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Paradise Lost: Confessions of an Apostate Translator

Boris Akunin

The second cleanest profession in the USSR

My mother wanted me to become a doctor. If not a doctor – then a literary translator. She would start speaking about my future and say with conviction that in our country there were only two “clean” professions – firstly, medicine, secondly, literary translation. She wouldn’t be more specific, so I took it as an axiom.

When she saw that I was hopeless at chemistry and physics and that I showed little interest in biology, she started pushing me towards the second option. She was a schoolteacher, she knew how to manipulate people.

Just one example of her scheming. At home there was a bookshelf up very high where, mother told me, were the books for adults. I was not to touch them until I was old enough to understand them. Of course when I was alone I read them all, to the last page. I was probably the youngest living creature in the world to read the two volumes of “Anna Karenina” and the four volumes of “War and Peace”. I didn’t understand much, but I developed a lifelong habit of reading difficult books.

To interest me in reading books in English (the language I was studying at school without enthusiasm), my mother took me to the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature, recently reopened after renovation. The building was brand new, all glass and steel. In socialist Moscow of 1969 it looked like a miracle of modernity, a temple of light. Even the compulsory Lenin statue was not like the one at school, 3-meters high and gilded, but small, sort of cubist, very chic. And there were no kids, as no-one under 16 could get a subscription.

I immediately felt that I wanted to belong to that world. Even the queue behaved differently from all other Soviet queues: everybody was so polite, so patient, so soft-spoken. They are all translators, I thought. I also thought I understood why translation was a profession second only to medicine in its sterile attire. I demanded that mother take out a subscription for me in her name, then I was allowed to take a book. Not knowing what to order I chose the thickest volume from the display and promised myself I would read it to the end no matter what. Hadn’t I read “War and Peace”, after all?

Unfortunately the book turned out to be “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. In the beginning I had to write out at least 50 unknown words from each page. I did force my way through it, I had to keep my word, but I’ve never touched a Steinbeck book since then. An adolescent trauma.

The second English book, “Scaramouch” by Raphael Sabatini, was a relief, a treat. I started translating it immediately for a friend who was unlucky enough to have to study German at school. After a couple of pages I found it easier to tell the story in my own words, embellishing it along the way – a premonition of what was to become of me eventually. But at thirteen I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to translate.

The real meaning of what my mother had in mind when she called literary translation “a clean profession” and why it was less “clean” than medicine became clear to me later as I was growing up and learning the art of adjusting to the real world.

Here I must digress in order to explain the rather specific position of writers and philologists in the Soviet Union.

Adolf Hitler was a failed painter. Joseph Stalin was a failed poet.

Stalin must have envisaged his dictatorship as some sort of epic poem, the beauty of which should be admired. And it was admired, genuinely or falsely, voluntarily or otherwise. In any case, no criticism of that great work of poetry was tolerated.

It was bad luck for Russian literature that Stalin thought highly of literature. For him it meant that literature was politically important. The dictator grew up in an era when Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov were iconic figures in Russia, influencing not only Russian literature but the whole of society.

Stalin evidently despised all three of them for their uselessness and even harmfulness. He needed his own socialist Tolstoys. And with his arithmetical practical-mindedness, his endless contempt for human nature, he was sure that he knew how to achieve this goal.

The chaotic and uncontrollable world of literary creation had to be put in order. Stalin directed and organized the process as it was called then.

He put the nightingale in a gilded cage by founding in 1934 the Writers’ Union, which put Soviet authors in a privileged position both financially and status-wise – in return for complete loyalty.

Those writers who didn’t agree to be locked in a cage or who misbehaved were purged or barred from publishing. The majority, though, didn’t mind playing by the rules. By the end of the Soviet era there were some 10,000 registered members in the Writers’ Union. Candidates would conspire for years trying to get there.

When I was a student in the 1970s writing was a coveted profession – but at the same time there was something shameful in it. In Moscow and in Leningrad there were quite a number of informal literary clubs and groups whose members actually took pride in the fact that they didn’t want to be published. Those people would ask about a new name: “Is she a poet or a published poet? Is he a writer or a Writers’ Union member?”

That’s why my mother didn’t want me to become a writer. For her and her milieu it definitely wasn’t a clean profession.

But literary translation was.

Stalin’s directorship of the writing world was awful for Russian literature, which quickly lost all of its previous greatness, but it proved to be a blessing for literary translation.

When authors of talent, even of genius, were not allowed to publish their works or were afraid to write the way they wanted – they turned to translation. Boris Pasternak was secretly writing his “Doctor Zhivago” while surviving on translations of Shakespeare, Keats or Schiller; Anna Akhmatova, banned from publishing her own poems, earned her living by translating Chinese and Korean classics; Mikhail Zoschenko had to translate Finnish prose and he did it brilliantly. That’s what almost all the big guns did – they translated other authors’ works. As a result the school of Soviet translation rose to an incredible height. It had its own stars, even cult figures. A literary translator, even if he was a member of the despised Writers’ Union, was welcome in any underground literary club, even the most snobbish of them.

And still it was less clean than medicine. Here my mother was right again. The rose of literary translation was not without its thorns.

You couldn’t translate just any author you wanted and then offer it to a publisher, no way. There was an undisclosed but widely known list of forbidden and half-forbidden writers, the latter category including the aforementioned Steinbeck for instance. Of all his novels, I think, only “The Grapes of Wrath”, with its description of the hardships of the Depression, was approved for publishing.

And it was always safer to translate a writer who was already dead. With living authors one never knew what to expect. A “progressive writer and a big friend of the Soviet Union” (that was a sort of honorary title) could say something stupid about Czechoslovakia, the dissidents or, God forbid, Solzhenitsyn – and never be published in Russian again.

Anything at all could happen.

There was a Japanese author, Abe Kobo, considered to be undoubtedly “progressive” because he was, I think, a member of the Communist Party of Japan. His prose was very popular in the Soviet Union of the 1960s and 1970s. Translations of Abe made the translator, my professor at university, a celebrity in his own right. Then Abe fell out of grace with the Japanese communists, they reported on him to Moscow, and Abe immediately became a persona non grata for Soviet publishers – a professional tragedy for his translator.

Another thorn was censorship. And I don’t mean political censorship – all dubious authors and titles would have been excluded at the pre-translation stage. No, it was a peculiar sort of censorship called “moral-ethical editing”. There could be no sexually explicit descriptions in a published text. An editor would cross out all the “immoral” scenes, and if it could not be done without ruining the logic of the plot, the editor would urge the translator to “soften the sharp angles”, as it was called.

In the 1980s when I started to work for the magazine “Foreign Literature” all these restrictions were still in force, so, being an editor, I had plenty of opportunity to see how it worked. It was very Victorian, actually. Some things were not mentioned, some words did not exist.

I remember our proof-reader correcting the word “orgasm” to “organism” without the slightest hesitation. The lady thought it was a misprint.

(Oh yes, that reminds me of the most celebrated misprint in the history of the magazine. A typesetter, probably hung over or not quite sober, composed “Marxism de Sade” – instead of “Marquise de Sade”).

So, when I was young, literary translation could not be called an impeccably clean profession. Second cleanest was more like it.

I wanted to translate and to live by translation, but not like that, picking my authors from among the “progressive friends of the USSR” and “softening the sharp angles” afterwards.

So I found a compromise.


The bliss of translation

On graduating from University I did become a translator, and I began to earn my living by practising this trade, but I kept work and pleasure apart.

For money I translated technical documents: scientific articles, patents, licences. It paid well and it was as clean as medicine. And for my own pleasure I translated fiction, books that impressed me and were a challenge for my translation skills. I did not even try to find a publisher, it would have been hopeless and maybe even risky.

For an audience I had my friends. They were unpublished writers and poets, I was an unpublished translator, it was absolutely normal for the time. Besides I had my wife. Her marital duty was read and retype my translations and of course to say what a wonderful translator I was. So my audience was small, but reliable.

I must say that it was the most cloudless period of my whole career as a translator. Pure art unsoiled by greed.

There are a lot of bonuses for someone who translates just for himself. No deadlines, you go as fast as you want and you work only when you feel like working. In later years I learned to translate quickly, sometimes very quickly. It felt like gulping down a bottle of fine wine, splashing some of the precious liquid in the process, because a publisher would be tapping me impatiently on the shoulder.

In the blessed times of Samizdat you didn’t care whether your translation would sell or not, the print-run was determined by how many copies your typewriter could produce. Mine produced four. And when I was sitting down to translate it was leisure, not work.

I loved every minute and every stage of it.

You know that there are different metaphors concerning literary translation. The one most frequently used likens translation to transplanting a foreign tree or flower into local soil while harming it as little as possible. Alexander Pushkin (rather condescendingly, I think) said that translators were the post-horses of enlightenment.

Working on a translation I felt neither like a horse, nor like a gardener.

For me it was more like restoring a work of art, covered by an ugly and irritating layer of foreign language that didn’t let Russians admire it. This work of art was a mosaic. My task was to clean every tiny tessera. They were fragile, very easy to break, so I had to be careful with my brush. Careful but not timid. If you were too cautious you could restore every single piece of the mosaic, but harm its magic. I knew that a translation which was mathematically correct but devoid of the translator’s personality would kill the magic.

With a language so distant from my own as Japanese, translating prose was like translating poetry. Freedom and inspiration were the key words.

Grammar was a trap, an enemy. I know many translations from Japanese where all the weight goes to the last part of a phrase, because in that language the end of a sentence determines everything. The Russian sentence is flexible and loose, putting the stress on the ending makes a phrase sound pompous and heavy. Irony and humor are expressed by other means. Exquisiteness and coarseness function differently. Allusions and metaphors belong to another cultural universe. A translator from Japanese must be very resourceful, sometimes even cheeky.

I found my favourite author almost immediately. He had two irresistible features. First, he was an absolute taboo in the USSR. Second, he was impossibly hard to translate.

I am talking about Yukio Mishima, famous for his style and notorious for his ideology which eventually led him to commit harakiri.

In the Soviet Union Mishima was considered to be an epitome of decadence, moral corruption and political subversion, a devil reincarnate. We, future japanologists, were not given his books to read, but I remembered from my university literature course the titles of Mishima’s poisonous books. They all seemed to be “hymns” to something awful. The novel “Confessions of a Mask” was a hymn to perversity, the novel “Kinkakuji” was a hymn to destruction, the novella “Patriotism” was a hymn to suicide, and the play “My Friend Hitler” was, naturally, a hymn to fascism. It all sounded so intriguing that I became Mishima’s fan even before I’d actually read his books.

With time I translated all of the aforementioned titles and many more. Mishima taught me many things on the professional level. I shall mention just one of them, the most important one of all.

When I was translating “Kinkakuji” (“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” as it is known in the West), I had at hand the English translation – very meticulous, authorized by Mishima himself. Everything was impeccably correct – and yet still something was amiss.

You see, Mishima is not a clever author, most of his ideas about life and society would leave you uninterested. Neither is he an especially gifted builder of plots. The story isn’t his forte. With Mishima, the nuances are more important than the ideas he advances; Shade means so much more than Light. But his narration is so elegant, his style so powerful, that it makes up for the banalities and showing-off. There is plenty of shallowness in Mishima’s works, but strangely it only increases the impression of genuineness and beauty. It turns into a melody that I can always hear when I am reading Mishima.

In the English translation this melody was silent.

The saddest disappointments were the descriptions of nature. Mishima is famous for his “landscapes”. Everybody knows that describing skies, meadows and mountains is the hardest thing in modern fiction. It usually looks so unnecessary, so pretentious, so boring. I always miss out those bits when reading. When writing I keep to the golden rule: the shorter the better. “It was raining”, “the sky was cloudy” – and that’s it.

Not so with Mishima. You can actually see what he describes, and landscape is always an important part of his narration. His descriptions of nature can be quite long, but you are never bored.

How does he achieve this, I wondered. And how can I reproduce this effect in translation?

I remember how I tried to translate a fragment describing a sea view from “Kinkakuji”. I did it several times, each time differently, and still I was not satisfied. (There was no deadline, you remember). Then I understood that the secret lay in the sounds. The passage had to be read aloud. It was like a mantra, the combination of sounds and words – the trick was to capture this combination, not the meaning.

And when I translated the passage again, making it sound like a mantra in Russian too, I liked the result.

Then I discovered that every single phrase in Mishima’s books was a mantra. A sentence becomes a mantra when every word is in its exact place and cannot be changed for another word. Every syllable is a part of a mosaic and cannot be moved. It’s like a poem, only in prose there is more oxygen, more air.

In order to make a good translation of Mishima I had to become a Russian Mishima inside. Which is of course easier said than done.

Do you know how Mishima described the process of writing? It feels, he said, as if you have saddled the planet and are flying through the Universe with stars whizzing by and scratching your cheeks.

Well, that’s the picture I tried to imagine before sitting down to translate “Kinkakuji”. Sometimes it worked.

After a while I discovered a very useful trick. Since every good book has a hidden melody you should try to find the closest possible equivalent to it.

I would try to find a melody – it could be anything from classical music to a pop song – that would put me on the same sound wave as this particular text. Before translating a chapter I would listen to this music for a couple of minutes, and then the process of translation usually went almost as Mishima described.

I use this method now, when I write fiction, but in a more sophisticated manner. I have collected an audiolibrary of melodies that put me in a certain mood. Every episode in a book has its rhythm, its colour, its nuance of feeling. So I tune myself in. I have melodies for all shades of emotion: “vague anxiety”, “fearlessness”, “unrequited love”, “not-a-care-in-the world”, “smiling through tears” – anything. Whenever I hear a melody that moves me in a certain manner, I mark it and record it for later use. It does spoil the pleasure of listening to music, but, you know, a writer, no matter what he does, is always on the alert for titbits that could be used in a text. It’s like in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” when the writer Trigorin says: “I’ll see a cloud that looks like a camel and I’ll think – I have to put that in a story…”

I often feel nostalgia for the era when I was a translator and could look at clouds in an un-predatory way. You cannot be a part-time writer. You are a writer even when you sleep. When I was a translator I felt much freer.

This feeling of freedom reached its peak during the Perestroika years when all the ideological taboos were abolished. I was able to publish all the translations that I had done just for my own pleasure.

I was thirty when my first book of translations was published. I knew it would be a big day for my mother, so I hadn’t told her anything – I wanted to show her the book already printed.

We went to visit her, me and my wife. Mother looked at the book, then she looked – not at me, but at my wife – and said something awfully tactless: “You married very well indeed, didn’t you, my girl”. I don’t know what came over her, she had always been a very polite mother-in-law. None of my later achievements impressed her to that extent.

I was a translator for twenty years. In Russia it was like belonging to the clergy or a sacred order. Philologists formed a kind of community with unwritten rules. Some things were just not tolerated. A critic, a translator, a researcher of literature could experiment with writing poetry or fiction, but it had to be serious – that is, sophisticated, dark and respectably boring. Most of the literary awards in Russia go to this sort of writing.

I am often asked why I took a pseudonym when I started writing fiction. The answer is simple. Cowardice.

I was working for a highly esteemed literary magazine, I was a translator with a name. Had it been known that I publish, for God’s sake, crime novels, I would have lost face. So, for as long as possible, I was hiding the fact that Boris Akunin, the new phenomenon of mass literature, was me. Sometimes I had to endure discussions about that filthy profiteer led in my presence by colleagues.

Ever since the truth leaked out I have been treated by part of that community as though I were a defrocked priest.

And this is not a specifically Russian phenomenon. I have a number of friends and acquaintances in the Japanese “Bundan” – as the literary world is called there. Japanese are much politer than Russians – when they are sober. I didn’t even guess that my Japanese friends were also shocked by my transformation, until one of them, a professor and a celebrated translator of Dostoyevsky, called me, over an empty bottle of sake, “a traitor to Junbungaku”.

Junbungaku means “clean literature” in Japanese – as opposed to “taishubungaku”, mass literature.

So, it was about cleanness again.


Shadow’s Mutiny

I shall try to explain why I became a traitor to Junbungaku, why I changed my clean profession for an unclean one.

There were some mitigating circumstances.

As I was approaching 40, not an easy milestone for anybody, I suddenly realized that I had lost the urge to translate. It had become a routine, and that had always been my idea of a senseless existence – when life becomes routine.

I was not moving anywhere. I had reached the peak of my capacity as a translator. I could translate for another 40 years and still be at the same level of skill. This perspective frightened me.

Then I began to notice a new tendency within myself. I would start feeling irritated with the author I was translating. “Come on, these preliminaries are taking far too long, come to the point!” I would think. Or: “That episode should have been devised differently”.

It was neither normal, nor reasonable. It was worrying. My favourite Russian playwright Evgeny Shvartz has a play in which the shadow of the protagonist rebels against its master because it’s sick and tired of following him everywhere and faithfully reflecting all his idiotic movements. The shadow in the play separates from the man and starts a life of its own.

Something like that happened to me.

When I sat down to write my first novel (I didn’t bother with the smaller stuff, like a short story or a novella) I felt very sure of myself. My mood was: “I’ll show you all” – and I didn’t mean readers, I meant other authors.

When I finished it I was immensely pleased with the result – and endlessly surprised when at first nobody wanted to publish the novel and then very few people wanted to buy it.

I was stubborn, I wrote and wrote ‘til the audience gave up. And I was lucky. My fountain started to gush at the moment when a new class, the middle class, was emerging in Russia and they wanted middle of the road reading – not too light, not too heavy. My genre fit in perfectly.

Now, having published about 50 titles, I’ve lost much of my initial confidence. To be honest, I have lost all of it. I suspect (and am being told by unfriendly critics) that I was better as a translator than as a writer.

On the other hand, this dissatisfaction probably motivates me to keep on moving. I tell myself that I can do better, so there is no question of routine. You just have to jump higher. Then one day maybe you’ll fly and feel stars scratching your cheeks.

I should add that my mother never approved of my metamorphosis. She read my novels with a pencil and asked me questions about the plots, she watched screen adaptations and attended theatre premieres, she even collected nice articles about Boris Akunin – but she was never a fan. For her it all was a whim of mine, a temporary diversion. She just had to be patient.

Right until the end of her life, when I visited her on Sundays, she would ask every now and then: “What are you writing now? Is it one of your Fandorin novels again? You should give yourself a break and write something serious…” – And then she’d finish, with a tinge of hope: “… or maybe even translate something?”

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  • Anonymous says:

    Quite intriguing. The Master is shedding the veils revealing the secrets of his pre – writing past. We were all lucky that at one
    point of his career out beloved author-to-be decided to become “a traitor to clean literature”.))

  • Maan says:

    Whose quote is the “transplanting a foreign tree or flower into
    local soil while harming it as little as possible”?