Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler
The poet Robert Chandler is the translator of Pushkin's highly vaunted miniature Dubrovsky and the brilliant melodrama Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov (both Hesperus). Robert's translations of Sappho and Apollinaire are published by 'Everyman's Poetry' and his translations of Russian prose include Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate and several volumes by Andrey Platonov. He lives with his wife in West London and travels now and again to Russia, Central Asia and Iran; during the last few years he has been learning Persian. He kindly answers a few of our questions ...

Mark Thwaite  Edith Grossman said in the introduction to her wonderfully fluid new translation of Don Quixote that getting the right voice was the hardest part of the translator's job (rather than any lexical difficulties). Would you agree with her?

Robert Chandler  "Yes, certainly. Margaret Jull Costa, another fine translator from Spanish and Portuguese, has written, 'As all translators know, solving knotty problems such as puns and idioms is always the lesser part of the work. The greater part is finding the right tone and the right style, but the decisions taken to achieve this are far less easy to exemplify because they tend to be less conscious, more instinctive, and happen over a longer period of time.'"

MT  You mention in your introduction to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk some of the particular difficulties of translating Leskov (notably his complex and multi-layered language). How did you cope with those challenges?

RC  "As always - by reading passages out loud again and again, both to myself and to my wife, and by inviting comments before publication from as many readers as possible. Gradually this enables us to eliminate phrases that are dull, false, unintentionally ambiguous, or 'out of voice'."

MT  What interested you in Leskov? How would you rate him alongside, say, Pushkin and Platonov (who you have also translated)?

RC  "The three nineteenth century Russian writers who mean most to me are Pushkin, Chekhov and Leskov. I love Pushkin and Chekhov for their clarity; I love Leskov's prose for its richness. One scholar has written that for Leskov 'language was not simply a medium of communication, but a potential art object in its own right, something to be played with, sculpted into interesting shapes.' And the richness of Leskov's language reflects his deep knowledge of all strata of Russian society - not only the aristocracy and the intelligentsia but also the peasantry, the merchant class and the Church."


MT  Is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a particular favourite of yours?

RC  "It is one of several favourites. I am including a fine American translation of his story The Steel Flea in my Penguin Classics Book of Russian Short Stories (to be published in 2005). I hope one day to translate Leskov's 'The Enchanted Wanderer' for Hesperus."

MT  What is next for you? More poetry, more translations? More Leskov?

RC  "I am now translating two novels for Harvill: The Railway, by the contemporary Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov; and Chevengur, by Andrey Platonov, the greatest Russian writer of the last century. Chevengur is the name of an imaginary town in the depths of Central Russia where a group of idealistic Bolsheviks, impatient with talk of 'transitional steps towards Communism', attempt (with catastrophic results) to bring about Communism there and then. I also hope to translate Chekhov's 'The Steppe' for Hesperus."

MT  What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer? What are you reading now?

RC  "Dante, Sappho and Hafez are my favourite poets; Platonov is my favourite prose-writer. Recently I have been learning by heart a number of poems by W.B.Yeats. I adore Penelope Fitzgerald's novels and have just been reviewing A House of Air, a collection of her literary criticism and other articles. I look forward to reading Michael Longley's latest collection of poems Snow Water."

Snow Water

MT  What book do you wish you had written?

RC  "The poems I have not yet written."

MT  Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer!?

RC  "To read out loud to other people - both their own work-in-progress and their favourite classics."

MT  Anything else you'd like to say?

RC  "That I enjoy translating more and more as the years go by. I know no better way really to get to know a writer. Once, talking to an acclaimed French translator of Shakespeare, I surprised myself by feeling a pang of envy. I felt that I would never know Shakespeare as deeply and intimately as he did. No doubt I would feel differently if I were an actor.

The other reason why my work feels increasingly rewarding is that I collaborate more and more - with my wife, and with other writers, translators and scholars. This has helped me to widen my range of style and vocabulary, it has deepened my understanding of the writers I translate and it has led to some close friendships.

I am grateful to have had the chance to work for both Hesperus and Harvill, with editors who have a fine understanding of the process of translation. My only regret is that Russian literature is somewhat out of fashion at the moment. Most contemporary Russian writers look on Andrey Platonov as the equal of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Chekhov. The four volumes of his work that I have co-translated for Harvill - The Foundation Pit, The Return, Happy Moscow and Soul - have all received excellent reviews. Platonov, nevertheless, remains surprisingly little known in the English-speaking world. This will change."

MT  Thank you so much for your time Robert.

-- Mark Thwaite (10/08/2005)

Readers Comments

  1. Ghennadi Novikov says... Monday 28 April 2008

    Hi, my name is Ghennadi Novikov. I’m Russian but live and work in Philadelphia.
    I just read an interview with Robert Chandler and am wondering now if you could do me a huge favour. Could you, please, pass a couple of my questions to Mr. Chandler?
    I’m interested in whether he is familiar with the works of Saltikov-Schedrin and if he thought of translating them?

    Very truly

  2. Iavor Lubomirov says... Tuesday 04 November 2008

    I have been faithfully waiting for a translation of Chevengur since 2003 when I first read Mr Chandler's rendition of Happy Moscow. I have read several of his translations and they are always so beautiful - I am simply on tenterhooks now that I have read his intention to translate Chevengur. Please let it be true! For the last five years I have regularly scoured the internet for Platonov translations and have managed to get my hands on a few ex-libris copies of various works. Not Chevengur so far and it's so frustrating. There are copies of a 1978 translation (well before russian publication!) being touted for upwards of £100 on a few sites. There are also two chapters of the novel in the Portable Platonov - which is such a tease! I have been holding off reading them in the hope that I can get the full novel some day. It has since also come out in Spanish. Woe is me for being mono-lingual :-(

  3. I am grateful for both of the comments above. My apologies to both Ghennadi Novikov and to Iavor Lubomirov, but I am afraid we cannot translate everything and translations of Platonov, above all, cannot be rushed. In the meantime, we have published two new volumes with NYRB CLassics: SOUL AND OTHER STORIES and an entirely new version of the definitive text of THE FOUNDATION PIT. We are all working as hard as we can!

    All the best, Robert Chandler

  4. Peter Mezhiritsky says... Tuesday 27 October 2009

    I have read Mr. Chandler notes to his readers and was really moved by finding in the list of his favorite Russian writers sacred to me name of Vassilii Grossman.
    Would be good to know, if there is translation to English Grossman's story "Treblinskii ad" (Hell of Treblinka). If not, that might be a great opportunity to Mr. Chandler of reminding recent past to some people with short memory.

    Best regards!


  5. Karen Porter says... Sunday 15 November 2009

    I have a questions for Robert Chandler - does an English translation of Grossman's For a Just Cause exist? If so, how might I get a copy? I'd love to read it. Please e-mail me with the answer. THANKS.

  6. In reply (with apologies for the year's delay) to Peter Mezhiritsky's comment above: our translation of Vasily Grossman's 'The Hell of Treblinka' is included in THE ROAD, a selection of Grossman's stories and articles recently published by The MacLehose Press.

    All the best, Robert Chandler

  7. Dwight Green says... Thursday 21 February 2013

    I am reading Anthony Olcott's translation of "Chevengur," which I believe Mr. Chandler is not a big fan of (I hope I'm putting that correctly and tactfully). When Mr. Chandler's translation of it comes out I will be more than happy to read it again--it is a wonderful book and I would love to get a more faithful feel for the original. I think we're seeing some of the increase in interest in Platonov in the English-speaking world he predicted thanks to his translations.

  8. Paul Donahue says... Friday 01 March 2013

    Hi, Is there an English Version of For a Just Cause? I would love to read it before embarking on Life and Fate.

    Sincerely, Paul Donahue

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