Becoming a Translator at Fifteen.

The Russian writer Ekaterina Vilmont (Екатерина Вильмонт, stress on the final syllable of the surname) has died at 75; she was the daughter of two well-known translators and became a translator herself and then a popular writer of romance novels and kids’ detective stories. I thought this passage from a memorial article by Aleksei Viktorov was striking enough to share (I’m translating from his Russian):

Ekaterina was fifteen when an editor brought her mother a literal version of a Chinese novel, asking her to make a literary translation from it. [This was standard Soviet practice — LH] Natalia Man [her mother] refused, but the editor kept trying to persuade her. While this was going on, Katya, just for the fun of it, translated several pages, which not only surprised her parents but made the editor incredibly happy. The final translation was considered extremely successful, and it was followed by new commissions. Soon the name of the young translator appeared on the covers of books as often as the names of her parents.

In the late 1990s she decided to try her hand at writing her own books, and her first novel, Путешествие оптимистки, или Все бабы дуры [An optimist’s journey, or All women are fools], was wildly successful, starting a new career off with a bang. This description of her working method is also of interest:

She never thought up the plot in advance; as she said, she never knew how the next page was going to end. The only rule she tried to stick to was that each book should end on a positive note. She didn’t otherwise restrict herself, but all her books turned out to be about love anyway, so they were called “women’s novels.” Vilmont herself didn’t like that allocation.

Via Lev Oborin’s indispensable weekly link roundup.


  1. Dmitry Pruss says

    I earned my first rubles as a translator at 15. But I had to subcontract for someone else, or my rookie’s per-page rate would have been too low. It was science papers, I still remember some aspect, about olfaction in fishes for Perm Institute of Fisheries.

  2. Speaking of which… Anthony Yu, who created the first complete English translation of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West (better known through Waley’s abbreviated Monkey), mentioned one other complete translation, into Russian. That translation, by Rogacheva and Kolokolov, was published in the USSR in 1959, in four volumes. Yu wrote that had not seen a copy.
    Has anyone here seen it? Allowing that the translators had fewer scholarly resources than Yu, and that it’s a very challenging work to translate well, how is the translation?

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Все бабы дуры

    This made me think of Les faiseuses d’histoires by Stengers and Despret. It’s not a novel, nor have I read it yet, but the title of the English translation is great: Women Who Make a Fuss. I’m reading Stengers + Prigogine at the moment.

  4. That is a great title!

  5. Stu Clayton says

    translation [of Journey to the West], by Rogacheva and Kolokolov

    Volume 1 is available from “Book on Demand” through Amazon. I suppose that’s why the price is $41.

  6. I knew a guy who was hired as a copyeditor for one very popular fantasy author in 1990s in this age.

    And in 2000s someone tried to hire me as an interpreter for Halloween (the metal band):-/ I do not even speak English, but the guy did not see a problem here. He is a biker and was organizing their performance at bikers festival.

    The logic here is that people are more confortable asking friends and freinds of freinds and children of friends and so on. I could read English (not even write!). He and his freinds couldn’t.

  7. John Emerson says

    The brother of a friend applied to Microsoft when he was 16 without giving his age. Not only was he hired, he was one of the 20 or so elite Microsoft hires of his year.
    I am an enormous admirer of Prigogine, though he seems to have a lot of enemies.

  8. when an editor brought her mother a literal version of a Chinese novel, asking her to make a literary translation from it. [This was standard Soviet practice — LH]

    It was but I do not understand why in this case, when it is not poetry.

    Why not bring it to someone who knows Chinese and belives that she can write (and would enjoy writing) a literary translation? Yes, being good at Chinese is not the same, but with time such a person can become a good translator. Or not.

    Or was it such crap that people could only agree to do a half of the job [prepare interlinear mechanically, trying not to throw up in the process – or fantacise about this interlinear without trying to figure out what was meant] but no one would agree to do both?

    P.S. sorry about “crap” part, but there were very unappealing – not disgusting, but very boring – books by communist writers published in USSR.

  9. You’re not kidding.

  10. And of course those were the books you could buy in bookstores (along with the collected works of Marx and Lenin), unlike the books people actually wanted to read. I’ll never forget the angry, envious looks young Soviet citizens gave me when they saw me with my Voznesensky collection (bought in Finland) when I was in the USSR.

  11. Hat-
    A review in the new NYRB may interest you, if you haven’t seen it yet – of a recent novel written mostly in Belorusian and partly in Russian, including literary and non-standard versions of both, plus a mixed language. The review includes a discussion of how the translators dealt with it.

    As usual for NYRB reviews of fiction, it’s filled with spoilers. The translation issues are discussed in the last seven paragraphs.

  12. Thanks!

  13. mentioned one other complete translation, into Russian. That translation, by Rogacheva and Kolokolov, was published in the USSR in 1959, in four volumes.

    Biographies: R., K. (wiki), K. (ИВР РАН)
    Rogachev worked in China, Kolokolov was born in Kashgar.

  14. “…a recent novel written mostly in Belorusian and partly in Russian…”

    Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič.

    I’m not an expert on Bacharevič but I enjoyed his Dogs of Europe a lot. (I’m easily bored and it’s a 900-page novel.) I read the Russian version, which he produced by translating and revising his Belarusian original. It begins [SPOILERS AHEAD!] with the story of a Minsk resident creating a new conlang and a small group of followers learning it with great zeal. The conlang is called bal’buta – Bacharevič has a peculiar sense of humor. Bal’buta makes one think of Latin balbus with its various descendants but also of bul’ba, the potato, the Belarusian national plant as seen from Moscow.

  15. Rodger C says

    So Taras Bul’ba is Tarasius Tater?

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    @Rodger C
    One would assume so. But the introduction of the potato in Ukraine is associated with the reigns of Jan Sobieski and Peter the Great in the second half of the seventeenth century. The name Bulba/Bul’ba does appear on official documents as early as 1649. So I would think that the name referred at that time to another root vegetable that was a common staple for subsistence farmers and their animals (say turnip). So Taras Turnip (or Turnip-head?).

  17. No, Tater would be an anachronism. The mainstream view, apparently, is that bul’ba originally meant an onion bulb. However, Bolle is a more likely source than bulbus. What Gogol had in mind is anyone’s guess.

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