In this column of the SLD Blog, we feature members of ATA’s Slavic Languages Division: translators and interpreters working in Slavic languages. Their stories, experience, and career highlights will inspire both beginners and experienced professionals. Today’s post is an interview with a long-time SLD member and SlavFile Associate Editor, Nora Seligman Favorov.
- How did you first become involved with the Russian language and how did this lead to a career in translation?
My fascination with all things Russian might have faded into one life-long interest among many had it not been for a bit of serendipity. I had studied French from childhood through my third year of college. As my senior year began, I didn’t manage to get into a very popular seminar on nineteenth-century European literature (you had to be interviewed by the professor, and when he asked me what I had liked about Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which I mentioned having read the previous summer, all I could come up with was how funny all the characters’ names were). When I went to look at the list of courses that still had openings, I noticed that only two other people had signed up for first-year Russian. Since I was already enrolled in a year-long Russian history course, I thought it might be interesting to study the language and history in parallel. That year did the trick: I was hooked. After graduating, I attended the intensive Norwich Russian School summer program two summers running. It was one of those programs where you sign a pledge to speak only Russian. Although my one year of Russian had been very intense, the first summer was frustrating—I could understand much of the conversation and joking surrounding me, but I didn’t have the fluency to participate in it. My second summer there (after a year of office work) was better—I finally had enough Russian to socialize. A few months later, I was off to Moscow to study at the Pushkin Institute for a semester. I wound up staying a year and a half and marrying my husband, Oleg. When we moved to the States, I put him through grad school doing office work, but I longed to find a way to work with Russian. I played around with literary translation (Pushkin and Bulgakov—my favorites) and accepted various translation assignments. I was diligent in my translation work, but not really qualified. To make sure I wasn’t handing in terrible translations, I recruited local emigres to work with me. Only after I got my master’s degree in 1997 did I start to feel like a legitimate translator. That was when I first translated the 1863 novel City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, which was only published twenty years later (Columbia, 2017). I spent those twenty years doing a variety of assignments—literary, historical, legal, medical—often in collaboration with colleagues, especially Elana Pick, whom I met in 1999 at an ATA seminar in New York.
- What fields do you specialize in and how did you build up your expertise in those areas?
My time now is primarily divided between literary translation, my work for Russian Life magazine, for which I translate and serve as Translation Editor, and my work on SlavFile. However, at different stages of my career, I have focused on translating in several areas, including civil society, public health, and scholarly articles. Although I went into translation aspiring to be a literary translator, I had (and have) an equal interest in Russian history, particularly the Stalin era. Another piece of serendipity led to a number of Stalin-era history translations for Yale University Press: the series editor and I both belonged to the same karate organization. I was already fairly knowledgeable about Soviet history, so I was pretty well equipped to translate the material. However, working with Oleg Khlevniuk (for whom I translated Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle and Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator), an eminent historian of the era who spent years as a researcher in the State Archives (GARF), was a particularly excellent education. I loved our email discussions of how to decode the special language of the Stalin-era government and secret police so that Anglophone readers could have the fullest possible appreciation of the information that he was imparting. Working with living authors is sometimes problematic, but having Oleg there to explain anything in his texts that confused me was invaluable. Additionally, we all know that dictionaries and even the resources offered by the internet have their limitations, so native Russian speakers who have generously and patiently entertained my endless questions have been critical over the years to “building up” my expertise, such as it is. Barely a week goes by when I don’t flood Elana Pick’s inbox with questions, and my husband is lucky to pass by my study without my waylaying him with some puzzle in the text I’m working on. Rimma Garn, a former grad school colleague, has also been extremely helpful. Building relationships with colleagues working in the opposite direction is invaluable.
- Can you share an example of the most rewarding project you have ever worked on and why it felt this way? What project was the most challenging and why?
No doubt the most rewarding project I have worked on was City Folk and Country Folk. I was driven by a strong desire to bring this little known (even in Russia) gem to light. As for my “most challenging” translation, hands down, the winner is Arthur Tsutsiev’s Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus (Yale, 2014). I know that there are many experts on the geography and ethnic composition of the Caucasus, but I doubt any of them share Tsutsiev’s grasp of such intricacies as the precise timing and contours of the shifting boundaries between Ottoman, Persian, and Russian influence in the eighteenth century, every little change of the Russian Empire’s and later Soviet Union’s administrative designations of territories (from okrugs to oblasts to gubernias, etc.), every fortified position along the many defensive lines Russia maintained during the nineteenth century, and the most minute details of the Karabakh conflict. The budget for the Atlas project was modest, and the work involved seemed to expand with every passing day, as long discussions were held for each map and accompanying text about what language (Russian, Arabic, Persian, Turkic, one of the dozens of indigenous languages?) should serve as the basis for a geographic entity’s transliteration into English at a particular point in time as they shifted in and out of the hands of Russia, the Ponte, Persia, and associated local khanates, shamkhalates, or naibates. As everyone knows, the Caucasus is home to a vast array of ethnic groups, many of whose names have no standard English spelling. There was often no authoritative English-language source to turn to, or one authoritative source used one spelling and another a different one. In any event, I’m very happy to have been a part of the creation of this valuable resource and to have worked with as impressive a scholar as Tsutsiev.
- In your opinion, what are the most important skills for a literary translator?
Literary translators must have a good ear for voice—both the voices of their narrators and of the characters, including an ability to hear and reflect all the subtleties of class, temporal, geographic, and ethnic usage, and the attitudes and emotions involved in the original dialogue. Most of all, however, I think literary translators need to understand how much time is needed for literary translation. Over the years, I’ve mined many translations for examples for talks and articles, and even highly respected translators make a lot of mistakes. It takes many reads by the translator and others to weed out all the misunderstandings and infelicities. So yes, skills are important, but they are not enough. You need patience and a willingness (and the finances) to give literary texts the time they need.
- At ATA’s 61st Annual Conference, you presented a session called “Balancing Act: Sneaking Historical Context into a Literary Translation from Russian.” What have you learned from the experience of translating a 19th-century Russian novel?
I have learned that it’s hard. Even contemporary Russian is a bottomless pit, and the more decades and centuries you put between yourself and the material you’re translating, the harder it gets to be confident you understand your text. Even erudite native speakers sometimes don’t understand certain wordings. I am in awe at Constance Garnett (1861-1946), who broke ground as the first English-language translator of so many of nineteenth-century Russian literature’s most important works—without the internet and without the paper dictionaries that exist today. She did have the advantage of being contemporary to some of the men (alas, they were all men) she translated and of having Russians around her who were willing to go over her translations, especially the early ones, line-by-line. Despite the obstacles she faced, her translations are still among the best available.
- What advice would you give to colleagues who are considering literary translation?
Find a project you love, give it a lot of time, find yourself a number of readers—both those able to read the original and those who can’t—to comment on your translation. Those who don’t know Russian can tell you what doesn’t sound like natural English, and those who do will probably identify spots where you misinterpreted the original, so you know what traps to look out for. If the process doesn’t turn out to be enjoyable, then you’re in luck—you can find something you’ll make a better living at. If you find yourself hooked, then you’re in for some fun. For me, literary translation is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
As for getting published, the most important thing is to make connections of the sort you can make at an ATA conference and have more experienced colleagues advise you on the process. There is no single pathway to success.
Nora Seligman Favorov is a Russian-to-English translator specializing in Russian literature and history. Her translation of Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s 1863 novel City Folk and Country Folk (Columbia, 2017) was recognized by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages as “Best Literary Translation into English” for 2018. Her translation of Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg Khlevniuk (Yale, 2015) was selected as Pushkin House UK’s “best Russian book in translation” for 2016. An ATA certification grader (for Russian-to-English) since 2004, she serves as managing editor for the SLD’s newsletter, SlavFile and translation editor for Russian Life magazine. A native of New York City, she currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would love to feature other translators and interpreters working with Slavic languages in future SLD Blog posts! If you have recommendations or would like to share your own story and expertise, please email the SLD Blog co-editors: Veronika Demichelis and Marisa Irwin.