RSS Feed

The Tale of the Snail and the Duckling

I am very pleased to have worked with Serge Kozlovsky on his book, The Tale of the Snail and the Duckling, and would like to congratulate him on its recent publication.

As all good fairy tales should, the story has an underlying message about the value of friendship and helping those in need. This, coupled with the impressive, vivid artwork, makes it ideal for children, but also a read which can be enjoyed by adults, too.

Snail and Duckling



War and Peace Challenge

The recent 150th anniversary of Tolstoy’s monumental novel, War and Peace has sparked all kinds of celebrations. Although rather heavily anglicised, I loved watching the BBC’s recent adaptation. In Russia, a live, non-stop reading of the entire novel, featuring all kinds of celebrities, eminent scholars, students, actors, Prime Minister Medvedyev, a cosmonaut on the International Space Station, and many other volunteers, was quite an undertaking, and particularly impressive. So, almost thirty years after I first read this book, I found myself turning back to the original text, setting myself the challenge of translating a small extract from this vast work of literature.

There are already plenty of excellent English translations of the novel, from Constance Garnet and Aylmer and Louise Maude, to Pevear and Volokhonsky or Andrew Bromfield in more recent times, to name but a few. My personal favourite is the 1957 version by Rosemary Edmonds, which I read one summer whilst studying Russian in an idyllic forest setting not far from Moscow. Although I would not dare to compare my humble efforts to these pillars of the translation world, there is much personal pleasure to be found in working on even just a small sample of such a wonderful text, and a lot to be learned in the process.

An abridged version of this particular chapter was printed in the July/August 2015 edition of Russian Life (an excellent magazine which I heartily recommend) and it led me to seek out the full text. Thus, I began to read it again, in the way that only a translator does, picking apart every word, and peering between the lines and into the spaces to see what I could find…

Book Two

Part 3

Chapter XV

Since that morning, Natasha had not had a minute’s freedom to think about what might lie ahead for her.

In the damp, cold air, and in the cramped semi-darkness of the jolting carriage, she imagined vividly, for the first time, what would be waiting for her there, at the ball, in those brightly-lit halls – music, flowers, dancing, the Sovereign, and all the brilliant young people of St Petersburg. What lay in store for her was so wonderful that she could hardly believe it was true: it was so incongruous with the cold, dark confines of the carriage. She only realised all that awaited her when she stepped across the red carpet in the doorway, went into the entrance hall, took off her fur coat, and walked beside Sonya and ahead of her mother, between the flowers on the illuminated staircase. Only then did she remember how she was supposed to behave at a ball, and attempted to adopt the majestic airs which she considered essential for a girl at such an occasion. Fortunately for her, though, she was completely dazzled: she could not see anything clearly, her pulse was racing at a hundred beats per minute, and her blood began to pound in her head. She could not assume those airs which would have made her seem ridiculous, and she walked about, overcome with excitement but trying her hardest not to show it. But this manner suited her best of all. Guests were entering ahead of them and behind them, conversing in the same hushed tones and wearing the same ball gowns. The mirrors along the staircase reflected ladies in white, blue and pink dresses with diamonds and pearls on their exposed arms and necks.

Natasha looked in the mirrors and could not tell her own reflection from the others. Everything merged into one brilliant procession. Upon entering the first hall, Natasha was deafened by the constant noise of voices, footsteps and greetings, and the light and brilliance blinded her all the more. The host and hostess had been standing at the entrance door for half an hour already, repeating the same words to people as they came in: “Charmé de vous voir.” They greeted the Rostovs and Mrs Peronskaya in likewise fashion.

The two girls in white dresses, with identical roses in their black hair, curtsied in exactly the same way, but the gaze of the hostess lingered involuntarily on the slender Natasha, giving her alone a special smile over and above the usual welcoming one. As she glanced at the girl, perhaps the hostess was recalling her own golden, irretrievable girlhood and her own first ball. The host also followed Natasha with his eyes and asked the count which one was his daughter.

“Charmante,” he said, kissing the tips of his fingers.

The guests gathered in the hall, crowding in front of the door, as they waited for the Sovereign. The Countess took up her position at the front of the throng. Natasha heard several voices asking about her and sensed that she was being watched. She realised that those who were paying attention to her found her pleasing, and this observation calmed her slightly.

“There are some who are just like us, and there are others who are not so nice,” she thought.

Mrs Peronskaya told the countess the names of the most important personalities at the ball.

“That grey-haired man you see over there is the Dutch ambassador,” said Mrs Peronskaya, pointing to an old man with a silver mop of curly hair, who was surrounded by ladies who were laughing at something he was telling them.

“And she is the Queen of St Petersburg, the Countess Bezukhova,” she said, pointing to Hélène as she walked in.

“How lovely! She could rival Maria Antonovna; see how the old and young flock around her. She is both beautiful and clever. They say that the prince is… mad about her. And as for those two, they may not be so pretty but they have even more people around them.”

She pointed to a woman who was walking across the room with her plain daughter.

“She is a millionaire bride,” said Mrs Peronskaya. “And those are her suitors.”

“That is Countess Bezukhova’s brother, Anatole Kuragin,” she said, gesturing towards a handsome cavalry guard as he passed by, his head held high and looking beyond them. “He is so fine, is he not? They say he is to be married to the rich girl. Your cousin Drubetskoy is also very attracted to her, too. It is said that she has millions of admirers. And that that is the French ambassador himself,” she said, as the countess enquired about Caulaincourt. “Look at him – he’s like some kind of king. But still, the French are so very nice. There is no-one nicer in society. Ah, there she is. No, our Maria Antonovna is the best of all! And she is so simply dressed. Delightful!”

“And as for that plump gentleman in the glasses – the worldly freemason,” said Mrs Peronskaya, pointing to Bezukhov, “if you stand him next to his wife he is such a laughing stock.”

As Pierre walked along, waddling under the weight of his amply proportioned body, he parted the crowd, nodding to right and left so nonchalantly and good-naturedly, as if he was wandering through a busy market. He was clearly looking for someone as he made his way through the mass of people.

Natasha was pleased to see the familiar face of Pierre, the ‘laughing-stock’ as Mrs Peronskaya called him, and knew that he was looking for them, and in particular for her. Pierre had promised her he would be at the ball and introduce her to the young men.

Before he reached them, though, he stopped next to a very handsome, dark-haired man of medium height, wearing a white uniform, who was standing by the window and chatting with a tall gentleman with stars and a ribbon on his uniform. Natasha immediately recognised the young man of medium height, in the white uniform: it was Bolkonsky, who seemed to have become younger, happier and finer.

“We already know Bolkonsky over there. Do you see him, Mama?” Natasha said, pointing to Prince Andrei. “Do you remember, he stayed overnight at our house in Otradnoye?”

“Oh, do you know him?” asked Mrs Peronskaya. “I cannot bear him. Il fait a present la pluie et le beau temps. His pride knows no bounds! He takes after his father. The person he is talking to is Speransky – they are working on some kind of project together. See how he behaves towards women! That one is talking to him, but he has turned away,” she said, pointing at him. “I would give him a piece of my mind if he treated me like that.”



In the Land of Broken Time

In the Land of Broken Time, by Maria and Max Evan, is a beautifully illustrated children’s adventure which I have recently had the pleasure of translating into English. The two main characters, Christopher and Sophie, embark on a flight of fancy in which they meet a talking dog, a bad-tempered gnome, and two scientists who are very different, yet so alike. It is a story about the magic of science and the imaginative possibilities of time travel, and the children must work together to find their way back home from this strange place and time…

More details can be found here:

A feast of translation

Last week, I escaped from my attic hidey-hole for a few days, and headed off to London in search of translation adventures. After a smooth, book-filled journey down to King’s Cross, my first port of call was the Free Word Centre for a Translation Symposium. The day featured inspiring and motivating talks and discussions with authors, translators and facilitators of all kinds from the world of literary translation. Aside from the interesting organised sessions, it was also a welcome opportunity to meet and catch up with some of my ‘virtual’ colleagues face to face. Some of the many moments which have stuck in my mind from during the day, include Sarah Ardizzone’s reminder about the importance of ‘professional pride’ amongst translators, listening to Robert Chandler explaining how he chose the poems he did for the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (a truly excellent book and highly recommended), and being regaled by Alice Guthrie’s entertaining samples of Arabic idioms translated into English.

This was followed by two equally worthwhile days at the London Book Fair. LBF is a huge annual event, bringing together all kinds of players in the book publishing industry, from important-looking executives, costumed actors giving readings, and publishing representatives from all over the world, to authors, illustrators and, of course, translators. I divided most of my time between the talks and discussions at the Literary Translation Centre, and the Read Russia stand which also had a very full programme of events. I met some of the best translators in the profession, listened to authors discussing their work and sources of inspiration, absorbed huge amounts of useful information, and found myself infected with the enormous levels of enthusiasm, dedication and determination. Needless to say, the two days passed very quickly, and it seemed only a few moments before I was back at King’s Cross, boarding my train back home.

I would like to thank the organisers of both events for their meticulous and highly successful planning and execution, as well as expressing my gratitude to the many people I met in London, for sharing your passion, experience and energy. I hope we will meet again some time, and meanwhile I wish you every success with your own projects.


Fortune is a Circle

I was recently very honoured to learn that one of my translations had been shortlisted for an award. The Compass Award is an annual competition for the translation of Russian poetry into English. Last year the selected poet was Boris Slutsky and translators from around the world were invited to produce English versions of any of his poems. Many congratulations to Peter Oram, Robin Kallsen and Lawrence Bogoslaw on their success, with the winning entries being published in the Cardinal Points Literary Journal and the Storony Sveta Annual. Details can be found here:

The poem I chose was ‘Счастье – это круг’ [Fortune is a Circle], a beautiful reflection comparing life to a clock face, while we are the hands turning around it:

Fortune is a circle. And a person,

slowly, like a clock hand,

turns to the end, or rather to the start…

Poetry translation is, in my opinion, the most difficult form of translation, but also the most fun. While it might be possible to translate commercial texts at a rate of several hundred words per hour, a mere couple of verses of poetry can take all day. It is an excellent workout for the brain, perhaps comparable to cryptic crosswords in terms of mental exertion and wordplay. As well as conveying the meaning, it is also important to preserve as much of the style and the music of the original as possible, but producing a translation which reads as a poem in its own right is no easy feat. Poetry translation competitions are an excellent excuse to experiment with word painting and play with language, as well as discovering and reading poetry which is new to me, and I thank the competition organisers for offering me that opportunity.

This year’s poet will be Bella Akhmadulina, and I am looking forward to exploring her work and attempting to render it into English.

A Final Polish

Some people call it ‘editing’, while others say it is ‘proofreading’. If the translation has been produced by a machine, it is known as ‘post-editing’. Then there are those who prefer the term ‘reviewing’. According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary ‘proofreading’ means, ‘reading printer’s proofs and marking any errors’, while ‘editing’ has several definitions, including ‘preparing written material for publication by correcting, shortening or improving it’. This quibbling over semantics has been rumbling for quite some time in the translation community, but I prefer to avoid it where possible. In my own mind, the procedure I follow upon completing the first draft of a translation, to ensure the text is of the highest possible quality and fit for purpose, is simply called ‘checking’.

I am sure that translators use a variety of different methods of reviewing their work, depending on personal preference, timescales, level of professionalism, and so on, but I have developed my own process which suits my way of working and my own peculiar sense of logic. I generally check a text twice, from two different angles – first the target language, and then the source. Of course, a translation must be a faithful rendering of the original text: it must convey the same message and ideas which the author had in mind when putting pen to paper in the first instance. However, it should also be pleasant to read, and understandable in its new form. So, I begin my checking by closing the original work, and reading the English version on its own. That way, it is easier to spot any lapses into ‘translationese’, when the words are English, but the structure, idioms or implied cultural references are not, floating in a kind of limbo between the two languages, but neither one nor the other. One language is merely disguised as another, rather than being completely transformed. Translating is not simply about substituting vocabulary for equivalents in a different language: the translator must also juggle the word order, change or explain anything culturally-specific, sometimes even change the tense, and so on in order to make the new text feel more natural. At the same time, I also look out for any silly mistakes, such as spelling, grammar and formatting errors which, interestingly, I often find in clusters, probably as a result of the onset of tiredness or interruptions while I was working.

This first phase is usually quite fun, and I sometimes even take my laptop downstairs and put my feet up on the sofa, giving me a sense that I am reading a book just for pleasure. I try to read my work as if seeing it for the first time, and this changed mindset often means that I find new things I hadn’t spotted before. I am no longer immersed deep inside the text, inspecting each individual word through a magnifying glass, but seeing the story as a whole, from a distance, and focussing more on the overall picture.

The second stage is a more practical check, like servicing a car or a washing machine. I go back to my desk, reopen the original work, and place it alongside the translation. Using two rulers, I move steadily, line by line, through the documents in parallel, on the lookout for mistakes which had previously escaped my notice, missing sections, or any other discrepancies between the two versions. Although computers have brought many benefits to this job, there are also some drawbacks. It is dangerously easy to delete odd words or entire sections with a slip of the mouse, or cut and paste something into the wrong place, for example, and hopefully any errors of this sort are picked up at this stage. It is more painstaking and methodical than the previous phase, but completing it gives me the reassurance that I am submitting a presentable piece of work that is fit for purpose, in much the same way as someone might glance in the hallway mirror before leaving the house for an important meeting.

This is not a method I have been taught, or read about in some book or blog. I have simply developed this way of working over the course of many projects, as it seems to suit me best. It isn’t set in stone, and can always be changed or adjusted if the need arises. I’m sure other translators have devised their own ways, too, and would be interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the subject.

Whether you call it proofreading, editing, reviewing, checking or anything else, this is a vital stage and a means of quality control. Even the best translators make mistakes, change their minds about certain words or expressions, and need to polish their work before sending it to the customer. As soon as a translation leaves the confines of my computer, it becomes evidence of my skills and professionalism, so I want to make sure every single document is completed to the best of my ability. It may add to the timescale required for the project, but I would much prefer to add a few extra days than submit unchecked, unpolished work.


Measuring up

A popular topic for discussion in the translation world is how prices should be calculated. Some translators charge by the page or by the line, but most prefer to calculate their rates according to the number of words in a document. However, when providing a quotation for a customer, it is important to specify whether this means the number of words in the original, or source document, or whether it refers to the translated, or target text.

Like many of my colleagues, I base my prices on the number of source words. The customer’s text is usually (although not always!) a finished product and the number of words is fixed. On the other hand, at the time of quotation, the translation has not yet been written and its exact length unknown. Even after submission, the client may request certain changes, which could alter the word count of the finished product. Therefore, to base a quotation on the translated document would mean that the actual price would not be known until the end of the project. Also, it would open up the possibility for dispute and malpractice. An unscrupulous translator could be unnecessarily verbose in order to increase the fee, or he or she might feel obliged to use the minimum possible number of words and the translation quality may suffer as a result.

Since I began translating, I have always been aware that my translations usually turn out to be slightly longer than the originals. This is easily explained when working from Russian into English, as Russian is a much more compact language. There are no articles, no present tense of the verb ‘to be’, and prefixes or case endings give added meaning without the need for extra words as in English. For example the Russian ‘Я – переводчик’ (2 words) would be translated into English as ‘I am a translator’ (4 words). For translations from French into English, however, the reason is less clear. Nevertheless, I do find myself occasionally translating culture-specific references with an explanatory phrase, rather than just one word. ‘Payer l’octroi’, for instance, became ‘to pay the octroi tax’, making the meaning clearer for an English-speaking reader.

Although I knew that my translations were generally longer than the originals, when I was asked how much longer they were, I realised I had no idea. I hazarded a guess at approximately 20% for Russian translations, and slightly less for French, perhaps 10%, but I was far from certain. So I decided to find out. I took a selection of French and Russian texts, both literary and commercial, which I had translated into English, and compared the word counts of the original texts with the translated versions. I was surprised to find that my translations from Russian into English were an average of 26% longer than the source document, with literary translations being longer than commercial ones, whereas translations from French into English were an average of just 2% longer than the originals, with little difference between various types of text.

Given more time, and an aptitude for statistical analysis, these findings could make a fascinating study. Looking at the difference between my two source languages, I find myself wondering whether other languages follow similar trends. German, with its long compound nouns, might produce some interesting results, and what about non-European languages, such as Chinese or Arabic? Is the word count reduced when translating the opposite way, e.g. from English into Russian? And would the results vary from one translator to another depending on individual styles? This might make an excellent topic for discussion at some future translators’ gathering.

Although my French-speaking customers are unlikely to be pleased about a 2% price increase, their Russian counterparts would certainly be less than impressed by a 26% rise. In a supermarket-style price comparison, the discrepancy between the languages does not seem particularly fair, especially as the end product is in English in both cases. So, in the interests of fairness and simplicity, I’ll carry on calculating my rates according to the original text.