A novel of tremendous scope and beauty, The Translator tells of the relationship between an exiled Russian poet and his American translator during the Cuban missile crisis, a time when a writer's words especially forbidden ones could be powerful enough to change the course of history.
About the Author
John Crowley lives in the hills of northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of ten previous novels as well as the short fiction collection, Novelties & Souvenirs.
Read an Excerpt
The first time that Christa Malone heard the name of Innokenti Isayevich Falin, it was spoken by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
In February of 1961, Christa stood in a reception line at the White House with twenty other high school seniors whose poems had been selected for inclusion in a national anthology of young people's poetry called Wings of Song. All but four were girls, a flock of ungainly bright birds in their suits and dresses, all with hats and white gloves too. A gravely courteous aide had arranged them in a row, instructed them how to respond and step away, and now looked at his wristwatch and toward a distant door; and Kit Malone sensed the quick beating of their hearts. The anthology had the sponsorship of a major foundation.
He was stopping to meet them on his way to a grander affair, Kit wouldn't remember later what it was, but when the far double doors opened he was wearing evening clothes; his wife beside him wore a gown of some unearthly material that gleamed like the robes of an El Greco cardinal. The aide guided them down the line of young poets; the President took each one's hand, and so did the First Lady; the President asked each one a question or two, talking a bit longer with a tall girl from Quincy.
A little longer too with Kit: making an easy joke in his comical accent but seeming to turn her in his gaze like a jewel or object of curious interest. When she told him what state she came from he smiled.
"You have a new poet living there, I understand," he said. "Yes. Our new poet fromRussia. Falin. You've heard about him?"
She hadn't, and said nothing, only smiled, her own smile compelled by his huge one.
"Falin, yes," he said. "He's been exiled. From over there. And come here."
Jackie took his arm, smiling too at Kit, and drew him toward the next poet.
There were photographs taken then, and a few words from the President about the importance of poetry, to the nation, to the spirit. He said that the poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world; he reminded them that he had invited Robert Frost to speak at his own inauguration. The land was ours before we were the land's. His pale eyes fell momentarily again on Kit, piercing or perceiving.
That night in their hotel, in the unaccustomed city lights and noise and the girl from Quincy unquiet in the other bed, Kit dreamed of a tiger: of walking with one in the corridors of a featureless palace (his?), watching the heavy muscles slide beneath his gorgeous clothes in the way a tiger's do and talking with him about this and that: aware that she was to listen more than speak, awed and alert but not afraid.
In that month she wrote a poem, "What the Tiger Told Me," the last poem she would write for a long time. And later, years later, she wondered if the President had lingered close to her for an extra moment and studied her with that smiling voracity because he perceived a sexual aura or exudate coming from her. His senses were inordinately acute that way, and had been alerted, perhaps, by something she herself hadn't yet discovered: that she was pregnant.
In January of that year, on his way to the United States, Innokenti Isayevich Falin had begun writing a linked series of poems whose titles were dates. The first was sketched on Berlin hotel notepaper with his new German fountain pen, and was revised on the plane to New York. The original later lost with all the others is a sonnet, fourteen lines in Falin's own peculiar rhyme scheme. The unrhymed rough translation that Kit Malone later worked out with Falin looked like this:
1961The Translator. Copyright © by John Crowley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Tip up this year on the fulcrum of its final serif
Revolve it through the degrees from right to upright
Like a lifted flagpole without a flag
Or a flat raised upon the stage of an empty theater
Before which histories will soon be enacted.
Now drop it farther, push it entirely over
As the statue of a deposed leader is thrown
Supine, his gloved finger that pointed Onward
Driven into earth to point Endward instead.
See what you have accomplished?
This rarity comes but once in centuries:
A year that can be overthrown but not reversed,
And after all our labors seems to become itself again.
It is not so. As always, we will never be the same.
Reading Group Guide
In 1961, the Russia haunting America's imagination was impenetrable and dark, so dark that it was "a dark star absorbing its own light." This is the global backdrop of John Crowley's The Translator, a novel that, folding poetry and the memory of Russia's great poets into its narrative, is at its core a meditation on the power of language. Each language is a world unto itself; captured within every word is a sea of memories and subtle connotations that tug at the heart and soul of its native speaker. It's the nudge of the elbow, the wink of the eye between two individuals that says, "I understand you. I know you. We speak the same language." This becomes a translator's eternal dilemma: Is there any such thing as an authentic translation? Innokenti Falin, an exiled Russian poet teaching at a Midwestern university, thinks not. He says, "Words cannot be changed like money." In spite of this, he enlists Kit Malone, his student, in a formidable task -- translating the poems, which he has committed to memory, that he was forced to leave behind in his homeland. Toiling away on the sofa in Falin's rented farmhouse through a long hot summer, the two literally sweat over each Russian word, grappling for the closest English equivalent. As the poems evolve, so too does Falin and Kit's relationship. Cocooned in their project, they reveal themselves to each other. Kit is not what she seems. Her youth conceals a depth of experience: the stillbirth of her infant, the mysterious death of her brother in the army, and even her own attempted suicide. Once a prolific poet, she has given up writing. Falin is not the son of an engineer, as he once told thepoetry class Kit attended. The product of an underground population of Russian orphans, he's not sure from where, or from whom, he came. Falin and Kit, we find, are like the words they study -- prisms, streaming out different meanings depending on which angle is held sunward. The landscape surrounding Falin and Kit is surreal -- expansive moon-like prairies, sudden storms, grain silos and missile silos on the horizon. The civil unrest and international crisis that defined that era is to Kit a distant bell. But Russia's aggressive posturing toward the West via Cuba is becoming more ominous, as is President Kennedy's attempts to calm a nation petrified by the threat of a nuclear war. At the same time, troops (including Kit's brother) are quietly being sent to Southeast Asia, to a murky conflict-ridden land that hasn't yet sharpened into the consciousness of America as Vietnam. On the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, with nuclear war at hand, Falin disappears on a mysterious trip; the university president calls upon Kit to meet with a government agent who wants to know everything about the exiled Russian poet; and Kit finds that poetry and the fate of nations do not run parallel courses. They intersect; they affect each other. At this intersection stands Kit -- overwhelmed, in love with Falin, waiting for the bomb to drop, grieving the loss of her brother and her baby, but with poetry awakened once again in her soul. Never again will any word bear one meaning alone. Years later Kit publishes the poems that she and Falin worked on together that summer. She calls them "Translations without originals." What else could she call them? They were "neither his nor hers, or both his or hers; poems written in a language she couldn't read, and surviving in a language he couldn't write." Questions for Discussion
- Why did Falin demand that as part of his poetry class, the students memorize each poem they studied? How does this relate to the theme of memory in the novel? Do you think that memorizing a poem deepens one's understanding of it? What experiences might have caused Falin to place such on emphasis on memorization?
- "That's what poetry is, the saying of nothing. The Nothing that can't be said." (pg. 13) Refer back to this passage. What does Falin mean by this and how does it relate to Kit's self-imposed exile from poetry?
- "How can you know anything true about someone when your memories stop just as you are becoming a person yourself?" (pg. 27) Try to answer this question. Do you believe that you can ever truly "know" someone? What does it mean to know someone you have lost? After finishing the novel, how do you think the adult Kit would answer that question?
- Continuing from the previous question, how does language fit into the equation of "knowing" a person? What would Falin say about that?
- Consider Kit's relationship with her brother Ben. Did you find it to be especially intense? Why or why not? What could have caused these two siblings to forge such a bond?
- Gavriil and Kit translated together the last poem Falin had sent to Kit. It was about the "angels of the nations." (pg. 137) Discuss the concept of the two angels -- one greater and one lesser -- that watch over each nation. How do Kit and Falin fit into this paradigm?
- What do you think happened between Kit and Falin the last night they spent together? Where do you think Falin went, and what became of him? Can the answer be found in the book?
- Who do you think Jackie was, and what were his motives for befriending Kit?
- In Russia, Kit comes upon a street-kid who seems to recognize her, and she feels sure that Falin -- the "lesser angel" -- somehow persists. Do you think that the angels of this book are more than metaphors?
- What was the significance of Kit winding up, in the last passages of the novel, at the Vietnam memorial in Washington? Were you satisfied with the ending, or did you crave more knowledge of how Kit's life unfolded after Falin's disappearance?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Crowley's work, The Translator, is a stunning achievement on the subject of the interplay between one's personal life and one's past between the past and the present between poetry and plain-spoken words. The characters ring true and the book is beautifully written. You'll read it more than once.
everytime i read picked up this book i was moved to write my own little piece of poetry. the life the author gave to the characters was fantastic. the emotion that each character had behind thier action or thought. our woman evolving through her expiernce with not so healthly situations with her professor. well, but it gave fire and drive to her professional goal to become the translator. We don't need those unhealthy men comming in our lives and giving us the wrong choices at such vunralbe times. but we are vunrable and we have hidden passions. thank you for such a story and prose.
John Crowley's book has this enigmatic quality. The plot and emotions are so subtle yet powerful.
What amounts to a minor work from Crowley (though to be fair, a 'minor' work from him is still pretty amazing). Much quieter and a little less ambition than Little, Big or the Aegypt novels, though with many of the same preoccupations - an unknowing individual caught up in the winds of history. The poetry is wonderful, and the writing is pristine and complex.
Told during the 1960s with the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop, John Crowley has created a smart love story in The Translator. The story follows Christa, a college student who develops a relationship with one of her instructors, Falin, a Russian poet who has been exiled from his country under mysterious circumstances. Much like the translations that Christa is making for Falin of his poems, their relationship is complicated and intricate. John Crowley's prose is beautifully written and the story is well paced. An overall enjoyable book.
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