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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Epic Joy of the Translator's Art

After nearly 30 years in Russia, Walter May is a happy man. At 83 years old, and with nearly 60 translations of Russian literature to his name, he has just completed the first volume of his most ambitious translation to date, the ancient Kyrgyz epic poem "Manas," never before translated into English.


One of Moscow's most remarkable voluntary exiles, May came to Russia in 1967 to become editor of the English-language edition of the Moscow News, then a Soviet propaganda organ. He had been active in the British trade union movement and Labour party, and came to Russia idealistic about the Soviet Union. Though still a sincere socialist and feminist, the original enthusiasm for Soviet communism which brought him to Russia has mellowed into a profounder enthusiasm for the beauty of the Russian language, a more enduring passion.


"I have no great love for capitalism, having suffered under it myself, but I saw very quickly that the Soviet Union wasn't really socialist," said May, an insuppressibly sprightly and lively octogenarian. "The Russian language is my real love."


Radiating an almost boyish enthusiasm for his work, May recites gloriously melodramatic passages of Pushkin by heart as he plucks books from his study shelves to illustrate a point. Filed in neat rows are his translations of Russian classics and contemporary poets, published by Progress, as well as hundreds of unpublished manuscripts. On the piano is a gold medal presented to May by Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev for his work on Manas, which celebrates its millennium this year.


"It's a great shame that so few people know the poem," said May, who has also translated the ninth-century epic of Kievan Rus, "The Lay of Prince Igor's Host." "It is one of the treasures of medieval literature."


The 3,600-line poem recounts the adventures of Manas, the legendary warrior-hero of medieval Kyrgyz folklore, handed down by oral tradition for centuries before it was preserved in written form. May tackled the vast text via a scholarly Russian translation which adhered literally to the original, and turned it into fluid and lyrical English with the help of Russian and Kyrgyz scholars. May travelled to the small, mountainous republic in the South East of the former Soviet Union, where he met Kyrgyz storytellers who still sing the poem, which they memorize by heart.


"Though I don't know the original Kyrgyz, I can read the transliteration and get a feel for the rhythm, alliteration, assonance and rhymes," continued May, warming to his subject. "The Kyrgyz storytellers taught me how to sing a few of the stanzas. It's very beautiful."


May's grasshopper mind jumps from the literature of medieval Central Asia to the legend of the Amazons, the virtues of Iron Age matriarchal communal life, and theories on the Caucasian origins of the British people.


"The ancient Ossetian word for cattle is skot, the origin of the word 'Scotland'; there was also a Caucasian tribe called the Britti, who gave their name to the British Isles," said May. "The barrows [ancient burial mounds] you see in the south of England are just like those you find in Southern Russia."


When he is not expounding his eclectic theories on sociolingusitics, May also finds time to practice yoga with his wife, Lyudmila, and is a passionate vegetarian. Though he is quite deaf, his movements are lively and his health excellent.


"I love my wife, exercise my body and my mind, and spend my days with the Russian language," beamed May. "I would say that I'm a very happy man."