Sergei Dovlatov, one of the great writers of the Soviet samizdat period, immigrated to New York City in 1978 and published his bone-dry, deeply thoughtful stories in The New Yorker all through the 1980s, until his tragic early death in 1990. Even in translation, Dovlatov’s work is a gateway drug to Russian humor: twenty percent booze, fifty percent understatement, and thirty percent bureaucratic despair. The writer is a household name in Russia, and the publication of Pushkin Hills—the first English translation of his 1983 novel Zapavednik, translated by his daughter, Katherine—has been greeted with celebration in the émigré literary scene.
The autobiographical novel is narrated by an unpublished writer, Boris Alikhanov, who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills, a group of estates affiliated with Alexander Pushkin. Alikhanov’s wife and daughter are leaving him for the West, and he is thus forced to weigh the merits of abandoning his country, his mother tongue, and even Pushkin, his literary heritage. The alternative is to remain in Soviet Russia, where almost everything external is false, and where the absurdities of the Pushkin estate function as a microcosm for the society. As the narrator observes: “Christ, I thought, everyone here is insane. Even those who find everyone else insane.”
Using language to subvert the regime was one of Dovlatov’s specialties, and his novel is rich with characters who speak in tongues—the more insane you are, the more sane, perhaps, in a mad society. Dovlatov writes with a deceptive minimalism—in fact, his humor and linguistic dexterity have made him one of the most difficult Russian writers to translate. His daughter Katherine, who also represents his estate, was happy to discuss her technique with me.
Pushkin Hills was originally published in 1983, after your father had emigrated to New York. But he wrote it in Russian. Can you talk about that?
Father was “nudged” to leave Russia in August 1978. Like many émigrés of the Third Wave, he spent a bit of time in Vienna before coming to New York in the early months of 1979. He knew a lot of words in English, and he could get by on the street or supermarket, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he was fluent. He wrote everything in Russian. His writing is language driven, and so of course he wrote in the only language he knew well.
How were Russian-language works published and distributed in the U.S. at that time?
The best-known Russian book publisher in the U.S. at the time was Ardis, founded by two Americans, Karl Proffer and his wife Ellendea, who made an enormous contribution to the preservation of Russian literature. Karl died in the eighties, and Ellendea is living in California. Dad published several works with them, but Pushkin Hills was first released through Hermitage, which was founded by another Russian immigrant.
These weren’t publishing houses in the same sense as we think of them today, but they did everything from typesetting to distribution—mainly to universities, libraries, and Russian grocery stores, which had shelves of books, newspapers, perfume and fancy chocolates. Some authors paid to have their books published, some did not. My dad never had to pay to publish, but then he never got paid. He preferred payment in kind, that is, in copies of the book. He also micromanaged the process—my mother and grandmother proofread everything, and he designed the cover, approved the layout, et cetera.
His New Yorker stories were translated into English for publication—by whom? How did he like the work?
In the case of the New Yorker stories, it was Anne Frydman, the translator, who made the introduction to the magazine. Father met Anne through Joseph Brodsky, who had been in America a few years and was already established. Dad valued working with Anne so much that he divided his royalties with her equally.
His second translator was the famed Antonina Buis. She’s still working today. The one thing I remember is that Anne used to work very slowly. One story could take up to six months. Nina worked quickly, which was important to Dad. They both have their strengths and their weakness. Their styles are very different, but both have done a terrific job.
What were his opinions on translation in general? I’ve had so many Russians tell me not to bother reading various Russian authors in translation, as their work is “untranslatable.” It’s kind of a truism of bar chat.
It’s interesting that Russians can say a Russian work is “untranslatable,” and then at the same time believe that Russian versions of foreign works are improvements on the originals! Some say Shakespeare, for instance, is better in Pasternak’s version. And many, my father included, believed that Rita Rait-Kovaleva added to Vonnegut.
My father knew and loved American literature. And yet he read everything in translation. And he believed that his stories were translatable—although he feared this particular work, Pushkin Hills, was going to present problems because of the particular and idiosyncratic ways two of the characters speak. That didn’t end up being the biggest challenge, actually.
What inspired your decision to translate it?
We had a contract with the publisher for three titles. Two were reprints. The third was supposed to be a brand-new translation. So we started looking for a translator. There were some very good samples from established translators in England, but I just could not reconcile Dovlatov with a British voice, British musicality. And so we continued our search. But as I was re-editing the existing translations to get them ready for reprint, I began to think that maybe I could possibly do it. The first sample was rejected by the publisher because it read too much like a translation. For the second submission, I changed my approach, after realizing that part of translating is also adapting the text to a different cultural perception, and the publisher liked it.
What was your process?
I don’t believe I have a process. I would read a sentence a few times, in my head and out loud, and then I would try to say it in English. The goal was to keep the same musicality, the same tone. It was mostly an intuitive process. And of course hearing my dad’s voice helped, too.
My father’s sentences are short, and at times I had to merge them to avoid abrasiveness. That changed the rhythm. But sometimes Russian, when you try to recreate it in English, can sound curt and accented, as if all the articles were removed.
As for the challenges, the more difficult parts were the authorial speech. Soviet references are untranslatable anyway, and the best I could do was try and relate the humor. Coming up with adequate slang and making up words was exciting. But the authorial speech is unforgiving. It had to be perfect. And my English is nowhere near my father’s use of the Russian. He honed his craft. He wrote slowly and painstakingly. I picked up English on the streets of Queens. It was a huge responsibility. I did not want to let Dad down.
Dovlatov had a famously strange rule. In a given sentence, he wouldn’t use a word that started with the same letter as a word he’d already used. First, is this true? And second, it looks like you didn’t abide by that rule in the translation. Why not?
It is true, although not of his earlier works. There’s been some discussion about this among Russian critics. Some call it a gimmick, others—fetters. I know that Dovlatov did not use this as a device or a gimmick. He used it to slow himself down. It was meant to be a self-editing mechanism.
And no, I did not do that in the translation. The proliferation of articles in English would have made it impossible. And I would have had to change too much. When Dad did it, for example, he would easily change a character’s name or a city to get the letter he needed. I don’t think translators can do that. Or can we?
Your mother is a major character in this novel, and in all of your father’s work. Did she read the translation? What did she think?
She read the translation, although after nearly forty years here, there are nuances of English that still elude her. That said, she found two typos! She tells me she liked it. She thought it read well and was funny. She particularly enjoyed the scene where the narrator meets the two village drunks.
The title posed some problems. In Russian, it’s Zapovednik, which means The Preserve. But you opted instead for Pushkin Hills.
This was the first and biggest hurdle. Zapovednik can mean a number of things—an animal sanctuary, or a tract of land set aside for people, such as a Native American tribe, which can carry negative connotations, or a museum-estate, which is a very Soviet concept. So it is a delineated zone of sorts, designed by man to keep things in, and it is a museum, the idea of which was unnatural, to my father. Unfortunately, in English, The Preserve expresses only some of those meanings, and taken out of context it fails to allude to the book’s themes. So yes, translating the title was my first failure!