Monthly Archives: October 2020

Translating the Uncanny Valley: Victor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10

Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik are co-translating Victor Pelevin’s fifteenth novel, iPhuck 10, as one of the 12 new translations part-sponsored by RusTrans. Here, Isaac writes about why he and Viktoria find this book important:

Victor Pelevin is a literary daredevil. From writing a novel blurring the lines between insect and human (including a mosquito-fly love scene), to narrating a short story from the perspective of a lonely bike shed, to flipping a Waiting for Godot-esque story on its head when we discover (many pages in) that the protagonists are in fact broiler chickens on a meat farm, Pelevin has proved himself to be one of the most restless experimenters in literature today and a master of bending narrative forms. When Viktoria Malik, my co-translator, and I read his 2017 novel iPhuck 10, we knew that he had somehow managed to take things one step further. We were hooked, and felt we had to bring this bizarre and wonderful creation to a broader readership around the world.

iPhuck 10’s hero is a Machiavellian, suave, and hilarious A.I. algorithm by the name of Porfiry Petrovich, a narrator who exists only in the binary ether, a “spirit”, as he calls himself. While Porfiry’s hobby (if one could call it that) is writing crime novels, he gets his material from his day job as a detective for police headquarters—a nod to that other famous Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry announces himself at the novel’s opening with a  strange and grave salutation:

“And again, again, hello, my dear and distant friend!”

With his constant chatter to his audience—does he know we’re there, or has he gone crazy, and how much does our suspension of disbelief play a part in determining that?—Porfiry brings to mind the voices of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (from Notes from Underground), Zamyatin’s D-503 (from We), and many other famous narrators of Russian literature.

But, it turns out, these echoes are by no means meant to be subtle—and herein lies one of the hardest (yet most enjoyable) challenges for us as the translators of the text. In fact, Porfiry is chuckling at his readers from the pages of his own book as he notices our recognition of such echoes of classic literature. It turns out that Porfiry has read every single work of classic Russian literature, and knows how to reference and regurgitate it, subtly or obviously, at will. “I am a typical second half of the twenty-first century Russian artificial intelligence,” he quips, “painted in contrasting colors of our historical and cultural memory: I am simultaneously something of a Solzhenitsyn together with a Pasternak.”

As you might imagine, allusions abound, from Mayakovsky to Pushkin to Yesenin. This has kept us on our toes, and presented us with the added task of framing these allusions in such a way—while staying true to the text—as to tip the English-speaking reader off to the reference, and perhaps give some subtle impetus to seek out the original text. To this end, we have attempted to match our translations of such famous pieces as Yesenin’s poem “Goodbye my friend, goodbye” as closely as possible to recognizable popular translations without actually duplicating them.

We’ve been asked before about our working process—Viktoria is a native Russian speaker, I am a native speaker of English. In this tradition, of course, we are standing on the shoulders of translation giants— such as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Richard and Larissa were kind enough to respond and offer us some advice when we reached out a while back. Our process is very similar to theirs. Viktoria writes an initial translation text in English, which I then rewrite and edit for style. We both speak each other’s language (Viktoria far better than me, I must admit!), so we are able to offer input on both sides of the process, and I am not completely out of my depth when I need to consult the original Russian. This works out very well for this particular novel, too: Viktoria can help me with some of the more obscure references to classic Russian literature—and kitsch culture from the 1990s and 2000s, I should add—while I am able to pick up on some of the references to Anglophone culture which Pelevin slips in. For example, English readers will likely catch Pelevin’s references to “hardboiled” detective fiction (think of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe) better than Russians will. I was able to accentuate these echoes with subtle cues in the English when Porfiry eventually gets in over his head with a seemingly innocent “dame.”

Let’s allow Porfiry to explain himself further in his own words:

The text you are reading is written by an algorithm—if a shadow of something “human” occasionally permeates through the words, it is only because of the particularities of its narrative structure. I will try to tell you about these particularities as succinctly as I can (the dictates of popular literature don’t allow me to go into more detail).

The algorithm—which is me—puts words in sequence in accordance with the linguistic rules of the style that is considered to be classic in our times. The principle of my text organization is complex (and a commercial secret), but, generally speaking, it is built on the best samples of Russian prose.

The algorithm is, at its core, created by people, and the product it creates is designed for other people (even allowing for lapses, mistakes, unnecessary repetitions, and truisms). It’s no wonder that text written in such a way appears to be the creation of a real human. In an indirect sense, this is true, but to define exactly who the author is would be rather difficult. As the poet Mayakovsky once said, “150 million is the name of this poem’s master.” I think he underestimated the number to a couple of degrees, but in general his approach is correct.

Porfiry’s  description of his programming, above, brings to light many of the major challenges of translating iPhuck 10. It seems to me that the translator’s most important task in translating a first-person novel of this kind is to bring into being a believable, living narrator—someone that sounds like a real, natural human being. Porfiry is not about to make things so easy for us, however. In this case, the translator has to make Porfiry’s voice sound believably natural yet unnatural at the same time. Somehow, we have to find and then barely skirt the borders of the “uncanny valley”—the term commonly applied to robots that look just like human beings, but are off ever so slightly enough that they repel, amuse, or puzzle us—of language.

Porfiry is being humble when he says there’s a “shadow” of something human about him. It is a credit to Pelevin’s skill that he has thought this all through already—in this distant future where A.I. reigns dominant, we’ve reached the point where Porfiry’s algorithm is aware of the uncanny valley and is even attempting to navigate around it. As he says, “the algorithm is, at its core, created by people, and the product it creates is designed for other people (even allowing for lapses, mistakes, unnecessary repetitions, and truisms).” In other words, Porfiry seems to understand that the solution for escaping the uncanny valley is to become less perfect, not more—but only in believable, specifically human ways. In the world of iPhuck 10, we’ve gone through the looking glass.

We believe that iPhuck 10 is one of the major Russian novels of the 2010s awaiting translation at this moment. The title might seem like a crass pun, but it just about sums up the book’s subject perfectly: the strange, murky nexus we face in modern times between artificial intelligence, corporate greed, algorithms, virtual reality, and our own private and public lives. Hence a pun on the expletive and Apple’s device, the most famous and ubiquitous example of high tech penetration into our daily lives.

We hope you enjoy following us further down the road as we continue our mission to bring this groundbreaking novel to more readers.

Isaac Sligh (contact translator)

When is Russian literature not Russian literature? A post by translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“When is Russian literature not Russian literature?” is the latest post in our blog series from translators currently commissioned by RusTrans. In this series, translators reflect on current issues in translation practice and/or the translations they work on. Here, Shelley Fairweather-Vega discusses her practice of translating Central Asian women’s writing.

“The Russian kids in their neighborhood didn’t want to let her into their games. Kalbitka, kalbitka! they screamed at her. She didn’t take offense because she didn’t understand.

-from “Black Snow of December,” by Asel Omar

As a translator of both Russian and Uzbek, I often find myself stuck between two worlds, eerily similar but also irreconcilably different. Throughout my career so far, only half of the fiction I’ve translated has actually been Russian, in the sense of having being written by people who identify as ethnic Russians and live in Russia itself. Only perhaps 75% of it is even in the Russian language before I get to it. My project for RusTRANS is two stories from a future anthology of short stories by Kazakh women. One of the authors I’ve translated for this project has the quite Russian-sounding name Nadezhda Chernova, while the other, Asel Omar, sounds not at all Russian.  To remove all doubt about her national origins, Omar no longer uses the -ova ending that was tacked on to virtually all Central Asian surnames (-ov for men) during Soviet times to make citizens there sound more Russian. Half the stories in the anthology, including these two, were originally written in Russian. The other half were written in Kazakh. So are they Russian literature?

My first instinct is always to say “no.” The Central Asian writers I work with don’t see themselves as the heirs of Pushkin and Tolstoy, though many have studied their work thoroughly. They’re more likely to actually be descended from people cruelly persecuted by the devoted fans of Russian literature’s biggest stars. They may share a language, but that language was thrust upon them by colonial powers; thematically, they have a different cultural heritage to hearken back to, different epic heroes, different myths, religions, values, and histories. And as a translator of Central Asian literature, I take offense on behalf of the whole huge, diverse region when readers see Uzbek or Kazakh literature as a special, minor, exotic branch of Russian literature.  Sadly, that happens surprisingly often – more than is seemly for people educated in a Western tradition, supposedly forewarned against the temptations of Orientalism and hip to post-colonial thinking.

The Uzbek writer in exile Hamid Ismailov has gone so far as to posit that everyone is looking at the issue the wrong way round: it’s not that Uzbek literature is a wild backwater of Russian literature; rather, Russian literature owes its whole existence to Central Asian literature. Ismailov’s alter-ego protagonist in Of Strangers and Bees comes up with this theory on the fly, when he’s asked to give a lecture on Russian literature to a European audience and finds himself completely unprepared, improvising as follows:

“Russian literature is a vast ocean. But even an ocean is measured by its shorelines. It starts from its shorelines. If it has no shorelines, it does not exist itself. What gives an ocean its shape is its shorelines. […] Take Dostoyevsky’s five novels. They are essentially nothing other than the Hamsa written over again. But all that is another story,” I declared […] By the time I was done, things had developed in such a direction that I was not, in fact, the student of Bunin and Akhmatova; no, historically speaking, they were students of my national literature.

I’m not sure I would go that far in describing the two Kazakh stories I translated for RusTRANS. Both were written originally and solely in Russian, for one thing (even the word “kalbitka,” in the citation above, was an insult of vague and undocumented origins used by Russians to belittle the locals, so it’s a Russian word, too). Every Central Asian writer my age or older was raised and educated mostly in the Soviet system, with its strictly uniform curriculum across republics and institutions. That means fiction from the region can bear a strong resemblance to fiction from Russia proper (as does Russophone writing from places as diverse as Ukraine, Latvia, Brooklyn and Israel). But the more Uzbek and Kazakh and Tajik writing I translate, the more ideas and viewpoints I discover that are not Russian at all.

Chernova’s story, “Aslan’s Bride,” is a story about a girl with a Russian nickname, Milochka, who yearns for love. After a short and ugly relationship with a Russian drunk, she decides to leave town. Milochka travels to the ends of the earth and finds herself in a village by the sea, full of women dressed in black who do not speak her language. Though we are never told where she is or what language people speak there, we understand that the place she left behind is a standard-issue mid-1970s Soviet city, and this new place is very different. Milochka is taken in by an old woman who wants to betroth her to her handsome son ­– who left for the war thirty years ago and still has not returned. Our heroine agrees, and finally finds her place in the world. So here we have a protagonist leaving Russia, or a place standing in for Russia; learning a new language; and becoming family with a people still devastated, thirty years later, by Soviet involvement in World War II. This is completely unlike any Russian story I’ve read about the Great Patriotic War.

Omar’s story, “Black Snow of December,” centers on a young man named Rustem, a journalist who is an ethnic Kazakh, remembering a neglected moment in Kazakhstan’s history: three days of protests, violence and arrests precipitated by personnel changes in the Communist Party in December 1986, known to people who remember it simply as Jeltoqsan, “December.” Rustem recalls the fear and anxiety his Kazakh family suffered during those events and the varying reactions of their Russian, Jewish, and Korean friends and neighbors. He also ponders his own family’s history: his “pre-revolutionary” grandfather was made an orphan by the Bolsheviks, and went on to work as a Soviet spy, while secretly memorizing the work of dissident Russian and Kazakh poets. Russian writers also portray the ambiguities of the Soviet system and ordinary people’s ways of coping with it ­– though they usually make those ordinary people Russian, sometimes Jewish for a twist. But would a typical Russian writer have Rustem fired from his newspaper job, years later in independent Kazakhstan, for writing about this sensitive period in the country’s history – and walk away happily through a numbingly cold night, focused on the future? I’m not sure.

One thing these very different stories have in common is that they center the experiences of people that “real” Russian literature keeps on the periphery, on Ismailov’s “shorelines.” They allow Central Asian characters to be genuine, ordinary people, not merely exotic foreign types. The somber women in black, not the flighty Milochka, are the characters who are most at home in “Aslan’s Bride.” The Kazakh population of Almaty are the ones being asked not to speak their own language to avoid offending anyone in “Black Snow.” When I read and translate these stories, I see decolonization at work. Russian and Russianness is a fact of life and ever-present, but it’s not the crux of the story. In this literature, the Russians don’t have to be the storytellers. The Russians don’t have to be the ones teaching us what Russian literature can be, even when their language is wielded to write it.

If these Russian-language stories are so non-Russian, then where do I get off applying for a program like RusTRANS? Why do I lurk on Russian translation listservs and Facebook groups? The purely practical answer is that there is no KazTRANS or UzbTRANS program, no Kazakh or Uzbek translation listservs. There are simply not enough of us translators from Central Asian languages (yet), and not enough interest (yet) in this new type of Central Asian literature, and without my Russian translation comrades, I’d be very lonely at conferences. For this type of literature, there are no awards to follow. There are no fellowships to fight over and almost no institutional support, and what does exist comes from a source that makes me squeamish: the Kazakh and Uzbek political machines. So as long as I’m translating from Russian, I plan to keep boldly trying to have it both ways, and doing everything I can to attract the attention of Russian literature lovers to non-Russian Russian literature.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega

Subliminal Translation: Huw Davies on Translating Dmitry Bykov’s “June”

In the first instalment of our new blog series by translators working on texts for the Publish project, Huw Davies tells us about the strangest aspect of translating Dmitry Bykov’s latest novel – how to translate coded, subliminal messages!

Translating Dmitry Bykov’s novel June

I have been enjoying the challenge of creating a sample translation of the novel June by the acclaimed Russian poet, journalist and novelist Dmitry Bykov, published in Russian in 2017. The novel is set shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It is divided into three parts, each telling a different story set in the same period, and each shorter than the one before – conveying a sense of hastening towards the impending disaster of war. In the final part, we meet a professor of linguistics named Ignaty Krastyshevsky, who believes he can avert this looming catastrophe, if only he can influence a certain key decision-maker by smuggling something he dubs a ‘controlling text’ into one of the reports on Soviet cinema that he writes for a living. Below is an excerpt from my translation:

Outwardly there appeared to be nothing unusual about the text, and only the most experienced linguist – the aforementioned Strelnikov, for instance – could have suspected that there was something ever so slightly amiss about the synonyms used. The Controlling Text (or CT) was always designed like a mosaic, whose pieces were too vibrant to form a homogeneous surface; and indeed, there were times when Krastyshevsky required substitutes for the words one might ordinarily choose. They were not highlighted in the text in any way, of course, but we shall highlight them here, so that the nuts and bolts of his method might become clearer. “As a BLACK cloud makes its way MORE OR LESS RAPIDLY over Europe, the WORLDWIDE interest in oUr cinemAtography is becOming clearer than DAY. The humanity and the NECESSARY orientation of Soviet cinema has covERED the Western viewer, lISTener, reaDER, again and again, TIME AFTER TIME, with that indubitable, OBVIOUS truth, that man is a broTHER to his fellow man. BLUE, YELLOW, GREEN – all of these colours are having to make way for red, which, with time, will take up a leading position on the map.” Anyone with the slightest ability to read between the lines and at least a basic grasp of the rudiments of linguistic influence will be able to read, in this passage, the phrase Aravi tari omi, or “No war” in the native language of the intended recipient.

Krastyshevsky’s reports are read by none other than “the only real decision-maker in the country since 1929”, the “intended recipient” whose native language is Georgian (Bykov deliberately refrains from naming him in the novel, but for those slow on the uptake, the man in question is of course Stalin). Thanks to his incredible ability to harness the power of what he calls “linguistic influence” by putting the vowels and consonants of his written reports in exactly the right order, Krastyshevsky will be able to plant the phrase “No war” in his recipient’s mind and make him act accordingly.

We never find out what becomes of Krastyshevsky; he is last seen shouting coded messages to some mysterious ‘emissaries of the gods’ from atop a Moscow apartment building, while a policeman hurries up to get him. Besides his unresolved fate, this part of the novel raises many other questions: is Krastyshevsky really a linguistic genius, or is he insane (we are told that “he was good at recognizing madness in others, because…because…”)? Does Bykov want us to think that the novel itself is intended as a ‘controlling text’ (even though it appears not to meet Krastyshevsky’s own specifications for this) – and if so, who is its one and only “intended recipient”, the one who will unconsciously grasp its true meaning and act accordingly? Does the translator of the novel need to concern himself or herself with the answers to these questions? How can the translator accurately render the texts and incantations that Krastyshevsky crafts with such care (though they sound like gobbledegook) in a way that suggests he might well be a madman, while still leaving open the possibility that he is the greatest linguistic genius the world has seen? At one point, while listening to a radio broadcast of Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Krastyshevsky hears a secret message encoded within The Dance of the Knights, one “so distinct that it could be written down in words – and he hastened to do so, helped by the fact that he could now hear this music within him night and day. At first, the words were not the right ones, they were random, but it was not through random happenstance that they came to him: they lent the whole experience a coloration akin to that of a Gothic forest. Night – yes – night – yes – night – pine aspen palm fir pine aaaaaspen!” It is not often that translators get the chance to translate the ramblings of a madman, or, for that matter, the secret verbal message encoded in a piece of classical music (let’s keep an open mind about which description is accurate), and it is an enjoyable experience, particularly when the source ‘ramblings’ contain made-up or incomplete words that nonetheless rhyme with other words in the sentence: take for instance my rendering of one such line, “set sail on the ocean blue, the trotian true, the clotian clue.”

Krastyshevsky’s story prompts us to think about the reality of living in Stalin’s totalitarian rule during ‘The Terror’, when anyone inclined to question foreign policy decisions openly by, say, writing a letter to a newspaper, or going on a ‘Not In My Name’-style protest march, would have had to have been… insane, surely? The first two parts of the novel portray  other frightening aspects of life in this period. Part one tells the story of Misha Gvirtsman, a young student and poet, who is denounced by his classmates (apparently due to a false allegation of harassment against a female student, but in fact, Misha suspects, because of a deeper, underlying resentment that has to do with his high-brow intellectual tastes and Jewishness). When the student body is convened to discuss the matter, hardly anyone is prepared to stand up for him, despite his ability as a poet, which everyone seems to acknowledge. Even people he thought were friends jump on the bandwagon and call for him to be expelled from the prestigious Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. 

In part two, Boris Gordon, a journalist, has the love of his life, Ariadna, taken away from him by the secret police (she is an émigré who has returned to the Soviet Union after several years in Germany and, as such, a subject of suspicion). Until she was taken, Boris failed to recognise just how precarious and dangerous the situation had become, for he was not particularly “fond” of any of the other people within his orbit who were arrested and never heard from again. His father fears that a war with the Germans may be around the corner, and believes “that Germany is surrounding him with spies, that Tukhachevsky was a spy, that the plumber’s a spy” – but Boris dismisses these notions, assuming his father is losing his marbles (madness is one of the novel’s recurring themes). Just as hardly any of Misha’s classmates stuck up for him when he was denounced at university, almost none of the people whom Ariadna had helped in the editorial offices where she worked (where she first met Boris) seem to have any sympathy for her plight.

The novel contains some wonderful twists and turns. As we have seen, there are quite a lot of different characters involved, including interlocutors who almost seem to spring from nowhere to badger our protagonists; they appear to work for the intelligence services. The voice of the narrator remains constant throughout, though, and acts as a unifying thread, as demonstrated by the seamless manner in which the opening lines of each part can be joined together.

Part 1:

When Misha Gvirtsman was expelled from university in October 1940, he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands.

Part 2:

Boris Gordon, by contrast, hardly ever had any free time, because he had a job in journalism that brought with it considerable responsibility; a wife; and a mistress.

Part 3:

And as for Ignaty Krastyshevsky, all his time was free time, and yet he did not really have any time at all.

The most important voice for the translator to get right, then, is surely that of the narrator – so that the overall tone of the novel remains the same in English. June is full of literary allusions to the works of Joyce, Shakespeare and others, and seems to have multiple layers of meaning. Given how vividly it conveys what it might have felt like to suffer at the hands of a brutal totalitarian regime, I think it is important to bring this period of Soviet history to life in the imaginations of English-speaking readers.

I have cerTAINly enJOYed the work I have done ON THIS novel so far, and I would love to secure a COMmission to translate the REST of the book. 

Publishers take note: the sentence above was a carefully crafted ‘controlling text’ that has planted an unshakeable desire to publish this book in English deep within your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Huw Davies