Happy birthday, Viktor Shklovsky!

By | January 24, 2018

Viktor ShklovskyViktor Shklovsky, one of the foremost literary critics and theorists of the 20th century, was born 125 years ago today. To celebrate the anniversary of his birth, Alexandra Berlina reflects on the challenges of translating this formidable figure in the anthology Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader

Some children have imaginary friends; I had imaginary aliens. One of my favorite games consisted in explaining everything around me to “Martians.” I got a kick out of telling invisible little green men that we humans put things inside our bodies through a hole in our head, or that every night, I closed my eyes and saw things that weren’t really there. Later, I learned that this and many other methods of renewing our experience of the usual were the object of 70 years of research by the Russian literary scholar Viktor Shklovsky. (Yes, he had a very long life. And an exciting one!)

The essay in which he first develops the concept of ostranenie (making strange) had been published in English before, but I felt the existing translation was too academic for “Art as Device,” a text written by hot-headed young man to be read out loud at an artists’ café. Also, only a tiny fraction of his other work existed in English. Moreover, considering Shklovsky’s longevity and productivity, a student or a lay reader wouldn’t know where to start. All of these were reasons why I wanted to create and translate a selection of his work. Well, the official reasons. The deeper ones were: a) translating a text is my favorite way of (re)reading it, and b) the title Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader came to mind, and I could never resist a pun.

Neither could Shklovsky. Before I began, I thought the main challenges of translating his work would be his penchant for word play and rhymes. For instance, he writes: “Tolstoy said that Dostoyevsky’s characters did everything suddenly. Every character in Dostoyevsky who is supposed to do one thing is bound to do something completely different – ‘suddenly’…” And then he goes on to say that the Russian word vdrug (suddenly) also means also means an abrupt joint action, and builds his reading of Dostoyevsky around this.

To give another example: “According to the symbolists’ theory, a literary work mattered because it transfigured the order of life into a swarm of analogies.” This seems straightforward enough (for Shklovsky), except that the words for “order” and “swarm” rhyme in Russian, stroy and roy.

Initially, I worried if I could manage such puzzles. But it turned out they were great fun. “All at once” means both “suddenly” and “together”, and the passage about symbolism could be reasonably translated as “the form of life transformed into a swarm of analogies.”  Staring at the screen didn’t always help, but the puzzles stayed with me, and the solutions came – all at once – when I was falling asleep or taking a shower. Translating the poems that came up in Shklovsky’s texts was pure joy, especially as most of them were rather playful. The young formalists’ hymn, for instance, ends with:

Love, just as any other object,

is known to us with all its vices.

But passion, from a formal viewpoint,

is the convergence of devices.


No matter if the boa constrictor

of our detractors is a mutant—

still, ave Shklovsky, ave Viktor,

formalituri te salutant!


The greatest challenge for me was, to my astonishment, something completely different – namely practicing restraint.

Encountering unexpected expressions from domains as different as army and agriculture, I was tempted to explain or neutralize them.

Encountering self-contradiction, terminological inaccuracies and overstatement, I was tempted to correct.

Encountering unidiomatic Russian, I was tempted to make the English less strange than the original.

Encountering repetition, I was tempted to introduce variation.

But I managed to resist these temptations most of the time: after all, I wanted Anglophone readers to meet a Shklovsky who was as close as possible to the one I love. I have been a freelance translator for English, German and Russian since 2002, but no other project has mattered to me as much as Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader. I wonder what the future brings…

Alexandra Berlina is Postdoctoral Researcher in Literary Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and editor of Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, winner of the 2015-16 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature. She translates projects from and into German, Russian and English – learn more at www.perevesti.net or contact her at alexandra@perevesti.net.




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