Interview by Alex Valente.
Boris Akunin is one of the most widely read authors in Russia, and has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His best-selling detective novels are translated into English by Andrew Bromfield. But in his previous life, Boris Akunin was Grigory Chkhartishvili, a translator of Japanese literature into Russian. He is giving this year’s Sebald Lecture, Paradise Lost: Confessions of an apostate translator, at King’s Place on Monday 4th February. Click here to buy tickets.
Boris, Grigory, Anatoly, Anna. You have written different things under different names; why do you feel the need to change identity when you change your writing style?
I’ll have to answer at some length. Under my own difficult name (Grigory Chkhartishvili) I intended to write “unplayful” texts: non-fiction, essays, articles. “Boris Akunin” was reserved originally only for light stuff like detective fiction, pastiches, fairy tales, etc. But this pseudonym stuck to me so solidly, that after a while I became just “Akunin” to the press and the public. I was interviewed as Akunin and quoted as Akunin – even when I spoke about things unrelated to literature. This I had to accept, but there was another thing to which I could not reconcile myself. There is a price you pay when you succeed in building a “brand”. You become a hostage of readers’ expectations. They want you to write in the same manner, eternally. When I tried to write differently, there would be an outrage: how did I dare shatter their expectations?
So, in order to break free from this web I launched a project code-named “Authors”. Only two people except myself were in the know: the publisher and the editor. I created two virtual authors – Anatoly Brusnikin and Anna Borisova – both of whom wrote differently from Boris Akunin. The man wrote historical slavophile novels (very unlike Akunin, who was known and often blamed for his cosmopolitanism), the woman tried to appear sophisticated. No expectations were disappointed, so both “writers” were a success saleswise. They each published three titles before I got tired of the game and confessed. It was a refreshing experience.
For your new novel, Aristonomy, yet another identity, a union of your first two personas: Akunin-Chkhartishvili. Does this mean you now feel you’ve come full circle, as you’ve mentioned you are now a real writer? What do you mean by that?
There are two layers of narration in the novel: fictional and quasi-documentary with a significant difference in styles. By using the double name I wanted to say that this book was written by me in both my main capacities – as an author of fiction and as an essayist. Everything I have learned about the profession of writing is there.
What aspects of your previous life as a translator have influenced your work as an author? Do you still find echoes of those texts in your own writing?
Of course I was influenced and even formed by the texts I had read, edited, translated. 90% of all I know about life comes from other books. Many years of translation work are the reason why it is so natural for me to change style and manner – to the extent that I am still not sure if I have a style of my own. So, my experience as a translator was both an asset and a drawback.
Do you think a translation should make it obvious that it is a translation, or should it read like an original work? Why?
Different rules apply to translating poetry, classics and modern fiction. If we’re talking about the latter, I belong to the faction which believes that a translated book should sound absolutely natural and read as an original. The impact on the reader should be the same. The means by which this effect is achieved can be quite bold. I think that a translator should be allowed a lot of liberties. A good translator is not an interpreter, but almost a co-author.
Do you write for the pleasure of writing, or do you have an ideal reader in mind? Does it change if it’s a translation or a piece of original writing?
I write because this is the only thing I know how to do. It’s my way – or rather my Way in the Japanese sense of the word – of understanding things, of self-development, of finding answers to all sorts of existential questions. Pleasure? Definitely – if I am pleased with a day’s work. If not, then it becomes a source of depression. In one word, it’s life, my life.
And translations – I do not do them any longer. For me that profession was left behind in the previous millennium.
What advice would you give to an aspiring translator? Would it be different from the advice to a writer?
Opposite, in fact. I’d tell a debutant author: “Become your real self”. “Forget yourself, become the writer you translate” – that’s what I would say to a novice in translation.
And to conclude, if you could choose any author, from any language, alive or dead, who would you translate, and why?
I would have loved to learn English to the extent where I could translate my favourite Russian authors who are not appreciated enough outside my country. Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Evgeny Shvarts. This is a dream that won’t come true of course. Not in this life.