Nina Schuyler: The Translator

Nina Schuyler’s first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and named a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She’d also received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and she teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Her new novel, The Translator – which I was lucky enough to get to read pre-publication – is just out. Booklist, in a starred review, calls it, “Evocative, powerful, and well-paced” and says it “illuminates how interpreting a person is as complicated an art as translating a book because of the risk of reading what one wants to discover rather than what one needs to learn.” – Meg

The Translator coverIn 2005, The New Yorker published an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” about a married couple that was busy re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. The couple was Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigrée. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett who had first translated Russian literature into English could be set aside.

What caught my eye wasn’t the word “Translation” in the title of the article, but the words “Tolstoy” and “Dostoyevsky” in the subtitle. As a girl, I fell in love with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak. I remember one summer when I was twelve, I carried Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago every day to the pool. Back then, I didn’t even consider that the stories were first written in Russian—what Thomas Mann calls, “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” What I thought about was snow, sleigh rides, passion, betrayal, revolution, peasants, czars, love.

Constance Garnett was, in fact, English. In 1891, when she had a difficult pregnancy, she taught herself Russian. Soon she began translating. According to Remnick, when she came across a word or phrase she didn’t know, she merrily skipped it and moved on. She was not skilled enough to carry forth certain verbal motifs and complicated sentences.

After I read The New Yorker article, I looked at my Russian novels—all translated by Garnett. In the style of Dostoyevsky, I felt betrayed! Cheated! Lied to! I’d read a watered-down, corrupted Russian translation, soaked in a heavy dose of English custom and sensibility. At the same time, questions swirled: What constitutes a good translation? What does a translator owe the author?

Before I began writing fiction, I worked as a newspaper reporter. My lack of knowledge about a subject was never a hindrance. There was always someone who knew more than me, and that was fine—more than fine. It made my job interesting. I wrote about everything: the electricity market, water rights, carbon trading, the concept of grace, good bacteria for the gut, women and the law, and so on. I thought nothing of calling the mayor of San Francisco, the governor of California, top Silicon Valley lawyers, venture capitalists, campaign managers, psychologists.

As a fiction writer, this has served me well. As Grace Paley says, “If, before you sit down with paper and pencil . . . it all comes suddenly clear and you find yourself mumbling, of course he’s a sadist and she’s a masochist, and you think you have the answer—drop the subject.”

Nina Schuyler photoMy father knew a woman who translated Japanese literature into English. I’d studied Japanese in college and later with a sensei. It was a language that broke me, so already I was intrigued—how had she managed? I interviewed the translator and one interview turned into seven. Some translators only focused on documents—literature was too hard, too subjective. I got carried away—I discovered that a language learned later in life is located in a different area of the brain. I interviewed a neurosurgeon to find out more.

I listened for trouble— a good sign of a story. Then one day, I heard it. A translator told me, “I don’t take on a project unless I can really relate to and understand the main character.” So . . . what if a translator thought she understood a character before or in the absence of complete understanding? That is, what if the translator unknowingly made a mistake? An egregious error? Why did she think she understood the protagonist in the first place?

I was transfixed by the complexities that exhausted easy explanations. I was caught up and imagined willingly being caught up for years. The more I explored, the larger the pile of questions. I had, to my delight, the beginning of a novel. – Nina


  1. says

    This was fascinating to read. And Nina’s discussion of her process illuminates how important it is for a writer to receptively allow herself to be led from one thing to the next–to let accidents as well as intention lead to discovery.