Blog 2: Analyzing Differences in English Translations of the Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms

When I wrote last month’s blog post, my main issue was the lack of viable sources I was able to find during my research. This seems to be inherently the case with an author of Kharms’ notoriety. However, at this point I am more comfortable with this, as in a way I am able to use the small amount of literature to my advantage. Now that I am more familiar with the material, it is easier to incorporate it more efficiently into my arguments. The fact itself that there is not a lot of information on translations of Kharms can also be used to support my case: it is necessary to closely analyze these translations as Kharms was an important part of Russian literary history.

From my research I had originally considered George Gibian’s and Matvei Yankelevich’s translation strategies to be opposites. Support for this idea comes from Boris Dralyuk, whose article I discussed in my last blog post. Dralyuk determines that Yankelevich’s translations are superior because he incorporates a “judicious literalism” into his translations. Yankelevich’s translations disrupt the reader less because, while he remains faithful to the original Russian, he is capable of using idioms in order to make the reader feel more comfortable. The idioms make the text feel like natural English. They, in theory, do not disrupt what Kharms had to say, even if they may not be Kharms’ choice of words. On the other hand, Dralyuk accuses Gibian of embellishing needlessly. The extra words Gibian added to “Blue Notebook #10”, one of Kharms’ most well-known absurdist short stories, are not represented in the original, and do not produce any kind of equivalent effect, so there is no reason for them to be there.

After actually comparing some translations, I see now that that is not entirely the case. To show what I have found I will discuss the story “The Beginning of a Beautiful Day (A Symphony)” (Gibian’s title), or “The Beginning of a Very Fine Summer’s Day (A Symphony)” (Yankelevich’s title). To Gibian, the character Timofey “frightened all the passers-by”. To Yankelevich Timofey “scared the daylights out of everyone”. An even weirder example is when Gibian says “Komarov beat up a woman”, and Yankelevich says “Komarov gave her a knick-knack-paddywhack”. Of course at other times the idioms work more in Yankelevich’s favor. Why describe a woman as “fattish”, like Gibian did, when “Chubby”, what Yankelevich used, is a unique word that means ‘kind of fat’. No one would say Gibian’s “That is a clever one!” about someone who just pulled a trick, when Yankelevich’s “Isn’t he clever!” is a much more natural sounding option. Interestingly, as different as some lines are, just as many are almost the same. Many of the simple subject-verb-object sentences are word for word exactly the same. And of course there are some differences that are just synonyms. When Gibian uses “stopped” and “threw”, Yankelevich uses “paused” and “hurled” instead. Yankelevich’s words are maybe more illustrious than Kharms had intended, but they may also do a better job describing the chaotic scene that Kharms had originally written.

What I actually found was that, although Yankelevich uses idioms and more native-sounding constructs, he sometimes goes too far and embellishes worse than Gibian. This ended up being exactly what Tony Wood said in his online article “Art is a Cupboard!” in The London Review of Books:

“But in an attempt to convey the colloquial, informal flavour of Kharms’s prose, Yankelevich has made some poor decisions that place us rather too squarely in the present-day US: at one point we are told to ‘check out this scene’, at another that the narrator was ‘shaking so bad that [he] couldn’t answer’; it’s unlikely Kharms would have said ‘gnawing on the goddamn dark’, and unclear who might actually use the expression ‘make my eyes with surprise’.” (

While I originally dismissed this article for not showing how other translators did not make this mistake, after comparing the two it is clear. Gibian may be guilty of loquacity by sometimes using unnecessarily complicated grammar structures, but Yankelevich boldly adds things that were clearly not in the original.

Before actually comparing the translations, I assumed that Gibian’s translation would reflect the notion that Kharms was nothing more than a victim of “Soviet actuality”, as he discusses in his introduction, and that Yankelevich would recognize Kharms as a unique individual, as someone more than just a victim. As he reminds us in his introduction: “It wasn’t all Stalin, all the time” (31). (It is important to remember that these two translations occurred over 30 years apart from each other, Gibian’s in 1971, and Yankelevich’s in 2007. American views and interpretations of the USSR and its artists greatly changed between the two generations.) This ended up being true, but to a different degree than I thought at first. It turns out that while Gibian leans too heavily in one direction, Yankelevich leans just as heavily in the opposite direction. Gibian recognizes Kharms’ individuality, but emphasizes his oppression, and Yankelevich recognizes his oppression, but emphasizes his individuality. A healthier, more truthful balance is needed.

This presents an interesting issue which lies at the core of Translation Studies: Gibian attempts to carefully recreate the Russian in English, while Yankelevich attempts to completely replace the Russian with English. Is it better to create an awkward sounding translation that shows the reader what the original may have looked like, or a smooth sounding one that allows the reader to temporarily believe that what they are reading is the original? This is a very general question and the differences between Gibian’s and Yankelevich’s translations do not boil down to just that, but it does reflect the issues at hand. The next step will be to compare the translations back to the original Russian, and see just how judicious Yankelevich’s “judicious literalism” is.

I am also having some second thoughts about my original aim to figure out whose translation is ‘better’. I think that translations stop being better or worse, and become equal but different, when we recognize that we will never be able to translate with a perfect one to one correspondence. Kharms was an author from the 1930’s Soviet Union who wrote absurdist literature in serialized Russian magazines. No modern day American translator is ever going to reproduce that equally. Instead of determining which is a better translation of Kharms, I think my new goal is to determine which translation is a better introduction to Kharms. Our translation culture tries to make the translator small and invisible by saying that translations are reproductions of an original instead of original works themselves. That is why I found so much discussion about the translations as if that were what Kharms himself had written. That is why ‘Kharms’ is four times the size of both ‘Gibian’ and ‘Yankelevich’ on the cover of both books. The more work I do on this project, the more I am realizing that our attempts to marginalize translators betray the fact that we still believe perfect translations are possible. And as long as we still believe this myth, we will continue to hurt translators and authors alike by falsely claiming that translations are what the author would have written had they written in our language.

Blog 1: Analyzing Differences in English Translations of the Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms

When a renowned author like Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky is translated, the importance and merit of the original work does not need to be proven, so the translator is heavily scrutinized. From my research so far I have noticed that the opposite tends to be true for a lesser known author like Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) who was a Soviet era absurdist and surrealist writer active during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Along with Alexander Vvedensky, he cofounded the OBERIU (which stands for ‘Union for Real Art’ in Russian) art collective which was a sort of reaction to enforced Soviet realism. Many reviews of translations of Kharms’ work, both scholarly and not, focus on him and not the translator. Because he is not as well known, critics still feel the need to prove that he is worth reviewing in the first place, and do not often get to the point where they carefully analyze the translation itself. In my research so far I have discovered many articles that briefly refer to the acceptability of a translation, and then laud Kharms for his genius, martyrdom, or originality. For instance, Barry Scherr reviews George Gibian’s translations of Kharms works in Gibian’s book Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd: A Literary Discovery: Selected Works of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky by describing them simply as “quite good” (Slavic Review, vol. 31, 513). In the rest of the review, Scherr discusses what is actually included in the book, does some fact checking, and then concludes by saying that “both specialists and non-specialists” may be interested in the OBERIU’s works. The New York Times newspaper’s Sunday Book Review discusses “Today, I Wrote Nothing” as if it was not a collection of translations by Matvei Yankelevich, but rather had Kharms originally written his stories in English. Yankelevich is only referenced to say that his introduction was excellent. One source that I have found so far that does go into detail when comparing the translations themselves is Boris Dralyuk’s review of Yankelevich’s “Today I Wrote Nothing”. He specifically discusses multiple translations of “Blue Notebook #10”, and comes to the definite conclusion that Yankelevich’s translation is superior. Yankelevich translates the opening line of the short story as follows: “There was a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears.” Gibian’s translation of the opening line: “There once was a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears.” Dralyuk points out that Gibian needlessly changes Kharms’ blunt style by adding the word ‘once’ and a second ‘no’.

My goal now is to find more scholarly sources that have this kind of detailed analysis of translation, and then read the two translations myself to develop a sense of the differences in translation styles. At this point my initial understanding is that, while Gibian’s works are valued for being some of the first translations of Kharms, Yankelevich’s translations seem to be superior and closer and more faithful to the original. Once I have a better understanding of Gibian and Yankelevich’s stylistic differences, I will be better suited to successfully argue which is superior and in what ways. My biggest hurdle right now is the limited amount of academic discourse on the topic of English translations of Kharms. Translations of Russian absurdism are definitely not as popular to discuss as translations of the Bible. When I have enough information to reference, the research paper will then come together easily. Then, after studying the strategies of both translators, I will produce a solid translation which will utilize an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. I have not yet decided exactly which piece I will translate, but I would like to work with one of his better known short stories, such as “Blue Notebook #10”. I think I have chosen a difficult but very rewarding topic, since it is something I find very interesting.