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Englishing Vladimir Vertlib

By David Burnett

Vladimir Vertlib (b. 1966 in Leningrad) is a contemporary Austrian writer. Reviewers in the German press have had trouble putting a label on him, referring to him alternately as a “Russian writer,” an “Austrian Russian,” a “Russian living in Austria,” a “Jewish-German writer of Russian origin,” a “German Jew,” an “Israeli living in Germany,” and even, dismayingly, as a “Hebrew author.” He himself makes no secret of his heritage, describing himself as a “Russian Jew writing in German and living at the moment in Austria.”

His first full-length novel, Way Stations (Zwischenstationen, 1999), was the semi-autobiographical account of his family’s emigration from Leningrad in the early 1970s, at a time when “the Soviet Union was certain to last at least another two hundred years.” The novel is told in the first person, from the perspective of an (unnamed) only child, reflecting on these formative years as his family moves from country to country in search of a better life. Israel, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, and the United States are stops along the way, before his ceaselessly quarreling parents grudgingly settle in Vienna.

Vertlib invites comparisons to younger immigrant writers in America: Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, David Bezmozgis, Ellen Litman, Irina Reyn, Anya Ulinich, Nadia Kalman or, more recently, Yelena Akhtiorskaya and Boris Fishman. With sometimes hard-to-pronounce, slightly obscure names—Vertlib rhymes with “fair” and “sheep” and means “worthy dear” in Yiddish—all of these writers have tackled the immigrant experience from a distinctly Soviet Russian Jewish perspective. Vertlib is the most historical in his approach, perhaps because his adopted homeland has such a heavy historical legacy. The Remarkable Memory of Rosa Masur (Das besondere Gedächtnis der Rosa Masur, 2001), Vertlib’s second novel, is a sprawling account of twentieth-century Russia, seen through the eyes of a ninety-something Russian Jewish woman. The heroine recounts her many trials and tribulations in late tsarist Russia and the early Soviet state, Leningrad under Nazi siege (boiling down wallpaper to eat the glue, among other indelible images), as well as her sometimes baffling experiences in turn-of-the-century Germany, which until very recently had taken in tens of thousands of “quota Jews” each year as refugees from the former Soviet Union in an effort to make amends for historical injustices.

But back to Way Stations, an excerpt from which appears in Words Without Borders. On the surface it’s a straightforward narrative. One thing occasionally struck me as challenging, though, and it’s the one thing I’ve never found an entirely satisfactory answer to in this business of translation. Almost anything can be translated, I feel, even potentially improved upon in translation, provided the translator is gifted and inspired, and lucky enough to be paired with the right book. The one thing that can pose a real problem, however, is dialogue. How to capture and find an equivalent for dialects and slang? Go “mid-Atlantic” and try not to offend anyone, at the risk of sounding insipid, or write with a single audience in mind, the one we know best? My American ears still have trouble when a character in an English translation of La plaça del Diamant, a Catalan novel from the early 1960s set in 1930s Barcelona, calls one man’s sexy (and unfaithful) wife a “dolly bird.” An older American translation I dug up says “doll.” The most recent British translator even changed the characters’ names. Hence Mateu becomes Matthew, Quimet is turned into Joe, and Cintet is called Ernie. Surprising choices in 2013, when the days of “domesticating” foreign novels are generally considered long gone.

That said, I was not surprised at a recent translators’ workshop to find myself arguing over issues of dialogue in Vertlib’s novel Way Stations. It was a very minor point. The question was how to translate a brief exchange between a Serbian cleaning woman named Yovanka and the narrator’s Russian mother. The scene in question takes place in early 1970s Vienna and was written in German. The dialogue is brief, the speaker slightly drunk. She begins in broken German (“Boss no here today. Boss sick!”), before “saying something friendly in Serbian” to the narrator’s mother about the then six-year-old narrator: “Lovely child you have.” The German original is rather neutral here: “Nettes Kind hast du.” It’s spoken in Serbian, addressed to a Russian (who would understand more or less what’s being said), and uses the informal you.

A participant in the workshop flagged the translation immediately, saying the register was off. A simple cleaning woman, the informal address—the translation has to reflect this in English. She suggested, “Nice kid ya got there.” I see where she’s coming from: a working-class woman speaking her mother tongue. Why not make the translation more colloquial and naturalistic?

I then tried to explain to the group what I think I was going for here, something I hadn’t even really been conscious of. (I found myself in that situation the Germans so neatly describe as Erklärungsnot, the need to justify and explain myself.) I claimed to be taking recourse to a tradition in American letters, in Jewish-American literature in particular, a tradition that to my mind has no equivalent in German. I was thinking, for example, of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, and the way dialogue was used in that seminal 1930s novel. When the narrator describes his boyhood on the streets of New York, engaging with other children, the language is coarse and rough (“Aintcha gonna play?”—“I don’ wanna.”—“W’yncha wanna?” “Cause I don’ wanna.”). Yet when he gets home and speaks with his poor immigrant mother in Yiddish—his mother who speaks no or little English—the language suddenly transcends their poverty and takes on a more formal, elevated tone. There is something almost poetic about these kitchen-sink dialogues (describing her homeland in Russia: “Nothing ever came to my hamlet except the snow and the rain”; or referring to her neighborhood in the new world: “Within this pale is my America, and if I ventured further I should be lost.”). I believe this is a conscious attempt to express the idealized sanctity of an immigrant home, the mother’s almost mythical purity in an otherwise murky and threatening world.

In another passage of Way Stations, set in Brighton Beach, I gave the Russian Jewish immigrant store owner, Liebmann, a different tone altogether, even though he’s probably speaking in Russian, native-tongue-in-foreign-context again. Talking to his smart-aleck young (Russian) assistant, Liebmann says, “Stop yakking and get to work [. . .], one more crack like that out of you and you’re fired. I can’t stand the sound of your voice anyway.” Here I tried to convey something else, a streetwise tone, not warm and cozy and idealized, but tough and determined. The man speaking, after all, is a successful upstart businessman, a former Soviet clerk who is now a “man of affairs,” as he sees it, in America no less (“Why you always got something to gripe about? America is the best place on earth . . .”). A little smugness, a little cheek seemed to fit perfectly here. It’s Malamud I’ve got in my ear this time, just a little; another landmark novel, The Assistant, this one from the 1950s. When Ida, the grocer’s wife, for example, chastises her husband, Morris, presumably in Yiddish, for shoveling snow with pneumonia: “Are you a baby you had to go out in the snow? What’s the matter with such a man?”—“I had my hat on. What am I, tissue paper?”

But that’s not being consistent, the other workshop participants claimed. Why formal here and informal there? There’s no trace of this in the German text, they said.

It’s all about context, I wanted to say. Unassailable foreignness in the one instance, and a dogged drive to assimilate in the other. All I could say in my defense at the end was that a translator has to make use of the linguistic and cultural resources at his disposal, which also has a personal dimension: all the books he himself has ever read, hopefully more good ones than bad. Only then will the risk of losing something be potentially offset by adding something new—a translator’s platitude, to be sure, but one that’s worth keeping in mind.

Anyway, who’s to say if Quimet isn’t really Joe?

Published Aug 22, 2014   Copyright 2014 David Burnett

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