Translating The Untranslatable: 'Between Dog And Wolf'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, we wanted to spend a few minutes talking about a new translation of a novel by a Russian writer who's literature has won rave reviews in his home country, including from such luminaries as the late Vladimir Nabokov. But many people thought this particular novel, his second, would never be read in English. The novel is called "Between Dog And Wolf." It was written in 1980 by Sasha Sokolov, who has spent the past four decades living in exile, mostly in Canada and the U.S. The title of the book comes from a Latin idiom about twilight, that time of day when a shepherd could confuse the dog guarding his herd to the wolf stalking it.
The novel drew acclaim in its Russian form for Sokolov's linguistic gymnastics. He experiments with puns, syntax, double negatives, incomplete sentences and even purposeful misspellings, all for literary effect. But those techniques are exactly what made it difficult to translate. However, Professor Alexander Boguslawski of Rollins College in Florida figured out a translation that satisfies author Sasha Sokolov. We reached both at WUSF in Tampa. And I asked Mr. Sokolov to tell us about his new book.
SASHA SOKOLOV: It's about life on the upper Volga River. A old sharpener who is living there in one village or a small town - he's an invalid. He has only one leg, and he uses crutches. And those crutches were stolen by the local game wardens one day. And he's writing a letter to an investigator. He's complaining that his crutches disappeared and tells his own life story, and he describes a lot of interesting things around him.
MARTIN: And it alternates with different narrative voices. There are three different kind of narrative...
MARTIN: ...Voices, you know, in the novel.
SOKOLOV: Right. Another voice is the voice of a game warden, supposedly his son. And he's a game warden and a poet. In the book, there are 37 poems. They were penned by this guy Yakov, by name. And the third voice is the voice of the author - actually, it's my voice - just telling different but parallel stories.
MARTIN: When you finished the work, did you have a hope that it would be translated? Or did you just think, well, you know, no (laughter), it's too much?
SOKOLOV: I lost hope after a few years abroad because my first book was accepted and translated - accepted very well. And it made me kind of famous, at least in Russian circles.
MARTIN: I should have mentioned that, that your first novel "A School For Fools," which was - if you have studied Russian literature at a certain level, then you will have encountered "A School For Fools." So when you encountered, professor, I'm going to ask you this now, "Between Dog And Wolf," what did you think?
ALEXANDER BOGUSLAWSKI: From the very beginning when I read it for the first time, I knew what kind of a masterpiece it was. But, initially, there was not even a thought that I could translate it. "Between Dog And Wolf" takes some time, first of all, to do it justice. But what was the problem, you know, that I read it very early, and my English wasn't good enough.
MARTIN: Sasha Sokolov, there are so many beautiful things about this book. I mean, the poetry is beautiful. Getting into Ilya's mind and what his life is like is so beautiful. Why did you feel it - all - you all - had to cram it all together in this one book? I guess what I'm asking is why did you make it so hard for us?
SOKOLOV: I think it's just the way I think. I try to analyze my own way of thinking, of course, many times. And then I realized that that's how I was born, I think. My - let's say my grandfather was a phenomenal mathematician, they say. Maybe it's just because I have such genes.
SOKOLOV: It's difficult, yes, but I felt like I wouldn't be able to write just simple texts. I like dense texts.
MARTIN: Do you mind reading a bit of - this is note five, October.
SOKOLOV: (Reading in Russian).
BOGUSLAWSKI: (Reading) Is it really October? Such a balmy air that if not for the rustling of leaf fall one could simply forget about everything and for hours stare into far nowheres.
MARTIN: Very nice. Sasha, how does it feel to hear your words in English?
SOKOLOV: It's strange. I understand. When I read any text in English, I understand everything, but I cannot appreciate the style. When I read my own, of course, poems or prose, then I appreciate my own. That's - it's very funny sometimes. It's...
SOKOLOV: ...More interesting than rereading your own text in Russian. It's strange. I think...
MARTIN: It's - there's a level of trust involved, isn't there?
BOGUSLAWSKI: I think if he could feel all this, he would be translating his books into English. I think our collaboration was based on more than just business. We like each other. We've known each other for over 30 years. We are friends and thus, we can discuss problems of translation, which sometimes make us laugh, sometimes make us cry, you know, when we discover that we cannot render something really exactly. Translation is a very strange beast.
MARTIN: That was translator Alexander Boguslawski. He's a professor at Rollins College in Florida. Author Sasha Sokolov whose novel "Between Dog And Wolf" is now available in English. And they both joined us from member station WUSF in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.