Any translation is a face transplant. In the best-case scenario, the patient will wake up with a nose, a mouth, two lips, etc. These are the objective criteria â€“- nostrils in place? Excellent! â€“- for the operationâ€™s success; beauty doesnâ€™t really enter into it. One is not going to end up with a Venus, and thatâ€™s OK -â€“ as long as one doesnâ€™t end up with Dora Maar.
Translating oneâ€™s own work is different. Thereâ€™s a huge temptation, once the main procedure is over, to follow it up with a cosmetic one. After all, whoâ€™s going to complain -â€“ the author? Earlier this year, I found myself with a somewhat rare opportunity on my hands â€“ to translate my novel, Ground Up, from English to Russian. I write Russian-language journalism with some regularity, but havenâ€™t attempted any fiction in the language of Tolstoy in over fifteen years.
To be honest, I wasnâ€™t sure my Russian was even up to the task anymore: on my last visit to Moscow, a cabbie asked me where I was from. Still, the theoretical laurels of the first writer to pull of an English-to-Russian self-translation since Nabokov were too much to pass up. Plus, I had just finished tweaking the original. I knew every page by heart. How hard could it be? Iâ€™d be done in a month.
Seven months later, I started to reconsider. The writer had become the translatorâ€™s worst enemy. The first layer of difficulty was my own writing style. Why the hell did I have to use so much alliteration? Whatâ€™s with the puns? How do I suppose I should translate the line about a Chinese restaurant serving “a dim sum of shady parts?”
The second problem lay in the milieu: New York Cityâ€™s Lower East Side. My characters, Mark and Nina, were Manhattan archetypes: a couple of young deluded yuppies blowing their savings on a terrible business idea â€“ a pretentious Viennese coffeehouse. To a Muscovite, this cafÃ©-owning impulse was as exotic as the motivation of a young Australian aborigine on a walkabout. Things I had taken for granted for most of my life suddenly demanded explanation. Letâ€™s consider the innocuous words â€œcommunity garden.â€ How do I get across the very specific picture of touching dreariness and naÃ¯ve art they conjure up in a New Yorkerâ€™s mind? Not to mention that I was translating for a culture where, twenty years ago, these words would have been redundant.