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GS Smith on Translating

Posted by Sarah, 4th June 2012

GS Smith
GS Smith

To tie with the launch of As I Said, I spoke with Gerry Smith on his approach to translating Lev Loseff's poetry.

SH: In the Translator's preface to As I Said, you write "I hope this translation will encourage others to tackle it". What do you think can be gained by multiple translations of one work?

GS: My approach to translation from Russian has been influenced in particular by my professional academic interest in the history and theory of verse form; in 1996 I translated the best guide to this subject, M.L.Gasparov's A History of European Versification. Because of this background I realise that there are many alternatives to the strict-form approach that I favour, even though it lengthens the odds against precise semantic equivalence. My commitment to strict form is not primarily academic: my literary/aesthetic awareness was formed in childhood by years of exposure to Anglican metrical hymns and psalms, and I then moved on to classic American song lyrics; ever since I have felt that to be authentic, verbal art needs to be fashioned in the way they are. To me, free verse is elitist and alien, and always has a feel of arbitrariness and self-indulgence.

Also, there are many many contemporary varieties of English; my translation is into specifically English English and inevitably reflects my own idiolect. I am aware that an American speaker, for example, would say things differently, quite apart from speakers of other varieties and of generations younger than mine. Every translation potentially offers an additional perspective on the meaning and significance of the original, and in principle, the more translations we have the better. Though they are inescapably secondary, translators are surely entitled to self-expression as much as are authors.

SH: You also say these translations were developed in consultation with the author, what was the process of consultation?

GS: It was almost all done by mail, he usually being in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, and I in Oxford. In 1984, I think, several years after I first met Lev Loseff, I wrote an article about his poetry and invited his comments on it. After that he would sometimes send me poems as he wrote them, and then his collections as they came out. I would send him draft translations of poems that caught my fancy, he would comment on them, I would tweak them, and so on and on. I often had to ask him to explain for me the primary meaning of some of the expressions he used; and he had to point out to me allusions that I had not picked up (Loseff's poetry is notoriously allusive). To work with someone possessing his level of linguistic and literary awareness was inspirational for me, as well as always being rather fraught.

SH: You've been working with Russian poetry for decades. What is it about it that draws you to it?

GS: Well, for forty years I taught Russian literature in various universities, and I simply can't imagine my life without it, especially now I'm retired and free of syllabus constraints and so on. Reading Russian poetry is a habit, an obsession even, that I can't break and wouldn't want to, despite the fact that I often get very fed up with it and the people who produce it. At least it's a harmless obsession, and enjoyable partly because it's not seriously affected by commercial and managerial interference, a rare situation in the arts and humanities these days. There are some real rewards, such as the immense satisfaction, even pride, when something one has translated earns the approval of a qualified native speaker of Russian, and even more of a qualified native speaker of English. Fundamentally, I suppose, I am inexhaustibly fascinated by the way the Russian language works, and it seems to me that its most imaginatively realised manifestations are to be found in poetry. Even after all these years I constantly come across things I didn't know or understand before (or more often these days, I relearn things I once knew and had forgotten).

All that being said, I actually read more poetry in English than in Russian, and always have done. I think that in order to attempt the translation of poetry, one needs to be aware of what original poetry in one's own language sounds and looks like; otherwise, there will be literalism and translationese.
The most important answer to the question, though, is that in common with most professional modern linguists, I think that working with poetry or any other text in a foreign language presents an opportunity to stand aside and possibly even escape from one's inherited personality and perceptions, if only temporarily. I do not buy the arguments that doing this somehow makes one a better person, though; it simply makes life richer and more interesting.

SH: You point to the loss of the elegance and packed economy from his metrical Russian in your old prose version as being one of the powerful stimuli for translating in verse. What were other motivating factors?

GS: The main factor, of course, is Loseff's representation and interpretation of human life and history. He was an extraordinarily intelligent and articulate person (the opposite of pushy, though) who persistently interrogated what had happened to him and his country, after he had left it and settled abroad. Loseff and I were born within a year of each other, but his background and experience were radically different from mine. Apart from anything else, he came from an elite professional literary family, a world with which I had no connection. I do identify with his generally disenchanted outlook, though, or I would never have wanted to translate him. His poetry is dry, with the emotion processed by the intellect; passionate but never sentimental; and with a wicked sense of humour, most frequently directed at himself. And he was reticent about his private life. This is the kind of poetry (and person) I prefer. Apart from all this I think Loseff is worth translating because in some important respects his work differs markedly from what most English readers seem to think Russian poetry is or ought to be.

SH: What were were the difficulties in translating Loseff's verse?

GS: Above all there is the allusiveness that is a central feature of his style; his text constantly interacts with the canon of Russian poetry. And his craftsmanship poses a tremendous challenge, particularly in respect of the handling of sound: I'm always thinking, can I possibly find some way of representing some particular effect in English without sounding idiotic or banal?

SH: Who's next on your list of writers to translate and for what reasons?

GS: For some years I have been trying to translate the two best poets of the old Russian emigration, Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) and Georgii Ivanov (1894-1958), whose work is not well known to the Anglo-American reading public. These projects move very slowly. But I automatically translate every Russian poem I read, not necessarily on paper, as part of the effort to understand it.