Motifs and Leitmotifs in Russian and English
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Translating The Black Pelican by Vadim Babenko
(Please note: a more readable version with footnotes is available on request)
Translating The Black Pelican by Vadim Babenko has offered the opportunity to re-examine a problem that is not unfamiliar, but always challenging for a translator: Can the idiosyncratic motifs and leitmotifs of the original be retained in translation to a greater or lesser extent, or does the translator have to create new ones based on (a) the internal logic of the target language, (b) a predecessor in that language with a comparable diction, or (c) her own understanding of style as derived from the original? Furthermore, presuming that the translator prefers the creation of new rhythmic motifs and leitmotifs, how far shall she depart from the form of the original text, and on what basis or according to what logic?
In the wake of the postmodern era it would seem that anything is possible. What prevents you from retaining the style of the original, no matter how clumsy it sounds in English, and claiming that this is your own way of writing, or, even better, the latest seminal development in the language? Despite myriad objections to this type of translation, you can buttress your arguments by citing postmodern theory, with a slew of examples to shore up your position. You can point to Anglo-American narratives where there is no punctuation at all, or texts that just run series of words together without any readily apparent rhyme or reason. If that is possible, you say, then why can’t commas in contemporary English act like their equals in multireferential Russian novellas and novels? Why is it unacceptable to narrate in the passive voice, with impersonal constructions or multiple introductory clauses entrenched around the subject and predicate? After all, not only are there no hard and fast rules in art, but otherwise the translation will sound monotonous and tedious (subject, predicate, object ad nauseam), not to mention the ensuing loss of the original heterogeneity.
Not only are relativism, progress and pseudo creativity on your side, but you will also have a satisfied author: she will see the style of her original text reflected in the translation. She will know how to read it, understanding the relationships between the parts, understanding that “which” modifies the genitive not the object and that “it” refers to “the material” not the “needle.” Her eye will glide lightly from clause to clause, stitching its way across the fabric of the piece with knowledge that a reader other than the author cannot have access to, even on a second or third perusal of the story.
Attempting to avoid the creation of an English text that goes beyond the horizons of an Anglo-American reader has induced me to render Russian and German literature in English by coming up with a tentative native-language paradigm for the translation. Either this process can be arbitrary, in that I want to explore the effect of translating a narrative by expanding its scope through an Anglo-American literary predecessor, or it can take the form of systematic considerations requiring reflection on contemporary readers, literature, trends, etc. and a latter-day writer suited for the given instance. In each case, however, it limits any experiments in translation to the scope of an acknowledged writer in the target language. After reading Babenko’s text, I decided that his patently idiosyncratic approach to writing as well as the theme of “finding yourself” in an introspective search against the backdrop of mystery and storytelling lent themselves well to a postmodern writer with a distinct style on the fringe of mystery, but actually pursuing the question of identity. This shimmered of contemporary American writer Paul Auster, whose work at times has basted the plot to create common ground, while he has explored spiritual questions critical to the contemporary understanding of mankind. This choice of an American author as the model then informed nearly every detail in my approach to the translation: the fragmentation of sentences, repetition, rhythm, lightness, flow, assonance, deixis, etc.
By way of introduction, let us take a look at the opening paragraphs of The Black Pelican by Vadim Babenko and Moon Palace from Paul Auster. The translation of the Russian passage is an attempt to capture the tenor of the original for readers not versed in Cyrillic:
Я и сейчас хорошо помню свое появление в городе М. Оно растянулось во времени – путешествие было долгим, осаждавшие меня мысли переплетались с дорожными картинами, и казалось, видимое вокруг уже имеет отношение к самому городу, хоть до него еще было несколько часов пути. Я проезжал мимо фермерских владений, затерянных в безлюдье, мимо небольших поселков или одиноких поместий с возделанной зеленью вокруг, мимо полей и лесистых холмов, искусственных прудов и диких озер, от которых уже попахивало болотом – затем, около самого города М., оно переходит в торфяники и пустошь, где на многие мили нет никакого жилья. Попадались скромные городки – шоссе ненадолго становилось их главной улицей, мелькали площади, скопления магазинов, потом, ближе к центру, банки и церкви, проносилась колокольня, обычно молчащая, затем вновь мельтешили окраинные пейзажи с магазинами и бензоколонками, и все: город кончался, не успев ни взволновать, ни заинтересовать, дорога снова вилась меж полей, утомляя однообразием. Я видел странных людей, которыми кишит провинция – они предстают забавными на короткий миг, но потом, соизмерив их с окружающим, понимаешь, как они обыденны, и перестаешь замечать. Кое-где мне махали с обочин или просто провожали взглядом, чаще же никто не отвлекался на мое мгновенное присутствие, оставаясь позади, растворяясь в улицах, отходящих в стороны от шоссе.
Translation in Russian style: Even now I remember my arrival in the town of M very well. It stretched through time – the trip was long, the thoughts plaguing me mingled with the road sights, and it seemed that the surroundings were already related to the town itself, even though several hours of travel still remained until I reached it. I passed farm houses lost in the absence of people, small villages or lonely estates surrounded by cultivated greenery, fields and forested hills, man-made ponds and natural lakes already smelling of swamp, which later, right next to the town of M., became peat bogs and wasteland, where there was no habitation for miles. From time to time there were modest towns, and the highway became their main street for a short while; there glimmered squares, clusters of shops, then, closer to the center, banks and churches, the bell tower, usually silent, would flash by, then again outlying landscapes with shops and gas stations flickered by, and that’s all: the town would end, failing either to arouse or captivate, and the road again wound between the fields, tiring one with its monotony. I saw strange people swarming in the countryside; they appear amusing for a fleeting moment, but then, having measured them against the surroundings, you understand how unexceptional they are and stop noticing them. In places, people waved from the side of the road or just stared, but more often, nobody was distracted by my fleeting presence, remaining behind, melting into the streets, which receded to the sides of the road.
Some pellucid observations concerning Babenko’s overture here might include mention of rather long sentences where commas act as periods or semicolons have in more conventional texts, along with both a philosophical voice in the impersonally narrated passages and an almost didactic approach to description in the multiple clauses that integrate no less than smells, space and time. The paragraph moves fluidly from the personal experiences of the first person narrator to almost general philosophical statements about traveling and driving through the countryside, the latter being recorded by an impersonal narrator, reflexive verbs or having inanimate objects act as the subject of sentences and clauses. Although I will address each sentence in detail later, it is worth noting that all these features of Babenko’s prose are to a greater or lesser extent fully in the tradition of Russian literature, especially the literature of the last twenty years (see Andrey Dmitriev, Sergey Zalygin, Pavel Majlakhs, Irina Polyanskaya, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, etc.), whereas they are largely absent or not prominent in Anglo-American literature of comparable stature (Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Solomon Rushdie, John Updike, Toni Morrison, etc.).
Here we have the opening to Moon Palace by Paul Auster, the overriding style of which is, I hope, sufficiently apparent in these proemial words to give a feel for the rhythmic leitmotif of the first person narrator in the novella:
It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it. Little by little, I saw my money dwindle to zero; I lost my apartment; I would up living in the streets. If not for a girl named Kitty Wu, I probably would have starved to death. I had met her by chance only a short time before, but eventually I came to see that chance as a form of readiness, a way of saving myself through the minds of others. That was the first part. From then on, strange things happened to me. I took the job with the old man in the wheelchair. I found out who my father was. I walked across the desert from Utah to California. That was a long time ago, of course, but I remember those days well, I remember them as the beginning of my life.
Among other things that stand out here is the frequency of the subject “I”. Whereas the first person personal pronoun appears three times in Babenko’s overture, it surfaces so often in this passage there is no point in counting. One might add that this is not peculiar to Anglo-American postmodern authors, though it is by no means a rule. What does however come close to being a rule in contemporary English is the use of transitive, intransitive and linking verbs as opposed to reflexive verbs and the passive voice. Both first and third person narration across Anglo-American literature at the end of the twentieth century has preferred the active to the passive voice, while rendering reflexive verbs increasingly obsolete. More specific to Paul Auster and his style of writing is the absence of some conjunctions almost entirely, along with the repetition of others. In this opening paragraph, reminding you of a prologue that outlines the general course of events, there are almost no conjunctions and the one you do find (“but”) is repeated three times, rather than being replaced with other linking words that have the same meaning or convey the same idea (e.g. yet, however, though, although). Furthermore, the sentences and clauses tend to be concise, flowing so seamlessly from one to the next that it appears as if there were no pause between them – a kind of stream of consciousness with breaks.
In a sense the narrator in Babenko’s text is trying to achieve an effect similar to Auster as he recounts the experience of travelling to M. Yet his rendition is thoroughly different once you reach the second sentence. It assimilates a series of impressions – a chaos of temporal, external and internal events – in a disguised list separated by hyphens and commas:
Я и сейчас хорошо помню свое появление в городе М. Оно растянулось во времени – путешествие было долгим, осаждавшие меня мысли переплетались с дорожными картинами, и казалось, видимое вокруг уже имеет отношение к самому городу, хоть до него еще было несколько часов пути.
Russian English: Even now I remember my arrival in the town of M (very well). It stretched through time – the trip was long, the thoughts plaguing me mingled with the road sights, and it seemed that the surroundings were already related to the town itself, even though several hours of travel still remained until I reached it.
Even this “Russian English” text has been altered to make it slightly more plausible in translation, as the original does not in fact make any mention of an individual, i.e. an “I”, after the first sentence. The end of this passage reads something more along the lines of “even though there were still several hours of travel to it,” rather than someone with hours to drive until they reach it. Leaving aside the impending personalization of the experience for a moment, a sentence like this, even with a few modifications to make it a little more poetic, calls forth Marcel Proust initially, and my attempt to find an Anglo-American counterpart to him, even James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, meets with difficulty. This is compounded by my knowledge of the novel as a whole, one in which the protagonist Vitus is searching for his identity in a world imbued with mystery and uncertainty. By choosing Paul Auster, an author whose work has explored similar themes while retaining a distinct style, it becomes necessary not only to personalize the experience in the Anglo-American manner, but also to break down the sentence, shifting from what becomes Babenko’s elaborate eloquence in English to a translation in the austere style of Auster. In this case, someone needs to experience the several hours remaining until he (the first person narrator) reaches the town, and most importantly the sentence must be rendered in a fashion that will begin to introduce the leitmotif for the first person narrator – and not one in search of lost time. When you look at the passage we quoted above from Moon Palace and especially if you read the novella itself, it is apparent that Paul Auster has created a leitmotif for his first person narrator as clearly as Hemmingway once did for his protagonists, one that exalts succinct narration with short sentences and a subject either opening the sentence or following a very brief prepositional phrase.
It stretched through time – the trip was long, the thoughts plaguing me mingled with the road sights. It seemed that the surroundings were already related to the town itself, even though several hours of travel still remained until I reached it.
Yet this does little to make the passage resemble anything suggesting the rhythm of the prelude to Moon Palace. The first sentence of our curtailed passage is now an odd mixture of hyphens and commas being employed to perform the traditional role of the semicolon: separate independent clauses that are related to each other. One option here would be to return to the semicolon for a traditional formulation; another is to use commas in a postmodern rendition of the sentence. Before we make this decision, however, a question crops up in the process: What does the first pronoun “it” refer to? And for this, we need to look at the relationship of this clause to the surrounding ones.
Я и сейчас хорошо помню свое появление в городе М.
Even now I remember my arrival in the town of M very well.
In English the phrase “even now” may not make “very well” redundant, since it is possible to remember poorly or decently even now, but it sounds both awkward here in the meter of the sentence, and the lengthy description of this arrival in the subsequent lines makes it evident that the narrator remembers the experience very well. Otherwise there is nothing ostensibly implausible or odd about this Russian English sentence, even in relation to what we shall call Austerian style. Nevertheless, on returning to the following sentence, we notice that the “it” from “it stretched through time” seemingly refers to this “arrival”, and an arrival in English cannot stretch through time. It just happens. We also have this fragment “the trip was long”, which is perhaps, in a postmodern reading, the referent of “it” and certainly in English the only thing that can stretch through time. As is often the case, you cannot present any objective argument against leaving the sentence as I have rendered it above (as it reads in Russian) and requiring flexibility and creativity from the reader. She will understand the referent of “it”, this translator argues. It will be apparent for precisely the reason that if this pronoun cannot be assigned to the preceding noun, then it must be attributable to the following one. Nevertheless such a translator will find it more difficult to refute the claim that this is not the language of Auster, whatever the advantages or drawbacks of such a stylistic alteration entail in the modified text. It was a variety of thoughts that made me decide to replace “arrival” with “long road.” This was partially due to what “stretched through time” and the ensuing readability of this second sentence in Babenko’s text, partially on account of the subsequent description of his trip to the town of M., the subject of the first paragraph. This decision did cost me the global effect of the first sentence, which in Russian suggests the commencement of an involved experience, whereas my formulation circumscribes the memory to the road there (perhaps also an Austerian feature, focusing on the specific at the expense of the all-encompassing). I also felt that “it stretched through time” was too wordy, somehow too grandiloquent and not suited to the rigor of Auster’s prose. “Dragged on” seemed to be more in line with the vocabulary not only of my prototype, but those people who were likely to read a novel about the search for identity in a mysterious place. Hence the result:
To this day I remember the long road to the town of M. It dragged on and on, while the thoughts plaguing me mingled with the scenes along the way. It seemed as if my surroundings were already at one with the town itself, although I still had a few hours to go.
With a couple other alterations, I came to this conclusion. To avoid excess choppiness, I linked the clauses with conjunctions, preferring them to semicolons on account of both the smoothness and the indirect relations between the parts of the sentences. Obviously a repetition of “road” was impossible, even if Auster likes repetition, and “road” as a modifier is acceptable. Is “at one” more poetic than “related”? I think so. Does the sentence flow better with “at one”? Again, these are highly subjective questions that cannot be answered authoritatively one way or the other. I do find the clause “although I still had a few hours to go” somewhat more elliptical than the Russian, where the time remaining to the town of M is sufficiently clear to avoid the pedantry of specifying the place, but in English this would suppress the leitmotif I am trying to create for the first person narrator. Another classic feature of contemporary Anglo-American writing and especially my paradigm is acceptance for verbs with prepositions, and verbs themselves, at the end of either sentences or clauses. Auster exploits this relatively recent flexibility in narrative English as extensively as any – and not without success. For it lends his texts a colloquial feel, almost an oral nature, which suits his storytelling and the proximity to the reader that he desires.
When we reach the third sentence in the original, a new set of problems emerges for the translator and her translation.
Я проезжал мимо фермерских владений, затерянных в безлюдье, мимо небольших поселков или одиноких поместий с возделанной зеленью вокруг, мимо полей и лесистых холмов, искусственных прудов и диких озер, от которых уже попахивало болотом – затем, около самого города М., оно переходит в торфяники и пустошь, где на многие мили нет никакого жилья.
Russian English: I passed farm houses lost in the absence of people, small villages or lonely estates surrounded by cultivated greenery, fields and forested hills, man-made ponds and natural lakes already smelling of swamp, which later, right next to the town of M., became peat bogs and wasteland, where there was no habitation for miles.
Certain ideas are invariably lost in the transformation of a text from one language to another. Ideally the loss is offset by preparing a translation that adds something, too. This is the case, inter alia, with the idea behind затерянный, which means “lost in such a way as is difficult to find.” But when this type of loss comes to houses in the countryside, in an independent relative clause, in a list where the English language refuses to accept an equivalent construction such as “farms, which were hard to find or were lost and hard to find in the deserted fields,” because the sentence will confuse the reader by taking him on constant detours, it is necessary to apply затерянный as the modifier for “farms” in such a way as to convey their difficulty to find. In this case I was lucky enough to have at my disposal an adjective in English that conveys the idea of “not easily distinguished” and thus necessitates “difficult to find.” “Obscure” does relinquish its hold on the idea that the house is now in this state because it had been lost earlier, but for that it hints at the possibility of closing in on a truth enshrouded in mystery if it is uncovered, like the discovery of an obscure poet from the Middle Ages. Furthermore, obscurity is one of the defining features in this first chapter of Babenko’s novel, and if you struggle through it, you will be rewarded by a baffling conversation between the protagonist and an innkeeper, setting the stage for the search. Hence, I replaced “farm houses lost…” with “obscure farms,” again favoring the inference – in this case to a house – over the specificity of the compound noun “farm houses” with the resulting monotony of nouns preceded by single adjectives (empty fields, small villages, etc.) The Russian may say that these farms were literally lost in the absence of people, but a more natural description of a landscape without people in English is one that is “empty,” especially if you desire a neutral adjective like the Russian noun, which does not suggest that people have left the area – as “deserted” or “abandoned” invariably would with their implication of a prior state.
This brings us to the question of long lists. No matter how you read the original, it is more or less a list up to the first “which” in the translation. It is not, however, a grocery list, but rather one constantly interrupted by elaborate description: the houses are lost, the estates – cultivated by greenery, the natural lakes – smelling of swamp. In English the long list together with the embracement of modifying clauses explodes the translation, especially its literary quality. The reader is unable to move along as the thread gets caught in the bobbin. Not only would such a translation reflect a poor understanding of the English language, it would also be the antithesis of the transparency and succinctness of Auster’s writing. Consequently, I broke down the sentence and added a couple of flourishes to come out with:
I passed obscure farms in empty fields, small villages and lonely estates surrounded by cultivated greenery and forest hills. Man-made ponds and natural lakes skirted the road and reeked like wetlands, which later, right before the town of M., turned into peat bogs and wasteland, with no sign of life for miles to come.
I feel that if you are going to use a verb, for example, that is not in the original texts, then you may as well make it poetic or have some motive for its inclusion other than just the simple acoustics of the sentence. The latter point is of primary importance, but the act of addition leaves so much room for creativity that you may as well combine the primary objective with an incidental one. This was the thinking behind “skirted,” which is not in the original and was conceived for the disruption of the list. The other addition, the “to come” in “for miles to come,” is perhaps a mere necessity, one borne of the impossibility of ending the sentence with just “for miles,” though at best it again draws the reader into the narrative by affirming the author’s intent to speak the former’s language à la Auster.
In the sentences that follow, the narrator shifts from the first person perspective describing a personal experience to that of an objective narrator attempting to capture the general feeling of driving through a small rural town. Such narrative movement is smooth and common in Russian, where you can often leave out the subject, place it after the predicate and use as many reflexive verbs as you like. It is not so easy in Anglo-American diction. Since English almost invariably requires the subject to precede the verb, the result is often clauses that are weighted too heavily to the front, i.e. with too many nouns before the predicate and none succeeding it; and you are often ultimately required to introduce some individual who can experience the events: either “me”, “you”, or “one”. Here are the Russian original and two English variations:
Попадались скромные городки – шоссе ненадолго становилось их главной улицей, мелькали площади, скопления магазинов, потом, ближе к центру, банки и церкви, проносилась колокольня, обычно молчащая, затем вновь мельтешили окраинные пейзажи с магазинами и бензоколонками, и все: город кончался, не успев ни взволновать, ни заинтересовать, дорога снова вилась меж полей, утомляя однообразием.
Russian English: From time to time there were modest towns, and the highway became their main street for a short while; there glimmered squares, clusters of shops, then, closer to the center, banks and churches, the bell tower, usually silent, would flash by, then again outlying landscapes with shops and gas stations flickered by, and that’s all: the town would end, failing either to arouse or captivate, and the road again wound between the fields, tiring one with its monotony.
Final version: The countryside was dotted with humble towns sprouting out of the land, the highway briefly becoming their main street: squares and clusters of stores gleamed in the sun, banks and churches rose up closer to the center, the belfry whizzed by, silent as usual. Then the glint of the stores and gas stations at the outskirts gave rise to irritation again, and just like that, it was over. The town was gone, without having time to agitate or interest you. Again the road wound its way through the fields, its monotony wearing you down.
Although it is possible to retain the generalized tone of this passage for a good while, I did indeed choose “you” to experience it. Someone has to experience the agitation and interest, even if the rather academic register of “gave rise” managed to hold off the personal pronoun for a while. If I had selected the first person narrator, which might have provided the most seamless read, I would have reduced the introduction of a potentially philosophical narrator to naught and eliminated the philosophical orientation of the text from the start. This would also presumably have dictated my handling of future passages of this kind, thus shifting from narrative polyphony to a monophonic text. Furthermore, Auster too shifts from his predominantly first person narrative to impersonal narration in the form of “you” to cogitate over – if not philosophical, then at least – general empirical findings.
Would the traditional semicolon have been preferable to the comma when separating the stores from the churches and the belfry? Again I leaned on Auster in this case, and while semicolons emerge here and commas there in the separation of his independent clauses, I found commas apt for the purpose of indicating the virtual coalescence of the images in the mind of their viewer. In theory, the comma indicates a closer connection of the events than a semicolon or period. In fact, it often confuses the reader who usually does not have sufficient indicators in English to know the role of the noun preceding and following the comma, so that she reads both e.g. as objects when the latter is the subject of the next clause. This is the advantage of the semicolon. Nevertheless, a text with a distinct style should be able to develop the trust of the reader and lead her smoothly over such passages.
It is furthermore interesting to note that this passage, separate from the body of the text, ends too abruptly without the subsequent sentence (I saw the strange people…”), which provides the support necessary for the culmination of the shift from elaborate, descriptive clauses to quick, terse ones. The following sentence not only returns the reader to the safe haven of the first person narrator, but also feeds her into the upcoming section as you guide the selvage along the line marking 5/8 of an inch on the sewing machine.
Finally, in the last few sentences of the paragraph, I attempted to move away from some of the linguistic nuances in the middle and establish the rhythmic leitmotif of the first person narrator. This diminished the diversity of the central section for the benefit of settling into a rhythm that the narrative can sustain.
Final version: I saw the strange people that swarm over the countryside – for a fleeting moment they appear amusing, but then you measure them against their surroundings and stop noticing them, understanding how unexceptional they are. Sometimes people waved to me from the curb or just followed me with their eyes, though more often than not, nobody was distracted by my fleeting presence. Left behind, they merged with the streets, as they withdrew to the side.
This passage also raises the question of tense and returns us to the subject of whether to integrate the philosophical voice of the Russian original, which is consistent with the broad scope of the Russian literary tradition, or to refrain from this voice and place the narrative squarely in the experienced moment of the past. Instead of saying: “I saw the strange people that swarm over the countryside,” you would say: “I saw the strange people that swarmed over the countryside.” And after the hyphen the tense of each verb would also be switched to the past in order to set them in their proper time. But like the question of whether “you” or “I” should experience the events, here too we have a question of range. For whatever reason the tradition of Anglo-American literature has etiolated the philosophical voice of writers, this has not occurred in Russia, although this voice has been treated ironically in some instances. Nevertheless, my prototype once again offered firm interfacing for the knit, since there, too, I found the empirical “you” speaking in the present tense, while the first person narrator stuck to the past. And while the more measured meter of the last two sentences does not attain the fluidity of Auster’s prose, it does point the reader in the direction Anglo-American elegance in writing without the impediment of multiple independent clauses and lists of great length. This impression is then reinforced by the following paragraph:
Final version: At last the fields disappeared and real swamps engulfed the road – a damp, unhealthy moor. Clouds of insects smashed into the windshield; the air became heavy. Nature seemed to be bearing down on me, barely letting me breath, but that didn’t last long. Soon I drove up a hill. The swamps remained a bit to the east, retreating to the invisible ocean in a smooth line overgrown with wild shrubs. Now the trees grew together densely, casting the illegible calligraphy of their shadows over the road. Several miles ahead, the road became wider, and a sign said that I had crossed the town limits of M.
It is the first two paragraphs of the translation that seek to establish the leitmotif of the narrator, while briefly hinting at other rhythmic motifs, primarily the philosophical one, to be developed potentially in other voices. Here is the passage in its entirety:
To this day I remember the long road to the town of M. It dragged on and on, while the thoughts plaguing me mingled with the scenes along the way. It seemed as if my surroundings were already at one with the town itself, although I still had a few hours to go. I passed obscure farms in empty fields, small villages and lonely estates surrounded by cultivated greenery and forest hills. Man-made ponds and natural lakes skirted the road and reeked like wetlands, which later, right before the town of M., turned into peat bogs and wasteland, with no sign of life for miles to come. The countryside was dotted with humble towns sprouting out of the land, the highway briefly becoming their main street: squares and clusters of stores gleamed in the sun, banks and churches rose up closer to the center, the belfry whizzed by, silent as usual. Then the glint of the stores and gas stations at the outskirts gave rise to irritation again, and just like that, it was over. The town was gone, without having time to agitate or interest you. Again the road wound its way through the fields, its monotony wearing you down. I saw the strange people that swarm over the countryside – for a fleeting moment they appear amusing, but then you measure them against their surroundings and stop noticing them, understanding how unexceptional they are. Sometimes people waved to me from the curb or just followed me with their eyes, though more often than not, nobody was distracted by my fleeting presence. Left behind, they merged with the streets, as they withdrew to the side.
At last the fields disappeared and real swamps engulfed the road – a damp, unhealthy moor. Clouds of insects smashed into the windshield; the air became heavy. Nature seemed to be bearing down on me, barely letting me breath, but that didn’t last long. Soon I drove up a hill. The swamps remained a bit to the east, retreating to the invisible ocean in a smooth line overgrown with wild shrubs. Now the trees grew together densely, casting the illegible calligraphy of their shadows over the road. Several miles ahead, the road became wider, and a sign said that I had crossed the town limits of M.
The selection of Paul Auster offered me an author with a style comparable to that of The Black Pelican insofar as both he and Babenko have engaged in an effort to stretch the bounds of their respective languages, albeit in different directions. Our Russian author has eschewed syntactic simplicity for experimentation with language, in keeping with certain tendencies in contemporary Russian literature, while Auster has explored the possibility of ratcheting up the intensity by using the reader’s language to draw her into the narrative, likewise consistent with a strain of Anglo-American literature over the last thirty years. It was these parallels, i.e. extra-textual information, that ultimately made me decide to translate Babenko’s text in a style almost contrary to the original. This effort does not represent any kind of radical translation in my mind. One might go a good deal further: repetitions, for example, were largely avoided in the translation (although this is a common feature of Austerian prose) and I retained the extensive narrative commentary on direct speech (e.g. he said in irritation; or he said loudly and angrily…), although this form of narration is as common to Russian as it has been uncommon in English since the days of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.
A translation with a paradigm is less likely to violate the internal logic of the target language, since an Anglo-American author for an English translation cannot lead a translator astray as easily as the fallacy that her innovative translation represents a stylistic novelty in the ongoing evolution of the English language. There is no rule for including or excluding a turn of phrase, a comma at the expense of a semicolon (in a postmodern text), a period rather than a relative clause. Each case must be handled individually on the basis of the unique features of the text, author, culture, interpretation, etc. This essay on leitmotifs for narrative voices, along with the effort to translate a Russian author in the style of an Anglo-American, has been intended as an attempt to explore the possibilities and problems inherent in such an approach.