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from the November 2008 issue

Translating to and from a Native Language

My first English word was KNIFE. I learned it at a preschool center run by the highbrow weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta for the children of its busy writers and editors.

It was like a boarding school where we were left Monday through Saturday. It sounds much more glamorous than it was in reality. In Russian, the boarding school was called disdainfully a shestidnevka, meaning "six-day care." The shestidnevka was a run-down villa surrounded by a tall iron fence on a side street off Bozhedomka Boulevard. Bozhedomka means "God's House," which is what the French call a Hotel Dieu, I suppose, a hospice for the poor and the infirm. Godless Bolsheviks had renamed it Dostoyevsky Street. Fyodor Mikhailovich's father worked as a physician at God's House.

No doubt because they felt guilty leaving their kids in the care of mean, semi-literate migrants straight out of some village along the upper Volga, the chain-smoking Literaturnaya Gazeta writers and editors hired someone to teach us English for an hour every week. There may have been other words she tried to get us to memorize, but I only remember that one: KNIFE.

Pronounced Ka-NAIF, with the second syllable midway between KNAVE and NAÏVE, I thought it was an excellent name for a dagger. Quite descriptive of what a stabbing would probably feel like. A jolt of resistance, a stutter just as the point enters the body—and then smooth sailing all the way in.

For a long time it was the only English word I knew, not counting the youth culture slang, such as SHUZY (for shoes), DZHINSY (for blue jeans), and the most coveted kind of DZHINSY, LEVYSA. It was disappointing to learn at the age of seventeen that the K had been silent all along. A KNIFE is not a weapon. It is an implement for spreading room-temperature butter on a slice of Wonder Bread.

By then I was already using French (poorly) and Italian (rather well). I could never have imagined that I would end up making a living writing in English.

I may be a more skilled writer in English, but Russian remains my mother tongue. It is wired into my brain. Some parts of me are made in Russian. Perhaps all of them. Certain processes, especially those which are central to being, come with Russian instructions. I can't conceive of them in any other way. I love writing in Russian. It flows so smoothly, it can be scary. Like the second syllable of the word Ka-NAIF.

I try to keep my Russian and English halves apart. If I have written a story in English, it should go on existing in English. If I were to translate it into Russian, I would have to rewrite it from scratch. Starting with the characters, which is where all stories start, anyway, even the ones that start with the plot, because only a certain kind of character can inhabit a certain kind of plot.

There was never any doubt about whether I would use a translator to render my American stories into Russian. The question was how to work with a translator if he is translating my work into what happens to be my mother tongue.

In my case, the best way was to ignore this fact.

I read the work of my translator, Andrei Gelasimov, before I met him and long before he became my translator. I liked his short story collection, which had a funny title, Fox Mulder Looks Like a Pig. I particularly liked the way he wrote about women. A man writing a first-person narrative in a female voice is a form of travel writing, and travel writing can be quite revealing. I like reading about places I have been to myself, and to compare what the writer chooses to write about—and how.

One night I was talking to Dmitry Itzkovich, the publisher of OGI, a small Russian literary press. At the time OGI also owned a restaurant, called OGI Street, and Itzkovich doubled as restaurateur and host. OGI Street was designed by an architect who spent a lot of time in New York, and the restaurant's design was reminiscent of SoHo circa 1975, with tables arranged intimately on rusted steel balconies that looked like downtown fire escapes.

Over a grain-alcohol concoction known as Solomonchik, I told Itzkovich that I thought Gelasimov's stories were consonant with some of mine, and since OGI had published his stories, perhaps, I asked, they might want to take a look at my work. Would there be someone to show my work to, someone who could read English?

"Why don't you try showing them to Gelasimov?" said Itzkovich. "He knows English. He has a degree in English literature. He worked on Oscar Wilde."

I decided from the start that I would not meddle in Gelasimov's translation in any way. I wouldn't have had much control over his work if he were translating me into Hungarian, for example. Why should I have any say in a Russian translation?

This doesn't mean that I always agreed with his reading of my characters, or the way some of them were rendered in Russian. Every culture has a particular way of visualizing other cultures. To Russians, Americans have their own way of behaving, speaking, and thinking. It may not necessarily be how Americans perceive themselves. I have an American friend living in Moscow whose favorite pastime it is to see translated American plays in Russian theaters.

For him, the effect of Russian stagings of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller is unintentionally comic. However, Russian audiences do not share in the hilarity. They are often moved to tears and cast scornful glaces at the snickering foreigner in their midst. For them, the characters on stage are authentically American—the way they expect Americans to be.

Being Russian, I can feel these stereotypes, but only if I strip myself of my own knowledge of America, of what I have learned from having lived here for thirty-odd years and seeing it from "within and without," to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald in a somewhat different context.

Gelasimov's job was to assimilate my characters into the particular mode of the Russian cultural vision of America. I suppose this is the goal of all literary translation. He did it seamlessly because he was assimilating them into his own culture.

For me, when I decided to reciprocate and translate Gelasimov into English, the task was quite different. I didn't have the luxury of being able to read his work as an American, armed with equally ridiculous American stereotypes of Russia. Being a native Russian, I empathized with the characters too closely to be able to bastardize them so readily into an American version of Russians.

Gelasimov tends to write first-person narratives. After getting his degree in English literature, he studied to be a theater director. I found myself translating his stories like an actor, first getting in character and then narrating them in English from their point of view.

It ended up being a two-stage process. My first draft was highly idiosyncratic, sounding quite a bit like a recent Russian immigrant. I had to put the first draft aside, let it steep in its own juices, and then edit it into English. In retrospect, I realize this was a process not unlike my own immigration, each character making a journey I myself had to. When I first came to this country and went to college, I wanted to write like a Russian. English seemed too boring to me, too understated, not sufficiently florid. I rebelled against the need to express myself with such niggardly economy.

I came here relatively young, at the age of seventeen, but even then there was no going back. Whether I liked it or not, I had already been formed a Russian. It is a much more fundamental reality than the urge to pronounce that silent "K" in KNIFE. Even at the tender age of seventeen, there was no way of rewiring the brain or translating the instructions for being. I had to find an English voice for them, just as I had to place Gelasimov's characters into English language circumstances.

No wonder they kept rebelling. I sympathized with them. Our stories sound so much smoother in Russian.

Copyright 2008 by Alexei Bayer. All rights reserved.

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