A Lifetime of Metamorphosis

Chapter 1

‘A mantra is a sentence where every word is where it should be’, said Boris Akunin, giving the 2013 Sebald Lecture at Kings Place, London. By its own definition, this sounded very much like a mantra. But mantra or not, surely we all wish to write sentences which meet this criterion, to organise our thoughts so that every word is where it should be. I wonder if there is an equivalent for the structure of a book: where every sentence is where it should be. Meta-mantra, perhaps.

Chapter 2

Preceding this lecture was the awards ceremony for The Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes 2012, which rewarded the efforts of translators working on novels from French, through Arabic, to Swedish. Margaret Jull Costa, longtime translator of Jose Saramago, Javier Marias, Eca de Querios and many other key figures of Iberian literature, went home with almost a clean sweep, taking commended prizes for translations of Portuguese and Spanish novels, plus the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for her translation of The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão. A very impressive achievement, and many congratulations indeed!

Chapter 3

Everything in my life is now broken-up into chapters.

It was the perfect opening to the lecture, a personal revelation, humorous and quirky, literary. Ever since he began to write, Boris Akunin has been unable to let something pass without deconstructing it into chapters; his novels, short stories, his Sebald lecture and even his day, none of them are immune to this sub-division. It’s quite possibly contagious.

Chapter 4

B. Akunin, so the blurb blurbs, is a Russian author, very widely read, and who has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His critically acclaimed series of detective novels, starring the character Erast Fandorin, are rendered into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Chapter 5

For Boris to live a hygienic lifestyle was the principal desire of his mother, and for that there were only two professions which were suitable, medicine or literary translation. Lacking the particular aptitude for science, a life of literature beckoned. To save a real life or translate a fictional one, that would be one way to view it; either way, one can see her point, as both careers aim only to improve lives. Curious though that the act of literary translation is pure, whereas creating the source material is not.

Chapter 6

Grigory Chkhartishvili is a literary translator and academic, who, with pure intentions, diligently transforms Japanese works into his native Russian. The pride of his mother then, who declared, on the occasion of his first translation, that Grigory’s wife had made a good choice.

Chapter 7

In Javier Marias’ novel A Heart So White, the narrator Juan, an interpreter, begins a private conversation with his professional counterpart during one particular assignment, changing the words uttered by his politician client into something far more interesting. It could well be a common phenomenon in those circles. Certainly Grigory became increasingly annoyed with how the writers were telling the story, privately exhorting them to get the preliminaries over with and commence the story, or wishing that the material were structured differently. To maintain his professional integrity, and possibly not trusting that he would leave the text unaltered, Grigory took the cleaner path and instead began to write his own novels. The risk of discovery taken by Juan was averted for the time being.

Chapter 8

Grigory Chkartishvili is Boris Akunin, a man who was born to be a sacrificial lamb, to bear the brunt of the disapproval imposed by Grigory’s colleagues. The metamorphosis was not as easy as it could have been, possibly no better than it was for Gregor Samsa; he, and his novels, had to endure the criticism of his colleagues in literary translation, and delivered in his company at that! Akunin is apparently a Japanese word that translates roughly as villain, it seems to have been a prescient choice given this unfavourable reception.

Chapter 9

The writer is never off-duty he said, referencing Chekhov’s The Seagull. I am beginning to understand.

My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano.

Funny though that clouds are always thought to look like something else, and not merely themselves. Why does no-one ever look at the grand piano and remark that it looks exactly like a cloud? Surely that would reveal just as much about a character as would their interpretation of those airborne inkblots.

Chapter 10

The first book Boris translated, as a teenage amateur, was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately for him, the frustration of referring to the English-Russian dictionary fifty times per page ruined the experience to such an extent that all the works of John Steinbeck became no-go areas. And so they remain today. It’s a salutary lesson for all language learners who are motivated by a desire to read foreign literature.

Chapter 11

If the writer is never off-duty, then continuous working hours are not the only sacrifices to be made. A more surprising sacrifice was his enjoyment of music. Whenever Boris hears a piece of music that evokes a particular mood, he labels it appropriately and then stores it away. Some time later, when writing a scene that requires that particular mood, he re-plays that piece and others similar, a sort-of sonic mood board, to help the process along. Effective it might be, but those pieces, like Steinbeck, is ruined thereafter. It seems that clouds are not the only objects in jeopardy from an author’s attentions.


I wonder how Boris Akunin feels to be on the other side now that his own novels are translated into other languages. Does he ever worry that his translators will undergo their own personal rebellion?

3 thoughts on “A Lifetime of Metamorphosis

  1. I really enjoyed this post. That a person’s dedication to literary translation should represent an ‘hygienic lifestyle’ is tremendous–thanks for including it here. As for the opening line of Chapter 1 above, you may already be familiar with this quote from the recently deceased Norwegian journalist Kåre Valebrokk, but if not I’ll include it here: ‘Good language is the language which is able to express a thought more clearly than it is thought’. My translation, alas. The Norwegian is better.

    • Thank you for the kind words!

      I wasn’t familiar with the quote from Kåre Valebrokk, but thanks for sharing, it’s insightful, and so very neatly put. As for the difficulties of translating these succinct, poetic mantras or proverbs, it seems to be a task that’s frustrating and beguiling, both in equal measure.

  2. Pingback: The Many Surprising Sides of Poetry | Thoughts at Intervals

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