Making It Sing: A Conversation with Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, Translator of Yuri Rytkheu’s “When the Whales Leave”

By Marina ManoukianJuly 14, 2020

Making It Sing: A Conversation with Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, Translator of Yuri Rytkheu’s “When the Whales Leave”
THE FIRST TIME I read Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse’s translation, from the Russian, of Chukchi author Yuri Rytkheu’s When the Whales Leave, it was like falling into a trance. Its language induces a type of hypnosis that compels the reader to read straight through to the end. In the readings that followed, I was able to slow myself down, but the text kept driving me on with its own tempo. Rytkheu’s narrative is rooted in an oral tradition, in Chukchi storytelling, and so the very act of writing it down is a form of translation. Add to that the fact that Rytkheu writes in Russian, not in Chukchi. And yet, Yazhbin Chavasse’s English clearly preserves the oral rhythms beneath all these layers of translation. I was interested in how she managed this magical act.

Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse is a translator from Russian and the head of rights at Unbound Publishing. When the Whales Leave is her third translation of Rytkheu’s prose, after A Dream in Polar Fog and The Chukchi Bible, and she has also translated the work of Dimitry Bortnikov, Sergey Gandlevsky, and Ilya Brazhnikov. 

I interviewed Chavasse via email to discuss this novel, her general approach to translation, and the publishing industry as a whole.


MARINA MANOUKIAN: I guess, to start off with, what is the act of translating to you?

ILONA YAZHBIN CHAVASSE: I think of the translator as a conduit, first and foremost — sieving someone else’s ideas through your own understanding of the text and your own vocabulary to arrive at something close to the original. I was trying to explain it to my daughter, and she immediately said, “So it’s like playing a harpsichord piece on a modern piano!” That’s not a bad way of looking at it.

Translation is like transposing a piece of music written for one instrument into a piece for another instrument — same melody, similar dynamics, a new piece in some ways, but also recognizably the composition of the composer.

What are your thoughts on what makes a “good” translation? And on the notion of “faithfulness” in translations?

A good translation for me is one that gets most of the message across without losing the tone of the original. There can be two or three or five good but different translations of the same work. The definitive one is the one that “speaks” to you.

As for faithfulness, I think a translator’s first duty is to the author, not to the eventual readers … and yet, if a text is not as accessible as it can be while remaining as faithful as it can be, that certainly does the author a disservice. A completely faithful text might be pallid and stunted in translation. So translators tend to be their own worst critics, agonizing over the choice of a word or achieving clarity at the cost of losing some subtlety that works in the original language but jars in the new one.

For better or worse, the translator may well be a book’s most careful reader; it’s up to them to decide what they think the author wishes to convey, and then how best to do it in the new language. The second part is to carry across both the words and the meaning, retaining as far as possible the texture and tone of the original. It’s a shifting balance, and you may sacrifice — or downplay — one aspect for another to arrive at what you think is the blend that most closely resembles the letter and the spirit of the original.

My own yardstick of faithfulness also changes depending on what I’m working on. For a private commission of a contemporary thriller, I might suggest things to the author that sharpen certain aspects of the text or make it less jagged, less obviously a translation by using English idioms and colloquialisms. Translating Tolstoy, say, I would remind myself that if the author is using the same adjective three times in a paragraph, there may well be a reason for it, and the stylistic choice should be preserved. Looking over some early 20th-century translations of Dostoyevsky’s letters recently, I was struck by how fusty and overwrought he sounds in English, in a translation that was very faithful and literal, but completely lost the sense of how vivid and colloquial his letter-writing style actually is.

In your translator’s note, you talk of translations “singing.” Can you speak a bit more about this “singing”? What this might mean to a reader?

I was lucky with Yuri to get his blessing, as it were, to transpose the meaning and the music of the text into a smooth translation and not worry too much about “whatever faithfulness is.” He also knew that the books had not been well edited in Russia, so in all the translations I ironed out some irksome inconsistencies. As for the “song,” When the Whales Leave in particular is an origins tale, at root, and part of an oral rather than literary tradition. So I resisted any urge to dress up the simple language, and emphasized the repetitions and triples that appear, especially in the first half, using some slightly archaic language and phrasing. We expect a certain kind of poetry and music when Bible verses are spoken out loud, and I wanted there to be a sense of that for the reader — the story is a myth after all.

Hopefully, to a reader, the craft of a translation is mostly invisible! The reader has a smooth or complicated reading experience, depending on the author’s design, without seeing the stitching, as it were …

I think if you can see the stitches, it’s a different sort of outfit! Even if the text itself is knotty and rough in both the original and the translation, the work of the translation ought to strive to be seamless. Endless contextual footnotes in a nonfiction text, okay, but in a novel? I’d rather not.

I’m interested in your description of Whales as “an origin tale” and it being part of an oral rather than a literary tradition. Why do you think it’s significant to underline its orality/aurality?

Chukchi culture only gained access to a written format when the Bolsheviks arrived in the early 20th century, and because of how geographically remote the Chukchi homeland is from the rest of the world, their origin tale is far less influenced by other cultures, at least until the last hundred years, than the written tales of the Western mythos, which have been traveling and morphing for millennia. Again, I was mindful of Yuri’s admonition to “make it sing” — he was one of the first people to set these tales down on paper (not without a certain novelistic polish, I suspect!) and since they are not far removed from the original, oral format, I really wanted to be able to keep that feeling of recitative.

In translating Whales, what did you feel needed to be communicated to the reader first and foremost?

I was conscious that the book is both an elegy and a call for greater understanding. Without being militant about its ecological message, the message is of a sustaining beauty and deep meaning that comes from placing oneself in the natural world, coexisting rather than dominating. Also, I wanted very much to carry across the idea of time as a sort of spiral that can touch its present loops to the past ones, rather than a straight line into infinity — the “timelessness of time,” if you will, which is human memory.

Do you think that the loss of mythic thinking comes with an ecological cost?

I think that when myth stops playing a role in our lives, we lose the thread that ties us to our ancestors and grounds us as just a part of rather than the sum of all creation. One of the things I love about the novel is the way that Nau is perceived at first with reverence, then amused tolerance, then as an inconvenience, and finally as living reproach to a new way of life that is emerging. And yet the sense of inexorable renewal and change is also palpable in the book, so it’s not entirely black and white.

I really love this idea of Nau’s transformation in regards to how she is perceived by others. Can you speak a little bit more to that? One would be mistaken to see her as passively transforming, yet she offers little resistance to the interpretation of others. Is she the daughter of Mother Earth in the way that Jesus is the son of God, allowing herself to be sacrificed?

​I’ve translated three books and read another two, and I’ve never found this, again very Western perhaps, idea of the single heroic individual sacrificing him/herself to redeem the world, to be much in evidence in Yuri’s writing. In fact, the opposite: the heroism displayed in his books is domestic, ordinary, practical — looking after a killed hunter’s family, giving food and warmth to those unable to fend for themselves, sharing resources. It’s the kind of quiet, acknowledged but unsung heroism that allows a small community set against incredibly inhospitable nature to survive. As for Nau, what I found intriguing was that she herself does not claim superiority — except that of life experience — or offer any explanation for why she is what she is. She tries to teach her tribe, but she does not demand reverence. Her role seems to be more of a living reminder, than an active participant.

As a translator and as a reader, what drew you and kept you drawn to Yuri Rytkheu’s work?

I like to be transported to other places and other lives — and Yuri’s work certainly does that. Translating his books has taught me to enjoy working on lengthy descriptions of nature, something that was not perhaps my forte to begin with!

As a reader, who are some translators, and what are some translations, you particularly enjoy?

Reading any translation from the Russian by Robert Chandler or Oliver Ready is an education and a pleasure, though it’s hard to read Russian in translation (or in Russian!) without mentally reverse-engineering it, a bit like distracting subtitles running along the screen! Recently I’ve been reading translations from Japanese, and wondering with admiration how the translators cope with such a different syntax and grammar, and balance between faithfulness and readability. Certainly with translations from non-European languages, one wonders much more often whether some nuance obvious only to the native readers is the “ghost” one can intuit in the text, but not quite see.

As a writer, do the answers differ?

As someone who works in mainstream publishing as a day job, I’ve occasionally read a manuscript that while it’s beautifully written, somehow doesn’t add up. Sometimes what is very clear in the author’s mind is in fact so obvious to the author that he or she forgets it may not be at all obvious to the reader. It’s not that texts need to be easily digestible per se, more that a writer has to include the reader in their world, draw the reader along, help them make sense of the landscape, even if the journey itself is challenging. That’s also true of translation. So I don’t think the answers differ in any radical way.

Yuri Rytkheu has been widely translated in German. Why do you think it’s taken so long to get his work into the English-language market?

Why does it take any author so long to get into the English-language market? It’s the most saturated, the least used to reading in translation, and yes, often the toughest nut to crack. With Yuri in particular, it may be that his books seemingly fall between two chairs — on the one hand completely readable rather than consciously literary, on the other hand “worthy” and “classic” — which makes marketing and going up for prizes a challenge. But this is the third translation of his work into English in 15 years, so actually, for translated fiction by an author unavailable for publicity, we’re doing very well here!

How would you suggest that writers and readers combat the marginalization of translation in the English-language literary establishment?

Gosh, that’s a hard one! I think there does persist the idea that anything translated must be by default worthy, difficult, self-consciously literary. I’m not saying that more translations of genre fiction are necessarily the answer, but look at not-so-recent-now wave of Scandi (and to a lesser extent French and other languages) crime — universal stories told with a deliciously skewed tone, through the prism of a different culture and place. I recently read a book of Russian folk horror stories — beautifully written, intensely creepy, with a rather different flavor to the Northern European and American horror tradition — that I’d give my eyeteeth to work on. But a hard sell for publishers, I think.


Marina Manoukian is a reader, writer, and collage artist. Born in Armenia and grown in the northeast United States, she is currently sown in Germany where she received her MA in English Philology from Freie Universität Berlin.

LARB Contributor

Marina Manoukian is a reader, writer, and collage artist. Born in Armenia and grown in the northeast United States, she is currently sown in Germany where she received her MA in English Philology from Freie Universität Berlin. Find more of her words and images at or twitter/insta @crimeiscommon.


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