"Let the voice come through you"

An interview with Carol Ermakova, translator of The Underground

On a sunny April afternoon, I was fortunate enough to speak with Carol about The Underground, a novel she translated from the Russian. We spoke over Skype about living in Russia, keeping the "foreign-ness" in translated literature, the importance of taking a break when you need one, and more. Below is the transcription of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. 

Can you briefly describe your process as a translator?

I’m going to focus on translating literature, because that’s what I mainly do, and the process for translating business stuff is slightly different.

So, for literature, obviously the first thing is to read the book. Usually I get sent the book as a file, and I print it out and bring it to a nice coffee shop where I can sit with the stack of pages and read it through. As I’m reading it I have a pen in hand, and sometimes a phrase springs to mind in English that would be a perfect (or possible) translation. I jot these down in the margins as I’m going along. But generally, when I’m first reading it through I’m not thinking about translating it, or how it will sound in English. I’m just getting to grips with the characters and the plot. I do pay attention to any stylistic devices the author is using, though things like puns, onomatopoeia, or extended metaphors, especially if these are recurring. An image a particular character is associated with, or a color related to an emotion. Of course, I also make a mental note of any themes running through the book.

So that’s the first stage of translating: actually reading and getting to know the book and its characters. Then I go to the computer and actually translate the thing, and it’s like slashing through the jungle. You’re literally just clearing a path through the text. At this stage I have lots of either-or translations, and I highlight them in light blue. Once I've gone through the whole of the book, there’s all these passages still highlighted, and I go back and fine tune it, hone it down.

One thing I love about Russian literature is it’s so easy to go off on a tangent. Some mention of some other literary figure in the book, some artist or some place I don’t recognize and now that we have Google at our disposal you can just Google it, and it’s like going down the rabbit hole. You can spend the whole afternoon just exploring something new. That’s the fun part.

At some stage, I read it through in parallel with my husband, who is Russian: he’ll read the Russian in front of him while I read the English out loud. It’s very good to read a book out loud. You realize more where you’re stumbling. If the sentences don’t flow, then you’ve messed up, and you wouldn’t necessarily notice that unless you’re reading it out loud. Also, when you’re translating, it’s quite easy to skip a sentence (or a paragraph), get tired and leave a bit out, or misunderstand something. So it’s always good to have someone to check it with in tandem.

And then, of course, I liaise with the author. All the work I’ve done so far has been with living authors who (mostly) speak English, which is nice, so I can bounce phrases backwards and forwards with them.

Do you find yourself often reaching out to the original authors and bouncing phrases, or is it more rare that you’re seeking their input?

It depends partly on the author. Some authors don’t want to get involved in the process. Hamid has been a translator himself, so he understands.

I’ve just finished translating a book by Elena Chizhova, who was a Russian Booker prize winner a few years ago. There was one point in the text she mentioned “radio voices”, and I thought she could be making a reference that Russians would pick up on to the “Voice of America” radio program. So for something like that, I might consider putting a footnote in. Hamid has a very particular style; his Russian can be quite unorthodox. He likes to play with sounds and metaphors, and occasionally the sentences can get too long and you can get a bit lost off. So it’s best to go back to him and say, Do you mind if I chop this? Or break this into two sentences? But it really depends on the author.

Mbobo’s voice is so beautiful and distinctive. How difficult was it to capture his voice in another language?

I was thinking about this question because a couple of other people have mentioned Mbobo’s voice, but to be honest it wasn’t something I found myself struggling with. I think it’s probably because Mbobo has such a distinctive voice, you basically just sit back and let him do the talking in English as well. When you’re a translator, especially with a character who’s so strong and so specific, you almost have to develop a friendship with the character, and feel them as a living being. Then you just let the voice come through you.

Perhaps one of the reasons why it wasn’t too hard to translate Mbobo’s voice is because I was living in Russia at the time when Mbobo was growing up, so I experienced a lot of what he went through. Okay, I wasn’t a child at the time. But, for example, when the putsch happened, he was drinking tea with his uncle. He’s aware these things are happening but he’s just drinking tea. And it was exactly the same for me. I was aware that something was happening I was in St. Petersburg, not in Moscow but life carried on as normal even though this momentous event was happening outside. From that point of view I could empathize with him very much.

One of the things that was really difficult in translating The Underground was all the different literary genres included in the book. You have Uncle Gleb telling stories, you have Mbobo telling stories, you have references to poetry here there and everywhere, and that was not so easy. In fact, in the original, each chapter started with a poem written by Mbobo. That was almost a nightmare to translate. I was just looking through the book earlier on and it looks like they capped it at two or three lines, but in the original the poems were much longer and really quite obscure. I’m not a poet myself, and I don’t like translating poetry because it’s just too difficult. So, I think they did very well in editing that out, while leaving a few lines which encapsulate the feel of the chapter.

How long did you live in Russia for?

I went first as a student in 1991, and then I stayed all that summer. I met a lovely Russian girl who fixed me up with a visa she made me an official invitation and basically I stayed in a squat in the middle of St. Petersburg. It was really quite crazy.

At the time, it wasn’t very easy for Westerners to be there. There weren’t very many and usually they were still quite chaperoned. When I’d gone out as a student with some other girls from university we’d been kept on a very short leash, and I felt that I really hadn’t got to know the country or the people or the language at all. So, I went back home, earned a bit of money, and then basically spent three months in the summer living like a Russian. When I graduated I went back for about a year and a half, where I worked mainly as an English teacher in a school just outside St. Petersburg.

I also lived in Moscow for a couple of years around 2002, and it was actually just when I’d come back from Moscow that I started translating Hamid’s book. There was one point when I was translating a passage: Mbobo is going for a walk with Uncle Gleb back from the post office, I believe, and I was reading and translating it and suddenly I was absolutely there. I recognized exactly where it was. I’d been there. And it was just like the description: you round the corner and there’s the post office. That brought a huge smile. That was great.

You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but do you consider yourself a literal translator or an idiomatic translator?

I wouldn’t have thought anyone could be 100% either idiomatic or literal. There’s a huge range. It depends on what you’re translating; obviously, if you’re translating a legal document, you’ve got to be much more literal. But for literature, it has to be closer to the idiomatic.

Having said that, in the interview Hamid gave, he mentioned he sees languages as two completely different systems. And I think when you’re working as a translator, you also have to be aware of the emotive content behind the words. So, for example, a table it’s a noun, it’s a thing, and yet everyone’s going to have their own idea of it. For some people if you say “table” they’ll imagine a big, long dining table; other people it will be their office; for others, it might be a table out on the patio. So when you’re translating, you have to be aware of the associations people are going to have with words, especially with a culture as different as Russia’s.

The other thing I try not to do is make it too natural. If you transpose everything to an English or American setting if you try to make it as palatable as possible to the target audience I think you’re doing the reader a disservice. It’s a foreign book. You’re reading foreign literature, and one of the joys of foreign literature is it’s going to open your mind and introduce you to something new.

So, if, as the translator I’ve made it seem too “normal” too much like home then that edge is gone. Some people would disagree with me. Some people would say you need to make the reader feel completely at home like it’s lukewarm, it’s skin temperature. But I disagree.

Idioms are a good example. If you have the English phrase “call a spade a spade”, and there’s a logical Russian equivalent, of course you could use the Russian equivalent. Or rather, the other way around: if there’s a Russian set phrase, we could use the English equivalent, but then we would lose that foreign-ness. I think sometimes it’s good to leave a little prickle in the language. Hopefully then the reader will be a bit curious to know more about the culture, or maybe even want to read it in the original language. It’s a fine line. Obviously, you don’t want to alienate the reader, they have to be able to visualize and feel what’s happening in the story but with that slight little edge, perhaps.

That brings me to one point, actually. Obviously, I’m British, so I translated Mbobo [Ed. This is the original title of The Underground] into British English. But ultimately it was published by an American publisher, and that’s when the editing process began. I wasn’t involved much at all right at the beginning, there was a manuscript sent to both myself and Hamid with a few questions in the margin, but that was about it.

So I was really quite surprised when I got a copy of the book and discovered it had been, to my mind, rather crassly Americanized — maybe just because, being British, it jars so much when “mummy” has become “mommy”. In fact, at the book launch, someone came up and said that to me. They said, Did you do that or was it Americanized? How did you translate it originally?

Interesting. So, when you translated it, was the original thought that it would be published by a British press for a British audience?

Well, originally, it was translated with three other of Hamid’s works with a grant from the British Arts Council. So Mbobo was translated, perhaps a little unusually, without a publisher in mind. It wasn’t commissioned, if you like. Though I think that’s partly why it’s taken so long to come out. It’s been sort of “in the womb”: Mbobo was waiting to be born.

What drew you translating The Underground?

Actually, it was the first commercial literary translation I did, and the first novel I translated.

I’d been working as an English teacher abroad for many years, and this was basically a career change. I did a masters in translating and interpreting at Bath University. At the end of that course, you do an extended translation, and you can choose anything I remember one of the German students decided to translate a manual about bread. It wasn’t a literature specific course, but my supervisor was very keen on literature. I am, too my original degree was in Russian and German language and literature, so it was natural for me to go back to literature and I translated some short stories by contemporary women writers in Russia.

As I was in the final stages of my translation there was a conference at St. Andrews attended by Robert Chandler the translator he translated another of Hamid’s novels, The Railway. We got talking, go to know each other a little bit, and I said “Would you be happy to read my translations?” He agreed, and was quite impressed by them, so when Hamid was looking for a translator for these four pieces Robert suggested me.

So, that’s how it happened. Hamid and Robert approached me, and obviously I was delighted. As I mentioned earlier, as I’d been living in Russia during that period and had just come back from Moscow, it was really nice for me. It was like going back home.

It was a pleasure to translate, even though, of course, there are some very hard facts. Mbobo doesn’t have an easy life: all the violence, the tensions, the turmoil. It’s not a happy-clappy romantic novel by any means.

You mentioned you studied both Russian and German language and literature. How many languages have you translated?

It’s mainly Russian mainly contemporary literature, though I have done some commercial stuff. I have worked for the United Nations in the WMO. I translated a social anthropology book about Nepal from Italian to English,. I’ve also done a little bit of French. I haven’t actually translated any German, officially, though German was certainly my major language. I studied Russian absolutely by chance, on a fluke. I had no intention of studying languages, and no intention of learning Russian.

Describe your writing process in three words.

The first three words that come to mind, off the top of my head, are Reading, Thinking, and Coffee.

If you’re working on a novel you’ve got a lot of freeway. You’re not working to tight deadlines. I work freelance from home, and I live in a beautiful cottage in the countryside, so I often go out for walks, and that clears my head. But working from home there’s a constant distraction: making cups of tea, or putting the laundry out, all kinds of distractions. So I find I work best really late at night. In fact, with the novel I just finished, one of the most productive polishing sessions was just a few nights ago from eleven o’clock until one o’clock in the morning. So, sometimes it’s that quiet time that’s very good.

If you could meet one of the characters from The Underground, who would it be and why?

I think it would have to be Mbobo himself, because he has a mischievous streak, you know? I would like to travel with him on some of the underground passages and have a chat with him. I can just imagine myself with him when he’s quite small, hand in hand, going through the metro, him telling me how he’s feeling about different events in his life and the different places we pass.

A lot of writers can be superstitious about their writing process. Do you have any superstitions around your writing process?

No, I don’t think so.

What I tend to do is, when I have a mental block, I just stop. I tend not to push myself because it’s counter productive. You could force yourself to do six pages a day or whatever, but at the end, if you’re just counting pages you end up writing rubbish. Nobody’s gonna read it. It’s much better to go for a long walk, have a bath, watch a movie, watch a comedy, and start again later. So, no superstitions, but I take a break when I need one.

Is there a novel, an author, or translation that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?

I tend to work in quite a vacuum, actually. Although, having said that, there is one story that I liked very very much, back in the days when I was doing my extended dissertation when I was a student. It’s called “The Butterfly Collection” by Alisa Ponikarovskaya, and it’s too long to be a short story but it’s a great piece. I contacted the author via her website but I never heard back from her.

In general, there's quite a lot of surrealism/magical realism around in Russian literature, a long tradition of the bizarre, of overlapping everyday reality with a subconscious world -- a way to escape from the harsh political realities, the need to express yourself by squeezing through the censorship bars, so to speak. Gogol and Bulgakov are well known examples, but maybe lesser known are Zoschenko's short stories (which are very funny!).