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Ivan Totomanov: Everything is translatable.

Ivan Totomanov, photo: Svoboda Tzekova, Sofia, 2012

Ivan Totomanov has been translating from Russian for more than 25 years. He started off as an editor at National Culture Publishing. Since 1990 he has been translating a new wave of authors, whose style and language use are completely different: Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Victor Erofeev and Yuz Aleshkovsky.

Anton Staykov: You translate exclusively Russian literature. Russian writers are cosmopolitan now. How has literature developed over the years from your viewpoint as a trnslator?

Ivan Totomanov: I handpick the titles I translate. I do not think there i as distinct development in Russian literature – just like environments, systems and outlooks. As far as the efforts to be a cosmopolitan writer – no one who tries it in literature lasts. Don Quixote is a Spaniard; Faulkner’s characters are from Yoknapatawpha. To paraphrase Vuk Karadzhic – write about what you know best.

A.S. Prior to 1989, contemporary Russian literature was read without regard for personal preferences. Would you agree that it was forced on us as obligatory Soviet literature?

I.T. No, not really. The social order was “forced” Mass literature goes along with the ideas of the time; that is why it both exists and is forgettable. Classics last and are constantly reprinted.

A.S. Is the communist protagonist a superheroe, of sorts?

I.T.It cannot be otherwise. He expresses ideals and is needed as an example. He will betray his father, like Pavlik Morozov, and his foul grandfather will kill him. Taras Bulba does it out of honor and duty, right? It is a matter of perspective. It is more important that it be interesting to read.

A.S. Is any text translatable?

I.T. Given that the words of God in holy books are translated, then everything is translatable. Every nation has its language instruments and enough words to describe the world and what is happening in it. So, yes, it can be done. You just have to understand what the author is trying to say and not simply excuse yourself wit “well, that is what the author wrote”. This is why translator is a co-author; there is no other way.

A.S. Do you translate poetry?

I.T. Only if necessary. Sometimes the current translations of a poetic piece do not match the text that I am translating; then I do them on my own. Aleshkovsky uses one of Pushkin’s verses as a motto for his book, but its translation did not fit with the text so I redid it. If I receive a decent pension and have years of free time, I think I will do a translation of Eugen Onegin.

Wjat is the difference between translating from Russian and, let’s say, from English?

I.T. There isn’t any difference. You are translating to Bulgarian. It’s more about what you are translating. The popular authors, who are translate most, and especially American ones, are storytellers and narrators, whereas even the most insignificant Russian author considers himself a lord or master of thoughts. This is an inextinguishable feature of the Russian writing tradition.

the interview is from 17.04.2012. Photo: Svoboda Tzekova.