Interview: Arch Tait
PEN: What are some of the challenges of taking a best-selling, well-known work from its native language and translating it for a foreign audience?
It’s less a challenge than a delight! This is an epic novel, by a profoundly thoughtful writer. It moves through Poland, Russia, Belorussia, Germany, America, Palestine, Israel, and the Vatican, so that in purely technical terms there were a lot of names and titles to be checked, a lot of scriptural quotations to be located and names of religious festivals to get right, but otherwise Ludmila writes elegant classical Russian prose which is a joy to translate. I hope the English-speaking world will find it as fascinating as it has proved to Russians and many other nationalities.
PEN: What is your philosophy on translation?
In principle, I think you should be prepared to translate anything you believe will be of interest to a significant audience in the English-speaking world. It was necessary for Hitler’s Mein Kampf to be translated, and I don’t think translators should try to act as censors. At the same time, Russia is a very polarized country, and when your authors are murdered by the regime. You need to keep your eyes open to what you are being asked to do and by whom.
In present-day Russia the major ethical issue relates to the value of the individual life, and Ludmila is active both in the charitable sector with an educational publishing venture for children; in politics in her support of the imprisoned oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky; and in speaking out against the implicit contempt for human life of the Putin regime. Might is not right.
PEN: How closely did you work together on the translation process?
Ludmila is very conscientious about answering translation queries, although in the end I could only raise four about Daniel Stein. One turned out to be a reference to the title of her next novel, and another was the popular term for a chemical preparation called Ammonium nitrate fuel oil loader. Ludmila’s son speaks perfect English, and he keeps an eye on how she is being translated.
PEN: The mix of narrative and “documents” in the book posed a unique challenge for both author and translator; can you speak to what effect, if any, the unique, “multi-voice” format had on your experience of translation?
There are two characters with strong vernacular voices in the novel, and the general rule for translators is to turn down the volume in such cases. One is a strong-willed but little educated lady who writes angry, rambling letters, and one way of conveying that is with eccentric punctuation. Otherwise, you instinctively vary the voices as you translate. Working on the fourth draft, I thought about who the characters reminded me of in my own life and I tried to hear those people speaking the text.
This was not an easy way to write a novel, with the organising and orchestration of all these documents, interviews, reminiscences, reports, and diaries. Like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Ludmila used fiction to present a more comprehensive truth than a conventional history.
An unusual feature is that the direct narrative voice comes at the end of each of the five parts of the novel, where there is a letter from the Ludmila to her friend and agent, Elena Kostioukovitch, describing the circumstances and difficulties and her emotions in respect to the latest portion of text she is forwarding. In her first letter she says she is writing “a novel, or whatever it will be called,” and sums up the preoccupations of the finished writing very economically: “inconvenient issues which nobody talks about: the value of a life turned into mush beneath one’s feet; the freedom which few people want; God, for whom there is ever less room in our life.” She summarised what she learned from writing the book when she said, “I recognise that what you believe doesn’t matter in the slightest. All that matters is how you personally behave.”