‘Artful and Elegant’: Robert Chandler on Translating Russian Literature

In News by Dennis Abrams

Robert Chandler’s Russian translations focus on great voices in Russian literature. He hopes to see more translations of contemporary Russian writers published.
Robert Chandler, discussing Vasily Grossman in a video from MacLehose Press.

Robert Chandler, discussing Vasily Grossman in a video from MacLehose Press.

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

Challenging Work
Among today’s best-known translators of Russian literature, Robert Chandler has a body of work that includes Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Everything Flows; Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter; and Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

russia-beyond-the-headlinesl-logo-linedHe may be best known, however, for his translations of Andrei Platonov, whose style can be challenging even in the original Russian. Chandler is also editor of anthologies of Russian poetry, short stories and fairy tales.

In addition, for nearly two years Chandler has hosted translation workshops at London’s Pushkin House, drawing an audience that includes professional translators, students, and Russian speakers, all with the desire to discuss Russian literature.

At Russia Beyond the Headlines, Alexandra Guzeva interviews Chandler on his career and evolving views of translation. Some highlights:

Alexandra Guzeva: This year, NYRB Classics has published two books by Teffi: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea and Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi. She’s not that well known in Russia; her works are not taught in most schools and universities and most Russians have not read any of her books. What makes her so special as a writer, and what can readers expect from her?

On Vasily Grossman: “It’s his honesty and the steadiness of his imagination. Also, he’s an unusual example of a writer who wrote better with almost every year of his life.”Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler: Almost all of her contemporaries thought very highly of her indeed: Ivan Bunin, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Georgy Ivanov, to name only a few. Probably because of her lack of pretense, and because émigré literature was forgotten about for several decades, she remains underestimated.

As the Russian émigré poet Georgy Ada Guemovich wrote about her in 1931: “There are writers who muddy their own water, to make it seem deeper. Teffi could not be more different: the water is entirely transparent, yet the bottom is barely visible.”

These words are still more apt with regard to Memories, an elegant and carefully composed work of art that appears, on first reading, to have been thrown together casually and spontaneously.

AG: You’re probably the best known translator of Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov. What marks them out for you?

RC: With regards to Platonov it’s because he uses language as creatively as Tsvetaeva or Mandelstam, or any other of the greatest Russian poets of the last century.

For Vasily Grossman it’s his honesty and the steadiness of his imagination. Also, he’s an unusual example of a writer who wrote better with almost every year of his life. His very greatest, still underestimated works are Everything Flows and some of the short stories he wrote during his last three years, which we have included in The Road.

One of his masterpieces is Mama, an astonishing story about the small girl who was adopted by Nikolay Yezhov, the head of the NKVD in 1937 at the height of the Purges.

AG: Apart from Hamid Ismailov, you don’t tend to translate contemporary literature in Russian. Is there a particular reason for this and do you admire any other modern authors writing in Russian?

RC: Among the writers I most admire are Alexey Slapovsky and Maxim Osipov. I would be very happy indeed if I could find time to translate them too. As it is, all I can do is to encourage publishers to take them on. Sadly, I have not yet succeeded.

I also greatly admire Marina Boroditskaya, who is a poet, children’s writer and translator.

As always, Publishing Perspectives encourages you to #NameTheTranslator whenever writing about works in translation and to urge publishers to do the same.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.