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A Kind Of New Alchemy: An Interview With Translator Peter Golub

Q: Your biography mentions that you were born in Moscow – could you tell a bit more about your connection to that city, to Russia, and to Russian literature?

A: I was born in 1982 in the Tekstilshchiki District of Moscow. The district is primarily composed of swamp land, which on the old Czarist maps is referred to as sukino boloto, literally “the bitches' swamp.” In the best tradition of natural philosophy and fine art, my uncle Alexander E. Platonov introduced me to both biology and poetry. When I began to study contemporary Russian poetry, he introduced me to some of the main figures of the scene, including Danila Davydov who then introduced me to dozens of young artists (see “There are at Least 2000 Good Poets: An Interview with Danila Davydov”). My uncle is himself a geneticist and a poet, and I have always looked at art and science as forms of human creativity with many overlapping qualities. The first original work I published in Russia was in an issue of Vozdukh (2006), which also featured my uncle.

Q: Some translations do not attempt to give a sense of a poem's original rhythms and rhymes, but it seems as if yours do. If that's correct, then, how did you arrive at the decision to do that? How do you balance preserving these aural elements with representing the poem's meaning?

A: Some people are very good at translating the prosody of a poem (e.g. James Falen’s translation of Eugene Onegin), but since Russian has a big case system at its disposal and English does not, there isn’t great parity between the two languages when it comes to rhyme and meter. Thankfully, most of the poetry I translate doesn’t follow a strict scheme. I don’t so much translate the rhythm as transcribe it. Although many disagree, I think translation is always a rereading/remaking of the original text, and this process also applies to the text’s prosody. No translation is perfect and major concessions have to be made, but that is what makes translation interesting—one must understand the strict rules governing the text (e.g. prosody, syntax, style, etc.) and once you’ve understood these rules, design ways of getting around them.

Q: Your poetry has been published in a bilingual Russian-English edition. What was the translation process like? Did you translate your own work, or collaborate with a different translator? What elements of your experience as a translator came into play on the "other side"?

A: The book was translated by Valery Ledenev, who is an excellent translator, scholar, and poet. He did a wonderful job—I sometimes think it sounds better in his Russian than my English. However, I should have probably had a bit more input, as there are some pretty funny mistakes that could have easily been avoided if I had read a galley. Although, the poems in the book are mostly ironic vignettes, so the “mistakes” aren’t entirely out of place.

Q: You translated two of the poems in the collection of Russian literature on WWB Campus: Danila Davydov's Fragments from the Dollmaker's Life (forthcoming) and Aleksey Porvin's Soul, You Are a Street. What about these poems and poets appealed to you as a translator? What were the most challenging aspects of these translations?

A: I’ve known Davydov for a long time because of his connection with my uncle. I met him for the first time in Moscow in the summer of 2000. I attended one of his readings at the Zverev Center. Other poets read that day (e.g. Nikolai Baitov), but Davydov was the youngest so I naturally gravitated toward him. We hit it off and when I started to translate and publish Russian poetry, I asked him to give me a list of poets to focus on—it was an excellent list and naturally included Davydov. Later, Dmitry Kuzmin provided me with a more extensive list, which became the basis for the New Russian Poetry anthology I published through Jacket 2. I like the dark fin de siècle symbolism of the “Dollmaker.” It was important for me to get the eeriness across.

Alexei Porvin approached me after I’d finished New Russian Poetry. By that time, I was translating for money, which meant that I rarely translated poetry. I had to be talked into it at first, but when I actually read the work, I was eager to work with him. Although his work is a little too traditional for my taste, his poems possess that St. Petersburg magic and elegance of the Silver Age which makes for beautiful poetry. When translating Porvin, you have to be really particularly careful with word choice, because, although his poetry is highly imagistic, it also works with nuance and ambiguity.

Q: Fragments from the Dollmaker's Life will be the final work of literature to appear in the collection of Russian texts on WWB Campus. What do you hope readers will take away from their reading of this poem? From the reading of Russian literature, in general?

A: This poem makes me think of the dark Symbolist writing of the fin de siècle that blends science and magic into a kind of new alchemy. I want readers to take away from reading this poem what I want them to take away from reading anything—the alleviation of boredom and the illumination of something new. John Berryman wrote that he was bored by people and literature: “especially great literature.” Well, this literature isn’t “great,” and it’s not boring. It is glamorous (in the original sense), and will lead you away from your expectations.

Q: Your translator photograph depicts you in baseball gear (I think.) Do you play, are you a fan? What, if anything, connects baseball and translation?

A: I was given that hat at a reading at Crack Up, a bookstore in Buenos Aires. The hat is Quilmes—the largest beer maker in Argentina. The reading went well and I kept the hat for years. With the help of Andrew Haley and Ivanka Gamarnik, I have translated several young Russian poets into Spanish (see

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