Magic Tales and more from Robert Chandler
In ‘A Little Fairytale’, a wonderfully clever and touching story, the figure of Baba Yaga becomes a poignant symbol of émigré dislocation and home-sickness. ‘The government even requisitioned my copper mortar,’ she laments. ‘If it weren’t for my broomstick I’d never have got away at all.’
Benjamin Yarde-Buller is happy to see this story by Nadezhda Teffi, whom he calls “a writer of genius,” included in Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, translated by Robert Chandler. But he doesn’t have much to say about the translation as such.
I’m used to thinking of Chandler as brilliant based on the complicated questions he raises on the SEELANGS listserv, but I realized that I haven’t read any of his translations. What do reviewers think?
Heather Daly at first seems to reproach him for letting “his poetic license lead him away” from the text, but quickly adds that his free choices help him recreate the author’s (here, Pushkin’s) tone and are a good strategy for “creating an appealing work for the general reader.” The altogether positive responses to translation are often the least specific; Elizabeth M. Sheynzon limits her comments to “The high quality of the translations does justice to the authors’ styles while allowing their voices to sound natural in English.” Sometimes reviewers single out what’s hard about a given text and compliment the translator for rising to the challenge: Diane Nemec Ignashev says “Robert Chandler has performed truly a hero’s labor,” translating “a daunting list of nicknames” with “elegant wit.”
My favorite kind of review analyzes lots of examples, though perhaps unfortunately these tend to be the most critical. I suppose a review celebrating choice after choice would leave the reviewer open to criticism for the translator’s decisions, and might sound sycophantic. Read all of Laura Cassedy Friend and Dan Newton’s 2004 review of Chandler translating Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Here’s a sample on the recurrent issue of preserving repetitions:
One of the similarities between Leskov’s narrator and the traditional folk storyteller is their shared penchant for repetition, a deliberate device whose impact is softened by Chandler’s reluctance to preserve it. Note the seven almost incantatory repetitions which starkly highlight Katerina’s unbearable boredom in this passage:
[О]на одна слоняет слоны из комнаты в комнату. Везде чисто, везде тихо […], а нигде по дому ни звука живого, ни голоса человеческого. Походит, походит Катерина Львовна по пустым комнатам, начнет зевать со скуки и полезет по лесенке в свою супружескую опочивальню […] (97)
Chandler maintains the effect in only two places: Katerina would “wander from room to room,” and the not quite English “[e]verywhere was clean, everywhere was quiet” (5). He often introduces synonyms to thwart Leskov’s original repetition. Hence “миловала, миловала” becomes “caressed and fondled,” and the enchanting threesome “Стал ездить лекарь, стал прописывать лекарства, стал их давать мальчику по часам” becomes: “The doctor paid frequent visits and prescribed medicines, to be given to the boy at regular intervals” (107/17, 124/39). Redundancies, too, are sometimes edited out, as when “печально и грустно” is whittled down to “sadly,” and “с страстным увлечением” to “passionately” (111/23, 110/20). “Тихо-тихонько,” like numerous other colorful, colloquial words and particles, is simply omitted (104/13). [backtransliterated to Cyrillic for this blog]
Chandler’s reviews of other people’s translations are generous: here, instead of analyzing and classifying, he quotes relatively long phrases and sentences and says why he likes them in a general way.