August 26, 2012

The Art of Translation: Kuprin’s The Duel


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 first 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.

Throw a dart into a crowd of translators and you will hit the famous Italian cliché, Traduttore, traditore: a phrase that no less an authority than the translator/poet/demi-god Eliot Weinberger has called “tedious,” but which persists, like Garth Brooks in a karaoke queue, despite our best efforts to eradicate it. Renditions that I’ve seen include: the spartan “Translator, traitor,” (from Gregory Rabassa’s memoir If This Be Treason), the more Telemundo-worthy “Translator, you betray!” (via Los Vengadores, a comprehensive Spanish website devoted to the British TV show The Avengers), and of course (compliments Google Translate, that bastion of translational excellence) “Purple monkey dishwasher.” Which leads us to our first translating rule of thumb: beware false cognates.

Beware them, translator! But translators do not beware. Headstrong and flushed, we dive into our texts with reckless abandon or worse, with hope. Weeks, months, even years later we bob to the surface clutching hunks of Styrofoam. But it was different, we gasp! She was there! The sting of failure persists until, safely back on land, we teach ourselves to smile ironically and sniff out the Italian phrase, taking refuge in the convenient, if utterly ridiculous idea that we were the traitors. But in our hearts we know better. You can’t betray what you never had — you can only go back for it, and fail again, proclaiming like the fool you are that the next time will be your last.

The story of my own translational foolishness (a foolishness that would lead me, eventually, to both The Duel and its heartbreaking heroine Surochka) begins, as so many love stories do, with a tongue — in this case one universally renowned for its grace, wit, and romance. I am talking, of course, about Klingon (tlhIngan, in the original). At thirteen, despite years of French classes – not to mention brief, if fascinated, dalliances with both Quenya and Drow — it was the only language that I could claim to speak. Speak with whom, my bemused parents asked? I ignored them, focusing instead on mastering the web of verbal suffixes in my Klingon Dictionary (Okrand, 1985). By the time summer rolled around, I could tell my little brother that his mother had a smooth forehead, or mutter darkly that four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man, without having to worry that anyone would have any idea what I was talking about.

When the course book for the boarding school I would be attending that fall arrived in the mail, I was horrified but not really surprised to find that it offered only one of the Starfleet-endorsed major languages. Would it be French again? Nightmares of the hated M. Kalyondo crowded my mind as I searched the Vermont sky for signs of intelligent life. But then who knew — perhaps, when I stood up in front of the whole school (this for some reason was how I assumed I would be introduced to my future classmates), and broke into my recently-composed Hymn to Kahless the Unforgettable, the fierce but utterly-adorable girl of my dreams would stand up too, placing her right fist against her chest in the ancient Klingon gesture of heartfelt solidarity?

The next morning I found the course book lying open next to my cereal bowl. “nuqDaq Dochvam vllan?” I barked, poking it with the head of my spoon. My mother, who was looking suspiciously pleased with herself, took a long sip of coffee before leaning over to point at the topmost title:


Humans! But I could see her point. I could especially see it when she reminded me that Gene Rodenberry had invented the Klingon Empire to be an analogue of the Soviet Union, and that the Klingon language that I loved so much had been inspired by playing a taped Russian conversation backwards. How did she know this? Fathomless, my mother. But the great Star Trek Encyclopedia (Atoz to Z. Olgyay) confirmed it. I was taking Russian.

Turtlenecks are cruel to any species, but particularly so to fourteen year-old males. Plus I believe the classroom was hot that first day. Or maybe I was just excited. An intelligent-looking boy with small eyes and the downy, close-cropped hair of a baby hedgehog turned to me a few minutes after I’d slid into a seat. “Smart move,” he said — referring, I guessed, to either my or (more likely) his decision to take the class. A proud owner of an undisclosed amount of both Apple and Microsoft stock, he explained to the rest of us (there were five students total in the class, all boys) that Russia in 1994 was bursting with resources, and that we, the future masters of her language, would be poised to exploit these assets.

“Plus there are the babes. Don’t forget the babes,” added a second student, whose thick neck rose from its collar like a watchtower erected on the other side of puberty. I nodded vigorously, anxious to demonstrate my solidarity vis a vis not forgetting the babes — but the truth was, I had no idea what either of them were talking about. I scrambled frantically for a reason for taking the class that might stand unembarrassed next to theirs. Klingons? Galactic coincidence? The lack of a present-tense form of the verb to be? Such answers, which had been intelligible enough only moments before, sounded suddenly ridiculous to me. But then what was I doing there?

It would be convenient, but untrue (a sort of mnemonic false cognate) to say that that first class relieved my confusion. What it did, I think, is replace it with a specific desire, and, perhaps equally importantly, with a form through which I believed I could satisfy that desire. At fourteen, I felt about as human as a lobster. I didn’t speak the language — anyone’s language, really — which was why I devoted so much time to talking in ways that no one else would understand. But the more I did this, the more I became aware that there was something, or rather someone, missing. There is a beautiful essay by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, titled О Собеседнике (translated by Sidney Monas as On the Interlocutor), in which he explains the importance of this missing someone when it comes to writing poetry. “Metaphysics has nothing to do with it,” Mandesltam says. “Only reality can call to life another reality.” Looking back on that first day of Russian class, I know what he means — for when our teacher dropped his huge hardcover copy of Anna Karenina down on my desk, there was nowhere to hide. The green mists of Qo’noS were light years away, and I had to give him an answer. “Shto eto?” he asked, relentlessly, but with just enough of a smile to let me know that I could do it, “Shto eto? Shto eto?” Finally I blurted out the syllables that sounded both strange and strangely familiar in my mouth — as if I’d heard them somewhere before. “Kuh-nee-guh.” Book. To my surprise, I could tell immediately that he understood me.


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