Nino Haratischwili

My Gentle Twin

Translated by the participants of the BCLT Summer School 2012, with Katy Derbyshire.

Every summer, the British Centre for Literary Translation holds a Summer School, bringing together aspiring and experienced translators from several languages for a week of intense and inspirational workshops, seminars and lectures. The focus of the school is the group translation of a text whose author joins the translators for the whole week. This year the German-language author was Nino Haratischwili, whose novel Mein sanfter Zwilling was reviewed this spring in NBG. Here, Katy Derbyshire, who ran the German workshop, introduces the fine results of that lively week.
How can translation by committee possibly work? Surely the resulting text lacks a coherent voice, being a patchwork of ideas by different individuals?
Having attended an inspiring Summer School at the University of East Anglia’s British Centre for Literary Translation myself in 2006, it was a great honour to be invited to lead the German- English translation workshop this year, working with the very talented playwright and novelist Nino Haratischwili. Ten aspiring and emerging translators worked on three very different sections of Nino’s novel Mein sanfter Zwilling – one group translating a very tricky sex scene which we shall spare you on these pages, two smaller groups focusing on the text extracted below, and each translator doing one paragraph of the book’s very dense, poetic prologue.
For two days it was noses to the grindstone, with Nino and myself flitting from table to table. And then came the group-editing process, two days of more discussion (to put it politely) around a table. That was when the voice really came together. We worked on continuity – how do we transliterate the Georgian names, where is there repetition, what about contractions, how do we punctuate? Are we quite sure that’s how we want to punctuate? But what if we…? Well, we can always come back to it later… In the case of this particular extract, the main temptation to resist was over-smoothing the narrated speech – we wanted it to be clear the woman telling her story is agitated, speeding up and slowing down, not always grammatically correct, while retaining the writing’s literary quality. Almost every sentence was examined, its rhythm weighed, its meaning checked, stumbling blocks eradicated – all things translators tend to do almost instinctively when working on our own, but now explained aloud and defended, sometimes to the hilt.
The week was a humbling experience for me, for two reasons: I saw that there are plenty of excellent and passionate translators out there, chomping at the bit to make it as professionals. And secondly, the fact that our group translation became so coherent made me doubt my usual faith in the importance of the translator’s individual voice for a good rendering. A choir, it turns out, can sing just as beautifully as a soloist.
In this extract from Nino’s stunning novel set in Hamburg and Georgia, Salome tells a story from the Georgian civil war, with haunting echoes of the protagonist’s own childhood. The speaker Salome is in love with Lado, who has married Nana. And Nana, meanwhile, is having an affair with a Russian officer. In this passage, the terrible impact of that infidelity on the young girl Maia unfolds.
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The Summer School group: (From left) Kate Roy, Katy Derbyshire, Maria Snyder, Gisela Boehnisch, Ruth Martin, Helen Harding, Lizzie Catling, Charlotte Collins, Ruth Ahmedzai, Jonathan Bridges, Fiona Hayter, Nino Haratischwili
• • •
“And then the shooting started. And didn’t stop. Lado was in Tbilisi, my husband and son had already gone back to Russia to his family and I was stuck in Sukhumi with Maia and Nana. The first refugees had already left Abkhazia for Russia or Tbilisi. Even when there was still a chance to go, we didn’t want to. I didn’t want to because I was waiting for Lado and she didn’t want to because she thought her Russian hero would protect her. He was there to liaise with the separatists and to send strategic updates back to Moscow. I don’t know whether he did or not. All I know is he was a lovestruck young guy who found himself caught up in something that had got out of hand and that he couldn’t control. We were stuck there for nearly six months. In Sukhumi. By that point she was already pregnant with Buba. We had moved to my small flat because the Kanchelis’ house was too big, too provocative, because everyone knew who it belonged to. All of a sudden Nana was with the enemy. For the Russians because her father had gone over to the Georgians in the end, and for the Abkhazians because her husband was fighting for the Georgians, and for the Georgians because her mother was Abkhazian. Towards the end she barely said a word. She’d sit there for hours staring out of the window and wouldn’t even talk to Maia. Now and then she would slip out of the flat and disappear for a few hours. And every time I would expect the worst, that she might not come back.
“Lado didn’t return until just before Sukhumi was taken, before all those people died. He kept begging his wife to get out, to go to Tbilisi, to take Maia away, but Nana said she would die if she had to leave her mother, her town, that her family’s reputation would keep her safe and protect Maia. That may have been true in 1992 but just a few months later, everything was torn down, burnt to the ground, murdered, forgotten. No one gave a damn about your reputation any more.
“Just after Buba was born, in the winter of ‘93, Lado came home and told us we had to leave the country. Just before everything went to hell. Lado was stationed in Gali then and even so, he only just made it to Sukhumi. It was a terrible time and it only got worse. He told us that we absolutely had to leave town in two days, because the city was going to be blockaded. After Buba was born, Nana seemed like a different person. She dressed in her best things, she wouldn’t breastfeed the baby, she’d disappear for days and then turn up half-drunk. I guessed she was living it up at Russian parties and following Aleksei around like a dog on a lead. Lado had set everything up for us. His people would pick us up at dawn and take us to Batumi by helicopter. From there, we were supposed to go on to Tbilisi. I already had a plane ticket from Tbilisi to join my husband and son. Lado made me swear that I would force Nana and Maia to get into the car if I had to, that I would do whatever it took to get us all out of the city. He drove back out of town, he had to get back to his men, so that he could bring them into the city that night. So that they could start shooting, set fire to city hall, so that . . .” Salome sighed.
“I stood there with three bags and watched Nana putting on a nice dress for the night before our departure. Lado had said they were going to pick us up at seven in the morning. I was holding Buba and Maia was howling, maybe she sensed something was wrong. I asked Nana why she was getting all dressed up. She said she needed to say goodbye to him, she had so much to say to him, she had to tell him that it had been wrong to sleep with him while her country was going to the dogs, that she couldn’t be with him while her husband was fighting on the other side, that she couldn’t sit there chatting with him about theatre while his country was supplying her country with weapons.
“And so I said: ‘Go on then, I know you have to do it, I’ll look after the kids, but please, you’ve got to be back here by five.’ And she said: ‘I’ll be back in two hours at the latest.’ Then she kissed my hand and was gone. She didn’t come back. Three o’clock, four, five. She didn’t come. I was so nervous I could hardly breathe. I woke Maia, picked up Buba and went out into the street. Nana’s mother lived nearby, and I frantically rang the doorbell and pressed Buba into her arms. Suddenly Maia started to scream and shriek, shouting that she didn’t want to stay there, she wanted to stay with me. She got completely hysterical. She was usually so quiet and good. I had no time to lose, so I just picked her up and ran. The grandmother was shocked and frightened, she wanted to know what was going on, and I said I’d be right back for him. I ran off with Maia in my arms. I ran to the hotel where he was staying. They weren’t there. I searched the streets. It was dark and there wasn’t a single streetlamp that hadn’t been smashed out. I ran along the promenade.
“I knew that Aleksei was often at the army post in the old theatre that was now being used as headquarters. Nana had mentioned it once. So I rushed over there. I thought if I have Maia with me, we won’t be in any danger. We won’t seem like a threat and they won’t harm us. The city was sleeping, it was such a peaceful morning, and if it weren’t for the bullet holes here and there in the housefronts, you might have thought it was the dawn of an ordinary day.
“A young Abkhaz was on duty outside and I spoke to him in his language. I asked for Aleksei. He looked me up and down, then ordered me to wait at the entrance and went inside. I didn’t know at the time that all the soldiers had been summoned to the base in the night because everyone expected things to escalate. Everyone knew what was coming. Then he came back and said Aleksei wasn’t there. He’d left in a car two hours ago, the soldier said. I started to cry. I wanted to know if he’d been on his own. He must have felt sorry for me and went inside again to find out. When he came back he said, no, his wife had been with him. His wife, he said. What wife, I asked. Nana, his wife, he repeated. I begged him to find out where they’d gone. He kept saying he didn’t know anything about it, and to get rid of me he told me Aleksei would be there at nine in the morning. So I should come back at nine. At nine! Then we’d never make it out of the city. I must have started screaming and the sight of me set Maia off sobbing. I couldn’t believe she’d left us behind, me, her children. After everything she’d said about the Russian, about herself, she couldn’t have forgotten it all just like that. Something must have happened. I don’t know. I still don’t know to this day. We hurried back. I couldn’t leave the city without Nana. I had to put the grandmother and the children in the car and let them go without me. I had to stay and find Nana.
“I was about to turn the corner, but just before the house Maia stopped in her tracks and started screaming at the top of her lungs. I asked what the matter was. I tried everything I could think of to calm her down. I’d never seen her like this. And then she told me. She said she’d told her daddy about it. She’d told him. She told him Mummy had another boyfriend. She’d go out with him sometimes and he wore a uniform – a different one to Daddy’s. He’d sometimes give Mummy presents, Mummy kept him secret and never brought him home. She’d stay awake and watch him dropping Mummy off in his car and…
“I looked at her in horror, and before I could comfort her she pulled away from me and ran down the road as quickly as she could. And right then a large military vehicle with a Russian number plate came round the corner. It looked like the car Aleksei sometimes brought Nana home in. Maia ran after the car. She yelled out for her mother and ran and ran. Before I could turn around and chase after her she’d already taken a shortcut, jumped over a fence and run out in front of the car. They couldn’t brake in time. I heard the screech of tyres on the tarmac. And I could no longer see Maia. Someone screamed and my legs gave way. It was the socalled peacekeepers. Even before I reached her I knew she was dead. Her head had smashed against the ground. I had no idea she’d known about it all…”
Translated by: Ruth Ahmedzai, Gisela Boehnisch, Jonathan Bridges, Lizzie Catling, Charlotte Collins, Helen Harding, Fiona Hayter, Ruth Martin, Kate Roy and Maria Snyder
Mein sanfter Zwilling is published by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt.