Robert Chandler has translated Sappho and Guillaume Apollinaire for Everyman’s Poetry, but is known principally for his translations from Russian. He has translated Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and has collaborated with his wife Elizabeth Chandler and other colleagues in translating many works by Andrey Platonov. He edited (and translated much of) the anthology Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida for Penguin Classics.

His first love is Russian poetry, and the day before this interview was conducted he gave a reading and talk at Pushkin House in London on the Russian futurist poet Khlebnikov. To listen to Robert Chandler is to feel something of the range and depth of Russian literature and to realise that some of its most important twentieth century writers are only beginning to be known abroad.

I’m not sure anyone in the English-speaking world sets out to be a professional translator. I think it usually just happens. What was your experience? Did you leave school wanting to be a translator?

No, I didn’t. Idid have a teacher at school who did go on to become a very accomplished translator himself, who Idid talk about translation with. But one moment I can remember was in 1975, coming back from my year in Russia, where I had read Andrei Platonov for the first time and I was interested in folktales and I was quite excited to discover that Platonov, at the end of his life, had published a little volume of his own adaptations of Russian folk tales. And there was one story which I found so moving I just wanted to translate it, and this was the first complete thing I translated that wasn’t an exercise set by a teacher. I just wanted to do it, I wanted to be able to show it to other people. And I was quite lucky. I translated two more stories from the same little volume of seven folk tales and I sent them to Faber and they accepted them and asked me to do the other four stories and it was published as a children’s book. So I did get off to quite a fortunate start. Then I made a rather half-hearted attempt

at postgraduate study at Oxford and the one good thing that came out of that was that I met a Russian émigré, Igor Golomstock, quite a well-known art critic and he introduced me to the writing of Varlam Shalamov, who’s the greatest Russian writer about the gulag. These are remarkable stories and I immediately recognised that they seem like documentary in their simplicity but they are also beautifully, beautifully constructed, like Chekhov. And again, I wanted people to be able to read these. I didn’t succeed in publishing a volume but Idid publish three or four in a magazine that was quite important at the time called Index on Censorship and it was edited by a Russianist, since obviously censorship was particularly an issue with eastern European countries at the time. I stayed friends with Igor. I don’t think I’d actually said to him, ‘I want to establish myself as a literary translator’, but Igor just came along one day with this enormous book and said, ‘Robert, if you want to establish yourself as a translator you should translate this book, Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman’. I laughed at him and said, ‘Igor, I don’t read books that long in Russian, let alone translate them.’ At that time in my life I didn’t really read very much in the way of realistic prose. I was much more interested in poetry and insofar as Idid read prose, it was more modernist. Igor was very persistent. He then sent me transcripts of four radio programmes he’d done for the BBC Russian Service about Life and Fate, and this was a bit more manageable, just twenty-five pages including quite long quotes from Grossman. And I understood pretty quickly that this was a great novel, even if it didn’t entirely conform to what, in my late twenties, I imagined my taste to be.

This was in the nineteen-eighties, with the thaw of Soviet censorship?

No, these were still only émigré or samizdat publications. This was the very, very early eighties. It may even have been the late seventies. Shalamov’s stories got sent abroad and, again, Life and Fate was smuggled abroad in Russian. So the Russian manuscript of Life and Fate was, after long delays, finally published in Lausanne for the first time in around 1980, and that was the text I was using. There wasn’t yet a Soviet-published text.

There’s a difficulty in talking about contemporary Russian literature. There are time lags between the writing of key works and when they appear, and then when they appear in translation. And in some cases they appear abroad in translation before being published in Russia.

There are several different time lags, even for the Russians, because there was this big period in the nineteen-eighties when everyone from Nabokov to Grossman to Shalamov was being published in the Soviet Union for the first time. And there’s such a torrent of these works that they got blurred in everyone’s minds. One Russian writer friend of mine talks of all these writers just becoming a kasha [porridge, mash] in his head, just muddled together, because he read so much so quickly. And then

suddenly the country was falling apart in the early nineties and nobody had time to read anything and Grossman pretty much got forgotten again. So he still isn’t widely read in Russia.

In your introduction to Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida you say ‘the roots of literature lie in song, prayer and story’ and that ‘Russian literature is relatively young and therefore closer to these roots than the literature of western Europe’. Ireland, as a parenthesis, might be a parallel, however.

Yes, sure.

But you seem to be describing a peasant art form, almost, and your mention of Platonov’s folk tales reminded me of this. Is that the strength and vitality of the Russian short story compared to the status of the short story in, say, English literature?

It’s hard to say, but it certainly is the case that practically all the greatest Russian prose writers have written short stories, which isn’t the case with English literature, and I remember one reviewer of my anthology saying that most English readers, even quite literate people, would find it difficult to name really famous English short stories, whereas Russians certainly wouldn’t have any trouble naming [Pushkin’s] ‘The Queen of Spades’, [Gogol’s] ‘The Greatcoat’, [Chekhov’s] ‘Lady and the Lapdog’ and quite a lot of really famous—and great—Russian short stories that immediately come to mind to anyone who reads much. It might be linked to another thing, which is that a great number of great Russian prose writers, especially twentieth century ones, started off as poets. Bunin, Nabokov, Platonov and Shalamov. Pushkin and Lermontov in the nineteenth century. Though I have to admit there are some important exceptions—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov.

I see very many Russian short stories as characterised by a certain freedom from preconceptions about what a short story should be. You included Shalamov’s ‘Across the Snow’ in your anthology, which is a paragraph really. It’s not even a whole page. And I think of Babel’s ‘Crossing the Zbrucz’ (translated sometimes as ‘Crossing into Poland’). Are these stories or sketches or brief meditations or prose poems? They don’t seem to abide by the conventions which constrain the short story in the English-speaking world.

I think a lot of Russian literature has always been rather uncertain in its genre. I mean, Pushkin called Eugene Onegin a novel in verse. Gogol called Dead Souls a poema, a long poem. And what you say about Shalamov and Babel is certainly true.

With those last two I feel sometimes I’m reading a piece of journalism, or a sketch, that then explodes in strange directions. 

There was an émigré artist called Kirill Sokolov who died about eight years ago. He had a rather unusual technique. I think he did drawings then copied them on an extremely bad photocopier, then made them into prints. The technique didn’t work when they improved the photocopying facilities. I remember someone describing the finished works as having the spontaneity of a sketch and the definiteness of a completed work, a remark that relates to Platonov’s short stories, which have an air of complete spontaneity, which seem to have been written by someone illiterate, and at the same time are extremely well-constructed.

Your talk about Khlebnikov yesterday made me wonder about how radically experimental so much of Russian literature has been. Is this simply the result of the Russian experience of politics? That there has been no stability for what you might call a writing class? I know it’s a very broad question…

What comes to mind is a conversation I once had with a contemporary composer called Tarnapolski, whom I’ve got to know because he set some passages of Platonov to music. He said Platonov had been a greater help to him in finding his voice as a composer than any composer had and he then explained, in a way saying the opposite of what you’ve just said, that Russian culture had a tremendous tendency towards rigid academicism, and that Platonov had been the person who had freed him from that. And he saw that as having vitiated a great deal of Russian music, the exception he made being Mussurogsky. So perhaps Russian culture, like Russian politics, does alternate between the two poles of excessive academicism and extreme experimentation.

Platonov hasn’t received much attention until very recently in the English-speaking world.

The person who helped most in this respect is Joseph Brodsky. I had been trying for about fifteen years to get my publishers to commission me to re-translate ‘The Foundation Pit’, and finally Brodsky published an essay where he very emphatically put Platonov up there with Joyce and Kafka and Proust, and my publisher finally agreed. It’s in a book of essays published by Penguin in 1987, called Less Than One. So Brodsky was a great help in this respect. Platonov is such a profoundly original writer that people have sometimes been a bit bewildered by their first encounter with him, so it is taking time to get him known.

Grossman, a contemporary of Platonov’s, is another writer who is only starting to be discussed in the Anglophone world. I was very struck by his early story, ‘In the Town of Berdichev’. You’ve described this story as a criticism of Isaak Babel. I don’t know if I agree with you about that, but it certainly is a contrast to Babel. 

I’d also see it as Grossman competing with Babel, because it’s in a way very untypical of Grossman. There’s a sort of lavishness—excessiveness—and an extreme originality in its striking metaphors that is characteristic of Babel and isn’t characteristic of Grossman. It’s not by a long way my own favourite of Grossman’s stories. I see it as a virtuoso piece by someone who feels he’s finishing his literary apprenticeship and wants to show how gifted he is. I prefer Grossman when he’s being simpler.

I found it very moving, and again, I don’t know if this is because of the contrast to Babel, who writes about violence and war—an entirely male world. Grossman just flips this, with the story of a young woman soldier who’s a devoted communist, and she’s pregnant and not happy about it. And yet the natural fact of childbirth takes over her life and is treated as the essential thing.

Yes, this is like the brilliant observation of my colleague Olga Meyerson; that Babel’s stories are about a man being somewhat reluctantly initiated into a world of male violence, and here’s a story about a woman very much against her wishes being initiated into maternity and a womanly world.

And at the same time it establishes certain themes that are constant in Grossman’s work, which might be summed up as history is rubbish, and that the essential things are actually very simple human things, such as the bond between mother and child.

My own favourite is the story simply called ‘Mama’. What a terrifyingly bleak story it is. And yet how many mothers and substitute mothers there are in the story and how much tenderness there is.

Life and Fate echoes War and Peace in some ways, even in its title, and War and Peace is mentioned many times in Grossman’s novel.

Life and Fate is a bleaker novel than War and Peace, but they’re both novels centred around a particular family with a huge cast of characters radiating out from the central family. I think Grossman read War and Peace twice in 1941–1942. He said it was the only novel he could read in Stalingrad. Something I only learned recently: War and Peace was really, really big at the time because for obvious reasons the Soviet authorities loved to make the parallel between Napoleon invading Russia, which had gone so catastrophically for him, and Hitler. War and Peace was being read at enormous length on the radio. Lots of people were reading it, not just Grossman.

And yet Tolstoy wasn’t there in 1812, but Grossman was there at Stalingrad.

Indeed. It’s so long since Iread War and Peace, but I think the descriptions of combat in Life and Fate are more vivid than in Tolstoy. I don’t think I read Life and Fate for fifteen years after finishing the translation. I was a little anxious before I reread it, afraid that I might be disappointed, that I might find I’d imagined the novel to be greater than it really was. And I actually had the opposite experience, of thinking it was a finer and more subtle novel than I had realised. I saw more clearly than I had before that there are a lot of chapters which you could perfectly well excerpt and stand them on their own and they would be like very good Chekhov short stories. Because of the obvious comparison with Tolstoy Ihad perhaps focused more on that and been slow to appreciate the delicate, Chekhovian side of Grossman. Chekhov certainly was Grossman’s favourite writer.

He’s like Tolstoy in that he uses a big canvas, but he’s describing ordinary people and ordinary scenes from his own society, which is what Chekhov excelled at.

This is essentially one of the points that Grossman makes about Chekhov somewhere in Life and Fate. That Chekhov portrayed the whole of Russian society, that he was the first Russian writer to really portray peasants and nurses and merchants and priests—there’s a list of about thirty professions. And the first to do it without value judgements—without saying peasants are better than aristocrats or the reverse—just describing them as people.

You’ve reminded me of Shalamov. He too manages to depict an entire society, without seeming to intentionally. He describes the sickness in a society by describing the society of the camps. He does what people think the short story doesn’t do. There’s Frank O’Connor’s old argument that the short story comes from submerged population groups, that it doesn’t try to represent a society in the way a novel does. But you read Shalamov’s stories and this is exactly what you find, a depiction of a society that is more complete than what you get from Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn is really more interested in how the system of the camps functioned whereas Shalamov is more interested in what is going on in people’s psyches. He was the son of a priest. And he was primarily a poet, and hugely underestimated.

Getting back to Grossman. You were talking of his similarity to Chekhov, and I thought of the episode from Life and Fate that is framed as a letter from a mother to her son, as she is being led to execution after Berdichev is taken by the Germans.

Janet Suzman read it on the radio as a complete piece and a lot of people found it very moving. It might have been the first piece I translated. That’s a relatively long piece, but there are smaller, much slighter chapters that are complete in themselves.

And of personal significance to Grossman, because it was an imagined reconstruction of his own mother’s final hours. Did he discover what had happened to her when he was passing through Berdichev as a reporter with the Red Army?

It had been pretty obvious to him for a long time that his mother had been shot, but, yes, it was only when the Red Army was going west through Ukraine that Grossman was able to get to Berdichev and interview people and find out what he could about the massacre of Jews at the airfield outside the city. That chapter has quite often been done as a one-woman play and I read an interview with a director who had put it on in French and they’d had a discussion with the audience after one of the performances and a Jewish woman in the audience had got up and said, ‘Inever had a last letter from my mother—and now Ifeel as if Ihad.’ Ijust thought, what a wonderful tribute. What more moving tribute could a director hope to hear?

Grossman went on to Treblinka, and was one of the first writers or journalists to give an account of an extermination camp. And this becomes one of the themes of Life and Fate—the parallels between Hitler’s terror and Stalin’s.

That was one of the things that was most shocking to the Soviet authorities. Because Grossman was writing in the late fifties when few people anywhere—let alone in the Soviet Union—were making this equation. It’s now become more routine to say that sort of thing. That was one of the chapters that my friend Igor Golomstock singled out in his broadcasts for the Russian service of the BBC—the dialogue between the highly intelligent senior Nazi official, Liss, and the old Bolshevik, Mostovskoy. I do find that riveting, and the way Liss keeps cajoling Mostovskoy to admit that the two systems have learned from each other. At a realistic level it is perhaps implausible, but as a drama of thought it’s superb.

I was surprised by the insistence of this theme; how you’d have a scene in a German camp followed by a scene in a Russian camp. Did he really believe something like this could be published in his lifetime?

According to his stepson, the manuscript he delivered to the Soviet Literary Journal was self-censored. I don’t see how his stepson could estimate this accurately, but he seems to think Grossman edited out some ten per cent of the manuscript. The consensus view was that Grossman was acting with extraordinary naivety. I really don’t see much evidence of naivety in anything that Grossman did or wrote so I find this very hard to believe myself. Igor Golomstock has said that many people who, like Grossman, were part of the Soviet establishment did have very great hopes of liberalisation under Khruschev. We know that it quickly went into reverse, but in 1960 this wasn’t obvious. And it may also have been just an obstinate determination on Grossman’s part; ‘I’ve made compromises all my life, I’m not going to do this any longer.’ It’s often forgotten that—and again an argument against him being naive—he did give copies to friends. He didn’t dare look for these copies again because he was afraid that he might be followed and might lead the KGB to them. So there were copies and it was one of these copies that was eventually smuggled to the west. So he certainly took some precautions.

Grossman began his career as an obedient Soviet writer and at a certain point his relationship with the authorities became more difficult. By the time he was writing For A Just Cause he was playing an elaborate game with the censors; that book went through an extraordinary number of revisions. Until his last book, Everything Flows, which is absolutely uncompromising. He must have known it was unpublishable.

It’s a gradual evolution, but a very erratic one. A lot of what he wrote in the 1930s isn’t that interesting, but there is that one story called ‘A Small Life’ that we included in The Road which is a very odd, interesting little piece about an extremely depressive man that’s completely out of keeping for Soviet literature of its time. So even from the very beginning there were flashes of extreme originality. And yes, Everything Flows of course is completely free, while in Life and Fate there are things he doesn’t really touch on, like the Ukrainian famine, which he mentions only obliquely.

Was there an evolution also in his consciousness of himself as a Jew, possibly also as a result of the Holocaust and the rising tide of Soviet anti-Semitism?

I think that’s generally true, but it’s also a bit erratic. There’s the story ‘In Kislovodsk’—a very late story, 1963—and it is based on a documentary source that is included in The Black Book, and rather oddly he’s kind of edited the Jewishness out of it. It’s about how Russians are behaving under Nazi occupation and a doctor who makes quite a lot of compromises and finally can’t bear it any longer and commits suicide.

I was very caught by this passage from Life and Fate, from the letter from the mother:

They say children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren’t going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose-necks—this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished—just like the Aztecs once vanished.

It’s elegiac, and interestingly, he’s imagining these as the words of his own mother. And Grossman had researched the facts of the Holocaust pretty thoroughly, hadn’t he?

Yes, for The Black Book. From around 1943 he and Ehrenburg were collecting documentary material for a history of the Shoah on Soviet soil. Documents written by quite a lot of people were collected and edited. This was under the auspices of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, an organisation set up very much with official Soviet approval to get support for the Soviet war effort from the States. In 1943 they sent some very prominent Jews to travel around the States in an attempt to get the support of American Jews and thus more support from America. But once the war was over there was no need to be doing that and for a long time nothing happened with The Black Book. Then the authorities finally refused to publish it. And he’d spent years on it. There’s no record of what Grossman felt, there’s no diary entry, there’s no report of anyone talking to him about it. Imagine what it must have been like to spend so many years working on something of such profound personal and universal importance and then—just nothing.

Why wasn’t it published?

As Grossman says in Life and Fate, Stalin had snatched the sword of antisemitism from Hitler’s hand. There very likely would have been another wave of purges in 1953. The precursor to this was the supposed plot of Jewish doctors against Stalin’s life and this was almost certainly the precursor to what would have been a huge purge directed against Jews. Which didn’t happen because Stalin died in 1953. But the build up had been happening for quite some time and most of the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot in 1952.

I wonder if that experience of The Black Book affected his fiction, the knowledge that perhaps he was working on something that might not be published. I sense him turning inwards in his later work, talking to himself more.

In the 1950s he was living in Moscow, working very hard. He was a prestigious figure, earning a lot of money from the republication of books such as For a Just Cause, but he wasn’t taking part in official literary gatherings, people didn’t see him at meetings and readings. Ithink he was leading very much his own life at that point. And just one thing Iwant to pick you up on; earlier you spoke of Grossman playing an elaborate game with the censors in For A Just Cause. Ithink it was more the other way around. It wasn’t so much the censors, it was the editors; the demands on his well-meaning editors kept changing. The editors and Grossman would produce a text that met the demands made on them six months before, but the demands were constantly changing and it’s such a long novel they couldn’t keep up. I will be translating For A Just Cause, and the historian Jochen Hellbeck, who teaches in the States, a good historian and a great admirer of Grossman, was sending very emphatic letters to me and my editor, urging us to translate the original or ‘real’ text. [Laughing] He seemed to believe that it would be possible to fight one’s way through these twelve manuscripts, each of around a thousand pages, and to establish what Grossman really wanted, which is inconceivable.

So how did you decide in the end what to translate?

The versions published in the Soviet Union do differ from one another, but there’s a pretty broad consensus that the version Grossman was happiest with was the last one published in his lifetime. He’d clearly made revisions and incorporated earlier passages, which is what he wanted to do. That’s clearly the most reliable existing text and there’s no way that one can read Grossman’s mind to the extent of taking the best from twelve existing manuscripts. And I haven’t got a hundred years to work on it.

Selected recent translations:

Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. Translated by Robert Chandler. (396pp) Penguin Classics, 2005.

Andrey Platonov. The Foundation Pit. Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. (208 pages) NYRB Classics, 2009.

Varlam Shalamov. Kolyma Tales. Translated by John Glad. (508 pages) Penguin Classics, 1994.

Joseph Brodsky. Less Than One: Selected Essays. (501 pages) Penguin, 1987. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate. Translated and with by Robert Chandler. (864 pages) Vintage, 2006.

Vasily Grossman. The Road. Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova. (392 pages) MacLehose Press, 2010.

Vasily Grossman. Everything Flows. Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Anna Aslanyan. (290 pages) Vintage, 2011.