For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Robert Chandler: The Short Form Interview

Languages differ not so much with regard to what they allow you to express as with regard to what they force you to express.

Award-winning translator of Russian literature, editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

The Interview

As a translator, do you think that someone's native tongue can be an integral part of their “complete” personality: the way someone is perceived in a language foreign to him may always be incomplete.

A tangential answer, if I may: aged 18, I lived for nearly a year in the south of Spain, part of the time in a mountain village.  At that time, around 1970, this was still a very isolated part of the world.  Blonde-haired and obviously foreign, I stood out.  Spaniards then seemed almost to take it for granted that a foreigner would be unable to speak Spanish, and I soon learned that the least hesitation on my part would reinforce that prejudice.  So I had to learn to speak with a greater assurance than I usually did in English.  So yes, you could say that to some extent I became a different person in a different language — though it might perhaps be more accurate to say that I had to learn to give expression to a somewhat dormant part of my self.  

This makes me want to ask if you know Eva Hoffman's wonderful memoir, Lost in Translation - by far the best book, I think, about these kinds of questions.

I should've read it before interviewing you. I'm also wondering if someone's voice — the actual sound — is best suited for her native tongue, and if that idea could be applied to literature. Could a Russian writer's style be affected by its compatibility with the language itself?

I wouldn't say that Pushkin's or Platonov's style was “attuned” to Russian; it is more that they did certain things to the Russian language to attune it to what they wanted to say. 

I liked what you said about jokes in translation being like darts that need to be re-pointed. What are some of the things that go into translating the “complete personality” of a work?

I have not learned very much from linguists or translation theorists.  Perhaps the one important insight I owe to a linguist — Roman Jacobson — is that languages differ not so much with regard to what they allow you to express as with regard to what they force you to express.  To give a simple expression, English allows me to say, “A neighbour came round to supper”; there is nothing odd about me not mentioning the neighbour's sex. Many languages, however, make it very difficult for you not to mention the neighbour's sex.  In this vein, while translating Andrey Platonov's Soul, we had to give a great deal of thought to the sex of several different animals — a camel, a dog, some tortoises — that play an important role in the story.  All these creatures are anthropomorphised, so it would have felt deeply wrong to refer to them with the pronoun “it”.  But it was by no means obvious which should be “he”s and which “she”s.  So, for a work's “personality” to seem complete in the foreign tongue, some aspects of this personality may need to be developed more — or less — fully than in the original.

I'm fascinated by Elif Batuman's claim that there is an American tendency, among contemporary writers, to name characters “unlike Tolstoy's double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov's characters, many of whom didn't have names at all. In ‘Lady With Lapdog,’ Gurov's wife, Anna's husband, Gurov's crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless.’’ What are your thoughts on this, the effort to tie a meaningful “individual essence” to a proper name?

I very much like what Elif B. says about “Lady with Lapdog”.  And I remember Hamid once saying something very important about his novel, The Railway: that while all the minor characters have nicknames that entirely define them, that encapsulate them, the central character is referred to simply as “the boy”.  This is because he is still empty, he still has infinite potential — and so a name, let alone a nickname — would be inappropriate.

After we read “Lalla's Interests” in the anthology you edited, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, we tried to find more stories from Vera Inber but didn't have much luck. One review of the anthology refers to her as “the subject of uncomplimentary Russian jokes,” and we were hoping you could fill us in on that.

I'm sorry. There is probably no writer in the anthology I know less about.  I forget where I first came across this particular story; someone I know must have recommended it to me.  I remember several people, both Russians and American Russianists, disapproving of this choice.  But most of them had not even read the story — they just disliked the idea of Vera Inber.  Inber had the misfortune to be a cousin of Trotsky's.  Because of this, and because of having lived abroad for two years in the early 1920s, she was in great danger throughout the entire Stalin era.  And so she had to be unwaveringly correct in supporting the Party line in all matters.  This, no doubt, is the reason for the uncomplimentary jokes.  But it is clear from this story that, at least at the beginning of her career, she was a talented writer.

To most Anglophone readers, Russian books are long and serious; but most Russians would include among their favourite works many short stories that are extremely funny.

What do you think is most misunderstood about Russian literature by Anglophone readers?

To most Anglophone readers, Russian literature is, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; but to almost every Russian reader, their greatest writer is Alexander Pushkin.  To most Anglophone readers, Russian books are long and serious; but most Russians would include among their favourite works many short stories that are extremely funny.  And when we get to the Soviet period, the distortions become still greater.  Without the “help” of an international political scandal, it was almost impossible for a Soviet writer to be taken seriously in the West.  For a long time, Pasternak (whom the Soviet authorities forced to decline the Nobel Prize) and Solzhenitsyn (whom they forced into exile) were the only Soviet novelists we took seriously.  Vasily Grossman, a far greater writer than Solzhenitsyn, has only become noticed during the last 7-8 years, though my translation of Life and Fate was first published in 1985.  Varlam Shalamov, whose stories about the Gulag are remorselessly truthful yet endowed with a Chekhovian delicacy, remains little known.  And Andrey Platonov, whom many Russian writers consider the greatest of all C20 Russian prose writers, is only gradually winning the world recognition he deserves — though I am grateful to Random House and NYRB Classics for their dogged efforts on his behalf.

Tell us a little bit about the stories you've recommended.

Andrey Platonov, ‘The Return’: This story about an army captain returning home to his family in 1946 is one of the wisest works of literature I know.  It is also both tender and funny.  One indication of the breadth of Platonov's sympathy is his ability to make it possible for the reader to identify with all the three main figures.  Some people identify primarily with the captain and sympathise with the difficulties he faces on his return to a loving, but not entirely faithful wife and a ten-year-old son who has got used to being the man about the house. Others see the story as being primarily about how hard life was for Russian women during and after the War.  A friend of a friend, a now-elderly Jew who survived the War on the run in central Europe, took it entirely for granted that little Petya was the central character, that the story was about 'a young boy who, like me, was forced into an early apparent maturity'.  'The Return' ends with the father storming off to the railway station.  He gets on a train, thinking he will start a new life with a young woman he met on his journey home.  Just after the train leaves the station, however, he gets off; evidently he has suddenly grasped that the last four yeaers have been difficult not only for him, but also for his wife and children.  Much of Platonov’s work is about people searching for other worlds; “The Return” marks Platonov’s acceptance of this world, with all its imperfections.

Andrey Platonov,‘The Third Son’: After the death of an old woman, her six sons try three times – through ‘occasional, restrained tears’, through a perfunctorily performed Orthodox ceremony, and through almost heroic exuberance – to find a way to mourn her. Only when the third son blacks out, suddenly overwhelmed, are they freed to mourn her in their individual ways.  This is one of Platonov’s subtlest stories.  I first read it long ago and couldn't see why it has received such high praise.  But Platonov's psychological understanding is remarkable and every sentence deserves to be read again and again.  As Natalya Kornienko (the leading Platonov scholar in Russia) says, “this five-page story has the scope of an novel.”

Andrey Platonov,‘Among Animals and Plants’: Taken at face value, as a story about the family life of a railway worker in a remote Karelian forest in the 1930s, ‘Animals and Plants’ is as perfect in its fusion of wit and feeling as any short story by Chekhov.  Still more remarkable is Platonov’s ability to hint at the heavy, wordless presence of so many other stories that he is unable to tell - stories about the political prisoners who, 3 years earlier, had been building the White Sea Canal through this same stretch of forest.  Platonov moves effortlessly between political and literary satire, evocations of family quarrels and a tender, vivid description of a baby hare playing about in the forest.  A complete version of this story was first published in book form in Russia only in 2010 – nearly sixty years after Platonov's death. 

Vasily Grossman, ‘The Road’:  “The Road” (1961—62) can be read as a distillation of Life and Fate, a recreation of it in miniature.  It may even represent an attempt on Grossman’s part to compensate for the novel’s ‘arrest’, to get the better of the despair this had occasioned him.  Not even in Life and Fate itself does he so powerfully evoke the relentlessness of the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Stalingrad.  The evocations of the horror of war and the miracle of love appear all the more universal because of the unexpected point of view from which the story is told – that of a mule from an Italian artillery regiment.  Grossman and Platonov were friends.  During the years between Platonov’s death in 1951 and his own death in 1964, Grossman seems to have taken on something of Platonov’s idiosyncratic style and vision – almost as if he were trying to keep Platonov’s spirit alive.  In ‘The Road’, Grossman seems more Platonovan than Platonov himself.  Platonov often shows us uneducated people grappling with difficult philosophical questions; Grossman presents us with a mule who not only resolves Hamlet’s dilemma about whether to be or not to be but even, while plodding across the Russian plains, arrives at the concept of infinity.

Nikolay Leskov, ‘The Steel Flea’: This is one of the funniest, and craziest, of all Russian short stories.  The action moves between the Russian provinces, Petersburg and London.  William Edgerton, whose dazzling translation we republished in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, says of it: "Much of the delight that generations of Russian readers have found in ‘The Steel Flea’ arises from the fact that Leskov puts only a part of his verbal effects out in plain view. He hides many others in the bushes of innocent-looking prose or camouflages them to make them look so familiar that the unsuspecting reader may pass them by completely before he realizes that crafty old Leskov has put one over on him again."

Recommended by Robert Chandler

The Road

The plain grew broader. The mules now sensed its vastness not so much with their eyes as with their hooves. Their hooves sank deeper and deeper into the soft ground. Sticky clods dragged at their legs. Now heavy with rain, vaster and more powerful than ever, the plain continued to stretch out, to expand, to broaden.

The mule’s large, spacious brain, used to conceiving vague images of smells, of form, and of color, was now conceiving of an image of something very different, an image of a concept created by philosophers and mathematicians, an image of infinity itself—of the misty Russian plain and cold autumn rain pouring down over it without end.

We read it in The Road.

The Steel Flea

One scurrier dashed off to get them to come as fast as possible and bring him the work that was to put the Englishmen to shame, and that scurrier had run only a short distance when Platov sent first one and then another after him so as to speed things up.

He sent off all his scurriers and then began dispatching ordinary people from the curious crowd, and in impatience he even stuck his own legs out of the carriage and was about to start running impatiently himself, and he gritted his teeth because they were all so slow in coming into sight.

In those days everything had to be done just right and very fast, so as not to lose a minute that might be useful to Russia.

Among Animals and Plants

Beneath the hunter crawled diligent ants, burdened like respectable little people with heavy loads for their households. They are vile creatures, he thought, with the character of kulaks. They spend all their lives dragging goods into their kingdom; they exploit every solitary animal, big and small, that they can dominate; they know nothing of the universal common interest and live only for their own greedy, concentrated well-being. Once, the hunter had happened to see two ants dragging an iron filing from the railway line: it seems that ants even need iron. The hunter stamped on some of the nearest ants, then moved away, so as not to enrage himself further. He was like his father: his father also got angry whenever he went out hunting, waging war on the birds and the beasts as if they were ferocious enemies, expending every last bit of malice in his heart while he was in the forest, and then returning home a kind, sensitive family man. Other hunters weren’t like this at all; they wandered tenderheartedly through the grass, killing animals with love and caressing flowers and trees with trembling pleasure, while at home, among people, they lived lives of irritation, longing to be back in nature, where they could feel that they were the ones in charge, thanks to their rifles.

The Return

Petya glanced across at his sister and began to scold her: “What are you up to now? Why you have you got Uncle Semyon’s glasses on?”

“I’m not looking through them, I’m looking over them.”

“Oh really!... I can see what you’re doing! You’ll ruin your eyesight and go blind, then you’ll be on a pension and be a burden for the rest of your life. Take the glasses off this minute, I tell you, and stop darning those mittens, mother will darn them, or I’ll do them myself as soon as I have a moment. Get out your exercise book and practise your writing — goodness knows when you last did any!”

“Does Natsya go to school then?” asked the father.

Their mother replied that Natsya was not yet big enough for school, but that Petya made her do lessons every day; he had brought her an exercise book, and she practised drawing the strokes for letters. Petya was also teaching his sister how to do sums, adding and subtracting pumpkin seeds in front of her, while Lyubov Vasilyevna was herself teaching Nastya to read.

The Third Son

After completing the brief rite, the priest quickly gathered his things, then extinguished the candles burning around the coffin and packed all his goods back into his officer’s kitbag. The father of the sons put some money into his hand, and the priest, without lingering, made his way through the line of six men, not one of whom looked at him, and timidly disappeared through the door. Really, he would have liked to stay in the house for the wake, discuss the prospects of wars and revolutions, and draw lasting comfort from a meeting with representatives of the new world he secretly admired but was unable to enter; he dreamed in solitude about how one day he would all of a sudden accomplish a heroic feat and so burst into the brilliant future, into the circle of the new generations — to this end he had even submitted a request to the local aerodrome, asking to be taken up to the very highest altitude and to be dropped from there by parachute without an oxygen mask, but he had not received any reply.