New translation brings bloody history out of the past

Emeritus Professor Kevin Windle and Dr Elena Govor. Image: Evana Ho

By Evana Ho

Three years ago, Australian National University historian Dr Elena Govor showed up at the office of her colleague Emeritus Professor Kevin Windle. This was not an unusual occurrence; they’d been friends for 30 years and collaborators in the years since. But today, there was a book she was hoping he would consider translating, and he was casting about for his next project. Luck was on her side.

Elena recalls suggesting to her long-time colleague: “Kevin, maybe you could look at my grandfather. After all, he was an interesting person.”

Elena’s grandfather, Nikolai Ivanovich Kochkurov, was better known by his pen name Artyom Vesyoly. The book was Russia Washed in Blood, a long “novel in fragments” informed by his experiences as a soldier in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921. His writings portrayed a complex, unvarnished view of the Revolution and Civil War. For this, his ‘counter-revolutionary Trotskyite activity’, Artyom became one of the many victims of Stalin’s Great Purge. In 1938, he was executed.

Although Elena had two generations’ distance from these events, the gap was closed by having been raised by Artyom’s widow, her grandmother – who herself endured ten years in a labour camp. Over the past decade, Elena has been working with her family to preserve Artyom’s legacy and restore him to his place in Russia’s literary history. 

“When Artyom was arrested in 1937, all his books in libraries and bookshops were destroyed,” Elena explains. “Only a few copies survived. And then when he was ‘rehabilitated’ posthumously in 1956 as the result of a court application – that is, found not guilty – a committee was formed to republish his works.”

Elena’s aunts Gaira and Zaiara remembered that Artyom had squirrelled away of a crate of his papers at his parents’ house, in anticipation of his arrest. As predicted, when he was arrested, the NKVD ransacked his apartment, later destroying everything they had seized. After Artyom was ‘rehabilitated’, his family recovered his sequestered papers.

“Recently, we decided to submit all this material to the Russian Central Archives of Literature and Art, but digitise it first,” Elena says. “So just before the pandemic started, I went to Moscow for a week, and spent the whole week scanning five and a half thousand pages of manuscripts.”

Russia Washed in Blood was translated and published in Poland in the 1960s. Its German translation came in the 1990s. Some of Artyom’s works have also been published in other languages, but apart from a short passage from that novel, there was nothing by him in English. That’s where Kevin, an acclaimed literary translator and Russian scholar with the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, entered the picture.

Kevin obliged Elena’s request and took a look at Russia Washed in Blood.

“I looked and said, ‘That’s too hard – it can’t be done’,” Kevin says. “But I was persuaded that it needed to be done. In the 1920s and 30s, Vesyoly was seen as an up-and-coming novelist of great importance to the new Soviet Russian literature. So I agreed it was well worth doing. It happened that I was in contact with Anthem Press who showed interest, and they eventually took it on.”

What prompted Kevin’s initial reaction was what he describes as the “unique difficulty” of the language of Russia Washed in Blood, and its unorthodox form: the “fragments” are only loosely connected, and Artyom added new ones in successive editions.

“He wrote in a very unusual way,” offered Elena. “One result of this was that it was very difficult to translate what he wrote into any other language.” 

Even for Russian readers, it’s a difficult book to read. With a chuckle, Elena paraphrased Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky: “You have to first translate it from Russian into Russian.”

Kevin agreed. “It’s very, very different and very deliberately different from the language of Russian literature before that date. There was a tendency in the early 20s to simply reject the past, throw out the 19th century – forget about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov; they belong in the past, they’re irrelevant to our time. Vesyoly was one of the first to say this, while other writers were saying, ‘No, no – there’s a cultural legacy here which we must cling to.’”

Kevin proceeded to outline the elements that made Russia Washed in Blood a significant translation challenge. 

“Firstly, the form of Russian Artyom uses is folksy – the speech of uneducated people,” he says. “And that’s not only in dialogue; it’s in narrative too. Plus a very rich vocabulary, which is not to be found in standard dictionaries.” 

Artyom took words from a 19th century dictionary he was fond of, by Vladimir Dal. As Elena and Kevin note in the Introduction, Artyom would add words to it that he came across on his travels – as well as injecting into his prose words he made up from well-known roots.

Artyom used a lot of local dialects too, allowing readers to identify speakers as natives of a particular part of Southern Russia. These too needed to be replaced in some form of English – a task Kevin described as fraught with risk.

“One has to convey in some different way the idea that the characters are not very literate, without nailing them down to a particular part of any English-speaking country,” he says. He approached this task by using common forms of sub-standard English, words like ain’t and they was, recognised as ungrammatical by a wide range of readers from different parts of the Anglosphere. 

“Compounding the difficulty,” Kevin says, “you have a great many snatches of song and fragments of verse. That automatically adds a whole new dimension, because you have to try and reproduce the poetic form and the effect in some way, as you do when you translate poetry.” 

Russia Washed in Blood also features jokes, some of which run for a page or so. 

“You have to be sure you’re getting the point – that I as translator get the point first– and that wasn’t always easy. And then you have to produce the desired humorous effect in English,” he adds.

“Plus the historical dimension – after all, the events are now a hundred years ago. When the novel was written, the context was immediately familiar to the readers. Even in the 1950s and later, people in Russia still knew about the 1917 Revolution, but our English readers today may not. So one has to somehow convey that background information, whether by expansion within the text or by footnotes to make things clear.” 

All of these things taken together, Kevin concludes, make life fairly hard for the translator.

“Additionally, the language we hear in the novel is often the product of crowd scenes,” Elena explains. “It’s as if you had a video camera and microphone in a crowded square, picking up many different voices around you. And by the accents and forms of language you can tell what kind of people are speaking.  There is a kind of polyphony operating. It very much reminds me of cinematography.”

In view of the many challenges the text presented, Kevin went about his translation with the Russian original on the computer, and the Polish and German versions in front of him. It should be added that he’s conversant with both these languages, and indeed translates from them, but is most at home in Russian.

“Sometimes when I wasn’t sure if I had grasped the meaning of the Russian, I could turn to the Polish and the German, to see what those translators had made of it,” Kevin says. “It was a great help to me to have those two versions.”

Elena was also an invaluable part of the process. 

“Once a week,” she says, “Kevin and I would work together on a chapter in which he had highlighted difficult points and compared the three language versions. We would try to clarify the meaning and find English equivalents which worked.”

Their resulting translation is the most complete of all the versions. The Polish version was shorter because it was published in the 1960s, translated from the censored Russian editions. The German translation – a project initially begun in the 1920s before being deemed too hard, only to be taken up again some 60 years later – is fuller than the Polish, but also has omissions.

Kevin explains what was absent from the original Russian publication.

“The most striking deletion is some five pages from the life story of a villainous young ex-soldier, Filka, who finds his metier in the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, as an executioner. His work is described in some detail, and his obvious delight in it. Soviet publications were not permitted to show the Cheka in an unfavourable light.”

He adds, “Other cuts are mostly shorter. They include disparaging references to the Bolsheviks, and scenes involving sex.”

Elena says that the first steps were taken to republish some of his works in the late 1950s, after Stalin’s death.  

“A whole generation had grown up who didn’t know about him or his books. And then gradually, his daughters – my aunts - who had his archives smuggled his work into print. Finally, only after perestroika, they managed to publish some of the censored passages,” she says.

“It’s as if you kill a writer and all his books with him, then gradually try to bring him back to life.” 

The English translation was published in October 2020 and has been of great interest to historians –with the understanding that the novel is fiction and can’t be treated as a documentary source. 

“It nevertheless gives an extremely vivid picture of life in revolutionary times,” Kevin says. 

“Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard and some other novels which treat the same period were published and widely read in the Soviet Union,” Elena adds. “They are translated and studied as core works of Russian literature. But Artyom brings us something absolutely new, something raw, unprocessed, undistilled.”

“It tells us that we shouldn’t see the Russian revolution as some beautiful movie like Doctor Zhivago. It was different, it was like a monster that devoured its own. That is what Artyom’s work conveys to us – that sense of endless, murderous chaos and a monstrous process devouring everything, including those who set it in motion.” 

The English translation has also drawn praise from people such as Australian author Tom Keneally and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk. On the book jacket, Dralyuk comments: Artyom Vesyoly’s harrowing novel belongs on the shelf beside the works of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov and other modernist masters of the early Soviet period. Translator Kevin Windle’s flawless command of idiom and sensitivity to the slightest nuances of tone impresses on every page.

What is perhaps the highest praise though, comes from Artyom’s own granddaughter.

“I think only Kevin of modern English translators could do it,” Elena says with a smile.
“I don’t know about that,” Kevin responds.

Russia Washed in Blood: A Novel in Fragments is published by Anthem Press (London & New York). The book was shortlisted for the NSW Translation Prize, a biennial category in the 2021 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Listen to the Russian-language interview with Emeritus Professor Windle and Dr Govor about Russia Washed in Blood on SBS Radio.