Robert Chandler
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Robert Chandler translator of
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
the interview

The poet Robert Chandler is the translator of Pushkin's highly vaunted miniature Dubrovsky and the brilliant melodrama Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov (both Hesperus). Robert's translations of Sappho and Apollinaire are published by 'Everyman's Poetry' and his translations of Russian prose include Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate and several volumes by Andrey Platonov. He lives with his wife in West London and travels now and again to Russia, Central Asia and Iran; during the last few years he has been learning Persian. He kindly answers a few of our questions ...

Mark Thwaite  Edith Grossman said in the introduction to her wonderfully fluid new translation of Don Quixote that getting the right voice was the hardest part of the translator's job (rather than any lexical difficulties). Would you agree with her?

Robert Chandler  "Yes, certainly. Margaret Jull Costa, another fine translator from Spanish and Portuguese, has written, 'As all translators know, solving knotty problems such as puns and idioms is always the lesser part of the work. The greater part is finding the right tone and the right style, but the decisions taken to achieve this are far less easy to exemplify because they tend to be less conscious, more instinctive, and happen over a longer period of time.'"

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

MT  You mention in your introduction to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk some of the particular difficulties of translating Leskov (notably his complex and multi-layered language). How did you cope with those challenges?

RC  "As always - by reading passages out loud again and again, both to myself and to my wife, and by inviting comments before publication from as many readers as possible. Gradually this enables us to eliminate phrases that are dull, false, unintentionally ambiguous, or 'out of voice'."

MT  What interested you in Leskov? How would you rate him alongside, say, Pushkin and Platonov (who you have also translated)?

RC  "The three nineteenth century Russian writers who mean most to me are Pushkin, Chekhov and Leskov. I love Pushkin and Chekhov for their clarity; I love Leskov's prose for its richness. One scholar has written that for Leskov 'language was not simply a medium of communication, but a potential art object in its own right, something to be played with, sculpted into interesting shapes.' And the richness of Leskov's language reflects his deep knowledge of all strata of Russian society - not only the aristocracy and the intelligentsia but also the peasantry, the merchant class and the Church."


MT  Is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a particular favourite of yours?

RC  "It is one of several favourites. I am including a fine American translation of his story The Steel Flea in my Penguin Classics Book of Russian Short Stories (to be published in 2005). I hope one day to translate Leskov's 'The Enchanted Wanderer' for Hesperus."

MT  What is next for you? More poetry, more translations? More Leskov?

RC  "I am now translating two novels for Harvill: The Railway, by the contemporary Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov; and Chevengur, by Andrey Platonov, the greatest Russian writer of the last century. Chevengur is the name of an imaginary town in the depths of Central Russia where a group of idealistic Bolsheviks, impatient with talk of 'transitional steps towards Communism', attempt (with catastrophic results) to bring about Communism there and then. I also hope to translate Chekhov's 'The Steppe' for Hesperus."

MT  What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer? What are you reading now?

RC  "Dante, Sappho and Hafez are my favourite poets; Platonov is my favourite prose-writer. Recently I have been learning by heart a number of poems by W.B.Yeats. I adore Penelope Fitzgerald's novels and have just been reviewing A House of Air, a collection of her literary criticism and other articles. I look forward to reading Michael Longley's latest collection of poems Snow Water."

Snow Water

MT  What book do you wish you had written?

RC  "The poems I have not yet written."

MT  Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer!?

RC  "To read out loud to other people - both their own work-in-progress and their favourite classics."

MT  Anything else you'd like to say?

RC  "That I enjoy translating more and more as the years go by. I know no better way really to get to know a writer. Once, talking to an acclaimed French translator of Shakespeare, I surprised myself by feeling a pang of envy. I felt that I would never know Shakespeare as deeply and intimately as he did. No doubt I would feel differently if I were an actor.

The other reason why my work feels increasingly rewarding is that I collaborate more and more - with my wife, and with other writers, translators and scholars. This has helped me to widen my range of style and vocabulary, it has deepened my understanding of the writers I translate and it has led to some close friendships.

I am grateful to have had the chance to work for both Hesperus and Harvill, with editors who have a fine understanding of the process of translation. My only regret is that Russian literature is somewhat out of fashion at the moment. Most contemporary Russian writers look on Andrey Platonov as the equal of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Chekhov. The four volumes of his work that I have co-translated for Harvill - The Foundation Pit, The Return, Happy Moscow and Soul - have all received excellent reviews. Platonov, nevertheless, remains surprisingly little known in the English-speaking world. This will change."

MT  Thank you so much for your time Robert.

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