Friday, December 1, 2017

What's That Smell?

Kebabs, a.k.a. shashlyk / Image courtesy of Давай сходим!

For a few years now, the Russian contingent of the American Literary Translators Association has organized a workshop for translators working in either direction with our two languages: Russian and English. The discussions at these workshops are completely fascinating and have become – for me – one of the highlights of the ALTA conference. In a sense, those discussions amount to a kind of crowdsourcing, with seasoned and novice translators alike all pitching in their ideas to solve problems. Anyone can bring a handout with translation conundrums, and all who attend are welcome to take part in the conversation.

This year, the theme of the workshop – organized by Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Annie Fisher – was “Only in Russia,” in which our aim was to “discuss translating concepts, objects, or practices that are specific to Russophone culture (or that have no easily identifiable equivalent in Anglophone culture).” My own approach was to highlight a handful of completely mundane but ubiquitous words and phrases that I took from poems by Boris Slutsky, Irina Yevsa, and Linor Goralik. Each of my examples involved objects or concepts, especially from the Soviet period, that any native speaker of Russian would instantly understand but that translators might find tricky to capture in English.

For instance, nearly every Soviet kid strove to become an «октябрёнок», but how does one import into English the whole context of Young Pioneers and their age gradations? (My solution: the kid became a “Pioneer Cub,” on the model of the Boy Scouts and their younger comrades, the Cub Scouts.)

And what to do with a poem that has its characters playing «в города»? Should the word game even be mentioned? Won’t it distract from the action of the poem? (My solution: they played “I Spy” instead.)

But my prime example – which, in the event, we didn’t have time to discuss – was something I brought in to demonstrate what I deemed untranslatable: the opening lines of a book by Timur Kibirov in which he catalogs the characteristic odors of his Soviet life. How can you translate scent, that most immediately specific, memory-bound, and place-based of the senses? I thought it couldn't be done. I didn’t even want to bother trying.

But my ALTA colleagues weren’t so willing to let me off the hook. During a coffee break after the workshop, I showed a few of them the “untranslatable” lines, and they let me know that nothing should be shared with the group that the translator didn’t intend to translate. To do so would be unsportsmanlike. So I had to tackle it. In particular, I remember talking with them about shashlyk, those skewered chunks of grilled meat that I’m sure some of my colleagues will think I’ve bungled in the final line below. We also spoke about that wet leaf in line 6 that sticks to you when you’ve left the bathhouse after a proper whacking with a bundle of birch branches. (God, I miss Russia…)

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that not everything comes across in my translation. That birch leaf doesn’t stick to us English speakers the way it does to Russians. But enough of it remains to give us a sense of the scents, so to speak. We may never have smelled these uniquely Soviet smells, but we can supplement them with our own olfactory memories. It works, I think:

Preface to the collection Through Tears of Farewell (1987)
   Timur Kibirov

My work smells just like kerosene,
like kerosene stoves, like going back home.
It smells like Chypre, like a clean-shaven man,
and like a woman in Red Moscow perfume
   (the one in the bottle with the tassel on top),
   it smells like birch leaves and soap in the banya,
   like gravy and side dishes at a local canteen,
   like fresh-baked bread at the shop on the corner.
Do you smell that? Do you? By God, I sure do,
and you’ll never catch me plugging my nose. 
It smells like Crimea’s wine-dark sea,
like Siberian rivers and cheap Russian smokes.
   It smells like washtubs, detergent, and laundry,
   like kebabs on the grill at a Moscow park...

The poem continues for many more lines, but now that I’ve got a good start on it, by golly, I might just finish the damn thing! Thanks, Altans.

*     *     *

Вступление в книгу Сквозь прощальные слезы (1987)
   Тимур Кибиров

Пахнет дело мое керосином,
Керосинкой, сторонкой родной,
Пахнет "Шипром", как бритый мужчина,
И как женщина, — "Красной Москвой"
   (Той, на крышечке с кисточкой), мылом,
   Банным мылом да банным листом,
   Общепитской подливкой, гарниром,
   Пахнет булочной там, за углом.
Чуешь, чуешь, чем пахнет? — Я чую,
Чую, Господи, нос не зажму —
"Беломором", Сучаном, Вилюем,
Домом отдыха в синем Крыму!
   Пахнет вываркой, стиркою, синькой;
   И на ВДНХ шашлыком...


  1. I hope you do finish it, Jamie, and I'm glad the workshop helped out. I think you've done a nice job with the domestication here... something like ВДНХ just is not going to work in an English-language translation! (And I'm glad you didn't use "bakery" for the bread... I think that came up in the workshop, didn't it?) Onward!

  2. Wow, I had totally forgotten about the "булочная" conversation at the workshop. No, that wasn't my translation; it was someone else's. I'm glad my instincts coincided with the advice you gave to whoever that was!

    1. That's funny! I don't remember who else had a bread store... memories of ALTA do tend to blur very fast. Anyway, I'm looking forward to more of your poem.