Translating Pyotr Vlasov’s ‘The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina’

Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire has co-translated Pyotr Vlasov’s The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and together they’re looking for a publisher for the middle grade tale of cats, rats and a pact with the devil in Russia’s historic St Petersburg.

Wiltshire says that, not long before being asked to translate a sample from the book, “I read that a lot of cats live in the basement of the Hermitage museum (the second largest art museum in the world). Imagine my surprise, when BookTrust approached me to write a reader’s report on The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina, where the main character is a cat guarding the Hermitage art works from mice!

Here Maria tells us about translating the novel and about why publishers should take a look.

How did you make contact with the author? 

Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire: At that stage [when I translated the sample for BookTrust] I hadn’t had any contact with the book’s author, Pyotr Vlasov, who approached me later and asked if I want to translate the rest of the book. I was lucky that when I asked Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp if she wanted to work on this book together, she agreed.

How does the commissioning process work with BookTrust’s In Other Words project? What kind of feedback and support did you get? What did you learn from the project?

MKW: For the In Other Words project, BookTrust accepts submissions from the rights holders of books from all over the world, in all languages except English. They look for books that appeal to a diverse audience within the UK, and that can introduce children to other cultures and perspectives. The books need to suit the UK market as well. BookTrust then selects several honourable titles and shares them with English publishers. This is an amazing project from many points of view: apart from introducing other cultures to UK children, it helps UK publishers consider titles in various languages which they may not be able to read if BookTrust didn’t support their translation. This is one of the best translation and publishing support initiatives I’ve ever come across.

Tell us about the book The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina? Why did you think it would do well published in English?

MKW: This is a fantasy story and it’s brilliant; it is now firmly in my list of recommended books for children, both Russian and English. It has a fascinating plot (after all, there must be a reason why it has already sold 50,000 copies in Russia!), but I also loved it because of how historical references are skilfully brought into the fairy-tale world of the book, not only making the plot more gripping but also introducing Russian history and culture to British young audience. And because in this book magic is intertwined with daily life of ordinary people, I think it will do very well with British young readers and fits in our tradition from Enid Blyton to C.S.Lewis to J.K.Rowling, etc.

In The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina, historical characters from various historic epochs (e.g. Peter the Great, the poet Alexander Pushkin) meet in today’s Russia, where there are two worlds, the real one and ‘the Other’ one. Animals and works of art, who represent ‘the Other’ world, are faced with a challenging task of saving their realm and have to resort to the help of living people. It’s a story which involves major historic events of the past in the enthralling plot. Ultimately, this book is about eternal issues important in any culture: acceptance, forgiving, love, loss, friendship.

What are the challenges of translating for children? How do Russian children’s books compare with English ones? 

MKW: I think a translator’s main challenge is always to keep the book exciting for the reader while staying true to its main message, as well as doing their best in rendering the beauty of the language, its intricacies, humour and tone.

I guess, many challenges of translating for children are akin to those of writing for children – while translating The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina it was paramount to us that the language was clear and that there weren’t too many long sentences and paragraphs, as can be typical of Russian. We worked hard to produce a style of narration that was appropriate to a young reader’s level without being patronising, and that the story maintained its pace through the language.

In my opinion, the writing in Russian children’s stories is often more complex than in English stories (in terms of the deeper message, but also the sentence structures, the historic dimension, the difficulty of the vocabulary and length of paragraphs as well as the use of footnotes which we reworked into the text). It is quite common for Russian children’s books to contain elaborate concepts or words because it is also common to assume that if a child doesn’t know a word or a fact, she or he can look it up in the dictionary or encyclopaedia or ask someone, which I don’t think is so much the case in the UK.

But I think the English-language writer has more freedom with the scope of subjects in a book for younger audience: for instance, The Knight, The Cat and The Ballerina is recommended for 12+ in Russia whereas here, I think, a UK publisher would quite possibly target it at age 9+ or 10+. I found out online that in Russia books with any cruelty and violence are not recommended to the children under 12 so this possible is the reason for the older age recommendation.

In terms of challenges translating from Russian, there are always words you have to sacrifice for the sake of the reader’s smooth and enjoyable experience of the book. For instance, Pyotr Vlasov uses a lot of archaic words in Peter the Great’s speech to reflect the era he comes from – these words are not in use in Russian anymore. Ruth and I dealt with this using a very formal and embellished language so that Peter the Great’s speech differed from other characters’. The same was true of the old-fashioned units of measure Peter the Great uses – for instance, there is something called ‘shtof’ in Russian, which was used mostly to measure alcohol before the metric system was introduced. All these unfamiliar notions were footnoted in the Russian text, but from quite early on working on this story I was advised that it was best to avoid using footnotes in children’s books in the UK. I needed to do away with them without losing all the valuable information they provide for the text, so Ruth and I had to find a way to incorporate this cultural and historical context into the main narrative so that it blended in seamlessly.

As for other language issues, there are certainly things in the book that are obvious to a Russian reader but not so obvious to an English one. For instance, the main character, Vasska the cat, ‘approved of opera singing, especially in the spring’. But would it be clear why to an English young reader? Is it obvious if they come across this notion in this way in the book, even if it’s a known fact? To a Russian reader it is obvious because it’s a given fact that cats miaow a lot in the spring, during the mating season. There’s even a ironic expression in Russian ‘like a March cat’. But in the English translation we added that he liked opera singing in the spring ‘because cats sang serenades to their beloved feline friends’.

Then there is the well-known gender issue, of course, where objects and animals in Russian have a gender, whereas in English they are ‘it’. It was particularly tricky with animals because as I mentioned earlier they talk and have a major role in this story! So we had to come up with a suitable decision, which I hope the readers will like (i.e. it won’t stand out to them in the text!).

I should also certainly mention ellipses, so common in Russian and so fiddly sometimes in translation. And although they can be perfectly translatable we decided to make the narrative easier for the young reader, and since the story itself is quite complex at times with a lot of twists and turns, we thought it was very important that it is told in a very clear language.

It was particularly great working with Ruth who made sure there wasn’t a single allusion, inference or implication left ambiguous in our English translation. What is normal to be left for a Russian reader to interpret in a text, I think, can often leave a young English reader wondering at best and uncomfortable at worst so UK editors would want to avoid that. Knowing that Russian and particularly the historical periods introduced would be less familiar territory to English readers, Ruth and I unpacked the logic of every phrase that had the potential to be misunderstood. Russian grammar has a scope for freedom for the reader to interpret the meaning of a sentence, but we needed to rule out unnecessary ambiguity which could make a young reader stumble.

Are there any other Russian children’s books you’d love to see translated into English? Or any other authors?

MKW: Yes, there is a long list of Russian books I’d like to see translated into English (and I am hoping to contribute to that!), starting from classics to contemporary books. Russian literature is typically known by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov, but when it comes to children’s literature I think it’s hardly known at all.

It’s time we translated Alexandra Brushtein (her beautiful autobiographical trilogy for young adults), Alexander Zhitinsky (excellent science fiction for younger children), Sofia Prokofieva (amazing fantasy tales from my childhood which are still popular and reprinted regularly), as well as contemporary writers like Nina Dashevskaya, Evgenia Bassova, Sergei Makhotin and Grigoriy Oster to name just a few. It’s great that we have recently seen the publication of such great writers of today as Yulia Yakovleva (in Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s translation) and Anna Starobinets (in Jane Bugaeva’s translation) but I hope this is only the beginning.

Excerpt from the book:

“When Pushkin brought Masha before the Emperor for the second time, she was again struck dumb from fear. It took her a while to understand what he was asking her about.

‘A scientist? Clouds?’

But as soon as she pulled herself together, she immediately realised. ‘But the machine doesn’t disperse the clouds, it stirs up powerful hurricanes … And it makes people nasty and aggressive. I think they were going to set it up at the highest point in the city and turn it on, but then, fortunately, they changed their mind. Why do you ask?’

Peter looked away. ‘I feel, our guest, this dark sorcerer, has resolved to use the machine for his own purposes. I do not know exactly what he has up his sleeve, but what you say is not reassuring!’

Here, as if in confirmation of the Emperor’s words, a clap of thunder rumbled outside. The floor trembled slightly under his feet. A thunderstorm? In January? Masha had a bad feeling about this. Inside her everything sank into a bottomless void.

‘Can you do something?’ she whispered, desperately grabbing Pushkin’s hand. ‘He’s going to blow up the entire city!’

Pushkin looked away and shook his head. ‘Fate has it that we cannot directly change the course of your life. Only the living can stop this madman…’

He certainly did not mean that Masha was the only one who could help St. Petersburg at that moment. But that is how she interpreted his words. She felt neither fear nor despair. One single stream of thought now occupied her mind. ‘Hmm, what’s the tallest building in St. Petersburg? Think! Katya once told you. What did she say? Remember, you discussed the plans for the construction of the new skyscraper … St. Isaac’s Cathedral? No, it can’t be … Aha, of course! The bell tower of the Peter and Paul Fortress! It’s just a stone’s throw away from here!’

‘Alexander Sergeyevich!’ she addressed Pushkin in a firm and serious tone. ‘I need a griffon! Right away!’

Five minutes later, when Butadeus and Patrick were casually walking across the roof of the Winter Palace towards the River Neva, they were witnesses to a highly unusual sight. Somewhere behind them they heard the swoosh of giant wings, and the huge body of a griffon swept over them like a low-flying aeroplane, before sweeping almost straight upwards towards the huge, round yellow moon, which so brightly lit up the Palace Bridge and the Peter and Paul Fortress directly across the river from the Hermitage. The griffon’s golden wings glittered dimly in the moonlight, and on its back sat a female figure with a long dress fluttering behind her in the wind.

‘Lord, what is this?’ gasped Patrick in astonishment. ‘It’s the ballerina who danced at the ball! But how can she be riding a griffon? She’s just an ordinary girl!’

Butadeus laughed under his breath. ‘I knew it, I knew it! It’s fate. It’s fate itself flying on a griffon, to show me what I want to see! The fundamental mystery of existence has accepted our challenge, Patrick! Don’t look at me like that, I’m not crazy, no! Soon, very soon, you’ll see everything, and you’ll understand! A true miracle awaits!’”

Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire is a Russian-born translator from English into Russian and Russian into English and loves translating fiction, drama and non-fiction, as well as children’s literature. Her translation journey started when she was asked to translate a few plays by young Russian playwrights into English for a new drama festival, which was followed by other commissions. She has a BA in English Language and Literature and a PhD in Linguistics from Moscow State University. 

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