Daniel Kalder in the Guardian has a good interview with Robert Chandler, who has translated Andrei Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit [Russian Kotlovan] twice because “No other work of literature means so much to me” and “Platonov is hard to translate: in the early 1990s we were working in the dark.”

You’ve argued that Russians will eventually come to recognise Platonov as their greatest prose writer. Given that he’s up against titans such as Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov this is quite a claim.
Well, it probably sounds less startling to Russians than it does to English and Americans. I’ve met a huge number of Russian writers and critics who look on Platonov as their greatest prose writer of the last century. In my personal judgment, it was confirmed for me during the last stages of my work on Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, an anthology of short stories I compiled for Penguin Classics. I worked on this for several years, did most of the translations myself and revised them many times. I read through the proofs with enjoyment — I was still happy with the choices I had made — but there were only two writers whom I was still able to read with real wonder: Pushkin and Platonov. Even at this late stage I was still able to find new and surprising perceptions in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Platonov’s The Return. This didn’t happen with any other writers.

Chandler is much more modest and sensible about translation than that guy Venuti, but then again, he’s just a translator, not a Grand Poobah of Translation Theory. And I really have to read The Foundation Pit sooner rather than later. [Update: I’m now reading it, and it’s as great as they say.] (Via Lizok.)

Incidentally, I ran across this great series of history shows presented by Nikolai Svanidze; each 45-minute episode (in Russian) features a year in the 20th century (starting with 1901) and focuses on one person or family. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with it.


  1. Years ago I met Joseph Brodsky. I recall him saying he considered Platonov to be one of the all time greats, and that The Foundation Pit was essential reading for anyone interested in understanding Soviet Russia.
    I’ve read two translations of The Foundation Pit. It is a harrowing read.

  2. Partially in reference to the Venuti thread, Chandler says: “All I can say myself is that all languages have norms that can be infringed, and that we do our best to infringe English norms just as Platonov infringes Russian norms.”
    BTW, Chandler is also one of the kindest, most thoughtful, generous people I’ve ever met. And an excellent, learned, creative translator. I was one of those people who rolled their eyes over Platonov, but I was just a callow youth then. Through Chandler I’ve come to really appreciate him.

  3. Languagehat, I think you’ll enjoy the language in The Foundation Pit very much! As j. del col says, it’s a harrowing read.
    mab, it’s nice to read what you wrote about Chandler.

  4. Platonov is curious, like no-one else he combines the depth of Russian realist novel (the Golden Age) with the formalist exquisiteness of the turn of the century (the Silver Age) – and the liberating democratic thrust of the early Soviet short story brilliance. I like him a lot, what is curious though, to me, is that while I link him in my mind to Petrov-Vodkin’s imagery, I can’t get my heart connected to his writing as strongly as it does to Petrov-Vodkin. And I can’t explain this.

  5. At the NYRB website, I just accidentally clicked on a sidebar ad, which took me another translation of Chandler’s, Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows, and a letter he wrote about it.

  6. The notebooks Grossman kept as a correspondent for Red Star, the Red Army newspaper, during WWII have been translated and published with commentary as –Writer at War–. They are excellent.

  7. I’ve started reading Kotlovan. Wow. I’ve never read anything remotely like it.

  8. Damn! I just googled Kotlovan to find it was the original title of The Foundation Pit!

  9. Yeah, sorry about that. I never know whether to refer to Russian books by Russian or English titles.

  10. I just read a 2-page sample on Amazon and I’m sold.

  11. Victor Sonkin says

    Chandler has recently published an absolutely marvelous short bio of Pushkin; a must-read for anyone wondering why the crazy Russians dance around their Pushkin so much.
    And mab, I strongly second what you say about Robert.

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