Art Talk with NEA Literature Translation Fellow Katherine E. Young

By Paulette Beete
head shot of writer Katherine E. Young
Katherine E. Young. Photo by Samantha Hancock Collins

While Katherine E. Young currently serves as the Poet Laureate for Arlington, Virginia, her first serious study of poetry was not in English, but in Russian. As Young explained when we spoke on the phone, her university training in the 1980s and 90s in Russian and international affairs led her to work in the then-Soviet Union where, among other things, she spent two years studying Russian poetry with a Moscow professor who spoke no English. While Young eventually earned her poetry MFA stateside, she continues to use her fluency in the Russian language and her immersion in Russian literature in her work as a literary translator. Her translations have appeared in journals such as The Atlanta Review, Notre Dame Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, as well as in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Young has recently been recommended for an NEA Creative Writing Literature Translation grant to support her translation from Russian of a trilogy of novellas, A Colossal Mess, by the Azeri writer Akram Aylisli. Here’s Young in her own words about her journey to working as literary translator, the importance of Aylisli’s work and why she undertook the project, and why she thinks translating a work of literature is similar to working on the New York Times crossword puzzle.

On Becoming a Literary Translator

I was a Russian language major in college, and then I went on to get a degree in international affairs. I was trained as an analyst in what was then Soviet Affairs, but of course, that field didn't last. As part of that training, I spent time as a student and later as a journalist, and as a temporary diplomat in what was then the Soviet Union. Then I went back and lived in Russia for two years in the mid-'90s… I had always been a writer, but that time in the mid-'90s, I spent two years working with a professor at Moscow State who specialized in poetry, and we worked together to give me a broad survey course of Russian poetry…. Even though I had been writing myself all my life, I had never really studied poetry as an art form seriously. The first study I did of [poetry] was entirely in Russian, because she didn't speak any English. I studied poetry very intensively and that had a huge impact on my writing as a poet. I came to working as a translator through this backdoor of having been a poet and having been immersed in Russian poetry. I would say actually that my knowledge of Russian poetry, and how Russian poetry works and the complexities of it, the mechanics of it, is probably a little more extensive than my knowledge of English-language poetry, although I did go back and get an MFA later. I can sometimes quote lines in Russian poetry and I can't quote many lines of English poetry.

On the Challenges of Translating Russian Literature

I look at translating a poem from Russian like some people look at The New York Times crossword puzzle, the hard one. Russian poetry is way more formal than American poetry, even today, although there is free verse poetry in Russian. I'm always aware of the fact that there are things that can be said and done in formal Russian poetry that can't be said and done in American poetry, and can't be translated because it sounds like greeting card verse, even though it's entirely serious poetry in Russian. I'm always playing with that different sensibility, the cultural differences, the nuances of language. I've come up with a practice of translation that takes me a long way away from where I was as a language major. As a language major, you're taught to find as close a correspondence as possible between words in two languages. But as a translator, especially of formal poetry, if I did that, not that I could replicate rhyme schemes, but even if I could, it would sound so awful in English that people would laugh at the poetry

When I turn to prose, I'm generally bringing that same interest in sound, and the tricks of music in the language that we can use in English. One of the great metaphors for translation—it's not mine, I borrowed it from Edith Grossman—is of translation working rather like an orchestra performance. Nobody goes to a performance of a symphony to hear note-for-note what Beethoven wrote. They go to hear how the composer and the players interpret that written notation. I look at what I do as a translator as that interpretation, with all the possibilities for emphasis on rhythm or emphasis on a particular sound or with nuance rather than as if it were even possible to a get a straight note-for-note correlation.

On Akram Aylisli and the Novella Trilogy A Colossal Mess

Akram Aylisli was part of a constellation of writers from republics of the Soviet Union that the Soviets wanted to [promote] to show they were a multinational nation. They would promote people in Azerbaijan, in Georgia, in Uzbekistan as speaking for their peoples and also being representative of the new Soviet writer, who was pan-national. Aylisli had a long and illustrious career in Azerbaijan as playwright, translator, and editor. When Azerbaijan became an independent nation in the early 1990s, he still had a further illustrious career, and actually ended up in the National Assembly.  Because he had all these connections as a Soviet man, as opposed to an Azeri man, he had always published in Russian, and in Russian periodicals, even though most of his original writing is in Azeri.

Aylisli grew up in a village where there was an intermixing of Azeri and Armenian people, and it had suffered as part of the Armenian genocide in 1919. He knew people in his village when he was growing up who had lived through the genocide, witnessed the genocide. The second novella [in his trilogy], Stone Dreams, the one that has received all the publicity, was written in Azeri in approximately 2007-2008. He himself translated Stone Dreams into Russian, and he says that his version in Russian is better than the original in Azeri. But he couldn't publish it in Azerbaijan anywhere…. I have heard that it's the first novel in any Turkic language to admit the Armenian genocide, and it has depictions of the violence in the villages as the Turkish and Azeri forces killed local Armenians. It also has sympathetic Armenian characters in it. He didn't even try to publish it in Azerbaijan. It circulated in, I think, 50 manuscript copies. One of those was eventually sent to friends in Moscow, and they published it there in 2012. [As a result] Aylisli was stripped of all of his Azeri honors. He was stripped of his pension. His wife and son were thrown out of work. His books were burned in public in Azerbaijan. He was burned in effigy. Friends in Russia and elsewhere orchestrated a campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. PEN International and various PEN chapters tried to support him, and tried to generate publicity for him. There was, at one point, a bounty put out if somebody would cut off one of his ears; international pressure caused that bounty to be rescinded.

So the project has a lot of political significance. I think, aside from anything else, it is a humanistic statement about the independence of thought and the rights that we should all have to think and say what we want to think and say. In his own way, Aylisli has been incredibly brave. He’s said to people who've burned his books, "Let them burn all my books, because they have not saved anyone."

On the Challenges and Opportunities of Working with a Living Author

Most of the authors I work with are living. I have some who are extremely careful about what they'll approve. I have one whose English is extremely good, and he reads everything I translate for iambic meter. In other words, da-dum-da-dum-da-dum. And I keep trying to say, "You don't really want to do that in English. You want to have a little variation in that." I mean, that's not poetry [he’s writing], that's prose. But he's very, very conscious that if he's going to be reading my translations somewhere aloud, he wants them to sound a certain way. I've had people work with me at that level, at the level of rhythm. I've had people—and this, I think is a problem in general for translators—I've had people who wanted to fight about prepositions, which is an uncomfortable thing for me as a poet and a native English speaker. I really don't want to spend the time to explain to you—particularly if I have to explain it in another language—why I can't use "at" at the place you want me to use "at." In some senses working with a living author can be fraught, but it's also joyous.

I like having somebody I can go to and say, "Is this what you meant?" It’s important to have as many sources of information as you can in thinking about a translation because you are representing somebody else, and they're putting an enormous amount of trust in you to do it right. For the last couple of years, I've been going to various translation conferences, and talking about the ethics of translation: What do we owe our authors? How do we decide whether we're doing it right? How can we be sure that we're translating all the purposes of the author and that we're capturing all of the nuances of what's being said? Specifically, when you're talking about a politically sensitive text, you want to be extremely careful that you're not exposing your author to repercussions that you could have avoided. Several of my poets have been writing material that is in either a veiled or open way critical of Russian military activities in Ukraine. I worry always about when I translate this material and take it out of the context in which they've written it—is it in some way a danger to them to have it published and read in the West?

On Knowing the Work is “Finished”

I think for all of us [as literary translators], you hope that when [the work is] published it's done. But very often I found that when it's published, and I look at it one more time, I'm like, "Oh, no! I could have done it differently here!" Russian is an inflectedlanguage, that is, the words change their shape and their form and their endings depending on what role they're playing grammatically in the sentence. One thing that we have in English is we have a really straightforward syntax. You pretty much have to put the words in a certain order, right? But in Russian, because the form of the word changes depending on whether it's a direct object, or a subject, or the object of a certain kind of preposition versus the object of a different kind of preposition, there are all these clues in the form of the word, so the syntax doesn't have to be so rigid as it is in English, which is both wonderful and terrible because the sounds and the syntax and the words are so beautiful in Russian. They're so plastic, and you can play with them so much. To bring them into English, you have to make sure that the subject/verb/object order is acceptable to English ears. It’s a much more restrictive sort of straightjacket into which you have to put the words to make them make sense in English. Especially in poetry, you're trying to make some facsimile of music in terms of rhyme, or at least internal rhyme, or, something in terms of rhythm to indicate that it's poetry. That’s why it's The New York Times crossword puzzle, right? The clues are there, but you have to keep shifting your interpretation until you get it right, and I don't know that there is a finish line for that.

Why Literary Translation Matters, Especially for Women’s Voices

August is Women in Translation Month; it's a project that was developed by a woman named Meytal Radzinski four or five years ago. It was originally a Twitter event, and now it's become a little bit more mainstream. The numbers for women writers, in general, that is women writing in English, published in English, are low—something like 38 percent of what's published in America is written by women, which is grossly imbalanced. But for translation, it's even worse…. It's roughly 25 percent of everything that is published in translation, which is only roughly three percent of what’s published in general. We are missing out on this vast constellation of voices in the world beyond our borders, and in languages beyond English that's just never translated. That imbalance is so huge and so culturally blinding for us…. I guess if there were one message I would want to send out to the world, it is advocate for, buy, support translations of women writers, because I feel really strongly that I want to hear those voices of all the women writing in the world in the languages that I don't know.

Also, last year, we saw the first publication ever of a novel from Madagascar. No one had ever published one. I mean, there are nations and whole languages we're not hearing from. The world is vast and what we publish is so small, and I think we tend to get so excited about what we produce as American literature, that we are blinded to what's going on in the world out there, and it's fascinating.

Like this interview? Check out our Art Talk with literary translator David Shook. Visit the NEA News Room to read more about the 23 new Literature Translation Fellows