A Journey Long and Strange: Discovering Translation [Guest Post]

Note: this post originally appeared here.

My journey to translation was a strange one indeed. Though I’d always had a vague idea about the craft and a desire to try it, I did not have good enough foreign language skills to translate anything at all. Five years of French in elementary school and six years of Spanish in middle and high school did nothing for me translation-wise. I liked French and Spanish, but I didn’t love either language with the burning passion and obsession one needs in order to learn a foreign language to fluency, and I eventually had dropped all foreign languages by the time I graduated from high school.

Then I came to university and starting taking Russian, and it was love at first sight. I loved the Cyrillic alphabet, I loved how the language looked when written, I loved how it sounded when spoken. I would be lying if I said I had no struggles or frustration (looking back, I can laugh now at how many times during first year Russian I would throw down my homework in frustration), but overall, I adored Russian.

But I still did not love translation. The few times I tried to translate during my first two years of studying Russian, I quickly became frustrated. During second-year Russian, when my friend talked about writing an honors thesis that would involve translating large extracts of Russian literature, I loftily declared that translation was not for me, as I was more inclined to interpretation. I based this assertion on something I had read, namely that bilinguals usually prefer and excel at either interpretation or translation, not both. Since I despised translation (and was bad at it), I reasoned, then I must then be good at interpretation.  This erroneous thought persisted for some time, and I proudly endorsed it. “I’m going to be an interpreter,” I told my parents one day when I was home over a vacation. “It’s where my talents and interests lie.” They listened patiently. I repeated this to my friends, who did the same.

One day, during my year abroad, I picked up a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard in the original Russian. Bulgakov, who is virtually unknown in the West, is very famous in Russia today, mainly for his magnum opus, a great allegorical work called The Master and Margarita. The White Guard is an earlier and lesser-known work based on Bulgakov’s experiences in his native Kiev during the Russian Civil War. Though I would normally reach for my dictionary to attempt to read any sort of literature in Russian, this time I did not need to: the words simply came to me. I understood them in Russian and could render them in English. Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, the second since the start of the revolution. In the summer there was abundant sun, in the winter snow, and two stars rose especially high in the heavens…

Not only was I translating, but what I was translating actually sounded decent. Perhaps I had given up on translation too hastily, I thought. I translated more of The White Guard and found that I quite enjoyed it. I enjoyed reading Bulgakov’s words in Russian and hearing them echo in my mind in English. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel and began including some historical notes to explain the more obscure aspects of the Russian civil war.

So far, I have not yet been published as a literary translator, but someday I hope to be. I am continuing to work on my Russian and I translate in my spare time, and I hope to someday translate modern Russian literature as well as the classics.

Natalie Keating is studying history and Russian language at university. In her spare time, she enjoys reading Russian literature, working on her novel, playing violin, and of course translating Russian prose. More of her writing can be found on her blog.

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