Discovery in Translation

I am not a translator but I have found myself translating in the past few months and I shall tell you what it has revealed to me. As many other PhD students, I have found it necessary to sometimes translate untranslated pieces of work and sometimes adjust the existing translations to highlight the point in the original language. I do harbour a dream of translating Iurii Dombrovskii’s work, but before embarking on such a task there is a book that is a lot closer to my heart.

In the 1970s my great-grandmother, whom I was very close to in mind and spirit, wrote a book about her experiences of deportation. This book is the pride of my family as it reveals its rich (both in terms of money and life experience) history and shows that at least one of us is talented in some way. The fact that I am fluent in English and part of British academia has spurred my family on to suggest that I should translate it, as it surely will become a bestseller.  After many reassuring yeses, I have finally committed to the task, but not for the hope of any glory, as some of my family imagine it would bring, but out of a latent curiosity.

My 101-year-old great-grandmother died two years ago, but she continues to inspire me every day. Translation has become a way to come closer to her and my family’s past. I have read the book before, and one would think that reading is enough to gain knowledge. Yet, to put that knowledge to practice, to really commit to what she is telling in that book I have to listen to her voice in the way that I have never done before. I suppose this is where the true work of the translator comes in. At the point where you merge with the author and imagine sitting next to them as they are writing their piece, trying to understand the feeling and the idea that the author wanted to convey.

One of the great discoveries whilst translating, apart from the linguistic curiosities, has been uncovering the history and location of places depicted. I have used Google extensively for my first two chapters and learned about the locations of old estates, the relationships of ancient counts and princesses and even an astronomical achievement. The memoir depicts my great-grandmother’s deportation from Tallinn with her two young children and her mother in 1941. Her husband Zhenia is sent to a camp. This is a typical Russian/Soviet story. But it is through my great-grandmother’s memory that the distant past of the Hanski or Ganskii or Gansky family is opened up (this is another issue of translation, finding the right name!). In the dark rooms of dilapidated cottages, my great-grandmother’s mother remembers the opulent dinners and parties of the past, and so I and my great-grandmother – the narrator – follow her into this long lost time.

In terms of Google-yield, I have found my great-great-uncle Alexei Pavlovich Hanski/Gansky the most fruitful and interesting so far. This is what my great-grandma writes about him (in my translation):

“With trepidation I listen to the tragic story of mother’s favourite brother Alyosha, Alexei Pavlovich Gansky. He was a famous astronomer in his time and the winner of the Janssen Prize. Everyone loved him. Once, travelling on a train with a southern magnate, he managed to inspire him with stories of astronomy and impress him with his passion to such a degree that the man offered him an observatory in Simeiz as a gift. Uncle Alyosha gratefully accepted the offer and happily passed it on to the Pulkovo Observatory. It was equipped with technology and staff, and he was appointed its director. The grand opening day arrived. Guests were expected from Pulkovo and Petersburg. Friends and relatives gathered. It was scorching hot.  Not everyone has arrived yet, there is time before the great moment and Uncle Alyosha invites everyone for a swim. He didn’t come back. He swam out, got caught in the current and drowned. He was thirty seven. Mother treasured his photo and medals until the end of her life.”

This brief paragraph led me to discover the story of my great-great-great uncle Alyosha. He was indeed a very successful astronomer who took some amazing photos of the sun that enabled him to study sun spots and granulation. In 1904 he received the Janssen medal for his work. His photographs were of such good quality that they were even questioned as fakes. His research at Pulkovo and elsewhere led to an expansion of this area of science. I found some possible confirmation for the train story that my great-great-grandmother told about the gift of the observatory, but there is a definite confirmation that it was a gift: the astronomy enthusiast Nikolai Maltsov met Gansky in Crimea in 1908, when Gansky was looking for somewhere to build an observatory. After their meeting Maltsov contacted the director of the Pulkovo observatory, suggesting that he donate his own to them as a gift. During the opening ceremony, Uncle Alyosha drowned in the sea. In 1928 astronomers named a planet after Gansky, in 1970s a crator on the moon, there is also a glacier on Spitsbergen named after him, where he went for expeditions and a street in Simeiz. Not bad for a distant relative I think.

Great-gradmother’s story is thus completely true. It has the nature of a memory with the uncertainty of dates and meeting places, but that is what gives it its dreamy and almost unreal quality. This is part of the great work of translators to uncover what is beneath the words of their subjects. This also made me wonder, is there a difference between fiction and memoir? Is there a greater need for accuracy and historical knowledge when translating non-fiction compared to fiction? Does this put the translation in a moral position to support the truth?

As I return to translating my great-grandmother’s memoir brimming with the curiosity of what else I am about to uncover, I cannot help but be filled with awe and fascination for the work of translators, and the worlds that they uncover and recover every day.

[The photos are scanned from my great-grandmother’s album]