The Translator

This is the fantasy:

At a pinch he could do the same in French, but French specialists were two a penny, and, in any case, Russian was his thing. He loved the Cyrillic alphabet, the byzantine grammar, the soporific, sensuous sound of the Russian language. And once, he had loved a Russian woman.


“Let’s get some sleep,” said Hyde. “Tomorrow… sorry, make that today, you need to be on top form. The briefing book is right here.” Hyde tapped the file on the table. “Are you up to speed on the current jargon? Post-truth and alternative facts and all of that? What’s fake news in Russian?”

Feykoviye novosti,” Clive said without missing a beat. “But the purists are up in arms. Feykoviye is not a Russian word. It’s an anglicization. They think it should be lozhniye novosti. Lying news.”


Then he focused on the job in hand. The mental preparation was always the same, a limbering up of the mind, a rigorous testing of himself. He went through various linguistic exercises, tossing English words and phrases into the air like tennis balls, then hitting them across the net in Russian. It was natural, effortless; he felt completely at ease in either language.


“Clive was member of our Russian book club on the fourteenth floor of the UN,” Marina said, looking at Hyde.

“I was,” said Clive, looking straight at Marina and taking in every detail of a face he had done his best to forget for over a decade. He had also forgotten the particular musicality of her English, which gave her away as a foreigner. Now and then her “o” was slightly too long and her “r” was a little too hard, and sooner or later she would forget an article,* just as she had a moment ago. Her English was almost perfect. But not quite. It was all part of her infinite charm.


“Alexei had this thing about grammar. Said I had to speak clean Russian. Clean… That was his pet word. ‘Use the instrumental and not the fucking accusative.’”


After making love, they would lie in bed and smoke and talk about their favourite writers. They showed off to each other, Marina reciting Pushkin, Clive quoting Shakespeare, and then vice versa, switching effortlessly from English to Russian and back again. They chucked proverbs and abstruse words at each other until they dissolved in laughter.

Source: Harriet Crawley, The Translator (London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2023). Cover image courtesy of Bitter Lemon Press

* But check out the abuse and misuse of articles on display here, of all places:


  • Tuesday, 2 May 2023, 7:00 pm —8:30 pm
  • 5a Bloomsbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA, United Kingdom

Join us to hear Harriet Crawley discuss her latest novel, a love story and political thriller, with the former British ambassador to Russia, Sir Rodric Braithwaite. The Times has included The Translator in its list of “the best new thrillers”, and the reviews praise author’s descriptions of the everyday life in Moscow, her ability to create suspense, and the political relevance of the plot at the time when the Russian state has once again become a major geopolitical threat.


The Translator tells a story of two interpreters, one British and one Russian, who embark on a quest to protect vital communication infrastructure connecting the UK and the US from sabotage by Russian special operations forces.

Source: Pushkin House. The emphasis is mine. ||| TRR

While this is a bit closer to the often harsh reality:

Kill the Translator: A Song of Inadequacy

He’s the mad dog of letters, the scrivener of sin.

He stays up nights with dictionaries and gin.

He studies Icelandic with a six-fingered Finn.

            He’s the translator.


He trampled your iambs, desecrated your prose.

He mangled your message and stepped on your toes.

His syntax is suspect, his Swahili a pose.

            Maim the translator.


Your essay’s in tatters, your short story in ruins.

He rendered 'tomato' as 'the mating of loons'.

And tomorrow he’ll english your poem out of tune.

            Harm the translator.


It matters quite little whether he’s stout, thin, or black,

Venetian, Guatemalan, or from Hackensack:

Send him Derrida by mail, and an ounce of crack.

            Suicide the translator.


Stop the presses in Cape Town and summon the cops.

Make a pass at his mother, toss a spear at his pop.

And dare he protest, quote him Lacan till he drops.

            Crush the translator.


Rip his Oxford to shreds, set his grammars on fire.

Break all his pencils, call Nabokov a liar.

Instead of advances, blow him curses by wire.

            Unhinge the translator.


He’s a cheat and a fraud and the foe of good sense.

Promise him the heavens, but repay him in pence.

'Traduttore traditore,' they say, and hence:

            Kill the translator.

Source: The Russian Reader, St. Petersburg, October 1996. The poem was inspired by an incident (one of dozens) in my early career when I was paid a pittance to translate the catalogue for a show of contemporary Russian art in Finland. A few months later, I got a notice from the Finnish tax authority which made it plain that, officially at least, I had been paid several times that amount by the host museum, but the Russian curators had pocketed the difference, thinking I would be none the wiser.

If you don’t want this website and its free, unique, eye-opening content to be maimed, harmed, crushed, suicided, killed, or unhinged, show your support today by liking, commenting, sharing, or donating (via Stripe or PayPal — you’ll find the forms and links in the sidebar). It’s vital for me to know that there are actual people out there who value my unpaid labor of love, which is now in the midst of its sixteenth year. I’ve received only $137 in donations so far this year, alas. That’s not enough financial support for me for to keep doing this much longer, considering that last year, for example, my overhead costs alone were $1,620 (for internet, hosting, and online subscriptions), against only $1,403 in donations for the entire year. ||| TRR

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