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MIHAIL  SHISKIN.   Lost  in Translation

Text: Ekaterina Fadeeva
Photo: Yvonne Bohler

Mihail Shiskin’s literary biography is more reminiscent of the story of the Tower of Babylon. He lives in Switzerland but writes in Russian – his heroes move around from country to country, ignoring language and State barriers, his books are translated into German, French, Italian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Polish and even Chinese. His recent work ‘Venus Hair’ survived the most arduous translation process – it was adapted to the language of the theatre. The play stages at the Petr Fomenko theatrical studio Based on ‘Venus Hair’, ‘The most important thing’ was awarded the Crystal Turandot prize and was nominated for a Golden Mask award. In his interview with DEI, Shishkin evaluates the problems of translating from literary to theatrical formats, globalization in art and emotional Esperanto.

DE I: For their rich vocabulary, musicality, and flexibility of language, your books are often compared to Chekhov, Bunin, Nabokov. From a language point of view, do you think that the theatre today should remain a standard bearer for ‘correct’ Russian?

Mihail:   No, absolutely not, just as literature shouldn’t. Correctness regarding vocabulary is like a vacuum for a writer. The question is what do you call ‘correct’. Do you think that Chekhov or Bunin used ‘correct’ language? Not on your life they didn’t, they created their own world of language. That’s why they sound so modern today.

DE I: Modern language is evolving very fast. Do you think a writer should reflect these passing tendencies?

Mihail:   The spoken tongue is such an alive, such a smart creature, you can hardly keep up with it. And it develops unevenly, forming clots here and there. It either digests dramatic changes in what’s happening, or it freezes when there’s nothing to feed off. Linguistic perestalsis. In the 20s for example, writers tried to absorb the huge linguistic changes that took place after the revolution, which you can compare to what’s happening with Russia now. They tried to pursue the current slang (‘tearing off their trousers’ in the process). The most gifted of them is Zoshenko. Others tried to create their own language, like Platonov. Very recently I tried to read one of my favourite early stories of his – and I couldn’t. Language that was fresh has now gone stale. But Platonov’s prose won’t spoil with time.
Naturally, I try to absorb conversations I hear in Moscow and New York, but I know that it’s not my thing, to chase after these passing trends which already tomorrow will be dead and gone. A writer doesn’t mirror language, he creates it.

DE I: Is it possible to successfully translate a real? Milan Kundera, for example, admitted that he deliberately wrote in French because he knew that the French had good translators, and the Czechs hadn’t.

Mihail:   Languages divide the world as effectively as an Iron Curtain. The same book or film can provoke a varied range of responses, from revelation to the desire to vomit. I remember how surprised I was when a nausea inducing piece of junk about Russia with Omar Sharif in the lead role for an awful lot of people in the West became the definitive image of the homeland of Pasternak. All authors alter in translation, because the readers change. A work in translation always loses out, there is no way of avoiding that. Although my books have received prizes in Switzerland, in France, Italy, even in China. When a Russian writer writes about Rome, it’s unlikely that an Italian reader will discover something new about his own city. But the aim isn’t to write a guide book.

DE I: Maybe the opposite. Julio Cortazar’s stories are, after dozens of years, stronger in translation. The original language of the Argentine streets in the 50s today can’t be understood even by the majority of Spanish readers. There have even been attempts to translate from Spanish to Spanish.

Mihail:   Of course you can translate from obsolete language in modern language. The old Orthodox Bible is translated into new Russian. But to get across the pure meaning without knowing what is in the original Scriptures which is expressed in poetry and is not just a list of objects and concepts. And translating into the language of theatre, completely different laws are invoked. Good direction can breathe life into any text.

DE I: What qualities should a text have to be stageable?

Mihail:   The quality of the text makes no difference. On stage, the process starts right from the very beginning, from emptiness which the creators have to fill. We live in the realization of fantasy created by a creative imagination. The director is responsible for that manufactured world, and whether it comes to life, or doesn’t, on the stage. If he uses someone’s text in creating his world, it makes no differences if it is made of ash. All that is important is whether the director can breathe life into it or not. The greatest texts can be slaughtered on stage and there are numerous examples of such public torture of writers. A real director can stage the most unstageable text in a such a way that the audience will be choked by tears.


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