5 June 13 | Chad W. Post

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013.

Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel about translation at a Brooklyn bookstore. The announcement promised potential audience members they would “Find out what it takes to make sure the meaning of the words that have moved us to laugh, cry and learn new things are delivered the way the author intended.” In the end, the recent blizzard made the event impossible, but even in the absence of heavy snowfall, I would have found it impossible to explain how to translate words “the way the author intended.” For—and note that I say this in the presence of the author himself and have chosen to talk about authorial intent precisely because he is here and can talk back to me—making sure to convey an author’s intentions is not something a translation, any translation, can do.

Authors themselves can tell you that more often than not whatever it was that they intended when they wrote something was ignored by readers or forgotten and replaced by a different and shifting set of intentions even in their own minds once the piece was published or in the years following its composition. (Mónica de la Torre has a lovely article titled “Unreliable self-translation” in Translation Review 81 which describes how difficult it is for the author herself to divine the author’s intentions when she switches into the role of translator.) In the case we’re discussing here, many of the most prominent features of José Manuel Prieto’s work—the extensive use of citations and intertextual references, the recurrent theme of literary production as mash-up, remix and commentary, and the use of constraints such as the encyclopedia format of the novel we’re here to discuss today—seem, well, intended, to mount a direct challenge to the idea that a book consists merely of what its author intended. Words derive much of their meaning from their context, as Prieto superbly demonstrates in the essay on Mandelstam’s “Epigram Against Stalin” that we circulated in anticipation of today’s conversation, and the intentions of those who enunciate them form only a small part of that context, particularly as the moment of enunciation recedes into the past. Prieto himself is a translator, and his work is informed by a strong sense of the ambiguous and perennially shifting nature of semantic meaning. But not every writer has that sense. A dispute flared up last year between the playwright Edward Albee and his Catalan translator, Joan Sellent, after Albee demanded that Sellent account, in a five-column grid, for “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish [sic], and why the words that were chosen were used.” (For more info on the spat, I refer all of you to this piece from the marvelous blog Translationista where Susan Bernofsky catalogues and comments on the translation news of the moment.)

As I pondered the most challenging problems I confronted when translating Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, the intentions of the author, with whom I was in frequent discussion, were only part of a continuum of factors influencing my choices, factors that also included the internal logic of the text itself—which is clearly distinct from an author’s intentions—the transformations wrought upon that logic by the process of translation into another language, the nearly two decades that have elapsed between the book’s original composition and my translation with all the historical, technological and political transformations those two decades have wrought, and my own personal sense of the literary, political and overall cultural context I was translating the text into and which of its features might speak most strongly to that audience.

The particular feature of the Encyclopedia I’ve chosen to discuss today is its polyglossia. I use the term in homage to the great Russian literary historian and theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work the discipline of translation studies would do well to rediscover. Bakhtin associates what he calls polyglossia with parody as well as with texts that incorporate multiple languages; polyglossia is the opposite of what Bakhtin calls a “sealed off and impermeable monoglossia.” “Only polyglossia,” he writes, “fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language.”

Prieto’s Encyclopedia de una vida en Rusia, first published in Mexico in 1998, and reissued by the Spanish publisher Mondadori in 2004, exhibits a marked degree of polyglossia. The headwords of its seventy-seven entries are in Spanish, Russian, English, Latin and German, all transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The novel includes citations of Spanish translations of texts originally written in all of those languages, and in Hebrew, French and Japanese, as well. In this novel, and to a greater degree than most other contemporary literary texts I can think of, with the exception of Vassilis Alexakis’s marvelous Foreign Words, the extent to which the language in which one chooses to speak is a central component of the meaning of what one says is illustrated again and again. When the narrator first addresses the book’s heroine in a St. Petersburg park, the concision of her reply to his query makes him think that she is “ya pensando también en inglés” (“already thinking, too, in English”). Towards the end of the book, when she tells him, in English, “Well, I’m going to New York, Joseph” he begs her to speak Russian and not to go to New York. Elsewhere, Russian housewives are infuriated by the sound of the narrator conversing in a language that is not Russian as he passes by in the street, and the fact of mastery or non-mastery of the Russian language is a continuing theme. In one of my favorite moments, the narrator is watching a video that has no sound because the person who recorded it may have neglected to engage the sound button. In the entry that, in my translation as well, appears under the headword Pasarela, the narrator comments,

My lips pronounced a single word three or four times, a word that, when I first watched the video, I couldn’t decipher. Until it dawned on me that I was speaking in Russian. Then I understood: “Horosho” “Horosho” “Horosho” (“Good! Perfect!”).

The Encyclopedia is a text that insistently reminds us of something so obvious we very often forget it: one of the primary and most significant semantic components of any utterance is the selection of the language in which it is uttered. The heroine’s selection of English for her reply to the narrator’s first advance says much about who she is and what her ambitions are, just as the fluent mastery of Russian the Spanish-speaking narrator boasts of in the volume’s first entry tells us a great deal about him. And therein lay the first challenge of my translation. To render into English a text that explicitly rejects its character’s use of English, to take out of Spanish a text about Russia that is of particular interest for the very fact of its having been written in Spanish, is inevitably to depart in a dramatic way from the intentions that lay behind that original 1998 book.

A strong feature of the 1998 Encyclopedia is the paucity of allusion to the Spanish-speaking world and literature written in Spanish. The narrator’s tropical home country is barely mentioned, and in the book’s dense tissue of literary referents, only two have any explicitly Hispanic component—an allusion to Borges and the citation of a guaracha that compares a sexy girl to a sea siren. In interviews and articles, Prieto has often stated that Russian literature has had more of an influence on his work than Latin American literature, and he describes his first three novels as his “Russian trilogy.”

Click here to read Part II.

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