Interview: Robert Chandler. Translator of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad
Inspired by his love of Russian folk tales and a desire to share them with English friends, Robert Chandler has been translating books for over four decades. Chandler describes his unique partnership with his wife in the telling of author Vasily Grossman’s tale of wartime devastation and the battle between German and Soviet troops. Included in Vasily’s intricate attention to detail is a personal connection Chandler felt with Stalingrad’s main character. Through the lens of Colonel Novikov and Robert Chandler’s translation, English readers have the opportunity to go back in time and witness both the convincing beauty and pain of World War II.
There are a great number of books set in WWII, what drew you to Stalingrad? What sets it apart from other books written in the same era?
RC: Along with his slightly elder friend, Andrey Platonov, Grossman is one of the greatest twentieth-century writers in any European language. As well as writing novels and short stories, Grossman was an acclaimed war correspondent. Among his many gifts were a remarkable memory and the ability to get all kinds of people – top generals, ordinary soldiers, down-and-outs – to talk freely to him. Many chapters of Stalingrad are taken directly from his wartime notebooks. Every scene in the novel is vividly drawn and every character, however minor, is entirely convincing.
Have you translated other books from this time period? How did Grossman’s novel stack up against the others?
RC: Many Soviet writers wrote well about the war, in a variety of mediums. Maria Bloshteyn’s outstanding new anthology, Russia Is Burning, includes work by all the finest poets – some already well known, some only now coming to be recognized. Victor Nekrasov wrote a good novel about Stalingrad. I have heard high praise for Vasil Bykov, a more recent writer who wrote in both Russian and Belarusian – but I have yet to read his work.
The Daily Telegraph describes Stalingrad as a magnificent novel not only of war but of all human life. Do you agree? And, which character(s) stood out to you and why?
RC: I agree entirely. Life and Fate, the sequel to Stalingrad, is a more significant moral and political statement, but Stalingrad is the finer novel. Colonel Novikov is the character who stood out for me. In part, this is for personal reasons – he reminds me of my father, who also fought in the Second World War, also reached the rank of colonel and was also highly intelligent, often irritable, and deeply honourable. In part, this is because some of the most memorable passages in the novel are seen through Novikov’s eyes. One I have read aloud in public many times describes the first minutes of the war, on the frontier with German-occupied Poland. It illustrates Grossman’s ability to bring together delicate realistic detail and the grandest, most cosmic perspectives:
Soon after this came a moment that lodged itself in Novikov’s memory with a particular sharpness and precision. As he hurried after the pilots dashing towards the airstrip, he stopped in the middle of the garden where only a few hours earlier he had gone for a stroll. There was a silence, during which it seemed that everything was unchanged: the earth, the grass, the benches, the wicker table under the trees, a card chessboard, dominoes still lying scattered about.
In that silence, with a wall of foliage shielding him from the flames and smoke, Novikov felt a lacerating sense of historical change that was almost more than he could bear.
It was a sense of hurtling movement, similar perhaps to what someone might experience if they could glimpse, if they could sense on their skin and with every cell of their being, the earth’s terrible hurtling through the infinity of the universe.
This change was irrevocable, and although only a millimetre lay between Novikov’s present life and the shore of his previous life, there was no force that could cancel out this gap. The gap was growing, widening; it could already be measured in metres, in kilometres. The life and time that Novikov still sensed as his own were already being transformed into the past, into history, into something about which people would soon be saying, ‘Yes, that’s how people lived and thought before the war.’ And a nebulous future was swiftly becoming his present.
What is your translation partnership like? How are your processes the same and how do they differ?
RC: My wife does not know Russian. Our work together is entirely oral. I read drafts aloud and we discuss them sentence by sentence, batting different versions between us. Among Elizabeth’s gifts are a perfect sense of idiom and rhythm and a fine visual memory. If she is unable to visualize a particular scene clearly, it usually indicates that I have misunderstood or blurred some detail.
The title is the name of the battle between German and Soviet troops. Would you say the book is about that battle or about the lives the battle affected?
RC: About both. And about how the battle changed the Soviet Union as a whole.
Tell us a bit about what started you in this field.
RC: I was deeply moved by one of Andrey Platonov’s versions of Russian folk tales and I wanted to be able to read it to English friends. I translated that story, “No-Arms,” over forty-five years years ago – my first translation done on my own initiative rather than for a school or university teacher. I was pleased to be able to republish a revised version eight years ago in Russian Magic Tales (Penguin Classics).
Article originally Published in the October/November 2020 Issue: Read Global.