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.
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?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .