August 27, 2012

The Art of Translation: Kuprin’s The Duel (pt. 2)


Believe the hype: literature-loving Americans are currently living in a golden age of translation. But what is translation? And how did it get so gilt? In 2008, the omnipotent demi-gods and good people at Melville House gave me an opportunity to join in the conversation by asking me to translate Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel. The process nearly killed me. But like a pint-sized Ishmael, I bobbed to the surface and now want to find out whom to blame. The following is the second installment in a series of posts, in which I will attempt to satisfy this desire by examining my own experiences as both a practitioner and voracious consumer of translation. Read the first essay in this series here.

Is translation sexy? The answer, for a translator standing within earshot of another living person, would probably be no; but the no-less-true answer for that same translator alone at his desk might be maybe, or at worst, “depends on what’s being translated.” Mein Kampf? The Diary of Anne Frank? Not sexy translations. But Proust or The Tale of Genji? Now you’re talking. Content matters — although I advise anyone who thinks it’s all that matters to try and read Vladimir Nabokov’s strictly faithful (and utterly unreadable) translation of Eugene Onegin. What about form then? More promising, though here again, a translator can reproduce a work’s formal properties perfectly while still mangling its spirit. Extremes kill, which is what John Dryden seems to be suggesting when he opens his version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis with what must be one of the greatest literary pick-up lines of all time. “Of bodies chang’d to various Forms I sing” — or in other words (because, for better or for worse, there are always other words), the sweet spot of translation lies not with saxon “bodies” or Latinate “Forms,” but in that little verb dangling between them: chang’d.

All this sounds easy enough and probably was for Dryden; but for the rest of us, change comes slowly. In my own case it came out of nowhere, or at least from a place completely outside of the plan I’d devised for myself up to that point. What was that plan? Well, to put it simply, I was going to be a writer — and not just any writer either, but a novelist. I was going to write “the bright book of life,” as D.H. Lawrence put it, which I imagined looking something like a cross between Sons and Lovers, “Rushmore”, and the neglected second half of “Born to Run.” In order to achieve this miracle, I had set up what I thought at the time was the perfectly writerly lifestyle. I had a job that I didn’t care about and a tiny, book-lined apartment, in whose living room I sat every morning at four thirty, to gush or squeeze or just sit there resisting the temptation to look at music reviews on the internet. I succeeded, too — though in the more publication-oriented scheme of things I didn’t succeed at all (which failure, I decided, clearly indicated the appreciated-after-my-death success I was destined for). But at that point none of that mattered. I was doing what I was supposed to do, living the life my heroes had lived. I was doing everything right, in other words, which is what I assumed geniuses did.

Against the background of such a perfectly-realized environment, the possibility of translating Alexander Kuprin’s long novella The Duel appeared less like an opportunity than an intrusion, or worse — a temptation. A call from the marketplace, which I knew (from my reading, of course) could be trouble. But I took it. Why did I take it? Well, for one thing, my novel was stalling. Despite their unassailable setup, my four-thirty AM sessions were producing decidedly assailable pages — a fact that seems normal now but which I understood then as a sort of Hawthornian stain on my prospects. I was not perfect, not a genius, ergo (in the algebra of ambition) a failure, pure and simple. So, in my despair, I decided to do something completely uncharacteristic: I decided to compromise. I took the job, gratefully but with reservations. With some hard work, I told myself I could be finished in three months, and back working on the writing that really mattered: my own.

I am not sure how it is for other people, but for me, the first step of translation was the hardest. At more than 300 pages, The Duel was a Fitzcarraldian barge, which I had to disassemble and then carry over miles of linguistic ground, and then reassemble in the swirling waters of the English language. Doing this was excruciating, not to mention humbling; for the more perfectly I tried to match my sentences to their models the more thoroughly those sentences failed, warping like funhouse mirrors into shapes so aberrantly nonsensical that they might have been parodies of their originals, instead of attempts to copy them. So much of the Kuprin’s meaning was lost that after a while, I decided that I had no choice but to change my approach. Le seul mot juste — that holy grail in whose name I had jeweled my hypothetical novel into a pile of colored dust — would have to be tabled, for now at least, in favor of something more suited to the task at hand.

What exactly that something was changed many times, as the season of translating became a year and then more. Such variety would have been anathema to me as a writer; but as a translator it seemed necessary — vital even. With the pressure of envisioning the larger work already taken care of by the author, I was free to focus on what was right in front of me. And because what was right in front of me wasn’t my own, my baby, I could take liberties. I could be cruel, sweeping what I can only assure you were swaths of inappropriately-gorgeous prose into the trash where they belonged. At the same time I could be generous, throwing trick after trick at sentences that appeared to deserve no more than a passing glance. Sometimes these maneuvers succeeded brilliantly, and sometimes they didn’t — but whether they did or not there was always the work itself: that immovable mover that I now saw, to my surprise, was inching its way towards the sea.

Such a piecemeal approach will no doubt seem misguided to purists – but one of the best lessons I learned from The Duel was that purity and art do not necessarily go together. On the contrary, looking closely at great works (as translators have the privilege of doing) can reveal just how patchwork they really are. Kuprin’s original is a perfect, or rather imperfect, example of this. Shaggy and shapeless — overlong, not just in parts, but in its entirety (who ever heard of a 300-page novella?) — it nonetheless earns every bit of its reputation as a masterpiece. The duel it promises in its title arrives on the very last of its 304 pages – a fact that I would hesitate to reveal save for the fact that I truly believe that such a monstrously prodigal work cannot be spoiled. It’s invulnerable that way, just like all the other brilliant failures in Russian literature (for couldn’t a purist call The Brothers Karamazov just a bad detective story, or Anna Karenina an overlong romance, or Dead Souls a pointless adventure story?). And thank god for that.

The sexy way to end this would be to say that the difficult, imperfect process of translation taught me something about difficulty and imperfection that then allowed me to write my novel, or run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or forgive my dog for eating my bathrobe. But unfortunately, none of this happened. I abandoned the novel — chalked it up to failure and myself to something less than (or at least different from) Tom Hulce’s “Mozart,” whose masterpieces flowed from his pen without mark or revision. Later, I abandoned another one, and another one. But I did finish The Duel. Which was a change.


JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at