THE BOOKSHELF: FISH.

I wanted to like this book. Russian Life sent me a copy because it seemed right up my alley, and it is. Their publisher’s page says: “In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera (‘Faith’ in Russian) from the steppes of Central Asia to a remote, forest-bound community of Estonians, to the chaos of Moscow. … Peter Aleshkovsky’s work is remarkable for his commitment to the realistic novel tradition. Indeed, Fish is the first Russian novel to grapple with post-Soviet colonial ‘otherness’ without transposing it into a fantastic, post-apocalyptic realm or reducing it to black-and-white conflicts of the popular detective genres. Stylistically, Aleshkovsky’s prose most closely resembles the work of Vassily Aksyonov or Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, with its mastery of evocative detail and mystical undercurrents.” That all sounded promising; I had a collection of his stories and knew his prose wasn’t anything like Aksyonov’s, but what the heck, publishers gotta hype. When it arrived, I dug in expectantly.
It does in fact “grapple with post-Soviet colonial ‘otherness’” in a convincing and often enjoyable way; the desire to find out more about life in odd corners of the ex-USSR was largely what kept me going. Because the fact is that this isn’t a very good novel. The narrator is more of an abstract of Suffering Womanhood than she is an actual woman (the fact that they feel compelled to translate her name in the blurb is a bad sign), the plot is basically one damn thing after another, and the translation is… serviceable, with the proviso that it occasionally slips below the level of acceptable English (“Suddenly I flushed as if I hadn’t refreshed at all”; “I believed immediately him”) and doesn’t do a very good job with idiomatic usage (“How dare you say that, you hen!”). There’s a section of notes, and God knows I’m a sucker for notes, but these are often odd or pointless (the text has “a jenny is grazing,” and there’s a note pointing out not only that a jenny is a female donkey but that “a male is referred to as a ‘jack,’” as if the reader did not have access to an English dictionary; the city of Kurgan-Tyube is mentioned and footnoted “now called Qurghonteppa,” although other cities go without similar updates; the translator for some reason points out, in a note on the Abkhazian city of Pitsunda, that “Abkhazia, a northern separatist region in Georgia, has been recognized as an independent state by Russia and Nicaragua,” and at one point feels compelled to give the narrator a slap on the wrist: “The narrator is romanticizing—white markings have nothing to do with a horse’s pedigree”). And there are some bizarre renderings of foreign terms; the Muslim greeting is given as “Salam Aleichem” (to which I guess the appropriate response would be “Aleikum Shalom”), and a truck used to transport donkeys “to be turned into soap” is said to be called by locals “Oswiencim” (which a dutiful footnote explains is Polish for Auschwitz, except that the Polish name is actually Oświęcim, and why are you translating the Russian into bad Polish instead of using the name English readers know?). Oh, and not only is the narrator nicknamed “Fish” but a mention of fish gets slipped into just about every chapter, to increasingly irritating effect.
I could go on, but I think I’ve gotten off my chest what needed to be gotten off. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this translation; it gives a valuable look at a slice of post-Soviet life, and others may have more tolerance for the heavily symbolic than I. (For a different, though not much more favorable, view of the book, with more plot description, see Lisa’s review at Lizok’s Bookshelf from back in April.) And I certainly don’t want to discourage Russian Life from doing similar translations, which are much needed.
Addendum. I should add that my review is based on uncorrected proofs; I have not seen the final published version.

Comments

  1. “Abkhazia, a northern separatist region in Georgia, has been recognized as an independent state by Russia and Nicaragua”
    - this footnote brought to you by The Man looking over the editor’s shoulder?

  2. Освенцим, pronounced Ahss-ven-tsim, is how Auschwitz is known to most Russians. Perhaps saying just that would have done the job. Or adding ‘after the Polish town Oświęcim’.
    When Solidarność started, in English language reports we translated Wałęsa as Валеса until comrades from the socstran section persuaded us that it should be Валенса with an ‘n’.

  3. Освенцим, pronounced Ahss-ven-tsim, is how Auschwitz is known to most Russians.
    Of course. And Карфаген, pronounced kar-fa-GEN, is how Carthage is known to most, in fact all, Russians. And yet if a Russian novel refers to Карфаген, the English translator is expected to render it Carthage, not Karfagen.

  4. ah, I agree about translating place names. But it’s a nickname in the book, a bit of black humour. ‘Osvencim’ is widely used in Russian, for instance for skinny models or just thin people. Would Auschwitz work here?
    Which reminded me of a passage in Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal (set in Leningrad, 1952, same main characters as in The Siege). The doctor explains to a 10 year old footballer that part of his leg has to be amputated. The boy asks, which part. When the doctor shows that it’s above the knee the boy says: ‘But that’s where my foot is? So I won’t be able to play football’. Now you would understand that a dialogue like this simply couldn’t have happened in Russian. Stupnya is foot, but in Russian you play football with legs (nogami), not feet (stupnyami).
    It’s a powerful scene (the whole book is, too) and, obviously, an English reader wouldn’t notice anything like what I thought. But suppose you were translating it into Russian?
    Carthage – whenever I hear it, I think ‘carnage’. Is there a link at all?
    Who runs Russia Life now? Wikipedia is vague about it.

  5. Russian Information Services, which is to say Paul E. Richardson: all the other officers are his wife.

  6. thanks!

  7. I agree about translating place names. But it’s a nickname in the book, a bit of black humour. ‘Osvencim’ is widely used in Russian, for instance for skinny models or just thin people. Would Auschwitz work here?
    The nickname is based on, and only works because of, the place name. Of course Auschwitz would work in English wherever Osventsim works in Russian, because it is the English word for the same concept. Oswiencim doesn’t work at all in English, in any context, because it’s not used in English and nobody knows what it means.

  8. Because the fact is that this isn’t a very good novel.
    I second that! I thought Рыба read like a draft, not a finished novel. Which is too bad, given some of the topics it addresses. It sounds like your impressions of the translation are very similar to my impressions of the original.

  9. “Of course Auschwitz would work in English wherever Osventsim works in Russian, because it is the English word for the same concept.”
    Sashura seems to think otherwise. I’ve never heard skinny models referred to as “Auschwitz” in the U.S. (perhaps because there’s less overt anti-Semitism here). “Auschwitz” is probably the best translation — if you’re reading a translation, you simply have to accept that only the language can be translated, not the culture — but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect equivalent.

  10. oh, thanks, Ran, it’s exactly what I was [afraid of] thinking. Imagine what would happen to anyone who refered to Kate Moss as Auschwitz? or if the knacker’s van taking away the loyal Boxer
    had ‘Oświęcim’ written on it?
    Now, I wholly support Hat’s criticism of the translation and especially the notes. I only am pointing out the difference in language sensitivities.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Auschwitz
    I agree with LH that this is the form that should be used, with a note from the translator about its apparently jocular use for skinny people (what in French would be called humour grinçant – humour that hurts your ears like a door that needs oiling, or the edge of a piece of chalk on a blackboard). The mention of the Polish name, on the other hand, is totally irrelevant.
    Carthage and carnage
    The resemblance is pure coincidence. Carthage comes from the original Phoenician name of the city, carnage from a French adaptation of a Latin word (the root carn- means ‘meat’).

  12. I’ve never heard skinny models referred to as “Auschwitz” in the U.S.
    Yeah, I didn’t express myself very clearly. Obviously Auschwitz doesn’t “work in English wherever Osventsim works in Russian” in the sense that it’s used the same way, because it isn’t; what I meant was that if you’re going to understand what the Russian text is talking about, and have a hope of grasping whatever different use is being made of a familiar concept, you have to know what the concept is, which requires using the English word for it. But the “skinny model” thing is a red herring: the novel is talking about horses intended to be “made into soap,” and the reference is just as clear in English as in Russian.

  13. Kurgan-Tyube now called Qurghonteppa
    Substituting K for Q in Kazakh, does it come from the early Soviet efforts to develop Latin script for Central Asian languages or predates it? (discussed here before – Latinization and Affirmative Empire). What’s the thinking behind it? Is Q slightly more velar than K?
    And am I right in thinking that K has a whiff of Russian/Slavonic in it? (Kremlin, kopeck, Kalashnikov, commissaire-k/comissar). I know the original divergence was Latin-Greek, but what about today?

  14. Less velar, I should think.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Q and K as Velars?
    It depends on your definition of “Velar”. Both could be loosely described as Velar, but in phonetic terms k would be more front (or less back) than q. In English, the /k/’s in kick are considerably more fronted than the /k/’s in cook, because the position of the tongue while pronouncing the consonants adjusts to its position while pronouncing the respective vowels of the two words. But in the second word the /k/’s are still not as far back as the sound usually written [q], which is a uvular, pronounced even farther back in the mouth, which does not exist in English. The sound is found in Arabic, hence the names Qatar and Iraq, but the [q] consonant cannot be faithfully reproduced by using sounds found in English.
    The sound [q] is also found in some languages of Central Asia and Siberia, for which the Cyrillic alphabet was adapted by representing the sound with a modified letter K.

  16. thanks, marie-lucie, what a nice explanation.
    But why do you say the sound does not exist in English? You don’t say quack as kwak? or queen as kwiin? I suppose they are very close, yet distinctly different.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Sahura, the letter q exists in English, in words beginning with the sound sequence /kw/. The sound written [q] in phonetic alphabets is a different sound, pronounced farther back in the mouth. It is common in Arabic and some other languages, where it is always distinct from [k]. For instance, (quoting from memory), in Arabic [qalb] means ‘heart’ but [kalb] means ‘dog’ – a very important difference to make in sound if you don’t want to insult your Arabic-speaking friends by saying “your dog” if you mean “your heart”. Can you say the “French r”? The [q] sound is pronounced in the same area of the mouth, except that it is a different, shorter kind of sound (a “stop”, if that helps).

  18. thanks, I see what you mean.

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