Buchempfehlung der Woche

von Eugene Ostashevsky

Eugene Ostashevsky ist ein russisch-amerikanischer Lyriker, der aktuell zwischen New York, wo er an der NYU Literatur unterrichtet und Berlin pendelt. Sein Buch Der Pirat, der von Pi den Wert nicht kennt, übersetzt von Uljana Wolf und Monika Rinck (kookbooks, Berlin 2017), erhielt 2019 den Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. Für dieses Jahr wurde ihm eins der 10 Arbeitsstipendien für Berliner Autorinnen und Autoren nichtdeutschsprachiger Literatur zuerkannt. Des weiteren war er bis März Dorothea Schlegel Artist-in-Residence des Programmes EXC2020, Temporal Communities, der  FU Berlin.

Yevgenia Belorusets
Glückliche Fälle
Aus dem Russischen von Claudia Dathe, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2019

I am now reading a book—or rather, I am now re-reading a book, but this time I am reading it strangely. I am translating it. It’s a book that recently came out in German, as Glückliche Fälle by Yevgenia Belorusets, in the translation of Claudia Dathe, but I am translating from the original language, which is Russian, even though the author is Ukrainian and the book came under in Ukraine under a Ukrainian title, into American English. I normally translate poetry but even in prose translation is a labor of equivocation, because languages do not match, neither in the meaning ranges of their words nor in their syntactical combinations, which are also always meaningful. And there is the even more crucial fact that the things you say come out of—and make sense within—your historical, social and cultural contexts which translation cannot preserve, and consequently every translation is a decontextualization and a repurposing, like Odysseus carrying an oar to a people who have never heard of the sea. So I am "reading" a text by rewriting it in another language, and I can only hope that my rewriting will have some semblance to the original in some third shared space, except I know there is no such space.

To write these lines, I interrupt work on a story called Prevrashcheniya, which means ´Transformations`, but I am wondering whether it would not be more accurate to translate it as ´Metamorphoses`, which in English sounds both Ovidian and Kafkaesque (Die Verwandlung is normally translated into English as ´The Metamorphosis`). Prevrashcheniya is a very short story, and it’s typical of the book in many other ways. It talks about the experience of a middle-aged woman refugee from the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine. It keeps a lot unsaid: I cannot even say what the story’s plot is, although I can say that it is set as an out-of-town encounter between the narrator, anonymous but with conventional signs of being "the author", and the informant—I am using this ethnographic term pointedly—who acts as the narrator for most of this - again, very short—story. Sections of the story are devoted to the emptiness of Kyiv during May holidays, and other sections are devoted to names, or rather to how names do or do not translate you from your context, do and do not exert mastery over you. Then the informant, who is renting a bed in a room with a couple from her village, all three of them refugees in Kyiv, speaks about spending time alone in the room, with her roommates away for the holidays. What does she do there? She is an ordinary person, she cleans apartments and offices for a living. She is not a philosopher. She changes things. She changes a tablespoon into a wooden Easter egg. She changes a holiday postcard from the city government into three matches. She changes a dysfunctional teapot into a woman’s fan. She stares intently at a thing and changes it. The informant speaks in a subtly characteristic way, a way that indexes her gender and social status, but also says shows the intended and unintended results of Soviet educational methods, with their impalpable violence. Is the narrator supposed to believe her? The informant would like to prove her story by changing the napkin into a tiny human being but the waiter keeps looking their way with suspicion, so she decides not to. And we, what do we do with a story like that, a story that is both very simple and very complex—how do we interpret it?

My day job is as a literature professor, so I can talk with ease about the literary pedigree of that story—especially since my other reading this week is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, read aloud to my daughters (Me: "O Bottom, thou art changed... Thou art translated!" Daughters: "Hahahahaha!")—but the literary antecedents are all in the wings, they are not at all what the story is about. What is the story about then? Is it about the informant’s social status, that of a refugee in her own country? Is it about her mental and linguistic universe? Is it about both: the post-Soviet flotsam of her life, both inner and outer? Or is it about dignity? Is it about loneliness? Is it about how we encounter other people but we remain ourselves and they remain other people? But, really, is it about that at all? What does it even mean to say that something is "about" something? Does it mean to change it? Does it mean to translate it? To make it about something else? Yevgenia Belorusets is an alumna of the LCB Translation Fellowship as a translator from German.

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