Professor’s translation earns national honor.

Peter Scotto, professor of Russian, sports an upside-down pipe in homage to surrealist poet Daniil Kharms, whose work he recently translated. Photo by John Martins

By Emily Harrison Weir

Translating from one language to another is always challenging. So imagine translating the thoughts of an avant-garde writer known for his surrealist poetry and prose for adults and as “the Russian Dr. Seuss” for his children’s poetry.

That was the task facing Mount Holyoke College Professor of Russian Peter Scotto and coauthor Anthony Anemone, a professor at New York’s New School.

Their new 600-page book, "I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary": The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms, won the authors a prestigious honor from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. On January 9 in Vancouver, they will receive the organization’s annual award for best literary translation into English.

Scotto and Anemone—colleagues and friends since their undergraduate days at Columbia University—spent three years selecting, editing, and giving context to material from the two-volume Russian-language version of Kharms’s work.

Kharms is sometimes referred to in the West as “the Russian Dr. Seuss” for his popular children’s poetry.

“He made his living on children’s verse, but that’s just the public face of Kharms,” says Scotto. “There is much more that had to be unearthed” to give a full picture of the writer’s idiosyncratic life and work.

Related: Hear Peter Scotto discuss Kharms in this Lapham’s Quarterly podcast.

Scotto suspects that the book won the honor because of the project’s degree of difficulty.

“We’re dealing with a vastly heterogeneous text that includes artistic prose, random jottings, and poetry that ranges from poems in classical meters to transrational poetry based on pure sound association,” Scotto says. “Kharms would carry notebooks and jot down anything that occurred to him, so to make sense of some of the material we had to reconstruct the context.”

“It’s not simply a matter of knowing Russian and putting it into English; we had to imagine the situations he would have been in,” Scotto explains. “It’s as if Kharms took his mind and mapped it onto paper.”

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