Odessa on my Mind

A Multi-Cultural Adventure Trip
by Astrid Arz, the German translator of
Moonlight in Odessa

On first reading Janet Skeslien Charles’ Moonlight in Odessa, I was fascinated by the humorous insight into Ukrainian cultural peculiarities and by the clash of cultures when East meets West. To illustrate this, here’s just one sentence containing in my view the essence of Eastern Europe post-perestroika:

The third computer technician I’d hired walked in wearing Ukrainian cool circa 1996 – carefully ironed jeans that came up past his navel and a brown leather jacket – and introduced himself with the easy smile of a man who still lived with his mother.

Many of us have a certain image of Russian or Polish women overdosing high-heels and make-up. But what about young Eastern European males? This sentence catches a common first impression: carefully ironed clothes, every hair in place, a mother’s well-protected son trying very hard to imitate a coveted Western lifestyle known second-hand from TV and movies. Meanwhile, Western counterparts cultivate a look of intentional devil-may-care and shabbiness. In our Ukrainian main character Daria’s words when entering the golden West, the US:

The young people wore their jeans low on their hips – underpants and folds of flesh visible. How odd that in the richest country in the world, people looked so poor and wore such ill-fitting clothing.

It’s snap-shots like these that can get me hooked on a novel to be translated. But what follows is hard day-to-day work and with it, all the troubles, toils, tribulations and thrills of the trade.

My first challenge was the title: Moonlight in Odessa refers not only to romance, but mainly to Daria’s moonlighting at a matchmaking agency. For working a second job on the sly, we don’t say “moon-lighting” in German, but “schwarz arbeiten” (black work). So at the beginning of chapter 4:

Moonlight. I love this word. So romantic. There is a hint of secrecy, of deeds done at night when no one can see. I love its transformation from noun to verb. To moonlight: to work a second job on the sly.

I had to smuggle in some German expressions to create a connection between moonlight in the title (“Der Mond über Odessa”) and black work. Luckily, from secrecy and “deeds done at night” it wasn’t very far to darkness, blackness and “Schwarzarbeit”.

My next big challenge was the name of the matchmaking agency: Soviet Unions. In German, the word “union” implies mainly a political union, in any case a group of people or countries, but not, as in English, the union of two bodies and souls, marriage. For this, we say “Bund” (Bund der Ehe or Ehebund), also with a second, political meaning: Bundesrepublik, Staatenbund, but, mind you, without plural. While some (former East-)German soccer teams are called “Union”, this wouldn’t do as name for a matchmaking agency. So I settled on “Ostglück”, Eastern Bliss, for its similarity to “Ostblock”, Eastern Bloc.

Another difficult decision was whether to keep Daria’s irregular verbs in English or to translate them. Since the author didn’t pick just any verbs at random but used their meaning as well – for example, catch – caught – caught in a situation where Daria is afraid she might be watched, I translated them. Not all German readers can be expected to know English verbs, especially not older ones or those who grew up in Eastern Germany with Russian instead of English as their first language at school. Daria explains about her obsession with English words and her irregular verbs are printed in italics, so readers will understand they were originally in English. Sometimes I had to chose other verbs to keep them irregular: catch –caught – caught in the sense of catching someone at something is regular in German (erwischen – erwischt – erwischt, ertappen – ertappt – ertappt), but in the sense of catching or arresting someone irregular: fangen – fing – gefangen.

Whenever Daria, whose pride in her hometown leads her to declare Odessa’s opera house as the world’s third beautiful, no matter where the number one and two might be located – Venice and Prague, or was it Sidney and Timbuktu? – announces “as we say” or “that’s what we say in Odessa”, we learn an Odessan proverb, idiom or saying. Interestingly enough, some of those seem to be closer related to German than to English; historically and topographically, this can be explained by Austrian-Hungarian origins. “An offense is the only defense” (Angriff ist die beste Verteidigung), “paper will endure anything” (Papier ist geduldig), “you can’t break a wall with your forehead” (mit dem Kopf durch die Wand gehen) and “the last drop that made the vase overflow”; in German it’s not the vase, but the barrel, but anyhow not the camel’s last straw. In another case, an English idiom corresponds with a German one: “I should have known that Harmon had something up his Gucci sleeve”, very considerate for the translator, as in German we also say “to have an ace up one’s sleeve”.

So from a translator’s natural enthusiasm at first reading the novel it’s a long and winding road (with quite a lot of stones and potholes) to publication in another language. But in the end I’m always rewarded with a broadening of my individual perspective. Not only did I get to know and live with all the characters – Daria, Harmon, Boba, Valentina, Jane, Vlad, Tristan, Molly, but for me, my work was also an adventurous trip first to Odessa, Ukraine, later to small Emerson and big San Francisco, both in California. Last but not least, doing research on quotations (luckily the author provided me with all her sources up to the very last line) opened up a universe of prose and poetry by great Russian authors, most of them born in Odessa: Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Sergei Yesenin, and Victor Khlebnikov (the last two beautifully translated into German by Paul Celan).

So my literary travel to foreign countries both East and West led to an infinite expansion of my small world. As in human relationships, enthusiasm – or love at first sight – is followed by the ups and downs and regular crises of the daily grind, but in the end rewarded by gaining new perspectives on life, here.

Astrid Arz