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One Flew Over the Translator’s Nest: Aleksandr Livergant

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One Flew Over the Translator’s Nest: Aleksandr Livergant


Russia – UK Cross-Year of Language and Literature is continuing and we are speaking to one of the greatest translators of English literature in our country. Chief Editor of “Foreign Literature” Magazine Aleksandr Livergant has translated letters and works of Swift and Stern, Evelyn Waugh, Chandler and Dashil Hammett into Russian; this list is very far from being full.

– What was your very first translation?

– Oh, it was a funny and a sad story at the same time. I translated two Irish stories, came to the “Foreign Literature” and gave them to a department named “For Fun and for Real” now its name is “Nothing Too Funny”. A giant woman, who reminded me of Galina Volchek, came across me, took the sheets and said to call back in a month. Then, I called every month for 2 or 3 years. The story can be ended in this phrase: the translation was not ever published.  
The thing is that during Soviet times it was almost pointless to come to this magazine without a recommendation.

– What was the point of opening the “Foreign Literature” magazine?

– It was opened, so that a closed country would have a “liberal display” – we had to pretend being democrats, just the same as all the others. Anyway, Chief Editor was constantly called on a carpet to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the censorship was still working.  

Many issues were dull – for instance, it was absolutely pointless to buy April or November issues, as they were dedicated relevantly to Lenin’s birthday or anniversary of October Revolution.

As the magazine was designed as a liberal display, it was allowed to do many things that other thick magazines, including Tvardovskiy’s “New World”, were not. Translators often pulled the strings to be taken to that job. Many of them were marvelous professionals, but more often, they were accidental people. The same thing concerns the editorial board.

– There is such a belief nowadays, that fiction translator is a dying profession.

– I totally disagree. Indeed, the meaning of the profession has changed in a way. Back in Soviet times, the fiction translator’s profession was much more prestigious, as there were state orders. The system was working like this: an editor contacted a known translator, who would not let down, would do a good translation in time. The translator took the order, took a car or a train and left for his summer cottage to get to work. Author’s sheet (24 pages) would cost 300 rubles then, which is not a small amount. A professional with feeling, wit and punctuation could make two sheets in a month and to earn 600 rubles.

But I must repeat, I am telling about a tried and tester translator. A young specialist could be offered to translate a short sketch, a story. He could also work as a ghost writer. A novice professional, if he was good, could get an invitation to a prestigious Translation Seminar under the Writer’s Association, for instance.

– So, the aim could be reached in the end, even if there was a long way towards it.

– Rather yes than no. Today the situation is different. They still look for good translators, but as in most cases commercial publishing houses publish translations, they rather need speed, than quality. They are often speeding up the translators, even divide the text in parts for several translators. Today, it is almost impossible to earn a living by translating into Russian. But the translator, who does translations from Russian into some other language, earns much more.

– Anyway, what opportunities do you see for the translator’s profession in Russia?


– They are not very promising – people read less and less, most people have almost forgotten about reading fiction, the reading audience has shrunk. Mostly, aged people read. All of these facts have their effect – the most popular literature in Russia is mass literature: fantasy, erotics, thrillers, detectives.  

– I am citing your words now: “In case we think that the translation has to become the fact of the Russian literature, we have to burn the authentic work, it mustn’t exist”.


– It depends on the authentic work. One author does not allow treating him freely, and another does. It is better not to translate a humorous story by O.Henry word by word, or it won’t by funny. When you translate a chapter about a weaver’s loom or a bride’s dress, you have to be precise and almost literal. When it comes to a two rumdums’ chat, the translator can take a liberty to make something up. Well, I often say to my students that a good fiction translator is like a plane, which flies over the land very low or very high, depending on its advantage.


– What is the first step you make before taking a new possible translation? 


–  I estimate how the book will be read in Russian, will it be understood, in other words if it can be translated adequately. There are works, which were not written to be translated – they have to be read in original by those, who speak the language.  


– What is your attitude towards new translations and alternative versions?


– There are translators, who love translating the text once already translated. By the way, it is a foreign trend to make new translations for every new generation. For instance, there are 23 (!) German translations of “Anna Karenina”. Can you imagine this? Do we have the same amount of “Faust” translations? Of course, no.


For example, there is a marvelous translation of “The Catcher in the Rye” by Rita Wright-Kovaleva or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Nina Daruzes. These translations are cut, they are partly inaccurate, there are ideological omissions. Back in the day, some Soviet publishers thought like – let well enough alone, what is the point of translating once more? Until they faced a problem like this: for example, you want to publish a Shakespeare’s play translated by O. Soroka and contact his successors.  They ask for unreasonable money or reject giving the rights at all. Out of despair, you start looking for a new translator.


Or you take an old, tested translation, compare it to the original and find out, that the translation is more that inadequate, there are many mistakes, and you have to order a new translation in this situation, too.


New translations are also needed for other reasons: first of all, the generation has changed, and the political situation has also changed. Well, for example, a famous Soviet translator Evgenia Kalashnikova translated perfectly, by she did not allow rude “street” words, including in “The Great Gatsby” novel, where his ex-business partner approaches his dead body, lying in a coffin and says “You poor thing”. And the original says “You son of a bitch”. Why didn’t she use the original meaning? Were these her good manners? It was intolerable for her to use dirty words! And you can find numerous examples like that one. 


– You have translated Jerome K. Jerome, E. Wauhg, Malcolm, Bradbury, Updike, Somerset Maugham, H. Miller and many other American, English and Irish writers. Who was the most difficult to translate


– If you like the author, you take difficulties as a pleasure! It’s like flirting – it is not interesting to court a woman of easy virtue. My list of “difficult authors” includes Evelyn Waugh, Chesterton, Samuel Pepys. I like reading and translating humorous literature most of all.  


– There are several translations of “Alice in Wonderland”: by N. Demurova, Nabokov’s version “Anya in Wonderland” and Boris Zahoder’s version, which is very far from the original. Which one of these famous versions is just a version, not a translation?  


– Despite all my love to Nabokov, that was a bad try.  Nina Demurova’s version is more for an adult reader. I think, there is sense in adapting books like this, as B. Zahoder did. It is right to adapt a book for children of your country. Literature gets younger in time, in general. For instance, “Gulliver” was written by Swift for an adult reader, but gradually the deep message “washes out” and there is only an adventure left.  


– We are having a year of British literature, not English-speaking. Is there a big difference between the American and English literature?


– Oscar Wilde has once said “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language” and was absolutely right. Back in the day, the American literature was, to say, “dependent” – it imitated and tried to follow the European fashion, but at the beginning of the 20th century it became hefty and, perhaps, the best. Let’s remember Hemingway, Faulkner or beatniks. 


And the approach to literature is different. Put simply, the English literature is much more traditional and American – more modernist.  Americans allow themselves more, they treat their reader/viewer and the material itself in a more free way. The same comes to the modern American fine arts, although modernism was created in the British Isles: Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence. The tradition is kept in Britain.   

In case an English writer wants to get famous, he won’t write too mind-bendingly. It can be understood from the way how the English perceive translated literature, including Russian. For example, Leskov’s and Platonov’s translations were not in demand among critics until lately. Only after that Robert Chandler has translated “Chevengur” (he had been working severely and for a very long time), have they admitted that he is a great writer. By the way, there is only 3% of translated literature in England, when in France and Germany this number is more than fifty. A few years ago, we created the Institute of Translation exactly to promote Russian literature abroad. 


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