The Interview | with Marian Schwartz

Creating translations that are faithful, not literal

Marian Schwartz Marian Schwartz
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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Marian Schwartz is an acclaimed translator of Russian fiction, history, biography, and criticism. Her most recent translations include Ivan Goncharov’s 19th-century novel “Oblomov” and Olga Slavnikova’s futuristic novel “2017.” Schwartz is also the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova.

She spoke from her home in Austin, Texas.

Q. What is a good translation?

A. I think a translation is considered “good’’ when the reader likes it, even if it’s tough going. Bulgakov’s “White Guard,” for example, was known for years in the Glenny translation, which was a pleasure to read but had little to do with the original text and omitted crucial bits; everyone but Slavists loved it. I hope that my new translation reproduces the full range of devices and effects of the original. Incidentally, our capacity — and willingness — to appreciate difficult texts seems to have changed, particularly for canonical texts.

Q. In what way?

A. I think we’ve become more receptive to foreign elements. Constance Garnett, whom I will defend to the end of my days, is now criticized for not being faithful to Tolstoy’s text, for setting his books in what feels like an English garden, but in my view it cannot be bad when a translation gives people access to works that they would never otherwise have read. As I was saying, though, our taste for foreignness has increased. A simple example: 50 years ago, names of Chinese characters were translated — “Peach Blossom’’ and the like — whereas now the preference is for the transliterated Chinese names. There is an ongoing debate among translators about “foreignizing’’ and “domestication,’’ but wherever a translator’s choice falls, today it will probably be closer to foreignizing than it would have been 50 years ago.

Q. Can one language be faithful to the meaning of another?

A. That question, I think, points to the English speaker’s discomfort with the idea of a translation as two simultaneously existing texts. For readers accustomed to foreign languages, the issue is not as fraught. Of course, a translation is never going to be the same as the original. The idea is to use the tools and strengths of English to re-create the intention and effects of the original. As a simple example, Russian does not have auxiliary verbs like “seem’’ and “would,’’ although it conveys those notions by other means. “Seemingly, he is unhappy’’ is a neutral sentence in Russian but stilted in English. “He seems unhappy’’ is the good English translation. Different languages also have different levels of emotion. English favors understatement. We love subtlety and precision. But what comes across in Russian as neutral can seem histrionic in English. Even today, Russian fiction uses “alas’’ regularly, but I’ve yet to be able to keep the word in a translation because it almost always sounds ridiculous.

Q. How different is it for you translating a 19th-century novel and a contemporary one?

A. Very. Although, the 19th-century Russian novel does not sound as old to Russians as a 19th-century English novel does to us because languages age at different rates. When you read “Anna Karenina” in Russian, for example, the language is strikingly modern. While there is no justification for using severely dated English when working with the 19th century, you do want to mark it subtly as old and also to guard against glaringly modern vocabulary and syntax. Working on a 19th-century novel, of course, you have academics looking over your shoulder. When I translated Olesha’s “Envy” I got real grief about the novel’s first sentence, which is not only a brilliant opener but scans as a line of iambic trimeter, translated literally as, “he sings in the morning in the WC.” I wrote “Mornings he sings on the toilet’’ — same iambic trimeter, same bright, engaging tone.’’

Imagine my amusement when a Russian academic insisted that it should have been “in the toilet.” Translating a contemporary novel is more liberating because it is almost always the first translation and because the language you use is closer to your own. You know it better. I’m a native English speaker, so I use native informants all the time, but lately, in the wake of the rapid changes in the Russian language, I’ve been even more dependent on them for translating contemporary fiction.

Q. Do you study an author’s life?

A. I have a bias for treating the text as it stands on the page, but several years ago my understanding of the author’s life was crucial. The language in Ruben Gallego’s “White on Black” is terse in an odd way. It would have been easy to make him sound childish when in fact he is a brilliant man and the language needs to be both intelligent and powerful. One of my cues for taking this approach was my knowledge of his remarkable life.

Q. Do you attempt to replicate the sounds of certain words or rhythm of sentences?

A. Not the specific sounds or rhythm but the devices used to create effects. I might reproduce the device of alliteration but not necessarily use the same sounds. Or I follow the author’s lead in constructing long, syntactically complex sentences, sentences that push beyond the predictable stopping point and continue in a surprising direction, as a captivating melody does.

Q. Do you read differently from other people?

A. Only when I know I’m going to be translating the work. The first time I go through a text I know I’ll be translating, a whole different neurological system switches on, and I’m flooded with inspiration.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at