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Interviews Robert Chandler: “any successful translation of poetry is a small miracle”

With a career spanning more than 20 years, Robert Chandler is one of the best known and most prolific translators of Russian into English. He has translated classic authors such as Pushkin and Leskov, as well as more contemporary writers like Grossman, and his translations of Platonov have won prizes. He recently completed a translation of Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem about the Volga famine.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds issue 1, 2013, p 37
Published on balticworlds.com on maj 17, 2013

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With a career spanning more than 20 years, Robert Chandler is one of the best known and most prolific translators of Russian into English. He has translated classic authors such as Pushkin and Leskov, as well as more contemporary writers like Grossman, and his translations of Platonov have won prizes. He recently completed a translation of Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem about the Volga famine. Baltic Worlds had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about translation in general and Khlebnikov in particular.

Why did you start learning Russian?

“No very good reason. I was fifteen, and at a good school. I was extremely good at Latin and Greek, but had made up my mind that I did not want to go on studying what I then saw as ‘dead’ languages. One of my teachers flattered me into taking up Russian: ‘Robert, I really think you should do a difficult language. Why not do Russian?’ But since the Russian teacher, whose name was Count Sollohub, was someone unusually kind, gifted and imaginative, I soon became very interested indeed.”

How did you become a translator?

“Gradually. Soon after graduating from university, I translated one of Andrey Platonov’s versions of a Russian folk tale — simply because I loved the tale and wanted to share it with other people. This was the first piece of work I completed on my own initiative. Then I translated two more of Platonov’s tales, sent them to Faber and was commissioned to translate the remaining three. All six were then published as a children’s book titled The Magic Ring. But during the following twenty years I did many other jobs. It is really only during the past twenty years that I have devoted most of my time to translating.”

How would you describe the particular challenges of translating Russian?

“One challenge is that the freedom of Russian word order enables a writer to make it very clear exactly which words he wants emphasized in any sentence. This makes it easy to reproduce the intonations of living speech on the printed page. It is harder to achieve this in English.”

And now you have translated Khlebnikov. It is a very powerful poem. Could you tell me a little more about it, for example the circumstances under which it was written?

“I have written a little about this poem in my introductory article. I really don’t have a lot more to say. Only that it was written a year or so before his own death  — and that Khlebnikov himself seems to have died largely as a result of malnutrition and a general lack of medical care.”

What made you translate Khlebnikov? Does he have particular relevance to you personally?

“I am at present compiling a large anthology of Russian poetry in translation. It will be titled Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky, and it will include about sixty poets in versions by almost as many different translators. I was not very happy with any of the existing translations of Khlebnihov, so I decided to try my hand at him. I soon realized that — despite his rather intimidating reputation — he is a very approachable poet. Like his contemporary Guillaume Apollinaire, whom I have also translated, he is a natural lyricist.”

Could you explain a little more why you are not happy with existing translations of Khlebnikov?

“I’d rather not. Any successful translation of poetry is a small miracle. I’d rather write about the few good ones than about the many inevitable failures.”

Which would you say are the particular challenges of translating poetry?

“It goes without saying that there is always tension between reproducing the exact meaning and reproducing the music. All the time, one has to struggle to do both. Sometimes this seems impossible and one has to decide which matters most at this particular point in the poem. There are no general answers to these questions.”

Do you think Khlebnikov generally deserves more attention from readers and literary scholars?

“There is a long Russian biography by Sofia Starkina, published in Petersburg in 2005. It looks extremely thorough, but I have not yet had time to read more than a few pages. I’d love to see a shorter book available in English — one that might be of interest to anyone who loves poetry, not just to Russianists. It would not be difficult to create a very appealing book. Khlebnikov was an accomplished artist himself and many of the finest artists of the time drew portraits of him, so there could be lots of illustrations. And there has been too much emphasis on Khlebnikov’s difficulty. Much of his work is very accessible indeed.” ≈

Note: also read Robert Chandlers contribution on Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem about the Volga famine. >>
  • by Henriette Cederlöf

    Henriette Cederlöf is a PhD student in Russian literature at BEEGS (Baltic and Eastern European Graduate School). She is currently completing her thesis about the 1970s fiction of the Strugatsky brothers.

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