I’m delighted to kick off a guest writing series on the blog today, and welcome my brilliant colleague Muireann Maguire to discuss her experience of translating Anna Babyashkina’s Before I Croak (Glas, 2013). You can find out more about Muireann in the Guest Contributors section and read more of her work on her blog, Russian Dinosaur.
“Finally, at the ripe old age of sixty, I’m writing my first book. All my life I’ve dreamed of this and never managed to make it happen. And now, before I croak, I’ve finally found the time to turn my Lifelong Dream into reality – to commit to paper sixty thousand words of coherent text in my own voice. I can write about what I’ve always really wanted, not whatever the editor-in-chief or the advertisers want to read […]. So now, before I croak, I, as a woman in full command of her faculties, born in the year 1979, still able to recall what life was like before mobile phones, the Internet, Putin and electric cars, sit down at my computer and, with a glow of profound satisfaction, open a new Word file […].”
It’s strange for me to read over the opening paragraphs of Russian author Anna Babyashkina’s novel Before I Croak (in the Russian original, Prezhde chem sdokhnut’), five years after writing them. After all, the words are mine; the narrator was born in the same year as me (and Anna); it’s as if the voice is my own. Yet, after a gap of half a decade, it feels as if someone else wrote this book. Which is no more than the truth, because she did.
Such are the paradoxes of a translator’s life: the words are your own, and not your own; you can’t take any credit for the book’s success, but you can be blamed if it tanks; some translators aren’t even mentioned in book reviews, or worse still, not named on the title page. (There is a limited print run of Before I Croak with the translator named as Arch Tait rather than me; hopefully, one day these copies will trade for millions, like the 1918 run of US ‘Inverted Jenny’ postage stamps printed with an upside-down aeroplane…). On the bright side, translating an author can make them your lifetime friend (as I hope will be true for Anna and me), and it connects you to something bigger than the book which you are (hopefully) getting paid to work on. When I was asked to translate Before I Croak for the Glas New Russian Writing Series, I completed a three-woman team: a female editor-publisher (Natasha Perova), and a female author (Anna).
Before I Croak is in many ways a very female book. It explores contemporary Russian womanhood from the unusual perspective of Sonya, a rebellious sextuagenarian. Newly resident in a shabby nursing home outside Moscow (her pension fund failed!), Sonya is determined to write a Great Novel that will transform her from a retired journalist to a superstar. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed by colourful personalities and lurid secrets. Eventually she learns to re-evaluate her past life choices – especially her failures as a daughter, wife, and mother. Most of the narrative concerns love and sex, and many metaphors draw on female physical experiences, especially birth. Sonya eventually realizes she’s lived an unfulfilled life, like most of her generation, dodging catastrophes which were never going to happen: “We didn’t vote, we didn’t write declamations, we didn’t invent utopias, we made no demands, we didn’t build barricades, we invented nothing, we boycotted no-one, we had no heroes. […] We were much too afraid”. Ironically, just as she pledges to live out her life sincerely and without fear, she realizes she is about to die: from throat cancer (hence the title). I translated the book during a happy but fraught period in my life: my first son was an infant, and I often balanced my laptop beside the feeding baby as I typed; my temporary job was due to finish soon after my maternity leave, and I had no certain prospect of another. So I worked as fast as I could, emailing Anna (who reads English) for comments and clarifications, entering into and empathizing with the often febrile story worlds of her characters. Despite its future setting, the novel has nothing in common with the Russian trend for near-future dystopian sci-fi; the retrospective narrative ensures that all its scenarios are familiar to women of Natasha’s and my generation.
By translating Before I Croak, I briefly became part of the wonderful initiative which was Glas (an archaic Russian word for “voice”): essentially, a one-woman publishing house that brought Russian writers – including some Soviet names, but primarily contemporary and often young and female writers – to Anglophone audiences abroad. Authors first “launched” in English translation by Glas include Viktor Pelevin, Ludmilla Ulitskaya, and Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I discovered the great and obscure Soviet absurdist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii through Joanne Turnbull’s translations in the anthology Seven Stories (Glas, 2006). Joanne went on to restore Krzhizhanovskii’s reputation by translating his major works for NYRB Classics; I later translated one of his stories myself. My first commissions as a literary translator were for two Glas anthologies of contemporary Russian fiction, Squaring the Circle and Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia. Each of my translatees was young, female, and disconcertingly original; I remember learning the Russian for “boa constrictor” from one short story, and in another draft, coming terrifyingly close to translating the Russian word illuminator (porthole) as “light-switch”. I learned to double-check constantly with my dictionary. Natasha edited my final drafts, catching errors and suggesting smoother formulations. I never re-read Before I Croak in book form; I worked so rapidly on it that I still fear finding typos or mistranslations in the text. (Even today, I’m afraid of scrolling through the corrected draft in case I see orange font, the colour of Natasha’s interventions, everywhere.) In the end, I had one regret; I never liked the title, which was a literal translation of the original (and semantically quite effective, because of the double meaning of “croak” as “to die” and “to speak hoarsely”). I proposed Chain Mail, to reflect both the novel’s subplot of chain letters and the emotional armour that Sonya, the narrator, assembles around her true self. But although Natasha and Anna were receptive to my suggestion, the publicity was already fixed, so we kept Before I Croak.
“I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators” (Natasha Perova)
Glas was wound up in 2014, after almost twenty-five years and 170 authors, because of falling international sales. Natasha is still active as an editor and has, in fact, just published Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature (Dedalus, 2018), an anthology of stories by eleven major Russian female authors. When I reached out to Natasha for this blog post for her views on women translating (and publishing) women, here’s what she said:
“When the subject of women’s writing and women in translation comes up I always recall the start of Glas (1991). I was so proud of the first two issues until in all the reviews I read a remark that startled me: ‘Where are the women?’ I looked at the contents and yes, indeed, there were no women. The thought had never even entered my head. I felt ashamed and started looking for women authors. So the third Glas anthology was devoted exclusively to women’s writing. I discovered for myself very vibrant, emotional, and perceptive literature which was definitely different from men’s writing but in no way inferior. Since then I’ve always paid particular attention to women’s writing and followed its exciting and productive evolution. Among my modest achievements I see the fact that we published a great number of beginning women authors (they were all beginners in the early 1990s) whom nobody wanted to publish at the time, and thus helped them to become known abroad.
I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators. As a long-time editor of translations I’ve repeatedly noticed that when it comes to expressly female issues men often miss the point or misunderstand the context and connotations because they are not really interested enough in the women’s world with its specific problems which many men simply find annoying. This is still a very much man-dominated world, even to some extent in Europe as well. Many things are still harder for women to attain, and this also refers to being published and translated. They say readers are mostly women, so I assume that women readers are more interested in men’s lives while men are have always been interested in themselves, naturally.
I think women make better translators as a rule because they are more attentive to detail by nature. Women with children in particular need extra support to establish their careers. They really need jobs which would allow them to work from home and stay with their children as much as they can. Writing and translating are among the jobs which provide an excellent opportunity for combining self-realization with career development. Another achievement of Glas is that we gave many budding translators a platform to showcase their first efforts and be noticed by bigger publishers.”
Anna Babyashkina agrees that women translators almost certainly do a better job of conveying female themes. She writes: “I doubt whether a male translator would have had so much empathy for Before I Croak, a book about motherhood, family, and women’s careers in contemporary Russia. As a woman, Muireann was well-acquainted with many of the ordeals and scenarios depicted in the book. I think this was an important factor in the translation’s success. For example, at one point I wrote (about Caesarian sections) that no woman can give birth naturally after having had one. Muireann looked at this in detail and clarified that a natural birth actually is possible. (At least in theory, although in practice in my country it rarely happens. Evidently they do things differently in Great Britain.) Would a man have paid any attention to this passage?” [my translation, from a personal email]. I remember this point in Anna’s novel, where a character becomes a writer’s muse, helping him to produce three novels. When they are separated, he overdoses on alcohol and pills, unable to write without her help. In summarizing this relationship, Anna twists the familiar, elegant metaphor of the writer’s muse acting as midwife to his novel; she suggests that this muse acted like an egotistical surgeon, forcing herself into the writer’s creative process, and forever “denying him the chance to give birth by himself”, i.e. to finish a book without her intervention. While I liked Anna’s metaphor, I pointed out that it broke down once you stopped assuming that one C-section precludes future natural births. Anna was impressed – but the passage stayed in. I don’t agree with Anna and Natasha that only a woman translator can give women’s themes due attention – surely a talented translator, like a talented author, is characterized by universal empathy – but I would have to agree that at that point in my own life, all aspects of motherhood were at the forefront of my mind. As they remain: my next research monograph will be about how and why male authors write about pregnancy and birth!
I will end this post with some excellent advice from Natasha Perova: “My own example as a woman publisher in post-perestroika Russia is not typical because it was a time of dislocation and constantly changing rules In Russia. It was hard for all those who launched new projects in conditions of wild capitalism, but harder still for women whose business experience was largely limited to managing family affairs. So my advice to all aspiring publishers and translators everywhere is to persevere and keep going forward no matter what, to be inventive and creative, and listen to their own inner voice for guidance”.