Olga Bukhina is a translator of English-language children’s literature into Russian, as well as a scholar who studies children’s and young readers’ literature. Recently she spoke with fellow translator Lydia Razran Stone for the SlavFile newsletter, a publication of the The Slavic Languages Division (SLD) of the American Translators Association. They discussed Olga's path to becoming a translator, cultural adaptation of books, and Papmambook's Cultural Bridge contest.
- Olga, your website shows you to be an author and prolific English to Russian translator of children’s literature. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and, in particular, how you came to specialize in this area of translation?
- My training and initial profession was as a clinical psychologist. I worked in one of Moscow’s psychiatric hospitals, but in the 1980s I began translating children’s books. I do not have children of my own, but I was very involved in the upbringing of my sister’s four—three boys and a girl. The first two books I translated were from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia—Prince Caspian and The Last Battle. I undertook this without the slightest hope of publication; I simply wanted my nephews and niece to read these books. By then, the first book in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had already been published, and the next four, which could not be published because of censorship, were circulating in samizdat. My translations immediately joined them, thanks to the fact that they were approved by Natalya Trauberg, who was famous for her translations of Lewis’ works for both children and adults, which were also widely read in samizdat.
Then came perestroika, and in 1991 my cousin became the editor of a new small press, which had decided to specialize in publishing children’s literature. She and I collected all seven translations of Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and edited them (I also redrew and edited the maps) and published seven slim rainbow-hued volumes. That’s how I suddenly became a translator with two published volumes to my credit. It wasn’t long before my new profession left me with no time for my old one.
At first, I worked only with this publishing house, but when it closed, Narnia—another children’s publisher—opened, and I worked with them for quite a while. I never had any particular desire to translate adult literature, but sometimes I did and found it interesting as well. Of course, I always had to supplement my income with something else. In Russia, I mainly worked as an editor, and in the US, I spent many years working for the American Council of Learned Societies, a foundation that supports the humanities.
I moved to New York City 21 years ago and for a couple of years did not translate at all (indeed, I did not even read anything in Russian). Then I began to translate again, starting with Harriet the Spy, one of my real favorites. Gradually I began to work with several publishers, and now I work with about a dozen Moscow publishing houses.
I began to write about children’s literature almost by chance. I was asked to write an afterword for parents, and then another, and then another. Now I spend almost as much time writing about children’s books, for parents, teachers, librarians, and anyone else who is interested, as I do translating. About ten years ago I began to do and publish systematic research on children’s literature.
At first I translated only “chapter books” for children in the middle grades. I find this age, when children can already read for themselves and select their own books, very interesting. In recent years I have also been translating many books for younger children, and literature for adolescents and young adults.
- The one thing you left out of your first answer that fascinates me, and will fascinate our readers, is how you acquired your knowledge of English and English language literature (not to mention how you got access to the books) in order to read and translate these works into Russian.
- Like every child from an “intelligentsia” family, I started to study English early but quite unsuccessfully. Only later did I seriously apply myself to learning it. When I began to translate, I could only read the language, not speak it, which I came to much later. The C.S. Lewis books were in Moscow’s Lenin Library and my father, who had a Ph.D. in Technical Sciences, was able to take books out from there. He would take out a book for two weeks, and then another two weeks, etc.
- Had you read the books you translated in English before you began to translate them?
- Actually, I had not read, either in childhood or later, any of the books before I began to translate. I had not even heard of them. I have simply loved children’s books and have read them with pleasure throughout my life.
- How do you select the books you translate—are you still keeping up with American and British children’s lit? From your standpoint, have there been any significant changes over the years making English children’s lit easier or harder to translate?
- At first, I worked as a “scout” for the publishing company, since the editor did not read English, and helped to select books. Sometimes I would propose books I had found on my own and sometimes was given books to evaluate. Over the past 10 years, publishers have most often asked me to translate a specific book. I do not translate any book I don’t like. I try to read contemporary English-language children’s books, but of course, I’m only one person and cannot read them all. It’s hard for me to say whether it’s more difficult or easier to translate contemporary books. When I was starting out, I lived in Moscow and translated books written in the ’50s and ’60s. They were all very difficult for me. When I translated Mister God, This Is Anna by Fynn [the penname of Sydney George Hopkins], I spent two hours sitting with an Englishman and even he could not answer all my questions. Now I live in New York and everything is much, much easier. I know more, and I have more ways of finding out what I don’t know by asking someone or searching on Google. For the last 10 years I have been collaborating with my sister, Galina Gimon. Galina lives in Moscow; she was trained as a mathematician and has raised four children. Collaborating is a great pleasure for both of us. Most of the books we translate are contemporary.
Of course, there are differences between British and US books, but still this is more a function of when they were written. Enid Blyton, a British author of children’s books, including some simple mysteries, in the ’20s to the ’60s, is very different from Meg Rosoff, a contemporary writer, who was born in the US and now lives in England. I also translate many graphic novels for children, and this is a completely different translation experience for me.
- I imagine that you have encountered many issues involved in somehow “interpreting” differences in Soviet/post-Soviet culture and American/British culture for Russian speaking children. Has that gotten easier or more difficult?
- A translator of children’s books is always a translator of culture, and always tries to convey the small details and nuances of life in another country. When I myself was a child, these nuances were terribly, terribly interesting to me, and now I try never to omit them when I am translating, although this is not always possible or easy. I was not a “professional” translator during the Soviet era, and thus cannot compare with how it was back then, but the realia of foreign life are extremely important to me. Yes, of course, when you translate a middle-grade book about the life of a little girl in Texas at the end of the nineteenth century, you need to fill in details about how a cotton gin works that were not in the English original, since Russian readers won’t have heard of cotton gins (this became an issue in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly). However, it seems to me that children are much less put off by differences than adults and are thrilled by opportunities to learn something new. Furthermore, it is traditional in Russian practice to include explanatory notes in books for children and adolescents. I very much approve of this practice and have written an article about it as a researcher.
- Because of cultural differences, might it actually be easier to translate children’s books that take place in a fantasy world?
- Yes, in some sense, fantasy stories are universal and less culture-specific, but at the same time a translator is compelled to come up with all kinds of new proper and common names, and has to keep deciding whether it is more important to render form or meaning. An interesting example is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which is set in England but is full of fantastic creatures and names. For example, the villain has quite a symbolic name, Monsieur Coque de Noir. In my translation he became Сэр Вильям Кукарекур де Мрак [literally: Sir William Сock-a-doodle-doo de Gloom]. Moonacre, a toponym, became Лунная Долина [literally: Moon Valley].
- Could you give us examples of some particularly clever word or phrase translations you are proud of?
- It is difficult to choose! Galina Gimon and I were very happy with our translation of the book title The Hippo at the End of the Hall. We translated it with a rhyme as Где-то там гиппопотам (literally: There Is a Hippo Somewhere Around). We had to defend this title to the copyright holders, since a literal translation would be not only boring but also a bit suggestive.
Here is another example from a book for preschool children—Polly and the Puffin by Jenny Colgon. This book contained a number of riddles that were not easy to translate. For example: “What do sea monsters eat? Fish and ships!” which I translated as “Чем питается морской змей? Размоченными в воде галерами! (What does a sea serpent eat? Galleys marinated in water.)
- You seem to be a driving force behind the Papmambook contest, which gives bilingual Russian children here in the States (or do you get submissions from other Englishspeaking countries as well?) an opportunity to try their hand at translating children’s literature from Russian into English. Can you tell us how that contest came about?
- Marina Aromshtam, a writer and educator, created the Papmambook website, which is dedicated to children’s literature and reading. It sponsors a number of contests, both for adolescents in Russia and bilingual children living outside of Russia. I am in charge of running a translation competition under the auspices of Papmambook in the United States, but there are other contests in several countries involving translation into several different languages (in Australia and Cyprus, for example, the children also translate from Russian to English). Each contest is judged separately. The judges of the American contest are translators (experienced and beginners) and teachers living in both the US and Russia. The texts are taken from books written by contemporary Russian children’s authors. The winners receive award certificates and books.
This year marks our third round, following two previous successful competitions. Bilingual children are excited about translating short Russian texts into English—which, by the way, they may be more fluent in than in Russian. The parents, for their part, have been pleased to see their children motivated to read Russian. And perhaps after translating their small section, the contestants have felt a desire to read the entire book.
Conducted and translated by Lydia Razran Stone
The interview is published with the permission The Slavic Languages Division of the American Translators Association. The original newsletter can be found here.
Follow us on Facebook.