Friday, February 12, 2010

Translating Chukovskaya

Let me try to post here a few excerpts from the translation I'm working on, Lydia Chukovskaya's posthumously published text -- a long essay, a memoir -- the title of which I think is best rendered in English as "N/A." In Russian, the title is Прочерк, a long dash one puts in an official form when the answer is unknown. Chukovskaya comes to writing this piece from trying to capture her memory of her husband, Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, who was shot to death in one of Stalin's purges in 1938.

I welcome all comments about the language, the phrasing. This translation is very much a work in progress, and one of my reasons for posting it here is to facilitate the editing process.

Here's Chukovskaya writing about the impossibility of her own writing:

"I started writing this book without any formal goals in mind. Altogether without any goals. This is not an essay, not a novella, not lyric poetry, not journalism… What is this? Memoir? Perhaps. I simply wanted to remember and write down everything I know about my husband, theoretical physicist, Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, who perished in 1937.

However, the moment I picked up my pen, it turned out that this “simply” is not at all simple.

Anna Akhmatova used to say: “One shouldn’t write memoirs about a person whom one knew barely or not at all, only from afar.” She is probably right. But a person whom one knew not only from afar is also very difficult to represent on paper. For the opposite reason. Too close—you can approach, but you cannot grasp the form. His entirety closes in on you, encompasses you, pushes you aside. The task is particularly difficult if you’re writing decades later. And not at all because time has erased his features from your memory. Nothing like that. The dead differ from the living in that they never die. They are always with us. The years pass—they inhabit our souls all the more securely. Looking back, you ascertain that the one you’ve lost cannot be captured or represented, because he cannot be separated from you. He has coalesced with you. The two of you are inseparable. In the years that have passed, he has inhabited your memory so securely that you can no longer distinguish what part of it is you and what is he. This is all the more astounding because as long as the two of you were both living, you were not at all alike. Still, the years of separation, when the memory was constantly at work within you, have completed their task. Trying to remember him, you inevitably remember yourself. Peering into the distance, straining your eyes in order to see him more clearly, in order to remember, to represent—you stumble upon your own life. I want to write about Mitya, but instead write about myself. I want to write about him—and write about others. A reader expecting a straight-forward memoir under the heading “Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein” will be disappointed. I do not have the right to use his name as the title of what I am now writing. I remember myself with him, him with me, I remember my memory of him, but not Bronshtein on his own."

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