Aaron Ung (German and Spanish, St John’s College, and QTE Ambassador) interviews Jonathan Bastable, Winner of the Open category of the Stephen Spender Prize for his translation from the Russian of ‘Brighton Rock’ (‘Брайтон-рок’) by Joseph Brodksy)

Submissions to this year’s Stephen Spender Prize are open from 12 May to 14 July.

Jonathan Bastable, journalist and author by profession, has recently been titled the Open category winner of the 2022 Stephen Spender Prize. He is a generalist writer of prose and in the past, has been a travel writer, a foreign correspondent, and a feature writer for magazines. “Russia is my specialism if I have one,” he says. He lived in Russia for several years – first as a student in the last decade of Soviet power, then as a newspaperman during the Yeltsin years. “I was there when Brezhnev died in 1982, when Chernobyl happened in 1985, when the country came to the brink of civil war in 1993.” Moreover, he wrote a novel called Devil’s Acre, which drew on his experiences in the USSR and touched on his lifelong love of poetry. Nowadays, he mostly writes about travel and art.

As a Russianist and a journalist, he has been closely following events in Russia and Ukraine. “I am a lifelong devotee of Russian culture, and I feel strangely ashamed of what is being done in the name of the Russian people. I know Ukraine, and Kyiv is a city I love. It was the first place I ever went to in the Soviet Union and so, strange as it now seems, it is the locus of my first encounters with native Russian speakers.”

Bastable’s language-learning journey began during his school days in the 1970s. He attended a south-London grammar school where modern languages were the only subjects that he excelled at. He studied every language option on offer – French, German and Russian at O- and A-Level – and afterwards Russian and German at university.

Bastable remembers being taught Russian as though it were a dead language, like Latin; the class worked through the grammar topic by topic, learned a lot of vocabulary, and had a strong focus on translating in and out of the language. It wasn’t until Bastable’s first trip to the USSR that he realised that his accent turned out to be unintelligible. Despite having a strong grasp of the grammar and knowing that everything he was saying was entirely grammatical, Bastable recalls having difficulty communicating with native speakers as no one could understand anything he was saying. “That aspect of my Russian quickly improved. By the time I was working there as a reporter in the 1990s, I could hide the fact that I was foreign – which was a tactical advantage when it came to getting stories.”

What role have languages played in your life? 

My life has been enormously enriched by knowing foreign languages. Every language comes with its own conceptual architecture. There are ideas I can entertain in Russian that would not occur to me, or not in the same way unless I were already steeped in it.

I get enormous pleasure from using language in other ways where my knowledge counts or gives me a head start: unpicking the lyrics of a Jacques Brel song, trying to decode a menu in Croatian, or reading the signs on a Greek street. It turns out that the Greek for road transport is ‘metafora’. How brilliant is that? Lorries and metaphors – both of them are a means of conveying something that is other than themselves.

And then there is the enormous treasure horde of literature and all it has given me. In the West, we tend to think of Russian literature as a groaning shelf full of doorstop novels. Those works, the Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys, are wonderful – but the poetry is as rich as the prose, if not more so. In Russia, now as ever, literature is a dangerous occupation. Writers and poets have been persecuted for their craft, or even paid for it with their lives – Pushkin, Lermontov, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Yesenin, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova… Their risk, their moral investment, places the reader under an obligation to pay respectful attention, and to turn the pages slowly.

My Russian got me my first break in journalism – at the Sunday Times Magazine. I sent in some (unpublishable) articles, and one editor there spotted some potential in me and offered me a job. This was the Gorbachev era, when there were lots of exciting changes going on in Russia, so my skills were handy. I learned to write features by watching how the fabulous editors at the magazine operated, how they talked about ideas and arguments, and how they moulded raw copy on the page.

One other thing: I think knowing foreign languages has made me a better stylist in English. When I am writing, there is often a kind of sub-routine humming away in the background, testing how my thoughts might sound in Russian. If some alarm bell tells me that a sentence wouldn’t translate well or easily, that is often a sign that there is something unclear or faulty in the English. It’s a useful check.

What do you think about the idea that translation is reproduction? Do you think that translations are better described as derivatives, especially in literary translation? 

I think that a translation of a poem must stand as a poem in its own right in the target language. That is the whole point of the exercise. If the end result feels translated – because there is something forced or synthetic about it – then the attempt has been a failure. One of the judges of the Stephen Spender Prize said that my translation felt like it must originally have been written in English – and that remark pleased me almost more than the winning itself.

A translation is necessarily dependent – it has to cleave to the source material, the original text – but I don’t think that is the same thing as being derivative. Literary translators are creative writers (and increasingly they are credited in book reviews and suchlike, which is as it should be). Translation takes a rare kind of writerly tact, a level-headed humility that not all writers possess. When Nabokov translated Eugene Onegin, he couldn’t quite efface his own personality from it. So, what he ended up with was more Nabokov than Pushkin – dazzling verbal pyrotechnics where Pushkin’s language is natural and deceptively simple. Nabokov made a bad translator because he could not comfortably wear another’s coat. (A friend of Nabokov’s gently suggested as much in a review, and Nabokov was so offended that they never spoke again.)

What do you think the role of a translator is and how did this apply in your translation?

A translator is an advocate and an ambassador. As for the advocacy, I wanted to showcase something about what makes Brodsky a good and thoughtful poet – to point people in his direction if they don’t know him at all, or perhaps only know his English writings. When I say ‘ambassador’, I mean that I feel a translator’s first loyalty is to the source language and culture. A translator is bringing news from abroad and has a responsibility to perform that function with truthfulness and integrity. If an English reader were to ask me ‘Is this what it is like to read Brodsky in Russian?’, I hope I’d feel happy saying: as I understand him, and as far as I can express it, yes, it is.

What was it about the poem, “Брайтон-рок”, or the poet, Joseph Brodsky, that made you want to translate his work for the Stephen Spender Prize?

One thing that drew me to Brodsky is that he was a protégé of Anna Akhmatova – who in my opinion was the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, perhaps the greatest writer of the twentieth century, bar none. She is the reason that I am glad I know Russian. Being able to read her in the original is enough on its own to justify the years of study and immersion. I am envious of Brodsky for his having known her, and I’m pleased to have made a poetic connection to him that puts me at one remove from her.

And more generally, because of the events of the past year, I wanted to remind myself and others that Russian culture, Russian literature, has been a force for good in the world. As I said, Russia’s poets in particular have a long tradition of standing against tyranny in their own country. Brodsky is part of that honourable lineage. I have been watching Russian TV, the news, and current affairs, and have been shocked by the mendacity and the violence of the language used about Ukraine and the wider world. It is all far more insidious and extreme and polluting than late-communist-era propaganda that I knew, and which was often comically inept. I needed to reconnect with the beauty and complexity and purity that the Russian tongue can give rise to. Reading poetry does that for me, whether I plan to translate it or not.

What do you think Brodsky was trying to say or do through the poem, “Брайтон-рок”? Was there a difference between what you think Brodsky was trying to say or do and what you were wanting to say or convey in your translation?

The poem is in part a landscape painting of Brighton. I have lived in Brighton for 20 years, so for me, the topography of the place – the cliffs and the downs and the grey sea – is familiar and cosy. For Brodsky, when he passed through, Brighton was new and exotic. So, I wanted to transmit that wide-eyed sense of things encountered for the first time – the distinctive sound of the tide on a pebble beach, the pointy church spires that look so alien to Russian eyes.

What was the one thing in your translation that you wanted to convey to the reader above all else?

The poem was of course written after Brodsky was forced to leave the USSR, and I suspect that he sat down and wrote it sometime after he left Brighton. I think the snapshots that make up much of the first two-thirds are imperfect fragments of memory. I don’t think there is any spot on this part of the coast where churches are visible above the cliffs, for example. He was re-imagining Brighton, looking back. So, there is a sense of a man in exile, who glimpses death in the far distance, and whose past life is sealed off by more than the passing of time. I have that feeling about Russia, and particularly about Leningrad/Petersburg, which was Brodsky’s hometown. The year that I spent there when I was twenty was cold and hungry and grim in many ways – but I was happy, I felt very alive. Given the world situation, it seems highly probable that I will never go back there again. The sadness I feel around that is the same sadness I detect in this poem.

What is something lost in your translation of “Брайтон-рок” that you wish you could have conveyed to the reader?

I wrote in my commentary about the word ‘rok’ in Russian. It means fate, destiny. It is a weighty word – heavy like a rock. So, Brodsky’s title – “Brighton Rock” – is a pun that encompasses the two languages that I was juggling with. But in the translation, there is only one language present. So, the import of the word evaporates – as if Brodsky had simply called the poem ‘Brighton’. More than that actually, the title is even a little confusing to English readers, because it looks like he wants to reference the Graham Greene novel, but there is nothing in the poem that does that. So, something is lost there, or mixed up. All you can do as a translator is take the translingual play on words as a clue to the poet’s intent.

What challenges did you encounter whilst translating the poem?

I decided at the outset that the rhyme scheme was absolutely part of the warp and weft of the poem and that I must not sacrifice that. That turned the entire enterprise into a puzzle, one to which there was not necessarily any solution. Many poetic translations fail because, in an effort to hit the rhyming bullseye at the end of every line, the translator tortures the syntax or goes desperately rifling through the thesaurus. It helped me that Brodsky’s rhymes in this poem are loose and evanescent because I wanted to achieve naturalness above all. Some of the people I have shown the translation to didn’t notice at first that there was a pattern of rhyme going on at all – but once I pointed it out said: oh, I see it now. That made me feel I was on the right track.

What aspect of the poem did you enjoy translating the most?

There is some lovely phrasemaking in the poem, and that is a mark of Brodsky’s art. I enjoyed coming up with equivalents that worked in English. The line ‘A careless linnet whistles in the brakes’ is good, I hope, and it came to me more or less fully formed. The Russian term that Brodsky uses for a fishing net, ‘nyevod’, is a rather lovely bisyllable, but ‘net’ is too curt and doesn’t do the Russian justice. An empty ‘fyke-net’, meanwhile, is something that a curious reader can conjure with. That one word took quite some time to resolve itself. An editor friend of mine commented on the description of eyes as ‘those two observant droplets’. She said: ‘That is very you,’ – and I was gratified because I think it is very Brodsky.

Was there any context that you think influenced “Брайтон-рок” which you wanted to put into your translation in turn? Equally, have any parts of your life inspired any parts of your translation?

My family holidayed in Brighton when I was a child. I could have been down here, playing on the beach, at roughly the same time that Brodsky was trudging along the coast, looking up at the chalky cliffs. My parents made films of those summer vacations on a cine camera, and I had that in mind when I wrote in my commentary that Brodsky’s scenes were like the overly short takes of a home movie. But wouldn’t it be something if I were to look at those old cine films again, and suddenly notice the stooping figure of a Russian poet wandering through the back of the frame in his Macintosh and Romanian loafers?

In your opinion, what value do languages and learning languages have today and in your life, especially in a time in which we have machine translation services? 

Well, there is the access to culture that I mentioned earlier. Language is the subtle knife that allows you to enter other worlds. There are the obvious practical advantages to knowing the language when you are abroad – always rewarding to ask for a beer and get one – alongside the fact that it’s simply courteous to make some attempt to speak to people in their own language when you are in their country. And I think, on a barely conscious level, knowledge of a foreign language allows you to triangulate your thinking, to approach life with an entirely different box of tools. Members of my family – non-Russian speakers – have said to me that I appear to be not the quite same person when I am speaking Russian. I find that pleasing, and I think it is almost literally true.

As for your point about machine translation, I think there is a place for it, but there are limits. I recently visited a friend who has carers come to help him – one of whom is a Polish speaker with little English. I asked him how they communicate, and he said that he talks to her via Siri, which instantly translates what he says. I was sceptical about how accurate that method could be, and he said: Let’s try it out in Russian. He spoke a phrase something like: ‘My good friend Jon has come to see me this morning and we are about to make a nice cup of tea’ – which, to my surprise, his phone rendered in entirely correct, perfectly intonated Russian. Then, as an experiment, I spoke a couple of lines of Pushkin into his phone – and they came out in English as garbled nonsense.

As I understand it, AI translation works by aggregation. People are always making social arrangements and offering cups of tea, the software collects such interactions and gets very good at dealing with that kind of common language.

But poetry is by definition uncommon language. Machines can’t handle that, or any kind of language that is elevated or crafted or self-conscious. And machines will never be able to do that because it is not just a question of getting the software to be smarter. The art of translation involves all the meta-elements that your questions have alluded to – the non-fungible tokens that are words, the interplay between the two bits of intelligence involved, interpretations based on biographical or historical knowledge, verbal sacrifices, and semantic trade-offs that the translator may or may not be able to balance or redeem elsewhere in the work. All that is permanently beyond an algorithm, because an algorithm is a closed box. It is exactly the sort of box that translators should be trying to think outside of. When it comes to creative translation, understanding the meaning of the words is not enough. It is barely even the start.

To finish off, what is your favourite word in each of the languages that you know?

I am fond of the Soviet-era neologisms formed by sticking together the first syllables of two words. In the early Bolshevik days, for example, there was a state campaign for education with the very clunky title Likbez, which comes from the phrase ‘likvidatsiya bezgramotnosti’ – ‘eradication of illiteracy’. The term is sometimes still used, half in jest, to mean something like the American expression ‘101’. Not long ago I saw a Russian advert offering ‘digital likbez’ – meaning a basic course in computing.

I believe there is a French verb ‘fiveocloquer’ which means ‘to take afternoon tea’– but I don’t want to look it up in case it’s not true. In German, there is a nice-sounding word ‘frech’ that means cheeky or insolent. That must surely be cognate with the English ‘fresh’ when used in phrases such as ‘Don’t get fresh with me.’ I mean, I suspect the English is a homonym, nothing to do with ‘fresh’ in the sense of ‘new’, but I don’t know.