The Strange Story of How I Came to Translate and Edit a Russian WWII Memoir
In 2002, I was working on a public radio story at a “Women in Aviation” conference in Nashville, TN, where I ran into a couple of boisterous Russian lady pilots–one of them, an aerobatic champion named Galina Korchuganova, and another (Galina Brok-Beltsova), a WWII veteran bombardier.
I was floored. Women had flown combat missions during WWII in the Soviet Union? I had to know more. I had met some of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots)–American women who ferried military aircraft during the war. But discovering that there were hundreds of women–both in men’s regiments and in three dedicated women’s regiments–flying bombers and fighters on the Soviet side was a revelation to me. I hastily attempted to revive my rusty college Russian and spent the rest of the weekend getting to know our guests.
In 2005, I finally returned to Russia–my first trip there since a semester abroad in 1991. I wanted to meet more of the Soviet WWII (or “Great Patriotic War” as they call it) veterans at a conference hosted by “Aviatrissa,” a Moscow women flyers’ club. Serendipitous events led me to Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, a much-decorated veteran who flew Po-2s in a liaison regiment early in the war and eventually became a flight leader in the Il-2 “Shturmovik” ground-attack plane.
Over a wonderful dinner in Yegorova’s small Moscow apartment (in which we all drank homemade vodka out of a canteen), my new friend Margarita and I signed an agreement with Yegorova to translate and edit her memoir, which she had titled, I Am ‘Birchtree.’ How do you hear me?
Margarita, a professor of English in a Moscow institute, had already done her part–she spent two years rendering a literal translation as close to the original Russian as possible. Because I’m not a professional translator or a native Russian speaker, Margarita’s work was invaluable to me as I initially scanned the English text to pick out the main story thread, and later, whenever I ran across archaic Russian phrases, cultural references, or idioms I couldn’t figure out.
It struck me later that our method was just a more rudimentary form of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s–those celebrated translators of the Russian classics. Like them, a Russian native speaker with a very good knowledge of English takes the stage first, followed by an English-speaking writer with an imperfect understanding of Russian–and a strong desire to spend many hundreds of hours locked away with a stack of dictionaries and historical tomes.
My job as translator #2 and editor was to re-tell Yegorova’s story, hopefully in a way that would spark an American audience’s fascination with a topic unfamiliar to many of us in the West. We tend to know much more about our own story of World War II, but little of the Soviet experience–a tale of genocide and destruction so epic in scale that we Americans can scarcely fathom it. Casualty estimates vary widely, but total Soviet wartime deaths most likely exceeded 25,000,000 (as compared to U.S. losses, which were fewer than 500,000). Which is not to in any way sell short the contributions of American soldiers and airmen–but only to give some sense of the utter catastrophe that Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and other Soviet peoples suffered during that conflict.
The path to making that story palatable for Americans and other English-speakers was multifold. First, cutting the story from more than 400 pages to a modest 250 meant removing parts of Yegorova’s narrative that seemed to stray from the main story line or that didn’t directly involve her. I re-ordered some sections and consolidated some chapters to make the chronology easier to follow. And stylistically, my goal was to render the language smooth and just slightly archaic-feeling, the dialogue natural, and her voice clear and consistent.
As I read Yegorova’s story, I found myself initially troubled by some of the politically-charged rhetoric that arose throughout. I gradually came to understand many of the reasons for it, which I address in the “Soviet World” page of this site. But I realized that many Western readers would have the same questions I did: Was Yegorova a “true believer” in Stalinism? Did she really believe in the system she defended and in her strangely fervent declarations of patriotism? And what’s the real story behind the Soviet version of history she described, the only version she could have known?
As for philosophical questions of objective truth and belief, I chose to leave Yegorova’s words alone. Her conflicted loyalty, patriotism, and feelings of betrayal, I thought, would offer readers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of someone unfortunate enough to love a country gripped by generations of totalitarian control.
But I thought it might be instructive to add a few footnotes about historical events and cultural references that Yegorova felt no need to explain to a Russian. Some of them I included simply to add information–details about Russian and German military aircraft, for example. But in other cases, I felt it necessary to try and separate Soviet mythology from history–no easy task when it comes to politically fraught events like the Warsaw Uprising. If my footnotes in any way approximated the truth of those events, I have the work of many great historians to thank: Norman Davies and Catherine Merridale, Reina Pennington and Robert Conquest, Alexander Werth and David Glantz, and many, many more.
Fortunately, Slavica Publishers, a small academic house affiliated with Indiana University, agreed to release the finished product. For that I owe many thanks to the extremely hard-working editors there, Vicki Polansky and George Fowler. Thanks also to pilot Elizabeth Brock, who launched this endeavor and recruited me; to my esteemed teammate Margarita; to the marvelous Austin Gray, who created the stunning book jacket artwork; to the University of North Texas for their archive of World War II-era maps; to journalist Amy Strebe for writing a marvelous foreword; to my retired English-teacher mom who is a copy-editing genius and my dad who was able to explain “oerlikons” and other military hardware to me; and especially to my dear Russian friends Lydia, Inna and Victor, who witnessed the war firsthand as children, and who patiently answered hundreds of my questions not only about Russian language and history–but about what it felt like to live through it all.
Most of all, I must thank Anna Alexandrovna (Yegorova)–for living this terrible, wonderful life of hers, for surviving the war to tell us the tale, and for having the courage to share it, in a country that likes to keep its secrets, at any cost. And I thank her for allowing me to have a tiny hand in the telling of it, which has given me such immense pleasure.
Russian War Hero Finally Gets the Attention She Deserves (Nashville Scene)
This is your brain on Russian. (Nashville Scene)
Unexpected Tailwinds (Aviation for Women)
The Translation Wars (New Yorker essay on Pevear, Volokhonsky, and the art of translation)