Onesies and Twosies at the Brooklyn Book Festival

What a beautiful day it was for a festival. It felt celebratory to walk around in the sunshine among the outdoor tables and booths, a sort of street fair of books. Lots of book swag too. The best item I spotted was the One Story onesie. Get it? Onesie! Like the way each issue of One Story contains only a single story. One Story is one of my favorite magazines these days – I discover a lot of new writers to love by reading it. My recent favorite is Nalini Jones’s story “Tiger,” which I liked so much I’m having my students read it.

And I learned by hearing Sergei Dovlatov’s translator Antonina Bouis speak on a panel at Borough Hall that Dovlatov never used two words starting with the same letter in a single sentence, at least in the books of his she translated. This turns out, she said, to be impossible to replicate in translation, though I wonder what Gilbert Adair, the translator of Georges Perec’s lipogram novel A Void, would say to that. But Perec’s work is so much more overtly experimental in form than Dovlatov’s that perhaps the syntactic contortions necessary to pull off such a feat would change the tenor of the books too much. I wonder if this avoidance of alliteration makes Dovlatov stylistically the opposite of Dostoevsky; historian Solomon Volkov, who was also on the panel, remarked on the preponderance of sibilant consonants in Dostoevsky’s work and quipped that translating him is like translating the wind.

Moderator Alla Makeeva-Roylance (filling in for Eugene Ostashevsky) asked Bouis how she went about capturing the cultural, historical, and political context in sentences such as “He was wearing blue jeans made in Poland, just like me.” After all, it’s hard for an American reader to decode all the connotations, in a Soviet context, of Polish denim. Bouis replied quite reasonably that you can decide to make your translation a scholarly edition of the text, providing copious footnotes for every reference, but that she prefers to do without, even though this means that certain nuances will be lost. “You can’t explain everything,” she added, but then also pointed out that readers of old books in their own language might run into the same sorts of problems with not understanding the context for certain images and ideas. “If you keep explaining things, they stop being funny.” And so every translation is a compromise.

This panel on Dovlatov was the only one of the BBF translation-themed panels I was able to attend, but I was very glad I went. Dovlatov’s widow said a few words, and Brooklyn-based Russian-American writer Anya Ulinich spoke beautifully about what Dovlatov’s work had meant to her growing up and as a young writer.

And the best news of the afternoon? Antonina Bouis is at work on a new translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s short novel A Dog’s Heart. I can’t wait.

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