The inimitable Teffi provides us with a rare thing in 20th century Russian literature: a woman’s perspective. And what’s more, that perspective is shrewd, charming and artfully constructed. Here one of the translators of Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, Anne Marie Jackson tells us why Teffi was such a sensation in her day, and why she is still such an icon of Russian literature.
Why do you think it’s important to have a female perspective on the Russian Civil War & revolution?
There are very few accounts of the Russian Revolution from a female perspective, so for that reason alone a female perspective would matter, but it could also be argued that a woman of the time was more attuned to certain types of experience, experiences that men would have been likely to turn away from, deeming them unimportant. Consider what Teffi manages to convey when her narrative turns to fashion. In just one such example from Memories, where she describes a friend exhorting her to go the corner hardware store and buy its velvet curtains, ‘nails and all’, for a dress (because ‘you’ll never get a chance like this again’), not only is she very witty, but she manages to convey how exuberance of spirit could coexist with the extraordinary hardship of the civil war period.
How tricky was Teffi to translate?
When you read Teffi’s work in the original, you don’t expect her to be difficult to translate. She comes across as elegant, light and airy, and you know exactly how the translation should sound. But then trying to accomplish in English what Teffi does in Russian truly is difficult: Teffi exploits the elasticity of Russian completely, without any apparent effort, and English just doesn’t doesn’t bend that way. Often it’s necessary to practise a kind of legerdemain, perhaps using three lines in English to render just one line of Teffi’s Russian.
Do you have any other favourite female writers from this period?
I consistently value the other female writers of the period – such as Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva – but they seem so few and far between. It’s astonishing that a writer of Teffi’s immense talent and stature was ever forgotten, and I keep wondering who else history has left behind.
Intrigued? Dive into Teffi’s Memories now >