Month: April 2014

Anton Chekhov: About Love and other stories (an Oxford World’s Classics audio guide)

Chekhov: About Love cover

Without quite planning it, Podularity seems to have been having a bit of a Russian season of late, so I thought it would be worth re-presenting this audio guide which OUP commissioned me to produce a couple of years ago with Rosamund Bartlett, translator of Chekhov’s short stories (and also Anna Karenina (forthcoming, 2014)). Here’s a link to all the OWC audio guides.

“Seventeen peerless examples of how much life you can put into a few pages of fiction if you have Chekhov’s economical mind, his eyes and ears, his feel for comedy and his sense of humanity. Chekhov is better known for his plays. But these are small masterpieces of their own, in a revelatory new translation.”

The Economist

Click on the links below to hear Rosamund Bartlett, who edited and translated the stories in the collection, About Love, introduce Chekhov and his work and read from her translations.

Who was Anton Chekhov?

  • Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) came from an unlikely background for a future literary celebrity. Unlike most of his fellow writers, he wasn’t from an aristocratic family but a conservative, merchant one. Click here to hear more about his early years. [2:18]
  • In 1879 Chekhov moved to Moscow, thereby taking the first step to his literary and medical career. Click here to find out why he himself felt that he had entered the literary world by the back door. [2:29]
  • A “period of small deeds”: click here to find out more about how the politically reactionary climate of his times was better suited to the short story form than sweeping novels. Rosamund Bartlett also discusses the effect Chekhov’s declining health had on his life. [3:16]

Writing in a minor key

  • Chekhov’s early readers in both Russian and English were uncertain what to make of his stories: they didn’t have regular beginnings or endings and they also lacked conventional heroes. As Rosamund Bartlett explains here, modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf were among the first to appreciate what an innovative writer Chekhov really was. [5:06]
  • How hard is it to capture the elegiac, musical quality of Chekhov’s prose in English? Here Rosamund Bartlett describes what she was trying to achieve as a translator. [5:29]
  • The stories in the collection About Love extend from early works written in his mid-twenties to the majestic story “The Bishop”, which dates from right at the end of Chekhov’s career. Click here to hear how Rosamund Bartlett made her selection from over 600 stories. [3:49]

Sampling the stories

  • “Lady with a Little Dog” is probably Chekhov’s most famous story. Click here for an introduction to it and to hear an extract. [4:25]
  • “Gooseberries” forms part of a trilogy of stories that Chekhov wrote in the late 1890s. Click here to listen to an extract. [3:24]

Conversations with Translators (I): Oliver Ready on Crime and Punishment

crime and punishment cover oliver ready translation

I visited Oliver Ready recently at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where he is a research fellow in Russian society and culture, to hear about his five-year engagement with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics, 2014): what persuaded him to take the project on? how did he limber up for it? and why – unusually – did he write his version out longhand rather than work on a computer? Below, there is a short extract from our conversation:

Oliver Ready: Something Russians talk a lot about in translation is the idea of a tuning fork when you’re setting out on a translation – ‘kamerton’ in Russian – and like an actor trying to get into the role you read something which isn’t a precise model, but which moves your linguistic resources in a particular direction and starts you thinking in particular rhythms.

[Translating Crime and Punishment] was experimental for me because I’d never translated a classic before and the first question people ask is ‘What are you doing? Are you going to write in the archaic language of the nineteenth century or are you going to write in twenty-first-century English?’, which is a false choice, because I think nearly all translators go for a compromise and it’s quite right that they should do, because it would be very fussy to try to write in 1860s English…

George Miller: …And it would be a construct in any case; it would be an imaginary language…

Oliver Ready: Yes, it would be an imaginary language, and it would expose the illusion that translators are ventriloquists, which they’re not. We’re not translators because we’re able to slip into any register of speech, any dialect. Most translators are much more limited than that in what they can do, and I don’t think that’s really the key to good translations. So in terms of what period of English I was aiming at, it would be OK, I think, if I moved from the language of the 1920s to the language of the 1950s in places. It’s very important when translating the novel to leave space for archaism, because there are some characters who very deliberately use Old Church Slavonicism or a certain very courteous, excessively polite way of speaking because they’re identifying themselves with the old class system that at the time Dostoevsky’s writing this novel is beginning to crumble. […]

I think as a translator you need to exploit all of the resources you have; you don’t want to limit yourself too much. Obviously I didn’t use locutions which are specifically of today, which in a few years time would be dated, but I did allow myself at times to use types of humour which are much more modern than Dostoevsky’s time and therefore have a bit more force for the contemporary reader. On the whole, in terms of word choice, I did use the Oxford English Dictionary a lot, and tried to avoid words – without a fixed rule – that came into English after, say, 1960…

(Oliver Ready is Research Fellow in Russian Society and Culture at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is general editor of the anthology, The Ties of Blood: Russian Literature from the 21st Century (2008), and Consultant Editor for Russia, Central and Eastern Europe at the Times Literary Supplement. He has also recently translated the novel Before and During by the contemporary author Vladimir Sharov (Dedalus, 2014))

Oliver Ready St Antony's College Oxford

Rebecca Mead on The Road to Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead at Toppings BathRebecca Mead is an English-born, Brooklyn-based, New Yorker staff writer. I met her recently when she visited Toppings bookshop in Bath to talk about her new book The Road to Middlemarch. Rebecca’s book explores her fascination with George Eliot’s great novel, which started when she first encountered it at the age of seventeen, and has accompanied her through her life, growing, changing, developing, revealing new aspects, as Rebecca’s own life and experience have changed.

Rebecca Mead Road to Middlemarch jacket‘Reading [Middlemarch]’, she writes, ‘does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us as much as we understand them, or even more. […] This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in mid life, looking for something that eluded us before.’

Rather than a work of literary criticism, the book is a blend of biography, memoir, travel, and reflection that defies easy classification. Here’s a very short extract to give a flavour of the book and its pleasures:

My favourite image of Eliot and [her partner George] Lewes is provided by a neighbour who used to see them out walking Pug, and reported, Mrs Cadwallader-like: “They were both very unattractive people to look upon, and they used to wander about the neighbourhood, the biggest pair of frights that ever was, followed by a shaggy little dog who could do tricks.” The censorious glimpse from behind the net curtains is a peculiarly English phenomenon, and I derive delicious pleasure from the two Georges’ carelessness about the judgement delivered by smaller minds and smaller hearts than their own.


Catriona Kelly St Petersburg interview – part II

I don’t want to normalize it completely, but I think Britain has many of the same problems as Russia actually: mass alcoholism – there’s plenty of that – a governing elite that doesn’t really give a toss for anybody, doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of what’s going on, what happens when you administer cuts at the top level and so on. And instead we sit round and point the finger at them…

In this concluding part of my interview with Catriona Kelly about her recent book, St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past, we talk about the shadow cast by the Blockade over the post-war life of the city; getting by under communism; adapting to life post-Communism; and Catriona’s own experience of becoming a part-time resident of the city – including a visit to a builder’s merchant on its outskirts.Rossi Zhiguli