Translating the Uncanny Valley.

Isaac Sligh writes for RusTRANS about the translation he and Viktoria Malik are doing of Victor Pelevin’s fifteenth novel, iPhuck 10 [sic!], which sounds extremely interesting — I really have to start reading Pelevin:

iPhuck 10’s hero is a Machiavellian, suave, and hilarious A.I. algorithm by the name of Porfiry Petrovich, a narrator who exists only in the binary ether, a “spirit”, as he calls himself. While Porfiry’s hobby (if one could call it that) is writing crime novels, he gets his material from his day job as a detective for police headquarters—a nod to that other famous Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry announces himself at the novel’s opening with a strange and grave salutation:

“And again, again, hello, my dear and distant friend!”

With his constant chatter to his audience—does he know we’re there, or has he gone crazy, and how much does our suspension of disbelief play a part in determining that?—Porfiry brings to mind the voices of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (from Notes from Underground), Zamyatin’s D-503 (from We), and many other famous narrators of Russian literature.

But, it turns out, these echoes are by no means meant to be subtle—and herein lies one of the hardest (yet most enjoyable) challenges for us as the translators of the text. In fact, Porfiry is chuckling at his readers from the pages of his own book as he notices our recognition of such echoes of classic literature. It turns out that Porfiry has read every single work of classic Russian literature, and knows how to reference and regurgitate it, subtly or obviously, at will. “I am a typical second half of the twenty-first century Russian artificial intelligence,” he quips, “painted in contrasting colors of our historical and cultural memory: I am simultaneously something of a Solzhenitsyn together with a Pasternak.”

As you might imagine, allusions abound, from Mayakovsky to Pushkin to Yesenin. This has kept us on our toes, and presented us with the added task of framing these allusions in such a way—while staying true to the text—as to tip the English-speaking reader off to the reference, and perhaps give some subtle impetus to seek out the original text. To this end, we have attempted to match our translations of such famous pieces as Yesenin’s poem “Goodbye my friend, goodbye” as closely as possible to recognizable popular translations without actually duplicating them.

I find the issue of how to translate (and frame) allusions fascinating; I’ve been thinking of it because I’m reading Andrei Bitov’s Уроки Армении [Lessons of Armenia] and consulting Susan Brownsberger’s translation, and I can’t help but notice that Brownsberger either doesn’t notice or doesn’t explain most of Bitov’s quotes. Where Bitov has «Ах, ничего я не вижу, и бедное ухо оглохло…» she has “Useless my ears, useless the eyes in my head”; Bitov, I presume, expects at least some of his readers to recognize this as a quote from Mandelstam’s poem sequence Armenia, but Brownsberger can hardly expect English-speaking readers to know it, and she should have footnoted it. Later, when Bitov quotes «Что в имени тебе моем…», she has “What’s in a name,” which sends the reader in entirely the wrong literary direction — it’s a quote from a very famous Pushkin poem whose message is more like Ronsard’s “Quand vous serez bien vieille” than Juliet’s onomastic complaint. Elsewhere she doesn’t flag a Tyutchev quotation. I’m not faulting her; this is difficult stuff, and every translator is going to deal with it differently. But Russian literature, more than most, is full of cross-references, and the issue has to be dealt with somehow; I’m glad Sligh and Malik are taking it seriously.


  1. And speaking of books I’d like to read, Kate Holland’s interview with Vadim Shneyder about his new book, Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, makes me want to read both it and Boborykin’s Kitai-Gorod (1882), which gives “a picture of Russia’s economic transformation like no other.” When Holland asks about “timeless truths” versus “the particular context of [great novels’] historical moment,” Shneyder says:

    Art serves many different needs. One of those needs that I am particularly interested in is how art helps people make sense of what seems unprecedented about their own times, how it helps people feel a little bit less lost in their present. One of the payoffs of this approach is simply to accumulate knowledge about what the past was like and how the it differed from our present. The past is a vast repository of alternatives, and those alternatives can teach us about ourselves: things have not always been as they are now, and they can be different in the future. But that is a relatively timeless truth, I think.

    One of the advantages of this approach is that it can renew our appreciation of the classics. As I said above, some of the passages and episodes that turned out most important for my argument are difficult or strange or somehow artistically unsatisfactory. If we focus on the eternal truths, then asides about banknotes or debates about how to calculate the value of a plot of land come to seem like mere ephemera, chaff to be discarded when we have extracted the kernel of wisdom from the work. I would suggest that every word of an older work of literature holds the potential for new discoveries and that the more resistant a passage is to our understanding, the more likely it is that it can teach us something unexpected.

    Quite right!

  2. That was a bit of a problem when translating gamebooks from English to Bulgarian in the very early 90’s. There was a character called Tyutchev. That was in an English-written, inspired by Russian translated into Bulgarian sort-of-RPG setting. Tyutchev was kind of a dark paladin character in The Way of the Tiger setting.

  3. Dark Paladin’s take on the future of Russian imperial expansion:

    Russian geography

    Moscow, and the city of Peter, and the city of Constantine-
    Here are the cherished capitals of the Russian kingdom…
    But where is the limit? and where are its boundaries –
    To the north, east, south and sunset?
    In the coming times fate will reveal them…

    Seven inland seas and seven great rivers …
    From the Nile to the Neva, from the Elbe to China,
    From the Volga to the Euphrates, from the Ganges to the Danube …
    Here is the Russian kingdom … and it shall never pass away,
    As the Spirit foresaw and Daniel predicted.

    1848 or 1849

    Tyutchev held senior post at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs when he wrote this little poem.

  4. John Cowan says

    The Nile and the Ganges seem a bit extreme.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Yes, even the city of Constantine. I guess the more audacious Russian imperial fantasists saw Russia taking over the whole Ottoman empire as well as Persia and the old Moghul possessions in India. There’s no limit to imperial fantasies once you start fantasizing imperially.

  6. I wonder if Sligh and Malik are taking over where Andrew Bromfield left off, or if there is a translation gap being left between The Werewolf’s Holy Book (2004) and iPhuck 10 (2017)? It brings to mind one of Pelevin’s more childish puns: “Russia used to be notorious for the gap that existed between its culture and its civilization. Now Russia has no culture and no civilization. Buy Gap!” (Or something in that style. I’m recreating the text from a fading memory.) I stopped reading Pelevin a long time ago out of fear that he would become repetitive or less impressive. He was that good.

  7. I gather that Pelevin did get repetitive for a while, but this sounds like a return to form.

  8. David Marjanović says

    “Russia used to be notorious for the gap that existed between its culture and its civilization. Now Russia has no culture and no civilization. Buy Gap!”

    That reminds me of a joke that was circulating in Austria in 1999 (in writing, in English):




    WE HAVE:



    (…and replacing Klima by Wolfgang Schüssel from that year to the next didn’t help either.)

  9. Speaking of which, Johnny Paycheck’s name has nothing to do with Johnny Cash (which I’d assumed for many years, as have others). It was taken (per WP) from that of heavyweight boxer Johnny Paychek (a.k.a. “Corn Belt’s Pride”), né Pacek.

  10. I’ll be damned — thanks for that!

  11. Looks to me like he probably intended both the allusion and the pun.

  12. Pelevin’s output got very repetitive, inexistent when he became a Buddhist monk in South Korea at some point. I don’t remember when that was.

  13. Ah, like Dylan’s born-again Christian phase.

  14. He got better.

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