Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guest Post by Olga Zilberbourg: Bilingual Experience

One of the ironies of my nascent writing career has been that, while I write most of my fiction in English, my publications are primarily in Russian. In the United States, my stories have appeared in a score of online magazines with various levels of affinity toward zombies, vampires, and the preternatural—even though I’m pretty sure I’ve never intentionally written genre fiction. In Russia, my second collection of short stories is scheduled to come out in September from a well-established publisher of literary fiction. The way it goes is usually like this: I write a story, I send it off to family and friends for questions and comments, and the very next morning I receive responses from St. Petersburg. From my mother: “I didn’t understand anything!” and “This is great, but I didn’t understand the ending. Why don’t you translate it to Russian?”—from my father.

I tell them I have no time to translate. I have too many ideas for new stories; for every story I translate, I could write three new ones. My Russian is not that great any more, my grammar is tenuous at best, and my vocabulary is imprecise and dictionary-dependent. I live in the US, I write in English, and wouldn’t my time be better spent focusing on just one language? I should dedicate some time to studying English-language poetry, for example. I read a lot of fiction, but English-language poetry has been a huge blind spot in my education. To this day, the names of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens run together in my head because, well, don’t they sound similar? If I attempt to write anything in English, I really should crack the covers of those anthologies.

My parents don’t argue, they know better than to pitch their logic against mine. Instead, they go to my brother or to one of their friends who know English okay and are interested enough in my work to spare the time. The next day or a day after (things always seem to move very fast in St. Petersburg), they email me the result with their comments: “I still don’t understand what happened to the main character. Does she hate her daughter or love her?” I look at the attachment. Their translators are competent enough to avoid silly mistakes like translating “mystery” as “mystics” or “public company” as “non-governmentally owned.” No, no, the gist of it is usually all there. But it doesn’t sound like me—neither like I imagine I sound when I write English nor when I write Russian. And when I reread the story, now completely detached from it, I start to wonder: what is going on with that central character? Why can’t the author decide whether the main character loves or hates her daughter?

Even if writing in Russian has become increasingly difficult for me in the 13+ years since I’ve lived in the US, I still remain a competent reader in Russian. Seeing my stories translated into Russian provides the double distance, not only making them less personal—guaranteeing the critical distance so crucial during the revision process—but also making the plot more transparent and allowing me to examine the logic of the narrative and of the characters’ interrelationships with each other. From this point on, the real work begins: retranslating the story in my own voice, revising the ending, the beginning and the middle, then going back to the ending again and making sure it still works. Then, I go back to family and friends, and look for a competent editor to look over the latest draft and to clean it of all the unnecessary prepositions, transform the dependent clauses into adverbial or adjectival phrases that sound more native to Russian.

This process leaves me with a book to be published in Russian, and a bunch of first drafts in English. What I really should do now is go back to the English originals and compare them to the Russian revisions, and to see how many changes I can transpose to the English versions. I haven’t done this work for most of the pieces yet—there are always new stories to be written, but once I do, I can probably start thinking in terms of the English-language collection as well. It turns out that my parents are excellent managers: they are able to get me to stretch my time much thinner and use it more efficiently than when I’m working on my own, without supervision. But I’m also glad they don’t read English very well, because if they did, I never could’ve felt so free writing about them.

Olga Zilberbourg

I am a fiction writer and editor based somewhere between San Francisco, California and St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2006, Neva Press published my Russian-language collection of short stories, "Кофе-Inn." Since then, I have been working primarily in English, and this year my stories are slated to appear in Narrative Magazine, Alligator Juniper, and J Journal. My second collection of stories in Russian will be available from St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press in September. I am a regular participant of the San Francisco Writers Workshop with Tamim Ansary, and this summer I'll be attending Tin House Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon.

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