John Dewey is the author of Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (Brimstone Press 2011)    

   Q1. Do you only ever translate from a language you  know well?
   A: Yes (Russian, German, occasionally French).

Q2.
 Do you prefer to read other translations of the piece you are translating?  (a) Before starting  (b) After making a first draft (c) Never ?
A: I avoid this if at all possible, as I prefer to start from scratch and would worry about unconscious plagiarism. It would of course be a different matter if asked to revise an existing translation, but this has never arisen.

Q3.  Do you use a dictionary?  If “Yes”, do you use a foreign language/English dictionary or a dictionary in the source language itself?
A:  Yes, both: Foreign Language-English for quick reference, FL-FL for more obscure points, use of words in context, and so on. Also useful are a thesaurus and (for poetry) a rhyming dictionary.

Q4. Do you show your translation to anyone before sending it off?
A:  No.

Q5. Do you ever translate books or poems you don’t like?  If “Yes”, does this bother you when translating?
A:  Like everyone, I suppose, I prefer to translate things I like and have some sympathy with, but have also undertaken work on a ‘jobbing’ basis as long as the original is not too disagreeable. Recently I did turn down a commission, unable to face the prospect of translating a distressing and evidently autobiographical account of a young girl’s struggle with cancer. 

Q6.  Do you work regular hours or in spurts ‘when you feel like it’?
A: I try to keep to a routine, particularly with longer prose pieces. Having said that, both with poetry and tricky prose passages inspiration often comes away from the desk, while doing something else.

Q7. Do you use stimulants (e.g. coffee, alcohol, drugs) to ‘get started’?
A:  No (unless walking counts as a stimulant: the steady rhythm seems somehow conducive to poetic translation!) 

Q8. Could you give examples of particular difficulties in translating poems or prose from a specific language ? Have you any tips about how to get round these difficulties?
A: Rhymes (especially feminine, i.e. double-syllable ones) are much more abundant in inflected languages such as Russian than in English. Some of the strategies for dealing with this are discussed below (No. 10).

Q9.  Do you see yourself as a ‘literal’ translator or a ‘free’ one?
A: As others have no doubt pointed out before, in many ways this seems a misleading choice. After all, neither a resolutely literal nor a completely free translation would convey much if anything of the spirit of the original. My own aim is to produce a faithful translation: as ‘literal’ as possible, as ‘free’ as necessary, if one insists on putting it in those terms. A possibly more productive question: What would the author have written if his/her native language had been English?

Q10. When translating rhymed poetry, do you try to imitate the rhyme scheme and metre?  (a) always; (b) sometimes; (c) never ?
A: While full of admiration for translators able to convey the spirit of rhymed metrical poetry in English free verse, I personally find it easier to retain a formal framework as far as possible. It seems to me in any case an integral part of the poem’s musicality. Sometimes this can be achieved without sticking blindly to the original scheme,  for instance by substituting half-rhyme (especially for feminine rhymes) or by rhyming only alternate lines.
John Dewey July 2012

Note about the translator and his book :

Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73)
 by John Dewey

Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73) was a contemporary of Pushkin and is widely considered his equal as a lyric poet. This new biography tells the story of a fascinating life and personality as reflected in the poems, presented here in the author’s own verse translations.

  How can the soul its flame impart?
How can another know your heart,
The truths by which you live and die?
A thought, once uttered, is a lie,
The limpid spring defiled, once stirred:
Drink of it, and say not a word.

A paradoxical statement for a poet to make, one might think. Unless, that is, he believes poetry to be uniquely capable of challenging the opaqueness and inadequacy of language alluded to in these lines. Tyutchev’s lyric verse can be read as an intimate diary of his inner life (the ‘mirror of his soul’, in the apt phrase of a contemporary), publication of which he resisted or at best tolerated throughout most of his mature years. It was largely thanks to the persuasion and efforts of others that his work became more widely known.
Tyutchev’s poetry combines emotional intensity with philosophical depth, revealing glimpses of an eternal, unfathomable reality beneath the fleeting world of appearances. His nature lyrics are unsurpassed, as is the remarkable ‘Denisyeva cycle’ charting a tempestuous long-term extramarital relationship.
In his own country his literary status has never been in doubt. He was the favourite poet of Leo Tolstoy, who declared: ‘One cannot live without him.’ For Dostoyevsky he was ‘our great poet’, for Turgenev (who published his first volume of verse) ‘one of our most remarkable poets’. Afanasy Fet considered him ‘one of the greatest lyric poets ever to have existed on this earth’. Yet outside Russia Tyutchev’s name remains curiously unknown.
John Dewey’s biography — the first in English, and one of the most comprehensive to date in any language — provides a long overdue introduction to this major figure, with new verse translations by the author. Written with the general reader in mind, the book also makes important new contributions in the field of Tyutchev studies. For its account of the life it draws on an extensive range of sources, including much previously unpublished archival material. Datings, addressees and circumstances of composition are established for a number of the poems which have hitherto proved problematic in this respect. Tyutchev’s poetry, and his relationship to the major intellectual and political movements of his age, are subjected to detailed analysis and reassessment.

Reviews of Mirror of the Soul:
‘magnificent book … beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Fyodor Tyutchev anywhere in the world’
– Times Literary Supplement
‘This book is not only the first life of Tyutchev in English, it is by far the best and most complete anywhere, including Russia. Dewey’s scholarship is meticulous’
– Literary Review
‘magnificent biography … the clear writing and lively exposition keep the reader fully engaged … a highly informative and richly rewarding volume’
– Slavonic and East European Review
‘Not least impressive are the translations of Tyutchev’s lyrics which … give the non-Russian speaker a real sense of the originals’
– Malcolm Jones, Emeritus Professor of Slavonic Studies, Nottingham University
‘brilliant analysis of the lyric verse … penetrating commentaries on [Tyutchev’s] political writings.’
– Radio Free Europe
‘has convincingly resolved many of the unresolved questions of Tyutchev’s biography … Brimstone Press are to be congratulated on making it available.’
– East-West Review

555 pages, including 17 photographs. Also available as a downloadable e-book.

      Order from Brimstone Press website www.brimstonepress.co.uk Price £20 free p&p; add £3.50 for Europe, £9 for rest of world.   Downloadable e-book: £10.

Other translations by John Dewey have appeared in the series Glas New Russian Writing, among them Boris Yampolsky’s chilling novel of everyday life under Stalin, The Old Arbat, and The Nomadic Soul, a collection of stories by the US-basedwriter Irina Muravyova. His published verse translations include a substantial selection for the 15-volume Complete Works of Pushkin in English, and a version of Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman which was
shortlisted for the John Dryden Translation Prize.          SH

 

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