Updated: Jun 27, 2021
In the fifth of our Q&A features, we talk to author and translator Anatoly Belilvosky, who's been kind enough to provide some insight into the process of translation, and the many difficulties one faces during such. We also touch on Star Trek, and welcome some insight and perspective on his experiences in what is now known as Ukraine.
Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later, he learned English from Star Trek reruns, apparently well enough to be admitted into SFWA in spite of chronic cat deficiency. He has sold original and translated stories and poems to NATURE, F&SF, Analog, Asimov's, Daily SF, Podcastle, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets.
So, Anatoly - to start, could you tell us a little about your translation process, and how you happened upon this path?
So, imagine a cartoon, without any words on it. Does it need to be translated?
How about a cartoon that shows a soldier wearing Russian style fatigues, sweating among palm trees, painting, with obvious tears in his eyes, dark horizontal dashes on white palm trunks?
It's automatically funny and poignant to a Russian because of the "home sweet home" symbolism of birch trees that permeates the Russian culture, but how do you translate this when there aren't any words to translate?
My entire translating oeuvre is an attempt to un-Darmok (vide infra) Russian (and Ukrainian) works. As for the process -- I don't think I start with "I want to translate this!" I think it's more like "I can see the English version of this in my head, why don't I write this down?" And that does not happen often. And of course, then come agonizing choices.
Russian has different words for "dreams" while sleeping and "dreams" as desires or aspirations, so the sentence that literally translated as "She dreamt of the man of her dreams" had me scratching my head considerably. Russian has grammatic devices that make nesting clauses easy to untangle. Trying to translate those verbatim sometimes results in beta reader comments like: [paraphrasing] "get torches and stakes and whatever it is you need to kill run-on were-sentences."
As a big fan of Star Trek myself, what episode of The Original Series has stuck with you since? Do you revisit the show often, or ever stray into The Next Generation and beyond?
The Trouble with Tribbles, tied with Journey to Babel. And DS9 and Voyager. But first, Darmok! Which, as I said, is emblematic of all translation endeavors.
And the one where Kirk is split in two? I saw that when I was 15. I think I've understood it better and better with each year that passes.
WING develops a narrative that plays on themes of displacement, division and isolation through the lens of a somewhat ‘outcast’ of developed society. How do you ensure you capture such themes when translating into the English language? How do you portray this to the original author?
It's not these themes that are difficult to convey; loneliness is universal. It's the extent to which his isolation is socially sanctioned. It's the fact that, reading with my "Russian" brain, I never got the "how could they do this to him?" feel that many Anglophone readers (including me reading with my Anglophone brain) get as the immediate, visceral reaction.
It's not that Western civilization is inherently "better;" it's that the concept of ethics as a work in progress is built into it. Sometimes it moves in the right direction, mainstreaming disabled children. Sometimes, not so much.
It's the fact that, reading with my "Russian" brain, I never got the "how could they do this to him?" feel that many Anglophone readers (including me reading with my Anglophone brain) get as the immediate, visceral reaction.
Building on this, do you feel that through your translation work, you also accentuate certain elements that speak to you as a reader?
I don't see how it could be otherwise. But to answer the question fully I'd have to engage in literary criticism. Doing that with one's own work is not a good look on a writer, unless their name is Nabokov.
Considering you self-taught English through Star Trek reruns, what was your experience with the horror genre at large in your formative years?
Another question I never thought of.
I don't read much horror per se, and in fact I don't think I ever pegged Wing as horror either. But dark fantasy? Absolutely.
Now ask me the difference between dark fantasy and horror and watch my deer in headlights stare.
Not only an incredible translator, but you also develop your own original work. Do you find you prefer to write in genres that you’re familiar with through your translation work, or do you look for a different angle when creating original pieces?
I write first and let the genre settle upon it later. Which often hinges on who buys the story. "Look, it's in Daily Science Fiction! QED."
My favorite writers are ones whose work can't be pegged easily either. Gogol, Chekhov, Nabokov, Bulgakov, for starters. I mean, a giant cat fixing kerosene stoves? Really?
"I write first and let the genre settle upon it later. Which often hinges on who buys the story."
It’s safe to say you’ve witnessed a tumultuous political arena in several different climates - perhaps an impossibly broad question, but how do you find life in New Jersey when reflecting on the reform movement in Czechoslovakia you experienced in your youth?
I didn't witness the Prague Spring. I witnessed soldiers enjoying what may have been their last, calm, sunny day, with people around them they wouldn't have to shoot at, before crossing the border into what they were told was a land of resurgent evil.
Needless to say, I deal with "alternate truths" and alternate realities more than occasionally in New Jersey, and address them more than occasionally in my work.
You are also a paediatrician and a father - after publishing 50+ works, whether translated or original, how do you manage to balance it all?
As someone much smarter than me once said, living is breathing. Writing is exhaling.
Also, remember Chekhov? Anton Pavlovich? Physician and writer?
When he was my age, he'd been dead 16 years. [h/t Tom Lehrer]
In three words or less - what can our readers expect from Pandora 4?
Shock and awe.
Thank you, Anatoly (and both Marina & Sergei Dyachenko for their input and original story). It's a privilege to present our readers with the magnificent WING later this year.
Anatoly's Twitter feed, @loldoc, is equally divided between punditry and puns. Marina and Sergey can be found @DyachenkoW or on their website, https://dyachenkowriters.com/.
WING will be available in both print and digital formats within The Needle Drops... Volume One. You can pre-order directly from us here.