English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Anna Gunin, whose translation of Mikail Eldin’s memoir The Sky Wept Fire won an award in 2013
Today is one of those rare nights when, in the chill air, a disquieting lull freezes over the city like a black shroud. The city seems rapt in prayer, withdrawn into itself, like an ancient old man. In the sky around the city hangs a fiery necklace of illumination rounds, fired by the enemy who have come to kill it… It’s the lulls in combat you find difficult. You cannot get used to them. You cannot get used to them. Lulls mean danger. And so you listen especially attentively to the night. The night is silent. Almost angelically peaceful. But you know this is just an illusion: the night is not peaceful at all. A night like this is particularly dangerous. It is like a boa constrictor, playing dead as it waits in ambush for its victim, only to spring to life at the right moment in a dappled, lethal strike.
-Excerpt from The Sky Wept Fire by Mikail Eldin, translated from Russian by Anna Gunin
Interview by Grace Hetherington
This book has never been published in its original language, Russian. How did you come across the manuscript, and how did you come to be the translator of the book?
Mikail Eldin showed the manuscript to a friend of his, a former president of Norwegian PEN, who sent it on to an author in London, who passed it to English PEN. I was commissioned to write a reader’s report and sample translation for the English PEN Writers in Translation committee. One of the committee members, publisher Philip Gwyn Jones, snapped it up for Portobello. So the book owes its publication to PEN.
Do you go about translating non-fiction such as this memoir in a different way than you would a fictional work?
Fiction conveys an imagined world, whereas memoir captures events that really took place. So for memoir there is a special responsibility to be true to the original text and to achieve absolute accuracy. Aside from that, both fiction and memoir set themselves the aim of immersing the reader in a compelling narrative, so the methods employed in translating them remain largely the same.
Mikail Eldin recently wrote for the PEN Atlas, ‘to survive a war doesn’t mean you know how to live an ordinary civilian life. You become painfully, profoundly aware of an abyss between you and the world. People don’t understand you, and you have difficulty understanding them’. When translating The Sky Wept Fire did you ever find yourself unable to connect or relate to what you were translating? How do you get around this when rendering the text in English?
Through empathising with the protagonist of a story, we experience by proxy that character’s world. Mikail’s account submerged me as a reader into the heart of his experience. In order to translate a work, I need to see what the author is visualising, then recreate it in my own words; the only difficulty Mikail’s text posed for me was that I’d never served in an army or been at war. Resources such as YouTube were invaluable in allowing me to watch weapons being fired and listen to the sounds they make. My husband, who served in the Soviet Army, also helped me considerably with military details, as did Edward Wilson, an author who served in Vietnam.
Passages of the book which recount the horrors of war make for difficult reading. Was it a challenging experience for you to translate Eldin’s terrible experiences, immersing yourself in the text?
When I first read the manuscript, I followed the torture scenes unflinchingly. When it came to translating them, though, I had to enter that reality so deeply that it did become difficult to brace myself. In some ways, just as for Mikail this was ultimately a liberating experience, it also felt that way for me.
Describe The Sky Wept Fire in three words.
Lyrical, moving, inspiring.
Anna Gunin is a Russian translator and interpreter. Along with poetry, film and theatre translation, she has translated authors such as German Sadulaev, Denis Gutsko and Marianna Geide.