Archive for Sunday, March 11, 1990


March 11, 1990


For people who can read only in English, translations of works from other cultures can broaden their horizons.

But the horizons for scholars and authors who translate those works remain narrow, at least according to a Lawrence couple.

"Translation in this country is not a profession," said Gerald Mikkelson, a professor of Slavic languages at Kansas University. "Usually we do something else; we get teaching or library jobs. Also, translations are not usually considered scholarship."

Mikkelson and his wife, Margaret Winchell, spent 5 years translating the writings of Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin. The resulting volume of stories and essays, "Siberia on Fire," was published late last year by Northern Illinois University Press.

"THE QUALITY of the translations are uniformly high, an impressive achievement when one considers the obstacles involved in rendering Siberian peasant patois into readable American English," wrote John B. Dunlop, a senior fellow at Hoover Institution, in a front-page article in published last December in New York Times Book Review.

For Winchell and Mikkelson, translators must understand the culture of the texts they work on, just to understand what the author wants to say. Metaphors usually don't translate directly into English, and translators must find appropriate expressions to convey the author's meaning as well as the words he or she uses.

"My basic philosophy is that you have to look at the original text and see what the author is saying and why he's saying it," said Winchell, a Slavic librarian.

To produce the translation of "Siberia," the couple worked mostly at their kitchen table, collaborating on what the final text would say. Mikkelson often concentrated on finding the meaning of the words, and Winchell put the words into a form English readers would appreciate.

"THE IDEAL way we're supposed to work is we both translate a passage, and then we compare them and check each other's work line by line," Winchell said.

One of the problems with translating Russian texts into English is the different roots of the two languages. Although both are Indo-European in origin, Russian is a Slavic language with different syntax from the Germanic-influenced English. For example, each verb has many different conjugations, allowing Russian writers to pack phrases with meaning.

"The Russian verbal system is so rich that you can say almost as much in one verb that you need a whole sentence for in English," Mikkelson said.

"You cannot ever get the meaning without many more words," Winchell said.

IN CONVERSATION, Mikkelson often assumes a more scholarly tone, while Winchell seems more emphatic. As an educator, Mikkelson sees great need for bringing texts into English.

"There's great value for students in reading literature in translation," he said. "It gives you a feel for the society. You don't get that in travelogues. It broadens peoples' horizons."

But the problems American translators face include lack of interest from book publishers and recognition from academic and literary circles. In Europe and the Soviet Union, the situation for translators is far different.

"The art of literary translation is more highly developed in Russian and other Soviet republics than it is in the United States," Mikkelson said. "For example, the works of E.L. Doctorow have been translated in Russian so well, so effectively, that they may be a good deal better than the originals."

"IN THE Soviet Union, colleges instruct students in how to translate works. In this country, unless you work for the U.N., you'd be lucky to even take a college course in translation. You can't get a degree in it."

Translating texts from Russian can pose difficulties beyond the language, Winchell and Mikkelson say. In the past, novels written in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s had to be overtly political, and preferably anti-Communist, for translators to take notice. Now, as Soviet censorship disappears, less political works are coming into English.

"We don't even have half the good literature written in the Brezhnev era," Winchell said.

ANOTHER stumbling block is the Soviet bureaucracy. Unlike the United States, a translator can't go directly to an author or independent publisher to negotiate translation rights. Translators must first go to a state agency, which exacts a fee for the privilege.

According to Mikkelson and Winchell, about 80 percent of the fee goes to the agency, and a mere 20 percent goes to the authors. But the authors, such as Rasputin, can't spend the money until they take trips abroad.

"What they do is keep most of the money and give a pittance to the authors," Winchell said.

Rasputin's case was especially difficult. The author lives in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, where Winchell and Mikkelson have visited him frequently. By the late 1970s, Mikkelson said, he wanted to include Rasputin in a writers' exchange between KU and the Soviet writers' union.

"WE STARTED trying to get him here in 1979, but then all hell broke loose (with the invasion of Afghanistan). Then in 1980 he was beaten up and almost killed outside his apartment. It took him a long time to recover. He did come in 1985, and at that time there were only two works of his translated."

And so the couple began to translate Rasputin's works. They found a publisher at Northern Illinois University Press, which only recently began publishing translations. The book has almost sold out its original publication of about 4,000 copies, and Mikkelson said the publisher will soon bring out a second printing.

In the meantime, even if Mikkelson and Winchell don't produce a best-selling translation, they want to bring more Russian authors to light, to enhance understanding of Russian culture in the United States.

"There's a quote from (Russian author) Pushkin from about 1830," Mikkelson said. "It was an aphorism that translates into `Translations are the post horses of enlightenment.' Now by post horses Pushkin meant mail horses, like the Pony Express, carrying messages at high speeds. And I think by enlightenment he meant civilization."

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