August 27, 2012

The Art of Translation: Kuprin’s The Duel (pt.3)


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 third 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 Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

Russian literature is in love with everything, but especially with women, which is part of what makes translating it so fascinating. Built almost exclusively by men, it is nonetheless one of the most matriarchal kingdoms in art. Its queens — from the Oprah-endorsed Anna Arkadyevna Karenina to her transatlantic cousin Delores Haze — are magnetic, beautiful, and, for the most part, tragic. Why tragic? Well, all queens must die, plus there’s the man problem again — for opposite these beauties we invariably find the so-called лишний человек (lishny chelovyek, or superfluous man). Broody and bookish, he slinks through his hostess’s ballrooms like a philosophy major looking for a bathroom. Like all cynics, he is secretly an idealist — about everything, but especially about women. This is not always to their benefit.

I fell in love with Alexandra “Surochka” Nikolayevna, the anti-heroine of Alexander Kuprin’s novella The Duel, almost as soon as I started translating her. Three admirers stood between us: Nikolayev, her husband, Romashov, her lover, and Kuprin, her author and namesake. Of these, the writer knew her best; so I followed him closely, hoping to pick up some techniques that might help in my own wooing. That literary translation can have an erotic dimension sounds like nerdy wish fulfillment at best and pervy self-delusion at worst; nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited when the mouth-breathing Romashov slunk around the side of a house, in one of whose windows “a heavy curtain was parted, to reveal a long, narrow crack.” Did he dare look through this perhaps-too-obviously-Freudian opening? You bet he did! And he was rewarded, too, by, among other things, “a glimpse of the face and shoulders of Alexandra.”

Aside from the question of what “repp” is (a ribbed upholstery fabric), this passage presented some unique translational challenges. Warm and insistent, it pulled no punches in presenting Surochka as a desirable romantic interest; but there was something pushy about it, too — something hazy and Vaseline-smeared, as if the bomp-chika-wow flesh-tones of a soft-core sex scene were being sublimated beneath the reassuring pastels of a Kleenex commercial. The fact that Kuprin himself seemed blissfully unaware of the fetishistic heat cast by (for example) those exposed shoulders only intensified their glow — but then how was I supposed to understand his contradiction? Negative capability was fine for poets and novelists; but what about translators, those roadies of the literary universe? After all, if I didn’t unravel the mixed messages I was getting in Russian, then how could I remix them in English? Wouldn’t I just end up confusing my — or rather Kuprin’s — readers?

I slunk on, hoping to find some clue that might untangle this increasingly ambiguous liaison. As the book progressed Surochka connived and angled, rejecting Romashov in one chapter and then flinging herself at him in another. That she had an agenda seemed obvious to me — but the strange thing was, the more I read, the more I began to wonder whether Kuprin himself knew what this agenda was. At one point — in a chapter (the 14th) whose lush landscape reminded me less of Tolstoy and more of those other great Victorian hornballs, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy — I watched as he followed Romashov following Surochka through a veritable bridal chamber of towering oak trees. By the time they finally found a clearing to lay down in, I was on the edge of my seat. Would this be it? Would they finally do it? Kuprin’s hyperaware prose seemed at least as bothered as I was by the possibility:

Her feet lay a half yard away from Romashov’s face, crossed one over the other: two small feet in tight slippers and black, white-patterned stockings. Suddenly, with a cloudy head and noise roaring in his ears, Romashov pressed his lips through the stockings against that cold, lively, supple body.

“No … Rommy … don’t,” he heard her say above him, in a voice that was weak and drawling, almost lazy.

Her answer caused a nearby bush to rustle suspiciously. “You have got to be f*ing kidding me!” shrieked a hysterical American voice from behind it.

I admit that my desire here prompted some debatable embellishments; but in my defense, Kurpin’s endless prevarication was beyond chafing by this point. The scene in the oaks was a miracle of erotic setup — a miracle that accomplished, so far as I could tell at least, absolutely nothing. Finishing it, I hurled the book down and stormed off to take a cold shower. Later I stared contemplatively at the copy of Twilight: Breaking Dawn that had mysteriously and through no documented action on my part appeared in my apartment a week earlier. Had anyone translated it into Russian yet, I wondered?

They had; which is one, but not the only reason why, later that night, I found myself returning to that same clearing, with its river and oaks, and its couple still persistently not at it. To my surprise, I was happy to be there — for something about the book seemed to have changed while I’d been away from it. The Duel I’d put down had been humming unbearably towards a conclusion that its writer was unable to consummate; but in the one I picked up, it was exactly that lack of consummation that made the story so compelling — not to mention, frankly, sexy. The lovers (or friends, or whatever they were) squirmed in a way that I knew wouldn’t lead to anything; but for whatever reason, I didn’t care. Freed from my expectation, I looked around me, at the grass, the stars, the towering oaks. From the birds’-eye view Surochka was undoubtedly a bitch; but I was not a bird: I was a translator, meaning a small and ultimately unglamorous creature. Idealism was a luxury I couldn’t afford, especially if I wanted to help communicate the complicated mixture of feelings I was experiencing to another person.

Rereading my translation of this scene, I can see that I have mostly failed in my ambition. The grove that I knew has vanished like Ali Babba’s cave, leaving even Kuprin’s Russian sounding like a copy of some lost original. But the long adventure of The Duel has taught me not to think of myself as special in this way. Like all beauties, Surochka had lovers before me, and will have lovers after me too, all of whom will fail like I did, not because they’re unworthy, but because translation, like writing, is a discipline of failure. It has to be — for good as they are, words are never perfect. To try and make them that way is to risk being so devoured by disappointment that love becomes impossible, and the lover himself (or herself) therefore perfectly superfluous.


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