Boris Akunin - Paradise Lost: Confessions Of An Apostate Translator
My mother wanted me to become a doctor. If not a doctor – then a literary translator. She would start speaking about my future and say with conviction that in our country there were only two “clean” professions – firstly, medicine, secondly, literary translation. She wouldn’t be more specific, so I took it as an axiom.
When she saw that I was hopeless at chemistry and physics and that I showed little interest in biology, she started pushing me towards the second option. She was a schoolteacher, she knew how to manipulate people.
Just one example of her scheming. At home there was a bookshelf up very high where, mother told me, were the books for adults. I was not to touch them until I was old enough to understand them. Of course when I was alone I read them all, to the last page. I was probably the youngest living creature in the world to read the two volumes of “Anna Karenina” and the four volumes of “War and Peace”. I didn’t understand much, but I developed a lifelong habit of reading difficult books.
To interest me in reading books in English (the language I was studying at school without enthusiasm), my mother took me to the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature, recently reopened after renovation. The building was brand new, all glass and steel. In socialist Moscow of 1969 it looked like a miracle of modernity, a temple of light. Even the compulsory Lenin statue was not like the one at school, 3-meters high and gilded, but small, sort of cubist, very chic. And there were no kids, as no-one under 16 could get a subscription.
I immediately felt that I wanted to belong to that world. Even the queue behaved differently from all other Soviet queues: everybody was so polite, so patient, so soft-spoken. They are all translators, I thought. I also thought I understood why translation was a profession second only to medicine in its sterile attire. I demanded that mother take out a subscription for me in her name, then I was allowed to take a book. Not knowing what to order I chose the thickest volume from the display and promised myself I would read it to the end no matter what. Hadn’t I read “War and Peace”, after all?
Unfortunately the book turned out to be “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. In the beginning I had to write out at least 50 unknown words from each page. I did force my way through it, I had to keep my word, but I’ve never touched a Steinbeck book since then. An adolescent trauma.
The second English book, “Scaramouch” by Raphael Sabatini, was a relief, a treat. I started translating it immediately for a friend who was unlucky enough to have to study German at school. After a couple of pages I found it easier to tell the story in my own words, embellishing it along the way – a premonition of what was to become of me eventually. But at thirteen I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to translate.
The real meaning of what my mother had in mind when she called literary translation “a clean profession” and why it was less “clean” than medicine became clear to me later as I was growing up and learning the art of adjusting to the real world.
Here I must digress in order to explain the rather specific position of writers and philologists in the Soviet Union.
Adolf Hitler was a failed painter. Joseph Stalin was a failed poet.
Stalin must have envisaged his dictatorship as some sort of epic poem, the beauty of which should be admired. And it was admired, genuinely or falsely, voluntarily or otherwise. In any case, no criticism of that great work of poetry was tolerated.
It was bad luck for Russian literature that Stalin thought highly of literature. For him it meant that literature was politically important. The dictator grew up in an era when Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov were iconic figures in Russia, influencing not only Russian literature but the whole of society.
Stalin evidently despised all three of them for their uselessness and even harmfulness. He needed his own socialist Tolstoys. And with his arithmetical practical-mindedness, his endless contempt for human nature, he was sure that he knew how to achieve this goal.
The chaotic and uncontrollable world of literary creation had to be put in order. Stalin directed and organized the process as it was called then.