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]


The Dombrovskii Stories Part II

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Dombrovskii was not only writing his great novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge but was also working on a film script based on some aspects of the novel with the director Theodor Vul’fovich. The film was released in 1978 under the title of Shestvie zolotykh zverei (The Procession of Gold Beasts), although it seems that neither Dombrovskii nor Vul’fovich were completely satisfied with the result as the script had to be re-written a number of times due to censorship and lost some of its creative flare. During the writing of the film the two men became close friends and Vul’fovich published a collection of notes where he depicts the various meetings that he had with Dombrovskii until his death in 1978. One such story illustrates very well the complexity of Dombrovskii’s character: his fusion of warmth and love with the darkest aspects of Soviet life.

Vul’fovich visited Dombrovskii on many occasions at his communal flat. It was always filled with lively conversations on various topics, often under the influence of vodka. However, there was something particularly peculiar about a short, sickly, compact old man, who only reached up to Dombrovskii’s shoulder and always listened in on their conversations. He was known as the Communal zit (kommunal’nyi prysh’) and Vul’fovich very effectively describes him as a “shard of the mustachioed empire”. This man was an ex-KGB worker, who was now in retirement, but couldn’t abandon his old habits. He sat by the door and not just listened, but engrossed himself in the conversations (as Vul’fovich describes it).

One afternoon Vul’fovich came to visit Dombrovskii for their usual chats about literature and culture. However, this time the two were whispering and the door to the room was closed. This was unusual as Dombrovskii frequently conducted his conversations in the open with a loud voice and an open door. The zit quietly opened the door and placed his chair inside the room. He sat down silently and stared with his clear and almost kind eyes at the two conversing. Vul’fovich was shocked and appalled by this blatant intrusion but Dombrovskii kept on talking as if nothing had happened. In the midst of conversation he pronounced, as if the zit was not there:

– Don’t be startled, he can sit there. He’s just had the flu and it damaged his hearing. He may not hear something properly and then end up misrepresenting it in one of his reports and you know, he’s a conscientious worker (Vul’fovich didn’t detect any irony in Dombrovskii’s voice). But, if he sits there, and then misrepresents (and he pointed at the zit), then that would be inexcusable. He doesn’t want tea. He’s not going to take part in the conversations and in general, he’s a very delicate stool pigeon. Do you know what? It’s even convenient – he’s our own!  He once informed on me and misrepresented – all because he couldn’t hear! He then apologised for the mistake and I forgave him – but it could’ve been five or six years in prison for me… He’s a disgusting, stupid type, but not the worst kind. He earns his pension: listens and informs, but not too often – his sight’s getting worse and his hands are shaking. It’s tough when he’s ill – he’ll press his ear against the wall and lie like that for hours. Only thing is he complains when the conversation gets too quiet, asks not to torture him like that, to speak loudly and clearly, without withholding anything.  And you know what else? He’s even started educating himself, and asks for book recommendations. Everything I suggest – he reads! Wish I got him earlier!

The zit stands up and leaves, finding the conversation under-stimulating.

Vul’fovich notes that Dombrovskii has put a little rug under the zit’s chair to protect the old man’s ill legs from the draft in the floorboards and from the door.

As the zit leaves the room Dombrovskii says:

–  Look, they didn’t even give him proper accommodation for his services to the state. He’s got to share his home with me, a man who spent the past twenty years in prisons and camps…

This is a simple but remarkable story about Dombrovskii’s relationship to both the people around him and his own circumstances. The peculiarity of his relationship to the zit, and even the existence of such a character, highlights the complexity of life during the Soviet times. Victims and perpetrators were not only closely co-existing, but were often in a complex relationship with each other. Who is the victim in the above story? This is part of the problem in narrating and understanding Soviet history and it cannot be boiled down to a simple dichotomy of good and evil. Somehow everyone is a victim of the state surveillance and domination, yet this doesn’t mean that people can’t remain human and understanding towards each other. This is something that is evident in not only Dombrovskii’s writing but also in his life and character.

The Dombrovskii Stories Part I

So, here is the first of a few Dombrovskii stories:

Whilst walking through the city on a may afternoon in the 1970s, Dombrovskii noticed a collection of paintings on a wall of a building; they represented the great Soviet leaders. He stopped, looked up at the painting of Stalin and said: “are we really going to worship him again?” A man next to him replied: “You must be one of those rehabilitated ones…?” Dombrovskii turned to the man and punched him straight in the face.  A policeman turned up instantly and took Dombrovskii into custody. Arriving at the police headquarters he asked Dombrovskii:

“Do you at least know who that was?”

“Of course I do, it was Molotov“.

The policeman ascertained whether Dombrovskii’s insult was deliberate and after receiving a positive answer explained that he had to be severely punished for it.

“I will have to fine you….3 roubles!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

Dombrovskii scratched the back of his head and explained that he’d spent all his money in the restaurant. The policeman, after some consideration, unexpectedly offered to pay Dombrovskii’s fine himself.

And he let the writer go.

For Russian speakers, this story is told in a very lovely documentary about Dombrovskii and his wife Klara:

Dombrovsky and the problem of biography

One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century is Iurii Dombrovskii (or Dombrovsky). There, I said it and I stand by it. The title of this blog is taken from his great novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge/Things and I have spent many hours, days, weeks, and now years enjoying this novel. However, I am currently writing a short biography on him and find this a very frustrating experience. One of the reasons for this is that there are still some inconsistencies and gaps in his biography. (Peter Doyle’s book is so far the best and only summary of Dombrovsky’s life in English.) But what is more frustrating, and I think is the reason for many of the inconsistencies, is that Dombrovsky was such an inspiring character that the factual side of his biography is overshadowed by the interest in him personally.

Many articles on Dombrovsky (especially in Russian) focus on his extraordinary intelligence, humour and power. His life was not an easy one: he was arrested four times, exiled, imprisoned in camps and threatened and assaulted. Yet, the people who met him, and remember him, all point out that he remained unbroken by his experiences. This is precisely what makes his novels so amazing; whilst they depict the very stifling and dangerous life during the Stalinist 1930s, they also challenge this atmosphere with light, love, laughter and above all, creativity. Reading about Dombrovsky for the past few years I have found that many people who write about him, write anecdotally and this has to do with his inspiring and interesting character. So I thought that I would launch a little series on the blog called “The Dombrovsky Stories”.

Before I launch into that, here is a VERY brief biography of Dombrovsky.

Iurii Dombrovskii (Yury/Iury Dombrovsky) was born in Moscow in 1909. His mother was a biology teacher and his father a barrister and lawyer. Already in his youth he became known for his rebellious behaviour and defiance of authority. His father died when he was only ten years old and four years later was replaced by an authoritarian father with whom Dombrosvky often clashed.

In 1926 Dombrovsky decided upon the career of a writer and attended literary courses in Moscow until he was arrested in 1932 and exiled to Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan at the time. This first arrest is perhaps a good indication of both Dombrovsky’s character and the nature of Soviet legal system at the time. He was arrested for drunkenly tearing down a few flags from a building, leaving them in his room, and then failing to inform the authorities that he was in possession of stolen goods. He was sentenced with “political hooliganism” and exiled to Alma-Ata.

Dombrovsky in 1959

In Alma-Ata Dombrovsy worked as a school teacher, a museum keeper and script-writer and translator. He was exiled to Alma-Ata for twenty-four years, was arrested a further three times and spent around eleven years in prison and in camps. As soon as he managed to get any stability in his life he was again arrested. Although exile from Moscow was a punishment for Dombrovsky, he fell deeply in love with Alma-Ata and its history. Reading his two major novels, The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, one gets a clear sense of how much Dombrovsky admired the area. Both novels are based on his experiences in Alma-Ata and depict his arrest and interrogations. During this period Dombrovsky also wrote The Ape is Coming for its Skull, a novel about a Nazi invasion of a peaceful Western European town.

Between 1949 and 1955 Dombrovsky was incarcerated in a hard labour camp (Taishet Ozerlag). Upon his release he moved back to Moscow and received full rehabilitation in 1956. He continued translating Kazakh literature, writing articles on Russian and World literature, and focusing on his own writing. In 1961 he started writing his major novel The Keeper of Antiquities, which depicts the 1937 terror and is based on the time that Dombrovsky spent working in the Central Kazakhstan museum in the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral (more on that later). The book was finally published in 1964 in Novyi mir and was a great success with readers, however, it was treated to a silence by the critics as the anti-Stalinist sentiments of the Khrushchev era were no longer officially supported.

Despite the quiet response to The Keeper of Anantiquities, Dombrovsky received an advance for the sequel to the novel. (This is mainly due to the fact that his novel was greatly admired by the editorial committee at Novyi mir (with Aleksander Tvardovsky in charge), who would support his publications in private even if they couldn’t do so public.) Dombrovsky kept writing the sequel in secret for eleven years with no realistic hope of publishing it.

During this time Dombrovsky lived in a communal flat in Moscow and was under the watchful eye of the authorties. In 1969, after years of writing letters and hesitating, he married Klara Turumova. She was thirty years his junior and Dombrovsky was worried that she should commit herself to an ex-camp inmate with bad health and little income. However, their romance grew into a lifelong committment and love for each other. Today, she continues to promote Dombrovsky’s works and in 2010 she published Dombrovsky’s novel The Birth of a Mouse, which was thought to have been lost.

Having finished his novel after eleven laborious years, and knowing that he could never publish what he saw as his most important work, Dombrovsky made arrangements to publish it abroad. In 1978 The Faculty of Useless Knowledge was published in Paris, and was a great success. This triumph (indirectly) cost Dombrovsky his life. Only a few days later he was assaulted and severely beaten up at the Central Writer’s Club. He died soon after from an internal haemorrhage.

Dombrovsky not only wrote three incredible novels, but also a great collection of articles on both famous and long forgotten artists and writers (Shakespeare was one of his main interests). His knowledge of history and literature was encyclopedic and suffused with his love for these subjects. He also wrote many poems in which he depicts his experience of the Gulag, something that he otherwise doesn’t mention much. I shall discuss many of his works in future posts.

The Value of Arts and Humanities

Over the past few years, and in particular, the last two, the meaning and function of the University as an institution and the value of Arts and Humanities have come into question. This is mainly due to the fact that everything is seen through an economic prism at the time of austerity. There are very valid reasons for this but one also has to be aware of other value systems (something that the university provides). Despite the assault on the Humanities, I believe that crisis can be something positive. It leads to us questioning our positions and beliefs, and reasserting some while leaving others behind. In this weekend’s The Guardian “Review” section Stefan Collini writes about the “use of universities”, suggesting that seeing them purely on a market-based value is misunderstanding the point of them. Collini seems positive about universities’ meaning and people’s view of them:

“Whatever the reality of the experience of actually attending one of today’s semi-marketised, employment-oriented institutions, there remains a strong  popular desire that they should, at their best, incarnate a set of ‘aspirations and ideals’ that go beyond any form of economic return.

It is crucial that attempts to make the case for universities in present circumstances should not lose sight of this deep and pervasive conviction. In saying this I am certainly not forgetting or underestimating the degree of misunderstanding and hostility that universities, in England at least, have encountered from some politicians and some sections of the media over the past two or three decades. But I suspect that among the public at large there is, potentially, a much greater reservoir of interest in, and latent appreciation of, the work of universities than this narrow and defensive official discourse ever succeeds in tapping into.”(Review, Guardian, 25.02.12, p. 4)

I hope that Collini is right in his belief in people’s appreciation of universities (I shall see what his argument is once I’ve read the book). Whatever the truth is, it is obvious that the university is a very controversial subject at the moment and the Humanities even more so. At an event organised by King’s College in 2011 “What is the public value of Arts and Humanities?” many of the speakers agreed that although we were all there because we believe in these subjects, what the we have to become better at is articulating and arguing for the value of Arts and Humanities outside our spheres of comfort. One of my favourite arguments is by the comedian Stewart Lee, where he suggests that it is impossible to engage in a discussion of the value of the arts using the language of economics.

I created this blog because I deeply believe in the value of art and literature and intellectual, critical thinking. Arts and Humanities seem to have become “The Faculty of Economically Useless Knowledge”. But art helps us to survive as humans, which is evident in memoirs of Gulag survivors (among many others) where reciting poetry and telling stories literally saved your life and figuratively your soul. If this seems far-fetched in any way, Aung San Suu Kuy has recently clarified for me the importance of literature (and BBC it seems…). In her first Reith Lecture broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 28th of June 2011 she spoke of the meaning of Liberty for her and the people of Burma. In this lecture she referred to several works of fiction, intellectual thought and poetry, and how these helped her throughout her years of imprisonment: “Whenever I was asked at the end of each stretch of house arrest how it felt to be free, I would answer that I felt no different because my mind had always been free.” She further explains that “an inner sense of freedom can reinforce a practical drive for the more fundamental freedoms in the form of human rights and rule of law.” This inner freedom of which Aung San Suu Kuy speaks has been supported by literature of all kinds, in her lecture she quotes works by Akhmatova, Ratushinskaya, Isiah Berlin, Kipling and Vaclav Havel. She depicts a particularly dark episode of her internment when she kept thinking to herself “this is not me” and reinforces this episode with poetry:

“At that time, I had no recollection of Akhmatova’s lines: ‘No, this is not me. This is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that and all that happened.’ It was only much later, back in my own house but still under arrest, that these words of requiem came back to me. At the moment of remembrance, I felt almost as a physical force the strong bond that linked those of us who had only our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance.”

To me, this is the value of Arts and Humanities, of literature existing in its own right, of the opportunity to study and understand it. The value of the subjects under the umbrella of “Arts and Humanities” is an internal and personal value, but one that is equal to all people. It amazes and inspires me to think that the very real struggle of the Burmese people is somehow, even if very remotely, strengthened by poetry.* This is how something as seemingly abstract as poetry is transformed into something very practical.  As Aung San Suu Kuy suggests: “Akhmatova and Ratushinskaya were Russians. Henley was English. But the struggle to survive under oppression and the passion to be the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul is common to all races.” It is interesting that in a society that is seemingly free the value of arts is questioned, while for people in un-freedom (as Aung San Suu Kuy calls it), literature is one of the paths to freedom. Something worth thinking about more deeply perhaps?

Music and Silence Part I

Yes, I do realise that music and silence seem mutually exclusive, BUT it is possible (consider John Cage’s “4,33” for example). In Vasilii Grossman’s writing for example music leads to deep silent contemplation (see Krymov in Life and Fate). Silence has been a very popular point of literary and philosophical analysis over the past decades. For me the interest lies in its relationship to trauma, and its almost unchallenged status. In trauma studies silence marks an impossibility of responding to the overwhelming nature of the experience. Silence however, does not necessarily mean an absence of something, silence can be very charged and full of meaning.

One such instance that I particularly love and admire is the silence in the iconic Soviet spy-series “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (or Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii vesny). (big leap I know, but it only struck me recently how silent the film is) This miniseries is something that every Russian knows of and has seen. I remember its theme as a constant melancholy background in my childhood that made me wonder who this Shtirlitz is and what happened in those dark days of World War II. My father’s absolute love for the series also made me think that there must be something utterly exquisite about it. I also found that he was strikingly alike my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to meet but whose albums I used to spend hours looking through, seeing photos of him in his uniform on various marine missions. (My favourite one was a picture of him holding a huge bunch of bananas, now that was exotic!) It is only recently that I managed to watch the entire series and see the scene that everyone I know says is one of the most powerful cinematic moments. It is heart-breaking. The whole series is full of silence as Shtirlitz is a spy and thus carries an unspeakable secret; silence is at the centre of the story. In this scene however, Shtirlitz meets his wife in a cafe and cannot speak to her, due to the fact that he is a spy and cannot have any contact with his family. The two sit and look at each other across the room, like true “star-crossed lovers”. It is a very powerful scene that is made all the more moving due to the emotive and beautiful music that accompanies the scene. The music oddly highlights the silence in the scene. I also find it quite curious how the cafe in which they meet is called Elephant, and although there is no saying in Russian, there is one in English about “the elephant in the room”. So, it may only make sense to the English, but there is definitely an elephant in the room in this scene that creates the silence. Enjoy…

Narrating History

To continue on the theme of music…

I have been thinking a lot about how history is depicted and embraced by creative narratives. History informs many novels. Sometimes it is a backdrop and other times it is the very subject of the novel. As shown in the previous post, it can also be a subject of music, or an inspiration in music. Creativity does not happen in a vacuum but is a direct response to experience or knowledge. Our present becomes the future’s history and therefore responding to it may be rather complex. Does one make it personal or general, could it be both? How exactly does one depict events that are horrific or even traumatic? And how does one respond to events without becoming too dogmatic and judgemental but at the same time respond to them from a moral position? The recent investigations into the riots in London attempt to understand or explain history as it is happening. Perhaps, we are hoping to understand the present so as to make sure it will be remembered in a certain way, that it will fit in with some kind of a master narrative of Britain’s “lost decade”.

I believe that sometimes creativity allows for a different kind of memory. This year PJ Harvey was the first woman to win the Mercury Prize for a second time. I listened to her album before this was announced and I was very pleased to see something rather difficult being recognized as an outstanding contribution. By difficult I mean that the subject of the record is difficult, rather than than the music itself. Harvey deals with the darkest aspects of our present lives in sometimes rather horrific depictions. I was listening to the album on my way to the Grossman events in Oxford in September and the words: “death was everywhere, in the air and in the sounds coming off the mounds” took me straight to Stalingrad. BUT this was not written about a safely distant past but about our present. It made me wonder, what will people think of our era when they look back on this album?

What most fascinates me about this album is how listenable it is. Harvey explains this very well and I think her observations are very representative of a lot of art and fiction. I can both see Iurii Dombrovskii’s approach to literature where he depicts the Great Terror of 1937 through a very creative and uplifting language (more on that later). And the work of Grossman who depicts war through the “human emotional perspective” (Harvey’s words). In the interview with The Guardian below, Harvey explains the need to make the music on the album rather uplifting to support the heavy and dark lyrics. The interview is very interesting and it makes me happy to see such wonderful artists out there who respond to the traumas in our world by giving this suffering a voice.

I love the way that she suggests that the album belongs to the times and not to her. I think that shows the elusive nature of creativity, which is born within an individual but exists independently outside that individual.

I thought I would also attach a song from the album as an example and it is so hard to choose one. I’ve decided on the clip below as it is a performance in front of David Cameron and involves a little confrontation. Go Polly!