Donald Rayfield OBE author & translator Interview

professor donald rayfield interview bookblast diary

Donald Rayfield OBE is Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary University of London. He has translated Georgian, Russian and Uzbek poets and prose writers, and won the EBRD literature prize in 2019.

What sort of books were in your family home? Which ones had an impact on you as you were growing up?
Very few: in my primary-school years my family moved all round Australian mining towns, with minimal baggage. For a small boy there’s no better place than an Australian desert sun and harmless reptiles. I first started reading when quarantined in a Canberra hospital for mumps, and was given Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki to read.

What languages were spoken around you? Are you a linguist?
Nothing but English until I went to secondary school, where Latin, French and German were brilliantly taught by enthusiastic masters, and I took up Czech out of misplaced enthusiasm for Eastern Europe.

After leaving Cambridge was it pre-ordained that you’d embark on an academic career?
No, it was an accident: I was offered a lectureship in Russian in Queensland by a vice-chancellor who recruited staff purely on the basis of what school they had been to. So I spent three years in Brisbane.

Which came first, writing or translating?
Pretty well both: my writing has involved translating passages of literature or history I was discussing.

How did you end up translating from Russian, Georgian and Uzbek?
Russian because it was my main subject and it was in demand; Georgian because in the USSR in the 1970s it was the most relaxed and hospitable republic for a foreigner, and I was interested in Russian poets who spent time there. I ended up studying the language, the literature, and the history of Georgia. Uzbek was unforeseen: I expected to translated my friend Hamid Ismailov’s novel from Russian, but the book I was working on had clearly been translated — and not well — from Uzbek and an English version had to be made from the original. Knowing some Turkish (I’d been interested since student days), I assumed (wrongly) that Uzbek would not be a great problem — in fact, its richness (it has a lot of Farsi and Arabic elements) meant that I had a steep learning curve. Oddly enough, one makes fewer mistakes working with a language you know inadequately: you check up frequently on your many ‘known unknowns’.

Is the Soviet Union excessively demonised by Western Media?
No: it really was an evil tyranny, although it did operate by some predictable rules, unlike Putin’s Russia, which is in many ways worse.

What are the greatest achievements of the Soviet Union in terms of art, music and literature?
None, really. The achievements in art, music and literature are not by, but in spite of the Soviet authorities, who suppressed so much work and destroyed so many artists that their only achievements were unintended consequences of their destructiveness — making writers aware that their work was important as a response to oppression, as a safeguard for culture, and steeling them to self-sacrifice.

How does Putin’s Imperial ideology differ to that of Stalin?
They have much in common: vindictiveness, paranoiac distrust, thirst for power, a psychopath’s inability to feel remorse or empathy. Unlike Stalin, however, Putin belongs to both the criminal mafia world and to the secret-police, so that accumulation of wealth also interests him (unlike Stalin). Stalin was more cautious than Putin in his military adventures and expanded more by clever negotiation than by brutal force.

Your best-known books are a biography of Chekhov and assorted translations of his work, Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him, and your translation of The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov which won the EBRD Literature prize in 2019. Name some of your works that are your personal favourites.
I suppose the Chekhov biography has been my most successful, particularly in Russia where it is now in its fourth edition (my other books in Russian have been withdrawn from sale because of their remarks on the Soviet army, the Russian church and Putin). The book I use most often is the Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary which I spent many years compiling, with the help of a dream-team.

I most enjoyed translating the Georgian novelist Otar Chiladze’s first novel, his magical semi-fantastic, semi-satirical A Man was Going down the Road, reconstructing the story of Jason and Medea and imagining the consequences. I also enjoyed translating four of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories (The Enchanted Wanderer, The Sealed Angel, The Unmercenary Engineers, The Innocent Prudentius) for New York Review of Books Classics, and have high hopes of my history of the Crimean Tatars and their Khanate, A Seditious and Sinister Tribe, coming out in July this year.

Some of my other recent (and least bad) translations are: from Georgian, Mikheil Javakhishvili Kvachi; from Uzbek, Hamid Ismailov The Devils’ Dance (EBRD prize 2019); and from Russian, Varlam Shalamov Sketches of the Criminal World (vol 2 of Collected Stories)

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Back to Australia, before British settlers began to destroy its fauna and flora: to the Blue Mountains in the 18th century.

Your current bedside reading?
John Cheever’s collected stories, the brilliant, the merely readable and the sub-standard. And Montaigne, who is surprisingly horrifying, as well as edifying.

Your motto?
Never risk being bored and try not to be boring.

BUY Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

BUY The Devils’ Dance

BUY A Man Was Going Down the Road

BUY Anton Chekhov A Life

BUY Stalin and His Hangmen

BUY Edge of Empires

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About Georgia de Chamberet 372 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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