Category Archives: Translation

Danishevsky’s Mannelig in Chains – New Guest Post from Translators Alex Karsavin and Anne O. Fisher

Co-translators Alex Karsavin and Anne O. Fisher on their project, Ilya Danishevsky’s 2018 novel Mannelig in Chains, which seeks to show rather than tell what queer subjectivity feels like, from the inside out. Their translation has been seed-funded by the ERC Horizon 2020 Fund via the RusTrans project.

Having weathered a history of persecution and repression, Russia’s LGBT writers of the 1990s and early 2000s sought to bring homosexual relations out into the open. If the aughts were defined by a literary corpus that was formally conventional, often confessional, and concerned with liberal visibility politics, the last decade has seen the emergence of a more formally diverse, radical literature that posits itself as ‘kvir’ rather than LGBT.

The first wave of such writers, including Oksana Vasyakina, Nastia Denisova, and Lida Yusupova, foregrounded a poetics of queer embodiment firmly anchored in liberatory feminist politics. A good example would be Galina Rymbu’s poem ‘My Vagina’ (2020), written in response to the case of Yulia Tsvetkova, an activist threatened with six years in prison for ‘disseminating pornography’ in the form of body-positive art.

The second, and ongoing, wave of writing has proven more speculative, and thus more difficult to define. This newest generation seeks to convey alternative queer modalities formally rather than thematically. They create queer literature of a deconstructionist bent, working to disrupt dominant modes of signification, often dispensing with grammatical gender and linear diegesis altogether in favor of fragmentation, liminality, syntactic defamiliarization, and simultaneity. The cumulative effect of these formal strategies is to present a counter-hegemonic subject, whose fluidity precludes co-opting into any monolithic whole. Writers of this wave include Lolita Agamalova, Georgi Martyrosan, Andrei Filatov, Inna Krasnoper, and many others.

Of course the lines between the two waves aren’t fixed. (See Filatov’s essay ‘Kvir Buttons’ [in Russian] for an in-depth breakdown of the two waves, and the gradations between them. It is his theorization of the scene that we, albeit loosely, have adapted here.) For example, scene leader Galina Rymbu, whose early work pastiched queer poetics with leftist sloganeering, is now experimenting with autotheory, while integrating the tenets of new materialism and posthumanism into her work. In similar fashion, Ilya Danishevsky exists somewhere between these waves. His protagonist’s sexuality and politics are recognizable; however, little else in the 2018 novel Mannelig in Chains lends itself to such a direct interpretation.

We read the fluid, often alienating, experience of being interpolated as queer in Russia as encoded in the novel’s language. Mannelig’s protagonist is a gay youth adrift in the detritus of Russia of the late 90s-early aughts. Time is not linear: it surges, eddies, and finally congeals into memory. Surfacing out of the diegetic haze, characters flicker in and out of focus. It’s not only the borders of identity that are porous, but the borders of chapters as well: motifs from one section seep into the next, constantly pulling the reader back and forth.

Russophone critics were drawn to these qualities, with most finding them compelling and generative; Elena Kostyleva, for example, called the text a touchstone of a new ‘dirty modernism’, in which ‘all structures are fragile, all identifications fallen’. But another way of understanding these qualities is that they identify Mannelig as part of what scholars, most recently Jose Vergara, have called the Joycean tradition in Russophone literature. Mannelig is the first participant in this tradition, however, to deploy the Joycean aesthetic as means of exploring and manifesting a queer poetics. The Homeric parallels, with chapters named after the books of the Odyssey (as in Joyce’s Ulysses), are just the most obvious signs of the link. The text’s temporal discontinuity and self referentiality create a circular flow to events, much akin to Finnegan’s Wake—and in fact Danishevsky told us that he was thinking of the transformation of the washerwomen in Joyce’s novel when he mentioned a ‘tearful stone’ (associated here with the river Jordan, not the river Liffey) in Chapter Four of Mannelig, ‘Back-to-Back Obligations (Tempestad Grande, Amigo) // The Laestrygonians’. Punctuation-free stream of consciousness narration pervades Danishevsky’s text, which teems with allusions to Irish mythology, an overbearing estranged mother, and Catholicism. Not to mention the fact that for Bloomsday 2020, Danishevsky organized a marathon reading of Ulysses (in Russian) through the Voznesensky Center as a fundraiser for Russian doctors. An adequate elaboration of Mannelig’s Joyceanism must remain outside the scope of this brief treatment; we hope simply to demonstrate that Mannelig bespeaks a queering not only of 90s Moscow, but also of genre, subverting the formalist wheelhouse to show, rather than tell, what queer subjectivity feels like, from the inside out.

Early in the translation process, we had an email conversation with Danishevsky about translating промоина (gully, rain channel, hole, cavity), a recurring word in Chapter Eight, ‘Remains of Nebuchadnezzar, Part 1.’ His explanation helped us better understand the chapter, and the book as a whole:

AK and AF: Should this be translated according to sound or according to meaning?

ID: According to how it sounds, to the feeling you get from the word. It’s exactly this unsuitability (непригодностью) for living, this escapism, this being-parallel-to-existence (which I feel in all academic work) […] The whole text there’s written in ‘unsuitable’ language (‘непригодным’ языком), maximally alienated from yourself…

In one way Danishevsky’s explanation created another challenge, since there are so many shades of meaning for непригодность, all apposite to the text: непригодность means inadequacy, insufficiency, uselessness, and incompetence, while something that is непригодный (unsuitable) is something that should be scrapped or discarded. But the primary effect of his explanation was to confirm our perception of the text’s Joycean, self-referential, self-interrupting language, allowing us to work with these discards and false starts and dead ends as the basis of the work, not as flaws in it. These непригодности (insufficiencies), as well as the sense of maximal alienation (from oneself, from the body politic), emerge in places like the following excerpt from ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, where the narrator is carrying an empty glass jar to be used in a neopagan rite meant to free him from his feelings for an acquaintance in a Moscow suburb, a rite suggested by the female friend he texts:

That is to say, you do not write her that you’ve brought a glass jar to the town of the man you love, due to the fact that a kind of nimbus of meanings is making the expression ‘the man I love’ too overloaded; due to the fact that it’s not all as simple as that; is it ‘man’ as in his body, or ‘man’ as in the political construct, and so forth; and also, what is this ‘I,’ and what is this ‘love,’ and does that word say more about the referent than about you; and so forth; all of this is unclear, which is why you can’t (won’t) say things like that. You will use more evasive strategies, even for yourself. (from Mannelig in Chains)

This passage owes as much to deconstructionism as it does to Joyce, manifesting Danishevsky’s characteristic blending of disparate critical and literary frameworks. Another echo of Joyce occurs in chapter four, ‘Back-to-Back Obligations (Tempestad Grande, Amigo) // The Laestrygonians,’ which ends in a narrative fragment inviting us to recall the parallax on which Bloom fixates in ‘The Laestrygonians’—although it’s true that Danishevsky’s personae tend to suffer from too much understanding, rather than too little:

thinking of those days, of the fact that they’ve ended, I think about how everything that comes after them will also end, and how it’s not really so far off, I just need to hold on for as long as it takes and wherever it takes me and how then I’ll no longer need to try. how I’ll be able to simply observe the way it seeps through all the surfaces I look at, leaving me with less than what’s left to each of them—and everything will someday just disappear—and there won’t be any more of this, or of what I remember when I examine it. (from Mannelig in Chains)

In translating Mannelig in Chains, we are working toward another time that, we hope, is also ‘not really so far off’: the time when we can introduce readers to Danishevsky’s Moscow, a city every bit as disconcerting, and as strangely illuminated, as Joyce’s Dublin. Read an extract from Chapter 1 of Mannelig in Chains, ‘Shadows over Mutabor’, in our translation here.

Written by Alex Karsavin and Anne O. Fisher (2021)

A Tale of Two Conferences (and Three Cities): Washington DC meets Moscow and St. Petersburg!

November 2020 is a busy month for RusTrans. After spending many months in socially distanced limbo, and our diaries cross-hatched with cancelled conferences, we finally reaped the benefits of inhabiting the virtual world! In a way which would not have been possible pre-Covid, where costs and logistics would normally limit our attendance capacity, the entire RusTrans team managed to be in three places at once: Washington DC and Moscow and St. Petersburg. With conferences slashing their costs to encourage online participation, everyone has won. (All we had to do, with varying success, was mind the time differences – and work through weekends).

And so, over two weekends in November (05-08 and 14-15) we participated in the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference in Washington DC, the theme of which this year (most fittingly) has been “Anxiety and Rebellion”. On Friday 06 November, RusTrans Postdoctoral Fellow Cathy McAteer presented her latest archival research (dating back to the blissful days when archives were open for researchers) to the panel ‘Literary Translators from Russian: Networks and Reception’. Her paper, ‘From Wedgwood to Wordsmith: A Micro-Historical Cameo of Michael Glenny’, explored the professional background of famed British translator of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (as well as works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the less well-known dissident author Georgii Vladimov (Vernyi Ruslan/Faithful Ruslan)). Her microhistory spotlighted some of Glenny’s translatorial dispositions (as gleaned from a range of primary material: letters, reviews, articles, notebooks spanning decades) and emphasised some translators’ natural inclinations towards the role of ‘translator-humanitarian’, which Glenny assumed later in his career by advocating for struggling living authors (Vladimov, for example, in the months preceding his ultimate defection), and for deceased authors denied full literary recognition (Bulgakov).

Fellow panellists gave fascinating papers on their research into authors/translators, networks and reception. Natalya Rulyova presented ‘Collaborative Self-Translation: Joseph Brodsky and His Translators’; Anna Karpusheva spoke about ‘Svetlana Alexievich’s Prose in the West: A Puzzle for a Translator’, and Julia Trubikhina gave us ‘Translating Elena Shvarts: The Shapeshifting of the Lyrical Subject’. Our chair Ronald Meyer skilfully (and genially) kept us on time and our discussant Elena Zemskova provided careful scrutiny, insightful commentary, and apposite questions, for which our thanks.

At midday British time on Saturday 7th  (early morning for some in the US), RusTrans Principal Investigator Muireann Maguire participated in and chaired her panel, ‘Literary Translation from Russian in a Global Context’. This panel united three papers: Muireann’s ‘Houses of the Dead: Dostoevsky in Irish Literature’, Elizabeth Geballe’s ‘Scandalous Homage: E.-M. de Vogüé’s ‘Translation’ of Dostoevsky’, and Lana Soglasnova’s ‘One-poem Multilingual Translations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective’. Acting as co-discussant (with Dr Jinyi Chu), Cathy used her slot to draw parallels from all three papers with Pascale Casanova’s titular concept of the World Republic of Letters. Casanova’s research tracks the global ebb and flow of national literatures. Muireann’s, Elizabeth’s, and Lana’s papers each spoke to some aspect – or incarnation – of the emergence and disappearance of national literatures in translation. Death, an overt literary theme in both Elizabeth’s and Muireann’s papers, also served as a metaphor for translation. Elizabeth described how the French scholar Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé demanded a literary re-naissance for moribund French realism specifically through translations of Russian literature. Muireann spoke about Irish novelist’s Máirtín O Cadhain’s homage to Dostoevsky in his 1949 masterpiece Graveyard Clay, which owed its genesis, as she argued, to The House of the Dead, a text very much alive in translation. And yet, unlike its transnational exemplar, O Cadhain’s novel itself has risked literary death because it is written in a localized  (and now almost extinct) dialect of Irish, and was not translated into any international languages until the twenty-first century.  The common theme binding all the anthologies explored in Lana’s paper is the resuscitation of dead poets, short-story writers and minority ethnic languages, projecting them either internally or externally into dozens of world languages as an act of outward-looking advertisement. The rationale behind such large-scale projects recalls Johann Herder’s 18th century claim, cited by Casanova, that ‘each epoch and nation possesses its own special character’ (2007, p. 76). One way to challenge unequal distribution of power in the emerging literary world is by creating a repository of national literary wealth which springs from ‘a country’s entire cultural and historical development’ (ibid.). It seems this might be the key skopos behind these anthologies, which we were told require significant investment, but also have the capacity to act as a vehicle for healing, by allowing the State to atone for historical instances of national domination of peoples, literatures, and languages.

Naturally, there were other ASEEES conference panels/roundtables which coincided specifically with RusTrans research interests, including ‘Translating Transculturally from the Caucasus and Central Asia’, a roundtable featuring US translators Kate Young, Carol Apollonio and Shelley Fairweather-Vega in discussion with fellow colleagues about the translation publishing, funding, and reception in the West of literature from the Caucasus and Central Asia, about the legacy of Soviet ideology over publishing practices, the quality of editing translations, and the willingness (or lack of) among Western publishers to take on commissions (taking us back to a now-familiar sticking point: if translators are not paid to come up with a sample text for translation, how is this supposed to happen sustainably?).

We also welcomed the panel ‘Overcoming the Anxiety of Authorship: Film Adaptations of Russian Classics in the 1990s-2000s’ chaired by Olga Hasty, with papers by Alexandra Smith, ‘Reimagining Fathers and Sons for the 21st Century: Dunya Smirnova’s 2008 Appropriation of Turgenev’s Novel’, Olga Sobolev’s ‘So could it be the same Anna?: The 2012 British Screen Version of Tolstoy’s Novel’ and Olga Partan’s ‘Anton Chekhov’s Plays on the American Screen: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) and The Seagull (2018)’, with Milla (Lioudmila) Fedorov as discussant. A major theme of this panel was that the reader as viewer, now that some weighty  Russian literary classics increasingly bypass reading by being repackaged as a visual, on-screen experience instead. This realisation may have made purists panic, only for them to be rapidly placated by Olga Sobolev’s statistics: sales of War and Peace, it seems, rose by 50% after the BBC aired Andrew Davies’s tv adaptation. If only we could now establish how many of those purchases were read (from start to finish –  not just the Natasha scenes – and for long enough to realise that there is no incest in the original!), and how many readers went on to pick up another Russian novel afterwards. 

A panel which surprised with its methodological offerings (on top of its fascinating content) was Sunday’s ‘Tamizdat as Cold War Literary Phenomenon’, with Denis Kozlov as Chair and papers by Ann Komaromi ‘Time-Delay Tamizdat’, Yasha Klots ‘Fantastic Realism Goes West: The Tamizdat Project of Abram Terts and Nikolai Arzhak’, Jessie Labov ‘Digitized Tamizdat: East-West Networks of Texts, People, and Ideas during the Cold War’, and Alexander Jacobson ‘The Case of the Four Gulags: Tamizdat as Publishing Practice’ (the discussant was Olga Matich). Jessie’s paper applied theoretical methodologies which offer a highly relevant framework for the interpretation of digital archive research. We came away with titles to consult – including Katherine Bode’s Reading by Numbers (2012) – a reading exercise which will come into its own as we spend the next few years extracting meaningful data from digital resources. Our thanks to all these wonderful panels, the erudite speakers, and to the organisers of ASEEES for not balking at the prospect of transferring their major conference online. Our team has come away with online innovations inspired by ASEEES which will help to shape our own (admittedly smaller) Translation Phoenix conference next Spring in Cambridge.

And just when you thought the weekend was quite busy enough with one conference, cue: Institut Perevoda’s 6th International Congress of Translators on the theme of ‘Literary Translation as a Medium for Cultural Diplomacy’, beaming in from Moscow and St. Petersburg from 12th-15th November. And so began the fun of juggling time zones, but how worth it! This year’s Congress, though shorter than ASEEES, hosted over 350 participants from 53 different countries (plus Russia), and offered a packed programme of Zoom panels, split into seven sections and running in parallel throughout the day:

  1. Prose Translation
  2. Poetry Translation
  3. Theatre, Cinema, Graphic Novels
  4. Children’s and Youth Literature
  5. Writer, Translator, Publisher: the art of compromise
  6. The Linguistic Landscape of Literary Translation
  7. The Science of Translation: Schools and Workshops

And not only that, but interviews too (with Maria Stepanova, Roman Senchin, Andrei Astvatsaturov, for example), a flashmob, videos by key industry players, and an announcement in the last few hours of the Congress of ReadRussia’s finalists.

François Deweer

There was impressive flexibility for participants to move from one panel to another and catch a flavour of all seven categories. This Congress was an opportunity to re-connect with familiar faces (Marian Schwartz, Lisa Hayden), re-connect with some also juggling ASEEES (Carol Apollonio, Kate Young), and make new acquaintances through the chat and discussions; share global industry knowledge; and muse on the future of translation publishing, especially as it navigates a route out of the unexpected challenges posed by Covid-19. Cathy’s paper ‘Современная русская литература за границей: случай ошибочной идентификации’ (‘Modern Russian Literature Abroad: A Case of Mistaken Identity’) featured in the section ‘Writer, Translator, Publisher: the art of compromise’ along with papers on translating from Korean (Alexandra Finogenova) and Italian (Marina Arias-Vikhil) into Russian, about Georgian reading preferences in Russian literature (Tamara Rekk-Kotrikadze), and what the French Russian Library is publishing and selling (by our exemplary moderator, and co-ordinator of France’s Russian Library, François Deweer).

Carol Apollonio

Cathy’s paper – gauging the extent to which the Anglophone West’s obsession with classics of Russian and dissident literature prevents the promotion of new Russian literary sensations in translation – posed more questions than it could answer, and duly prompted some lively discussion in the chat. If you would like to hear the paper for yourselves, you can watch it here, and in fact, all the papers which were presented during the Congress. Institut Perevoda did a marvellous job of uploading all panels in record time on YouTube for free catch-up for all (ASEEES, alas, does not yet appear to have recorded or uploaded anything like the same amount). You’ll find Lisa Hayden talking about translating Vodolazkin, Marian Schwartz sharing her author-translator interactions with Nina Berberova, Galina Alekseeva discussing the history of Tolstoy in Anglophone translation, and Carol Apollonio on the enhanced understanding students can gain of a source text by considering multiple, historical translations (in this case, of Crime and Punishment), and many, many more! On Nov 14th, the longlist of finalists for the «Читай Россию/Read Russia»  prize 2020 was officially announced (it includes many brilliant translations and many friends of RusTrans); the winners will be announced on Dec 22nd. Can you handle the suspense?

Cathy McAteer with Muireann Maguire

 

 

Anger Management Issues: Translating Bulat Khanov’s Gnev

Pity the aspiring, young, male Russian author. Not only must he sit in the hairy, literary shadow of the men with long beards from the 18th and 19th centuries – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, Lermontov, Gogol (ok, he was more moustachioed than bearded). But he must do so in the knowledge that several of the aforementioned greats were already gaining fame and recognition in their early twenties. No pressure, then.

Of course, the impulse to write is born of far more than a simple desire to compete with those who went before; and thankfully, the clean-shaven 29-year-old author Bulat Khanov, whose novel Gnev (Anger) I am translating as part of the RusTrans project, appears entirely uninhibited in his desire to depict the modern reality of 21st century Russian life and the complex set of challenges it poses – to the male psyche in particular.

Anger

                                           Gnev (2019)

After the Kazan’-based author won awards for his 2018 story Distimiia (Dysthymia) (defined as  ‘persistent, mild depression’), Eksmo published Gnev in July 2019 and his next novel Nepostoiannye velichini (Unstable Values) in October of the same year. Last month his latest work, Razvlecheniia Dlia Ptits s Podrezannymi Kril’iami (Fun for Birds with Clipped Wings), hit the bookshelves. Khanov is certainly not sitting about twiddling his thumbs.

In March 2020, a commentator for Russia’s Big Book Prize noted that ‘the common thread running through all his works is that of an educated, intelligent person struggling to deal with the harsh reality of Russian life’ and this is certainly the case in Gnev. I remain unconvinced about using Anger as the English title – its protagonist, disgruntled academic Gleb Veretinsky, is suffering from some complex, obscure and deep-rooted malaise that the word ‘anger’ doesn’t quite capture. Other established young Russian male authors like Dmitry Glukhovsky, who wrote Metro-2033 (about a community of survivors of World War III living in the Moscow metro) aged just 22, and Alexei Salnikov (whose The Department is incidentally also being translated for the RusTrans project by Lisa C. Hayden), often site their work in some kind of post-apocalyptic context. Activist writers like Sergei Shargunov (A Book Without Photographs) and Zakhar Prilepin (The Pathologies, The Cloister) use their experience of contemporary military conflicts such as Chechnya as a platform for expressing oppositional politics. Khanov is different. In 2018 he described how he and his fellow millennials possess a ‘symptomatic kinship’ with the Sixtiers, that generation of Russian writers of the 1950s and ‘60s who resisted the cultural and ideological restrictions of Soviet-era communism. Rather than taking a journalistic approach to depicting realism, they use fantasy, parable and metaphor to represent reality, in other words, they write about reality without talking about it directly. In this, he may share an aesthetic with his contemporary Alexander Snegirov, whose novel Vera won the 2015 Russian Booker prize. Vera depicts a woman’s struggle to find love and hope (or perhaps, as the title suggests, faith?). Snegirev also wrote Petroleum Venus, about a successful architect who turns his back on his career for the sake of his son with Down’s syndrome. Yet the parallels are not easily drawn. Khanov is speaking in his own way for his own generation as he tackles head-on modern obsessions like social media and pornography, and in Gnev he layers his characterization in such a way that the reader is always unsettled. The narrative is focalized from Veretinsky’s third-person viewpoint, yet it also manages to talk to the reader directly, forcing them to ask questions of themselves. Are we with Veretinsky, or against him? Are we inside his head, or outside, looking in, and down at him? There are times when the reader cannot help but sympathise with the protagonist, for example in Chapter 5 of the novel’s first part when he wanders back through Kazan past groups of workers and students going about their normal, everyday business:

It wasn’t that the faces held some kind of spell over him, more that they didn’t reject him. They didn’t provoke in him a sudden need to bury himself in red-bound books or gaze at a screenful of porn. In such moments Veretinsky almost felt love for everything inherent in humanity, almost ceased thinking that a misanthrope is preferable to a humanist because the latter strives to use fellow human beings to achieve a higher purpose.

Admiration all too often gives way to condemnation, though, such as when Veretinsky treats a drunken alcoholic with inhumane contempt or resorts again to masturbating over online porn while his long-suffering wife sleeps next door in their bedroom. Paradoxes pepper the novel and one of the most recurrent of these is how Veretinsky, despairing of his present-day reality, quotes lines from Russian Futurist poets like Velimir Khlebnikov and Ivan Ignatiev. In Chapter 7 of Gnev, Veretinsky, disturbed by the cynicism of one of his own students, turns to a 1913 lecture on Futurism by the critic Alexander Zakrzhevsky:

‘Both in life and in literature we are experiencing a dismal era of decline…The realisation has already dawned upon thoughtful and subtle-minded people that we have expended all our energy, become exhausted and dim-witted, that the old ways no longer satisfy us yet we cannot find new ones, that words are worn out, decaying and they bore us ad nauseam, that thought has grown so decrepit and lacklustre, that life, with its past and its present, with its culture and its evolution, seems little more than a stupefying sleep from which there is no awakening!…’

The paradox here is that Veretinsky seems to be harking back to a time when the present (which he so despises) was the future, offering potential for artistic innovation and hope; and to hell with the past.

Khanov’s quotations of comparatively obscure poetry provide a significant translational challenge. In the original Russian, they are hard to detect as they are not attributed, or even denoted in italics. On the assumption that footnotes ask too much of the contemporary fictional novel reader, I have followed a policy of using italics and occasional attribution, the latter only when the flow of the narrative is not hindered; enough, hopefully, to coax the reader in English to go and seek out the author if they so wish without requiring them to do so.

Булат Ханов на Non/fiction 2019

 Bulat Khanov

I chose to translate Gnev after reading Khanov’s short story “Zdes’ vse po-drugomu” (“Everything Is Different Here”) which was published in the literary magazine Оktiabr in 2019. This story follows a visitor to a remote part of northern Russian who poses as a journalist interested in profiling the local community’s unspoilt, uncommercialised way of life, only for it to be revealed right at the end that he is really a television executive scoping out a location for a reality TV show that will shatter their quiet existence. This idea of playing a role, posing externally as someone completely different from your internalised self, is central to Khanov’s portrayal of Veretinsky in Gnev. The novel also taps into the paternal anxiety that I feel, as the father of a young boy myself, about the impact of society’s wholesale commodification, technology and social media on the mental health of young males. My background teaching for a number of years in UK Higher Education meant the novel’s university setting was also a natural draw for me and many of Khanov’s observations about the sector chime with my own experience. They also provide moments of much-needed humour, for while Khanov shines his light into some of the murkier corners of the male psyche, he does so, not through some insistently dreary form of realist chernukha, but with a humorous glint and an occasional wistfulness that serves to lighten the novel’s tone, despite its underlying darkness. These attributes lend Gnev a fresh, universal appeal that travels well beyond the confines of its setting in Kazan – after all, how many authors can cite lines from both English rock band Oasis and Ego-Futurist poet Riurik Ivnev to describe the collapse of a relationship?

Ultimately, it is almost as if the very educated nature of Veretinsky itself, placed against the backdrop of the sleazy, shabby reality of his existence, is what tortures him most and tips him over the edge. As a translator, there is something fundamentally exciting about uncovering all the nuances and interpretative layers of a work by a developing young author, bearded or otherwise. Gnev is a disturbingly frank study of 21st century male angst and I am sure I will not be the first reader to be left intrigued and unsettled by it. With RusTrans’s help, I hope I can bring it to the wider audience it deserves.

William Barclay

Translating the Uncanny Valley: Victor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10

Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik are co-translating Victor Pelevin’s fifteenth novel, iPhuck 10, as one of the 12 new translations part-sponsored by RusTrans. Here, Isaac writes about why he and Viktoria find this book important:

Victor Pelevin is a literary daredevil. From writing a novel blurring the lines between insect and human (including a mosquito-fly love scene), to narrating a short story from the perspective of a lonely bike shed, to flipping a Waiting for Godot-esque story on its head when we discover (many pages in) that the protagonists are in fact broiler chickens on a meat farm, Pelevin has proved himself to be one of the most restless experimenters in literature today and a master of bending narrative forms. When Viktoria Malik, my co-translator, and I read his 2017 novel iPhuck 10, we knew that he had somehow managed to take things one step further. We were hooked, and felt we had to bring this bizarre and wonderful creation to a broader readership around the world.

iPhuck 10’s hero is a Machiavellian, suave, and hilarious A.I. algorithm by the name of Porfiry Petrovich, a narrator who exists only in the binary ether, a “spirit”, as he calls himself. While Porfiry’s hobby (if one could call it that) is writing crime novels, he gets his material from his day job as a detective for police headquarters—a nod to that other famous Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry announces himself at the novel’s opening with a  strange and grave salutation:

“And again, again, hello, my dear and distant friend!”

With his constant chatter to his audience—does he know we’re there, or has he gone crazy, and how much does our suspension of disbelief play a part in determining that?—Porfiry brings to mind the voices of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (from Notes from Underground), Zamyatin’s D-503 (from We), and many other famous narrators of Russian literature.

But, it turns out, these echoes are by no means meant to be subtle—and herein lies one of the hardest (yet most enjoyable) challenges for us as the translators of the text. In fact, Porfiry is chuckling at his readers from the pages of his own book as he notices our recognition of such echoes of classic literature. It turns out that Porfiry has read every single work of classic Russian literature, and knows how to reference and regurgitate it, subtly or obviously, at will. “I am a typical second half of the twenty-first century Russian artificial intelligence,” he quips, “painted in contrasting colors of our historical and cultural memory: I am simultaneously something of a Solzhenitsyn together with a Pasternak.”

As you might imagine, allusions abound, from Mayakovsky to Pushkin to Yesenin. This has kept us on our toes, and presented us with the added task of framing these allusions in such a way—while staying true to the text—as to tip the English-speaking reader off to the reference, and perhaps give some subtle impetus to seek out the original text. To this end, we have attempted to match our translations of such famous pieces as Yesenin’s poem “Goodbye my friend, goodbye” as closely as possible to recognizable popular translations without actually duplicating them.

We’ve been asked before about our working process—Viktoria is a native Russian speaker, I am a native speaker of English. In this tradition, of course, we are standing on the shoulders of translation giants— such as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Richard and Larissa were kind enough to respond and offer us some advice when we reached out a while back. Our process is very similar to theirs. Viktoria writes an initial translation text in English, which I then rewrite and edit for style. We both speak each other’s language (Viktoria far better than me, I must admit!), so we are able to offer input on both sides of the process, and I am not completely out of my depth when I need to consult the original Russian. This works out very well for this particular novel, too: Viktoria can help me with some of the more obscure references to classic Russian literature—and kitsch culture from the 1990s and 2000s, I should add—while I am able to pick up on some of the references to Anglophone culture which Pelevin slips in. For example, English readers will likely catch Pelevin’s references to “hardboiled” detective fiction (think of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe) better than Russians will. I was able to accentuate these echoes with subtle cues in the English when Porfiry eventually gets in over his head with a seemingly innocent “dame.”

Let’s allow Porfiry to explain himself further in his own words:

The text you are reading is written by an algorithm—if a shadow of something “human” occasionally permeates through the words, it is only because of the particularities of its narrative structure. I will try to tell you about these particularities as succinctly as I can (the dictates of popular literature don’t allow me to go into more detail).

The algorithm—which is me—puts words in sequence in accordance with the linguistic rules of the style that is considered to be classic in our times. The principle of my text organization is complex (and a commercial secret), but, generally speaking, it is built on the best samples of Russian prose.

The algorithm is, at its core, created by people, and the product it creates is designed for other people (even allowing for lapses, mistakes, unnecessary repetitions, and truisms). It’s no wonder that text written in such a way appears to be the creation of a real human. In an indirect sense, this is true, but to define exactly who the author is would be rather difficult. As the poet Mayakovsky once said, “150 million is the name of this poem’s master.” I think he underestimated the number to a couple of degrees, but in general his approach is correct.

Porfiry’s  description of his programming, above, brings to light many of the major challenges of translating iPhuck 10. It seems to me that the translator’s most important task in translating a first-person novel of this kind is to bring into being a believable, living narrator—someone that sounds like a real, natural human being. Porfiry is not about to make things so easy for us, however. In this case, the translator has to make Porfiry’s voice sound believably natural yet unnatural at the same time. Somehow, we have to find and then barely skirt the borders of the “uncanny valley”—the term commonly applied to robots that look just like human beings, but are off ever so slightly enough that they repel, amuse, or puzzle us—of language.

Porfiry is being humble when he says there’s a “shadow” of something human about him. It is a credit to Pelevin’s skill that he has thought this all through already—in this distant future where A.I. reigns dominant, we’ve reached the point where Porfiry’s algorithm is aware of the uncanny valley and is even attempting to navigate around it. As he says, “the algorithm is, at its core, created by people, and the product it creates is designed for other people (even allowing for lapses, mistakes, unnecessary repetitions, and truisms).” In other words, Porfiry seems to understand that the solution for escaping the uncanny valley is to become less perfect, not more—but only in believable, specifically human ways. In the world of iPhuck 10, we’ve gone through the looking glass.

We believe that iPhuck 10 is one of the major Russian novels of the 2010s awaiting translation at this moment. The title might seem like a crass pun, but it just about sums up the book’s subject perfectly: the strange, murky nexus we face in modern times between artificial intelligence, corporate greed, algorithms, virtual reality, and our own private and public lives. Hence a pun on the expletive and Apple’s device, the most famous and ubiquitous example of high tech penetration into our daily lives.

We hope you enjoy following us further down the road as we continue our mission to bring this groundbreaking novel to more readers.

Isaac Sligh (contact translator)