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Behind the Book: Boris Dralyuk

Posted 29th Nov 2016

This week on Behind the Book, we caught up with award-winning translator and editor Boris Dralyuk. Boris’ pitch-perfect translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories was published last week and 1917, an anthology of stories and poems from the Russian revolution edited by Boris, arrives on December 1st. We took a few moments out with Boris to discuss Odessa, Russia and everywhere in between;  read on to hear why Boris would love to chat with Mark Twain, find out what the word Voobraziliia means and why reading translations out loud is essential.

Do you have a particular translating routine?

When translating prose, I begin work as early as I can, often at the break of dawn, over a cup — let’s be honest: a pot — of strong coffee.  I work sentence by sentence, selecting the right words and setting them in place with the right emphases. Once I finish a paragraph, I read it aloud; Flaubert called this kind of authorial sound-check the ‘test of the gueuloir.’ The method can be especially useful for translators, who sometimes fall under the spell of the source language’s syntax. A syntactic construction that seems perfectly neutral in Russian may be marked, awkward, or downright impossible in English. Hearing the English read aloud shocks me out of my complacency. I notice an infelicity or three and rework my sentences yet again, in the hope that “everyone will be satisfied,” as Babel’s Tsudechkis puts it, “because the period is just where it ought to be.” (Babel had very strong feelings about periods!)

When translating poetry, I am, for all intents and purposes, writing poetry in English. I get to work when a Russian poem forces my hand.

What is your favourite word?

That’s like asking a parent to name their favourite child! The answer changes daily, text to text, passage to passage: I suppose I can say that my favourite word is the one that does the trick. Sometimes it’s a brilliant neologism I encounter in Russian and then reinvent in English. Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Irina Mashinski and I have been translating the poems of Lev Ozerov (1914-1996). In one of his Portraits Without Frames — verse profiles of notable Soviet authors and other cultural figures — Ozerov dreams up a term for the land of the imagination, ‘Voobraziliia’, a portmanteau of ‘Voobrazil (I have/one has imagined)’ and ‘Braziliia (Brazil)’. I loved the word at first sight, let my imagination run wild, and came up with ‘Mind’s Eyeland’.

Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

I’d have to say Mark Twain, prose stylist extraordinaire — and a laugh riot to boot. Here’s a man who knew that ‘the difference between the almost right word and the right word is […] the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning’. That’s a fitting credo for any translator. Twain is also the author of a spectacular piece of tongue-in-cheek translation criticism, ‘The Jumping Frog’ (1865). Oh, and as a seasoned steamboat pilot, he must have been good with his hands — so he could probably get us out of our jam!

What is the best thing about being a translator?

I have to quote Kenneth Rexroth, who said it all in his essay ‘The Poet as Translator’ (1959): ‘You meet such a nice class of people.’ By this he meant the authors one translates — but I would expand the set to include members of the translation community. Great company indeed.

You grew up in Odessa, was working on Odessa Stories something of a homecoming for you?

Was it ever!  I did much of the work in Scotland, a country I’ve come to love, but one that couldn’t be more different from sunny Odessa — or sunny Los Angeles, for that matter. As I write in my intro (and on my blog), Babel led me back to the warm worlds I missed. Not only was the landscape intimately, almost painfully familiar, but that language. . . I hungered for it. Translating these stories allowed me to blend the Yiddish-inflected patois of Odessa’s gangsters with the equally flavourful lingo  of America’s underclass, which emerged from a similar cultural melting pot and was brought to the page by the hardboiled school of crime fiction and by Jewish-American authors like Daniel Fuchs and Bernard Malamud. I’ve never had more fun with a pen, or felt more at home in a text.

Get Boris Drayluk’s Odessa Stories, the first ever stand-alone collection of all the stories Babel set in the city, now, and pre-order 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution on our shop now.