George Salis: How did you get into translating and how did you end up falling in love with American postmodern literature in particular?
Маx Nestelieiev: The short answer: Pynchon is guilty. The long answer: Also Pynchon but in Russian translations. The thing is, I have always liked reading difficult (intellectual, high browed, elitist) literature, so of course I spotted the name Thomas Pynchon several times while browsing through lists such as “The most complicated novels in human history.” So I decided to give him a try and, intimidated by his “complexity” (at least many reviewers said so), I started to read The Сrying of Lot 49 in Russian translation (I hoped it’d be easier to understand in a translated variant than in the original and, at that time, we had no Ukrainian translations of his novels). And, to tell you the truth, I was not impressed with his novel. I couldn’t believe that Pynchon is considered one of the greatest American writers of the XX century, and I realized that probably there were some problems with the translation itself and began to render that novel into my native language, Ukrainian. So it went. Now, besides Lot 49,I’ve translated his Slow Learner and edited the Ukrainian translation of Gravity’s Rainbow.
Reading Pynchon’s works and some articles/books on him, I got to know of many American postmodern writers and in 2016 I persuaded the Ukrainian publishing house Темпора to start a series of translations under the title “American Postmodernism”. We have published 7 books (so far) and plan to do many more.
GS: How would you compare and contrast the three languages you work with: English, Ukrainian, and Russian?
MN: And Max goes on to give you a brief survey (app. 30-40 pages) of comparative linguistics. To be short, Ukrainian is my mother tongue; Russian is my second native language, and English is my favorite foreign language (also, I know German and Polish). I’m bilingual, but my main language is Ukrainian.
GS: What was it like translating Joseph McElroy’s Plus, a novel of exceptional linguistic originality and difficulty? Is this your most difficult project to date? How does it read in Russian and what did Russian readers make of the book?
MN: The Russian Plus was doomed to become a cult book and antiquarian rarity even before its publication. So it happened. Up till then, it was completely translated into Italian only, so our version was the second one (I read somewhere that one French translator gave up on rendering Plus due to its complicated language), and the Russian translation is a unique case of novel-plus-study object because it contains McElroy’s foreword to Russian readers and my comprehensive afterword (by the way, I’ve written companions-in-a-form-of-afterwords to all my translations, not to mention necessary annotations throughout the translated texts).
GS: This is a guest question: “Although works by McElroy can be simple on a line-by-line level, the difficulty for English readers often comes from accumulation. Is this something you’ll agree with and, if so, what methods do you use to keep things in order?”
MN: McElroy’s syntax is the Eighth Wonder of the World. My language cannot (can any?) reincorporate all nuances and tiny shades of his texts, let alone their lexical accumulation. So, as Joyce said, first you feel (his rhythm), then you fall (and fail to render it). Anyway, I did my best.
GS: The Ukrainian title of Cannonball translates into English as Bomb. What was the thought process behind this creative decision? In general, did you consult with McElroy while translating his work?
MN: McElroy’s title, despite its military connotations, is a well-known diving style for which we have its Ukrainian equivalent bombоchka (literally ‘a little bomb’), so that’s why, to save the war allusion, I decided to translate it as a Bomb. I consulted with McElroy constantly (some realia, word phrases, names), also I was the first person who noticed the error in the title of the second chapter of the novel: it should be “I have dived”instead of “I have died”.
GS: In 2017, you presented your translation of Cannonball at the International Book Arsenal Festival in Kyiv, Ukraine. In fact, McElroy attended this book festival and gave a talk about censorship in literature. Can you reflect on these events?
MN: Joseph McElroy is a charming person, as well as his beautiful wife Barbara Ellmann (who attended Kyiv with her husband). It was an unforgettable three days with the Master and his Muse filled with book readings, presentations, interviews, lectures, and splendid Kyivan restaurants (you should visit them all; they are lovely). Joe gave an interesting lecture on censorship, and later it was published here, along with my riposte.
GS: McElroy is often grouped with Pynchon and Gaddis and DeLillo, yet some would argue he’s quite different from all three. How do you categorize McElroy’s work specifically, and how does it compare or contrast with his contemporaries?
MN: McElroy, without a doubt, is one of a kind. Sure thing, he’s read all those guys, and many more other women and men (though—pardon me, Joe—during his Ukrainian visit he said to me he had never finished Don Quixote—but it’s not a mortal sin, I suppose). In my view, all aforementioned authors are like islands in the stream, yes, they are Americans but with different coordinates, areas, time zones, and (literal) populations. For me, Joseph McElroy is located near Faulkner’s, Nabokov’s, and Henry James’ streams. Gaddis is a more Europe-oriented writer than others. Pynchon is a unique cocktail of voices, sciences, and cultures, with a specific historiographic view. Haven’t you observed that all his novels form his idiosyncratic (paranoiac) version of the last 240 years of the world, basically American history (from 1761 till 2001)?
GS: What about your translation of Underworld, which was published by Фабула? Although their styles share certain qualities, including mining the mundane for the mysticism, Don DeLillo is not quite as difficult as McElroy. However, Underworld is an 800-page, complicated masterwork after all.
MN: Don DeLillo is a prosaist of another range. He is a painter of scenes of ordinary American life in 1950-2010, and Underworld is an excellent example of his talent. His prose is abrupt but mesmerizing. I adore his Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Cosmopolis. Underworld is probably his tour de force, with all his diamonds and flaws; nevertheless he speaks in your voice, American.
GS: Are there specific translated lines or passages you’re particularly proud of?
MN: Translators must avoid pride in the first place. For me translating is a choice of humility and meekness, and it’s an author’s doom to think of vanity and pride. I just hope I’ve rendered writers’ styles and thoughts precisely and without big losses, that’s all.
GS: This is a guest question from Livy Stout: Goethe once wrote that translators are like “enthusiastic matchmakers singing the praises of some half-naked young beauty: they awaken in us an irresistible urge to see the real thing with our own eyes.” Does this line up with your goal(s) as a translator? Learning a new language is a tall order, but I wonder if that is somehow in the back of your mind, like “maybe this will inspire someone to learn Russian and read the original.”
MN: My main goal is to be a humble servant of an Author, to become her/his submissive shadow, to give my words for her/his ideas. I want to find the precise linguistic form for a writer’s plot and help my native readers to enjoy some foreign styles. And I hope this will inspire someone to study American culture not through some ugly bestsellers but through first-rate prose.
GS: Do you believe some books are simply, or not-so-simply, untranslatable?
MN: All can be translated, but in some cases the lost-in-translation part could be significant/ crucial/catastrophic, so we would end up with, not a translation, but an interpretation/retelling/adaptation/fanfic, etc. But, otherwise, all translations are bad, because only the originals are good. Also, I’m a great admirer of the amazing translator John E. Woods’ theory that translation is an impossibility (In an interview, he said, “Every language is unique to itself. So a translator tackles that impossibility anew with every author, with every sentence for that matter.”) Is the mission impossible? Here we are, the translators.
GS: You mentioned to me in the past that Darconville’s Cat is a novel you’re keen on translating. Would you consider it your white whale? How would someone go about translating words that aren’t even known to 99.9999% of English speakers, such as “digravidicals,” “nookshatten,” “gongoon,” “lupanarette,” “ovabain,” and “scrubiculate”?
MN: Probably I’ll yield to Theroux’s advice and look through Webster’s New International Dictionary (Second Edition) and the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Actually those words are not as complex as they seem to be—it’s just a virtuosic play with some Greek, Latin, and German roots. So all you need is to find (a white whale) an exact meaning for each of them.
GS: Are there other white whales you’d love to translate, given time and money? McElroy’s Women and Men, for instance?
MN: Yeah, I’ve promised Joe that I’d translate his opus magnum. And I’m a man of my word, so one day I’ll definitely accomplish my mission. Also, I have been rendering Finnegans Wake for a couple of years. My bucket list: McCarthy’s Suttree, Vollmann’s Europe Central, Barth’s Giles-Goat Boy (and Letters), Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, Coover’s The Public Burning, Pynchon’s Against the Day, Gaddis’s The Recognitions (and JR),and Wallace’s The Pale King, to name a few.
GS: Postmodernism is a term that is at least partly indefinable, especially considering that ‘premodern’ books like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy exhibit postmodern tendencies. How do you define postmodernism?
MN: In my view, postmodernism has two definitions, 1) it’s a set of stylistic means (or tendencies), including metafiction, irony (and/or black humor), allusions (intertextuality), a mix of high and low genres, linguistic games, rhizome, etc. (all of them are in the famous Ihab Hassan’s list) and/or 2) it’s a temporal phenomenon (the after-1945s art). But then came the so called “culturologists” who made a mess (see the works of Adorno, Lyotard, Jameson, Hassan, McHale, Hutcheon, etc.).
GS: Is the audience for postmodernism as niche in Ukraine as that in the English-speaking world?
MN: The audience is not very large, but it’s quite passionate. Several thousand ardent readers.
GS: Who are the Ukrainian postmodernists you love? Are any of them Englished and if not, have you considered taking on the job? What about Russian postmodernists? Are there any Russian or Ukrainian Thomas Pynchons, as it were?
MN: The prominent Ukrainian postmodernists are three Yuriys: Andrukhovych, Vynnychuk, and Izdryk (of course I know several others with different names but let it be this perfect triada). I know some of their works have been translated into English. The prominent Russian postmodernists are three V’s: Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, and Victor Erofeyev (not such a perfect triada). As you can see, we don’t have any Thomases (but I’m sure you couldn’t find a second Pynchon anywhere, he is a rara avis).
GS: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming a translator?
MN: Forget this profession; too much pain, and too little gain, better start your own business (sell books, don’t buy them; write some books yourselves, don’t translate others). If it doesn’t make you change your mind remember that to become a translator one should read a lot and study a bunch of dictionaries. And first of all, you have to know your native language as a God (or some smaller linguistic deity).
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Маx Nestelieiev is a Ukrainian essayist, columnist, researcher of US literature, editor, and translator. He has translated Joseph McElroy’s Cannonball and Plus (the latter into Russian, others into Ukrainian); Gaddis’ Agapē Agape; Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Slow Learner; Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants; Barthelme’s Snow White and 60 Stories; DeLillo’s Zero K and Underworld; Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Warm Arctic Nights, and McCarthy’s The Road. Also, Nestelieiev was an editor of the Russian translation of Gaddis’ Carpenter’s Gothic and the Ukrainian translation of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. He’s written a monograph on Ukrainian modernism (On the Мerge: Suicidal Discourse of Ukrainian Modernism, 2013) and a book on postmodern US prose (The Labyrinths of American Postmodernism. Volume 1, 2019). Find him on Instagram and Facebook.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.