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"It has to feel natural and spontaneous": an interview with translator Jesse Irwin

Translator Jesse Irwin.

Q: What was it like to grow up in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia? Was there anything in this play that resonated with your own childhood experiences?

This play reminds me of the remnants from the Soviet era that I saw around me in Kiev and Moscow and other cities: old buildings, some falling into disrepair or barely holding on, parks with overgrown weeds, dirt soccer fields we played on. Where I used to live, I’d take walks through residential neighborhoods on the way to the grocery store and would pass small kindergarten buildings with colorfully painted metal fences, like one Mitya would have gone to if he had been allowed in. I recognize in the aunt many women who were caring at the core but who would snap at you if you caused them any trouble. One I particularly remember was a librarian who scolded every young person who didn’t know how to ask for a book politely and tactfully. I learned my lesson with her.

A: How did you decide to become a translator?

When I was in music school, I started reading books a lot. Long subway commutes between home and school gave me plenty of time to do this. Russian literature classes at my school introduced me to Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrey Bely, the Symbolists, and others. It wasn’t until later, though, when I took a university creative writing workshop in the US, that I first tried my hand at translation. My creative writing teacher pushed me (thankfully) to keep at it. Translating felt natural because I was used to moving from one culture into another as a child, having moved from place to place growing up. Rewriting a Russian poem, story ---or play, in this case ---into English feels similar to that experience of loss and gain that comes with leaving one culture behind but not letting go of it while adapting to a new culture.

Q: What attracted you to translating Platonov, in particular? Was there anything that surprised or struck you as you began to learn about Platonov, his life, and his work?

A: Platonov immediately seemed different to me from any Russian writer I had read. The way his stories develop, for one, is not conventional. His working-class characters express a depth of feeling that is simple but not sentimental in the way they love and long for connection with the world and others. As I learned more about Platonov, I was surprised that he not only wrote but also worked on the railroad, managed massive land reclamation projects as an agricultural engineer, and wrote journalism as a war correspondent, all while being a dedicated writer with little credit to his name during his lifetime.

Q: How far did Platonov get in writing the play? Do you have any idea of why he might have stopped?

A: Platonov signed a contract with the Central Children’s Theater to write the play in 1939, but it was never staged. The story in the play is actually developed further in a few short stories and screen plays he wrote. He would reuse material in this way, and change the story as he did this. In one alternate version of the play, Dusya babysits the boy Mitya when she is a student learning to work on the railroad. She goes on to become a hero when she saves a train collision from catastrophe. Platonov’s work was often criticized by editors for its pessimism, and I imagine this play fell under the same scrutiny.

Q: What elements of this play were particularly challenging to translate?

A: In general, Platonov is very hard to translate because he often phrases things in very particular and strange ways. In this play, the challenge was trying to capture the snappiness of the dialogue. This was new for me and different from translating poetry or prose because play dialogue cannot afford to sound literary or crafted. It has to feel natural and spontaneous. The voice of the aunt, Tatyana Fillipovna, was the hardest to recreate. The section my editor Robert Chandler and I reworked the most was the paragraph that begins “In she comes – and makes herself home just like that.” The aunt is going back and forth speaking aloud to herself and to the orphan Dusya – making her words sound spur-of-the-moment and not lose the reader required a lot of back and forth ourselves!

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