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Translator is a guide that brings foreign book to another culture
Translator, poet and artist Kristina Zeytunyan-Belous was born in Moscow and has lived in Paris since her childhood. She has translated more than 80 books from Russian into French language. Among her most prominent works are texts by Andrei Bely, Sergey Dovlatov, Vladimir Makanin and many other Russian poets and prose writers, classics and contemporaries. On February 16, in Paris, Kristina Zeytunyan-Belous was honored with the Russophonie Award for the best literary translation from Russian into French language. She told the Russkiy Mir about her origins, stages of professional development, the nature of poetry translation, and what modern French people know about Russian literature.
– Kristina, let me congratulate you with the Russophonie Award for the best literary translation from Russian into French. This is an outstanding achievement, since you have won it twice for the first time in its history. What does this award mean to you?
– I didn’t expect to be honored for the second time. I received my first award in 2010 for translation of “First Date”, a poem by Andrei Bely. It is the most significant poetry of this author, which collected the quintessence of Russian symbolism. And this year I have been awarded for Grisha Bruskin’s work, which is also a kind of the epoch face, delicate and ironic. Being awarded is always a pleasure; it raises spirits right away, especially since the award has a cash equivalent.
– Can you share your opinion with the benefit of your professional expertise today – what makes a good translator good?
– I think the most important thing is to get the feel of the text just as an actor does when settles into his role. You need to feel the text and reproduce thoughts and images in your own words in another language. A translator is just a phantom, a shadow guide who can make a book included into another culture. Though this role is a very important one, because it is up to this very phantom if the book will be published or fall into oblivion of poor translations.
– And how did you start doing literary translation from Russian?
– Let us begin with my family history. My father - R.H. Zeytunyan - was born in Paris, and French language is his mother tongue. My paternal grandfather and grandmother are Turkish Armenians; they fled to France in the 1920s. In 1947 they went to the Soviet Armenia, their historical homeland. So, when my father was 19, he ended up in Yerevan with little to no knowledge either of Russian or Armenian. At first he was a little confused, but then went to study at night school. And there it turned out that he was gifted in mathematics: in two years he learned Armenian and Russian and entered the Mathematics Faculty of Yerevan University. He continued his education through postgraduate training program in Moscow. There he met my mother - she is an artist, Russian by ethnic origin. I was born in Moscow. When I was six years old, we all left for Paris. Now my father is a leading expert in theoretical hydromechanics; he has written 17 scientific books. At 90, he continues to write scientific articles.
While in school, I used to study at the artistic department, went for drawing classes, then graduated from École normale supérieure and the University of Paris.
In 1981-1982, just as all other students, I was sent for an internship to Moscow. But I did not attend classes; instead I moved from the hostel to my relatives’ place and attended lectures at the Moscow State University. Julia Nemirovskaya, my second cousin, a poet and a writer, studied there. She brought me to Igor Volgin’s Luch Studio... The Moscow State University was the place where I met contemporary poets; Yevgeny Bunimovich. Yunna Moritz and Arseny Tarkovsky also took the floor there; and I began to translate them. When I returned to France, I was sent verses by Ivan Zhdanov, Alexei Parschikov, and Alexander Eremenko for translation... I showed them to one French publisher. In February 1986, my first translation was published: it was a small collection of poems by Ivan Zhdanov. In the same year I was looking for a job. My scientific advisor suggested me to translate Plakha by Chinghiz Aitmatov. At first we were supposed to translate it together, but after reviewing several pages of translation, my scientific advisor said that I would be able to do it alone. In such a way I got my first paid translation. Then there was another one, then one more... So far I have translated about 80 books.
– I recall the well-known words of Robert Frost: "Poetry is the one that disappears during translation." What can you object him with? In addition, of course, to the fact that you have been objecting him for many decades though translations of Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Bunimovich, Ivan Zhdanov, Yunna Moritz, Konstantin Kedrov, Arseny Tarkovsky, Alexey Parschikov, Dmitry Prigov, and even Mandelstam's poems for children.
– I have translated, just think of it, about 200 poets... I hope none of them “fell into oblivion." Translation of poetry is definitely possible. Some translations, of course, are better, but I always look for inspiration when working with poems, and with prose, as well. Although I prefer to translate poetry, as it is actually provides a translator with more freedom. However it is also interesting to translate good prose. I never agree to translate something I do not like or do not care about. The book must pique about something, bring something, enrich with something
– Since the late 1980s you have been a well-known person in Russia as a poet, whose poems were published in the leading Russian literary editions and even in the famous Ulysses Liberated, the anthology. Could you please compare the level of interest in poems and poetry in France and in Russia?
– A lot of people write poems in Russia; many poems are written in France as well, but still not as many as in Russia. And poetry can hardly be found in regular periodical publications; there is not much of it online as well; professional poets rarely post their works in Internet. They don’t come on TV, just you may occasionally hear someone on the radio. Once a year, the Poetry Market is held at Saint-Sulpice Square in Paris. Poetry publishers come for the event; and there are a lot of them. As to poets, there are many of them as well, but they are not really known or read. Still they have some readers and audience. There are some more poetic festivals, such as the Poets’ Spring. And when Russian poets took the stage in different French cities in 2010, the audience came, the halls were full; people listened with interest and asked many. So poetry is still alive in France, although not as lively as in Russia.
– Which language – Russian or French – is more comfortable for you as a work tool?
– As a poet, I write in two languages. They both are very rich and absolutely different in all aspects; mentalities are very different as well. Russian is more flexible, and it is easier to form new words in. Word creation in French is possible but extremely complicated. Nevertheless, I think in both languages – at times in Russian, then in French. And when I ask myself what language I think now in, I stop thinking at all; and some shift happens in my brain. Sometimes it results in idling, and sometimes, to the contrary, it brings me flash of inspiration.
Grisha Brusking, the author of Past Imperfect, at the Evening with Kristina Zeytunyan-Belous in the Classical authors of the 21st Century Club in Moscow
– We know that you paint, just like your mother, the famous artist Natalia Belous. The fact that your works can be found in private collections in Russia, France, the USA and other countries evidences of you being recognized as an artist. Could you please tell me to what extent did your experience in painting influence you recent translation of Grisha Bruskin’s book? After all, having been one of the key participants of the famous Sotheby's auction in Moscow (1988), which brought him worldwide fame, he describes many events from artists’ lives.
– In general, I am a drawing artist and an illustrator, though I also have paintings; however I work on canvas less often than on paper. I have illustrated about 30 books and quite a lot of covers in Russia and in France. My first solo exhibition was held in the gallery of Marie-Thérez Koshen in 1987. Back then the gallery was located opposite the Notre-Dame de Paris. And in 1988 it moved to a place near the Center Pompidou and merged with the Museum of Russian Modern Art directed by Alexander Glezer. I worked and exhibited there for three years, and met all the émigré artists. The museum often held literary meetings; it was a very interesting and exciting work. I personally had not known Grisha Bruskin before the publisher contracted me to translate two of his books, but we have quite a lot of mutual acquaintances, and I surely knew his work and many of the facts that he shared; no doubts, such background helped me in the translation process.
– For many years you were the editor-in-chief of Lettres Russes (Russian Literature) magazine, and you still maintain a professional connection with the edition - currently as its illustrator. Please tell us about the magazine.
– Lettres Russes was founded by a group of Slavicists in 1987. Irina Sokologorskaya is its director. I was the chief editor for several years, from 1992 to 2005. All employees of the magazine work on a voluntary basis. The magazine has unveiled to the French readers many new names and, thanks to published stories and poems, some Russian authors have found their publisher in France. We also publish bilingual collections of poems, stories and short novels. The magazine is rarely published, only once or twice a year, and it constantly faces financial difficulties. However, it is still alive, and I hope it will live on.
– To what extent is Russian translated literature in demand in France today? And how much do contemporary French people know contemporary Russian literature?
– Many books are translated from Russian in France, more than in any other European country - about 50 per year; and I am referring here to fiction only. Circulations, unfortunately, are small and sales rarely exceed 1000-1500 copies; sometimes 2000-3000 copies are sold, and sometimes less than 500... Most French people do not know contemporary Russian literature, although some authors are familiar to everybody, for example, Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Many books do not pay off, but grants help a lot, especially grants from the Russian Institute of Translation and grants from the French Center for Books.
– You are also the translator of Sergey Lukyanenko, a famous science fiction writer... Is it possible to understand your nature and worldview through such choice, or is it just a job that involves discovery of new worlds?
– I translated three books from the Watches series by Lukyanenko. His works are interesting and pleasant to translate. I must say that I love science fiction very much, since my childhood. Nowadays I read it as well, especially when I feel depressed: fiction is an excellent medicine when you want to tune out of reality and forget about everything. I also translated other science fiction writers, in particular Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko. Basically I believe that all genres are good, except for boring and banal ones. And you can find a lot of interesting ideas in science fiction. Well, my graphics are pretty fictious as well.
– Our compatriot Andreï Makine, now the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, once said: “There is such a nationality - an emigrant. This is when Russian roots are strong, but influence of France is enormous.” And what do you think about life in today's multilingual world of France? How do you personally experience it? Having grown up in Paris and having mixed ethnic origin (Armenian from your father and Russian from your mother), who do you feel yourself to be now? What helped you to maintain identity in a foreign language environment during all these years?
– I grew up in an emigrant environment, most of my friends are somehow connected with Russia. My parents speak Russian at home. I speak Russian with my mother and French with my father. Russian and French cultures, Russian and French languages play an equally important role in my life. I think in two languages and I write in two languages. There is a certain split personality felt, but I am not torn between two cultures, but try to combine them. My identity is in double legacy.
– In addition to success in translation, you are also known for lecture projects on history and culture of Russia. And do you observe upsurge in interest to Russian language and modern Russia in France now? And, in your opinion, what public initiatives are necessary to increase level of intercultural relations between our countries?
– From 1997 to 2009, every summer I read lectures on history of Russia and Russian literature for French tourists on the boat between Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was quite interesting. Moreover, the landscapes are amazing, once I even saw the northern lights over the Ladoga, it is unforgettable… Nowadays I also give lectures in various places. Most often I talk about modern literature, sometimes about history of Russia, for example, about Ivan the Terrible or about Perestroika (soon I will have to speak on this topic). People are surely interested in both - contemporary Russia and Russian literature. As for public initiatives, such things are not for me, I am a loner by nature. And the work of an artist, a translator and a poet is always quite a lonely one, but I think my translations contribute to the development of intercultural relations between Russia and France to some extent and, most importantly, allow Russian authors to be heard in French.