Alexander Feht - Composer, Poet, Translator

A Fitting Trade for a Misfit

Article for Translation Journal
December 10, 2004

Gabe suggested that I be the Translator Profile for this issue of the Translation Journal. I wonder why? Suspicions crowd upon my mind. If there is one thing my fellow featherless bipeds make me absolutely sure of, it is that no good deed ever goes unpunished. What's the catch? What scheming interests stand behind Gabe's seemingly innocent invitation, and what is it that they really want? Do you see now, how exciting it is to be paranoid? Assuming that we all somehow agree on what "it" could possibly be and, most importantly, what the meaning of "is" is.

But then, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Self-interview is the easiest way to do it. I'd ask a question that might be of interest, I'd give an answer in my customary insufferable manner, and move on to the next question. How about that?

Why did I become a translator?

There's a shrewd line in the otherwise stunningly bad movie, The Last Samurai. While negotiating the streets of Tokyo with the protagonist, a garrulous Japanese-English interpreter explains his reason for becoming what he is: "I had a very unfortunate tendency to tell the truth in a country where no one ever says what they mean. So, now I very accurately translate other people's lies." This sums it up.

How did I become a translator?

All the usual Soviet feeding troughs were inaccessible: I was too fastidious. My inborn distaste for hypocrisy and coercion was amplified by an upbringing in a dissident family. Socialist societies are extremely hypocritical and coercive. Life often compels us to make a choice: either to adapt to the world by betraying ourselves, or to remain true to ourselves by confronting the world. For me, the latter always has been immeasurably easier.

Even in the "workers' paradise," one has to make money. Substantial money, if one is married and has a child. I've been a construction worker, a night-watchman, a ballet pianist, a private piano teacher... you name it. I learned to type fast very early, at the age of seven, to help my mother. She was typing, editing (and writing) theses and papers for the dismally illiterate Soviet "economists" who were flaunting doctorates and high salaries.

To supplement my meager income, I tried translation. Reading in several European languages has never been a problem for me. I have a congenital knack for smooth, literate writing in Russian. My father, a mathematician and a true polyglot, owned many dictionaries. We had a small East German typewriter. That battered typewriter was responsible for many copies of books by authors proscribed by the Soviet authorities (Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, et al.), circulating in our Academy Town, the Western Siberian knock-off of Los Alamos.

So, there I was, typing away in the kitchen, night after night. The pay was low and illegal (without the required diploma, I had to resort to the surreptitious services of middlemen). Nevertheless, a translator's wages were higher than those of a night-watchman. As Robert Heinlein remarked, writing beats digging a ditch. I know, I've done both.

I remember well my first large translation from English into Russian. A private client asked my father to translate a thick book by Grinder on NLP (neurolinguistic programming). This subject was considered to be "shady" by the Soviet authorities; such a book would have never been printed in the USSR officially. Father was busy, and dumped this job on me. I churned out this text in one month. The client paid 300 rubles—approximately what I would make after a month of working very hard 12 hours a day, 7 days a week under the most disagreeable conditions at some construction site.

The other thing I recall translating back in Siberia—and I remember it because it was a classified US Navy document—had to do with missile defense system software on nuclear submarines. Thus, a young Russian anti-Soviet poet (and a draft dodger to boot) was illegally making money in the Siberian winter by translating secret American military papers for the Soviet authorities! I still can't figure out how this document found its way into my hands. Naturally, I saw to it that some critical information was translated incorrectly. That was the only case of a pre-meditated mistranslation in my life.

My primary skills are those of a classical musician: I write music, I play piano and violin, I could sing professionally. After coming to America as a political refugee in 1986, I tried my luck at music. I failed.

Many people still appreciate classical music but it doesn't pay to write it any more, unless you are prepared to stoop low enough to apply for grants or to play the spaniel in Hollywood. Governmental subsidies, bureaucratic institutions, mass indoctrination through public "education," TV culture and, above all, the natural domination of mediocrity in a society looking up the lowest common denominator—these factors effectively exterminated most original talent in music and arts.

Have you ever asked yourself why there are no new Mozarts in our brave new world of "equal opportunity"? Because the Salieris are always "more equal" than the Mozarts, that's why.

I turned again to translation. The world is not without good men and beautiful women, despite all the desperate efforts of the bad and the ugly. Some Americans helped me to start my business. Accurapid happened to be the first translation agency to use my services on the regular basis. One American helped me to finance my first computer (a Mac Plus it was, which served me well for couple of years but suffered an inglorious death in a cloud of black smoke as soon as I installed an acceleration card). Another American, a notable figure in his Christian organization, cheated me out of thousands of dollars by paying 2.5 cents per word and pocketing the difference.

On the whole, with all its trials and errors, sleepless nights and mad scrambling to meet deadlines, the occupation of a translator rewarded me with the greatest luxury one could dream of, that of having no boss, surviving without dissembling, and living anywhere I want.

I have been a professional independent translator for more than two decades now. Looking back, I must say that I would have never survived all the illnesses and crises during these years without my wife, Maria. She does everything—accounting, typesetting, software and hardware setups, proofreading, shopping, housework, socializing with neighbors, disciplining, encouraging and reprimanding our son. Everything is taken care of. If not for that ubiquitous translation, I could just be basking in the sun, in the Mexican way, or spending all my days in the tea-house, Turkish style.

One of these days I am going to convince Maria that she take up the translation part, too. Why not? Aren't there excellent, highly productive female translators? Aren't women better than us lowly creatures? They are capable of doing everything we can, not to mention some things we can't, right? So who are we to discriminate against women by imposing limitations on their abilities? Let them do it all!

Translation, what is it?

Translation is thinking. Unless artificial intelligence (with lower-case initials) becomes possible, "machine translation" shall always remain a myth.

I read and understand English. I write in Russian something that would produce an equivalent understanding in the Russian reader's mind. If the client hasn't provided adequate reference material, I look for the terminology—first in electronic dictionaries, then in specialized paper dictionaries (I've got three or four shelves full of these). If the term cannot be found in the dictionaries, I do an Internet search, ask specialists, and call other translators.

In legal and technical translation, I try to be as close to the original as possible, without sacrificing the quality of Russian. In every discipline there is a specific terminology that must be absorbed and followed. It is important to remember, however, that terminology and style are separate, very different things. I never try to mimic any professional stylistic bias if my client hasn't given specific instructions to this end. For example, Russian state-approved standards (GOSTs) may contain useful terminology but stylistically, they are far from being acceptable standards. Whatever the customary style of semi-literate engineers may be, the rules of Russian grammar must prevail.

Translating fiction, I allow myself more freedom, focusing primarily on producing the same effect, rather than using the same expressions. The same kind of freedom is necessary in translating advertising and marketing materials, brochures intended for a broad audience, newspaper articles, trade catalogs, etc.

Highly colloquial texts are extremely difficult to translate, and the result is dubious at best. For example, translating some of the Heinlein's fiction into Russian is a nightmare, for the great late R. A. H. often wrote in conversational, highly idiomatic American English of the 1960s, with puns and drollery beaded in chains fully appreciated only by a happy few born at the wrong time in the wrong place. Even if a wretched Russian translator comprehends all the ribald preciosity of these verbal fireworks, he or she will be hard pressed to come up with anything remotely resembling that high-brow trailer-park newspeak in Russian.

For the same reason, Saltykov-Shchedrin, a Russian writer of no lesser importance than Turgenev or Tolstoy (and a much greater writer than Dostoevsky), is practically unknown in the West. Saltykov-Shchedrin's books are so colloquial and idiomatic that they don't lend themselves to translation.

In my brazen opinion, translation of poetry, particularly of rhymed poetry, is impossible. Poetry is a synthesis of language and music, as song is a synthesis of music and language. In some cases, there is no discernable boundary between a poem and a song. In the translation process, verbal music is always lost, the all-important mental connotations, invoked by the phonetic and rhythmical conjunctions, are inevitably distorted. The best one can do is to write another, different piece of poetry evoking the same emotional state, and using the roughly similar content to render it.

There are several highly praised "classic" Russian translations of Shakespeare's and Dante's works. They are printed and reprinted, presented on screens and in concert halls, and widely quoted; they have become a part of the Russian literary culture. Alas! Were I not able to read English and Italian, I would have never known what Shakespeare and Dante are all about. There is absolutely no way to render in any other language the magic mixed with a feeling of hopeless admiration, fear and woe, reminiscent of the chilling fires in the endless distances of darkness, that petrify a reader inwardly pronouncing Dante's simplest words: Per me si va nella citta dolente...

What gadgets, what software do I use?

The computer is a dubious invention. Everyone has been told, ad nauseam, how computers save us time and effort. Almost nobody wants to talk about how much time and effort they waste. Anyway, we are stuck with them; our only hope is that in the future they will become less nerd-friendly and more human-friendly.

We (Maria and I) use two PCs and two Macs, interconnected via Ethernet and communicating with the outside world through the Direcway satellite system. To make it all work together, we had to install Windows Server OS on one of the PCs. The round-up of the usual MS Office suspects allows me to perform most of the tasks. When high-quality Russian typesetting is required, Maria uses QuarkXpress. We liked the good old PageMaker better.

Some of my clients insist on using Trados or SDLX. These expensive, cumbersome and cranky TM-based tools are of no value to me, they only exist to soothe the corporate managers' vanity. Even assuming that there are piles of similar documents to be translated (which is a relatively rare situation), a translation memory would make sense only if it were constantly made consistent by a single editor dedicating substantial time to this ungrateful task. But a single translator is better off using electronic glossaries and his own set of reference and template files. If many translators use and compile the common translation memory without constant supervision and editing, it quickly becomes a disparate mess that slows down the whole team enormously. Perhaps, there are translators whose CAT experience is happier; I won't believe it until I see it.

Why did I quit the ATA?

Apart from holding its expensive and mostly non-informative annual conferences, which could be imaginatively rationalized as tax-deductible occasions to meet old acquaintances, the ATA has been useless to me. I was an active member from 1991 to 2003. I diligently placed my curriculum vitae in the job exchange room. I gave my business card to everyone I met while attending these conferences. During the last 12 years only two minor (now defunct) clients, offering very small jobs, told me that they have found me through the ATA, and only one (now defunct) client ever asked me if I was a member of the ATA.

Instead of striving to become an organization that would impose strict professional and ethical standards, conduct serious qualifying examinations, protect its members from unprofessional, rate-dumping competition, penalize translation agencies exploiting semi-literate foreign nationals, and provide its members with access to affordable health insurance benefits, the ATA has become a virtual free-for-all community club with a worldwide membership, an inner circle of mutually supporting officers playing musical chairs, and no clear purpose.

In my view, the last straw was the deeply dishonest act of distributing an electronic questionnaire on the ATA's "continuing education" program post facto, after this make-work invention of self-serving apparatchiks had been already approved by management. As one of the most experienced Russian-English translators in America remarked during the annual conference in Phoenix, the fait accompli manner in which this program had been rubberstamped and the assuming nature of the questionnaire that followed, reminded her of a certain interrogation method that begins by asking: "How long has it been since you've stopped beating your wife?"

What advice can I give to budding translators?

Who am I to give advice? OK, I'll try. From the bottom of my heart.

1. Take care of yourself, sleep as much as you want. Don't translate more than 10,000 words in a day; this is bad for your eyes.

2. Don't work for peanuts but, on the other hand, don't worry too much about money. They won't let you become rich, anyway. We live in the world of mandatory compassion: the more you make, the more they take.

3. Bewildered and tired, losing track of who you are, what you are doing, and why? Re-read Kipling's If. If this doesn't help, re-read Kipling's The Gods of the Copybook Headings. That drastic measure unavailing, take a swig of brandy. Never translate under the influence, though. Customers have no sense of humor, they think they are always right.

4. If you can write very well in your native language, you already have a skill necessary to become a successful translator. The rest is hard work.

5. If you can't write very well in your native language, no advice will help you. The rest is silence.

© Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 2004