Katherine E. Young Breaks Down Her New Translation of LOOK AT HIM by Anna Starobinets
Katherine E. Young appears on Leslie Pietrzyk "To be Read" blog series to discuss her new translation of a book that "ignited a firestorm" in Russia
Former Arlington Poet Laureate, Katherine E. Young, describes the trials of translating a controversial and beautiful Russian memoir in this written interview conducted by author Leslie Pietrzyk. Read an excerpt below, or read the entire interview here. And attend the book release for Look at Him here.
What's your goal when you start a new translation project?
I want to make something beautiful. I’m a poet myself, and a lot of my translation work is getting Russian-language poetry into English. There are many different schools of thought about what translation should be, but my goal is pretty simple: I want to make the work sound as if it had been written in English. In terms of larger prose projects, I choose books that I love myself, and authors I admire. My last book project before this one was the fiction of a political prisoner in Azerbaijan, a book called Farewell, Aylis. Its author, Akram Aylisli, is being persecuted today in his own country simply because of the fiction he chooses to write. I seem to gravitate towards controversial projects—as if by translating them I could write a wrong or negate an injustice. In the case of Look at Him, I’m hoping that both sides in the abortion debate will find a little bit of common ground in this beautiful and heartbreaking memoir. That’s a pretty quixotic notion of the power of translation—but it makes me very proud of what I do.
Some people think of translation as the mechanical transmission of words from one language to another. What makes this particular translation a work of art?
I suppose it’s possible to make even a sublime work in the original language tedious and unpleasant in English—that’s on the translator, of course. Any good translator takes into account things like tone, the sort of language used in the original—are the insults witty or vulgar, for example? If the narrator is a child, do they speak in a child’s voice (and if not, why did the writer make that choice, and how can it be conveyed in English)? A particular problem in translating from Russian is that Russian grammar lends itself to very long sentences, much too long for the tastes of most native English speakers. So, translators try to shorten those sentences. But in the last book I translated, every time I tried to shorten a sentence, I discovered that I was hacking apart one of the classical figures of speech—climax, antimetabole, chiasmus—so I had to find a way to keep those rhetorical units together. Translating is very much a kind of handicraft—the original author gives us the raw material, of course, but it’s up to the translator to shape and polish the work in English.
The poems in Katherine E. Young’s Woman Drinking Absinthe concern themselves with transgressions. Lust, betrayal, guilt, redemption: Young employs fairy tales, opera, Impressionism, Japonisme, Euclidean geometry, Greek tragedy, wine, figs, and a little black magic to weave a tapestry that’s as old as the hills and as fresh as today’s headlines.