Category Archives: Translation

Anger Management Issues: Translating Bulat Khanov’s Gnev

Pity the aspiring, young, male Russian author. Not only must he sit in the hairy, literary shadow of the men with long beards from the 18th and 19th centuries – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, Lermontov, Gogol (ok, he was more moustachioed than bearded). But he must do so in the knowledge that several of the aforementioned greats were already gaining fame and recognition in their early twenties. No pressure, then.

Of course, the impulse to write is born of far more than a simple desire to compete with those who went before; and thankfully, the clean-shaven 29-year-old author Bulat Khanov, whose novel Gnev (Anger) I am translating as part of the RusTrans project, appears entirely uninhibited in his desire to depict the modern reality of 21st century Russian life and the complex set of challenges it poses – to the male psyche in particular.

Anger

                                           Gnev (2019)

After the Kazan’-based author won awards for his 2018 story Distimiia (Dysthymia) (defined as  ‘persistent, mild depression’), Eksmo published Gnev in July 2019 and his next novel Nepostoiannye velichini (Unstable Values) in October of the same year. Last month his latest work, Razvlecheniia Dlia Ptits s Podrezannymi Kril’iami (Fun for Birds with Clipped Wings), hit the bookshelves. Khanov is certainly not sitting about twiddling his thumbs.

In March 2020, a commentator for Russia’s Big Book Prize noted that ‘the common thread running through all his works is that of an educated, intelligent person struggling to deal with the harsh reality of Russian life’ and this is certainly the case in Gnev. I remain unconvinced about using Anger as the English title – its protagonist, disgruntled academic Gleb Veretinsky, is suffering from some complex, obscure and deep-rooted malaise that the word ‘anger’ doesn’t quite capture. Other established young Russian male authors like Dmitry Glukhovsky, who wrote Metro-2033 (about a community of survivors of World War III living in the Moscow metro) aged just 22, and Alexei Salnikov (whose The Department is incidentally also being translated for the RusTrans project by Lisa C. Hayden), often site their work in some kind of post-apocalyptic context. Activist writers like Sergei Shargunov (A Book Without Photographs) and Zakhar Prilepin (The Pathologies, The Cloister) use their experience of contemporary military conflicts such as Chechnya as a platform for expressing oppositional politics. Khanov is different. In 2018 he described how he and his fellow millennials possess a ‘symptomatic kinship’ with the Sixtiers, that generation of Russian writers of the 1950s and ‘60s who resisted the cultural and ideological restrictions of Soviet-era communism. Rather than taking a journalistic approach to depicting realism, they use fantasy, parable and metaphor to represent reality, in other words, they write about reality without talking about it directly. In this, he may share an aesthetic with his contemporary Alexander Snegirov, whose novel Vera won the 2015 Russian Booker prize. Vera depicts a woman’s struggle to find love and hope (or perhaps, as the title suggests, faith?). Snegirev also wrote Petroleum Venus, about a successful architect who turns his back on his career for the sake of his son with Down’s syndrome. Yet the parallels are not easily drawn. Khanov is speaking in his own way for his own generation as he tackles head-on modern obsessions like social media and pornography, and in Gnev he layers his characterization in such a way that the reader is always unsettled. The narrative is focalized from Veretinsky’s third-person viewpoint, yet it also manages to talk to the reader directly, forcing them to ask questions of themselves. Are we with Veretinsky, or against him? Are we inside his head, or outside, looking in, and down at him? There are times when the reader cannot help but sympathise with the protagonist, for example in Chapter 5 of the novel’s first part when he wanders back through Kazan past groups of workers and students going about their normal, everyday business:

It wasn’t that the faces held some kind of spell over him, more that they didn’t reject him. They didn’t provoke in him a sudden need to bury himself in red-bound books or gaze at a screenful of porn. In such moments Veretinsky almost felt love for everything inherent in humanity, almost ceased thinking that a misanthrope is preferable to a humanist because the latter strives to use fellow human beings to achieve a higher purpose.

Admiration all too often gives way to condemnation, though, such as when Veretinsky treats a drunken alcoholic with inhumane contempt or resorts again to masturbating over online porn while his long-suffering wife sleeps next door in their bedroom. Paradoxes pepper the novel and one of the most recurrent of these is how Veretinsky, despairing of his present-day reality, quotes lines from Russian Futurist poets like Velimir Khlebnikov and Ivan Ignatiev. In Chapter 7 of Gnev, Veretinsky, disturbed by the cynicism of one of his own students, turns to a 1913 lecture on Futurism by the critic Alexander Zakrzhevsky:

‘Both in life and in literature we are experiencing a dismal era of decline…The realisation has already dawned upon thoughtful and subtle-minded people that we have expended all our energy, become exhausted and dim-witted, that the old ways no longer satisfy us yet we cannot find new ones, that words are worn out, decaying and they bore us ad nauseam, that thought has grown so decrepit and lacklustre, that life, with its past and its present, with its culture and its evolution, seems little more than a stupefying sleep from which there is no awakening!…’

The paradox here is that Veretinsky seems to be harking back to a time when the present (which he so despises) was the future, offering potential for artistic innovation and hope; and to hell with the past.

Khanov’s quotations of comparatively obscure poetry provide a significant translational challenge. In the original Russian, they are hard to detect as they are not attributed, or even denoted in italics. On the assumption that footnotes ask too much of the contemporary fictional novel reader, I have followed a policy of using italics and occasional attribution, the latter only when the flow of the narrative is not hindered; enough, hopefully, to coax the reader in English to go and seek out the author if they so wish without requiring them to do so.

Булат Ханов на Non/fiction 2019

 Bulat Khanov

I chose to translate Gnev after reading Khanov’s short story “Zdes’ vse po-drugomu” (“Everything Is Different Here”) which was published in the literary magazine Оktiabr in 2019. This story follows a visitor to a remote part of northern Russian who poses as a journalist interested in profiling the local community’s unspoilt, uncommercialised way of life, only for it to be revealed right at the end that he is really a television executive scoping out a location for a reality TV show that will shatter their quiet existence. This idea of playing a role, posing externally as someone completely different from your internalised self, is central to Khanov’s portrayal of Veretinsky in Gnev. The novel also taps into the paternal anxiety that I feel, as the father of a young boy myself, about the impact of society’s wholesale commodification, technology and social media on the mental health of young males. My background teaching for a number of years in UK Higher Education meant the novel’s university setting was also a natural draw for me and many of Khanov’s observations about the sector chime with my own experience. They also provide moments of much-needed humour, for while Khanov shines his light into some of the murkier corners of the male psyche, he does so, not through some insistently dreary form of realist chernukha, but with a humorous glint and an occasional wistfulness that serves to lighten the novel’s tone, despite its underlying darkness. These attributes lend Gnev a fresh, universal appeal that travels well beyond the confines of its setting in Kazan – after all, how many authors can cite lines from both English rock band Oasis and Ego-Futurist poet Riurik Ivnev to describe the collapse of a relationship?

Ultimately, it is almost as if the very educated nature of Veretinsky itself, placed against the backdrop of the sleazy, shabby reality of his existence, is what tortures him most and tips him over the edge. As a translator, there is something fundamentally exciting about uncovering all the nuances and interpretative layers of a work by a developing young author, bearded or otherwise. Gnev is a disturbingly frank study of 21st century male angst and I am sure I will not be the first reader to be left intrigued and unsettled by it. With RusTrans’s help, I hope I can bring it to the wider audience it deserves.

William Barclay

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)