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Matvei Yankelevich in Stop Smiling

The latest issue of Stop Smiling has an excellent interview with Matvei Yankelevich about his translation of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing.

A good portion of the interview consists of Yankelevich talking about the process of translation and other translations of Russian literature, including this bit encapsulating one of the main debates in the world of translation:

really enjoy Nabokov, particularly the work he did on Onegin, although I think it’s flawed in many ways. I have to confess to not having compared Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations with others, or with the original. A lot of the early twentieth-century translations veered toward making Russian literature fluent and readable and pleasant, whereas someone like Dostoevsky, who’s a rather clumsy writer in certain ways — or perhaps on purpose, who knows — that took away from the dynamic of the original Russian. Smoothing it out is something that happens in translations a lot. It’s something you become more and more aware of. In a way, I like Nabokov’s way of making Onegin really difficult, although I think he does it to an extreme, by using words that are obsolete in English, in a way that the Pushkin text in its original Russian does not. Nabokov’s Onegin is a new text, very different from Pushkin’s, and yet it claims to be hyper-literal. It’s a strange kind of paradox there, because the English text is certainly not as light and easy to read as the Pushkin original. The translation is heavy-handed and obtuse, whereas Pushkin’s Russian is light and airy and feels very contemporary. When Nabokov did this very closely read, very literal, very exact translation, he made something out of Onegin that is really not as pleasant to read. [Laughs] On the other hand, there are the translations of Russian literature that tried to be overly readable, and they lose some of the specific style of the writers.

And for anyone curious about Kharms himself, he sounds like he was a, well, curious guy:

I think you’re onto something. In forcing himself to not look at the world the way others did, he acquired — either on purpose or through the process of training himself to think along these anarchic, chaotic lines — some nervous tics and habits that were somewhat close to going mad. He had this thing about hiccups. He apparently created a tic that would happen without his actually wanting it to happen. He practiced having this tic, and finally it became uncontrollable. His friends in the late thirties would remark that he had these weird body movements, these spasms, these hiccups. He was trying to create this moment of unpredictability — as if life wasn’t unpredictable enough — but to break up the continuum and to be aware of the present moment in a different way. He seemed to desire that kind of destabilization. It was his idea of what he wanted to be: he wanted to implement his thinking about the world into real action. That demanded of him an abnormality: in the way he dressed, the way he behaved, and the way cause and effect worked in his own life. His belief in miracles, obviously, something that would disrupt the chain of cause-and-effect, was really important to him. In some ways, it probably did drive him to a certain level of — I wouldn’t say insanity or madness, but he was probably on the way to a schizophrenic state. That was also fueled by the stress of being hungry, of not being able to publish his work, of knowing, at some point, that somebody would come and arrest him, like many of his friends had been arrested.



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