This week I interviewed my second translator for New Books in Historical Fiction. As luck would have it, both books were originally published in Russian. The first interview, Liv Bliss discussing Dmitry Chen’s The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, focuses on Central Asia and Iran in the mid-eighth century and can be considered classic historical fiction. This week’s interview with Oliver Ready comes closer to historical fantasy, but not the kind that involves vampires or werewolves or even the spirit messengers that enliven my Legends of the Five Directions series, who are not intended to be “real” so much as natural elements of the world as understood by my characters. Rather, as you can see from the description below, Sharov’s narrator challenges the facts of biology as well as history.
I have not read either novel in the original, but I was struck in both cases by how smoothly the translators rendered these complex stories into English. So I thought that for this week’s post it would be interesting to chat a bit not only about translation as an art but about art as a form of translation. Good translators do not mechanically match words between languages. Instead, they seek equivalent expressions, words that carry the right connotations, phrases and images that can evoke in readers of the target culture an experience similar to that produced in readers of the original culture. This enterprise includes an element of creativity, a sensitivity to language and social systems, that machine translation systems—remarkable as they are—simply cannot provide.
But authors, too, perform a kind of translation. Artists (writers, dancers, athletes, performers) yearn for the state of creativity that psychologists call “flow,” where the ego disappears and the artist becomes wholly absorbed by the activity. It feels like transcendence, as Sasha tries to explain to Danion in Desert Flower.A writer in “flow” does not experience him- or herself as creating but as recording a film or tape made up of characters’ actions, emotions, and words, of settings and costumes. The film originates in the writer’s imagination but appears to come from outside. The subconscious takes over, the writer becomes a translator—and many writers see themselves as at best inadequate to convey the images playing out in their minds.
Writers need good translators. Characters need good writer/translators. And readers need both, if they are to enjoy the full benefit of others’ creativity at work. So let’s hear it for the art of translation—and the translation of art.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.
Historical fiction, by definition, supplements the verifiable documentary record with elements of the imagination. Otherwise, it is not fiction but history. These elements often include invented characters, made-up dialogue, the filling in of vague or unknowable events and personalities. Through the more or less careful manipulation of historical truth, the novelist seeks to uncover a deeper emotional truth that speaks to both the reality of a past time and the needs of the present.
Before and During (Dedalus Books, 2014)—Vladimir Sharov’s exploration of Soviet life and the revolutionary movement that preceded it, skillfully translated by Oliver Ready—pushes historical invention to its limits. Set in a Moscow psychiatric hospital circa 1965, the novel follows a patient identified only as Alyosha as he pursues his self-assigned quest to create a Memorial Book of the Dead, à la Ivan the Terrible, by recording the life stories of those around him and people of importance in his own past. One fellow-patient, Ifraimov, launches into a long and fantastical account of reincarnation, philosophy, revolution, free love, and incest that sweeps from Mme de Staël and Lev Tolstoy to Lenin and Stalin—assiduously recorded by Alyosha.
As Sharov’s English-language publisher puts it, “Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies—all described in a serious, steady voice—Sharov seeks to retrieve the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation, and God.” It’s quite a ride. But if you love Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, this book’s for you.