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The Golden Calf: An Interview with the Translators

Over at the consistently interesting Lizok’s Bookshelf, Lisa Hayden Espenschade has an interview with Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson, the co-translators of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf:

In your translators’ note, you write, “we approached the novel as a work of literature first and foremost, and aimed the translation at a broad English-speaking audience.” I understand this as a desire to make the book readable and (dare I say?) fun for all readers, not just those with a specific interest in Russian literature. Why did you choose this approach? And how did it manifest itself, in practice, while translating The Golden Calf?

KG: Ilf & Petrov are tremendously popular in Russia, yet here, their fame is largely limited to the Russian studies community. We’d like to change that if we can. Тhe Russians love Ilf & Petrov not for their portrayal of the NEP or the Turksib, but for the humor, the spectacular wit, the relentless mocking. The setting may be Soviet, but the themes are universal: the individual against society, the pitfalls of get-rich-quick schemes, the disorientation that comes with achieving one’s goals. So we concentrated on all that and simplified certain Soviet realia in order to avoid copious notes, which Open Letter frowns upon anyway. Basically, we aimed at people who don’t necessarily want to read a Russian book, just a good book.

HA: We’re very pleased that most of the early reviewers focus on the spirit of the novel rather than its setting.

Can you provide an example or two from the translation?

KG: For starters, we – controversially, no doubt – converted all the kilos, puds, versts, and kilometers into pounds and miles. Or take The Budyonny March sung by the Indian philosopher. For most Americans, it’s gibberish, and the irony is lost. The song opens with “We’re the Red cavalry…”, so we made it into The Red Cavalry March.

HA: Or, when the authors say simply “Lunacharsky”, we say “the Education Commissar Lunacharsky”.



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