Last Monday we kicked off the spring season of the Reading the World Conversation Series with an event featuring the husband and wife translating team of Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. They talked with Open Letter editor E.J. Van Lanen about the process of translating Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf, which is definitely one of the funniest books I’ve ever helped publish. (If you doubt me, simply read this excerpt which is part of what I read to kick off the RTWCS event.)
Anyway, here’s the video of the event:
The next event in the series will take place on Monday, April 12th at 6pm in the Hawkins-Carlson room in the Rush Rhees Library on U of R’s campus. I’ll be having a discussion with Horacio Castellanos Moya about his work (Senselessness, Dance with Snakes, and The She-Devil in the Mirror have all been published in English translation) and about world literature in general. Including Horacio’s thoughts on The Bolano Myth.
I’m no marketing guru, but there is one rule of advertising that I think everyone should follow: if you dominate a market, never draw attention to your (smaller) competition. This is why Apple attacks Microsoft so directly in ads—for
better or worse, Microsoft has a market share the size of a Chicagoan’s shoulders and Apple wants to bite that. Thus the direct, negative advertising.
So when Russian Life brought out a new translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf (or rather, The Little Golden Calf in Anne O. Fisher’s translation) at the exact same moment that we did, I totally ignored it. Sure, based on our contract it’s a violation of copyright, but shit, we all know how Russians deal with copyright issues (“the more the merrier!”), and really? Russian Life‘s entire distribution system seems to consist of their website and Amazon.com. Fine, cool, whatever. Open Letter’s not afraid of a little competition—the new translation we commissioned from Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich is brilliant, and has received outstanding praise from places like the L.A. Times and PRI’s World Books. I know it’s great. And if more people end up reading Ilf & Petrov’s hysterical masterpiece because there are two brand-new translations, then so much the better. The point is getting people to pick this up; no one’s going to make an Koreiko-like fortune off of the sales of this book. At least not for a hundred or so years.
So we didn’t send the cease and desist letter to Russian Life that we could have. And I never even bitched up a storm here on the blog. Why draw attention? There’s maybe a thousand people in the country who realize that two versions of this book even exist, and the rest of the people familiar with The Golden Calf are probably reading our edition.
But then . . . yesterday happened. And this page on the Russian Life website was sent out to—at minimum—the SEELANGS (Slavic & East European Languages) listserv and Nicole Rudick, who reviewed our edition of The Golden Calf in the L.A. Times.
In case you don’t feel like clicking through—though trust me, this shit is hilarious—this page is a list of ten reasons why the Russian Life edition of The Little Golden Calf is superior to our version, ranging from the “Translator” to the “Cover Design”. Seriously? Propaganda is where you turn first in trying to jack our sales? (Before going any further, I want to point out what a stupid, stupid game this is . . .)
I’m not going to defend our book, or go through their list point by point rebutting each of their claims—it’s clear that Russian Life is bitter and jealous about the reviews we’ve been getting and this is their cry for attention—but in addition to having the collective back of our translators/editors/designers, I just can’t help myself . . . Some of the stuff on the Russian Life site is too much fun not to share with all of you.
First off, their criticism of the title. According to Russian Life‘s unattributed post (and by the way, in case anyone is wondering, this is Chad writing—all these opinions are mine and don’t reflect the views and opinions of anyone else affiliated with Rochester, Open Letter, Three Percent, or Russia. So if any of what follows pisses off anyone at Russian Life, e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org):
Ilf and Petrov did not actually use “zolotoy telets,” the set Biblical phrase for “the Golden Calf.” Instead, they called their book Zolotoy telyonok, using the everyday, normal word for “calf” to deliberately lower the register of the Biblical image. We feel that a translation that misses Ilf and Petrov’s sly, intentional desacralization of the image of the Golden Calf misses the whole point of the title; the care we took in conveying this intention of the original title is emblematic of the care we took throughout the edition.
In other words, “The Little Golden Calf” is >>>>> “The Golden Calf.” Well, this confusion of accuracy for quality (a motif that runs throughout the Russian Life post) is pretty silly. Sure, telyonok is “little,” but as someone else pointed out, the “desacralization” just doesn’t come across in English via “little.” This is problem in translating most diminutives, which is why we went with the straight “Golden Calf.”
And their “first complete translation” posturing is beyond insane. We’re all agreed that the previous translations are flawed, incomplete. And I’m willing to let pass the fact that our edition contains additional material that theirs doesn’t. Why? Because I know that Russian Life is placing the emphasis on first and not on complete. That they believe that they deserve special recognition since their edition supposedly came out a month-and-a-half before ours. Oddly, both of our pub dates were December 1st, but—again with the confusion—since the book was reviewed on January 15th, they assumed that was when copies became available. (We’ve had this in house and for sale since early-November. All real publishers know that pub dates are an artificial load of crap.) (Again, this is all so stupid.)
But sticking with the subject of reviews and confusion, there’s another page in which Russian Life breaks down a single passage, comparing the two variations, and finding that their edition is much superior, ‘natch. I’m not one to bash a translator, but I’m not above sucker punching a publisher, so let’s take a closer look at how they frame this “comparison.” First off, here’s the quote they use from our edition:
“Investigating Koreiko’s case might take a long time,” the character announces. “God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows. We are in a terrible bind. It might be a month, it might be a year. Either way, we need some legal standing. We need to blend in with the cheery masses of office workers. That’s what the bureau is all about. I have long been interested in  administration. I am a bureaucrat and a mis-manager at heart. We will be collecting  something very funny, for example, teaspoons, dog tags, or bells and whistles. Or horns and hoofs. That’s perfect! Horns and hoofs.  How about that?  Besides, I already have some excellent blank forms that are suitable for any occasion and a round rubber stamp  in my bag.”
Now, I’m not going to stoop to picking apart the Fisher/Russian Life version (although “We need to blend in with the office workers’ energetic masses” sounds icky), but I will point out two things: 1) the interjection “the character announces” is from the L.A. Times review. So rather than quote the passage in our edition, Russian Life quotes the review quoting the passage in our edition. It’s all the same right?—as careless as the rest of their diatribe. And 2) what the fuck is up with this footnote numbering system? I have no problem with them picking out lines to compare and pick apart, just do it in some sort of logical order.
I’m going to let their typeface bit just go, ‘cause really? WTF is this, high school? You’re bragging about your font choice? Ain’t nothing quite like judging a book by its Courier.
And the cover design? I’m hoping there’s some tongue-in-cheek that I’m just missing here:
Our cover was designed by the wonderful Ufa-based illustrator Julia Valeeva, who perfectly captured Bender’s iconic features (Bender’s cap and scarf) as well as other symbolic images from the novel (the suitcase of money, the little plate with a sky-blue rim, the Koreyko file, etc.). This makes our edition immediately recognizable to Russians who grew up on a diet of re-runs of one of the four television or movie versions of the Bender novels, ranging from the classic 1968 The Little Golden Calf to the 2005 version, where Bender was played by Russian superstar Oleg Menshikov.
First of all, the use of bold is simply unhinged. It’s like unnecessary quote sort of tactless. But if you’re looking to sell your book to Russians who already are stuffed on Bender, why didn’t you publish it in Russian? The whole point of translation is to introduce a book to a new audience that may not be familiar with the original. Who isn’t aware of Bender’s quintessential features. And although I hate to do this in a public place, I’m going to take a second here to explain a bit of elementary marketing. First, from the Russian Life website:
The edition as a whole was conceived as a way to introduce the English-speaking reader to Ostap Bender as he is understood in Russian culture, that is, as a household name whose quips and comebacks are still used in everyday Russian speech to this day. Thus our edition includes:
- an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, herself a respected scholar of Ilf and Petrov’s works;
- a translator’s foreword;
- a bibliography of scholarship on Ilf and Petrov available in English;
- the notes;
- an appendix deciphering characters’ names, which are “speaking names” in the tradition of Dickens and Gogol;
- a bilingual appendix of popular phrases from the novel.
First off, you know who’s a household name? Lady Gaga. Notes, bibliographies, appendices, and introductions a household name do not make. Sorry folks, but the above list appeals to academics only. For an author/book to reach a level of popularity, to even delusionally pretend to be on the “household name” level, it needs to reach an enormous general audience. A general audience that just fell asleep reading the words “bilingual” and “appendix.” No offense, Russian Life, but the Mel Brooks movie of The Twelve Chairs did more for Ostap Bender in the U.S. marketplace than ten million footnotes.
But while we’re on the footnotes, check this shit out:
9. “Giving the fig” in Russia is a mildly obscene gesture in which the thumb, positioned in that it sticks out between the first and second fingers, is brandished in someone’s direction; it means something like “take that!” or “you’ll get nothing from me!”
That’s one of their footnotes. Can someone explain to me what benefit the reader derives from ramming eyes-first into the phrase “giving a fig” and then having to flip to the back of the book and suffer through that dreadfully clinical description to get the gist of the passage they just read? This is why I hate footnotes—it makes for lazy translations that demand extra work from the reader. Which, FYI and back to Marketing Lesson 101, doesn’t help with reaching the whole “household name” goal.
OK, OK, everything above is a bit batshit, I know, I know, and I get what they’re trying to pull and where they’re coming from. And I really shouldn’t be making fun, or trying to bash a tiny publisher, but there’s a real sense of bitterness in these complaints that’s hard to ignore. Such as the bit where we’re criticized for using the edition edited by Alexandra Ilf (the same Alexandra Ilf who signed a contract with us for the rights to the book), whereas her preface is the GREATEST THING EVER.
But so be it. I can let that all go.
But not this. Seriously, even if none of the above was irritating or funny, I would’ve written this whole piece just to include this:
9. SIZE. Our edition is over 35% longer than the 315-page Open Letter edition. In order to include the Additional Materials noted above, our edition is 448 pages long, yet remains compact and lightweight.
10. PRICE. Our edition sells for $20, Open Letter’s edition sells for $15.95. But, as the Russia proverb goes, Skupoy platit dvazhdy (A miser pays twice.)
This is a joke right? Ignore the whole page-count/word-count fallacy and focus on the primary message: “35% more paper at a 20% higher price!” Is this the five-year plan of book publishing? Our book is better because it has more pages. Ever hear of page margins and the impact layout has on length? Or better yet, how about fact checking: our edition, which I have in front of me, is 336 pages . . .
OK, Russian Life, you win. I paid attention to you.
And now on with normal business.
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”.
Early this month, Open Letter released its new translation of The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, a satiric Russian writing duo from the 1930s who are most well known for this novel and its predecessor, The Twelve Chairs , which was made into a Mel Brooks movie. Both of these books are insanely funny, although to be honest, I think Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich’s translation of The Golden Calf is much better at capturing the wit and sharp observations found in the original. (Click here for an excerpt so you can see what I mean.) (As a further sidenote: it will always be amazing to me how seamless and of a single voice this book is, despite the fact that four people wrote/translated it.
As is noted on the back of the book, press materials, etc., this is the “first complete translation” of the novel. A few people have asked about this, curious as to what political jabs the Soviet censors cut from the original. Well, here to explain is Konstantin Gurevich, one of the translators, and probably the most knowledgeable person in America when it comes to The Golden Calf and Ilf and Petrov in general.
“Filling in Gaps in The Golden Calf“ by Konstantin Gurevich
Anybody even vaguely familiar with Soviet history would look at the birth and death dates of Ilf (1897-1937) and Petrov (1903-1942) and assume that one perished in Stalin’s purges and the other either in the purges or in World War II. Petrov was indeed a war casualty, killed in a plane crash returning from the front lines as a war correspondent. Ilf, however, died of tuberculosis in his own bed, in a reasonably comfortable apartment not far from the Kremlin. A good assumption, but only partially true.
By the same token, when “uncensored” versions of The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf first appeared in the 1990s, some fans expected to discover previously unknown references and satire that might possibly change their view of Ilf & Petrov’s famous novels.
Nothing of the sort. There were no hidden allusions, no references to Trotsky or other villains of Soviet propaganda, no political humor that we weren’t already familiar with. The differences were largely editorial, and in the case of The Golden Calf, very minor.
In fact, comparing the recent edition of The Golden Calf on which we based our translation (Open Letter, 2009) with the 1976 Soviet edition that we own, we found exactly three gaps that were clearly the product of political censorship.
Not much for a novel that’s well over 300 pages long.
Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that all these omissions were made years after the early Russian editions of The Golden Calf had appeared—if only because neither Krylenko nor the Volga Germans were taboos back then, while the “bandits” do appear in the first English translation of the novel (1932).
Nevertheless, our translation does include some text that didn’t appear in either of the two previous translations, but this is not because of political censorship. These are the entire From the Authors piece and a few paragraphs in the beginning of Chapter 7 (the Romualdych vignette).
In addition, the first translation skips almost two pages in the beginning of Chapter 9, while the second (1962) omits several other passages (e.g., in Chapters 9, 18, and 27), some half-a-page long. This is why we consider our translation the first complete English translation of The Golden Calf.
We do not know whether the publishers or the translators themselves were responsible for the gaps in both previous translations—or what their reasons were. But in 1932, Ilf and Petrov were viewed in the West as young new authors. By 1962, they would have been perceived as cult novelists. Today, their books are undisputed classics of Russian literature: The Golden Calf alone has inspired two movies, a TV miniseries, and statues of its main characters in places like St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa. These texts have to be treated with respect.
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.
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 . . .
I’ll highlight all of the books in here one by one over the next week, but for anyone who can’t wait, you’ll find descriptions, author and translator info, and most importantly, samples from each of the books in the pdf version of the catalog.
Obviously biased, but this is a great list, with Jakov Lind’s wondrously bizarre Ergo, Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), an anthology with Words Without Borders, Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, and the first complete translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf.
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .