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Nina Schuyler
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message 1: by Vincent, Mod & Author (last edited Aug 01, 2013 07:29AM) (new)

Vincent Lowry (vlowry) | 1057 comments Mod
Hello Authors and Readers!

Here is our exciting interview with Nina Schuyler for her book The Translator! Please feel free to ask her questions!

The Translator by Nina Schuyler
The Translator

What was your inspiration for writing The Translator?

In 2005, The New Yorker published an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” about a married couple that was busy re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. The couple was Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigrée. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett who had first translated Russian literature into English could be set aside.

What caught my eye wasn’t the word “Translation” in the title of the article, but the words “Tolstoy” and “Dostoyevsky” in the subtitle. As a girl, I fell in love with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak. I remember one summer when I was twelve, I carried Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago every day to the pool. Back then, I didn’t even consider that the stories were first written in Russian—what Thomas Mann calls, “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” What I thought about was snow, sleigh rides, passion, betrayal, revolution, peasants, czars, love.

Constance Garnett was, in fact, English. In 1891, when she had a difficult pregnancy, she taught herself Russian. Soon she began translating. According to Remnick, when she came across a word or phrase she didn’t know, she merrily skipped it and moved on. She was not skilled enough to carry forth certain verbal motifs and complicated sentences.

After I read The New Yorker article, I looked at my Russian novels—all translated by Garnett. In the style of Dostoyevsky, I felt betrayed! Cheated! Lied to! I’d read a watered-down, corrupted Russian translation, soaked in a heavy dose of English custom and sensibility. At the same time, questions swirled: What constitutes a good translation? What does a translator owe the author? Why learn another language?

What message in your book do you hope to pass onto your readers?

Chekhov once insisted that it is “not the business of the artist to resolve narrowly specialized questions.” Like a judge instructing a jury a writer “is obliged to submit the case fairly, but let the jury do the deciding, each according to its own judgment.”
What am I submitting to the reader? The novel brings attention to many questions, including: If translation is viewed as a metaphor, aren’t we translating all the type? And if that is so, how might one be mistranslating? How does one become aware of mistranslating an action, gesture, intonation? Is it necessary to conjure meaning or does meaning just inherently exist in the act of living? Does language shape thought and perception? How do we love our children without funneling that love through preconceived notions of who they are, who they must become?

Are there any parts in The Translator that were difficult to write or research?

Hanne Schubert, my protagonist, travels to Japan. While there, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her and accuses her of sabotaging his work. Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel—an unemployed Noh actor named Moto Okuro. At some point, Moto returns to the stage and Hanne attends the Noh plays.

Noh, one of the oldest art forms in Japan, is a fusion of music, dance, mask, costume and language. It’s dreamlike. It creates a mood without intellectual content. It is, in many ways, ineffable. So how do you capture the experience of Noh, a form that in so many ways cannot be described or labeled with words? It took pages and pages and many revisions to try and write the experience of watching a Noh performance.

Do you have any advice you could give to new writers?

I teach creative writing at University of San Francisco in the graduate department and earned my Master of Fine Art at San Francisco State University. From my own experience and watching my students’ growth, I’m a firm believe that MFA programs provide a heightened learning curve to the art and craft of writing. Of course, someone can delve into beloved stories, take them apart, analyze them, discover the hidden machinery behind the narrative, but to do it in the context of a community of writers with a knowledgeable teacher is so much more fun!

When I first started writing fiction, I wrote short stories. Short stories are the perfect form for learning plot, characterization, scene, point of view, imagery, all the elements of story, and yet they usually don’t take years to write.

What is your next book and when do you hope to have it out?

I’m working on something now, but I’m not sure what it will become. I love language, love writing sentences that are pleasurable to the ear. That makes writing a slow process. It becomes even slower because I have two young children.

Thank you Nina!

message 2: by Ali (new)

Ali Dent (AlliDent) | 2 comments I am intrigued. The first thing I did after reading this interview was check on who translated my copy of Crime and Punishment. IT was translated by Jessie Coulson. I am curious to know if this is a good transition.

message 3: by Nina (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Hi Ali,
After I read the magazine article, that's exactly what I did--race to see who was the translator of my beloved Russian literature. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have supposedly turned out the purest translation, pure in terms of exactitude to the lexicon.

But I had someone tell me they read their translation and it sounded tinny to the ear. Interesting, I thought. So fidelity to the literal word, but not to the audience/reader.


message 4: by krisusnoona (new)

krisusnoona | 7 comments Congrats for the high ratings of your book , will read them soon ,,good luck =)

message 5: by Nina (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Krisus,

Thank you so much! Often when I write something, I look back and am never happy with it. I see all its flaws. For THE TRANSLATOR, I think I accomplished what I set out to do. I don't mean it's perfect. Art will never be perfect. But my intention was realized, for what it's worth.

I have pinned to my wall, "A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned." --attributed to Leonardo de Vinci, E.M. Forster and probably every artist out there.


message 6: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Vassilieff | 2 comments A very interesting and revealing interview. I will have to read the book now. I live on the other side of the Pacific - Sydney Australia. In translating a book I did the reverse to your examples. I wrote my family biography (of 200 years spread over three countries and two continents) in English. More recently I had it translated into Russian by a colleague of similar background to mine. But I still had to edit it, 95% of the translation was excellent because the translator and I are bilingual and Russian was our first language. For me English has become my primary language. In her case she is a professional and spent roughly equal time of her life between Australia Europe and Russia now living in England.
If a translator is not only bilingual but also, knows the subject matter and is familiar with cultural background and possibly the author - success is imminent.
Contrary to my English publication I have been unsuccessful in finding a publisher in Russia I have a PDF copy of my book in Russian which sometimes I make available to my Russian speaking friends who wish to compliment their English edition. Odysseya: An Epic Journey from Russia to Australia

message 7: by Nina (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Alexander,

What a fascinating process! The colleague who translated your book into Russian sounds ideal. Not only is she bilingual, but she knows the subject matter and has the cultural background to convey all the subtext.

I wish you luck in finding a Russian publisher now!


message 8: by Larissa (new)

Larissa Volokhonsky | 4 comments Ali wrote: "I am intrigued. The first thing I did after reading this interview was check on who translated my copy of Crime and Punishment. IT was translated by Jessie Coulson. I am curious to know if this is ..."
Jessie Coulson's translation of "Crime and Punishment" is excellent. So, by the way, is Garnett's. It is difficult to compare translations, so much depends on your own reading experience, taste, sensibility etc.

Larissa Volokhonsky

message 9: by Nina (last edited Aug 13, 2013 09:30AM) (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Larissa,

Thank you for weighing in! What a treat to hear your opinion. What do you think, then, of David Remnick's article? How does a reader judge (assuming a reader does not speak the language from which the work is translated) if a translation is good? What constitutes a "good" translation? And, what are you translating now?

Thank you, again!

message 10: by Larissa (new)

Larissa Volokhonsky | 4 comments Nina, I was intrigued by the title, obviously, and I heard good things about your book, so I became curious. A reader who does not know the language of the original can only read a translation and see whether it is or isn't to his/her taste. Translations do differ. However, Remnick's article is too hard on Garnett, who is still one of the best and did invaluable service to the English-speaking world. But she did miss a lot of humour of Dostoevsky's prose and sometimes simplified the syntax. But Remnick's tone is too breezy, he dismisses her too easily.

What constitutes a "good" translation is a vast question. Richard writes about it in all prefaces to our translations. I, too, will ask a question: Pasternak, for instance, was an extraordinary prose writer, using prose, in a way we'd not known before, to convey the illogic and mystery of a world/society/civilization gone crazy. Should we translate him into a smooth, ordinary, good prose (whatever it is), or should we at least try to reproduce it for an English reader? Did Dickens write "good" prose? Did Faulkner? Henry James?.........

The last question is the easiest one: Richard is in the middle of writing a preface to Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Dead House," a fictional account of D's own term in the hard labour in Siberia. And I am working on the first draft of Pushkin's prose which means I am one foot in paradise.


message 11: by Nina (last edited Aug 14, 2013 09:23AM) (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Larissa,

You raise a very good question about Pasternak and his style. Should the unique style be conveyed in the translation, or should it be smoothed out so it's familiar to the new audience's ear?

When I read writers from other countries, I want to experience a new style. It's often why I choose to read a foreign writer. How would he/she phrase this? How does the writer use figurative language? Syntax? I doubt I'm the typical reader, because I read as a writer, not just for content, but style.

I'm so glad you are in the world of Pushkin! And your husband is in the world of Dostoevsky! The world awaits.

Do you think most people underestimate the role of the translator? How much power does the translator have? It seems translators are fundamental to reading and linguistically knitting together the world.


message 12: by Larissa (last edited Aug 14, 2013 10:53PM) (new)

Larissa Volokhonsky | 4 comments Greetings again, Nina, I'll try to answer the best I can considering the scope of the questions and the format of our exchange. For the last about thirty years translation questions and translator's role are on the rise. Translator's power, even when anonymous, can be great, but so is the the original's: great work will shine even through a mediocre translation. In any case translator always remains in the shadow of the original unless some unrelated force pulls him out of it. Translation is often called "a bridge" between cultures. A lot depends on the "distance" in time and also in cultural idiom: there is a great difference between translating from medieval Japanese or ancient Greek, and translating Joyce into Russian or Pasternak into English. Pasternak is modern, his is very interesting prose, sometimes lyrical and poetic, and sometimes suddenly quirky, hard to understand, with long sentences, convoluted syntax, totally unexpected metaphors. And we know that he worked hard on it. He spent ten years writing it. He is not an "easy read" for a Russian reader. Do we have to break up long sentences, smooth it all out, brush it up, beautify and present to the reader, saying this is Pasternak, the great and extraordinary writer? Besides, the meaning IS in the style. If the style goes the meaning sometimes goes with it. It is a translator's responsibility towards the reader to try, as far as possible, to convey an author's style the best he/she can. In doing so it is sometimes necessary and justifiable for a translator to allow himself some freedom. Languages, after all, live and develop, and borrow from each other, and mutually enrich each other, -- and there is joy and delight in it for a translator and -- let us hope -- for a reader.

And you are right, of course, in your last statement about translation knitting together the world. It has been doing nothing but that ever since antiquity to our present time. This is yet another huge and fascinating theme and there is a lot written about it.

All best,


message 13: by Nina (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Larissa,

First, I'm reading your translation of Dostoevky's "Notes from Underground" and am loving it! Thank you so much.

As a writer, I know it is much harder to write something that is on the "distance" in terms of time and cultural idiom. What's the right word for this? The syntax? How, exactly, did people speak back then? Not to mention all the period details that have to be accurate. In my first novel, THE PAINTING, I received an email from an irate reader who informed me zippers did not exist in 1869.

I teach a "Style in Fiction" class and the basic premise is, as you state here, style IS meaning. It is my favorite class to teach because it is in the sentence that so much is conveyed, both explicitly and implicitly.

I love this idea--how languages are alive and develop and "borrow from each other." I get the image of a creature, an animal, this thing called language.

Thank you for your insights. It's been a real pleasure.


message 14: by Larissa (new)

Larissa Volokhonsky | 4 comments Nina wrote: "Larissa,

First, I'm reading your translation of Dostoevky's "Notes from Underground" and am loving it! Thank you so much.

As a writer, I know it is much harder to write something that is on the "..."

Nina, I am glad you like "Notes" -- it's an interesting voice, this underground man. I'll order "The Translator" once my summer migrations are over. Good luck with your courses. And thank you for this discussion.

All best, Larissa.

message 15: by Nina (new)

Nina Schuyler | 9 comments Larissa,

Yes! The voice is what creates the forward motion in "Notes from Underground." I read it years ago and am reading your translation now.

Thank you for reading "The Translator." I'm honored.
Can't wait for your translation of Pushkin!


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