Ukrainian

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Been here before

I recognise this scenario:

Idea for book – yes

Research for book – yes

Characters – yes

High level idea of what happens – yes

Story – ummm, no. Not really.

Frustrating – yes, just a bit…

Do I just want to get on with the writing… oh, do I ever.

So I’m the ‘this is a total mess’ stage again. But at least I know this is normal (for me, anyway). I have a new stack of books I’ve ploughed through that get me maybe a third of the way there. Another stack for the next part, and about five more coming that might give me a different narrative thread. And I have sheets of paper with scribbled notes to myself. Like ‘Леся [I’ve just ordered a second keyboard and these little sticker things so I have have a Cyrillic keyboard. Going to save me so much time with character names – don’t worry, they’ll end up Anglicised, I’m just reminding myself all the time who these people are…wow, that was a long note] has something of value?’ ‘What’s the hook for the narrative?’ ‘Need a thread to pull through the first part.’

When I said ‘not really’ to the story part, it wasn’t quite accurate. What I don’t know is how to tell the story. Here’s what’s on the menu at the moment:

  • Twin narratives of two characters living on different continents at first – from their perspective or all in third person? What do I want you to know when? What do they know when?
  • Or three characters – but then I lose the sense of two stories heading towards each other. Unless, of course, I decide that they never meet. Just to annoy you.
  • How many sub-plots can I juggle (a lot less than I 
  • Two time periods – no, done that. And not right for this story anyway
  • Have overlap with character whose story comes out in another book

The biggest two lessons I’ve learned from writing the first book are probably

  1. This bit takes time, for a reason. Rushing doesn’t help. Drinking cups of tea does. Plus this is the part where I get to read loads, so who cares if it takes a bit longer?
  2. It’s a lot easier to write out the outline of a series of scenes and then think, nah, that doesn’t work, let’s try it a different way and see if that’s better. Writing out those scenes in full turns into folders full of scenes that don’t go anywhere. I tried the ‘write by the seat of your pants’ approach and it doesn’t work for me. I do need to know how I get from beginning to end. If I then change things (as I will, probably many times) along the way or afterwards, that’s fine because I have the main narrative to keep me straight. And the ending can always change anyway.

I will still cheerfully say to my family every morning, ‘Right, today I need to get this plot sorted,’ and every time, I fully intend to. Fortunately they don’t ask me how that went in the evening. As long as dinner is on the table, I can ruminate to my heart’s content on whether Serhii is going to be dead or written out the next day. And nobody will ever know what might have become of him.

And I get to learn some Ukrainian along the way. I’m still trying to figure out this alphabet and prove that the certain letters are most definitely not pronounced the same every time. Seriously, И sounds different every time I come across it. And I haven’t even got started on the grammar yet. Or verbs, for that matter. As I am patiently reminded, I’ve only been doing this for two weeks. This too, needs its time.

The unseen heroes

One of the many careers I never pursued was translating. This despite the best hour I probably spent at university being the one where we tried simultaneous translation. It’s fair to say that not everyone got the same buzz from the experience as I did, though. It’s something like turning your brain up to full power and then keeping going. You are hearing one thing and instantly converting it into a different language while still having to take in everything the person is saying.

Translation is as much art as science, particularly when it comes to translating fiction. We’ve all experienced what it’s like when not even the science part works – those instruction manuals where you really have no idea what you are meant be doing. But beyond that is the fun part. Where you get to think about how best to translate a word from one language into another while trying to preserve some of the associations which the word or phrase has in the original. And not give it additional, unintended (by the author) meaning in the translation.

The example we used at university was ‘cucumber sandwiches’. If you’re British, you’ve already got a picture of the exact type, feel and taste of the bread. And the butter, plus probably what kind of plate the sandwiches are being served on. Are you already at the image of the picnic or garden party or sporting event as well? Try translating that into another language. And sorry, but if you aren’t British, you probably haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m really talking about. Unless you’ve watched Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps.

And translating the simple Wohnzimmer from German – living room or sitting room? So many associations with both the (correct) English translations, none of which are there in the German. 

I’m branching out of my more familiar English or German language literature and research at the moment. Otherwise I limit both the novels I can read and the areas I can delve into. This means that I am entirely dependent on the translator to produce something that feels like it was written in English while preserving the cultural reference points that place the story somewhere specific in place and time.

And what a difference in the translations of these two books. One originally in Ukrainian, one from the Russian. One for pleasure, one for research. Both were translated into English by non-native speakers. When I was a lad (why not ‘boy’ or ‘young man’ or ‘youth’? – did I use that word deliberately, was I making some cultural reference, saying something about myself…or did I just want to use a different word for a change? – Welcome to the world of the translator), that was a no-no. You only translated into your own language (although we all learned by going in both directions). Times seem to have moved on.

Today, I’m less interested in the stories of these books than the translations. And a few examples will, I hope, show the difference between a good translation and a bad one.

‘The smell of rotting corpses hung in the air as the legal residents of Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine, carried on their plucky and brutal struggle for existence. […] They hated every person ahead of them in line with a passion that, in more normal times, would have been reserved exclusively for one’s worst enemies. Besides these “legal residents,” there was in the city that year another group of people, possibly even more numerous than the first. This was the group of people with no propyska (the registration necessary for the right to live in the city) and thus no rights.’

There were immediately three issues with this for me.

It looked to me as if the translator came up against a problem right away with these ‘legal residents.’ Maybe there’s a specific term in Ukrainian that just doesn’t work in English. But just putting in something in English, then putting it in inverted commas a paragraph later tells me I haven’t understood what the original meant. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s clunky and it stopped the story for me twice in the first two paragraphs.

‘They hated every person… for one’s worst enemies.’ Is just grammatically wrong. ‘One’ can’t refer to ‘they’. And I think you’d have to have a pretty good reason to use ‘one’ in the first place. 

And finally we have the classic ‘I need to explain this’ issue with the propyska. There’s clearly a desire to keep the Ukrainian term, and I find it helpful to keep some of the original terms. But there are simpler and better ways of dealing with them. For example: ‘This was the group of people with no propyska. Without that one piece of paper, they had no right to live there. No rights at all.’ I would have to know Ukrainian to be sure that was the proper meaning of the original text, but the sentence(s) just flow better.

You don’t notice good translations. Just as the author has got out of the way of the story, so has the translator. Every translation is a compromise because you simply don’t have equivalents for every word in both languages. But what you can do it try to keep the sense of the original. The pace, the tone, the overall feel of the language.

‘Noble scrunched up his face as if all his teeth had started aching at the same time. Tabaqui seemed to enjoy that. He even pinked up a little. He lit a cigarette and looked at me with the all-knowing smile of a veteran.’

Thank you. Much better. You just don’t notice anything. 

Translating is a tough business. I tried translating a book from German a few years ago on the basis that it hadn’t yet been translated into English. I probably still have the draft of as far as I had got lying around somewhere. There were simply so many phrases where I had to stop and think, how do you get that across in English? They went into the ‘come back to that’ category. Maybe one day. If I think a story is worth it, but it won’t be that one. It was more of an intellectual workout than a sense that the book should be better known.

So for now, I’m grateful for the translators, even the ones who aren’t as good but make it possible for me to do research in areas that would otherwise be unaccessible to me. Because learning Russian or Ukrainian really isn’t on any list I have tucked away somewhere. Thanks to these heroes behind the scenes, I don’t have to