Thursday, January 22, 2015

JOHN UPDIKE ON: Charles D'Ambrosio ("Up North"), Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts ("Closer"), Woody Allen ("Match Point"), literary fiction, fluency in Russian, Philip Roth, Zuckerman, Zuckerman's prostate gland, etc.

In 2006 I wrote a letter to John Updike on a whim. Here is his answer:


  1. What I'm curious about is how did Updike, assuming his fluency in Russian was as he said "little more than knowing the alphabet," manage to translate a number of poems by Yevgeniy Yevtushenko? Russian, as I know from being married to a fluent speaker, and making intermittent attempts to gain fluency in it, is incredibly difficult even at the level of pedestrian prose. But translating Russian poetry is near impossible for even the best of translators, and is, according to my wife, flat impossible when it comes to such writers as Pushkin.

    Was Updike merely being modest, or had he forgotten that he learned it well enough to do this work?

    1. Here's some materials from Life magazine you may refer to regarding Yevtushenko and Updike:

    2. Thanks for your comments. Sorry to be so late in replying to this. John Updike never learned much more Russian than the alphabet and a few simple words. How could he translate Russian poetry? The way this usually works is for some speaker of Russian to provide him with a "pony" (rough gist) of the original, and Updike proceeds to write, in effect, a different poem. You're right, translating Russian poetry well, with maximum artistic effect, is almost impossible.