‘Traveling’ to Odessa

YlvaOne of the richest experiences as a novelist has been to talk to the translators of my work, passionate people who all too often stay behind the scenes. I asked Ylva Stålmarck, the Swedish translator of Moonlight in Odessa, about her work, and she wrote the following essay, which she entitled “The Pains and Pleasures of Translation.” I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.

When first asked to write an essay on my translation of Moonlight in Odessa, I took out my writing pad and looked through the notes I had made. Among the lined pages where I had jotted down things like “verbs?”, “moonlight?”, “my forehead melting glass?” and “Swedish Russian?”, I found loose pages with pictures printed from the Internet – everything from colourful beet dishes to the opera house in Odessa, inspirational pictures that I put up on my notice board during the process of translation. This I think illustrates that translation is not only an intellectual activity, but also an emotional one. It is a way of travelling, a way of making new friends and learning new habits, trying on new clothes and new views.

Travelling to Odessa was an interesting experience. Though many of our prejudices of the former Soviet Union were confirmed – over-dressed and over-made-up women, unemployment, the mafia – I saw it all in a different light through the eyes of 24-year-old Daria. She is a native Odessitka who lives with her grandmother a former factory worker. Her grandmother now runs the house for the two of them and cooks wonderful vegetarian dishes; the description of her borscht (borsjtj in Swedish) was vivid enough to make me have a go at making it myself, and I must say that it was a great success with my family!

Daria loves and admires her grandmother, but she does not want to follow in her footsteps. Thanks to her ambition and her sharp mind, she has a good job – two good jobs, actually – and dreams of going to America, the promised land of freedom, equality, and wealth. She wants to develop her professional skills and live in an equal relationship with a nice man, something she thinks will be easier to achieve in the U.S.

Even so, Daria is proud of her hometown and her background. She offers us not only her poverty and her longing to escape, but also her rich cultural inheritance; she loves the opera, classical music and literature. Consequently, my writing pad was quickly filled with lines of poetry and prose and names of authors, some of them well known to me, some not. In my efforts to trace the origin of the quotations and so make a fitting translation, I spent many rewarding hours at the library in Lund, getting acquainted – or reacquainted – with writers such as Babel, Pushkin and Akhmatova. At home, I withdrew to my study to read “Anna Karenina” – “the most important [novel] ever written”, according to Daria, and I am inclined to agree with her.

Along with these authors, another problem arose: the transcription of their Russian names. This, of course, also applies to the other Russian names in the text – Daria, for instance, is called Darja in the Swedish transcription – as well as Russian words like ”champagnskye”, “compania”, “hleb”, just to mention a few. I don’t know Russian myself, but fortunately I have a brother-in-law who is a professor of linguistics, with Russian as one of his specialties, so I received all the help I needed – thank you, Sven!

Next on my writing pad was a long list of words I did not know whether to translate or not, as the English language itself plays such an important part in the novel. Daria does not only want to go to America, she also has a great passion for English, and wants to learn it to perfection. ”Other girls played with dolls, I played with idioms”, she says at one point. ”Other girls had tiny bangles on their wrists and gold earrings, I had a collection of irregular verbs.” As a school-girl, Daria had a very stern English teacher, who made the pupils repeat English irregular verbs to the rhythm of a metronome. Now, as an adult, Daria has fallen into the habit of repeating some of these verbs to herself every time she gets nervous or worried. When the secretaries at her office make a verbal attack on her, she thinks, “Strike- struck-struck”. When her former lover suddenly shows up at the café in the U.S. where she is temporarily working as a waitress, she thinks, “Shake-shook-shaken”.

At first I considered using the Swedish equivalents of these verbs, but in the end I decided not to. Most people in Sweden are reasonably good at English, and though many of us prefer reading a whole novel in our native tongue, I am convinced that the Swedish readers will understand Daria’s verbs in their context. Even if no translation can ever match the original, it may actually be an advantage to be able to read this novel in a language other than English. In this way, one has the opportunity to let the English words stand out as foreign words, thus giving a new dimension to the text. English is, after all, a foreign language to Daria, she struggles with words and looks for new explanations, just as any Swedish person would do.

Having come to a conclusion on the irregular verbs, I went on reasoning along the same line when I came across other words or names that were obviously English and not Russian or Ukrainian. One such example is “Soviet Unions”, the name of the matchmaking agency where Daria “moonlights” to help Odessan women get in touch with American men. “Soviet Unions” is, I think, a wonderful and untranslatable pun, and also an international-sounding name, meant to appeal to American men. All this would have gone lost if I had found a Swedish word for it instead.

Another example is the word “social.” Valentina Borisovna, owner of the matchmaking agency, at one point decides to arrange parties for American men and Odessan women to get together. When Valentina comes home from a visit to Moscow with this new idea – this new word – she has a problem pronouncing it: “Soo shall”, she says. “I haven’t the slightest idea what it means.” Daria, of course, finds it out for her, and gives the reader a long explanation and even an extract from a dictionary. So, in most instances, I let the word “social” remain in the text. Sometimes I exchanged it for the Swedish word “fest”, for reasons of fluency.

And finally, the title: Moonlight in Odessa. The Swedish word for “moonlight”, “månsken”, does have romantic and mystical connotations, but it has nothing to do with “working a second job on the sly”. When the word “moonlight” appears in the text, its double meaning is immediately made clear. It is one of Daria’s beloved English words, and the explanation following it allowed me to keep it in English.

As for the title, I – or rather the Swedish editors – decided on something completely different. When the novel comes out in Sweden, any day now, the readers will get to know it as “Annonsflickan från Odessa” (“The Advertisement Girl from Odessa”), and I am sure they will find it just as inspiring and enjoyable to read as I did to translate it.

Cover Swedish