I finished reading The Gray House, but I am not closing the book.
From the day when Yuri Mackasov surprised us, readers, here, I knew I wanted to interview him about the book. As time passed, his presence, his help, proved indispensable, and the pangs to continue the conversation with him more acute.
When I asked him to please answer a few questions, I was glad to hear he’d oblige.
I was self-conscious about my questions, -we cannot ask about that which we don’t know. But Yuri’s answers blew my mind, – they are such a great essay and commentary on The Gray House, on translation, and life. I know you want to hear him talk. This is the interview:
1. How would you describe the process of translating the House?
Probably the same way Mariam herself describes her relationship with the book: it was a world I knew and could visit – at night or on weekends. I’ve had periods when the next page was the only thing I could think of during the day; I’ve also had some when I was just rereading and tweaking (at first I tried to make myself go further during those, but then realized that this is how it should be).
I was really down when I’ve uploaded the finished manuscript to Amazon’s editors – I know I shouldn’t say that, but it felt almost like seeing my oldest son off to college, so anything that reconnects me with the House I eagerly welcome – thank you so much for your work that gave me the opportunity.
2.Can you talk to us about your ‘philosophy of translation’?
Anna Akhmatova, one or the Russian “Silver Age” poets, used to ask her guests before relating a remembrance or an anecdote to them: “Have I played this record for you yet?” I too have a favorite “record” I like to play when it comes to translation, and it is about an essay by Hermann Hesse, a German-Swiss writer (and Nobel laureate). It’s very short, all of three pages, and in it, he outlines a classification of readers, consisting of three levels (a short discourse on it is here.)
The first type reads the book for what’s inside: the plot, the characters, the moral, the turn of phrase. The second is using all of those as devices to sneak a peek into the personality of the author. Finally, readers of the third type see any book as just a starting point for insights into their own experiences.
Now, this is not a hierarchy, as neither is better or worse than the others; indeed, Hesse admits that the supposedly superior third type are not readers at all, in a sense – they don’t care about the book itself, a page with the letters of alphabet typed up in order would work just as well. Also, no person remains at one level over time and, what’s most important for me, over the time of reading one book. We oscillate between all three, consecutively and in parallel, and therefore good books can be said to be perceived as a kind of “cloud” that they generate in our minds, composed of the intertwined elements of those three kinds of reading.
So, my task (and, I think, the only worthy goal of any translation) would be to recreate this cloud in another language; tell the same story in the same words, yes, but also make English readers feel the same about what the text stirred inside them.
Of course, this necessitates that I go hunting for every allusion I can find in the text (and then transfer the cultural reference), so the translator is first and foremost the best reader. Translation is already a process that has inevitable losses built into it; it would be foolish to not at least begin with the full deck, having transferred every last drop from the original into the cup of my future text before starting on my journey with it balanced on top of my head. On the other hand, it frees me (in a sense) to insert at least some part of myself and of my life experience into the book (for the future third-level readers).
Paradoxically (or not), it’s precisely the knowledge of every word in the House being exactly in the place it’s supposed to be (and it would, in a book that was being actively written and rewritten over close to 20 years) that had enabled this from the technical point of view. I didn’t have to choose between the myriad possible ways to relate the same thought – instead, I needed just to find the exact replacement. My translation is true to the original at the level of sentence; I don’t think the number of sentences in both versions would diverge by more than a dozen.
3. What is that you love the most about this book and why? Conversely, is there anything that leaves you frustrated, or wanting for more?
Apart from the fact that I consider the House to be a very important book in any language, in that it is one of the best that I know that explains what love (and friendship) actually is and how it works, at the day-to-day level – when we have to live with our friends and loved ones side by side, – it is, of course, the thing that strikes most, if not all careful readers: how Mariam managed to leave the text in that precarious superposition of realistic and magical (again, to quote Marquez, “destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic”), and then letting us choose our own level of engagement with the fantastical elements – while remaining internally consistent. I’m sorry if this is “talking shop”, but I was a nuclear physicist before I became a software engineer (and only then a translator), and this is exactly how our world works – at the quantum level, that is, where the Schrödinger’s cat is at the same time dead and alive. In addition to the Hesse’s three levels, while reading the House we can be Black, or Smoker, or Ralph, or even Tabaqui, and it’ll work just fine, until we would want to switch and after we do.
The other thing that appeals to me is the depth of the cultural layer that the House grows on. It was a special delight to go searching for, and finding, references, mentions,allusions, all the threads and markers leading deep into that layer – and then, lucky me, solve the little riddle of the intercultural transfer, just like Ralph “at night in his room, at his leisure over a cup of tea, the way others spent their time on a crossword puzzle”; I hope that the sense of this depth is still there in my text, as much as I could keep it there.
The “wanting for more” part is straightforward – it seemed particularly unfair to me that neither Noble, nor Humpback, nor Black got to talk in their own voice (it is only later that I found they had – just to be left on the cutting room floor when the book was being assembled for the first publication, because it was deemed too much of a “jigsaw puzzle”, imagine that; some of these have been restored in the new Russian edition). I am sure that even those of whom we know only a nick and not much else have fascinating stories to tell (and I so love Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” that I even sneaked a quote in where it didn’t exist in the original, in a quiet homage to the unsung glory of the secondary character).
4. Who is your favorite person in the House and why?
I would actually disagree with Mariam when she says that Smoker is her most “normal” character. For me the ideal approach to the House is embodied in Ralph, and it’s him that I find the most relatable. His analytic streak and disdain for theatrics, his concentration on the task in front of him, his unflinching honesty with himself, his stubbornness and at the same time agility in the changing circumstances – all marks of a “solid character”, as Humpback would say. In a sense, he lives more in according with The Law than any of the kids – as he would have to, being the outsider’s outsider, someone who needs to devote a large amount of time and energy just to be able to enter this world (this also appeals to me as an immigrant who once found himself trying to create a life in a country that, for all intents as purposes, might as well have been the Moon, the way it’s been presented to me through the first 20 years of my life spent in the now non-existent Soviet Union).
5. Do you have many unanswered questions? Does that bother you? Do you have different explanations or theories about the House’s questions and riddles?
I think that from the very start I have accepted the House’s dual nature, and never really thought to explain it within either strictly realistic or strictly magical framework. The notion of a “crack between the worlds”, a place in our world where the boundary separating it from the mysterious is weakened as compared to the rest of it seems natural; as Icelanders respect their “hidden folk”, as Japanese and Mexicans celebrate “days of the dead”, so is the House a gateway to a different place (two places, if you count the Forest). I had to form a coherent schema of all that, of course, before I could begin translating (or the muddle in my head would have inevitably spilled onto the pages), so that I would be able to install all those arrows, clues and false signs so beloved by Tabaqui, and by that time the questions I had were more of an “I wonder” nature: out of the things Mermaid collects from the Fourth to do her magic, is the button Alexander’s and the coin Black’s (it is), or the other way around? who ate the rabbit (Beauty did)? when on the country trips in the Bug, did Blind sit next to Elk (no; he was behind him in the back seat)? was the candlestick presented to Ralph the same one that Blind unearthed on one of those trips (what? I don’t know, but maybe it was)? Of these I have an inexhaustible supply, but they are, again, mostly my greed for “anything that is the House”, not crucial elements without which it is impossible to understand what had happened –half a dozen readings of the book took care of those.
The correspondence between the “old” and the “new” nicks (except for the connection between the newbie Spot and the artist Leopard, obvious in hindsight) and the meaning of the gear and the feather I have also figured out by myself (I think).
6. What was the hardest part, chapter, or concept to translate?
One of the amazing things about the House is that all of them really do talk in different voices. “So” and “And” at the beginning of sentences in Alexander’s chapter, officious speech structure for Godmother, Tabaqui’s elaborate periods, tedious grammar of the Pheasants – even as I deconstruct these tools, I am still taken by their flawless use, resulting in completely natural individual styles and inflections. From the technical point of view, this was both the hardest and the most important part: to retain this pointillist effect of the multihued whole being assembled from daubs of pure color.
And as I was struggling to do this, I found that Sphinx’s and especially Ralph’s pages flow almost effortlessly, while I stumble over Tabaqui’s and Blind’s, and Alexander’s monologue alone took me about a month, I’m not joking. I felt like I was an icebreaker attacking a floe; there were days when I could not move forward more than a couple of sentences, so I had to roll back, reread what I’ve already put down and come back next time.
I can’t wait to keep the conversation alive. I have lots of other questions, but now I’d leave some room for you to talk to Yuri.