Author Archives: Muireann Maguire

Translators on Lockdown: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (X)

In our absolutely final post of this mini-series about the effect of the current pandemic on the translation and publishing industries, we invited translators to speak to us about how the situation has affected them professionally and personally. We hear about the real problems of working with children and spouses at home, loss of income and unrelenting deadline pressures – but we also hear about new discoveries, re-evaluations, and hope for the future.

Here are some of their stories.

🐱‍🏍”For a translator already working full time from home, you’d think times of quarantine would be business as usual. But of course, it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, my family is now permanently installed in my home office (they think of it as their house). While other translators in my professional network, in fields like marketing and law, have seen a huge drop in business as their clients closed up shop, my clients – the authors, artists, screenwriters – seem to be working overtime, passing plenty of translation work on to me. They all have more time to write, and a new topic to address: the virus. The news articles I translate every week are full of pandemic politics. The animated creatures in the children’s TV show hassle each other about wearing masks. The artist in New York gives interview after interview about his creative take on social distancing and the metaphorical meaning of contagion. Yevgeny Vodolazkin’s coronavirus play had to be translated fairly quickly (two weeks). Hamid Ismailov’s coronavirus story had to be translated almost immediately (five days, during the same two weeks I was translating Vodolazkin) [you’ll find it in this anthology of international coronavirus fiction from Restless Books, published August 2020: And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again]. My translations of quarantine poetry from Kazakhstan were accepted in record time, by two journals in the space of a weekend. So along with the general distress of knowing the world is falling apart around us, there has been this sense of urgency, that this is a time to work faster, more seriously – at least on topics related to the plague. Is it due to the fear that the virus could wipe us all out any day now, the sense that we have to get done as much as possible before we’re inevitably debilitated by illness or, for instance, the people who keep the internet running stop showing up for work? Or is it the perverse fear that the virus could disappear, cease being an issue, that readers could lose interest in everything being written (and translated) about it? How strange it feels to take advantage of a global calamity this way, to translate straight through the crisis, about the crisis, hoping desperately to finish your work and get it out in the world before it’s no longer relevant – while all the while also wishing desperately for the opposite, for the whole mess to disappear and for life to get back to normal, so that nobody will ever need to think, write, or translate about COVID-19 ever again. As far as I remember, there are plenty of other things to write about. Aren’t there?” – Shelley Fairweather-Vega (translator from Russian and Uzbek)

🐱‍🚀”While I’m lucky enough to have had a few of my translations published in journals and other websites, I’m still very much an early career translator, so I don’t earn any money from literary translation. I spend the majority of my working day on different forms of commercial translation, mostly from Spanish, since I live in Madrid. For me, then, despite all the problems it brought, being confined to my small flat for several months at least opened up new stretches of time I could devote to Russian literature and literary translation. One of the most positive aspects of this was being able to spend more time reading speculatively, allowing myself to stumble across new, interesting, unexpected writing. This, in turn, led to one of my most rewarding lockdown experiences.

         Ekaterina Simonova

Whilst reading the latest issue of the journal Interpoezia, I came across a couple of poems by Ekaterina Simonova, a poet based in Ekaterinburg, collectively titled ‘Я думаю только по-русски’ [I only think in Russian]. I loved these poems and knew immediately that I wanted to translate them. Fortunately, another author I’ve worked with was able to put us in touch. Over the course of lockdown, I translated a number of her poems, mostly from her latest collection ‘Два ее единственных платья’ [Her only two dresses], and I greatly enjoyed our correspondence. She was always very happy to help clear up anything I wasn’t sure of, and she was very supportive. I’ve sent some of the translations to journals, and I’m planning to submit the poem ‘Помнить снег’ [Remembering Snow] for the Stephen Spender prize this month. Who knows what will happen or when they’ll see the light of day, but I’m delighted to have got to know her and her poetry. She’s even promised to post me a copy of her previous collection once things in Russia have calmed down a bit. I think I’ve had it pretty easy during lockdown, but whatever difficulties I have had, reading and translating Russian has been a constant source of joy.” Robin Munby (translator from Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese)                                           

🐱‍👓 “There are a few challenges as I see it.

One of Julia’s recent translations

One, the low-grade anxiety — this country [the US] is so much better than what we are seeing. Two, I am extremely sensitive to word choices, more than ever before, seeing the linguistics effects of the current environment. And finally, writing may be a solitary occupation, but translation is nearly always a team effort (writer/translator/editor), and this process is evolving — something that I am trying to adjust to. My writers are in LA, my editor and agent are in NYC, and I am in Boston — the epicenters of both COVID-19 and civil unrest. This makes our priorities shift almost daily, pushing forward deadlines and defining creative choices. We need good literature now, we need different voices, and that’s where translators come in. Oh, one more thing of a more practical nature. The novel I am working on is aptly named Pandem and remarkably timely, although written circa 2003) was commissioned by a Russian businessman.”  – Julia Meitov Hersey (translator from Russian)

 

Stephen Dalziel’s translation of this book has been shortlisted for the 2020 Pushkin House Book Prize

 

🐱‍🐉”Translation has played a huge role in helping me through lockdown. I received a new commission to translate a book from Russian in February, so this has given me a focus for virtually every day. Being in regular e-mail contact with the author has helped enormously, too. As long as works are required to be translated and we receive the commissions, I believe we are in a very fortunate place, and will continue to be in ‘the new normal’”Stephen Dalziel (translator from Russian and former Russian affairs analyst for the BBC).

 

🐱‍👤”I’ve been very fortunate in that I’m working on a long-term project that was commissioned before the pandemic, so I haven’t found my work drying up. I am working on a Russian historical crime thriller by Yulia Yakovleva, which is a dream come true, but the circumstances in which I’m working are far from what I imagined when we signed the contract! My sons haven’t been to school since 16 March and won’t go back until September, so my working hours were reduced straight away to around 3 hours a day. In the first few weeks of lockdown I started my work day at 4pm when my husband finished his full-time hours, but as I was so tired after a full day with the kids I started trying to get up early (for me!) and work 7-9am before he starts. We’re lucky to have an office and we take it in turns: we have two desks, each with our own computer and screen, but only one chair between us (otherwise I think we would both go and hide from the children at the same time!) Happily my publisher was able to extend the deadline for this book as there was no way I could have finished by the end of July as planned. I’ll be working on it until mid-September now, when I’m due to be starting a German nonfiction book. Every day that I’ve struggled to meet my daily translation target I have wondered whether I shouldn’t have asked for a longer extension, but I wanted to avoid further delay on the German book.   I lost around £2000 worth of adjunct projects including teaching on the Warwick Translates literary translation summer school, a talk about children’s literature in translation scheduled for the ITI & Friends festival, and a translation slam at London Book Fair. I also had to cancel a weekly part-time teaching commitment because I didn’t think I could cope with teaching online alongside my ongoing translation work. But part of me was relieved when the events were cancelled as it was around March that I realised how much I had over-committed this year. I was eligible for a grant via the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and by coincidence it was very close to the amount I had lost due to cancelled projects. This has been a testing time but in many ways it has felt like going back a few years to when I was translating challenging books in challenging circumstances with toddlers and babies and not enough sleep. At least during the lockdown I’ve mostly had better sleep, although strangely since the lockdown has partially lifted I have struggled more with anxiety and insomnia. I think the initial weeks of lockdown were such a retreat from the normal rush that I was finally able to shut off the world and recuperate after a stressful winter. Now I have just as little time to work but need to translate five pages a day compared to the three a day I was managing at the start of lockdown; unsurprisingly, anxiety about the approaching deadline is starting to creep in. But as with every project I have found that I’ve sped up as I’ve got into the book, so fingers crossed I’ll get there in time for about a week off in between the first draft and the edits.” – Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (translator from Russian, German, and Arabic and co-founder of World Kid Lit )

🐱‍💻”The biggest blow for me – Azerbaijan’s literary translation centre postponed a commission to translate a novel and collection of reviews, because the fall in the oil price means they’re short of money. Luckily I had only just started the project. On the plus side, it has given me time to start work on a pitch for a different Azerbaijani novel, which I’m passionate about. I’m anxious, though, that it will be even harder to find a publisher in these challenging times. As ever in my professional life, I’m juggling other writing work with literary translation to earn a living. I was sorry to miss the London Book Fair, as it was to  have been a treat after completing translation of a history book, this one from Russian. I was even sorrier not to have a party in April to celebrate the publication of the paperback version of an extraordinary memoir, Days in the Caucasus, by Baku-born author Banine. A plus side of the pandemic has been some excellent online webinars and workshops from the Society of Authors and Federation of Entertainment Unions (I can access the latter as a member of the NUJ). No more excuses – I’ve had all the training and must make time to finish my website and boost my social media activity!”  –Anne Thompson-Ahmadova (translator from French, Russian and Azerbaijani)

A sincere thank you to everyone who has participated in this ten-part mini-series on Russian-English translation and the coronavirus crisis!  We wish you the best of luck in meeting your goals, staying healthy, active and sane, and we hope you continue to find both inspiration – and readers!

Transformative Potential: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (IX)

In the very last interview of our blog mini-series, RusTrans speaks to Will Evans, an award-winning publisher, writer, translator, bookstore owner, and literary arts advocate. He is the founder and executive director of Deep Vellum, a nonprofit literary arts centre and publishing house founded in 2013. He founded Deep Vellum Books in 2015, an independent bookstore in Dallas’s historic Deep Ellum neighborhood. Evans graduated from Emory University with degrees in History and Russian Literature, and received a Master’s degree in Russian Culture from Duke University. In October 2019, he was awarded CLMP’s Golden Colophon Award for Paradigm Independent Literary Publishing. Throughout the pandemic, Deep Vellum has used its Emergency Funding to support Texas writers in need (43 at the last count); it regularly donates a large proportion of website sales to charities such as LGBTQ support organizations; and recently, the publishing house was approved for a $50,000 award from the US National Endowment for the Arts that will enable it to continue reliably funding translators, authors, designers, and in-house staff.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

WE: In the midst of the hardships and changes brought about by this crisis, being able to spend so much more time around my now 4-year-old son and nearly 2-year-old daughter has been a true joy.  Watching them grow, reading with them, spending an incredible amount of close time together: this is something I hope I never lose after this current crisis has passed. But this crisis also calls thrown into sharp relief the value of times of physical connection (as opposed to physical office space), times when you can be in the same room with others. It exposes the need that we all have to connect in ways that are personal, professional, and profound. And I hope some day that my stress levels drop a bit so I can find more time to read on my own, to write, to translate, but that’ll be when the kids are older and we’re on to the next major global crisis of some sort. I have a couple of open translation manuscripts and novel sketches on my computer at all time, they glower at me, beg me to revisit them, and I optimistically—or naively!—think I’ll get to them all someday…

Now that’s a familiar feeling! What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

WE: I hope that all the translation publishers large and small are able to see the crisis through, and that somehow from this a new wave of publishers will emerge with fresh energy, new perspectives, and new approaches to the challenges of the industry. We always need new leaders, and our industry (publishing and the literary arts broadly interpreted), is primed for new leadership. For translation publishers, I think the greatest advantage has been witnessing the reading public’s willingness to participate in digital events. This could be transformative in how we are able to engage our authors and translators from far-flung locales in events, partnering with bookstores and organizations around the world to present these incredible books to readers anywhere and everywhere. The Internet was supposed to have already fulfilled this transformative connective potential, and yet the current crisis has, for the first time that I’ve seen in publishing, truly brought people together.

What has been the impact on your work/industry of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

WE: The world will never forget Russian culture. Any cancelled events have led to the creation of new events, and new ways to connect, and that is inspiring. We at Deep Vellum have recently signed a few new Russian books that are going to be coming out over the next several years—two from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, including her amazing The New Adventures of Helen & Other Magical Tales, a more positive, for her, version of the scary fairy tales we all fell in love with, translated by Jane Bugaeva, as well as Petrushevskaya’s novel Kidnapped: A Crime Story, translated by the inimitable Marian Schwartz, a book I cannot wait to see in English! We’re also preparing the English debut works of Nataliya Meshchaninova, an emerging superstar director and screenwriter in the world of Russian film and TV, whose heart-wrenching, profoundly beautiful autobiographical novel is beautifully translated by Fiona Bell, and the debut of Dmitry Lipskerov, whose hilarious satirical novel The Tool & The Butterflies is a modern-day interpretation of Gogol’s The Nose, but set in Putin’s Russia, with the narrator waking one morning missing his… tool. It’s great. And we’re finalizing details to publish our third book by Alisa Ganieva, a writer and person I admire to the absolute highest, with her most socially engaged, political novel yet (which is saying something!), Offended Sensibilities. How can readers forget about Russian literature when this much good stuff is coming out? And between what little we at Deep Vellum are doing, we look around and eternally admire the great Russian books coming from Columbia University Press, Pushkin Press, Oneworld, and New York Review Books and just smile at the rich diversity of Russian writers whom the independent publishing world is providing for readers. But, of course, that means we all have more to do to find the broad readership each author deserves for posterity.

As a publisher and bookshop owner, are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

WE: Some aspects of Deep Vellum’s sales are up. More and more readers buying directly from our website, which is incredibly helpful in navigating the crisis. On the other hand, our sales to bookstores have dropped precipitously and don’t look like they’ll recover any time soon. We’ll have to find a way to continue to help bookstores around the country, and the world, keep going, we need them, and we will keep putting out books that readers never knew they needed so profoundly. And every moment is a golden moment for reading if you’re reading the right things.

And finally, if you follow Russian fiction translated into English, which book(s) do you think stand a good chance of winning prizes for translated fiction – such as the Read Russia Prize (2020)?

WE: I’d be surprised if Lisa Hayden’s translation of Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha isn’t nominated, but I’d be shocked if Marian Schwartz’s monumental translation of Solzhenitsyn’s March 1917 cycle doesn’t win! And here’s to putting in print that whenever Robert Chandler completes his translation of Platonov’s Chevengur, that is the Russian translation (that I’m not publishing!) to which I’m most looking forward!!

Thank you for speaking with us, Will. Good luck with your wonderful press and thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for Russian literature! Thank you also to all our readers and followers for following this blog – we hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you have views of your own about the coronavirus crisis and its effects on the translation industry, get in touch!

 

Bittersweet Advantages: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (VIII)

 

                       Christine Dunbar

This week, in almost the final interview of our blog mini-series on how the coronavirus is affecting Russian-to-English translators and the translation publishing industry, we spoke to Christine Dunbar, an editor at Columbia University Press, where she acquires literature in translation and scholarly and general-interest non-fiction about Asian culture. An erstwhile Slavist, her favourite part of the list is the Russian Library, a series of translations that spans Aleshkovsky to Zoshchenko, Avvakum to Maria Stepanova. Thanks to support from Read Russia, the books are available in affordable paperback editions with a gorgeous series design.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? 

CD: If the quarantine enmeshed me more tightly in my closest networks—I have been living at my sister’s, where I have spent hours on the phone with my father on lockdown in Italy, my grandparents in their upstate elder care facility, and my friends, many of whom are alone in their New York apartments—the blossoming of anti-racist protests over the last few weeks has brought me back to the wider world. The conversations I’ve been having with my colleagues have been hard, but so necessary. Being out of the office has made organizing less ad hoc, but that has some real potential benefits (more on this below).

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

CD: Some of these advantages are bittersweet, but I do think there are cost-savings that will be carried through to the post-pandemic world. I think we’ll see more openness from book reviewers and outlets to digital galleys. I hope we’ll continue to see large numbers of virtual book events. I’ve attended some fabulous ones, and removing the limitations of geography from both the participants and the audience is a real boon. I hope these continue to be linked to bookstores, which play such an important role in connecting readers to books, whether or not those readers are browsing the shelves.

I have mixed feelings about the potential effects on remote work. On a personal level, I have loved spending more time with family these past months. And I have never subscribed to the antiquated idea that publishing must happen in New York—how could anyone, with presses like Deep Vellum putting out such exciting books? But I have also seen two troubling trends. The Lee & Low Diversity Baseline survey shows that US publishing is 76% white, and editorial—my department—is a whopping 85% white. All white publishing professionals should be committed to changing those numbers, and a move to remote work can freeze our networks in place. This must not happen! If publishers encourage more remote work moving forward—whether due to employee preference or in pursuit of cost savings–we will need to take concrete steps to counteract this calcification, even as we act to make our organizations antiracist in other ways. The second concern is related. Many publishers have laid off or furloughed staff—often the most junior—during the pandemic. While one of the arguments for allowing remote work is that entry-level positions in publishing pay so little that only candidates from wealthy backgrounds can afford to take them (exacerbating, surely, the numbers above), there’s a real danger that publishers will use remote work as an excuse to pay even less, potentially creating a class of low-paid assistants cut off from avenues for advancement. This seems dystopian, but you can see it happening even pre-pandemic in some of the big for-profit scholarly publishers. To be clear, these are not arguments against remote work per se, but arguments for being intentional about the changes we are advocating for in the industry.

What has been the impact on your work/industry of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

CD: Absolutely not! As I said above, I really hope that we as an industry take everything we are learning about virtual events and think about how to keep them going. I would love to see more participation from authors and translators based in Russia, for instance. Marian Schwartz gave a fabulous presentation at the Chatham Translation Symposium last year titled “Our Golden Cage,” about how the global belief that Russian literature is “important” and “serious” can lend attention to our work, but it can also make it harder to pitch books—especially contemporary books—that do not play to those preconceptions. This is also something I’ve tried to do with the Russian Library—to show the funny side of Russian literature—from Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales to Duffy White’s translation of Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich to Susanne Fusso’s translation of Gogol’s short fiction in The Nose and Other Stories (sorry, Marian, a classic, but at least not another Anna Karenina 😊). Virtual events allow for new ways of thinking about the participation of contemporary Russian writers in publicity, and the fact that they so easily result in recordings means that their marketing potential lives on well after the event (see, for example, this 2018 clip of translator Maya Vinokour reading from Linor Goralik’s collection Found Life, while Linor finds the next story on her phone).

Are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

CD: Anecdotally, at least during the first part of the quarantine, I think a lot of would-be readers were finding it hard to muster the concentration for books. I think that is turning around now, and I know I for one have been buying a lot of books, much faster than I am reading them, in an attempt to support the many bookstores I want to see come through this. Whether or not you are having a reading-heavy quarantine, please support your local independent bookstore!

And finally, if you follow Russian fiction translated into English, which book(s) do you think stand a good chance of winning prizes for translated fiction – such as the Read Russia Prize (2020)?

CD: From Zuleikha to Solovyov and Larionov to the Russian Library’s Klotsvog to the brand new Three Apples Fell from the Sky (which I have yet to read but have ordered!), I wouldn’t bet against the fabulously talented Lisa Hayden this year (or ever).

Thank you, Christine! Next week we’ll be hearing from Will Evans, editor and publisher at indie publishers Deep Vellum , about their dedication to publishing Russian titles in translation and how they’re toughing out the crisis.

“How can literature in translation survive without bookstores?” – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (VII)

Marian Schwartz

Marian Schwartz is that rare creature, a famous translator. In her distinguished career, she has translated a host of major contemporary Russian writers (Olga Slavnikova, Leonid Yusefovich, Mikhail Shishkin, to name just a few) as well as some of Russian literature’s biggest names: Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Goncharov, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. She is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) and a mentor many times over to young translators through ALTA’s mentorship programme. She is also the recipient of multiple awards and honours, including two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship; numerous prizes; and the 2014 Read Russia Prize for Contemporary Russian Literature. Most recently, her translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 2 (Notre Dame University Press, 2019) won the Foreword Indies Silver Award for History. RusTrans asked Marian how she sees the current crisis affecting the translation world and her own practice as a translator.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

As might be expected, a translator’s working day doesn’t change a great deal in quarantine, particularly when the nest is empty and one’s partner is working full time as well. Right now, I’m so grateful to be healthy and have gainful-ish employment that whatever negatives I encounter in my daily life are easily set aside.

In the forty-odd years I’ve been a freelance translator, I’ve become quite addicted to being alone for a good part of the day and would probably have a harder time if I were forced out of my quiet office into a co-working space. Being alone only works for me, though, when punctuated by focused time with friends and colleagues, so the days do blur a little now. In days long past, I had libraries to visit and consult. Our move (back) to Austin, Texas, in 1987, in fact, was predicated on my access to the outstanding Russian collection at the University of Texas; I could not have functioned without those books, and library trips gave me welcome excuses to leave my office. Physical libraries have long ceased to be part of my process, though, and for me are not a casualty of quarantine. Now I desperately miss face-to-face interaction with my colleagues, who after so many years have become my friends.

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

No matter how well established a translator might seem to be, the freelance life is only as viable as the next contract, and up until a month ago, as I turned in the fourth and final volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s documentary novel March 1917, I was seriously wondering whether I’d ever have another paying gig beyond my current project, The Last and the First, an early novella by Nina Berberova, which I’m translating for Pushkin Press, and I have just this minute signed a contract with Deep Vellum to translate Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped!  The fact remains, though, that this kind of existential crisis, shared by all freelancers, I’m sure, seems to come up regularly, every few years. Ordinarily I tough it out, but this year the anxiety was compounded by serious trepidations regarding the general viability of publishing and selling books in the context of the current crisis.

How many publishers, even some of the bigger but certainly the smaller ones, will withstand what this year is bringing? Publishing is not an essential industry, so will paper still be imported from China and delivered to printing plants? Will the printing plants still operate? Will trucks deliver books to warehouses? And so on. Utterly crucial in all this, of course, is the fate of the bookstores where so many translated books are sold. These bookstores are where we launch our books, hold readings, celebrate International Translation Day. How can literature in translation survive without them?

I’m thinking of Malvern Books, for example, a brilliant independent bookstore in Austin, which stocks shelves and shelves of literature in translation, with the emphasis on small and independent presses. Our local literary translator group meets there every other month around a big community table set aside for readers’ and writers’ groups of all kinds. (We’re about to try a virtual format.) A corner of the store is permanently set up for readings, which happen several times every week. Many a fine book has been launched there, and many an attendee has come for a reading and gone home with more than one unexpected find, so the readings are good for the bookstore and reader as well as the translator. I’m distraught at the thought that this resource, and what it offers and represents for the literary community, might be at risk.

What has been the main impact on translation publishing, in your view, of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

Event cancellation looms large over Russian literature. No book launches, signings, individual readings, group readings—all these apply to literature in general, of course, but foreign literature is already so marginalized, the situation feels more dire.

In alternate years, the Russian Institute of Translation holds an International Congress of Translators in Moscow that has become an extremely productive hub for Russian literary translators around the world and been fantastically useful to me personally, allowing me to meet and talk with authors and publishers, as well as translators who have translated the same books from Russian as I have but into other languages, for example. I always come away with a broader overview of what Russian literature is making its way into the larger world and how. My expectation is that there will be no Congress this year.

My “home” organization for most of my professional life, the American Literary Translators Association, will be holding its conference virtually this year, and although there is doubtless much to gain from the format—most of all, the presence of many translators who haven’t been able to travel to attend before—the informal element will be lost, the personal bonds that make the world go ‘round won’t be forged or fed. Can the spark of inspiration reach me over the Internet? That remains to be seen.

There is no danger that the English-speaking world will forget Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Chekhov, but there is a tremendous danger that they will never have a chance to read, let alone forget, much of post-Soviet and especially twenty-first century Russian literature, given that interest in contemporary Russian writing already seemed at an all-time low, despite the work of several excellent independent presses and new efforts such as the Punctured Lines blog. My own work is still largely focused on neglected writers of the twentieth century such as Nina Berberova and older contemporary writers who grew up in the Soviet era (two of my favorites being Leonid Yuzefovich and Olga Slavnikova). None of them have much of an audience these days, and the current low-visibility situation can’t help.

I believe there is value in creating translations of great literature regardless of immediate circumstances, and I do try to take the long view, but more and more I wonder whether, as a result of this quarantine, I will be following in the footsteps of valiant, out-of-favor Soviet-era writers and translating these important writers “for the drawer.”

Thank you for speaking with us, Marian. Next week we’ll hear from publishers Deep Vellum and the University of Columbia Press Russian Library.

“If I start forgetting things, Russian literature will be the last to go” – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (VI)

This week RusTrans spoke to Peter B. Kaufman, President and Executive Director of Read Russia, an organization which promotes and fosters Russian book culture through initiatives such as the  biannual Read Russia Prize for new translations of Russian literature, the Chatham Translation Symposium, and regular publications. It also supports the wonderful Russian Library series from University of Columbia Press, which we’ll feature soon on this blog. Peter Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and the MIT Knowledge Futures Group and is the author of The New Enlightenment: The Fight to Free Culture In A World Online, forthcoming from Seven Stories Press (2021).  He established Read Russia in 2011. In 2014, RBTH called him ‘the world’s leading advocate of Russian literature‘.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

I have long been acclimated to the art and rhythms of working from home – as a non-profit administrator, as a consultant, as a writer, a teacher, a producer.  More accurately, at times, it’s living in one’s office.  I’ve known what it’s like to choose whether to wear dress clothes or not; how to schedule meals; negotiate family needs; file bills; go outside.  But the crisis – first of Trump, then of the pandemic – has sharpened my sense of the stakes involved in that home work now, for me, for my cohorts in various places, and for society at large: it has rendered me more restless, impatient, sometimes even desperate to act, creatively, socially, politically, such that time is not lost.  In a bathrobe or in corduroys, I am writing like a fiend.

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

It’s hard to make predictions about translation publishing – as the time cycles involved are so lengthy to begin with, involving years, usually, and the pandemic has only been with us for a few months.  But I might try out here a thought I have been having about the English-speaking world coming face-to-face with government lies that almost outpace the lies emanating from the systems of authoritarian regimes that governed post-Revolutionary Russia and post-war Central and Eastern Europe, which are the sources of the literatures outside our own I know best.  That thought is this.  Do you know how love songs can play on the radio when you are happy and you barely hear them, but when you are heartbroken they are so meaningful you sometimes have to stop listening?  Some of the Russian and especially Soviet and post-Soviet works we know – and many of the Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and other Mitteleuropa classics – possess a deeper dimension of meaning precisely because they emanate from societies full of untruths and deprivations, and it might be that these texts will resonate more now with American and British readers who are, as the original readers of these foreign literatures had been, standing in lines, lied to, masked in various ways, always vulnerable and unvaccinated.  Songs about life under a ruptured or absurd social contract may become more resonant to English readers now.  Plus, photos of our ridiculous and shattered lives here could be used as cover art for translations of some of the classic works we love.

Chatham Translation Symposium, Cape Cod, 2019

What has been the impact on your work of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

If I start forgetting things, Russian literature, music, theatre, painting, and dance will be the last to go.  What we who care most about Russian culture in the West need to do is develop strategies and methods for promoting it online – in video and sound – and in ways that make it break through as every other culture, and segment of those cultures, makes itself manifest on the rectangle in front of us, and each bit is a competitor for virtual space and attention.

With your links to the publishing world, are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

It’s a golden moment for something – receptivity, maybe.  We have been skinned, in a way, made raw; everything affects us now.  I believe that plunging into fiction is a great escape; but the lessons and learnings in good writing also make us healthier.  Maybe the new saying should be, That which doesn’t try to kill us makes us stronger.

And finally which book(s) do you think stand a good chance of winning prizes for translated fiction – such as the Read Russia Prize (2020)?

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha, in Lisa Hayden’s translation, knocked me out.

Thank you for speaking with us, Peter. Next week we’ll speak with acclaimed translator Marian Schwartz about the ongoing crisis.

Update from Russia’s Institute for Literary Translation – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (V)

The Russian Institute for Literary Translation is a non-profit organization that is at the heart of promoting and funding Russian writing abroad and in translation; it has funded or part-funded hundreds of books since its foundation in 2011. Its board includes some of the most senior and respected cultural figures and academics in today’s Russia. Two of the highlights of its cultural programme are the biannual Congress of Literary Translators, held in Moscow, and the biannual Read Russia Prize, also awarded for literary translation. RusTrans spoke to Evgeny Reznichenko, Executive Director of the Institute since 2011, about how the current crisis is affecting its activities and immediate future. 

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

    Evgeny Reznichenko

Calamitas virtutis occasio est. Ever since Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus wrote On Moral Characters [essays on different personality types – RusTrans], we have known that we must live with fear, while continuing to resist it. We have common sense, rules, strict protocols. In a line that might have been written today, Victor Tsoi sang in 1986, “Look after yourself, be careful, look after yourself.”  If this view seems rather gloomy, who ever promised us an easy life? Be careful and act correctly: as Marcus Aurelius said,  “Do what needs to be done, and let what will happen, happen.”  This is a time for putting our thoughts, and our affairs, in order.

As far as work is concerned, it’s still going on, and there is certainly no less to do. Of course, I have had to reconsider immediate plans: turn down some commitments, postpone others, and  where timetables are less strict, keep my finger on the pulse (so to speak), in order to start again as soon as restrictions are lifted. Thus, for example, although international gatherings have been cancelled or postponed, I still haven’t lost hope of hosting in Moscow this year our traditional International Congress of Translators, already the sixth successive event. We’ll make a decision about whether to go ahead (possibly later in the autumn than usual) after this weekend’s Book Festival in Red Square [which is going ahead somewhat controversially with some publishers staying away, but readings planned from Zakhar Prilepin, Andrei Gelasimov and othersRusTrans]  What’s more, the global Читай Россию/Read Russia prize will soon celebrate this year’s winners at its awards ceremony.

At the moment, we’re working on: redesigning the Institute for Literary Translation’s website, which we hope to launch this month; steadily filling in of the gaps in our database of translations of Russian literature (between the years 2012-2019) — we welcome any information about publications we may have missed out; preparing to publish an anthology of essays from the Fifth International Congress of Translators of Literary Fiction, in two volumes (see previous anthology here); revising our major online project “Across The Barriers”, dedicated to Russian literature and including no fewer than ten online conferences, seminars, round tables, lectures, and presentations — this last project is supported by our partners in Austria, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, India, Spain, Italy, China, the USA, France, Switzerland, South Korea, the Scandinavian countries and the countries of Eastern Europe. And, naturally, work will continue in the new financial year on our project to complete a 100-volume “Russian Library” in English translation, in association with Columbia University Press; and on constructing the website for an online “Russian Library in French in 100 volumes”. Together with our Chinese partners we are planning the first award ceremony for a prize established last year (“Russia-China: The Literature of Diplomacy”) for the best translation of a work of Russian literature into Chinese; we have had to shift this event from May to the second half of the year.

Perhaps quarantine’s worst effect, for me, is personal: – I miss seeing my colleagues daily (although it’s possible they don’t appreciate this quite as much!). My personal creative plans will survive: the epidemic won’t touch them.  [Evgeny is a poet whose most recent collection, Poems and Songs For All Occasions, was published in 2014 RusTrans]

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

Literally, at the time of writing, we are contacting publishers who applied to us for grants to translate and publish classical and contemporary Russian literature, about the decisions made by our panel of experts. In 2020 we will distribute 140 grants to more than 120 overseas publishers in 44 countries.We have just this week signed contracts with 59 foreign publishing houses — providing a boost that is hopefully not just financial, but emotional.  As far as I know, all the publishers who applied still intend to complete all the originally planned translations of Russian books, subject to revised release dates. Of course the entire book publishing world is ‘catching its breath’, and very likely, not all these books will make it to the finish line… But it’s not as if writers have started writing less, or translators have stopped translating. Nor are delays confined to the appearance of translations from Russian: there are equal problems with translations from English, German, French, and Chinese – from all languages! As we Russians say, timing is everything; a word spoken or heard at the right time can radically change the prospects for an individual and society. But, alas, such change is not always for the best – that depends on the individual and the society.

What has been the impact on your work/industry of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

Well, of course there isn’t enough person-to-person communication –- we’re missing out on basic human warmth, the energy of emotional exchanges, even on the terrors of mutual misunderstandings and acts of internal protest.

We’re also lacking what you might call impulses –- for new ideas, new projects, the completion or continuation of long-standing arguments, flashbacks to the past, new names, new people. “Official work” is non-stop but, alas, it doesn’t move us on very much. We are benefiting from the opportunity to perfect incomplete work, spend time analysing our victories and defeats, to separate the wheat from the chaff yet again – and to sketch what the ideal working world might look like, post-quarantine. We have free time to imagine, read, and think; and already there’s not so much of it left. But, thank God, some still remains.

As for forgetting Russian culture, I think culture is such an important part of our planetary existence that it would be difficult to overlook. But anything can happen. If the English-speaking world were to forget about us, I hope they would remember Dostoevsky within a year!

One of my favourite films is Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy Love Actually (2003). In one of its best scenes, Hugh Grant, in the role of British Prime Minister, describes Great Britain as if formulating an actual code for culture, or listing the genes in its cultural DNA: “The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, Beckham’s right foot… and Beckham’s left foot.” I could easily continue Grant’s list both forwards and backwards in time: from King Arthur and Chaucer to Harold Pinter and Elizabeth the Second. For these names are part of my cultural code, my cultural DNA, also. So can we really believe that great Russian names like Andrei Rublev, Peter I, Mikhail Lomonosov, Petr Tchaikovskii, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Mayakovskii, Vasily Kandinskii, Mikhail Sholokhov, Galina Ulanova, Yurii Gagarin, Svyatoslav Richter, Andrei Tarkovsky, Valery Kharlamov, Joseph Brodsky – and many many others – can remain meaningless sounds for British, American, Canadian or Australian readers? Perhaps I’m  too optimistic, but this seems impossible to me.

And I would add Lev Yashin to Beckham’s team – together, they’d be invincible.

 

If you write or produce books, are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

I think that yes, now is a golden moment for reading. At least, for readers, of course! My publisher friends are continuing throughout this time to make books available in online shops, which proves that there is demand, and book suppliers are still doing business. I myself have finally managed to get to my personal library, where Virgil, and Dante, and Montaigne, and Konstantin Vaginov, and Boris Pilniak, and Evgenii Vodolazkin, and Maya Kucherskaia and many many others have long awaited reading and re-reading: how many times have I looked regretfully at my shelves and wondered aloud when I would actually be able to spend time with a book? Finally, that day has come!

I don’t have the statistics, but I believe that sales of electronic books have risen substantially. Moreover, several significant eBook producers have made their resources freely available during quarantine. Gestures like this speak to the fact that we have not yet forgotten how to help each other in difficult times, that we still feel a keen need to give mutual support.

As for sales of print books in high street bookshops: unfortunately, this is a catastrophe. Especially for small and medium-sized businesses – which happen to make up a majority in the sector, and not only in Russia. All over the world my colleagues are lamenting a worsening crisis in this field. Of course, soon things will improve — but not, alas, for everyone.

And finally, which book(s) do you think stand a good chance of winning prizes for translated fiction – such as the Read Russia Prize (2020)?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on the outcomes of literary prizes. Here I fully trust the British and American colleagues, organizers, and jury members of the Read Russia Prize, which is hosted by Peter Kaufman. Something that Anglophone readers do lack today are translations of Russian children’s literature. In Russia, there are many translations of children’s literature from English, French, and the Scandinavian languages, for example. And I assure you – contemporary Russian literature for children, adolescents, and young adults in Russia is excellent. Seize the day!

Thank you for speaking with us, Evgeny, and sharing so much food for thought. We look forward to visiting the revamped Institute for Translation website in the near future. Next week, we publish our interview with Peter Kaufman, president and executive director of Read Russia.

Pushkin House And The Pandemic – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (IV)

In today’s post we speak to Clem Cecil, outgoing Executive Director of Pushkin House, the oldest independently funded UK charity specializing in Russian culture, founded in 1954 and (since the 2000s) located on Bloomsbury Square, London. Pushkin House has long been a focus for the the UK’s Russian-friendly cultural community, hosting art exhibitions, book launches, and talks by writers, translators, directors, and others. It even has its own bookshop! Although temporarily closed because of COVID-19, Pushkin House is offering a busy programme of online photography exhibitions and virtual tours, not to mention the exciting Facebook book club (which includes the opportunity to access Zoom talks by authors shortlisted for the annual and very prestigious Pushkin House Book Prize), and other live talks and readings including a book launch in which we’ll learn how Pushkin coped with quarantine!

Clem Cecil has been Director of Pushkin House since April 2016, and from June 2020 is leaving to work on a book about Moscow. She is former Moscow correspondent for The Times, and co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society. She has co-edited four books on the threatened architecture of Moscow, Samara and St Petersburg. From 2012 to 2016 she was the Director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and SAVE Europe’s Heritage.

 Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

Pushkin House closed on the 15th March, and has furloughed half of its staff. The remaining staff are working from home. Ironically, due to online resources like Slack and Trello, in some ways the different parts of the organisation are communicating more than they did previously. So there is more synergy between our visual arts, annual book prize and music programme.

Because the house is shut, and we are an events venue, we have had to move online. We do a weekly newsletter for our Friends and subscribers. We feel it is a valuable service to provide hope, inspiration and distraction through a weekly offering put together by our team. We are now preparing for our first online events. All of our income streams have been drastically affected. We are having to change our business model as well as how we work.

We were due to open an exhibition on 17th March – this has been postponed until the autumn but we are putting a picture a week online, with a commentary. This kind of exploration of the work is a substitute for the exhibition-related events we normally hold. We have had to shut the shutters in the house to protect the work over the long summer months.

Pushkin House, Bloomsbury

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

There are always advantages as well as disadvantages. Income streams have dropped away and this is problematic for most people, but particularly artists. On the other hand this strange, suspended period is an opportunity for a different kind of experience, and reevaluation of all aspects of the creative industry – for a different perspective to arise. Some artists are enjoying the lockdown as they are able to focus on their work rather than the admin and management that is adjunct to it. Others are finding themselves unable to work at all due to the stress of it. Both perspectives are very understandable. But one thing is clear – people are turning to art, poetry, music and writing for sustenance at this challenging time. We need our artists!

 What has been the impact on your work/industry of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

There is no danger of that! Russian culture has the ability to inspire and fascinate in all circumstances. If anything, it will increase the hunger for it! Because the London Book Fair was cancelled we missed many of our speakers who were due to come from Russia that week and give lectures at the house. We look forward to welcoming authors as soon as travel becomes possible once more. Talks from Russian authors are important to us. They are not always as well as attended as we would like but it creates a vital link with Russian fiction and authors.

Are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

It is definitely a golden moment for reading. Pushkin House doesn’t produce books but we have a book shop. We are beginning to take some orders, especially related to our Book Prize. Our short list went live a couple of weeks ago and we have a created a Reading Group on Facebook. Each month in the coming 6 months, will be dedicated to one of the books on the list. We hope this year to engage with readers like never before. That is thanks to lockdown.

                                                             Pushkin House Book Prize 2020 shortlist

Thanks for speaking with us, Clem! And good luck on your next adventure! To keep up with everything Pushkin House has to offer, sign up for their weekly newsletter here. Coming soon – RusTrans interviews the Director of Russia’s Institute for Literary Translation, Evgenii Reznichenko; acclaimed translator Marian Schwartz; and the man behind the Read Russia phenomenon, Peter Kaufman! Scroll down for our previous blog posts on how the coronavirus crisis is affecting Russian culture and translation now.

 

Writing and Publishing In Russia During The Pandemic – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (III)

How has the current COVID_19 pandemic affected writers and publishers in Russia? To find out more, RusTrans spoke to Igor Voevodin, a senior editor at AST, one of Russia’s largest and most prestigious publishing houses, and Inga Kuznetsova, a poet and novelist whose second novel Intervals (Промежуток) was published by AST in 2019.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

Igor Voevodin

IGOR: I think that the pandemic and the economic crisis that follows will stimulate a new role for culture in the new millennium. The world is changing fundamentally. Editors and writers who understand this will be able to contend for a place in readers’ hearts – and on their bookshelves. We all need new great books now, because great books can inspire us for the struggle ahead. We can all contribute to creating a new world. Writers, editors, and people from all cultural areas have the chance to be present at the start of a brand-new culture. As an AST editor, I’m constantly looking for new authors, new formats for books and new literary trends. At the start of April, I published Oleg Zobern’s Chronicle of a Time of Plague (Khroniki chumnovo vremeni), a provocative experimental novel which is also the first fictional exploration of the peculiarities of Russian quarantine – an ironic version of the Decameron. Like Oleg Zobern, I’m experimenting on our readers – hoping to provoke, to startle, and even to force people to venture out of their own little worlds and to realize that mankind is not Planet Earth’s sole inhabitant of .

INGA:  As, for me, working on a novel takes up whole islands in the stream of time – it’s a kind of Robinson Crusoe existence, requiring enthusiasm, courage, and self-restraint where socializing is concerned. I would say that my life for at least several months, even before the pandemic, resembled voluntary self-isolation. But the key word here is voluntary. I love people; I’m not a cat person or a dog person, I’m a people person. After long stretches of work on a book, I’m normally delighted to spend time with my friends and family, like a puppy let off the leash. Right now that’s impossible, and it’s hard for me. It’s difficult to be away from my loved ones, unable to hug them, joke with them, share goodwill with them (phone conversations and letters are just not the same thing). Even the creative writing group I ran for teenagers in my little town of Protvino near Moscow has had to close temporarily.

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on publishing, at home as well as the overseas market for Russian fiction in translation? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

IGOR: I think that translations of Russian novels will take off again. But European readers will need new books and new themes that appeal to them. The current situation gives writers a chance to stop and think about where we’re all headed, about who sent us in this direction, and what responsibility they have towards themselves and their readers. I hope that the creative industry will drop fixed ideas and old ways of thinking.

What has been the impact on your personal plans or work of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

Promezhutok

Russian cover of Intervals

INGA: On March 8th (2019) we were due to fly in for the London Book Fair to launch my new book Intervals, written and published the previous year. The Book Fair was cancelled a few days in advance. March 8th was the last day that I was in Moscow and met with my friends there. Since my son and my elderly parents are both in high-risk groups (for medical reasons), I decided then to stop travelling to the big city, where I work, well in advance of the government’s self-isolation measures. All my literary colleagues, my sister and my closest friends are in Moscow, 120 kilometres away; I’ve now been cut off from them for two months. Sometimes the Russian government’s strict controls make me think the dystopia described in my novel might be coming true: my publisher jokes that we’re all now living in the world of Intervals, which I wrote in the summer of 2019, well before all this. It’s possible that the coronavirus has caused the fairly conservative jury members of one of our national prizes to turn towards dystopian novels. It’s possible that readers who were accustomed to conventional prose will now be receptive to more radical experimental styles and perspectives in their fiction. As harsh as it sounds, dystopia is coming true all around us, and the coronavirus is helping some writers get attention.

IGOR:  The cancellation of public events [like the LBF] has severely affected our business plans.  Overseas sales of rights to Russian novels have fallen in the first half of this year, precisely because international book fairs (where AST normally participates actively) have been cancelled. But it’s also given us time to reconsider and reexamine our publishing models, to come up with new ideas and new ways to carry them out. I don’t think there’s any need to worry that Russian culture will be forgotten. Russia will continue to be a country in which the tectonic plates of culture are always colliding, erupting literary lava. Or to put it another way, this is a country where the tension between state and individuals, society’s values and personal beliefs will go on striking sparks. Russian writers have much to say to European readers. And what they say is so fierce and so genuine, it always stimulates deeper thought.

Are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

IGOR: As an editor and a publisher employed in Russia’s biggest publishing firm, I am aware that book sales in this country fell by 60% during April. This fall is predicted to continue. This is caused, in the first place, by the closure of all physical shops and publishing firms due to quarantine, and also the closure of several online bookshops. AST, however, has released a series of e-books and audiobooks called “Stay Home and Read”; the series includes new titles by some of our best authors. Although “Stay Home and Read” has been popular with readers and commercially successful, it can’t compensate for the lack of sales of print books, which provide our basic income.

Quarantine is a golden moment not just for readers, but for writers, who should re-think whether their ideas are needed in our changed world.  We can say that this is a critical moment for literature: the start of a new millennium. Old themes and genres will disappear into the void together with their authors: only writers who can offer their readers a new sincerity will survive.

Inga Kuznetsova

INGA: Since February, I’ve constantly monitored news about the coronavirus, yet I couldn’t really understand it: all the information was either contradictory or not objective enough. I even had panic attacks. I only began coping with my anxiety after I found a speaker who finally made sense: a Russian-American geneticist, Ancha Baranova. I knew straightaway that I had to write a book with her. I convinced my publisher, AST, to let me edit a book based on interviews with Ancha – a book which I managed to complete in just 5 days. The whole editorial teams worked long hours for very little pay, motivated (and this is no exaggeration) by a sense that it was our civic duty to make reliable information accessible to scared people. And at the beginning of April, in an already deserted Moscow, with all the bookshops and printers  closed, we brought out Ancha Baranova’s Coronavirus: A Manual for Survival as an e-book (the print version will follow later). Russian people had almost stopped ordering books during self-isolation, but this book filled a need. It’s been a success. Since completing this project, I’ve stopped suffering anxiety and panic attacks, and I’ve even had several new poems inspired by the pandemic published on an American, Russian-language website, Coronaverse. And I’m working on a new novel, partly inspired (hardly a surprise) by the coronavirus.

Many thanks, Inga and Igor! Next week we speak to Evgenii Reznichenko of Russia’s Institute for Literary Translation and Clem Cecil, outgoing Director of London’s Pushkin House,  about how the pandemic has affected public interest in Russian culture and literature in translation. 

Research In the Time of Coronavirus – The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (II)

The RusTrans Team, clockwise from top left:               MM, CM, CK, AM, SG   

We begin our coronavirus interview series at the very beginning – with ourselves! Our team consists of five researchers, all involved in different research studies on the translation and overseas reception of Russian literature within the framework of the ERC-funded RusTrans project. As researchers, and coincidentally as female researchers, we find ourselves particularly vulnerable within one of the sectors likely to be hardest hit by the economic effects of the virus – academia. British academia in particular is threatened by a massive funding shortfall (caused by falling recruitment, particularly of high-paying overseas students), which the government is so far refusing to compensate: hiring freezes, cancellation of sabbatical leave, and a short-term shift to online teaching are just some of the immediate measures already taken or planned by university managers. Academic jobs, no longer known for their security, suddenly got a whole lot rarer – which is particularly worrying for graduate students and early career scholars. In the early stages of lockdown in the UK, it was already evident that women researchers were being disproportionately negatively affected. So, within this rather worrying context, what’s our experience – good and bad? Has our research stopped? Have we changed our plans? Read on to find out…

Dr Muireann Maguire, Principal Investigator: Parenting in Quarantine

Lockdown… where to start. Professionally, from the project perspective, there was a fusillade of disappointments straight away:  the London Book Fair folded, then our first RusTrans conference, planned for April 3rd (which would have been a really exciting event with brilliant international and home speakers) had to be cancelled; various research talks I’d been invited to give were also cancelled; future conferences and talks were thrown into a state of uncertainty. Conferences are vital for academic life: we don’t just air our research and listen to other people’s ideas (although that’s clearly essential), we find real-life opportunities to talk to other people –  not always a strong point for academics. We use conferences to network, which sounds rather frenetic and cliquey, but actually means making friends, discovering new connections, and mentoring younger colleagues. So it is really sad for our entire profession that these events have been paused, and that their future looks uncertain.

On the other hand, we were able to re-schedule the RusTrans conference for next year at the same venue, and lots of those same brilliant speakers have already agreed to attend; as a project team, we’d already benefited from the chance to attend several very exciting conferences in 2019, including ALTA, the translators’ Camelot; and we’re all in the happy position of having already completed such substantial amounts of archival research that we actually benefit from being forced to reflect, consolidate, and write up. I try to support my team through regular email and online conferencing. At least one of our RusTrans projects has been enhanced, rather than harmed, by lockdown: our competition to seed-fund new translations of contemporary Russian literature into English ran on schedule and has been a joy to assess – we’ve had so many exciting submissions. Moreover, I’ve been asked to be a Read Russia prize judge, which is a big responsibility and an even bigger honour.

Finding time to write is where my own problems begin. As an academic and a translator, I like to think that the psychological effect of lockdown for me is minimal. But I’m also a mother, with two young children. When schools closed, my life as a scholar broke. It broke in a good way – I’m using my skills to make my children as excited about literature and culture as I am. I’m lucky that I have a supportive partner at home who guarantees me child-free hours every day, over and above the post-bedtime oasis. Email, admin, Teams, Zoom, all those little deadlines that tick regularly round, I can handle. But to write I need the escape of a library; I need coffee shops with background chat; I need an infinity pool of silent time, a routine that’s just for me; I need to not be tired, every day. I’m the kind of person who needs to be working at 120% to feel happy with herself, and it’s an effort not to blame myself now for falling (far) short of my own expectations. I would probably have complained about all the same things before lockdown started, but now I can assure you (with every other lockdown parent out there) that the struggle is real. 

Dr Cathy McAteer, Project Research Fellow: Less Confusion, More Delay

Lockdown has been a period of adjustment in so many ways (for starters, all my children plus one extra are now back home indefinitely, and I can vouch that the most frequently asked questions among 4 young adults from 9am-9pm concern food) but in terms of fulfilling my day-to-day RusTrans commitments, I’ve been lucky. I’m not campus-based, I’m a remote researcher dealing with paper more than people. I have not had to adjust, therefore, to confinement or social distancing. I do that anyway! I have, however, encountered disappointments and professional stumbling blocks. First, there have been postponements: my March 2020 Exeter-Duke fellowship at Duke University, our own RusTrans conference in April, and the annual BASEES conference for all Russian and Eurasian Studies scholars (also April), where every single member of our team was scheduled to present a paper. Next, I’ve encountered ongoing difficulties in gaining copyright permissions from a major institution for my first research monograph (due out later this year, fingers crossed). Finally, I’ve had to defer actual archival research until further notice, since all the archives are closed and the material I need isn’t necessarily digitized. Happily, there is plenty of other RusTrans work to keep me occupied in the meantime – including immersing myself in judging submissions to our translation competition – and my world feels considerably richer for accessing online reading groups such as our student Sarah’s and Pushkin House’s Facebook reading group, as well as Teams meetings, Zoom conferences (like the Center for the Humanities CUNY’s excellent Translating the Future programme), and yes, I’ll admit, the very occasional exhibition/film/live stream. Да здравствует культура!

Sarah Gear, PhD student: Successful online reading group

This has definitely been a strange couple of months, and although it has meant many cancelled opportunities, it has allowed me the time (and given me the impetus) to find new ways of reaching out to people and continuing with my research. I think the most rewarding result of this has been the online book group I started in April. Thursday evenings have now become a time to connect with readers around the world and discuss the contemporary Russian literature that I spend my days reading and researching. Our choices have been quite varied – so far we have discussed Zakhar Prilepin’s Sankya and Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, and we are just about to start Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which will lead us down yet another avenue. Through our chats we have linked these novels to arts movements, films, podcasts, and poetry. We have contextualised the politics, and considered the themes of violence, nationalism and the impact of publishers, while discussing the novels’ translations, with invaluable contributions from both Russian and non-Russian speakers. I don’t know if the fact that everyone is participating from quarantine has added to their enthusiasm, but it is heartening to see so much genuine interest in contemporary Russian fiction, and a complete joy to discuss it with readers who have such varied perspectives. This move to online interactions has in many ways normalised the use of Zoom and Skype – and in the coming weeks and months I hope to capitalise on this, as I start to interview the translators, publishers and authors of the same books we discuss on Thursday nights. As for everyone, these past weeks haven’t been easy, but there are at least some strong positives to be found.

If you’d like to join Sarah’s reading group, please contact her here and if you’d like to fill in her reading survey, you can access it here.

Christina Karakepeli, PhD student: On missing actual books

The biggest effect the lockdown has had on my research (apart from the obvious one of not being able to go back to Greece) is that it has kept me away from books. Actual books. Not books on pdf files, books on Kindle or on online readers. I never considered the importance of studying from a book. In literature, I am and remain a staunch supporter of reading from a physical copy (despite Kindle’s amazing built-in dictionary). But when studying or researching I never had an issue with reading on my laptop. And yet, not having access these months to the library has made me rethink this relationship. A large percentage of what I need to research is available online: almost all the 19th-century Greek newspaper and periodical archives, theoretical works, literary works (thank you lax Russian copyright laws). I could jump from one book to another, have multiple tabs open, read texts in different languages simultaneously. But I kept finding myself asking for an actual book. I tried to force myself to read books, albeit online, from start to finish, trying not to get distracted by email notifications or tempted to open a new Google tab every time I saw a term or a word I did not know. There is a difference. Sitting down and dedicating time to read a theoretical work on its own maybe does not provide you with more information than what you would get from a thorough research on multiple sources, but it does allow you to delve into someone else’s train of thought and reasoning process (not to mention the treasures one can find in footnotes!); and this triggers and maybe rejuvenates your own reasoning process. In the end, it is the (sadly e-)books I’ve read in these past two months that I’ve kept turning to whenever I want to interpret new information and ask ‘what would x author think?’ before trying to form an opinion on my own.

Anna Maslenova, PhD student: No libraries, but some tea parties

It has never been easy for me to work from home, and therefore the quarantine has had a dramatic effect: it’s hard both to start and to finish working. I am trying – not always successfully – to follow a schedule on weekdays. At the beginning, my daily routine was complicated by trying to stay in touch with my family and friends at home in Russia, who were also going into lockdown; everyone was worried, so we talked by phone several times a day. But now everybody has seemingly calmed down, and life continues in ‘quarantine’ mode. I still Skype my family more often than before, since we feel the distance very keenly at the moment: it is very frustrating I cannot go back to Russia to celebrate my grandmother’s and father’s big birthdays in June as planned, but hopefully we will have a huge party when it is all over. I miss working in the British Library (the reason I moved to London), but some talks and workshops continue online. Now is a golden moment for reading, which is my main activity. Quarantine means I can finally turn to those thick volumes which I have been postponing reading for years.

Since shortly before lockdown, I’ve been lodging in London, in the attic flat of the house of an elderly Woolf scholar. She has weak lungs, and, therefore, her GP strongly recommended her to self-isolate. Thus I am very happy to help my landlady with her weekly shopping. Since I keep my distance from others during my daily constitutional, and wear a facemask and gloves while shopping, she and I decided that it would be safe enough to have a cup of tea in her garden once in a while, so I am enjoying English tea parties and some face-to-face communication sometimes.

You can read more about our team and their research here and here. Stay tuned for out next post – an interview with Russian novelist and editor Inga Kuznetsova and her Russian publisher Igor Voevodin of AST, whom we asked about the immediate effects of coronavirus on their projects and careers.

Members of the RusTrans team in simpler times

Don’t Leave Your Room: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (I)

There is a particular scholarly lens which suggests that Russian literature is always behind developments in the West. Russian drama? Developed from French prototypes. The first Russian novel? Cribbed from various European precursors (if we believe the Countess in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades). Major literary movements, like realism, symbolism, or futurism?  All derived, with a lag of a decade or more, from French or Italian prototypes.

In the current case, however, Russian literature is far ahead of the West. Fifty years, to be precise. I have in mind the poet and translator Joseph Brodsky’s 1970 poem ‘Don’t Leave Your Room’ (‘Не выходи из комнаты’), which could have been written especially to console and beguile everyone sheltering in place or self-isolating during the current coronavirus crisis. The poem gently mocks our expectations of the outside world (‘It’s not exactly France out there’ – with apologies, no doubt, to any readers based in that country), while inciting the reader to live their best lives in the privacy of their home – which might well involve dancing the bossa nova while naked under an overcoat. Nor is it written from a place of privilege – Brodsky ironically celebrates a room within a communal apartment as a capsule of perfect privacy (albeit scented with boiled cabbage). If you need an excuse to stay home, Brodsky suggests claiming you’ve caught a chill – and he specifically names a Virus as one of the dangers of the outside world. Clearly, with this one poem, Russian literature was well ahead of the historical curve.

You can read Brodsky’s poem in the original, with a vibrant facing-page translation by Thomas de Waal, here on the site of our friends at Pushkin House.

Given this fifty-year head start, how is Russian literature responding to the personal and psychological impact of the current crisis? More specifically, how can literature as we know it survive? Starting even before the cancellation of the London Book Fair in March 2020 (where many important Russian writers and intellectuals would have been hosted at the Russian Book Stand), and extending to the mass closure of bookshops and their suppliers, the postponement of new title launches and even book prizes, and uncertainty over the format of future events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is still scheduled to take place in October this year, and with only limited glimmers of hope, the industry is clearly facing into a rocky period. With translated literature always a niche market in the Anglophone West, how will the translation and dissemination of Russian literature be affected? We at RusTrans decided to find out. We spoke to leading translators, publishers, writers, and members of key cultural institutions (such as Pushkin House and the Russian Institute of Translation) to produce a composite picture of the immediate effects of the coronavirus crisis on the translation and publication of Russian literature. Follow us on this blog or on Twitter @Rustransdark for regular interviews with the people behind the scenes in Russian literature, telling us how they feel the virus will change their industry. And don’t forget – don’t leave your room.

Joseph Brodsky in his room