Guest Interview: Translator Marian Schwartz on Playing a Part

Marian Schwartz

By Avery Fischer Udagawa
For Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

Marian Schwartz is a master translator of Russian literature into English. Active in PEN and past president of the American Literary Translators Association, she has translated more than seventy books including the bestseller The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky and a re-translation of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Recently she has added to her oeuvre the YA novel Playing a Part by Daria Wilke, edited by Emily Clement and published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. Clement discovered the title by reading an article in The Atlantic, which has since been expanded upon by Publishing Perspectives.

Schwartz emailed with me for Cynsations from her home office in Austin, Texas.

Thank you for accepting this interview. How did you develop and cultivate your love of Russian?

First, I fell for the literature. In high school in the 1960s I studied Chekhov’s play “The Seagull,” which has remained one of my favorites, and was also obsessed with the dark side of human nature, always drawn to books about concentration camps, for instance.

But I was also a budding linguist, and once I started Russian at Harvard, I was already farther gone than even I knew.

What led to becoming such a prolific literary translator?

After graduate school I worked in publishing in New York. During those two years in house I learned how to copyedit and translated and published my first book. By then it was clear that I would not fare well in an office environment, so I went freelance, paying the bills by copyediting in the beginning. It’s much easier to be as prolific as I’ve been if you spend the entire day translating.

Playing a Part unfolds in a Moscow “combined theater,” which features both traditional puppetry and a company of actors. The main character, Grisha, has grown up here, and to him the theater is nearly a person—one who blinks, squints, smells, sighs, and even laughs. It was wonderful to meet this theater through your translation!

Thank you!

This novel spotlights traditional puppets, especially the Jester in a version of Cinderella. Is the lexicon of puppets embedded in everyday Russian, or did you have to learn from scratch about gesso and leg yokes, ruches and chiton, controllers and crossbars?

I knew nothing about the technical aspect of puppets when I began this project, but that’s one of the perks of being a translator: the research required to make a translation correct and complete. It’s easy to get (happily) lost learning about a new field. I read books about puppetmaking and consulted with puppeteers. I did extensive Internet image searches. There are books that require no research at all, but they’re very rare.

How did you find it rendering this novel in present tense, with jumps in voice between the first and second person? (“My heart thuds to my feet, which are suddenly heavy and weak. You want to go somewhere, but can’t.”) Is this common in Russian storytelling?

The “you want to” construction is one way English renders impersonal constructions. An alternative would be to say, “one wants to”—but that would give the text the wrong tone in this case. Russian narratives treat tenses quite differently than English-languages stories do, so tense is an important question to be decided for each text. In this case, I wanted the immediacy of the present tense for the basic story line and used the past tense for events recounted that occurred prior to the main action.

Did you linger over how to convey Russian names and nicknames? (Filipp/Filka, Lyolik/Lyonechka, Anton/Tokha.)

Russian has an extensive system of nicknaming that has to be conveyed differently in English. The English reader doesn’t know what the difference is between “Sasha” and “Sashenka,” for example. Both are nicknames, and a Russian reader knows that “Sashenka” is more pointedly affectionate, but if it’s translated that way, the English reader loses that information. To render this nuance, the translator needs to modify “Sasha”—“dear Sasha,” “my Sasha”—or demonstrate the implied affection in some other way. The possibilities are limitless.

So the emotions associated with nicknames can and should be conveyed to the English-language reader without introducing the confusion wrought by having multiple names for the same character.

How would you describe your process of translating this book?

My translating process is essentially the same, no matter what I’m translating and involves four stages: the “inspirational” stage, when I write down every idea that pops into my mind; a cross-check, when I make sure I’ve understood and rendered everything “correctly,” compile my queries, and find answers to them; a third stage, when I set the Russian aside and focus on the English; and a fourth stage, when I ask someone to read the translation to me out loud while I follow along with the original. For some books, that means a total of four passes, but some books require more than one pass at each stage.

The character Grisha in Playing a Part is probably gay, and he admires the actor Sam who is gay—and emigrating to Holland, due to lack of acceptance. Grisha’s grandfather voices this lack of acceptance, calling homosexuality a misguided choice, “popular with you theater people.” The grandfather’s rejection of gays, actors, and even a tomboy teen girl named Sasha is so complete as to sometimes seem absurd. Did he prove tricky to render?

Unfortunately, his attitude is all too common in Russia. I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate this worldview.

I love a scene in the novel where Grisha and Sasha take handstand lessons, acting like children again—“Like when you just lived without thinking whether you were one way or another.” Did you find this to be a central scene as well?

I agree. This scene was a delight, and I particularly recall it rolling it off my keys and onto the screen. There was something true and transcendent about that moment in time that came out directly in English.

I understand that this book has been restricted to adult sections of bookstores in Russia, though to me it reads like a book for tweens. Do you know how the response has been among Russian-language readers?

I asked Wilke the same question, and she wrote: “While we were preparing to publish, I made friends with the children from Children-404 (an Internet project for homosexual teenagers that helps children who have become aware of their own homosexuality with consultations, advice, and so forth. The police have brought charges against the project many times and they’ve been taken to court to be shut down, but so far, thank goodness, none of this has come to pass), and they made the book the talisman of their movement. Later, they arranged a philanthropic action, buying up copies and sending them to children in outlying regions who needed the book but had no opportunity to buy it.”

What can you tell us about the author, Daria Wilke? Did you and she collaborate?

Wilke was very generous about answering my questions and clarifying various points, but she and I have never met. I was approached to translate the book by the publisher.

You have spoken up about rights for translators, supporting the PEN America model contract for literary translators, for example. Can you give us some background on translator rights, and explain how translators can provide more access to world literature?

Translator rights are based on the notion that the translation is written by the translator, not the author or publisher, and, therefore, the translator has a moral claim on the copyright to that English-language work.

Translators themselves are only able to provide more access to literature for works that are in the public domain, because translation rights are secondary to the overarching right to publish a work in a given language. So, for example, if Playing a Part were in the public domain—which it most emphatically isn’t!—I could seek a publisher for my translation and help get it distributed to more children. In practice, this is a rare situation.

In a way, your work reminds me of Grisha’s quiet choice to be himself in Playing a Part. “In life, as onstage, if you do nothing, then nothing happens.” What are some “somethings” you recommend translators do to increase the amount of world literature available in English?

Translators have two approaches available to them. First, they can choose books that are more likely to resonate with English-language readers and then translate them very very well. Second, they can draw attention to their own and others’ translations by writing reviews, for example, or giving interviews, keeping a blog, participating in readings and other literary events, doing outreach to schools—pretty much the same avenues for publicity open to all writers.

Translators tend to be introspective and can be shy of social media and what they see as self-promotion in general. My solution to this temperamental dilemma is to conceive of the effort as an act in support of the author and the book.

Avery Fischer Udagawa

Do you plan to translate any more titles for teen, tween, or younger readers?

I already have (when I have the details you’ll be the first to know!) and am now considering yet another. Both books were written for the tween reader, much the same audience as for Playing a Part.

Cynsational Notes

Marian Schwartz maintains a website and contributes to Words Without Borders and Subtropics, among many other publications.

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. She translated the historical middle grade novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani.

Guest Post: Candace Fleming on The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia

By Candace Fleming
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I first read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra (Atheneum, 1967) the summer between my seventh and eighth grade year after pulling it off my mother’s bookshelf.

“You’re not going to like that,” she warned. “It’s pretty dense history.”

She was right. It was dense, but I loved it! Imperial Russia (and its demise) intrigued me. I was hooked!

And that sense of curiosity has stuck with me over the years. I’ve read dozens of books on the topic. I’ve watched documentaries and gone to museum exhibits. And I can recite – seriously – whole passages from Boris Pasternak‘s Dr. Zhivago (1957).

But I’d never considered writing about the Romanovs until five years ago. That’s when students in middle schools – mostly girls – suddenly started asking if I knew anything about Anastasia Romanov.

I would visit a school and inevitably during the question-and-answer period of my presentation a hand would wave wildly in the air. No matter that I’d come to talk about Eleanor Roosevelt or Mary Lincoln. Time and again I found myself talking about Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter.

Why the sudden interest in Anastasia?

I finally found answer. Those students had seen the 1997 animated movie, “Anastasia,” and realized it was based on a nugget of truth.

But what was that truth? They longed to know. And they hoped I could tell them.

Sadly, in the little time allotted, I really couldn’t… not enough anyway. And so I began to conceive of a book for them, one that would reveal the truth about Russia’s last imperial family.

It’s a story as big as the country itself – compelling, heartbreaking and, at times, downright weird.

Imagine this: The Russian royal family is living a fairy-tale existence. The richest man on the planet, Tsar Nicholas II owns one-sixth of the world’s land, thirty palaces, gold and silver mines, five yachts, an endless collection of priceless painting and sculpture, two private trains, countless horses, carriage and cars, and vaults overflowing with precious jewels. The Romanovs have it all!

But Nicholas is a man of limited political ability. He’s simply not suited to rule Russia. And his wife, Alexandra, is held spellbound by a charismatic, self-proclaimed holy man named Rasputin. She believes Rasputin can save her hemophiliac son, Alexei, from bleeding to death. Desperate, she will do anything – anything – including handing over the reins of power to the charlatan.

Bust of Nicholas which sits on Candace’s desk

Meanwhile, in the palace there also live four, beautiful grand duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia. But they are kept isolated from the world by their paranoid and overprotective parents. They don’t attend balls or banquets. They don’t have any friends their own age, or suitors, as they grow older. The have only each other. Living in this bubble stunts them emotionally.

Even at age twenty, Olga giggles like a schoolgirl and blushes when she sees an onscreen kiss. And with all this craziness going on inside the palace gates, no one is paying any attention to the dark clouds that are gathering outside them.

Starving, war-weary Russians are tired of Nicholas and Alexandra’s inept rule. They revolt, and the Romanov’s fairy tales lives come crashing down, leading to ninety days in captivity… a horrific and bloody mass murder… hidden bodies and rumors of escaped princesses. Riveting, yes?

And demanding. Every word of my telling had to absolutely true. Those middle-schoolers deserved it. And so I plowed into research, following four paths of inquiry.

The first path was primary research. After all, the heart of all research is the firsthand accounts and eyewitness testimonies of those who lived through an historical event. And so I read reminiscences written by the children’s’ tutors, by Alexandra’s ladies-in-waiting and by Nicholas’ courtiers. I delved into the royal family’s letters and diaries and other personal papers. I read Yakov Yurovsky’s chilling account of the murders; statements from the guards; depositions from the priests and cleaning women who visited the Romanovs in their last hours. All of it was so personal, so intimate.

If you think about it, primary research really is the height of nosiness…and probably the reason I love it so much. I get to be part detective, piecing together testimony from all that conflicting testimony; part gossip, reporting on all the juicy details I uncover.

My second path? Secondary source material. There are hundreds of books about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution (although almost none for young readers). Dozens of scholars have made the rigorous examination of Russia’s past their life’s work. They’ve written insightful, enlightening histories. I read dozens of these.

For months every night I curled up with books with titles like The Russian Revolution of February 1917 or The Fall of the Romanovs. There’s no denying that my book stands on the shoulders of these works.

My third research path led to experts – scholars, historians, and other writers. Experts, I’ve learned, are incredibly generous.

All my nonfiction titles have been immeasurably improved by their time and effort. But no one was more helpful than Dr. Mark D. Steinberg, professor or Russian, East European and Eurasian studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

 In the course of my own research, I’d come to rely on Dr. Steinberg’s work – his accessible histories of Russia, his impeccable translations of documents recently released from the Russian archives, his re-examination of Nicholas’ leadership abilities, his new and brilliant scholarship on Lenin. Can you tell I’m a fan?

So as the first draft of the book neared completion I approached him tentatively. More than anything, I wanted him to read what I’d written. I wanted his opinion and knowledge. I wrote him, explaining my purpose and my readership. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped he’d answer.

He did…enthusiastically. Over the course of the next six months, he read my draft, made suggestions, pointed out errors, suggested more appropriate source material and forced me to look at the evidence in different ways. He sent along books and articles he believed would help in my work. He re-read portions of the book I’d reworked based on his comments, and patiently answered what must have felt like a tireless stream of questions throughout the entire publication process. That’s generosity!

Last, but certainly not least, my fourth path took me traveling. It’s important, I think, to visit the places where the story happened. Landscapes speak and houses hold memories and secrets. This was especially true when writing The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (Schwartz and Wade, 2014).

Not only was visiting Russia the best part of the research process, but it also contributed volumes to my understanding of the story. Just walking around and feeling St. Petersburg’s air brought the family closer to me. At Tsarskoe Selo, I wandered down shaded lands and through lush gardens.

I didn’t just learn how the place looked. I discovered how fragrant the lilacs are after a rain shower, and how the ornamental bridge creaks when you cross it. I discovered how vast and empty the place is. It didn’t feel lived in. And I suddenly imagined that’s how the place must have felt to Alexandra. It was all so grand, but so lonely. No wonder she searched for something more intimate. For the first time I understood her choice to hide her family away in a set of rooms in the small Alexander Palace. I understood her. No historical document could have given me that.

Candace in front of the children’s playhouse at Tsarskoe Sel

Wandering through the family’s private quarters within the Alexandra Palace also informed the book. I expected to see small rooms furnished in ordinary – some eyewitness said “tasteless” – décor. The place was described in numerous primary sources – it’s hideous wallpaper, it’s horrible lilac color, its icon-cluttered bedroom walls.

So I wasn’t prepared for how homey the space was. These were rooms people lived in. None of it felt royal. It was a country house, rather than a palace.

And again, I couldn’t fault Alexandra for her choice. She’d created a nest for her family, away from the prying eyes of the world. What mother doesn’t want to do that? In fact, for the first time I began to admire – just a tiny bit – her decision to turn her back on those royal trappings.

I’d walked through her rooms at the Winter Palace earlier – the place she abandoned for Tsarskoe Selo – and they’d been so gorgeous, so regal, so cold. I began to see why she wanted her family to be here instead of there. And it made me rethink those primary accounts I’d read earlier.

All had criticized her choice. They called her rooms tasteless because she didn’t want to live between marble walls. They called her selfish for removing her family to country. They called her crazy for choosing a simpler life.

Teaching Ideas

I’d bought into their criticism until I saw the Romanov’s home. But
now I was questioning those eyewitnesses. Alexandra was growing more
nuanced…more complex… more human.

Oh, and there is one
last, important discovery from that trip to the Alexander Palace. In
none of my sources had anyone mentioned how close the palace sat to the
front gate. I’d assumed it was somewhere in the middle of the park,
away from prying eyes. Not so.

The tall, main gate with its golden, double headed eagle opens directly onto the palace’s circular driveway. Every day the family could look through its iron grillwork to the town of Tsarskoe Selo just on the other side. It gave me pause.

The family was so close to its people. They were right there, just on the other side of the gate. The Romanovs could look out their windows and see them. They could hear their people’s voices from the palace balcony. They could smell their cooking and their livestock. They really weren’t as physically removed from the people as sources led me to believe.

It gave me pause.

Why, I wondered, didn’t the Romanovs feel more attachment to their subjects?

The question led me down entirely new paths of thought. And it eventually led to the book’s inclusion of first-hand worker and peasant accounts under the title, “Beyond the Palace Gates.”

The result? Five years later, I can say I’ve offered up my answers to those middle-schoolers’ questions. Is it the royal fairy tale most of them imagined? Probably not, but it’s definitely the truth. And really, isn’t that what they wanted all along?

Candace’s pets — Oreo, Oliver and Oxford