The Act of Self-Translation

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Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. He’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

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 –- nostrils in place? Excellent! –- for the operation’s success; beauty doesn’t really enter into it. One is not going to end up with a Venus, and that’s OK -– as long as one doesn’t end up with Dora Maar.

jewish author blog michael idovTranslating one’s own work is different. There’s a huge temptation, once the main procedure is over, to follow it up with a cosmetic one. After all, who’s going to complain -– the author? Earlier this year, I found myself with a somewhat rare opportunity on my hands – to translate my novel, Ground Up, from English to Russian. I write Russian-language journalism with some regularity, but haven’t attempted any fiction in the language of Tolstoy in over fifteen years.

To be honest, I wasn’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? I’d be done in a month.

Seven months later, I started to reconsider. The writer had become the translator’s worst enemy. The first layer of difficulty was my own writing style. Why the hell did I have to use so much alliteration? What’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 City’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 – a pretentious Viennese coffeehouse. To a Muscovite, this café-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. Let’s consider the innocuous words “community garden.†How do I get across the very specific picture of touching dreariness and naïve art they conjure up in a New Yorker’s mind? Not to mention that I was translating for a culture where, michael idov's ground uptwenty years ago, these words would have been redundant.

Posted on December 14, 2009
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