From the Translator: Why I Translate the Work of Andrei Sen-Senkov

By Peter Golub

This essay is written as an accompaniment to the poem “Drawings on a Soccer Ball,” but since this poem is a good representation of Sen-Senkov’s work in general I would like to write broadly about my experience with his work as a whole.  

I first met the author in 2007 in Moscow, and have been translating him ever since. I was immediately drawn to the work because it struck me as unique in its playfulness, simplicity, and sadness—a childish simplicity applied inventively to a wide range of subjects. I think some take the word “childish” to be pejorative, but these people are almost always too serious and conservative. I mean here the kind of spirit that is both inventive and playful. Think of Einstein sticking his tongue out at the camera or the works of Nikolai Gogol. This spirit and attitude is what drew me to Sen-Senkov’s work:

a five-year-old child
who has just learned his letters
reads JVC like ГУС

The passage from “Drawings”  is simple. The name of the Japanese electronics company is mistaken by a child for the Russian word meaning “goose.” The mundane is suddenly made new and slightly comical. Why would anyone name a TV “goose”? And this mistake sets up the next unexpected simile:

like some sort of animal
resembling a disfigured white ball

If a TV can be like a goose, then a goose can be like a soccer ball represented on that TV. The transformation is fast and leaves the reader with a subtle sense of loss. A television is not really entirely a television; a goose is not entirely a goose; a soccer ball is not entirely a soccer ball. Each is connected to the other, and is disfigured by this connection. There is little consensus on how we perceive even the simplest of things, and our individual perceptions create a sense of isolation and even loneliness. Another poem reads:

the kind god sends
to a boy lost in the mountains
a ball of lightning
the boy does not know
what to call it
but will unquestionably
tell everyone in the village
upon his return

then the boy understands,
no one will believe him
they will laugh
“things like this don’t happen”
                                  
god, as always
only made things worse

the boy regrets
seeing this orange
doused in gasoline
     
wiping tears with his fists  
he whispers “I hate you, I hate you”          

Our private experiences, especially the ones filled with magic, can isolate us from others because it seems that we all have our own unique dreams, which even in their simplest forms are hard to convey to others. Sen-Senkov’s great gift is not the creating of well-crafted new worlds, but in his revealing the seams that exist in this one. Different perceptions put side by side reveal a distance we often overlook.

Of course, there is a pleasure inherent in the work as well. The childishness takes the edge off by reminding us that we ought not take our convictions, definitions, and ideas too seriously:

the last name of the player
on the german team
translates into russian as
pig crawling up
a blond graceful creature


[…]

the pig could not crawl to the very top
remaining elegantly perched on the bronze branch
of the german soccer metro

Unlike many Russian authors, Sen-Senkov does not see failure and distance as entirely tragic but as an opportunity for contemplation, which often leads to pleasure, comedy, and newness.

Let me add that translating such work has its challenges. Sen-Senkov is using his Russian perception to reveal the seams inherent in reality, and translated into English the seams and simplicity inherent in the work sometimes end up being obscured. When translating the poems into English I have to find a proper equivalent and use the simplest language possible in order not to lose the subtle comedy and tragedy of the work. As in the case with “JVC” and “ГУС,” the visual aspect of it requires I leave the Russian as it is. At times Sen-Senkov reveals the individuality and malleability of perception by making a mistake:

they say
that in the daniel defoe novel
the round island of tobago
there was an uninhabited soccer schedule

I have had more than one editor comment on the title, assuming I had simply done a literal translation of the Russian title, and since I have very good editors, they know Defoe never wrote such a book with this title. This is another one of Sen-Senkov’s playful techniques that again works to give us a subtly newer way of looking at something familiar. These “mistakes” are often hard to translate because mistakes are almost always blamed on the translator not the author, and if the author is purposefully playing with mistakes then the translator must be extra careful to recognize the mistake as intentional and render it as faithfully as possible.


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