Nina Berberova.
‒ You have been working as a translator for all your life. Why have you chosen this path and exactly this language pair – English-Russian?
‒ Frankly speaking, I did not choose any “path” then – it just happened. You should remember that I grew up in 1960s and started translating in 1970s – these were special times, it was a so-called “cultural revolution”. Everything was changing then – customs, politics women’s status. I did not worry too much about my own destiny. Well, maybe I just thought so.
After finishing my master’s degree, I started working as an editor in New York, but stayed at that job for only two years; I wanted to travel more and to work on my own, to translate more. This is what I did. When I had no translation offers, I worked as an editor of temporary projects. Gradually, I quit editing at all and started to translate only – novels, short novels, also biographies, critics, philosophy and history.
I started learning Russian when I was only 18, when I was at Harvard. At the time, I already knew French quite well, later I also learned Spanish and Czech. I started translating from Russian when I was seriously taken away with the early 20th century literature. I wrote a master’s work about Tsvetaeva. My first publication was an extract from the Mayakovsky’s book “My Discovery of America” and the first translated book was a collection of essays on the Russian Intelligentsia “Landmarks”. I still often translate texts written in 1910s, 1920s ‒ Berberova, Tsvetaeva, Bulgakov, Olesha and others.
‒ It is not easy to present a new writer to the audience. Why did you decide to translate the "Harlequin's Costume" novel by Leonid Yuzefovich, which was later awarded at “Read Russia” 2014?
‒ Before the fall of the Soviet Union, we did not know here much about the authors within the boundaries of the country and what they wrote, and in 1990s I waited anxiously for the new names. I asked my friends, read critics and heard the same surname – Yuzefovich. Having read the "Harlequin's Costume" novel, I fell in love with detective Putilin and translated the novel without a contract. I found a grant and a publisher later. His novel "The Storm" was published in my translation. I am npw finishing translating perhaps one of his most famous novels “Sand Riders” without a contract, too. But I do hope to find a publisher.
‒ In the idealistic worldview a translator is a person, sitting in front of a littered enormous picturesque table and translating a genious novel. How does life differ from the imagined picture?
‒ I work in quite civilized circumstances in a small town Austin, Texas, in a small house, which is behind our main house. My table is enormous, indeed. And the display is enormous, too, as I translate only using my computer. Some of the dictionaries are only in an old paper format. There is a painting of a Ukrainian artist named Feodosiy Gumenyuk above the table. We were friends in Leningrad, when we were studying at the philology department of the Leningrad State University.
‒ Some time ago you and translator Rosamund Bartlett were awarded the special prizes of “Read Russia English Translation Prize” for simultaneously translated “Anna Karenina” novel. Please tell, did you already know, that your colleague was also translating it at the same time? Was there any kind of competition between you two?
‒ No, I did not know about another translation. I started mine at the end of the previous century, but put it aside for ten years. I do not feel any competition now. Everything differs in our translations – both purposes and view of the text. We first met at the Moscow Translators’ Congress two years ago and we have a lot in common.
‒ How often do you intercommunicate with your colleagues? Do you have professional circles or does every translator live his own personal life without trying to "exchange experience"?
‒ Engish-speaking translators from Russian always communicate - not all of us, though. In the USA we meet at American Literary Translators Association conference every year. We exhange news, questions on Facebook and in Russian Translations group. The English communicate even more - the country is smaller.
‒ You are the main translator of Nina Berberova's works - a unique person, writer of the Russian emmigration, as one might say. How did you meet her and how do Americans percieve her works?
‒ It is a huge question! If I'd say everything on this issue I'd like to say, it would be enough for one more interview. In short - my ex-professor and a brilliant translator himself Richard Sylvester introduced us. He translated her book "Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg" and asked me to work on the transaltion with him.
Back then in 1981 I lived in New York and started visiting her in Princeton regularly to work on the translation, when Sylvester was in Moscow. I asked her if she had ever written fiction prose. It was known, that she was Khodasevich's unlawful wife and wrote "The Italics are Mine" ‒ quite a scandalous, but important book. All the slavists study the book, even if they do not believe everything written in it. She gave me a copy of "Sentence Commuted" selected works and I started translating it. We were friends up till her death in 1993 and often spoke on the phone right after returning to Austin.
Berberova lived in France for 25 years and at 49 moved to America; she did not speak English and had almost no money. She wrote a marvellous novel "Big City" about a man, who just moved to America. Although the main character was a man, he always resembled me her. Sure enough, she knew many people here, but she had found her way herself and had great success at the end, although among limited groups.
I think, she missed Russia, but not the Soviet Union. She was almost killed by her visit there in late 1980s. Berberova knew all about Russia in theory - she constantly hosted guests and new emigrants from the Soviet Union, but could not see everything with her own eyes. This visit was a shock for her. She was bitter about what she called roughness of the city (Saint Petersburg) and the people by contrast to the delicacy and elegance of the time of her youth. Her joy about emergence of her books in Russia was eclipsed by the impression from the modern Russian literature.
Berberova was a living connection with the gone generation – not only with Khodasevich, but also with Blok, Gorky and many others. Every memory about them is priceless. She told me, that researchers used to come to learn the patronymics of the long-gone people. I mean, when you read in a text something like "À. À. somebody”, she remembered – Adam Arkadyevich or Anton Afanasyevich. These details are difficult to find, but she just knew it.
I love Berberova’s stories for the way they are written, first of all: delicately, intelligently, with no pretension, and I adore her ability to write on behalf of so many characters. These stories offer a totally new view on the world of the Russian emigration at the dawn of the twentieth century. They broadcasted the tune, mindset and attitude of the people, who lost everything and knew they would not see the country of their youth for sure.
You were the person, who made the modern Russian prose – Gelasimov, Shishkin, Daria Vilke – familiar to the English-speaking reader. What modern, maybe young authors you would like to translate?
‒ I’d translate Slavnikova and Yuzefovich once more with pleasure. Who else? Kuznetsov, Lukianov, Eltang, for instance, although they are not that young. I do not know many young authors, unfortunately.
‒ Do you sometimes feel “lost in translation”?
‒ The most difficult thing for me is the drastic transformation of the Russian language. It is difficult to follow as long as I do not live in Russia. My teachers were all born in late 19th – early 20th century and grew up in Saint Petersburg. I understand this language well and can cope with it. And the modern Russian has acquired not only new words and expressions, but also new rhythms, tastes and tunes. It became closer to the modern English in a way, and I am very fascinated about it. It’s necessary to translate Russian in a modern way, communicating its marvelous inventiveness!
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