Over the past forty years, I’ve translated what seems like every conceivable kind of book, from classics like Anna Karenina to a biography of the Constructivist painter Lyubov Popova, abstruse works of philosophy, and monumental histories—but my focus—with a significant exception for some forays into not-quite-so-contemporary fiction of the past hundred years—has been contemporary Russian fiction.
After the Soviet Union fell, Russian literature burst out in what seemed like wildly unexpected directions. All of a sudden, Russian writers could talk about sex and drugs, they could use obscenities, they could look at the dark side of life in a way they hadn’t been allowed to for seventy-five years, and they did a lot of that. If you think this was exhilarating for them, imagine what it was like for their readers, including non-Russian fans like me. All of a sudden, too, Russians were diving into Western genres the literary establishment had kept them away from before—thrillers, romances, and, yes, crime novels.
This guest post is by Marian Schwartz. Schwartz translates Russian classic and contemporary fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova and translated the New York Times bestseller The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov. Her most recent publications are Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Andrei Gelasimov’s Into the Thickening Fog, Daria Wilke’s Playing a Part, and half the stories in Mikhail Shishkin’s Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories. She is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships, as well as prizes including the 2014 Read Russia Prize for Contemporary Russian Literature and the 2016 Soeurette Diehl Frasier Award from the Texas Institute of Letters.
And almost none of what the Russians were writing that wasn’t overtly high-brow was getting published in English.
So when I got the chance to translate Polina Dashkova’s Madness Treads Lightly, I first had to get over my astonishment that the Russian “crime queen,” a writer who has sold millions upon millions of books in Russia and been translated into many languages, had never been translated into English. Quickly, my astonishment gave way to eagerness to launch her in English, and that gave way, in turn, to my thoughts on how translating a crime novel translation might differ from translating even other contemporary literature.
As might be expected, my thoughts on the subject evolved as I worked. Here are some tips that came out of the process:
Translating crime has much the same goal as translating any kind of literature: great English that conveys as much about the Russian text as it possibly can. The translation you produced for Russian 101 back in college was designed to demonstrate your ability to use a dictionary and your understanding of grammar and syntax, not your ability to write in English.
So write a great crime novel. Play to English’s strengths, like its huge vocabulary and gift for concision, even when Russian’s strengths are very different.
Read at least as much in English as you do in Russian. As the translator, you have to know the beast you’re after, and the only way to do that is by reading English literature. Just as a good translator will have read George Eliot and Jane Austen and Herman Melville and Charles Dickens before tackling nineteenth-century Russian classics, a good crime novel translator will be well versed in that genre. Madness Treads Lightly gave me an excuse to indulge this heretofore guilty pleasure even more than I’ve been known to in the past.
To me, Dashkova’s voice and her character portrayals brought to mind one of my favorites, Sara Paretsky. Even though Dashkova’s main character is a journalist and not a P.I. or a cop, Lena and Warshavski are both fundamentally decent women who bring over-the-top energy, intelligence, and a deep loyalty to the people in their lives to their sleuthing.
Watch out when it comes to Russian names, which seem to be at the top of every non-Russian reader’s complaints about Russian literature.
For example, there’s no need to slavishly copy the Russian practice of using multiple diminutives for the same name. Multiple forms of the same name mightily confuse the English reader, who has no way of knowing whether all the different forms refer to the same person, so choose one and stick to it. At the same time, don’t forget that those varied diminutives have implications of their own, and it’s the implications that need to be translated not their packaging.
We know the novel’s heroine as Lena, the basic diminutive of her proper name, Elena, but how is the poor English speaker to know that? In this case, I make the connection clear in a passage where Lena is clearly the recipient of a letter addressed to “Mrs. Elena Polyanskaya.” Much later, in formal police questioning, Lena is addressed by her name and patronymic—Elena Nikolaevna—but again the connection is unambiguous.
What the translation doesn’t use is another diminutive, Lenochka, which does appear in the original. When this additional level of affection is introduced, the translation reproduces it the way we do in English: Lena dear.
The more central the character, the more important it is to convey everything implied by his or her name. The corollary to that, of course, is that the more minor the character, the fewer the names he or she gets to have.
Make sure nothing requires so much explanation that it slows the book’s momentum. Russian readers begin from a deep understanding of the historical and political differences between Russia’s various police and intelligence services, but in this particular book, all the reader needs to know is that there are different services and who belongs to which one. A curious reader can investigate the subtleties on their own.
Nicknames can throw up roadblocks as well. Like criminal underworlds around the world, the Russian language abounds in colorful nicknames, and I wanted to give the English reader that same color. So rather than call one crook “Slepoy,” I translated this nickname and called him “Blindboy.” Better, right? Because Blindboy is key to the plot, I found a way to interpolate a very brief explanation of how he came by that name. But Curly, another gangster, is Curly. No explicit explanation. The reader will think it’s just a reference to him being bald, which it is, but the Russian reader will also know that his last name derives from the Russian word for “curly.” The Blindboy explanation added to the reader’s pleasure; a Curly explanation would have been overkill.
Choose your battles wisely.
Only translate terrific books, whatever their genre. Anything else is a waste of everyone’s time. You don’t get points (or readers) for writing a first-rate translation of a second-rate original. This advice is the same for all translations, but it can’t be repeated often enough because obviously there are still translators out there who haven’t taken it.
And Madness Treads Lightly is a terrific novel. It has everything going for it: Lena, a tremendously smart and determined heroine who you’d give your eye-teeth to know; exotic locales that Dashkova lets you picture in both detail and atmosphere; intriguing supporting and even quite minor characters, like the deaf-mute woman who helps Lena in her captivity, and their entertaining nicknames, like Curly and Blindboy (see above); colorful details, like the condensed milk Lena’s friend brings with him to Siberia—and two of the nastiest, creepiest villains you’ll have come across in a long time.
Translating Madness Treads Lightly into English was exhilarating. I can’t wait for all these new readers to get to know Polina’s characters the way I have!
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.