Translator and NER contributor Michael Katz talks with NER editorial panelist Evgeniya Dame about his translation process, his time spent abroad in Leningrad during the early 1970s, and the most underrated Russian writers. Katz’s translation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Auntie,” can be found in NER 39.4.
Evgeniya Dame: I was very excited when I saw the New England Review published Nikolai Gogol’s short story in your translation. It’s not often that his name comes up in Western publications. What do you think is the reason?
Michael Katz: I think it’s just that he is much less well-known than Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Gogol is harder to translate, his language is difficult, there’s no doubt about that. I’m in the middle of translating his story “Portret” (“The Portrait”) and I’m having difficulty with the language. It’s complicated, the syntax is involved, he has endless subordinate clauses, his vocabulary is very broad, compared to Dostoyevsky’s. I’m enjoying it, but it’s difficult.
ED: Does your translation method change depending on the author, or, in this case, on the difficulty of style?
MK: My method doesn’t vary from author to author. I read the text carefully, do a rough draft; edit the draft; send it to a native speaker colleague, who makes suggestions and corrections; then I edit it again to produce a final draft.
ED: What drew you to Gogol in the first place?
MK: After years of working on Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (and some Turgenev) I needed a break – and Gogol is funny! He’s Russia’s humorist. He may be the only Russian humorist, certainly the best one of the 19th century. In the 20th century he has to compete with people like Zoshchenko, but for the 19th century he’s the humorist. I’m enjoying a break from the religious and philosophical depths of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
ED: I had read Gogol in school, including “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Auntie,” but I did not remember that the story is unfinished. That came as a complete surprise! And then of course I thought of the famous ending of The Government Inspector where the author literally freezes his characters in the final scene, which – in a way – leaves the play without an ending. Are unfinished stories common for Gogol?
MK: Well, I don’t believe that “Shponka” is really unfinished. I think that’s part of the artistic device of the story. You get the frame with Rudy Panko, the beekeeper, where he talks about writing the story down on paper which his wife later uses to bake pirozhki. It’s part of the humor. And I see the theme of the story as Shponka’s morbid fear of intimacy, in particular of women, and even more in particular of marriage. When the courtship between Shponka and Storchenko’s daughter breaks down, because they have nothing to talk about, except the flies and summer, I think that really is the crisis of the story. Then Shponka goes home, falls asleep and sees this phantasmagorical dream, which is for my money the best part of the story – that last couple of paragraphs. And there really is nowhere to go after that for Gogol. There isn’t going to be a marriage. The story ends with Auntie thinking of some new scheme, but it’ll fail in the same way that any arranged marriage fails. The same thing with Revisor (The Government Inspector). In the last scene, when Khlestakov’s deception is suddenly revealed, that is the culmination of the story, so the play ends there. There is nowhere to go for this play.
ED: I have tracked down a few other translations of this story. Looking through them, I noted that you are the only translator who points out that the Aunt thinks in Ukrainian but speaks in Russian. Why do you think previous translations omitted this fact? Why was it important for you to point out?
MK: First, there is no way to translate it. You either have to leave it in Ukrainian or you translate it into English, along with the Russian that you’re translating into English. It’s a curious fact. Gogol was born in Ukraine. He starts as a Ukrainian writer. He has absorbed Ukrainian folk tales and images, but later on he switches to Russian and he’s trying to break out from this mold of Ukrainian folk stories. He wants to become part of Russian literature, so he writes in Russian, but he uses Ukrainian characters because they are exotic for the Russian audience. It’s a way of adding local color when he ascribes some Ukrainian phrases to Auntie. I also think it’s funny that she speaks in Russian but thinks in Ukrainian. It shows her closeness to the people.
ED: Your academic career took you to many outstanding schools, including the University of Leningrad. How did the time spent there influence you as a scholar and a translator?
MK: I was there in 1970-1971, as part of the US-USSR official cultural exchange agreement. Soviet students, largely in natural sciences, engineering, and technical subjects, were studying at MIT and Caltech. In exchange, the United States sent over historians, political scientists, economists, linguists, and literary critics. I was one of some thirty American graduate students sent to Russia that year and my contingent chose to be in Leningrad. I was working on the poetry of Vasily Zhukovsky, his literary ballads. I spent a year in Leningrad, working at the Institute of Russian Literature (the Pushkin House), and at the Russian Language Institute. They had a wonderful index dictionary of the Russian language from the 18th century, which I used. Later, in Moscow, I found a dictionary of Zhukovksy’s Russian and I studied the style and language of his ballads. I wrote a thesis, defended it, and then switched from poetry to prose. That was my last work on a poet. Then I wrote a book about dreams in Russian literature, including Shponka’s dream. I began translating in 1980 and since then translated about 16 Russian novels and now collections of short stories into English.
ED: You must have many stories from that time…
MK: Plenty of stories! My advisor was actually Ukrainian, Georgy Panteleimonovich Mahogonenko. The great challenge for me was learning how to say his name. He called me Mike and I had to call him Georgy Panteleimonovich. He would come up to me, shake my hand and say, “Zdravstvuy, Mike.” (Hello Mike.) And I would have to stand up and say, “Zdravstvuyte, Georgy Panteleimonovich.” (Hello Georgy Panteleimonovich.) I had to say that before he left to greet somebody else! My great accomplishment of the year was being able to say the whole thing before he let go of my hand.
ED: What are some of the overlooked Russian authors that you wish were better known in the U.S.?
MK: I think Turgenev is underrated. People know only Fathers and Children, they don’t know any of his other novels, especially Rudin, his first novel. It is quite good and very instructive about the education of women in the middle of the 19th century. Goncharov is probably the most underrated and his Oblomov is a gem. It’s rarely included in syllabi. I’ve taught it only once and students loved it, but it’s long and usually not regarded in the same way as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Then, of course, Pushkin. He’s hard to translate, so everybody knows about Pushkin, but nobody reads him. He should be known better than he is.
ED: You’ve taught Russian literature for many years. Some of your students already come with a deep interest in those works, others are just starting to read Russian classics. What do you think a person needs in order to understand Russian literature and be able to connect with it?
MK: One of the things that strikes me about Russian literature is how brief the “golden age” was. Pushkin is born in 1799 and Chekhov dies in 1904. In that hundred-year span so much first quality, genuinely wonderful writing was produced. American students have difficulty understanding where that all comes from. Middle ages produced a couple of interesting things, the 18th century is kind of dull, but all of a sudden Pushkin bursts onto the scene and is followed by Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. There are some wonderful things in the Soviet period, but for me the glory of Russia remains the 19th century. The incredible burst of creativity is unique. No other culture experienced that intensity in such a short time. I think that curiosity and appreciation of that intensity is what is needed in order to understand the Russian literature.
Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. He has published translations of over fifteen Russian novels, including works by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chernyshevsky.
Evgeniya Dame studied English at the State Pedagogical University in Samara, Russia before coming to the U.S. on a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire. Her MFA thesis received the Young P. Dawkins III award, and her work has appeared in Electric Literature and is forthcoming in The Southern Review. She is a recipient of the Martin Dibner Memorial Fellowship for Maine writers. After returning to Russia to teach at Moscow State University for several years, she currently lives in Maine with her husband.