Admitting Defeat

There are no defeats—only temporary obstacles.
–Admiral Alexander Kolchak

Almost a year ago now (I’m embarrassed to even type that), I started reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard in Russian. As I write this right now, I still haven’t finished The White Guard. I haven’t even made it halfway. In fact, I’ve decided to give up on it for now.

I feel bad giving up on it because I like Bulgakov. His magnum opus, The Master and Margarita, is amazing. We read that during second semester of my advanced Russian class. It’s fabulous and fantastic and I can’t say enough in praise of it.

I did not feel this way about The White Guard. I found most of the story plodding and the characters tiresome. I may have been able to power through that, though, if I had a better Russian vocabulary. I felt like I was looking up every other word. Bulgakov writes a lot of complicated sentences, too, so once I’d looked up all the words I didn’t know, I’d have to figure out the sentence structure. By the time I figured out the sentence structure, I would have forgotten some of the words already. Imagine this repeating with every page I read. It was enough to drive one mad!

So that is why I must bid до свидания (goodbye) to this book. I’m not saying I’ll never give it another try. After all, my lack of Russian vocabulary is just a temporary obstacle, right? For now, I’m going to read something else. What that something else is, I don’t know. Suggestions are welcome in the comments—either contemporary literature, nonfiction, or the classics. I’m open to suggestions.


Happy International Translation Day!

Today, September 30, is International Translation Day! If you know a translator in your life, let him or her know that you appreciate the massive amount of effort it takes to learn a language, and then render material in that language into another. Nataly Kelly has a great post here about how important translation is.

In honor of International Translation Day, I want to share some literary translation I have been working on, just for fun. This is my rendition of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, his early novel based on his experiences living in Kiev during the Russian Revolution.
Continue reading “Happy International Translation Day!”

Adventures in Russian Literature

The reason why I have not posted at all for a week is I have been happily absorbed in studying Russian literature in the 1920s and 1930s for my essay that was due today. (My tutor loved the essay, by the way, so I’m thrilled.) Though I have read some truly inspiring scholarship on the matter, for every good literary scholar, there also exists a not-so-good one.

One scholar I read whose work was less than stellar was Gleb Struve. In his Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953, his brief section on Mikhail Bulgakov (pp.160-65), my favorite Russian writer, omitted any mention of Bulgakov’s magnum opus, The Master and Margarita. True, The Master and Margarita was not published in the Soviet Union until 1966 (albeit in a censored version), but Bulgakov wrote the work before his death in 1940. It certainly bears the mark of the Stalin era and, I would argue, merits at the very least a passing mention.

Struve also subjects Bulgakov’s The White Guard to unwarranted criticism. He writes (p.160) that:

Bulgakov used to say that of all his works he liked The White Guard best. But its value as literature is not very great. It is written simply, in the realist manner, without any stylistic or compositional refinements. Its interest lies in its subject matter and in the author’s attitude toward his characters.

In response to that, my first thought is whether we have read the same book. The White Guard is a very beautiful book and Bulgakov shows much maturity as a writer, despite the fact that he had not been writing professionally for very long.

The next problem concerns the poor translation of a Russian poem from Jürgen Rühle’s Literature and Revolution: A Critical Study of the Writer and Communism in the Twentieth Century. Overall, I loved the book: it is translated from German (by Jean Steinberg; one must always give credit to translators) and reads beautifully. If it is this well-written in the original, then kudos to Steinberg for her excellent translation. (If it is not this wonderful in the original, then Steinberg is guilty of what Breon Mitchell calls the cardinal sin of literary translation: improving on the original.)

The poem in question is by Sergei Yesenin, who wrote it right before committing suicide. In Rühle’s book, it is written as such:

Farewell, my friend. The time to part has come.
Beloved, whom I held close to me.
Predestined separation makes us both
Aware of promised reunion.
Farewell, my friend. No word. No clasp of hand.
Do not frown, steel yourself.
To die is nothing new,
Yet it is impossible to live in any other way.

Not a terrible translation, but I take issue with the last line. It should read: “But, of course, to live is nothing newer.” (In Russian: Но и жить, конечно, не новей.)

Neither of these issues had anything to do with my essay. Yes, this is what I think about in my spare time.