Translating Shalamov

My translation of Shalamov’s story Resurrection of the Larch has been published in the literary journal Cardinal Points. I’ve also written a short piece on Shalamov for the journal. I don’t intend to repeat what I said there, but I would like to make a couple of additional observations.

Although this is the first translation from Kolyma Tales I’ve had published, I have translated a few others – hopefully some of those will also see the light of day before too long. One of the things that has struck me whenever I’ve been translating is the frequency with which one encounters specialist vocabulary from a variety of different fields, from mining to medicine. The stories never feel weighed down by this language – technical terms are neither over-emphasized, nor included simply for effect – but they are a strong indication of the degree to which the author, as a convict in Kolyma, inhabited the worlds they come from. It reminds us that the Gulag does not involve a single, uniform existence, but is an amalgamation of different worlds.

In Vishera: An Anti-Novel, Shalamov states that ‘the camp even resembles the world. There is nothing in it that wouldn’t exist outside, in freedom, in its social and spiritual structures.’ (Лагерь же – мироподобен. В нем нет ничего, чего не было бы на воле, в его устройстве, социальном и духовном.’ Вишера. Антироман: В лагере нет виноватых). He’s talking here primarily about the way the vicissitudes of Soviet political life are mirrored in the Gulag, but his stories show that the camps are ‘world-like’ in other ways too: in their variety. It’s one of the things that makes his short story form so appropriate for the subject matter. Moving between different worlds, adopting different personae, the stories are narrated by, or focalized through, medical assistants, hospital patients, geologists, lumberjacks, miners, would-be carpenters, impromptu undertakers, botanists, historians, literary critics… The inhabitants of the camps – and the stories – are not only convicts, although this remains a strong part of their minimal identity. A large part of the experience of Kolyma Shalamov depicts was the search for an identity that will enable survival, moral as well as physical, for example by gaining medical training.

I would also suggest that these different identities are crucial to the process of writing about the experience. In the Kolyma section of his Memoirs, there is a strong preoccupation with the question of how to write about the past: ‘In what language to speak to the reader? If you strive for authenticity, for truth, your language will be meagre, impoverished’ (‘На каком языке говорить с читателем? Если стремиться к подлинности, к правде — язык будет беден, скуден,’ Воспоминания. О КолымеЯзык), because in Kolyma, ‘imperceptibly even to his own self, the educated person loses everything “unnecessary” in his language’ (‘незаметно для самого себя интеллигент теряет все «ненужное» в своем языке…’). But the terminology he has internalized through his wanderings around the camps, hospitals, and even the mines that pose the greatest threat to existence, gives him languages in which to describe the experience.

The second point I’d like to make also relates to these different worlds Shalamov depicts, insofar as they represent the ‘everyday’ life of Kolyma. Shalamov’s most brutal stories, as I said in my notes for Cardinal Points, always seem to overshadow the rest, but translating some of his more ‘ordinary’ tales – those not marked by extreme violence and cruelty, or profound moral collapse – alerted me to the presence of two different perspectives at work. In the violent tales that focus on the horror of Kolyma, there is generally a very narrow and specific focus, both temporally – there is no past or future, only that moment of violence in the present that shatters everything else – and spatially – there is nothing beyond the immediate field of vision; the ‘mainland’ (as the rest of the USSR was known) may as well not exist, not to speak of the rest of the world. But in the ‘ordinary’ stories, although they may initially appear to be more limited in scope, because of their emphasis on the everyday, the mundane subject matter in fact creates a connection with the world outside, and with time, that is absent elsewhere. So paradoxically it is through these stories that a wider perspective is introduced, enabling a space for contemplation of the whole to develop. If the most violent stories emphasize the absence, or destruction, of meaning, then the other stories suggest at least the potential for the recovery of meaning. It is perhaps in this context that we should consider the apparent contradiction between Shalamov’s rhetoric, his insistence that ‘the camp is a wholly and entirely negative school of life. No one will take anything useful or necessary from there’ (‘Лагерь – отрицательная школа жизни целиком и полностью. Ничего полезного, нужного никто оттуда не вынесет’, Красный крест), and the more nuanced picture we see in many of the stories, in which humanity and sensitivity are ‘still not destroyed, still not poisoned even by decades of life in Kolyma’ (‘не разрушенной, не отравленной десятилетиями жизни на Колыме’, Воскрешение лиственницы).

My thanks to Robert Chandler for his help, encouragement and advice as I was revising the translation of Resurrection of the Larch.

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