A Translator Takes Stock.

For years I’ve been looking forward to reading Yury Trifonov, and now that I’ve finally gotten to him, I find him even better than I expected. At the end of July I read his Обмен (The Exchange), the first of his famous “Moscow novels,” and now I’ve finished the second, Предварительные итоги (Preliminary results, tr. as Taking Stock, available in this collection); they’re both gripping stories of moral choices and fraying families, but the second has a language-related aspect, so it’s the one that drove me to make a post. Anyone who likes good novels should read both — they’re nice and short.

The novel is about a middle-aged hack translator, Gennady, who has fled Moscow for Turkmenia to get away from his wife Rita and son Kirill, with both of whom he is furious, and to earn some money by translating a long poem by his self-important acquaintance/patron Mansur, who seems to always come through when he needs a commission. In the process he thinks about his life, trying to come to some sort of conclusion, and this aspect seems to me to derive from two classic stories, Tolstoy’s Смерть Ивана Ильича (The Death of Ivan Ilich), in which a mediocre judge realizes he’s lived all wrong, and Chekhov’s Скучная история (A Boring Story; A Dreary Story; A Tedious Story), in which a famous medical professor, close to death, realizes his knowledge is useless to help himself or anyone else. (Apparently Trifonov originally intended for Gennady to die, but changed his mind as he was writing.) I suspect he’s influenced by Kataev’s memoir-novels as well, and it could also have links to Yuri Olesha’s Зависть (Envy; see this 2010 post), in which the woman several of the male characters struggle over is called Valya, like the young nurse Gennady reaches out to at the end. An interesting scholarly approach can be found in Andrew R. Durkin, Trifonov’s “Taking Stock”: The Role of Čexovian Subtext (Slavic and East European Journal 28.1 [Spring, 1984]: 32-41). At any rate, here’s my translation of a passage about his professional life (the Russian is here):

I’m translating an enormous poem by my friend Mansur, three thousand lines. It’s called “The Little Golden Bell.” As you might guess, Little Bell is the nickname of a girl; her fellow villagers called her that because of her clear, melodious voice. The poem will be published here [in Turkmenia], in Moscow, and in Minsk. I don’t know why Minsk — that’s his business. I’m doing it in a hurry; I need the money, and I have to leave here no later than the tenth of June. […] I’m doing as many as sixty lines a day, which is a lot. I don’t wait for inspiration: at eight in the morning I drink a bowl of last night’s tea kept in a thermos and sit at my desk till two, at two I have lunch in a lousy teahouse next to the post office, and from three till five or six I sit until my head hurts and I see specks in front of my eyes. But what can I do? Translating poems is my profession. I don’t know how to do anything else. I translate from an interlinear crib. For all practical purposes I can translate from all the languages of the world except for two which I have some knowledge of, German and English, for which I don’t have the heart, or maybe the conscience. I don’t have any need for fame; that’s come and gone (not fame, of course, but the need for it).

[…] A few days ago, having worked till I saw the black specks, I went to the teahouse […] and to cheer myself up drank two glasses of godawful Ashkhabad vodka. I drank with pleasure, but with some fear as well. And it acted on me in a strange way. It’s not so much that I got drunk — I’m sure my abstaining for so long had its effect — but my head worked with clarity, everything was normal except in one respect, as in the world of Kafka, where everything seems believable except for one particular circumstance: for instance, Samsa having turned into an insect. It seemed to me that the godawful Ashkhabad vodka standing on my desk was the interlinear crib whose amphibrachic tetrameters I had to translate into Russian, at which point it would become a bottle of Stolichnaya. That day I tossed off more than seventy lines.

I want to thank Alexander Anichkin, who comments as Sashura, for having urged on me some of the Russian authors it has given me most joy to read: Platonov, Kataev, the Strugatskys, and now Trifonov. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the Moscow novels.


  1. OK, I can translate from 109 languages then.

    Using “interlinear crib” generated by Google Translate.

    I mean, surely some other term is needed since this “translator” obviously doesn’t know Turkmen and his “translation” is just a versification of a text produced by real translator from Turkmen.

  2. Thanks!
    Translating from interlinear crib (подстрочник, lit. underliner) is a long-established practice. The reason being, I suppose, that poetry and translation are two quite different skills. WH Auden translated Voznesensky from the crib without knowing Russian.
    And then, we’re talking here of ‘the Affirmative Empire’ with over a hundred languages, some quite small, and with a policy, at least official, of supporting regional cultures and languages. Minsk there might have had a quota to fulfil for publishing works by ‘brotherly nations’.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    Very interesting text:
    Two comments on translation:
    1. diminutives: you have little bell, but i don’t know if one should also take account of
    golosok – tiny voice
    oblachko-little clouds
    pijalushek-small bowl (like our “cuppa”)

    2. davit’ v zatylek maybe = my neck aches (you have “my head hurts”)

  4. I mean, surely some other term is needed since this “translator” obviously doesn’t know Turkmen and his “translation” is just a versification of a text produced by real translator from Turkmen.

    As Sashura says, this is how translation was done in the USSR. Everybody did it — Mandelstam, Pasternak, you name it. It was standard practice. (If they had to wait for translators to actually learn Turkmen and Abkhaz, a lot of “little languages” would never have gotten translated.)


    Russian uses them far more freely than English, and trying to represent each and every one of them produces a ridiculous-sounding translation (not to mention that they don’t always mean “little” — they often are there to carry a tone of affection or belittling).

    my neck aches (you have “my head hurts”)

    Well, technically затылок is ‘back of the head,’ not ‘neck,’ but if the intended sensation is the neck aching, then yes, that would be a better translation. Thanks!

  5. For “Tokhir,” I guess, read “Firyuza”:

    … «Фирюза» в курортном поселке в Туркмении на самой границе с Ираном. В программу маршрута включено участие в экскурсиях по Ашхабаду, знакомство с его достопримечательностями, посещение подземного озера с теплой водой в Бахардене, для желающих – участие в туристских походах в горных ущельях в районе турбазы. Моим попутчиком был коллега Толя Гончаров, с которым мы проработали вместе не один десяток лет. Из Минска надо было лететь в Ашхабад, откуда до Фирюзы всего 28 километров.


  6. Thanks, I was wondering about that! (It’s now Arçabil.)

  7. Из Минска надо было лететь в Ашхабад

    Hence the Minsk publication.

  8. January First-of-May says

    Tolstoy’s Смерть Ивана Илича

    Ильича, surely. (It’s a patronymic.)

  9. Woops, good catch — I’ll go fix it.

  10. Does that mean that Pound’s Cathay is something similar to the Russian method of translation?

  11. Now that you mention it, yes, it is.

  12. “The death of Ivan Illich,” I can’t help punning. You haven’t written about The Exchange here, unless I’m mistaken. How was it? Is it so packed with references specific to the time and place that it takes a well-prepared reader to understand and appreciate?

  13. No, not at all — I just didn’t write about it separately. It happens. I recommend it to all and sundry!

  14. Let’s see how it goes with The House on the Embankment. I’ve read three novels by Trifonov so far: The Exchange, The House, and Impatience (The Impatient Ones is the standard translation). They are all very good but the House is the pinnacle. It’s also the one that makes you feel there’s no straight way forward anymore, like Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.

  15. I mentioned my disappointment with Время и место [Time and place] here.

Speak Your Mind