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



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