Boris Fishman has a winning Author’s Note in the latest NY Times Book Review about his trip to Estonia, where he confronted a Russian translation of his novel A Replacement Life (which I will really have to read):
The embassy had scheduled a reading in Russian, so it commissioned a translation from a local trinitarian. Soon, it arrived — a third longer than my text. Was my translator using the occasion to insert thoughts of his own? Similarly, I’d wondered whether the Frenchman, whose “Replacement Life” outlasted mine by a hundred pages, had been so overcome by the overlaps in our narratives that he’d begun amplifying my story with his. No — like French, Russian simply takes longer. (“It’s not a good language for Twitter,” as my embassy handler, a half-Russian, half-Finnish Estonian, dryly noted.)
What linguistic particularity extends, cultural recognition reduces. As I read the translator’s version, I found myself cutting whole sentences. Responsibly, he had translated everything, but hardly every word was as necessary for an audience already familiar with, say, how and why the pre-revolutionary nobility fled to France. In Russian, I was finally the slayer of flab I could never quite allow to fall away in the original tongue of the novel (that is, the adopted one of my life). In Russian, I could leave the space between the lines to do half the work. Unlike English, half of Russian lived there, anyway.
Things that sounded improbable and sentimental in English — a son does not recognize the skeleton at the door as his father — became moving in Russian. The unbelievable things — an entrepreneur corners the market on the best grave sites at a local cemetery — are just another day in Minsk or the many Minsks-in-exile of south Brooklyn. Because my Russian translator was unfamiliar with certain American realities — AAA is car help, not a clothing size — I also corrected infelicities. Then, starting to see better ways to suit the intentions of the English, I just started retranslating. Maybe I wasn’t so hopeless as a writer in Russian.
He goes on to describe the reading itself and the conclusions he drew; it’s a lot of fun. Thanks, David!