Monday, April 15, 2013

A New Anthology of Russia's Greatest Gothic Writers

Muireann Maguire's Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century, a new collection of supernatural fiction featuring eleven short stories from both classic and lesser known Russian writers, is out later this week. Featuring nine pieces never before translated into English, the anthology combines many of the best-loved aspects of the traditional ghost story with the full Gothic repertoire of insanity, obsession, retribution, and terror.

In a starred review, Kirkus calls Red Spectres, "An excellent anthology of psych-and-spook mischief from behind the Iron Curtain, where a literature rich in such things held sway during the Soviet era." Over at Languagehat, Stephen Dodson recommends the book, "warmly to anyone with the slightest interest in stories of the uncanny, in early-twentieth-century Russia, or simply in good writing."

At her personal blog, Russian Dinosaur editor and translator Muireann Maguire has been walking readers through the back story behind her new book. In this excerpt from her ongoing "Translator's Tale" series, Maguire looks at some of the problems that confront any first time translator, as well as how she tackled these issues when it came to translating twentieth century Russian Gothic fiction. Click here to read the whole post!

"In the current (Spring #13) issue of the New Ohio Review, Rosamund Bartlett has a delightful short piece about the tribulations of translating Tolstoy. (She is currently completing a new version of Anna Karenina for Oxford World's Classics.) It describes her experience of 'spending a long time staring' at Tolstoy's 'inimitable, participle-laden, congested sentences'; two passages on bees prove particularly convoluted. Previous translators of AK produced their own unique versions of each sentence; they couldn't all be right. In the end, it was Bartlett's prior research into Tolstoy's hobbies (including, for some time, beekeeping) for her biography that helped her to unlock his prose: two peculiar verbs were exposed as highly specific beekeeping terminology, rather than ambiguous grammar. Another problem was Tolstoy's use of the singular noun pchela (bee) in a context that suggested multiple bees. Finally her 'apiarial research' led to the revelation that Tolstoy was, unusually but correctly, using pchela to signify an entire hive rather than a solitary insect. This insight allowed her to translate the 'bee passage' from Chapter Twelve of Part Two correctly, perhaps for the first time in the history of Tolstoy translation. One wonders what she would make of the Moscow/beehive passage in War and Peace.

I can't claim similarly research-intensive breakthroughs in my translation of Aleksandr Chayanov or the other authors featured in Red Spectres. However, I did repeatedly confront three perennial problems of translation: what do you do when your author's prose just isn't that good? How can you be sure you're getting it right? And, last but not least, how can you check whether to pay copyright fees? As every translator can be sure to stumble up against at least two of these, I'll describe my (fairly Jurassic) approach to all three."

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