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The Magic Key

In order to write any sort of in-depth book, you're going to have to do a substantial amount of research and legwork, and then distill it all in quiet seclusion, kind of like a bootlegger. In the case of The Tiger, most of this research and legwork took place in the Far East. Getting visas to China and Russia isn't all that hard, but once you get there, you are going to have to communicate with armed men interested in personal detailsGetting visas to China and Russia isn't all that hard, but once you get there, you are going to have to communicate with armed men interested in personal details, and you'll need to find the bathroom. In my case, I also needed to have frank conversations with people who'd had life-and-death encounters with tigers, some of whom were also breaking the law on a regular basis. The catch is that traveling in the Far East is like suddenly coming down with a wicked case of dyslexia. Nothing makes sense anymore and your alphabet is useless. English, despite its international popularity, has yet to catch on tiger country, even in academic circles.

So I needed a translator. Good translators are like magic keys — into a culture and into its stories, and they deserve a lot more credit than they usually get. The relationship between researcher and translator can be compared to the one between Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: Hillary may have had vision and backing and good technique, but he never would have summited Everest without Norgay's local knowledge and tremendous courage. However, people like this are hard to find — in any profession. Because translation is generally considered a white-collar job, very few translators outside of war zones are willing to sleep on the ground, on the bus, in cabins with strangers, or in firetrap hotels where the only posted rules are "No Smoking and No Fighting." Even fewer are willing to put up with this for weeks on end. This posed a serious problem for me because the story I was after was hidden in one of the last places on earth where tigers still roam free and wildthe story I was after was hidden in one of the last places on earth where tigers still roam free and wild (yet another deterrent to finding a translator).

Early on in my search, I sent a sort of Hail Mary email to the Slavic languages department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. About three days later, I got a reply from Nanjing, China, from the son of a professor in the department. The writer was a Canadian who had grown up a mile or two from where I live. His name was Josh Stenberg and he was 26 years old. He said he was fluent in Mandarin and decent in Russian. He also spoke Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, and French, along with a little Hebrew, and was currently working on Indonesian. He'd won a scholarship to Harvard and graduated in three years. He had conducted the research for his undergraduate thesis in Khabarovsk, an obscure Russian city that lay just 150 miles from the village — and the tiger — I was wanting to write about. Josh wanted an excuse to go back to the Russian Far East, he said, and his job in Nanjing happened to be ending shortly before I wanted to travel.

I had never received an email like this before, and my response still baffles me: "This'll be my backup," I said to myself, and kept on looking for a "real" translator. What was I thinking? I don't know. I chalk it up to nerves. I searched for weeks, exploring all the usual channels, along with some unusual ones. The strongest candidate I came up with was a big game hunting guide, but I needed my subjects alive. Then Josh came back to Vancouver, and we had an exploratory coffee. Maybe it was the caffeine that brought me to my senses; in any case, I finally grasped my good fortune. As quickly as red tape would allow, we got our visas and flew to Beijing, where we boarded a northbound train, headed toward Primorye and the remote wilderness famously described in the Russian classic Dersu the Trapper, which was also the basis for Akira Kurosawa's Oscar-winning 1975 film, Dersu Uzala.

To see a short story by my translator, Josh Stenberg, go here.

÷ ÷ ÷

John Vaillant is also the author of The Golden Spruce. He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Outside, National Geographic, and Men’s Journal, among others. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife and children.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of... Used Trade Paper $12.50
  2. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance...
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  3. Dersu the Trapper New Trade Paper $16.00

John Vaillant is the author of The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

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