On Being Translated Back to Myself.

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!


  1. Nick Karayev says

    In case you’d like to read the aforementioned translation of an excerpt (I believe this is it):



  2. J.W. Brewer says

    On the subject of cemetery shenanigans in the Minsk-in-exile section of Brooklyn, see this rather offbeat account from a few years ago. http://bklynr.com/graves-end/ (The Italian-surnamed gentleman who runs the place has also been involved with the administration of a less colorful cemetery out on Long Island operated under Presbyterian auspices which contains the mortal remains of several generations’ worth of my maternal ancestors.)

  3. “The embassy had scheduled a reading in Russian, so it commissioned a translation from a local trinitarian.”

    That brought me up short, but I suppose it’s a (topically slightly awkward) way of saying ‘trilingual person’.

    (Translators and others would appreciate “Mistress Masham’s Repose”, by TH White, which includes a professor of linguistics haunted by the impossibility of translating ‘Tripharium’).

  4. Mistress Masham’s Repose, chapter 11:

    Professor was busy with Camb. Univ. Lib. Ii. 4.26, and was stuck on the first leaf with Tripharium. He had looked it up in Lewis and Short, to no avail, and had also tried to verify it in a charter-hand manuscript called Trin. Coll. Camb. R. 14. 9 (884), where he had found Triumpharion, partly scratched out. This had made confusion worse confounded.

    He motioned the retrieving puppy to his soapbox absently, as it slunk into the cottage with its tail between its legs, and observed: “It says Hujus Genus Tripharium Dicitur, but the trouble is that a part of the line seems to have been erased.”


    “You know,” he said, “it could easily be some monkish mistake for Trivialis, a common species, except that they seem to have attached particular value to lions–the sentence refers to lions–owing to their association with the gospels. The maddening thing is that I have mislaid Du Cange.”


    Chapter 19:

    [H]e was certain that Tripharium meant either “trefoliated” or else “tripartite”; but the trouble was that the manuscript could bear either construction, with different results.

    And finally Chapter 30:

    The Professor’s present was a masterpiece. It was a Medieval Latin Word List (Baxter and Johnson, 10/6), which they had obtained by getting Cook to pawn their sprugs in Northampton. [The Lilliputians] had then written a letter on a piece of graph paper out of an exercise book of Maria’s, enlarged it ten times by means of the squares, traced it on a piece of notepaper, and painted the words with a rat-hair brush. The letter and the money from the sacrificed sprugs had brought back the dictionary, in which the Professor instantly found TRIFARIE, trefoil, and he thereupon danced a coranto with Cook.

    [Pedantic note: the words in italics here are in black letter in the original.]

  5. Nick Karayev says

    Concerning ‘trinitarian’ and its connotations I would translate the word into Russian as ‘триязычник’ )

  6. It can be illuminating trying to translate what you’ve written (even just blog posts) into a foreign language. I’ve had a go at translating some of my own into Japanese. All of a sudden, the sloppy formulations, inaccuracies, and infelicities of the English became painfully apparent. I had to go back and change the English.

    Would Hat’s posts read differently if he tried translating them into Russian first? Maybe not; Hat is an accomplished writer and editor. But it’s an interesting exercise.


  1. […] Hat shares the reflections of Russian-born author Boris Fishman who reads his novel, written in English, […]

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