I started reading Dmitry Glukhovsky's METRO 2033 and the very first line jarred me. "Who's there? Artyom—go have a look!" There is nothing wrong with it. In fact, it sucks you right in the story. What bothered me was the tone of the translation. I couldn't pinpoint what it was at first. The words seemed all right. But something about them was not quite Russian. Yes, that's how one would say it in English but not how one would say it in Russian. I was certain that the suss was lost in translation, the sense of a superior commandeering a soldier.
I dismissed the feeling and read on (the annoying habit of distrusting myself since childhood). Sure enough, two paragraphs later another chunk of dialogue tripped me up. "You idiot! You were clearly told. If they don't respond, then shoot immediately! How do you know who that was? Maybe the dark ones are getting closer!"
I couldn't continue reading and went and dug up the book in Russian to compare. I had a feeling that the translation has generalized the saucy speak, erased the Russianness from it. I was right.
The first line in Russian reads: "Кто это там? Эй, Артем! Глянь‑ка!" Bingo.
I got spoiled by Jamey Gambrell's rich translation of THE SLYNX by Tatyana Tolstaya, the way she preserved the peculiar to Russian language turns of phrases. If I were to translate the line above, it would be something like: "Who's there? Artyom, go look!" The little suffix "-ка" in Russian suggests a familiarity that is lost in "go have a look." "Have" adds formality to it. These two men know each other. The tone is important.
All right. I moved on to the next dialogue line. It was worse. In Russian it reads: "Эх ты, раззява! Тебе же было сказано: не отзываются – сразу стрелять! Откуда ж тебе знать, кто это был? Может, это черные подбираются!" I'm not going to get into trying to translate the whole thing but will concentrate on the first two lines to show you the difference. This is why it took me so bloody long to write Draft 2 of TUBE. I was sweating over translating the intricacies of Russian talk in such a way as to retain the original color of the language.
In the English translation the line "You idiot!" is too plain, too primitive. It doesn't come close to relaying the meaning of "Эх ты, раззява!" The short phrase "Эх ты" holds in it an emotion of "What shall I do with you now, you scoundrel?" that is warm and scolding at the same time. And the word "раззява" means someone who stares with their mouth open. A gawker, a gaper, an irresponsible ditz who was sent on an errand and got distracted by some shiny thing. That's not "idiot," that begs for a distinct word like "airhead" or "space cadet" or "scatterbrain" or, more to the American street speak, "shit for brains." With this in mind the dialogue chunk would read something like: "Eh, you airhead! How many times do you have to be told? They don't respond, you shoot them right away."
There is, of course, the question of what the translator (and perhaps the author too?) wanted to accomplish. Maybe the simplifying was intentional. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was done to appeal to a broader marker. Maybe it wasn't. There are a million decisions that could be at play here, and those are the decisions all of us writing in foreign languages must make. We can turn it any way we want. The question is, which?
The fact that I saw this dialogue simplification in a traditionally published book gave me a pause. I always expect the best from the big ones of the publishing world and I don't think much of myself. Turns out, I have a good ear for both Russian and American dialogue and I can do a good job retaining the flavor of Russian in English. I just don't trust myself as I still doubt my abilities. I think I suck most of the time.
I don't. I don't suck at all.
This experience made me even more determined to work my ass off on Draft 3 of TUBE to see what I can do with translations there. It will be a personal challenge, to deliver to you a book that is Russian and yet American too, that you can read and taste the Russian on your tongue and yet understand the story in English as easily as if it was written by a native.
This is what I have to work against every day in my head when I write. Not so much in books where the characters are originally American but in books where they are Russian. IRKADURA was one where I tried my hand. TUBE will be one where I will practice it more.
And something else. My Slavisms. Or so they were coined. I realize now I don't need to fight them, I need to hone them and keep them. It's what makes my similes MINE, my metaphors MINE, my hyperboles MINE. It's this unique mix of two cultures that you guys come to me for, that I was giving you at first unconsciously and then became aware of and tried expunging to blend into becoming an American through and through and that I have now stopped fighting and am learning to embrace.
Reading helps me with this. Reading Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN and seeing how he threw in a bunch of Spanish without any translations gives me courage to do the same, and reading his long winding run-ons with this distinct American-West flavor, almost fable-like, made me think how I can bring Russian flavor back to my writing.
I will work on this. I'm excited, very excited. Expect great things.