Gnedich–Translator in Translation: An Interview with Maria Rybakova

Maria Rybakova, who balances a dual career as writer and professor of Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University, graciously volunteered a few moments of her time to answer a few questions about translation and her latest published work, Gnedich, which is a novel-in-verse about the Russian translator of The Iliad, and the inadequacies he is forced to contend with as such. Rybakova won a Russian Prize in short fiction for Gnedich, and she was recently was listed by the Spanish website El Poder de La Palabra as one of the most significant Russian writers.

Gnedich (Vremya, 2011).
Translation into English forthcoming, by Elena Dimov.

ALCHEMY: Writing as a multilingual author, do you find that this influences your process at all? Are there stylistic choices or ideas that you find are better expressed in one language or another? When, for example, you were writing Gnedich, did you work on and think about the novel only in Russian, or in some combination of languages?

Rybakova: Honestly, I am a very monolingual author. I can only write serious fiction in Russian. In English I can write as a joke, or write an essay for a magazine. But when it comes to expressing the nuances of meaning, I am out of my depth with English. I do think in English sometimes, but probably only because I am in San Diego at the moment, surrounded by the English language. Some incredible people, like Nabokov, were proficient in writing in two languages, but I am not one of them, unfortunately.

You mentioned in your New Writing Series reading at UCSD a few months ago that you were reading from the English translation of Gnedich. Can you offer us some insight into how that translation came about? Did you and your translator have much communication with regard to its creation, or was it more of a private project on the translator’s part?

Elena Dimov of the University of Virginia has written to me and expressed her desire to translate Gnedich. It made me very happy, of course, but I was afraid she would spend months doing this very difficult work without any hope of seeing her translation published – what publisher would be interested in a novel-in-verse, frankly? But she was undaunted, and heroically proceeded to translate. Now she has completed her translation. We discussed her work-in-progress every couple of weeks during the past year, going over my text and her translation word-by-word. I greatly miss our discussions. They taught me a lot about differences in the Russian and English vocabulary, about different stylistic layers of language, about English and Russian translations of the Iliad, and so many other things. For example: in a bout of humility, does Gnedich see himself as nonentity or as nothingness? The trouble with nonentity is that it is a Latinate word, and therefore sounds less emotional than the Russian ничтожество.

Since Gnedich features characters that speak from so many different vernaculars of the Russian language, I’m curious about how those registers were re-created in the English. In particular, you mention Helen, who speaks like a simple nineteenth century Russian woman. Can you speak more on how that reads in the English? Do you find the overall tone or feel of her words can be expressed in a nineteenth century English, or do the differing histories/linguistic histories lend a slightly different flavor? (If so, do you find this an interesting difference, or altered “afterlife” of the text, so to speak?)

Well, of course, the flavor will be different due to a differing linguistic history, but one has to find some sort of analogue: a language of the 19th century lower classes in this case. Maybe cockney? Helen’s Russian vernacular is, of course, artificial: my idea how the early 19th century lower classes in Russia used to speak is evidently taken from the novels of that period. One could recreate an analogue using the 19th century English novels. I am not afraid that Helen wouldn’t sound Russian, but cockney or like an English peasant instead. The fact that she is Russian is not very important in the context of the novel; the fact that she is a servant is, on the contrary, very important.

Gnedich himself is a translator–the nineteenth century translator of The Iliad. Professor Amelia Glaser (UCSD) mentions that your novel concerns in part “the inadequacies that such a project naturally entails.” I wondered, speaking both for Gnedich and for translation studies in general, if you might elaborate on what you perceive as some of these challenges?

Well, it is also a novel about Platonism, you know? Any writer’s work is but a translation from the Eternity’s language into his country’s vernacular. The sufferings Nikolai Gnedich is undergoing by trying to find an adequate Russian translation for a Greek word equal the sufferings of a writer translating from the invisible language of divinity into his own words. Somewhere, in the Swedenborgian heaven, angels had written Gnedich in their heavenly hooks and loops – I was just trying to put it into Russian, rather clumsily.

In terms of pure stylistics, I’ve always been under the impression that verse would be the translator’s ultimate challenge, because in addition to meaning, lyricism, style, etc., one must also address the formal techniques, meters, etc. of the original verse. Are there particulars of your own verse that you think would be a challenged to render into English, or another language?

[Gnedich] is free verse – therefore it varies a lot and there is no rhyme, although it’s important to keep the metric structure. I think Elena Dimov accomplished it quite masterfully. Also, the lines in the novel-in-verse are short and the syntax is not very complicated. So, I guess, it might be even less confusing than prose.

What is it like to read your own work in translation? It must be interesting, to read words that are both your own and also entirely someone else’s.

Strangely enough, when I am reading the translation in front of the audience, I kind of forget that I am reading a translation. I perceive it as my own text. I suppose the solution to this mystery lies in the fact (apart from the skillfulness of the translator) that a literary work rises into being out of images rather than words. And so, if the images are caught with enough precision, the foreignness of the language does not matter.

Interview with Maria Rybakova
conducted by Mika Kennedy

Mika Kennedy is a staff editor for Alchemy, and manages her own writing portfolio at In-Tongues.Net.

Maria Rybakova (1973-) is a Professor of Classics at San Diego State University. She has published works in the Russian language, all of which have been translated into a number of languages internationally. Her most recent work is a novel in verse titled Gnedich (2011). For more information about Gnedich, you may also be interested in a longer interview conducted by Arion, available here.