Interview with Robert Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg, translators of Pushkin Prize 2017 shortlisted book 'Memories'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

Why did you want to translate Teffi?

Robert Chandler: I’d been gradually getting more interested in her for quite a long time. I translated a couple of stories for a Penguin Classics Russian story short anthology and then gave her a big space in another anthology, of magic tales. I’d been wanting to translate 'Memories', which may well be her finest work. But I had so many other things to do that I would never have got round to it. Then I received a very nice letter from Irina Steinberg, who loved Teffi and said she was not a professional but had translated it and would I be willing to have a look. I could see a lot of thought had gone into it. I realised I could benefit a great deal from working with Irina but the translation was much too close to Russian syntax. She turned out to be very easy to work with. Anne Marie Jackson also became involved. She was one of my first mentees and also very fond of Teffi.

Irina Steinberg: I was spending the summer in Moscow in the early noughties where there was quite a selection of Teffi publications. I knew her only a little, by some of her humorous stories, and didn't see her as a "serious" author. An edition of 'Memories' was given to me by a dear friend and it immediately struck a chord. As well as being full of interesting historical details, the underlying story of emigration, of losing your country for ever, resonated with me strongly. My personal story took place at the other end of the Revolution - my family left the USSR in the chaos of 1991. A few years later, I was experiencing something of a personal crisis in my career as a lawyer in Clifford Chance in London. I decided to try my hand at translation. Not because I had any illusions to get published, but rather to reconnect with literature, language and my own history. I had no hesitations choosing 'Memories'.

Anne Marie Jackson: I first got involved translating Teffi when I participated in what is now known as the Translate in City summer school - in its first incarnation back in 2011. Robert was leading the Russian group and we were working on 'Memories'. I went on to be mentored by Robert. He had been trying to interest a publisher - it's her master work. 

How did you translate between all of you?

RC: We somewhat randomly sent the text back and forth between us all. I worked in the way I always do, reading and discussing sentence by sentence with my wife, who has a very fine sense of idiom and rhythm. It was a slow but very enjoyable business over several years. It always takes longer with other people, but is almost always going to be better. I also make use of feedback from my translation workshops. Every time, I come back with stylistic improvements and errors of understanding. We hardly ever disagreed. With my co-translators, we had a rather amusing battle over niti (threads). There is a scene at a frontier town between Soviet Russia and then German-occupied Ukraine in late 1918. Everyone is trying to get across the border and find ways to placate the extremely vicious Bolshevik authorities. A cavalier man with suitcases is trying to smuggle threads across the border. We had a 50:50 disagreement with Russian native speakers whether it was threads of pearls or yarn. A very impressive woman in my translation workshop very politely and calmly battled with me month after month. I was convinced it was jewellery, but she wrote again three months later with absolutely convincing proof from elsewhere in the text, showing that yarn was in short supply.

How easy is Teffi to translate?

AMJ: Teffi is extremely difficult to translate. Often when translating the job gets easier after the first draft, but she throws up challenge after challenge. In my translation career so far I have yet to come across a writer this difficult. One example is how she fully uses Russian's capacity to pack all kinds of meaning into just a few words, leaving the translator to write several sentences while striving furiously to maintain the same air of lightness. 
RC: Her writing always appears very simple but it is terribly easy to miss things that are being hinted at. Writing like that is nearly always harder to translate than writing that is obviously complex. Her writing is extraordinarily subtle. It happened again and again that you take a sentence that seems absolutely beautiful in the original, you think you’ve translated it accurately but it’s completely dead. It takes a long time to work out what’s best.

IS: In some ways, particularly in respect of dialogues (Teffi is a master at these) - it felt like translating poetry. A more specific example is the character Gooskin,  who has the particular manner of speaking like an Odessian Jew  and specialises in garbling proverbs. I have done other translations since, but nothing will quite compare to how magically 'Memories' went from a tipsy recommendation in Moscow (received a little sceptically) to a work that is read and appreciated in the English-speaking world.

Where would you rank Teffi among Russian authors?

RC: Very high indeed - perhaps the only 20th century writer who has inherited something of Pushkin’s lightness and grace. She was a super-star in pre-revolutionary Russia, an important figure in the flourishing satirical writing scene of the time.  She remained enormously important in the émigré world. Her poetry is not especially interesting in itself, but her poetic sensitivity clearly fed into her prose.  It is striking, incidentally, how many of the greatest Russian prose writers of the last century also wrote poetry; Bunin, Nabokov, Pasternak, Platonov, Shalamov and Teffi herself.  If Teffi has been neglected for several decades, the reasons are simple enough. Many other émigré writers slso got forgotten; being a woman did not help; and to an extraordinary degree, she was pigeon-holed as a light humourist early in her career and got stuck with that reputation. 'Memories' first came out 90 years ago.  It’s striking how, without any master plan, it has recently been translated into a number of languages almost simultaneously: in French now, in Germany about 18 months ago.  Recently I heard from someone about to translate her into Lithuanian.