August 29, 2012

The Art of Translation: Alexander 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 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; Part 4 here.

But who was Alexander Kuprin?

The question continued to haunt me, even after I’d immersed myself in his writing and life. The two did indeed seem to parallel one another – and because of this, I couldn’t help but compare Kuprin to some of my favorite American authors, many of whom had also tried to turn their lives into myths, only to wither their art into self-parody. The most obvious of these was Ernest Hemingway, who shared not just Kuprin’s physique and athletic pretensions, but his worship of lived experience (as well as its flipside: the puritanical disdain of any writing that felt “made up”). But there was something gloriously ridiculous about Kuprin, too: that bronze helmet for example, which reminded me much more of Hemingway’s ecstatic disciple, Norman Mailer. The three men formed such a perfect compliment that sometimes I imagined them swimming off the coast of the Black Sea. Hemingway was racing, of course; Mailer was behind him, distracted by mermaids and the pleasing warmth of his own pee; which left Kuprin plugging awkwardly away, until he was so far out that the other two could barely even see him.

Daydreams like this are an inevitable part of heavy reading; but when it comes to translation they can be particularly fruitful. Setting Kuprin between Hemingway and Mailer allowed me to see where their personae — their myths — overlapped. They were tough guys; but there was a theatricality to their toughness that suggested that it might be less natural than created: a pose, in other words, as wishful in its thinking as a Greek mask or push up bra. And what was under that mask? Certainly not the worldly irony it sought to project; on the contrary, if there was one thing the three men seemed to share it was an underlying sincerity. A belief in art, and (more amazingly), art’s ability to save, either the self or the world. Hemingway in Paris reads Tugenev for “something to hold on to”; Kuprin in Moscow writes story after story trying to reform his society. And when the world spins out of control? Disappointment. Disappointment, and minor works.

If there is an “essence” to Kuprin’s original Duel that I worked hard to preserve, it is this heartbreaking combination of wonder and disappointment, sincerity and disillusion. Written at the height of his powers, the book predicts how ineffectual those powers will end up being. More than that, it intuits its author’s sad fate by showing us that, in a strange and totally mystifying way, idealism and disappointment go hand in hand — not just eventually, but from their beginnings. The earnest young man knows, in some dark corner of his heart, the disappointment that is coming for him. How could he possibly know this? Well, maybe there is a kind of hope that secretly wants to be disappointed — that is so worried by its fragility that it throws itself against every angle the world offers, just get the breaking over with. So The Duel teaches us that recklessness is a form of impatience: an unwillingness to suffer anymore. Come on, get it over with. Throw yourself into the sea, a burning ship, a duel. Probably you’ll come out alive, and the torment will continue. But maybe you won’t.

I have no idea if all translators try to establish (or imagine) these kinds of psychologies for their authors; but I do know that, when it comes to the actual line-to-line work, the question of identity can get significantly stickier. Myths are electric and therefore tidy; but my rough translations of The Duel looked like a battlefield, with nouns, verbs, participles all scattered over the plain like so many limbs. Piecing a single body back together from this mess would require a Frankensteinian ingenuity; so I followed the good doctor’s example, and graverobbed. I plundered literary history, loading my sack with the bones and sinew. In order to guage their appropriateness for my task, I had to work by resemblances, meaning via my overriding sense and impression (shifting as these may be) of Kuprin as a writer. So, like Kuprin’s contemporaries, I found myself answering the question of who he was with musings on who he was like.

It was a question whose answer changed depending on which paragraph I was working on. Hemingway, who had been critical in forming my sense of Kurpin’s personality proved interestingly unhelpful here. “Reality” in English (at least American English) is telegraphed typically by the pursed lip; but in Russia reality is messy, sprawling, large. Leo Tolstoy, for example, (who both Hem and Kuprin loved) runs his sentences on and on, stacking up clauses in a clumsy, or rather “clumsy” attempt to make us see how things really were. Kuprin follows his master in this, achieving an artful artlessness that occasionally made me cringe, it was so affected. At times like these he reminded me of British writers like Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, whose blatantly erotic feel for the landscape or (more rarely) a woman’s leg charged their writing well past the point of good taste (there is a lot of Hardy in Surochka’s seduction of Romashov, for example). In action scenes, on the other hand, Kuprin wanes specific. The eye that Chukovsky and Bunin praised so enthusiastically hovers like a hawk before alighting on exactly the right detail, so that we see a regimental march, or a boy jumping over a fence, with a shadow-casting intensity that Stephen Crane might have envied.

These were the compass points; but really, The Duel contains multitudes. My own version is only one piece of this: the original is an echo chamber of 19th century Russian literature, and there is a very good (but unfortunately abbreviated) version by Andrew MacAndrews, which gets Kipling in there much better than I ever managed. Reading this other book after my own, I felt the hair prick on the back of my neck. Who was, or is this MacAndrews? Scottish don? Nabokovian joke? The internet, which is usually great about these things, has been no help. It focuses on names, big and small; but the translator, that most slippery of ghosts, slips through all nets.


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