Saturday, January 14, 2017

On Being Translated Back to Myself: Author’s Note

By BORIS FISHMAN JAN. 13, 2017, New York Timessee also.

[From "In October, 2016, Boris traveled to Estonia and Latvia 
on behalf of the U.S. State Department to discuss 'A Replacement Life,' and the 
creative life (in America), with Russian-speaking minorities in the capitals and near 
the border with Russia."]

[JB: Also note that (in Fishman's words) "The summer after junior year at Princeton
I got an internship at the American Embassy in Moscow."]

image from; for non-American editions of the book, see.

To have one’s novel translated — on one hand, an honor. On the other — you might
as well be trying to have sex using another person’s body. Occasionally, this avatar
exhibits somewhat stereotypical national traits. The German writes to point out
inconsistencies in the original. The Brazilian never writes at all. For the Frenchman,
the story dovetails with a personal saga. But at least France publishes — it’s unclear
the Italians are ever going to bother.

And then there was my recent trip to Estonia on behalf of my first novel, “A
Replacement Life.” (Or “A Replacement Wife,” as the Estonian contract had it.) “The
translation’s not very good, you know,” a professor of American literature at Tallinn
University said when I arrived in October. “She translates ‘Orthodox Jews’ as
‘Russian Orthodox Jews.’” He explained this in Russian. Among the many things
Americans don’t have to know is what it means to have to live in three languages.
Estonians occupy a country smaller than West Virginia, so they have to speak
English. A quarter of the country’s population remains ethnically Russian, a
language that thrives because the Estonians are enlightened about minority
integration. Then there’s the mother tongue.

On behalf of the American Embassy, it was the Russian minority I was there to
address: The novel’s preoccupations — the psychic legacy of Soviet life, World War II
— remain dear to it. The trouble was that many Estonian Russians had not managed,
or bothered, to learn Estonian, and no Russian publisher had touched my little story
of Soviet horror. I’d been disappointed: The English version was too difficult for my
immigrant father, and my Russian too weak for him. I speak fluently, but when it
comes to literary instinct, the newspaper reads like Brodsky.

The embassy had scheduled a reading in Russian, so it commissioned a
translation from a local trinitarian. Soon, it arrived — a third longer than my text.
Was my translator using the occasion to insert thoughts of his own? Similarly, I’d
wondered whether the Frenchman, whose “Replacement Life” outlasted mine by a
hundred pages, had been so overcome by the overlaps in our narratives that he’d
begun amplifying my story with his. No — like French, Russian simply takes longer.
(“It’s not a good language for Twitter,” as my embassy handler, a half-­Russian, half-Finnish
Estonian, dryly noted.)

What linguistic particularity extends, cultural recognition reduces. As I read the
translator’s version, I found myself cutting whole sentences. Responsibly, he had
translated everything, but hardly every word was as necessary for an audience
already familiar with, say, how and why the pre-­revolutionary nobility fled to France.
In Russian, I was finally the slayer of flab I could never quite allow to fall away in the
original tongue of the novel (that is, the adopted one of my life). In Russian, I could
leave the space between the lines to do half the work. Unlike English, half of Russian
lived there, anyway.

Things that sounded improbable and sentimental in English — a son does not
recognize the skeleton at the door as his father — became moving in Russian. The
unbelievable things — an entrepreneur corners the market on the best grave sites at
a local cemetery — are just another day in Minsk or the many Minsks­-in­-exile of
south Brooklyn. Because my Russian translator was unfamiliar with certain
American realities — AAA is car help, not a clothing size — I also corrected
infelicities. Then, starting to see better ways to suit the intentions of the English, I
just started retranslating. Maybe I wasn’t so hopeless as a writer in Russian.

The reading took place at Jamaica Bar, a wee­-hours karaoke spot near the Old
City. I marveled not only at the age range but at the size of the crowd; in New York,
you’d have to pay people to show up to a fiction reading in such numbers. Then, for
the first time ever, I read from my novel in Russian. Though I had written it in
English, I had felt and thought it in Russian — not least because that was what most
of the characters speak. I had to render this foreignness in English, but without
misspelling, because after all, they weren’t misspelling the Russian. (And sometimes
my American readers ask me what all I am so conflicted about.) I’d settled, in
English, for nonstandard inflection and syntax. Finally, at Jamaica Bar, the novel’s
diction, which, so often, never quite landed at American readings — that was the
point, but the squints were hard to endure, anyway — not only landed but killed. I
grew bold, I gestured, I nearly sang out.

When the applause died down, a woman announced that I had gotten the words
for “safety” and “revenge” wrong. Another said that where I’d meant to describe a
finger as “papery,” I said “furry.” This went on for a while. Though the conversation
warmed up, the evening cleared away my fantasy of a certain birthday gift for my

But my errors made possible another kind of success. By misconjugating this
and stacking the wrong suffix on that, I had given my listeners (as a woman in the
audience proposed; Russians don’t rush to compliment, but they do rush to defend)
the same sense of foreignness my deviations from standard English had given my
American readers. My listeners at Jamaica Bar had been living in a free country for
25 years, whereas my forefathers in Brooklyn continued to exist in a pickled Soviet
Union; in 2016, these people understood each other less than their shared language
suggested. And my odd fate was to understand everyone, and feel fully at home with
none. I was a trinitarian of my own — ex­-Soviet, post-­Soviet, American — whole only
inside one of my books.

Boris Fishman is the author of “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 15, 2017, on Page BR25 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: On Being Translated Back to Myself.

From Booklist (on Amazon):
Critic and short story writer Fishman’s first novel concerns the risks and the rewards of fiction, but it isn’t as postmodern as that sounds. Instead, it’s a straight-ahead story about committing fraud for all the right reasons—love, family, and Holocaust restitution. Slava Gelman, lapsed Jew from a former Soviet republic, is a blocked writer who works at Century, a venerable magazine headquartered in Manhattan. Slava’s grandfather, Yevgeny, a notorious fixer and thug with a heart of gold, is always on the take. When it turns out that Slava’s recently deceased grandmother would have been eligible for reparations from the German government, Slava decides to forge the claim, grafting the scanty details of her terrible wartime experiences onto his grandfather’s. Soon, in part because of Slava’s burning desire to write, he is forging dozens of restitution claims. Though saccharinity and righteousness taint this tale, Fishman has talent galore, and an attractive love interest, funny set-pieces, a brochure-beautiful Big Apple, and spectacular, acutely self-conscious prose are all most enjoyable. --Michael Autrey

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