Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Laura Esther Wolfson Talks about Her Blind Date with the Russian Language

Photo by Florence Montmare
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors stands as my literary revelation of the year thus far, an  essay collection that mixes favorite elements of mine:  subtle irony, intellectual curiosity and a love of Russian literature and of authenticity. Laura Esther Wolfson was generous enough to answer my questions about writing and her love of Russian language and literature. Follow her on Twitter as @EstherLaura and check her website for updates on book events and publications. 

How did your love story with the Russian language begin?

Like many love stories, it began as a blind date. For all that I knew about Russian, I could have chosen French, Swahili or Chinese almost as readily. (And in fact I did consider them all, and other languages too.) I sought adventures in remote latitudes, precisely where was unimportant. I boarded the Russian language as if it were a long-distance train that would carry me off to faraway places.

What tipped the scales toward Russian was a desire to read books I loved—Anna KareninaDoctor Zhivago—in the original.

During the early stages of foreign language immersion, I lived in a state of euphoria: able to speak and understand, but continually aware, as in a dream, of moving within a network of uncertain meaning and shifting shapes I could put my hand through. Everything I encountered was weightless, and so was I.

Who are your favorite Russian writers?

I love Pushkin and Babel best. And Tolstoy. But there is so much of Russian literature that I have yet to read; omissions from this list are as likely due to ignorance as to taste.

Is there a book you wish you had written yourself?

I cannot imagine writing someone else’s book. Every book is to a large extent the result of idiosyncrasies in the author’s upbringing, education, taste, reading habits, surroundings, experiences, relationships, and more. You cannot have anyone’s idiosyncracies but your own.

I want to write in my own voice, but more prolifically, and much, much better.

What kind of books in translation appeal to the American reading public nowadays?

I cannot say with any certainty what kinds of translated works the American reading public wants now—the answer is probably ‘many different kinds’— but I do think that developments of the past decade amply disprove the tired notion that American readers are not interested in translations.

Publish it, and they will come. See Elana Ferrante, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Haruki Murakami and other translation sensations. Publishing houses specializing in translations have proliferated: Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, New Vessel Press, Open Letter, Two Lines Press  and more. Why, even Amazon has leapt on this bandwagon, yes, bandwagon, with AmazonCrossing, its translation arm. The magazines Words Without Borders and Asymptote specialize in literary translation. Each year, the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, founded in the aftermath of 9/11, introduces to the U.S. reading public dozens of authors working in many languages. Clearly, there has long been a thirst for high-quality literary translations that is only now being slaked.


Do certain languages become fashionable for geopolitical reasons? Was Russian such a language during the Cold War, and is Mandarin the new Russian?

My undergraduate Russian instructors, who are, thirty years on, my friends and colleagues, tell me that whenever Russia makes the headlines, enrollment spikes. But only for one semester. There is no question that during the Cold War, perestroika and glasnost, there were many more students enrolled in Russian classes than there are now, pace Robert Mueller and Donald Trump.

I cannot speak about Mandarin, though of course I’ve heard that it’s fashionable for people in certain circles to enroll their children in Mandarin classes. I cannot point to specific political events that might be a factor.

When someone asks me what language to study, I suggest Spanish. It’s such an important language in the United States, where I live, and knowledge of it unlocks the rest of the hemisphere. I also sometimes mention Arabic, whose speakers are now center stage in world affairs. But Arabic takes years to master, and unforeseen events could crowd it out at any time, pushing some other language to the fore and leaving high and dry anyone who chooses to study it based on geopolitics.

The best and most meaningful choices are often those we make for no other reason than love or obsession.


Have you tried to write in languages other than English?

Asked at a public event if she ever thought of writing in English, Russian author Tatiana Tolstaya, who lived and taught in the United States for many years, replied (in flawless English) that the only language she could ever write in was the one whose nursery rhymes and lullabies she’d heard as a tiny child. I could not agree more.

I cannot imagine writing in any language except English. My writing is shot through with wordplay and sound play, rhymes and half rhymes, alliteration, assonance, irony, literary allusions and quotations. It is sprinkled with foreign words that, stripped of their English-language scrim, would be about as interesting (and as visible) as a shooting star at noon. I could never achieve or even attempt any of this in another language.

What is for you, the most challenging part of being a translator?

It depends on whether we are talking about the work of the interpreter; the translator of commercial, technical, diplomatic or other specialized documentation; or the literary translator. (In the language services industry, ‘translator’ refers specifically to a linguist who works with written materials. The person at the dignitary’s elbow or in the booth with headphones orally transferring meaning into another language is an interpreter, not a translator. And most people who toil in the translation trenches do not translate works of literature, but mundane and necessary materials such as software and other instruction manuals, patents and legal documents.)

Subject knowledge is far more important in language work than the public realizes. How can you translate a text on astrophysics if you are not fluent in astrophysics? Fluency in the subject is as central to the task as fluency in the languages. A professional interpreter or translator specializes in a limited number of subjects that she knows well, prudently declining offers of work that fall outside that range, or, if she decides to take on something new, boning up on the topic thoroughly ahead of time and consulting specialists in the field.

Translators are generally self-employed, always hustling for the next contract. Translation work is often sent abroad to countries where the rates are so low that first-world translators cannot compete. There is also a gray market of semi-or unqualified translators who do poor-quality work and drag down the reputation of the whole profession. Staff translators in international organizations such as the United Nations must master and unswervingly adhere to house editorial and style guidelines, precedents and turns of phrase enshrined in previous documents.

Interpreters must have the words and phrases at their fingertips, improvising ingeniously when they do not. (But the latter should not happen too often.) Interpreters derive pleasure from pressure. They are skilled orators and mind readers, comfortable in the spotlight, yet adept at invisibility. Their work draws on training, habit, adrenaline, and the psychological state of flow. They prepare fiendishly before each assignment.

Literary translators capture subtleties of culture, tone and music. They convey qualities and fragrances, the drift, the waft, the weft, the woof and the whiff. Fenêtre=window is only the beginning. Is it bay or casement, dormer or storm? Diamond pane or stained, leaded glass or plastic?

Of course, every category of linguist should avoid the word-for-word approach where the forest becomes overgrown with trees.

What book you would love to translate into English?

After thirty years as an interpreter and translator, I now have the opportunity to devote more time to writing. Translation has, over the decades, provided me with a livelihood; training as a reader and writer; excuses for postponing getting serious about writing; and finally, a wealth of stories. Writing and translation draw on the same part of the mind. For some people, this means that they can switch easily between the two. For me, it means the opposite: Now I need to save that part of my mind for writing. So I won’t be translating much in the near future.

As I was revising For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors for publication, I noticed that the book includes a subgenre of essay about translation that I haven’t seen elsewhere: the essay about not translating, about a work the essayist/translator declined to translate, and her reasons for so deciding. The book contains two of these: “The Book of Disaster” and “Losing the Nobel.” Given how many books I have not translated and never will, this is a vein I could mine for several lifetimes.

What are your writing plans for the coming months?

I recently began something new that is best described as ‘autofiction.’ Meaning that the first-person narrator is nearly indistinguishable from the author, and that while the story hews closely to lived events, the narrative arc is paramount and the purpose of the work is not to say, ‘here’s what happened,’ but to move, entertain, delight or disturb. Thus no one can cry foul at any divergence, real or perceived, from the so-called facts of the matter.

This work, entitled Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra, is about the impact of chronic illness and disability on a love relationship, with sections (that initially appear to be digressions) about international affairs, history and literature .

Ultimately I may choose not to publish it. It is very revealing.





1 comment:

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