ALTA Fellow: Alexandra Berlina

Alexandra Berlina was born in Moscow in 1984; she lives in Germany since 1997, teaches American literature since 2008 and is Anglophile to the point of taking sensual pleasure in the English language. From this mixture, either total madness or a passion for literary translation was bound to arise.

Aged twelve, she discovered the joy of bilingual editions. First she used them to improve her German and English but soon found an incomparable pleasure in comparing. If she really cares for a poem or a novel, she re-reads it in another language or two. If there is no translation to be had, she translates some passages myself. This quirk to large degree defines her as a reader—and “her as a reader” to a large degree defines her.

When a “Studienstiftung” scholarship made it possible for her to study outside Germany, she decided to follow her passion and signed in for Comparative Literature and Translation Theory at the University College London. Translation Theory turned out…well yes, too theoretical—after all, what she wanted do most was to actually translate. This is to her mind as close as one can get to participating in literature if one cannot master enough talent, courage or patience for writing. (She did publish some poems and short stories in small magazines and anthologies; some received prizes—in the 2012 “International Poetry Competition Castello di Duino”, the 2007 “Othmar Seidner Jungautorenpreis”, the 2006 “Regensburger Schriftstellergruppe Young Writers Competition” and the 2002 poetry competition of the „Unicum“ magazine. Still, she believes to be better at translating poetry than at writing.)

Back to Germany, she began teaching at the university of Duisburg-Essen and went on to work as a freelance translator and interpreter (www.perevesti.net). Academically, she found herself on a mission to advocate literary translation analysis as a fascinating method of close reading; she even managed to sneak a piece of propaganda into a co-authored article in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Comparative Literature. So far, the method led her into three fields of research: genre studies (“Russian Magical Realism” in Comparative Literature and Culture), cultural studies (“Homosexuality in the Russian Translation of the Hours” in Sexuality and Culture) and, finally, the field which is dearest to her heart: poetics. Her doctoral thesis deals with Joseph Brodsky’s self-translations. Amazingly, the amount of poetic devices and word play multiplies in the English versions of his poems, even though (or because) he only began learning the language late in life. “A bright foreigner’s fondness for puns”, perhaps, as Nabokov put it in Pnin?

Alexandra shares this fondness and also Brodsky’s belief (as unpopular now as it was in his day) that meter and rhyme scheme should be recreated in translation, being “the heartbeat and the brain functions of poetry”. Her Russian, German and English “Nachdichtungen” (a pretty German word for recreated verses) have appeared in several magazines; while writing her thesis, she began to try her hand at Brodsky’s poems. The chutzpa is astonishing: firstly, he is her favorite poet—how does one dare to approach such sacred texts?; secondly, English is a second foreign language for her. Still, she did it—because it was such a pleasure and also because it pains her that most of Brodsky’s poems are untranslated.  She submitted some of her attempts for the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize; amazingly, one of them co-won it (she had the honor to share the prize with G.J. Racz).

She goes on translating Brodsky, and publishing the results of this work is her greatest dream. She also has other projects in mind: for instance, an anthology of Russian children’s poetry in English, or else an anthology of Anglophone children’s poetry in Russian. After all, children’s poetry is what she spends most of the time reading at the moment.

Apart from literary translation, her hobbies include acquiring academic degrees (she holds an MA with distinction in Comparative Literature and a 1.0 Magister in English, American and German Studies, soon to be joined by a PhD) and children: she has a three year old son, very soon to be joined by a daughter. Another month, and she wouldn’t be able to fly to the ALTA conference. But she is, lucky her!

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