August 29, 2012
The Art of Translation: Kuprin’s The Duel (pt.4)
by Josh Billings
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 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; Part 2 here; Part 3 here.
Who was Alexander Kuprin? The question is a fair one for us but would have puzzled his contemporaries, who recognized him immediately. “The true successor to Chekhov,” Tolstoy called him. “His language is beautiful … He doesn’t overlook anything.” Maxim Gorky, the champion/frienemy to whom Kuprin dedicated his masterwork The Duel, deemed it “beautiful”, despite his reservations about its effect on national morale (Gorky’s social conscience was hyperactive, and Russia at the time was mired in an unexpectedly-disastrous war with Japan). As for his legacy, the generation immediately following Kuprin’s was only slightly less fascinated by both the man and his work. “A healthy, muscular, red-blooded talent, full of visceral and vital forces,” exclaimed the great critic Kornei Chukovsky, who in a memoir written after Kuprin’s death recalled his peculiar form of literary “research”:
“There was no limit to the lengths he would go to learn more thoroughly the specifics of this or that human activity. In 1902, in Odessa, the reporter Leon Tretsek introduced him to the chief of one of the local fire brigades. Kuprin cultivated his new acquaintance, and when one night a boarding house full of tenants caught fire on Catherine Street, Kuprin in a copper helmet rushed to its aid along with a detachment of firefighters and worked there amidst the flames and smoke until morning.” (K.I. Chukovsky, “Kuprin”, Collected Works, Vol. 5)
Such theatrics stood out, even against the raucous carnival of pre-revolutionary Russia. They marked Kuprin as both an old and a new kind of writer, whose clumsiness with the boundaries between Life and Art struck a strange harmony with the confusion surrounding him. The first note was his history, which included a Tatar mother, a father who died young, and military service. The second was his appearance. In an age of consumptive aesthetes, he looked less like a writer than an athlete and less like an athlete than a furnace brought to life by an irresponsible magician. Fat as a horse — with sprawling black eyebrows, and a moustache that the writer Ivan Bunin compared to a cockroach’s antennae — he radiated an energetic shamelessness that filled his contemporaries with love and, occasionally, terror. In order to “place” him, they looked abroad — not to the French literature that had served as Russia’s model for generations, but to the English and even American authors that Kuprin himself revered. Jack London, whose “lack of shyness” Kuprin praised in a 1911 review, calling his stories “wonderful, and often brutal in their manliness”; or Rudyard Kipling, about whom he gushed:
“He is familiar with the lives of officers, administrators, soldiers, doctors, surveyors and sailors down to the smallest part; he knows the most complex details of hundreds of professions and trades; he appreciates the subtleties of every sport; and his scientific and technical knowledge is overwhelming. But all this baggage never weighs him down. On the contrary, he deploys it with such measure and skill that you are willing to believe that Kipling himself caught cod with fisherman in the North Atlantic Ocean, and stood guard duty at a lighthouse, and was caught in the grips of a violent Indian fever … and so on and so on. In this confidence lies one of the keys to the striking charm of his stories, and his much-deserved fame.” (quoted in Chukovsky, ibid.)
For Kuprin, the great appeal of Kipling’s writing was how much it knew — with a knowledge won, not from books but from life itself, like a chair plucked from a lion’s jaws. The translation of experience into art in this formulation was seamless, and the writer therefore less a tortured loner than a proto-Most Interesting Man in the World, maneuvering his way through the dinner party of life with an imagination that found everything — death, love, hot air ballooning (Kuprin tried and enjoyed it) — equally fascinating. Such an imagination was the ideal; but it was one that Chukovsky, at least, thought was impossible for Kuprin himself to achieve. “What Kipling knows, he loves, and what he loves, he sings, because for the artist in an organic era to sing, to love, and to hear are synonyms,” he said. “For Kuprin all these things are terribly separate.”
The second half of Kuprin’s life bears out Chukovsky’s insight with grim familiarity. After the great success of The Duel — a book written, at least partially, as a revenge on the rosily-romantic picture of garrison life made popular by the warmongering of the early 1900s — he witnessed firsthand one of the signal events of Russian history, when he watched the Ochakov, a naval cruiser inspired by the famous Potemkin into a mutiny against the tsar, shelled in its harbor berth. “Until I die,” Kuprin wrote, in an impassioned and mournful description of the event, “I shall never forget that vast blazing vessel, that last word in engineering, condemned to death along with its hundreds of human lives by the extravagant will of a single man.” Later reports revealed that Kurpin had characteristically tried to rescue some of the dying sailors (a fact not mentioned in his article). For his pains he was exiled and sued for slander by the admiral of the Black Sea fleet.
A social writer in the best sense (he was an idealist whose stories managed somehow to be both personal and representative) Kuprin after the Ochakov affair found himself continually at odds with the government in power, whatever that government happened to call itself. His eye for detail remained sharp; but no matter how sharply he wrote, things in Russia only seemed to get worse. By the 1920s he was living in Paris, eking out sketches and stories as his wife tried (and failed) to support them by founding a lending library. His writing was failing him; as Nicolas Luker, his only English biographer put it, “Always preferring to portray life as he himself had lived it, he found it increasingly difficult to write about Russia from a distance and from memory.” Kuprin himself felt that this was so. “The cocoon of my imagination has unwound, and there are only five or six turns of silk thread left in it!” he exclaimed. As usual, he was being generous. His best work was behind him, and in 1938 he would die of esophageal cancer, only a year after returning to Russia after 17 years of exile. His grave does not bear the inscription that he half-jokingly demanded for it: “Here lies a man who never wore glasses.”
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 begborrowstijl.blogspot.com.