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Retranslated Classics

Sticking with PW for another post, Lynn Andriani has a great piece about three “iconic 20th-century novels being released in new translations” this fall: Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (translated by Harry T. Willetts, and which restores nine chapters missing from the “lightened version” that’s currently available), Gombrowicz’s Pornografia (translated by Danuta Borchardt—the first version to be translated directly from the Polish), and Grass’s The Tin Drum (translated by Breon Mitchell, and which also restores a lot of missing material—here’s more complete info on Breon’s new translation).

All three of these are excellent novels, all deserving of retranslation and a featuring in PW, but here are three more books from 2009 worthy of mention:

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson): NYRB brought out this retranslation in April—the only version of The Foundation Pit to be based on the definitive edition that was published by Pushkin House in Moscow.

A true classic, here’s the description of the book from NYRB’s website:

In Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, a team of workers has been given the job of digging the foundation of an immense edifice, a palatial home for the perfect future that, they are convinced, is at hand. But the harder the team works, the deeper they dig, the more things go wrong, and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation but an immense grave.

The Foundation Pit is Platonov’s most overtly political book, written in direct response to the staggering brutalities of Stalin’s collectivization of Russian agriculture. It is also a literary masterpiece. Seeking to evoke unspeakable realities, Platonov deforms and transforms language in pages that echo both with the alienating doublespeak of power and the stark simplicity of prayer.

For more information, I highly recommend reading Bill Marx’s article on this book and listening to his interview with Robert Chandler.

The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov (translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson): We’re bringing this book out in December. By far one of the funniest Russian works of the twentieth century—even funnier than The Twelve Chairs. The Golden Calf has been translated a few times in the past (but poorly! Just check this chapter title from a previous translation: “Permit a Hireling of Capital to Enter,” which becomes “May a Capitalist Lackey Come In?” in ours), but never in full. Not only did the other translators work off the censored version, they dropped tons of sections, jokes, etc.

The Golden Calf relates the adventures of Ostap Bender and his merry crew of two-bit thieves as they try and out con a more successful con—one who has managed to become an “undercover millionaire” during the New Economic Period of the Soviet Union, when no citizen was allowed to accumulate so much wealth, and inflation devalued everything anyway.

The book is truly, gut-bustingly funny, as can be gleaned from this opening (or from this note “From the Authors”):

You have to be nice to pedestrians.

Pedestrians comprise the greater part of humanity. Moreover, its better part. Pedestrians created the world. They build cities, erected tall buildings, laid out sewers and waterlines, paved the streets and lit them with electricity. They spread civilization throughout the world, invented the printing press and gunpowder, flung bridges across rivers, deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, introduced the safety razor, abolished the slave trade and established that no less than 114 tasty, nutritious dishes can be made from soybeans.

And just when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.

It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, the motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets—laid out by pedestrians—were taken over by the motorists. The roads became twice as wide, while the sidewalks shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. The frightened pedestrians were pushed up against the walls of the buildings.

Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka (translated by Mark Harman): This has been translated several times in the past as well, most recently by Michael Hofmann.

The story of seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman’s misadventures in America was left unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, which is one reason for the various versions. Here’s a bit of background info from the Publisher’s Note:

Along with the growing international recognition of Franz Kafka as one of the great modern writers, scholars began to raise doubts about the editorial decisions made by Max Brod. Although the manuscript of Der Verschollene (The Missing Person) lacks chapter headings and often even chapter breaks, Kafka did jot down on a sheet of paper headings for the first six chapters (complete with page numbers). He left no such instructions for the remainder of the text. After Kafka’s premature death in 1924 of tuberculosis, Brod did everything he could to achieve for his friend the recognition that had largely eluded him during his lifetime. As a result, in editing the manuscript of this novel for its original German publication in 1927, Brod was, as he explained in his afterword, “primarily concerned with the broad line of the story, not with philological work.” [. . .]

Since 1978 an international team of Kafka experts ahs been working on German critical editions of all of Kafka’s writings, which are being published by S. Fischer Verlag with financial support from German government. [. . .] Harman’s translation is based on the restored text in the first volume, which corrected numerous transcription errors in the earlier editions and removed Brod’s editorial and stylistic interventions. In the restored text, for example, Schillemeit employs only the chapter headings mentioned by Kafka and inserts chapter or section breaks based on evidence gleaned from the manuscript.

Not sure how I feel about these sorts of “restorations” that eliminate an editor’s work, but I’m still interested in reading this new translation and comparing it to Hofmann’s.

Actually, to be honest, I’m interested in reading all six of these books . . .



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