Andrey Platonov: The Foundation Pit

I’ve found myself reading more translated literature recently. (Four out of the last six books reviewed here.) This isn’t the result of a conscious policy, but I suppose there must be some underlying process at work in my choices. Perhaps it’s the notion that with foreign fiction, you’re getting the best of what’s on offer from other countries: the stuff has to pass through two selection processes rather than one. On the other hand, a fellow blogger has accused me of “over-celebrating marginal central European works.” Could this be true? Am I valuing foreignness as a quality in itself? These are questions which sprang to mind as I read Andrey Platonov’s recently re-translated novel.

The Foundation Pit has a complex publishing history. Written in 1929-30, it remained unpublished in Platonov’s Russian homeland until 1987 – 26 years after his death – but had previously been published (in Russian) in the USA in 1973. It was translated into English in 1996 by Robert Chandler for the redoubtable Harvill Press. However, the Russian publication on which that translation was based was heavily bowdlerised, and so when definitive texts became available, Chandler re-translated the book in collaboration with Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. This is the version which now appears in NYRB Classics (in the US) and Vintage Classics (in the UK).

Those two imprints of course are recommendations to me in themselves, so I approached The Foundation Pit with high expectations. Robert Chandler in his substantial appendices observes that this is a book and author that give us vital information on Stalin’s collectivisation policy, which led to the systematic liquidation (dekulakisation) of the wealthy peasant class in the Russian countryside. “Platonov and his friend Vasily Grossman were the only two members of their generation to write about Total Collectivization—and about the still more devastating Terror Famine—both truthfully and in depth.” The question therefore is how can a book be, at the same time, hugely important and virtually unreadable?

Such a bald comment is of course the result of a subjective reading experience. Did a succession of early rises leave me too tired to get the most out of The Foundation Pit? Has Twitter ruined my powers of concentration? Am I suffering from foreign-lit fatigue? Whatever the reason, this short book (150 pages plus appendices) evaded my comprehension at every page turn. The cover blurb told me more than I got out of the text itself: “A group of Soviet workers believe they are laying the foundations for a radiant future. As they work harder and dig deeper, their optimism turns to violence and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation pit but an immense grave.”

The Irish Times describes the book as comparable to Godot and Lewis Carroll, and the absurd comedy suggested thereby is present from the first paragraph, where we learn that one of the lead characters Voshchev has been made redundant from a machine factory “on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labour.” (“What if we all get lost in thought?” he is asked. “Who’ll be left to act?”) Without work, Voshchev feels himself not to be at a loose end, but to be a loose end, without purpose. “He did not know whether he was of use to the world or whether everything would get along fine without him.” Anyway, “happiness is a bourgeois business. Happiness will lead only to shame.” And so Voshchev joins the workers building the foundation pit.

The language is key to the strengths – and, for me, weaknesses – of the book. There are passages which get the feel just right:

Out in nature a devastated summer’s day was departing into evening: everything, near and far, was gradually ending; birds were hiding away; people were lying down to sleep, smoke was wafting up meekly from remote field huts, and there a tired and unknown man was sitting by his pot and waiting for supper, resolved to endure his life to the end.

Elsewhere, however, the tone is bizarre, either incomprehensible or ostentatiously clumsy. When one character calls another “You class superfluity!”, it may be faithful to the Russian, but it clangs in English, and it’s a worryingly common experience. “Oh, Olya, Olly, you darling dolly,” coos the character Pashkin to his wife, “your feel for the masses is simply gigantic! For that, let me organize myself close to you!” If the use of ‘organize’ is a joke, it’s one that works in only one register and deadens its own impact. These clumsy effects seem to be conscious, and indeed at times they communicated the desired effect to me – doublespeak, dictatorial cant – as when two characters die and are described not as being dead but “in eternal condition”. Such moments make me regret that the fault elsewhere was doubtless mine. Yet the Irish Times, this time in a review of the new translation, provides some helpful comparisons between the 1996 translation and this one:

“down cast eyes” becomes “down bent”; “an automobile that had been driven across open countryside was being repaired” becomes “an automobile was being repaired there from going without roads”; “our sense of conviction” becomes “our convinced feeling”; a brass band that had been “droning” is now “pining”; “a youthful march” is now “the music of a young march.”

The automobile quote is one of many phrases in the book which had me scratching my head: now at least I’ve had a translation of the translation and know what it really meant. I found myself rereading paragraphs just to get a sense of what was happening on the surface (not perhaps unreasonable, as Platonov deliberately “deforms language”, Chandler tells us – which should be joyous news to me – and brings in characters, such as a bear, without introducing them so that the reader is left wondering whether they missed the first appearance). What makes this particularly frustrating is the fact that even in crystal clear English, The Foundation Pit is a book which requires knowledge of the historical and political background to get the most from it (to get, I would say, anything significant from it at all). The afterword and copious notes are very helpful, but would be better as introduction, with the notes numbered through the text: as it is, there is no indication in the body of the book that there are any notes at all. Properly forewarned, I might have spotted any of the subtexts or references – to Dante, to the biblical Elisha, to Pushkin – and found the book more tantalising than frustrating. As it is I can only say that this is a book I found impossible to review, and so – with an irony worthy of etc. etc.! – I leave you with one thousand words explaining why I am unable to do so.


  1. A book may be important for linguistic or historic reasons and yet irretrievably dull.

    I’ve heard Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) described that way by many Italians, but they do it in school so that may prejudice them against it. I’ve heard after all other views in its defence.

    The translation issue is interesting. I wonder if the clearer one is also more faithful, or if the opaque one is actually truer to the original? Perhaps the original is itself intentionally opaque?

    We ideally need a Russian speaker to help answer that one…

  2. It sounds like your frustration was mainly with the translation. Since Robert Chandler translated it on his own in 1996 in the much more palatable sounding version and has this time enlisted the help of two other translators, it seems that perhaps these two others were at fault here, perhaps feeling obliged to change R.Chandler’s originally quite fluent-sounding translation into one more faithful to the native Russian but far more clunky.
    I don’t understand why translators sometimes insist on being doggedly and unnecessarily faithful to the original form (eg in the order in which verbs, nouns etc appear in the sentence) when it results in the prose being almost unreadable in English. Surely their job is to render a work fluid and attractive in the language into which they’re translating. From the examples you quote from the Irish Times review the new translation sounds as woeful in parts as the clumsy pigeon flailing of someone unfamiliar with a language.

  3. The Foundation Pit didn’t consume me in the way that Soul, Happy Moscow or The Return (collection of stories) did. It was a window into the horrors of collectivisation that occurred so for that reason I think it was worth reading. I did, however, read the earlier translation.

  4. A good translation of a bowdlerised text replaced by by a not-so-good translation of an authentic text – this is the kind of mess which puts people off reading work in translation. A shame. More than 30 years ago I read a Platonov collection of stories titled The Fierce and Beautiful World and I loved it; I’ve just checked on Amazon and found that this book too is now with NYRB, and there are two customer reviews: one, by ‘R H Chandler’, tells me the longest story, which moved me to tears when I read it, was translated from ‘a heavily censored Soviet text’; the other finds it ‘refreshing, vibrant, dark, disturbing, beautiful’, and I’d second that. So I find myself believing Platonov to be a wonderful writer on the basis of reading a translation of a work that wasn’t the work he wrote.

  5. … and now I’ve just found my copy of The Fierce and Beautiful World (hardback, 1971, £1.75; bought by me in ’73 for 40p; translated by Joseph Barnes). Inside there’s a review (torn from, from the look of the page, Encounter) by Derwent May, wholly admiring: ‘The amount of disturbance created by the stories is the measure of the conviction, as accounts of human life, that they carry.’ ‘Dzhan’, the long story (100 pages) I mentioned above, was actually for me a formative text; I’ve recounted that story to people I love. So really I don’t care whether or not the text it was translated from was censored. And I suspect that, if the earlier translation of The Foundation Pit was, sentence by sentence, a better piece of writing than the later translation, they should have let that stand, rather than replacing it for secondary reasons such as fidelity to the original text.

  6. Agree with Leyla’s general assessment above. Why would anyone, other than a “purist” (if such exists) opt for the newer translation? And isn’t this version truly a slap to Chandler? One assumes any translator is attempting to find a balance between readability and faithfulness, so it’s not as though Chandler flagrantly ignored the latter. Given your examples of balky passages I’d say the ball was dropped in the newest translation.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. It’s worth pointing out that Robert Chandler is very pleased with the new translation, as detailed here in an Amazon review he posted.

    As to the comments on other Platonov works, one of the reasons I was so keen to read this was that I knew Greg Baxter, author of one of my favourite books of the year, loved Soul. So I had better not write off Platonov just yet. The NYRB edition of Soul or The Fierce and Beautiful World might be the best way forward.

    1. I’m likely hopelessly out of touch here with how things work on this blog, but I just read this non-review. I am still in shock that John was confused at P’s use of language! Even writing as if somehow the translation caused his confusion.

      Joseph Brodsky’s introduction to the Ardis edition (1973; Thomas Whitney’s translation) provides a corrective to that misreading by proposing that P is the “first serious [Russian] surrealist.” Platonov, Brodsky asserts, writes of a “nation which in a sense has become a victim of its own language [the party line]” which creates a “fictive world,” then “falls into grammatical dependence on it.” The meaningful absurdity of The Foundation Pit was only possible because socialist party jargon became Russian reality.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Clark. As you may have seen, the translator Robert Chandler has also left a couple of comments which I found enlightening too. I’m not saying I’m itching to reread the book with fresh endeavour, but I’ll certainly give Soul and Other Stories, which I’ve resisted chucking from my shelves in the years since writing the above piece, a go with more understanding than I had when I read The Foundation Pit.

  8. In answer to Charles, I too first read SOUL (DZHAN) in a censored Russian text – and was deeply moved. When I read it twenty years later in the complete version I was still more moved. One reason for re-translating THE FOUNDATION PIT was that whole sections of up to 3 pages long (one of them absolutely crucial) had been omitted from the earlier version. The other reason is that Platonov does quite extraordinary things with language and my Russian collaborator has helped me towards a better understanding of this than I had 20 years ago.

    I would prefer our translation not to be judged by quotations torn out of context. Here is an account of the night before the “middle peasants” enter the collective farm:

    Night was total at village level. It covered everything, and snow made the air cramped and impenetrable, such that chests were at a loss for breath, yet women were shrieking in every place, keeping up a constant howl as they got used to grief. The dogs, together with other petty and nervous animals, also maintained these sounds of anguish, and there was as much noise and alarm in the collective farm as in the changing room of a bathhouse; as for the men, the middle and higher peasants were working silently in their sheds and yards, guarded by the wailing of their womenfolk beside wide-open gates. The residual, uncollectivized horses slept sadly in their stalls, tethered so firmly in order that they should never fall, since some horses already stood dead on their feet; in anticipation of the collective farm the less impecunious peasants had kept their horses without nourishment, so that they would enter social ownership only with their own bodies and not lead their animals after them into sorrow.

    “Are you alive, dear breadwinner?”

    The horse was dozing in her stall, having lowered her sensitive head forever; one of her eyes was feebly closed, but she did not have enough strength for the other and so it was left looking into the dark. The shed had grown cold without equine breath and snow began to fall inside, settling on the mare’s head and not melting. Her master blew out his match, embraced the horse’s neck, and stood there in his orphanhood, smelling in memory the mare’s sweat, as when they were plowing.

    “So you’ve died, have you? Well, don’t worry—soon i’ll croak too. It’ll be quiet for us.”

    Not seeing the man, a dog came into the shed and sniffed at the horse’s hind leg. it then growled, sank its teeth into her flesh, and tore itself out some beef. The horse’s two eyes shone white in the darkness—she was now looking through them both—and she moved her legs a step forward, not yet forgetting to live because of the pain.

    “Maybe you’ll enter the collective farm? Go ahead then, but i’ll wait,” said the master of the yard.
    All the oddities – even the beef (!) – are intended!

    All the best for 2011! Robert

  9. The passage quoted above is deeply impressive. Even though, when I come to (the example given) ‘beef’, I immediately wonder whether the Russian word might signify something more general – the taste of good meat? – over and above the specific English meaning of meat from a cow (not a horse). I simply don’t know. (I’m reminded of the occasion in Julian Barnes’s recent LRB review of the Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary where he mentions Charles addressing his wife wife as ‘mon petit chat’ – rendered in various translations as pussy, kitten, pussy-cat, sweetheart, pet, every one of which takes a liberty.) I have to trust the translator. The translator, writing in English, has to earn my trust. Tone, register, not just fidelity to the individual words. (But I don’t want everything smoothed down to a standard literary English; the whole point of my reading works in translation in that they come from outside my comfort zone.) And given that Platonov took risks in his own language, I do see that this is enormously difficult. But I want to read Soul/Dzhan again – is there now a translation of the true text?

  10. The word ‘beef’ occurs many times in this novel, always unexpectedly. Its first occurence is in the following passage: “A village clock hung on the wooden wall, moving patiently on because of the momentum of its dead weights; a pink flower was depicted on the face of the mechanism, in order to console whoever saw time. The workers sat in a row down the length of the table, and the mower, who was in charge of the woman’s work around the barrack, sliced the bread and gave a piece to each man, adding some of last night’s cold beef.”

    We provided the following endnote: “In late 1928 and early 1929 severe food shortages led to the introduction of rationing. Forced collectivisation, however, led many peasants to slaughter their animals; as a result, for several months in early 1930, there was a huge surplus of beef.” Platonov knew what he was doing. The other surprising phrases in these lines are also intentional: ‘dead weights’ rather than ‘pendulum’, ‘saw time’ (metaphysical understanding) rather than ‘saw the time’ (i.e. what hour of the clock it was).

    Our translation of the complete text of SOUL is published in SOUL AND OTHER STORIES (NYRB Classics).

  11. I’ve got a collection of Platonov short stories (not in English) stashed somewhere that I’ve been meaning to read for months. Though I can imagine how The Foundation Pit may have frustrated you (particularly if you did not click with the translation, for the reasons and quotes you provide above), I’m still inclined towards intrigue. I imagine that a book that sounds so difficult on all counts will probably have tricky, even manipulative writing. Not a walk in the park, maybe, but a writer worth reading, perhaps… I suppose I’ll stick with my short stories in the meantime. Seems like a safer bet…

  12. Hi,

    I’ve spent the afternoon getting up-to-date with your excellent blog: and this post in particular I found especially interesting. I think your initial comments about foreignness being a quality of itself raise some interesting points (I also think you’re being a bit hard on yourself, I don’t think your reviews elevate foreignness as a de facto quality at all). Unfortunately, I know many people who flaunt their knowledge of foreign writing merely to earn themselves cool points. If only they were as thoughtful as you.


  13. When I saw the title of this post my first thought was” oh my, the translator has his work cut out for him!”

    I think Platonov is almost impossible to translate adequately. It is not a question of substituting idioms and approximation of metaphors. He is considered an inventor of new prose, an innovator of literary language. His style, wholly original, is intentionally crude, rough-sawn like structural lumber. In his usage he mimics…no, he metamorphoses himself into the minds of his characters, sprung to life by first 2 decades of new Soviet order – minds of strangely- and piecemeal- educated peasants, with half-digested, half-fantasized propagandists cliches made brilliant by unexpected association.

    No other writer, as far as I can tell (I’m not a literary critic or a member of the trade, just a reader) had ever followed Platonov’ example; he was not a founder of a movement or school – but indirectly he influenced everybody after him.

  14. I think that ET’s comment just before this one captures the issue well. I can’t judget the accuracy and felicity of the translation because I don’t speak Russian, but I think many comments here are off the mark.

    Platonov was creating a new type of prose, one that was deeply subversive at the level of the individual sentence. Anyone who has read a lot of early Soviet history will recognize the tone and cadence of the propaganda and slogans of that time. The ceaseless din of the State Language Machine is what Platonov is satirizing, lampooning, attacking, and subverting. Some of the examples that people have quoted as nonsensical-sounding are only slightly off the literal translations of Soviet propaganda of that time. If that sounds crazy, well, it was a crazy time. That’s the point. And millions died because of it.

  15. Folks, you have to understand – one of the unique features of this book IS the language, and it’s not regular Russian. It’s awkward, bizarre, rhythmically absurd and feels unhuman. But it’s exactly the time and place – revolutionary Russia. That’s why you can’t really translate it.

    1. If you have read even a few pages of our translations of SOUL or THE FOUNDATION PIT, or of two of my favourite stories, “The Return” and “Among Animals and Plants”, and you consider our rendering inadequate, then it is certainly not for me to argue with you. But it doesn’t seem right simply to pronounce, a priori, that something “can’t really be translated”.

      1. The same point arises re Clarice Lispector. She had (I understand, I’ve not read her yet) language that was at times intentionally spiky, crass even, language that jarred the reader. Many translators smoothed it, “improved” it, and in doing so of course lost the original intent.

        Since my original comment against this review I now have a copy of your (the Chandler) translation. I’ve yet to read that too, but I am looking forward to it greatly.

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