Sounds a little like a Robert Ludlum novel, right? But no, I’m referring to a collection of P. P. Bazhov’s traditional tales of the Ural Mountains and the miners who worked there. It’s entitled The Malachite Casket in English (Malakhitova︠i︡a shkatulka in transliterated Russian).
The stories are very well known by Russian speakers, and Sergei Prokofiev’s last ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower, is based on these tales.
I didn’t know what malachite was when my parents gave me the book, though I sort of knew what a “casket” was (a coffin?). But I fell in love with malachite, a copper ore, as soon as I saw it. Here’s what it looks like:
And the “malachite casket” of the stories is a jewelry box, not a box for a dead body!
I was reminded of these beautiful tales when I was recently reading two books on translation – one a 2013 compilation by various translators entitled In Translation, and the other Edith Grossman’s 2010 book, Why Translation Matters. She ought to know; she has written the best translation of Don Quixote in half a century (no mean feat!).
We owe a debt to translation that most of us, I think, tend to forget. Unless we read French, we have not read Perrault’s original (written) versions of “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” “Blue Beard” and “Little Red Riding Hood” (you may be unpleasantly surprised at some of these stories, especially if all you know are the Disney versions!). Unless we read German, we have not read the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Bremen Town Musicians” (don’t read “The Girl With No Hands” or “All-Kinds-of-Fur;” they’re very creepy). If we don’t know Classical Greek, we can’t read Aristophanes’ original comedy The Birds, no Latin and and we can’t read Ovid’s original Metamorphoses – and to bring in a more contemporary note, if we don’t know Swedish, we can’t read the original of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Jules Verne didn’t write 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in English and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez didn’t write One Hundred Years of Solitude in English (it was brilliantly translated by Gregory Rabassa). These works are all translations from other languages into English.
We English speakers are spoiled because there is so much written originally in English, and so many authors want their works translated into English. We can all too easily fall into feeling that anyone important – Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner – already wrote in our language, so why bother with anything from another language?
Why? For two reasons. One is that many important things have been written in other languages (however you want to define important); another language furnishes another window on the world, other points of view. That’s what makes translation so difficult – and makes getting it right so essential.
And the other reason? Because so many works written in other languages are so wondrous. I have never stopped loving The Malachite Casket. I don’t know how good a translation mine is – but I have never forgotten the characters: the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, Danila the Craftsman who longs to make exquisite goblets of malachite, Katya, who dares scold the Mistress for stealing her man by showing him the Stone Flower, Tanyushka who leans against the malachite wall of the Tsar’s palace in St. Petersburg and simply melts away… Open another window on the world and add what you see to your own vision. Translation does matter.