Boris Akunin: ‘Translation is the second cleanest profession [in the USSR]’

February 6, 2013
Boris Akunin: ‘Translation is the second cleanest profession [in the USSR]’

On February 4th publishers, editors and translators gathered together at Kings Place, London to celebrate the awarding of the annual Translation Prize for published translations into English by the UK Society of Authors.

The Sebald Lecture given annually to honour literature in translation is an integral part of the ceremony. This year Russian author Boris Akunin delivered a lecture entitled ‘Paradise lost: confessions of an Apostate Translator’ carring on a tradition set up in the previous years by Seamus Heanet, Susan Sontag, Will Self and Ali Smith.

Boris Akunin is a pen-name of Grigory Chkartishvilli who in his previous live was a translator of Japanese literature. He chose to use a pen name through fear of being ridiculed by his learned peers when he seized the ‘clean art’ of translation in favour of writing. Currently Akunin is the author of 50 published titles and is one of the most widely read authors in Russia.

He came across as an unassuming man as he ambled up to the rostrum after being expertly introduced to the audience by Kate Griffin, International Programme Director at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Akunin had a relaxed aura about him as he began by telling the audience that he, quite reasonably, divides events into chapters and thus his lecture was to be divided into three such chapters. The public later learnt that he attaches melodies to his chapters of his lectures and uses these as a heuristic to guide his writing. Indeed, his lecture came across like a chirpy bouncy three-part sheet music.

His mother, Akunin confided in the audience, gave him two choices in life to earn a living. He was either to go into medicine or to become a translator, both of which she deemed to be ‘clean professions’. Having found physics and chemistry uninteresting at school he was therefore destined to become a translator, not as clean as medicine but clean enough to withstand his mother’s wishes. During the Soviet era he studied his trade and did much technical translations, as it ‘paid the most’. But in his spare time he was absorbed in honing his translating skills and particular became fascinated with the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima and he explained that the only way of understanding the exacting Japanese literature of Yukio Mishima was to treat them as sections of mantras each with its distinctive rhythm. “I had a melody for any shade of emotions expressed by the author”, Akunin noted. Perhaps this is how he developed his music of language, his melodies in chapters.

Akunin became a writer, he tells us, out of the often felt frustrating experience of translating and editing a script out of existence from its original. It is possibly something that most translators’ experience, translating and improving a script so much so that it is no longer resembles that of the original but instead becomes a new creation, a new work. It is then just a short step to becoming a new-born author, a Boris Akunin.  

Full text of Akunin's lecture