On this week’s Behind the Book we caught up with Robert Chandler, one of the translators of our brand new titles by literary sensation Teffi: Memories and Rasputin and Other Ironies. Read on to find out about the pleasurable moments of translation and why a short story by Platonov is the Russian work you must read.
Where are you at your happiest?
Not sure. I love swimming. I am also often very happy during the hours when my wife and I are working together on a translation, batting a phrase to and fro between us.
Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Andrey Platonov, whom I have been translating, off and on, for the last 40 years. It is entirely possible he would choose to remain silent - but even this would be memorable. It might even say a great deal!
What does being a translator mean to you?
I was once introduced to an acclaimed French translator of Shakespeare. I was taken aback by my own entirely unexpected reaction: I felt envious of him. He could get close to Shakespeare in a way that I can’t. Being English, I can’t translate Shakespeare. And I can’t act or direct or put his words to music. All I can do is read him - and that doesn’t seem quite enough. Translating entails a deeper form of reading.
If you could only recommend one book from Russian literature which would it be?
Andrey Platonov, ‘The Return’: This short 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. To him, 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 catch a train and start a new life with a young woman he met during his journey home. Just after the train leaves the station, however, he gets off; he has suddenly understood that the last four years 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. (“The Return” is included in SOUL AND OTHER STORIES (NYRB Classics and Vintage Classics).
And - since I have only chosen a short story - I shall demand a second choice. For a fresh look at what may have been the most important political event of the last century: 1917: STORIES AND POEMS FROM THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION (Pushkin Press), ed. Boris Dralyuk - though I am afraid readers will have to wait till December for this.