Humor, says Michael Naydan, is the hardest thing to translate.
Sometimes it's in the phrasing, a joke or pun that's funny only to insiders. "Sometimes the humor is in political or cultural situations that people have to deal with in their everyday lives," says Naydan, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Penn State. The Russian notion of comedy, for example, often seems perverse to Americans. "But comedy and tragedy are intertwined in the Russian psyche—they call it laughter through tears."
Naydan and his colleague Slava Yastremski are currently translating a series of tragi-comedies by contemporary Russian playwright Nadezhda Ptushkina. In "Momma's Dyin' Again," a couple serendipitously falls in love when a man knocks on the wrong door in an anonymous, Soviet-style housing project; in "Pay in Advance: How to Buy a Married Russian Husband," a woman approaching spinster age employs cunning and subterfuge to find a mate in a country with a chronic shortage of men, the eligible population having been lost to alcoholism or Stalin's purges.
In the course of his career, Naydan has introduced English readers to scores of poems, plays, and novels by Russian, Ukrainian, and Romanian writers. Every genre, every piece, has required a different strategy. "The process of translating a play is very different from translating prose. The play is natural, spoken speech. It's talky. You have colloquial Russian and you need to turn it into colloquial English."
Maintaining the pace and rhythm of a play is paramount, Naydan says, and often presents a huge challenge when going from Russian to English. "Russian sentences tend to be longer. English is a more compact language. War and Peace in Russian is about 1,500 pages. In English, it is about 1,200 pages," he explains. But in a play, you have to match a phrase in Russian with a phrase of the same length in English, "even if it means straying from being literal."
Naydan shakes his head. "But that's just one way of doing it," he adds. Every translator has a different feel for the language, a different way of solving a set of problems. "That's why there is no such thing as a perfect translation," he says. "But there can be very, very good ones."
He laughs. "I feel like I'm saying too much. I'm giving too much of the craft away."
Last August, Naydan and Yastremski, a professor at Bucknell University, staged a public reading of "Momma's Dyin' Again" at Webster's Bookstore and Cafe in downtown State College. They guided the actors gently. "You want to keep the Russianness of it," Naydan told them. "But don't talk cartoon Russian."
Most of the readers on the makeshift stage at Webster's were novices, faculty and students recruited by local actor Michael Bernosky, who often collaborates with Naydan. Still, all were game enough to adopt Russian accents. As they read through the draft translation in front of a small audience, Naydan and Yastremski took notes.
Informal readings are crucial to the process, Naydan explains. "As translator, you have to hear how it sounds in English. The conversations, the connections between characters have to be natural." Putting on an accent adds to the fun. "It helps everyone buy into the fantasy."
Naydan's strategy for translating the Ukrainian novel Perverzion was just as collaborative. He was in almost constant contact with the author, Yuri Andrukhovych, who is widely regarded as the most important writer in Ukraine today. Perverzion is a linguistic tour-de-force that reconstructs the life of poet Stanislav Perfetsky and explores his mysterious disappearance on the way to a conference in Venice to save the world from its absurdity. "This novel is incredibly complex. He uses puns in multiple languages. The main character has 40 nicknames and each nickname is funny in a different language," says Naydan.
"Andrukhovych also used a lot of slang words in Ukrainian and phrases from lots of other languages," he adds. One of the characters in the novel, a Jamaican Ukrainian, gives a reggae performance—translated into Ukrainian. A public reading by actor Bernosky helped Naydan capture the reggae rhythms in English. While Naydan had to alter the wording by adding the Jamaican "mon" as filler phrasing, he feels he preserved the "essential quality" of the passage. That and conveying all of the multiple meanings in a piece are the marks of a good translation, says Naydan.
"I fell in love with this book after reading a few chapters of it in a Ukrainian journal," he says. "I have to have a strong connection to the piece. I translate what I love."
Michael Naydan, Ph.D., is professor of Slavic languages and literatures in the College of Liberal Arts; email@example.com. Northwestern University Press will publish Naydan's translation of "Perverzion" in early 2005.