Interview with Nora Seligam Favorov, translator of Pushkin Prize 2016 shortlisted book 'Stalin'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What made you interested in Russia?

I grew up in New York City with a father who went to New York University in the 1940s when many students were arguing the case for Trotskyism versus Stalinism versus anti-communism. Soviet history was a topic that came up around my parent’s dinner table, and I was fascinated by Stalin from an early age. I studied Russian history in college, so when I got bumped from a literature course and saw only two people had signed up for first-year Russian language, I decided, on a whim, to sign up. It was a very intensive year followed by two summer programs and then I went to Russia for a semester in Moscow. I wound up meeting my husband there, stayed longer than planned, and I brought him back to the US. My obsession with the Russian language, history, and culture grew over the years. I’m thrilled to able to make a living translating fascinating texts about a fascinating country.

How did you come to translate Oleg Khlevniuk’s work?

Thankfully, I have been able to translate Russian history almost exclusively in recent years. This is the fourth book I have done for Yale University Press and the second for Oleg after “Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle”. This biography is going to be interesting to a broader audience. I’m not sure whether Oleg saw this as the biography’s organizing principle, but to me the value of this book is how well it illustrates the damage Stalin did to what is now the former Soviet Union. I only fully appreciated this when I went to Russia immediately after completing the translation and looked at everything I saw around me through the lens of the biography.

How easy was it to translate this book?

Translating from Russian is always a challenge, but this book was such a pleasure. Oleg is so generous with his time. If something came out sounding confusing in English, I could grill him, ask a million questions. Through the examples he provided of terms like “administrative pressure” (which turns out to be a euphemism for something much more violent than the English term suggests) or “administrative exile” (basically violent relocation in this case), I was able to come up with wording that conjured a more vivid and accurate image for readers of the English translation.

What about Stalin’s own Russian language?

Although it may sound a bit perverse, I love translating Stalin. His writing is quite colourful, but the transcripts of some of his speeches that I’ve had the privilege of translating (mostly not for Khlevniuk’s biography) are even more so. He uses very idiomatic Russian but mangles idioms so they have to be translated creatively.  If he seems to have in mind the standard idiom “прижать к стене” (to press to a wall, usually used when someone is offering irrefutable proof of something leaving no room for argument) but butchers the idiom and actually says that history “ как к стене пригнала вас” (drove you into a wall), the context suggesting that he means that history is compelling you to deal with a problem, should I translate that by finding an analogous way to butcher an English idiom? I find such problems delightful. While translating Stalin in his own words I always keep my beloved idioms dictionary, Sophia Lubensky’s “Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms” right at the foot of my chair and am constantly peering into it. Most of what I see written about Stalin as rhetorician is about his written works, but his speeches, the unedited transcripts of which have only recently become available, would make for a fascinating study of political and linguistic manipulation.

Can you describe the translation process?

Oleg sent me the whole text at once. I would translate a chapter and send queries. I’m a real pest – I ask a million questions. Like any good translator, I wanted to liberate myself from the Russian words and syntax and try to put his thought so as to best convey the meaning to the target audience. You take the meaning of a phrase, try to get rid of the words, and instead ask “how would I really say this?” He very generously answered my questions and clarified things. His passive English is excellent. Working with an author who can critique the translation of his work is a translator’s greatest gift (when the critique is spot on – when it is not, it can be a nightmare). I wanted to keep the flavour of Oleg’s style and perspective. He and I edited the translation multiple times, and then Yale University Press, which recognised the value of this book, was all hands on deck. The executive editor edited my translation himself, and the text was also gone over with fine toothed combs by a copy editor and production editor, after which we all read through the proof. This is just the sort of cooperative effort that is essential to a top-notch final product.

What is your next project?

I’m editing the first literary translation I ever did, in 1997 when just finishing my master’s degree. It is a nineteenth-century novel by an author nobody has ever heard of: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya. Together with her two sisters, including better known Nadezhda, she is sometimes referred to as one of the “Russian Bronte sisters”. It’s a little gem that I’m hoping will be published soon. My original translation now seems terribly flawed. Almost 20 years and millions of translated words later, it’s a great pleasure to bring it up to my current standard.