The interview below is reprinted from the most recent SlavFile. The full issue is available here. We look forward to seeing you at ATA63 in LA next week!
Interview with Professor Dmitry Buzadzhi, SLD’s 2022 Greiss Speaker
Interviewed by Nora Seligman Favorov
This year’s distinguished speaker was invited on the strength of a recommendation by one of our newer members, Elizabeth Tolley, who recently earned an MA in RU<>EN conference interpretation from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where Dmitry Buzadzhi is currently teaching. We thank Elizabeth for that recommendation. Since receiving it, I’ve been familiarizing myself with the YouTube channel of which Dmitry is co-founder: «Перевод жив» (Translation Lives). I myself do not interpret, and I assumed that, for me, this channel dedicated to the art and science of interpretation into and out of Russian would be of limited personal interest. But then I started watching and couldn’t stop: I was as entertained as I was enlightened and, well, dazzled by the high-level production values, by the professionalism of the presenters (sometimes Dmitry himself, sometimes one of his collaborators), by the behind-the-scenes peeks at various international forums, and by, as these videos make clear, the level of skill, training, and conditioning (analogous to what Olympic athletes go through) it takes to be and stay a top-level interpreter. In short, I look forward to two excellent talks at ATA63 in Los Angeles: the Susana Greiss Lecture: “Translation and Interpreting as Acting” (Thursday, October 13, 2:00 pm-3:00 pm) and “Anticipation in Interpreting” (Friday, October 14, 4:45 pm-5:45 pm). Please help us spread the word, including to colleagues working in other languages.
Some biographical details: Dmitry Buzadzhi is a graduate of Moscow State Linguistic University’s School of Translation and Interpretation, with a degree in translation and interpretation (Russian, English, German). After earning his Candidate’s degree at MSLU, he taught translation in the English Translation and Interpretation department for ten years before serving as head of that department for five. As mentioned, he is currently a professor of English-Russian Interpretation, Russian as a Foreign Language, and the Interpretation Practicum, at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
Dmitry is an active translator and simultaneous interpreter. As an interpreter, he has worked at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Eastern Economic Forum, the Fort Ross Dialogue, and other important international events. His literary translations into Russian include Babel 17 by Samuel Delany, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (forthcoming as «Жернова неба» [Azbuka]), and short stories by Antonia Byatt. He has published over 50 articles on translation and interpretation, has co-authored two textbooks, and recently collaborated on a chapter on conference interpretation in Russia for the Routledge Handbook of Conference Interpreting.
He is a member of the editorial board of «Мосты» (Bridges), a leading Russian quarterly on TI, and is on the jury panel of Cosines Pi, an international contest for simultaneous and consecutive interpreters, as well as a regular presenter at such major industry conferences in Russia as Translation Forum Russia and the Global Dialogue.
As mentioned in the introduction to this interview, I find your YouTube channel, «Перевод жив» to be extremely impressive. How did the idea to start the channel come about and how is it produced? It’s obvious that a lot of work goes into each episode. What sort of team puts it all together? And who’s in charge of finding the snippets of old films that inject a nice dose of humor?
This is really the work of just two people, myself and my longtime friend and colleague Alexander Shein, who was my classmate at Moscow State Linguistic University. The idea initially came from me, although we both have been teaching translation and interpretation (TI) and thinking about it from what could, perhaps grandly, be described as theoretical and pedagogical perspectives, as well as actually practicing it since we graduated from MSLU.
On the one hand, I’ve always liked transferring my practical TI experience into teaching and some kind of theoretical generalizations, which, among other things, helps you understand your own work better. On the other, I think we were both inspired by some great educational videos (not necessarily related to TI or linguistics) you can find online these days.
Unlike articles or textbooks, videos are more versatile, give you a more direct tool to reach your audience and get their feedback, and eliminate the middleman, i.e., publishers, editors, etc. Apart from that, we both enjoy dabbling in technology, so it was a perfect excuse to get some gear and get more serious about filming and editing.
As for snippets of old films, we both are in charge of finding them depending on who is editing a given video. I personally love intertextuality and am a huge fan of Soviet cinema, so it’s hard to resist the temptation to insert a movie quote here and there.
Any plans to expand it beyond a Russian-speaking audience?
Not at the moment. We mostly cover things related to English-Russian TI and the Russian-language market, so you need to speak Russian anyway for our content to be of any value to you. We’re always open to suggestions and collaborations though.
Tell us a little about how you happened to translate Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven? Was this on your initiative or were you approached by someone else?
The new Russian translation is published by Azbuka, one of Russia’s biggest publishers. I have worked with Azbuka before, so this time one of their senior editors just sent me an email asking if I would be interested. I couldn’t refuse of course, having read and re-read Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy several times since my teenage years, every time completely enraptured by the depth of the story and the powerful characters.
The Lathe of Heaven has no spells or dragons, it’s more rationalistic and less epic, but it has an interesting correlation with The Farthest Shore, the concluding novel of the Earthsea trilogy, which was completed at about the same time, in the early 1970s. In both novels, the “villain” is someone whose quest for absolute power and abstract “good” threatens to destroy the fabric of our imperfect yet magical world, although in The Farthest Shore it’s an evil sorcerer who wants to defeat death and in The Lathe of Heaven it’s a very liberal psychiatrist who attempts to improve the world in the interests of humanity.
Whether you’re in the booth doing synchronous interpretation or at your keyboard working on a literary translation, you’re bound to run into “untranslatables”—things for which there’s no equivalent in the target language/culture. What are the different ways you handle those instances during T vs. I? Can you offer an example or two?
That’s a great question: “untranslatability” is something I could talk about forever. Actually, things that really are untranslatable are simply omitted or don’t (or shouldn’t) get submitted for T or I in the first place, so there are no clever solutions there. However, as you rightly said, there are many things for which there is no direct or conventional equivalent in the target language/culture, and these, challenging as they are, give the translator/interpreter a great chance to be creative.
The main differences in handling these things in T vs. I are, of course, time constraints and the completeness of context. When translating, your time for thinking and doing research can be considered unlimited (although in reality it is not), and you know the full context. If it’s a pun, a meaningful name, or an expression in an invented language, in a sci-fi novel, for example, you know exactly what its function is, and you can take into account not just its significance for what has been written so far but also its implications for the rest of the text. In consecutive or simultaneous interpretation, all decisions have to be made on the spot, and you should always bear in mind that you don’t know how the speaker might refer to this “untranslatable” later or how your equivalent might be used by target-language speakers who may want to follow up on the previous speaker’s remarks.
To give a short answer to your first question, I’d say that, in T, you can and should be creative and try to recreate the communicative effect of the “untranslatable” for the target-language audience as fully as possible, even if it means spending a long time on a short passage. In I, however, you have to act quickly and most likely focus on just the most important part of the message (e.g., sacrificing stylistic or cultural nuances to render factual information) and try to play it safe. To a certain degree, a bland but factually correct rendering can be said to be a bad option in literary translation but a good option in simultaneous interpretation.
I’m not sure if I have a list of the best examples in my head, so I’m just going to give a couple of the more recent ones. One of the main characters in The Lathe of Heaven is called George Orr, who at first appears meek and indecisive. When he stands up a woman for lunch, she has this angry internal monologue where she calls “that little bastard” “Mr. Either Orr.” Now, “Either Orr,” apparently, is an attempt to dismiss him as a wishy-washy guy who can’t make up his mind and commit.
The same conjunction in Russian (или… или), obviously, sounds very different, and changing his last name to something sounding more or less like или (“eely”) for the purposes of this little joke is out of the question (it would probably sound silly, Le Guin nerds would be annoyed, and you’d lose the likely allusion to George Orwell). So I thought of a different way a Russian speaker might angrily work someone’s last name into a disparaging description of someone who appears dubious. What I ended up writing was “Надо все-таки снова встретиться с этим мелким засранцем. Мистером Орром-Не-Пойми-Которым” (literally: “Mister Orr-I-Don’t-Know-Who”, but the point is, for those who don’t speak Russian, there’s a rhyme here). Which—talking of Soviet movies—actually reminds me of a scene where a woman, who doesn’t quite know what to make of a guy named Tikhon she just met, refers to him, in her head, as “Тихон – с того света спихан” (literally: “Tikhon, pushed back from the netherworld,” again with a rhyme).
Moving on to interpreting, there was a funny episode at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum where I interpreted this year. We were working at a session, the closing session of the day, titled “ПМЭФ без галстуков” [SPIEF without ties/in shirt-sleeves] I saw that the title had been translated into English as “What SPIEF Left Behind,” which kind of made sense because the idea was that they would casually wrap up the day and pick up some odd bits and pieces that may have been overlooked by other speakers. So I began my interpretation by saying something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our session called ‘What SPIEF Left Behind’…” There was a pause, and I peered at the screen to see what the moderator was doing. He was ripping his tie off in a very deliberate manner. So I had to add quickly, “Or, as it’s called in Russian, SPIEF with your tie off.”
In general, how much of the work of Russia-based interpreters working between Russian and English involves interpreting for people for whom English is not a native language?
It’s true that much of the work Russian-English interpreters do in Russia involves interpreting for non-native speakers of English. You will end up interpreting for native speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, etc., etc. Which is actually a pity for our colleagues because Russia has an excellent tradition of training translators and interpreters with a wide range of languages, and, in many of these instances, professionals with these speakers’/listeners’ native languages could be found. Unfortunately, too many people in the world rely on English these days, although that’s a good thing for TI professionals with English in their combination.
Working with non-native English speakers involves many challenges. On the one hand, you get all kinds of unbearable accents, some of which are undecipherable even to a native speaker of English. Such cases are especially painful because the interpreter may only have a vague idea of what the speaker is trying to say but, to everyone else, since “English” is being spoken on the floor, any problems with interpretation are the interpreter’s fault.
On the other hand, if these non-native speakers are your audience, you may sometimes have to use simpler language just because you realize they may not understand your fancy word choices, even if they are absolutely correct.
Final question: Your English is exceptional for someone who grew up outside of an English-speaking country. Could you say a few words about your first encounters with foreign languages?
Thank you for your very generous comment! My first encounter with foreign languages was hearing my parents (both trained as teachers of foreign languages, although they never taught) talk French to each other so that I couldn’t understand what they were discussing. It seemed to be some kind of a supernatural power, a secret code, and must have piqued my interest.
Learning German and English at school came later. My first encounters with actual speakers of English occurred during my final year of high school, when, by a stroke of luck, I had a chance to spend an entire academic year at a boarding school in England. There was greater exposure to all things foreign when I became a student at MSLU, of course, and, towards the end of my studies there, I began to get my first interpretation assignments.
I’ll add one more thing, although you didn’t really ask me that. I’m not saying that spending some of your formative years in a country where your B language is spoken isn’t helpful for your linguistic progress. It certainly is, and the fear of speaking “Russian English” is probably something I’m never going to get out of my system. However, teaching in America has allowed me to see the other side of the coin. Quite often, students who had formal language education in their home countries (this applies to both native speakers of Russian and English) have an advantage over their peers who just picked up their B language living abroad. The latter may sound more fluent and idiomatic at times, but they often lack more formal vocabulary, don’t have a structured view of the language, and may be clueless about some mistakes they still make because they never learned the rules in the first place.