Two years ago, while translating the stories of Reed Grachev, a suppressed Russian writer of the mid twentieth century, I encountered a passage told from the perspective of a bus driver: He observes that the bus is very full, then looks in the mirror at an unnamed someone and wonders why she isn’t giving the “signal.” He starts the bus and sees that some people have been left behind at the stop. Unstated, but self-evident to any Russian reader, is that the unnamed someone is the conductor (in charge of selling tickets), who should have given the driver a “signal” to close the doors when the bus was at capacity.
Grachev’s stories are full of public transportation. On trams, buses, trains, and trolleybuses, people are jostling and crowded. The sensory overload of these tight spaces contrasts with the emotional state of his characters, who are, almost without exception, alienated. Each is searching for a connection beyond the physical and is thus, one could say, in transit. The bus driver observes that the bus is packed, and yet not everyone has made it on. This dynamic of “too much / not enough” is omnipresent in Grachev’s work, which poignantly evokes the heightened isolation of individuals within a collectivized system.
Grachev’s writing is elliptical and fragmentary, and translating it for an American audience was confounded by the chasm between Soviet and American attitudes toward transportation. In Soviet Russia, public transportation was bound up with the collective ethos of socialism. The state placed caps on car ownership, which meant that buying a car was not the social rite of passage that it had become in the U.S. Nearly everyone used public transportation.
I hoped to convey the nuances of the story’s action and atmosphere to American, and likely autocentric, readers while also somehow staying true to its spare telegraphic style and its experimental form. The passage above comes from Grachev’s story “The Cloud,” which narrates a Soviet lathe worker’s mental collapse through a series of fragmented, kaleidoscopic vignettes. Though the story’s protagonist is a model worker typical to socialist realist literature, Grachev’s style more resembles Faulkner, Godard, or Antonioni, experimental artists whose works were newly available during the decadelong cultural thaw that followed Stalin’s death in 1953. Grachev, like many Thaw writers, was caught between socialist realism and more innovative movements, like contemporary Western Modernism, neorealism, and the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. He was motivated by formal experimentation and the expression of truth but ultimately was beholden to state ideology and aesthetic judgments. For Grachev, at least, the Thaw didn’t deliver on its promises of artistic freedom, and whether because of its depictions of the failures of collectivism, its focus on individual subjectivity, or its resistance to conventional literary aesthetics, “The Cloud” and much of Grachev’s work went unpublished until after the Soviet era.
A decade before I began translating Grachev’s work, I spent a year in Saint Petersburg, learning Russian. Coming home from my first day of classes, I got helplessly, pathetically lost. I exited the metro and walked for what seemed like hours through familiar yet unfamiliar markets of dried fish and cheap imported goods. I lived off the Avenue of Enlightenment, a wide boulevard with sparse car traffic, and I walked down a road that resembled it exactly. I turned onto a street that looked like my street and then onto a block of nine-story buildings that looked like my block of nine-story buildings. Time was passing, but I couldn’t tell how quickly—it was mid summer, when it hardly got dark. I followed a young couple into a building that could, I told myself, be my building, and then into an elevator that, really, I knew not to be my elevator. I showed them my address, and soon they were on the phone with my hosts. The niece of my host family came marching across a dewy field of trash and small white flowers to get me. It turned out I’d gotten off the metro too soon. “You’re supposed to just go to the end,” she said.
Growing up in the D.C. suburbs, I was given a car at sixteen and had rarely, if ever, used public transportation. When I moved to Saint Petersburg, I relinquished my carbound autonomy and synced up with the city’s train schedules and bus routes. I gained new communal understandings of space and time by traveling along the city’s intricate network of tunnels, tracks, and wires, which set its rhythms and drew its boundaries. I rode trams, buses, and gypsy cabs and sprinted down the long escalators of the gorgeous and clean Saint Petersburg metro. I loved its inexplicably cheap metal tokens and the vaulted grandeur of its stations. Mosaics and statues gilded its interiors, presenting an entirely different sensory experience than that of the D.C. metro, whose unnerving plush seats and grimy seventies color palette of sunflower and harvest gold could not even be called utilitarian. The Saint Petersburg metro was classical, though it predated the D.C. metro by just two decades, designed to showcase the monumental achievements of the state. Transportation was an intense aesthetic experience and a cultural education since the majority of the city’s residents—from military veterans to slick, pointy-shoed businessmen—used it. The views of the city and its people afforded to me by public transportation were revelatory, though I was often lost.
When I started dating my tutor, a good-natured hipster-rapper, new routes and modes of transportation opened themselves to me. The elektrichka, a suburban commuter train, took us to his parents’ high-rise subdevelopment and to Kronstadt, a quaint naval town on the Gulf of Finland where, away from the city’s roiling traffic of gypsy cabs, black Mercedes-Benzes, marshrutki, and all the other aforementioned types of transport, it was safe and pleasant to ride bikes. The elektrichka was slow-moving and cozy. On its wooden-slat benches, we sipped cans of bubblegum-tasting gin and tonic, licked popsicles, and read tabloids. No one bought tickets because the bribe price, paid to an attendant at the exit turnstiles, was cheaper.
Eventually, I went farther afield to distant cities and neighboring countries. On a train to Krakow, I met a pretty middle-aged Russian woman who had married a cab driver in Poland, where she now lived. She wondered what I was doing in Russia and seemed confused by my answer. “A fellowship?” she said. “People get fellowships to go to France or Italy. Not here.” We were at the border, waiting for the Russian wheels to be changed to fit the Polish tracks. It was the farthest I’d ever felt from home.
What is one to do with such distances in translation? As a translator, my instinct is to keep readers oriented, but this can diminish the thrill of experiencing something truly foreign—some version of what I felt getting lost and finding my way in Saint Petersburg. Foreignization or domestication—the decision to hew closer to the original text and language or to make more concessions to the language and culture of the translation—is a persistent theoretical debate that has little to do with the reality of conveying meaning in a foreign language and context. If you underexplain, as strict foreignization would have it, the reader may put the book down. But if you overexplain, the work ceases to resemble itself, or worse—falls flat.
The Leningrad metro opened in 1955. Although Grachev must have ridden it in his adulthood, his stories are arrested in the city of his youth—his characters stay above ground. He depicts the city just a decade after Hitler’s Blockade, during which trams were described—by Lidiya Ginzburg, among others—as a gathering place for the straggling, starving population, as well as a lighted beacon of their collective task of self-preservation. Transportation tempers alienation in Grachev’s stories, too, but imperfectly. In “The Toothache,” an orphan bares his soul to a military veteran on a train, and the two share a few moments of companionship and mutual understanding. Then, as the train speeds past an apartment building, the orphan imagines the cozy lives inside and suddenly, uncontrollably, recalls every bad thing that has ever happened to him. In “Maria,” a saleswoman tells the story of her son’s death in the war to an inattentive delivery man. Her tone is chatty, but the jarring din of trams and buses outside evokes her hidden anguish. In Grachev’s novella “Adamchik,” a young factory worker takes the bus to work each morning, resting his cheek on the bundled bodies packed close to him. He longs to be a stiliaga—a hipster—and to own a moped. When he finally acquires one, he tears destructively across the city, liberated but more alone than ever.
In Grachev’s stories, cars—an antipopulist form of transportation allowed only to the exceptional few (party officials, outstanding workers) —are fully villainous. In “Car,” a young boy witnesses a road accident in which another child is hit. “It wasn’t the driver, it was the car!” he shouts in confusion when the assembled crowd asks him who was at fault. In one of Grachev’s most confounding stories, “Tomatoes,” the driver of a new Moskvich takes his wife to sell overpriced produce every Sunday near Lake Baikal. He litters, lies around drinking vodka, and, at the end of the story, hits and humiliates her. They get back in the car, which rolls off “bouncing comfortably on its new springs.” One could read, in this descriptive quip, an indictment of petty commerce and individualistic private transport, a jab at the sacrificial woman trope in classic Russian literature, or a satirical send-up of official antimotorization policies. Or perhaps the woman’s eerie forbearance in the face of the man’s abuse is pure sadomasochism, to which the nice powder-blue Moskvich and we readers are perverted spectators. These are a few options, among which the translator thankfully does not have to choose.
Part of the appeal of translation is its start-to-finishness, which, like a metro line (and unlike writing), points to some predictable and foreseeable end. But the line is never so straight as it initially appears: a work’s themes thicken and tangle; imbalances—between languages and between form and content—present themselves, demanding recalibration en route; and it’s ultimately the reader who will assimilate and make sense of the work, which keeps going past the translator’s stop. The translator can tell a reader to “just go to the end,” but it’s only by a series of approximations that the translation is accomplished. Look for a familiar street, then turn on a familiar block. Follow a nice-looking couple and enter a familiar building. Then get in the wrong elevator, and don’t even bother to press the button. It will start and stop going up, but then the doors will open and, incredibly, you’re there.
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