From West Siberia to West Virginia in search of the Snark

Victor Fet

My relationships with both Lewis Carroll and the Snark are rather complicated both historically and geographically. Carroll in Russian translation was not in the first dozen of the literary fairy-tale writers which I read and re-read in early age growing up in Novosibirsk (West Siberia); my favorites in the early 1960s were Wilhelm Hauff, Evgeny Shvarts, Hans Christian Andersen, Alexander Volkov, Gianni Rodari. Of British stories, I read probably only Winnie-the-Pooh in Zakhoder’s translation (1960); also there were the poems translated by Marshak (from his famous four “white” collected volumes) – those included some of Carroll’s (Father William).

I learned my English in a well-known incubator for future out-of-Russia emigrants, the School No. 130 of Novosibirsk (Akademgorodok), where my parents (great thanks to them!) placed me in 1963 in the third grade. My first Carroll book was Alice in Wonderland ineptly translated by Olenich-Gnenenko (1958), but supplied with exquisite illustrations by Valery Alfeyevsky (1906-1989). Alfeyevsky was my favorite illustrator: I remember his drawings accompanying fairy tales of Andersen, Veniamin Kaverin, and also a wonderful Brazilian book by Monteiro Lobato, The Order of Yellow Woodpecker. The translation of both Alices by N.M. Demurova published in Sofia in 1967 reached me much later. I also read both Alices in English (Soviet edition). Jack London’s The Cruise on The Snark (1911; translated to Russian in 1958) was the first book where I saw the unspeakable Name. Interestingly, London says about his sailboat “We named her The Snark because we could not think of any other name – this information is given for the benefit of those who otherwise might think there is something occult in the name”. I doubt, however, that London was not aware of Carroll’s poem. Note that the ship in The Hunting of the Snark is nameless.

The existence of Carroll’s poem became known to me in a convoluted way, through the book of Gerald Durrell Тwo in the Bush (translated to Russian in 1968). Twelve epigraphs to its chapters are all taken from The Hunting of the Snark. Their Russian translation was rendered by Lev L’vovich Zhdanov (1924-1995), a famous translator of popular books as well as science fiction (Durrell, Cousteau, Heyerdahl, Bradbury, etc.). Zhdanov, obviously, has not read the poem, as he was even confused on the issue of who hunted whom. He translated “Snark” as “Vorchun”, i.e. somebody who snarls. His Bellman became a “Storozh” (Watchman), and Boojum, to rhyme with Vorchun, was translated as “Mychun” (Mumbler).

In 1973, as a student at the Novosibirsk University I got a 1970 book Masterstvo perevoda (“Mastery of Translation”) with a chapter by N. M. Demurova, “Golos i skripka” (The Voice and the Violin”) about Carroll’s translations. This great article triggered my desire to do the unthinkable: to translate The Hunting of the Snark. I discovered Fit the Third of the poem in the Russian-published (1972) anthology of English and American verse. Later, I managed to get the entire text (Gardner’s Аnnotated Snark, 1962) from a library in Moscow, on a microfilm. By this time I already used to translate a bit from English, and also started to write some of my own poetry (which, however, was not to be published until the late 1990s).

I worked on the first version of the Russian translation of The Hunting in 1974, and completed it in 1975 (still being a student in Novosibirsk); I was 19 at that time. Immediately, I decided to send the manuscript to Moscow, to Nina Mikhaylovna Demurova herself, the chief Carroll specialist. I had no idea whether the translation could be published (who could think that it will be published 26 years later!). Through my youthful stubbornness, I found N.M.’s phone number, called her, and was flabbergasted to hear the real discussion on pros and contras of my Russian text. I was amazed and encouraged by this courtesy and attention. Following N.M.’s corrections and suggestions, I started to work further on the text. About the same time (January 1976), I happened to read my translation of Fit the Fifth (The Beaver’s Lesson) at the meeting of the famous Moscow literary club Magistral (presided by G. M. Levin). The room had a blackboard on which I faithfully reproduced the famous Butcher’s equation, translated into Russian as [(3+10+5) x (500 – 8×3) : 476] – 15 = 3.

In 1976, I graduated from the Novosibirsk University and went on to work (by my own desire) as a zoologist to Badghyz Zapovednik (National Park) in Turkmenistan, then still in the USSR. The drafts of The Hunting went with me. Further work (1976-1981) proceeded under very exotic circumstances: in my adobe hut near Kushka (the southernmost town of the Soviet Union); then under the walnuts of Aidere Valley in the West Kopetdagh mountains; on the famous Tashkent-Krasnovodsk train; in the stations and airports of Central Asia where Soviet troops were passing south to Afghanistan.

The translation was finalized in 1981, and was sent to N. M. Demurova again, also percolating to Samizdat (as did 1976 version as well). From time to time attempts were made to publish it, completely or partially. Once I even submitted the text to Literaturnaya gazeta; and in 1987 Ya. A. Gordin wanted to publish an excerpt in the Avrora magazine but with no result. Then I left with my family for the United States. In the early 1990s I started seeing the first translations published in Russia by Kruzhkov, Klyuev, Pukhov, etc.

Most of my archives were lost; moreover, in 1988 as we emigrated to the USA we were not allowed to take any manuscripts out of the still existing USSR. The texts of both versions of The Hunting translation, however, were kept by my parents in Novosibirsk, and by friends across the country. My father, Yakov Ilyich Fet, gave the text to his colleague Sergei Simonov. In the 1990s, when Internet appeared, the text was placed on Simonov’s website along with Kruzhkov’s and Pukhov’s translations. This was the text which was finally published in the almanach K vostoku ot solntsa (To the East of the Sun), edited by I.I. Vorobyev and V.O. Krasavchikov (Novosibirsk, 2001, No. 3, pp. 196-214). A quite flattering introduction to this translation was written by the famous Moscow semiotician, Vladimir Andreevich Uspensky; this introduction was also reprinted in Uspensky’s book Trudy po nematematike (Works in Non-Mathematics) (Moscow, 2002).

Working in Turkmenistan in the 1970s-1980s, during my rare visits to Moscow, I had a chance to meet N.M. Demurova personally. My unpublished translation of The Hunting became a source for several published quotations. Two lines from it were used by N.M. herself in the academic edition of the Alice (Moscow, Nauka, 1978, p. 250; reprinted 1986) to translate a Carroll quotation in an article by Virginia Woolfe.

Another Russian publication where The Hunting was quoted, happened to be popular organic chemistry book Molekula v prostranstve (The Molecule in Space) (Leningrad, Khimiya, 1986, 145 pp.). Its author, Sergey Markovich Shevchenko, obtained a Samizdat manuscript of my translation. Moreover, he corresponded with me in order to obtain an “official” permission to quote from an unpublished source as required by the publishers. It is possible that the archives of the Khimiya publishing house still have a typewritten permission signed by me and bearing the seal of the Syunt-Khasardagh State Zapovednik of the Turkmen Ministry of Forestry, where I worked at this time. Shevchenko’s book has three quotes from the poem (1981 version). His comments on the spatial conformations of chemical molecules, decorated with quotes from The Hunting, indeed sound very Snarkish! On p. 65, Shevchenko says “..It is not always possible to make sure that, first, we came to the very end of the pit, and second, that this pit is the deepest one. This is why the minimization procedure could appear to be a typical “hunting of the Snark” “.

The Carroll-style nonsense never ends. Just when I was preparing these notes (summer 2004), I found in the Internet that my translation has been published again! At this time, it was one of the early versions (1976), published in the new Moscow magazine Mir kul’tury (The World of Culture), 2003, No. 1, pp.4-17 (with great illustrations by Olga Ludvig). The magazine editor Yu. Sokolov confessed (ibid., pp. 2-3) that he obtained the manuscript around 1984 from Samizdat, with a comment “translated by A. Fet, 1876” – and could not understand how my famous namesake, the classical Russian poet Afanasy Fet (1820-1892), could be an author of THAT text? Indeed, Fet was a well-known translator from Latin (Horace) and German (Goethe), and, although he never translated Carroll, they clearly were contemporaries. Moreover, the 1876 is the date of publication of The Hunting of the Snark! Fortunately, Sokolov found the 1978 quote in Alice which had my first initial, and the 2003 publication went under my name, not Afanasy’s.

My 1975 version of The Hunting (published in 2003) was chronologically the first full translation into Russian. My second version (1981, published in 2001) differs from the first in a few details. Names of the characters were changed considerably. In 1975, Snark was rendered as “Drakonog” (Dragonfoot), and Boojum, as “Bukopyr’ “. These names, as N.M. Demurova pointed in a letter to me, were inventive but deviated from Carroll toward more traditional Slavic folklore; they were replaced by transliterated English originals. Brandashmyg (name invented by D. Orlovskaya for Bandersnatch) was taken from the Alice translation (a continuity not kept by other translators of The Hunting). For the crew names, I obeyed the B-principle firmly. Bulochnik (Baker), Bobyor (Beaver), Bankir (Banker) and Barrister all followed Carroll’s names exactly and were never changed. Brakonyer (“Poacher”) made a good match with the Beaver, although it did not completely reflect the original Butcher. The main change, however, happened to the Bellman. In 1975 version he was a Botsman (Boatswain), with a whistle instead of a bell. This was quite a “maritime” solution but also much more straighforward that the original. After all, Carroll did not call his character Boatswain – he clearly was a captain. Besides, I did not like the whistle sound. In the final version I made him a Barabanshchik (Drummer). It maybe militarizes a poem to some extent, but also keeps its soundtrack going (albeit to a constant drum instead of the bell).

Since 1981 when I finished the last version of this translation, I practically never translated any other poems from English to Russian. Maybe the “immunization” obtained in young age (when I set to translate one of the most non-translatable English poems) was too strong. On verse translation, I now tend to side with Nabokov’s principles in his monumental “literal” Eugene Onegin project. Sometimes I dub Russian poems for English-speaking friends or students; in doing so, I always first sacrifice the rhyme, and often the meter as well when I wish to render exact meaning and emotion. This is possible since the formal verse in the Anglophone world is largely extinct. Of course the same is not done with English to Russian translations; but it would be interesting to see a literal, word-to-word translation of The Hunting into Russian in some kind of prose, which would render exact sense – or exact nonsense. I have no doubt, however, that the prolonged work on this translation, its constant polishing for several years became a good school for me, sharpened the fantasy, and to some extent defined my own style in poetry. Later, already in the USA, I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas (contemporary and to some extent close to Carroll) and adopted a somewhat Gilbertian style for some of my own writings, both in English and Russian.

Snark (or, to be exact, Boojum) unexpectedly reappeared in my life even before the translation was published. In 1991-1994 me and my family joined the field expeditions of our friend, zoologist Gary Polis, in Baja California in Mexico. One of the most exotic plants of this part of the Sonora Desert is a so-called boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris). This naked desert succulent tree resembles a giant hairy carrot, has almost no branches and leaves, and is found only in Baja Peninsula. It extends up to 18 m and often bends down into strange configurations. It was dubbed a boojum tree, after the Carroll’s character, by the English botanist Godfrey Sykes in 1922. When he first saw Fouquieria in his spyglass, Sykes allegedly exclaimed: “Ho, ho, a boojum, definitely a boojum!”. A detailed monograph exists on this tree by Robert Humphrey, titled The Boojum and Its Home (University of Arizona Press, 1974). There is no doubt that I am the only Snark translator who saw hundreds of those Boojums – and also collected under them hundreds of scorpions to study their DNA “while strange creepy creatures came out of their dens” !

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