[Musings] Making a Patch of Land for Myself

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • bySasha Dugdale

Most of my translation work has been in poetry and dramaturgy and I’ve always thought that these genres played to my strengths. I’m a chameleon linguist, used to assuming voice, following rhythm and inhabiting character. In poetry and plays, the shape and the sound are intimately related to the sense. How you apprehend the sense of a line in a poem or play is only partly due to its literal meaning; the larger part of the impact it has on you, the reader, or you, the listener, is created by shape and sound. And as sound and shape are interpreted by the senses, by ear and eye, and are subjective, both these genres where I feel most at home are fundamentally unstable and open-ended, needing both a speaker and a listener for their full existence.

My translation work has consequently always been in short intense bursts and I thought of myself as a lyric sprinter. So when my friend, the Russian poet Maria Stepanova, asked me to translate her book In Memory of Memory, a prose work of more than four hundred pages, I blanched momentarily. I agreed, of course. I had already translated Maria’s long poems and I knew her voice at its most condensed and ‘slant’. I was her friend, we had spent long hours in conversation, I loved her and I couldn’t refuse her. And perhaps also: I have always believed in fate, allowing myself to be repeatedly blown off-course (if I had even set a course) by projects I knew would bring me to new unimaginable lands. I thought that if I ever came to the end of Maria’s book I would certainly be a different person.

In Memory of Memory is a book that slips between genres, at once novel and essay and memoir, with an ‘eye’ for detail and an atmosphere reminiscent of W. G. Sebald. Maria uses the scant information she has about her Jewish-Russian ancestors as a sort of spinal cord running through her expansive text, and accompanies this part-colourised family history with complex reflections on the nature of memory and loss, using examples from literature, film and art.

I began working on the book in 2018. After only a very few pages a sort of horrified anxiety gripped me. I am a very concise writer, always pruning back, honing, tapping on metaphors to check their trueness, eliminating them if there is the least hollow echo. In life, Maria was my perfect pair, endlessly thoughtful with a desire to probe and investigate every truth, optimistic, life-loving, generous, operatic in her vision. But in translation every sentence of hers was a tussle – her stereophonic sound and technicolour dazzled me, I couldn’t anticipate the ending of any thought. As she opened up new vistas and landscapes some strange reflex in my unconscious longed for composure and closure. I thought to myself that despite not feeling entirely at home in British intellectual culture, I had inherited the pinched imagination and clipped wings of British empiricism and the thought depressed me.

I inched forward. Each sentence required the sort of attention I’d give to a line of poetry, as well as an intense engagement with the material of the argument. The crux of the issue was this: if I followed the line too literally, I couldn’t capture the eloquence and beauty of Maria’s poetic prose, and if I refashioned the line to reflect this beauty then I lost my grasp of the argument.

Russian is an inflected language; the endings of words indicate their grammatical relationship to other words. In Russian, it is possible to build an extremely long sentence and to produce a crystallising effect, an accumulating, slowly clarifying line; perhaps akin to turbid water settling to reveal its depths. But the English line doesn’t have the same elasticity. The English words have no inflections, no hidden valencies; only word order holds them in place. English eloquence, at least when I think about it, comes from texture and tautness. I slowly unwound each Russian sentence, I found the surprising ending and laid it on the page and traced my way backwards to the beginning. Then I began to cut it out in its equivalent English fabric. I wanted so badly for the line in English to enter the reader as the Russian entered me, with the same shock, the same swelling of possibilities as the meaning slowly took shape. I almost couldn’t bear the idea that translation would filter the voice of the original, or that like a lock gate it would change the levels of meaning mechanically. It would be an understatement to say that this activity stretched me. I could manage only a few paragraphs a day.

In Memory of Memory is intensely visual as befits a work that opens out of evenings spent flicking through family photograph albums. The visual is made literary; each image touches the mental retina and becomes word. Translating the work was an equally visual occupation – I pored over the art works Maria mentioned: Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre?, Francesca Woodman’s shadowy images and the peculiar and intimate glass-fronted boxes of Joseph Cornell. It is possible to translate the description of an object or an artwork without seeing the original, but it is better to triangulate between the image and the text, to see how the image touches my English retina and what new word it becomes.

A certain tone and colour tints the work. Maria’s thoughtful, melancholy, highly poetic gaze is directed at a sepia past, and it attempts to grasp something of that past while at the same time gently mocking this need to grasp and hold, knowing it to be an impossibility. Her lightly ironical tone, never dismissive or undermining, protective of her subject, but altogether free of sentimentality, is contrived from the line and its gradual unfolding. Recreating that precise tonal balance without the possibilities of the syntax was perhaps the hardest part of the translation. I had a playlist of music I listened to as I worked, and I listened repeatedly to the same singers, the same tunes. I didn’t care whether the music was good or bad; the tunes simply induced in me a feeling of anxious love and that nostalgia that rises sharply in the throat. I often listened to music from my teens, and it brought back to me the restlessness and yearning of those years. That flickering nerviness helped me construct a prose of loss and yearning in English, something similar to my half-memories of being in love for the first time in the strange filtered light of the Soviet Union and Cold War Europe. The songs played somewhere beyond my immediate consciousness and gave me a continuous unchanging mood.

A digression: I have never asked other translators how music has helped their practice. I once worked on a brutal and dispiriting passage (from a different book) describing the mass executions performed by the Soviet secret police. In order to translate this text, to maintain a moral and emotional balance and produce a text with clarity, I listened compulsively to bland pop music. That is, I didn’t listen to it exactly, but rather, the soothing, pappy background, like trickling water or the tide coming in, cushioned me and allowed me to carry on. When I finished the work, I would find that the same bland music, if I came across it by chance in shops and leisure centres, never failed to remind me of the executioners of the NKVD.

One of In Memory of Memory’s legacies for me is its fusion of a Soviet and European past. The family memoirs are unequivocally Russian and Soviet; however, one of the most important of the ancestors is great-grandmother Sarra, who studied in France. References in the book are frequently to Western European and American artists and thinkers as if to prove beyond doubt that the doors of the hortus conclusus of Russian poetry and literature have always stood ajar and the twentieth-century Russian experience was above all a shared human one.

Sometimes by translating a book we make a small patch of land for ourselves, the translators who exist between worlds, and this has been such a translation. I have, in translating it, heard my own voice and the voice of my friend, and the new land we have made together in a shared and more expansive literary tradition cannot now be gainsaid.


Sasha Dugdale


Sasha Dugdale is a poet, playwright, and translator of Russian literature. She served as editor of Modern Poetry in Translation from 2012 to 2017. She has published five collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Deformations (Carcanet, 2020). Her translation of Maria Stepanova’s War of the Beasts and the Animals is forthcoming from Bloodaxe and Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory from Fitzcarraldo and New Directions (US) in 2021.