Category Archives: Uncategorized

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!

New Russias in Manchester: A Festival of Diversity

New Russias

As a PhD researcher, it’s easy to focus solely on my own interests in Russian culture and neglect the bigger picture. That’s why heading to Manchester on the weekend of 7th-9th February for the New Russias Festival was so rewarding. Organised by PhD students from Leeds and Manchester Universities, the weekend began with a symposium studying Russian culture since 2010, of which more below. This was followed by a plethora of cultural events, including gigs from Motorama and Pompeya, readings and talks from writers Elena Chizhova, and Anatoly Kudryavitsky, and screenings and discussions with director Sergei Kachkin, not to mention an art walk following Russian artists’ impressions of Manchester, where, thankfully, it was still sunny.

The beginning of the art walk led by artist Alisa Oleva

Friday’s symposium offered panels on the music, cinema,  arts, and literature (respectively) of contemporary Russia, with many areas of crossover and consensus. The music panel, with presentations from Alexei Semenenko, Caroline Ridler and Ilya Yablokov, explored how the music industry wields power, with artists joining forces with politicians for their mutual benefit  (Тимати and his Black Star empire are a good example of this) but also joining in protesting against the status quo. They discussed rap as protest art, mentioning rap by Хаски, Дельфин and Oxxxymiron, as well as the endurance of Viktor Tsoi’s protest song Я Хочу Перемен. Tsoi’s cult of personality has been politicised and used by activists on both sides of the political divide. My favourite takeaway from the conference was Russian TV presenter Kiselyov’s insistence that rap was a Russian invention; he proceeded to rap Mayakovsky to prove his point. You can draw your own conclusions…

Sergei Kachkin talks to Adelaide McGinity-Peebles about his film On the Way Home

Jade McGlynn, Irina Schulzki, Åsne Høgetveit, and Natalija Majsova discussed their areas of research and expertise in the next panel on contemporary cinema. Here also we heard how developments in technology are making it easier for directors to produce their own films, leading to a move away from Moscow, with filmmakers such as Kantemir Balagov making films that celebrate victims and outsiders in a break from traditional cinema. This increasingly independent cinema appears to challenge Ministry of Culture-funded films, which tend towards a genre of  ‘happy war films’ (as Jade McGlynn put it). 2018’s Танки is an excellent, if terribly scripted and historically inaccurate, example of the latter genre.

Vlad Strukov talks about contemporary art in Russia

Talk of non-Moscow-centric culture continued with Vlad Strukov’s paper about the art scene in the Caucasus, including the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, and its importance to the art scene in general, both inside Russia and beyond. Turning back to Moscow, Fabienne Rachmadiev talked about the recent Pavel Pepperstein exhibition in Гараж, and Margarita Kuleva spoke, among many things, of the tradition of тусовка in art establishments, describing the communal, and in many ways still Soviet, lifestyle of workers in establishments such as Гараж, Strelka and Winzavod.

The end of the day saw the panel on contemporary literature, with contributions from Sarah Hudspith, Anna Ponomareva and myself. Here the discussion was based on the future of Russian literature in translation, and how it should be promoted in the West. Sarah Hudspith asked why literature is taught in traditional language degrees, and why we teach certain texts – usually just the classics – and not others. Anna Ponomareva talked about her comparative literature course at UCL and why it is so important to read across cultures, regardless of whether we read these texts in English or the original. I then voiced the idea that politics might often be involved in the selection of texts for translation. It is important to remember that if we only read what the Big Five publishers translate, then we are only seeing part of the picture – we are reading a version of Russia that is in effect curated for us.

What we clarified this weekend is that contemporary Russia offers huge cultural diversity: to reduce our conception of Russian culture to a tiny canon of “classics” in any genre, from art to cinema, would be a tragic mistake. The New Russias Festival has done an excellent job in highlighting what is happening in Russia right now. Please do it again next year!

Many thanks to Marco Biasioli for providing photographs.

Sarah Gear, University of Exeter

(Blog)Post-horses of Enlightenment: RusTrans Goes to Glasgow!

Sarah Gear, RusTrans PhD Student

This December, RusTrans took a momentary break from the madness of advent to attend a lively conference at the University of Glasgow.  I (Sarah) spent my weekend at ‘Translation as an Act of Cultural Dialogue’, a conference held in honour of Pushkin’s 220th anniversary, organised by Drs Jamie Rann and Andrea Gullotta (Glasgow) in partnership with Institut Perevoda and the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature. We spent the conference listening to and taking part in discussions about Russia-Scotland literary relations, poetry, drama, and the importance and enduring relevance of Pushkin.

 Irina Kirillova

This is the first year the conference has been held in Glasgow – up until now it has taken place in the small Scottish border town of Moffat – a theme taken up by the first speaker, Professor Irina Kirillova, who answered the first question of Why Moffat? (it is indeed a very small town!) and went on to talk about the genesis of this conference and its importance in helping maintain cultural relations between Russia and Scotland. Professor Kirillova then gave the floor to Scottish poet and translator Dr Tom Hubbard, an attendee of the preceding Moffat conferences, who gave a fascinating paper on translating Pushkin’s poem Autumn into both English and Scots, focusing on Edwin Morgan’s English translation, along with Alistair Mackie’s Scots version. It is interesting to note that both of these poets decided to add a little embellishment of their own at the end of each of their translations. Tom talked about the similarities in sound between the two languages – the Scottish ‘ch’, for example, being the same as the ‘х’ in Russian – and also reminded us about the Edwin Morgan conference to be held next year in Glasgow, celebrating this prolific Scottish poet and his translations into Scots and English from many languages, Russian included.

Tom’s Russian counterpart, poet and translator Grigory Kruzhkov (whom Tom later delighted in teaching some Scots words) spoke next, about Yeats and the poet Nikolai Gumilev. He took us on a journey through Gumilev’s time in London in 1917, and talked about his meeting with W.B. Yeats – it appears he was the only Russian to meet the Irish poet. Gumilev went on to translate Yeats’ nationalist play Countess Cathleen.

Aleksandr Livergant (l) and Grigory Kruzhkov (r)

Matters came right up to date with the next talk by translator Christine Bird, who discussed her translation of Andrey Ivanov’s play, С училища, which is set in Minsk, and the challenges of bringing Belarusian dialect and swear words into English while maintaining the necessary tone – a topic that provoked lively debate about the (il)legality of putting such words on a PowerPoint presentation in Russia – and a discussion about how to carry over the shocking nature of such words, when in Scotland they have rather less power, perhaps due to their wonderfully expressive overuse…

In keeping with the theme of theatre, translator, art manager and curator Maria Kroupnik talked about the good work carried out by Class Act, a Scottish theatre initiative (transported from Scotland to Russia) that works with young children in both Scotland and Russia, with the aim of demystifying the theatre and showing kids that it is open to all, and not just a select few.

Just before the lunch break, Aleksandr Livergant, translator and long-time editor of Innostrannaya Literatura, presented on the British edition of his magazine that came out in October 2018. This came with a large feature on Scottish poets, tracking their history from the 17th century to the present day, and taking in the most famous Scottish Makars, or national poets with a varied collection of translations from Walter Scott, Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Alistair Reid and Edwin Morgan, who, it was good to learn, has had his own poems translated also.

Following this, we braved the pouring rain (as a one-time resident of Glasgow I can say that Glasgow certainly lived up to its rainy reputation this weekend) and made our way to a street-food market nestling under the Gothic arches of Glasgow University. Taking shelter from the wet, we safely installed ourselves in a snug canteen in the vaults where we enjoyed lunch (while listening to carols from the university choir) and discussed the morning’s events.

Aleksandr Livergant

The afternoon session was chaired by poet and children’s’ writer Marina Boroditskaya along with Glasgow’s own Andrea Gullotta, and focused on the importance of interpretation. Aleksandr Livergant resumed the floor to talk about Nabokov’s translation of Evgenii Onegin, and the role that writer and critic Edmund Wilson played in this – trying to persuade Nabokov to work on something shorter! Indeed – the project took Nabokov 20 years to complete, and resulted in non-favourable reviews from Wilson himself.

(l-r) Irina Kirillova, Marina Boroditskaya, Grigory Kruzhkov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Jamie Rann then took the conference in a deliberately surreal direction, with a discussion of Zaum poetry and Pushkin’s treatment by the Soviet avant-garde. He talked about Aleksei Kruchenykh and his experiments with sound, and Dmitrii Prigov, who rewrote all of Onegin by hand, substituting either the word безумный (mad or insane) or неземно (unearthly) for each adjective in the poem. He also talked about the Transfurists (also known as Neo-futurists, poets like Sigei, Aksel’rod, Nikonova-Tarshis) who wanted to create an international language that wouldn’t require translation – an interesting idea in a room full of translators! In essence, this discussion of Zaum brought a fourth language to the room – English, Russian and Scots being already represented.

Andrea Gullotta (l) and Jamie Rann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The University of Edinburgh’s Dr Alexandra Smith considered more canonical translations of Onegin. She discussed Nabokov and the fact that he felt that he had to translate Onegin in order to be seen as legitimate in America, and discussed his sometimes fraught relationship with Wilson. She talked about Stanley Mitchell’s 2008 translation for Penguin Classics, and also covered Charles Johnston’s 1970s translation, which it was felt provided the most natural (if not the most accurate, if we were to ask Nabokov) translation. Johnston claimed that its aim was simply to recreate the same magical feeling that he had experienced when reading Onegin for the first time in Russian. Dr Smith demonstrated that, in accordance with Lawrence Venuti’s theories on invisibility, each translator brings their own background and cultural knowledge to a translation.

Dasha Kuzina from Institut Perevoda then discussed the importance of Pushkin, and the fact that his revered status can really daunt Russian school children (who are often drilled in his verse and personal mythology from a young age) and deter them from engaging with and enjoying his work. Her solution to this is to introduce Pushkin as a real person to them – as someone who made mistakes and who lived a real life, and describe him as someone they can relate to, rather than a revered, unassailable museum piece.

After a quick coffee break, the talk left Pushkin in peace for a while to consider some other intriguing aspects and questions around Russian literary translation with a presentation from Dr Olga Allison of the University of Glasgow. Olga considered whether differences could be seen between translation choices made by male and female translators, which she did by examining different translation solutions offered for some of Lewis Carroll’s puns.

Svetlana Gorokhova, Library for Foreign Literature

 

 

 

After that it was my turn, and here I moved even further away from Pushkin to consider contemporary Russian literature. I looked briefly at current translation trends, and talked about the fact that it is the smaller presses who are taking all the risks when it comes to publishing contemporary writers. I then went on to consider whether a writer’s politics affects if they are translated or not, by whom, and how their politics influences their reception in the US and the UK. To do this, I compared the reception of Day of the Oprichnik by liberal writer Vladimir Sorokin with Sankya by nationalist Zakhar Prilepin.  Day of the Oprichnik has been much better received in the UK and US than Sankya, even to the point that it has entered into the literary canon via Penguin Classics, and this difference comes despite the success of both novels in Russia (in fact – Sankya could in many ways be seen as more successful). It seems that liberal authors are deemed safer to publish and promote by the big five publishing houses than nationalist writers. I ended by asking the question which will feature throughout my PhD research, namely whether we are prepared to read nationalist writers in the West, and indeed, whether we should.

Liudmila Tomanek, an independent scholar, then talked about the importance of preserving polyphonies with relation to Svetlana Alexievich’s war time accounts (many of which have, as a point of interest, been published by Penguin Classics) and Dr John Bates of Glasgow University brought us back to Pushkin when he considered the relevance of Pushkin scholarship in Poland in the 1950s, and asked to what extent academics at that time towed the party line.

The day was rounded off with a documentary by Michael Beckelhimer, Pushkin is Our Everything, that took us from Pushkin as he really was (and as described by Dasha Kuzina earlier in the day) to how he has been used by successive political regimes to represent Russia and what it means to be Russian – all themes that RusTrans can relate to! He concluded that Pushkin’s importance in Russia is vast, and he envied the fact that Russia, unlike his native America, possesses such an important poet.

Stop anyone on the street, Beckelhimer says, and they will be able to recite you a bit of Pushkin.

A huge thank you to Polina Avtonomova from the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature, and Dasha Kuzina from Institut Perevoda for providing me with photos of the event. You can read more about the conference on the Library for Foreign Literature website here.

Penguins Progress!

I have purloined a Penguin title for this blog post (and no, there isn’t an apostrophe missing, it really is Penguins Progress) because it best reflects the full immersion in all things Penguin experienced at the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Penguin Archive at the end of June. Wednesday 26 June saw the inaugural gathering of researchers and enthusiasts, all sporting a variety of Penguin research backgrounds and interests, and representing a number of institutions. This was the first Penguin huddle to be held at Bristol University since the AHRC Penguin Conference in 2010 which celebrated 75 years of Penguin. Nearly a decade has passed, therefore, and we all felt it was time, once again, to share our collective knowledge about the labyrinthine ways of the archive and to discuss any new discoveries about Penguin’s place in commercial, publishing, literary, artistic, and socio-political history based on our research.

Our host from Special Collections for the day was the ever efficient and knowledgeable Hannah Lowery (seen below) the oracle when it comes to what is in the archive.

Our event organiser was University of Bristol English department’s Bex Lyons, scholar of Penguin’s medieval classics, accompanied by fellow departmental medievalist Leah Tether, classicist Robert Crowe (UoB) and art historian David Trigg (UoB). Arthurian scholar Sam Rayner joined us from UCL, where she also heads up UCL Publishing, and so too did Bath Spa’s Katharine Reeve (Publishing Subject Leader) and Laura Little (Course Director for MA Children’s Publishing). Joining me in representing the University of Exeter was Vike Plock, from the English department, and we were very fortunate indeed to be joined by James Mackay and Tim Graham, trustees from the Penguin Collector’s Society, whose knowledge of all things Penguin never ceases but to stagger!

Even Penguin researchers have to acclimatise to the climate-controlled atmosphere of Special Collections (do take extra layers if you’re thinking of going some time), but having done so, we established our common (and divergent areas) of research interest. Tackling an archive the size of Penguin’s can be difficult. It helps, therefore, to meet other researchers who might have happened upon snippets of useful information on their archival travels, files and letters which have long been filed away in an unrelated or incongruous area. For my part, for example, it’s helpful to know now – thanks to Dave Trigg – that Allen Lane popped up all over the place, wherever the topical fancy took him (not just Russia, but Europe, the Middle East, India, North and South America). On the subject of America, I now also know that Lane produced one other short-lived periodical – Transtlantic  (1943-1946) – similar in concept to the Russian Review (1945-1948), but this time celebrating the US’s involvement in the Second World War and designed ‘to assist the British and American peoples to walk together in majesty and peace’ (Yates, 2006, p. 149). (Against a backdrop of paper rationing, though, this periodical was eventually sold for the nominal sum of 5 shillings, whereas the Russian Review was simply discontinued for having sold poorly from the outset. My thanks to Tim Graham for confirming the existence of this US-oriented periodical.)

We exchanged up-to-date information about permissions, archive use, online archive cataloguing (immensely useful when trying to find a needle in a haystack), and newly donated Penguin material. (Thank you, Hannah, for your overview!) We also turned our thoughts to Penguin’s next anniversary milestone, 90 years, and how we might be able to mark the occasion with a suitable celebration. (Given that my own area of research is Penguin’s Russian Classics, I can’t help but be tempted to combinesomehow Penguin’s 90th celebration in 2025 with the 100th anniversary of Elisaveta Fen’s emigration to the UK!)

The afternoon session consisted of presentations showcasing discrete aspects of the Penguin archive. Vike Plock presented her research on Penguin’s publication in 1944 of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, aptly titled given Penguin’s commitment to serve exactly that ‘the common reader’ and of particular interest to me, the only Russianist in the room, because it includes Woolf’s essay ‘The Russian Point of View’ (‘we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style’, an ideal prompt, if ever Penguin needed one, for restoring some of this stripped style in a new series of re-translations, aka Penguin’s Russian Classics).

Vike Plock introduces Penguin and Virginia Woolf

My paper was perfectly timed to follow, therefore, with a presentation on the Penguin Russian Review, Penguin’s subsequent shift to commissioning Russian Classics translations, their impact on audience reception and canon formation, and less obviously, the ongoing question for me of whether any overt link actually existed between Penguin/Lane and sympathy towards Russia and the USSR. (Articles included in the Russian Review were noticeably pro-Russia, and Russian literature was robustly represented in the Penguin Classics series, but in each case, market forces ultimately appear to trump idealism: the Review folded, and ‘non-sellers’ in the Russian titles were shelved (Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, for a time, and Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family), regardless of their perceived standing in the Russian literary canon.)

For panel two, Sam Rayner revealed the twists and turns of archival research in her pursuit of information regarding Penguin’s commissions of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. She described similar red herrings, dead ends and disappointments to those I have also experienced in my hunt for archival confirmation. Our mutual conclusion is: never make assumptions about commissions (they might not proceed according to plan, they can be messy and inconclusive), and never expect the last conclusive letter to be there, very often, it is not!

Penguin and Malory

Bex Lyons concluded the panel, and the workshop, with her paper on Women and Penguin in the Twentieth Century, a wonderful look at the women who played a role in Penguin’s success and who left their mark, be they Eunice ‘Frostie’ Frost (Lane’s ‘literary midwife’) or nearly forgotten wives of translators who also made their contributions, behind the scenes, to their husband’s timely submissions.

A very productive workshop. Once more, Penguins do, indeed, progress!

Dublin Rules

A thoughtful sphinx from the National Library of Ireland

“We must get into touch also with our contemporaries, – in France, in Russia, in Norway, in Finland, in Bohemia, in Hungary, wherever, in short, vital literature is being produced on the face of the globe,” wrote Padraig Pearse, Irish writer, schoolteacher, poet, revolutionary martyr and legend – here, campaigning against what he perceived as the parochialism of the Irish literary revival up to 1906, the time of writing. Ever since the foundation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893, the movement to create a vibrant and original Irish-language literature had been gathering impetus. Over the next four decades, major Irish writers would choose Russian literary models – principally Turgenev and Gorky, but also Tolstoy and Chekhov – to inspire new literary styles that were both realist and experimental.

My first RusTrans-related research project, with the working title “Pushkin on Grafton Street” is a study of the influence of Russian realist literature, in translation, on the formation of Irish literary consciousness in the first half of the twentieth century. To this end, I am reading  fiction, memoirs, and critical essays by Padraig Pearse, Daniel Corkery, Padraig Colum, Padraig O Conaire, Seamus and Seosamh O Grianna, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and a few others, to map the reception of Russian themes and styles by these major early (and mostly Irish-language) writers.  This was a very self-aware process; Máirtín Ó Cadhain in particular was very conscious of the danger of sovietizing Irish letters by over-encouraging writers to adhere to set aesthetic standards, which could prove as sterile as the excesses of Socialist Realism; as he put it, the worst new Irish writing was “as harmless as cement or tractor novels”.

A secondary research direction  is translation itself: a major early achievement of the young Irish Free State (it became independent of Britain in 1922) was the foundation of An Gúm (“The Project”), which commissioned both new Irish-language fiction and translations into Irish from English and other languages. There was surprising enthusiasm for translating from Russian into Irish, as various versions of Tolstoy short stories on the pages of Irish-language newspapers attest. Not all these versions were translated from Russian, however; most appeared

Chekhov, Short Stories (translated by Daisy Mackin, 1939)

in Irish via an English-language crib. One of the only translators to work exclusively from Russian to Irish was the uniquely experienced Maighréad Nic Mhaicín, known as Daisy Mackin, a young woman originally from Donegal, who had studied at the Sorbonne, worked as a translator in Moscow, and later taught Russian at Trinity College Dublin for three decades. An Gúm paid Daisy Mackin to translate Turgenev and Chekhov into Irish, but funding dried up after the Second World War. One of the most exciting discoveries of my research trip to Dublin was a complete handwritten, final-draft manuscript of Daisy’s Irish translation of Konstantin Simonov’s wartime play Russian People. Never performed or published, it sits in the archives of Ireland’s National Library inviting some ambitious director to take it on. I am very grateful to Daisy’s daughter Mairead Breslin Kelly for allowing me to interview her about her fascinating parents and to reproduce images like the picture of a formal visit to Moscow in the 1960s by academics from Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast, including both Daisy (front) and Máirtín Ó Cadhain (far right), who became Professor of Irish at Trinity towards the end of his life.

 Irish visitors in Pushkin Square, Moscow

Which brings me to the personal element of this post: the joy of working in one of Dublin’s most beautiful buildings, the National Library of Ireland. Every library and archive has its own rules, which take time to learn (hence the title of this blog; perhaps also, given the subject, a nod to the espionage tradition of playing by “Berlin Rules”, etc.). The library boasts marble floors, a sweeping staircase that rises in a double curve to the reading room, and an overabundance of carved griffons, lions, and other mythological creatures. It took me a while to get used to the automated system (especially to access manuscripts), but the staff were friendly and helpful. The Early Printed Books reading room in Trinity College library, where I accessed volumes of Sean O’Faolain’s Herzen-inspired journal The Bell, was another treat: you reach it via a lengthy tunnel and a narrow, concrete spiral staircase which comes out in the same building where the Book of Kells is kept. Next time I return to this research, I may well be learning Galway Rules as I follow up the archives of the O Grianna brothers in NUI Galway.

A carving from the National Library of Ireland

The Merry Month of May…

Well, it is now that I have my rare, 1948 copy of this lovely Penguin Russian Review! But more on that later.

After April’s heady BASEES whirlwind (see last month’s conference blog post), May has been a month for a bit less gallivanting and a lot more researching. Whilst travel has been involved, it’s been for the sake of more solitary pursuits, i.e. archive trawling. I have been back to the Penguin archive at University of Bristol’s Special Collections, working through folders which relate to the Penguin Classics Black Cover series (post-Medallion, post-1962). And, more precisely, I have reacquainted myself with a translator whom I’d always admired, but had no idea he had been such an active Penguin translator: Ronald Wilks. This is the book – bought c. 1985, with a £3 book token – which made me realise for the first time that Ronald Wilks had arrived on the Penguin scene. (And, incidentally, it’s the book that got me hooked on Russian literature.)

What I didn’t realise was that Wilks would go on to enjoy an incredibly long tenure as one of the Penguin freelancers, far longer than the more readily known names at Penguin’s Russian Classics like David Magarshack and Rosemary Edmonds. Wilks’s first Penguin translation (Gorkii’s My Childhood) was published in 1966, and his last (Dostoevskii’s Notes from Underground and The Double) in 2009. In the interim, Wilks also translated: Gogol, Chekhov, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Tolstoi, and Pushkin. Some titles sold better than others. In a letter from 1972, Wilks expresses astonishment at how well his translation of Gorkii’s My Childhood is selling (nearly 100,000 copies sold in the space of 6 years), but this is matched by equal dismay in 1989 at the poor sales figures for his translation of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (out of an intended print run of 6,000 copies in 1987, only 5 copies – yes, single figures, 5! – had been sold by September 1989). Ah, the high and lows of translation!

On the whole, sales figures are not easily located in the Penguin archive (there does not appear to have been any orderly system in place for recording and filing such statistics), but from these two examples, it might be possible to deduce some tentative conclusions about the reading habits of the mid- to late-twentieth-century Penguin Russian reader. Whilst the greats (Dostoevskii, Tolstoi) continued to sell as before, there is new interest in and a move towards the modern Russian classic (Gorkii). Wilks’s translations of Gorkii’s trilogy (published between 1966-1979) could be regarded as a pivotal point in the Penguin list, a gateway to the Soviet literature which would soon be commissioned for translation. Having previously doubted that Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would amount to anything more than a ‘dead duck’ (Lane, 1963) in terms of its lasting literary merit, by 1971 Penguin was energetically pursuing publishing rights for the subsequent Solzhenitsyn novels. In addition to Gorkii and Solzhenitsyn, the 1970s saw authors like Bulgakov, Nabokov, Brodskii and Voinovich arriving on the Penguin list, but as vintage or modern classics, rather than Penguin Classics (traditionally the domain of pre-20th century works). Having trained its Anglophone readers to cope with consonant clusters, Russian names, the table of ranks, provincial regions indicated by the capital letter only (N.—), and Russian realia (samovar, verst, kopeck, smetana), Penguin introduced a new optional genre alongside its classic canonical offerings: Soviet literature.

This decisive move tempts a natural question: whether or not Penguin was (and always had been) politically motivated or – considering Cold War events like the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, high-profile defections, Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the USSR in 1974 – was Penguin simply good at opportunistically tapping into what its readership would be curious to read next? After years of scouring archived correspondence, I have yet to find incontrovertible evidence of Allen Lane’s political views on Russia and the Cold War. He was certainly left-leaning and he visited Moscow in 1957, but this alone is not enough to support a notion that political motivations might be behind the Penguin Russian Classics venture. It has been necessary, therefore, to resort to the more complex process (the archival researcher’s well-trodden path) of piecing together isolated fragments of evidence (or even just hints) extracted from letters, memos, reviews, press articles which are stored in the archive (but again, there is no single folder conveniently titled ‘Allen Lane’s political preferences vis-à-vis Russia’). I’m now in the process of interpreting these hints and fragments, and fashioning them into a more informed, meaningful conclusion. One such fragment, for example, is the aforementioned Penguin Russian Review (this copy – the only one they had – was purchased at the excellent Marijana Dworski Books, and the beautiful postcard came with the book).

Not many people know or recall that Penguin published The Penguin Russian Review between 1944-1948. More often than not, people assume I’m referring to its namesake, the American Russian Review, which was founded slightly earlier in 1941. (This point is, in itself, of interest – was Penguin aware, for example, that this older journal already existed, and if so, was it hoping to gain some mileage by adopting the same name for its UK version? A question I hope to investigate during my forthcoming archive trip.) As publications go, the Russian Review series was a relatively short-lived affair, but for the purposes of this enquiry, it holds valuable insight into Penguin’s approach to Russia and the Soviet Union. Each issue (mine has 138 pages) contains contributions by Russophiles and/or Russian specialists on subjects ranging from economics, Russian literature, and geography to art, history and politics. It is perhaps particularly noteworthy that no other post-war nation qualified for a Penguin review in which to celebrate their ethnography and attempt to re-build post-war European relations.

In this particular issue (no. 4 and the last one in the series, dated January 1948, five months before the Berlin Airlift), the opening editorial commentary offers a concise summary of the near deadlocked state of post-war Anglo-Russian relations. Having painted a picture of British political intransigence towards the Russians, the anonymous editor provides a Penguin appeal for understanding: ‘People are finding it harder than they expected to make head or tail of the Russians, so hard that many have decided it is useless to go on trying. We have to go on trying all the same’ (1948, p. 7). The editor does not apportion blame for the impasse, nor is there an effort to applaud Soviet foreign policy, however the aspiration for future, bilateral harmony is clearly conveyed and Penguin volunteers itself as a vehicle for fostering just such a hope: ‘What we are trying to do is to present Russians in the round – to provide, as it were, the raw material for a practical political understanding at some future date, to remind our readers perpetually that the Russians are people with lives, traditions and outlooks of their own’ (1948, p. 8).

This same aspiration came to be shared by subsequent translators from the first cohort of Penguin’s Russian Classics, Elisaveta Fen and David Magarshack, both of whom had emigrated to the UK from post-revolutionary Russia and expressed their own concerns (independently of each other) that a bad translation could do untold damage to international perceptions of Russia and the Russians.

I will be using the rest of May to investigate more fully Penguin’s relationship with Russia through the medium of translation and ethnographic articles, and in June, I’ll be able to take my unanswered questions to a mini-conference (aka a Penguin huddle, as I like to call it) in Bristol, where Penguin specialists and scholars from all over the country will be sharing their inside knowledge of that ultimate (Emperor) Penguin – the Penguin archive. Watch this space!

Penguin archive, Special Collections, Bristol

Touching Base(es)

So, April’s big event for RusTrans was BASEES! Muireann and I were out in full force, along with about 500 other Slavonic and East European scholars, for the annual BASEES conference (12-14 April) in sunny, spring-like Cambridge. This year saw a break from Fitzwilliam College; the conference took place at Robinson College for the first time. Delegates arrived from universities representing all parts of the UK, from further flung institutions (Russia, US, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Baltics, Serbia, Croatia), and from further still, India, Pakistan and China! Areas of specialism this year covered literatures and cultures (into which category came our own RusTrans interests: Russian literary translation and translators), sociology and geography, history, politics, film/media, languages and linguistics, and economics – in other words, a dazzling pick-and-mix of panels, something for everyone. This was not only an incredible feat of organisation (hearty thanks and post-conference congratulations to Matthias Neumann, Chris Jones and any other organisers) but, for one weekend only, Robinson College was a veritable one-stop-shop for all things Slavic.

Over the course of the conference, there were nine sessions, each one consisting of up to 15-18 panels, plus: three keynote roundtables, the BASEES AGM (see below), the BASEES women’s forum (which saw the launch of Eurasian, East & Central European Studies Women Academic Forum), the Routledge drinks reception, the BASEES conference dinner and passing the baton of BASEES presidency from Judith Pallot (University of Oxford/University of Helsinki) to Matthias Neumann (University of East Anglia), awards for academic achievement (congratulations to Steve Smith for winning the Alexander Nove Prize, Melissa Feinberg for the George Blazyca Prize, Catherine Gibson for the BASEES Postgraduate Prize, and from the BASEES Women’s Forum, Claire Shaw for the Book Prize, Sarah Marks for the Article Prize, and Sasha Rasmussen for the Postgraduate Paper Prize) and even a film screening! All this to a background noise of scholars energetically networking with friends old and new and in an array of languages, buying books and/or negotiating book deals, discussing the finer points of panel presentations, sharing research, making plans for possible research opportunities, and hatching future conferences (incidentally, BASEES will be in Cambridge again next year, but Glasgow in 2021). The all-round sound of information exchange… amazing!

Muireann and I launched into the conference on Friday afternoon chairing our own separate literature panels; an entrée of Demons, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov for Muireann, and for me, a panel on literary and cultural reception in Eastern Europe with Krystyna Wieszczek’s (University of Southampton) opening paper ‘Censorship, Book-Smuggling and Clandestine Prints: George Orwell’s Polish Reception’, followed by Susan Reynolds’s (British Library) paper ‘Three Poets, Two Centuries, One Literature: Vrchlicky and Capek’s Anthologies of Modern French Poetry’. Both papers prompted detailed discussion on archives, translators, translation strategy – a perfect start, therefore, to my conference.

Friday evening saw a packed auditorium for the keynote roundtable (below) on ‘The Criminal Justice System in post-Soviet Russia’ with Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Open Russia), Mark Galeotti (European University Institute), chaired by Judith Pallot and interpreted by Josie von Zitzewitz (University of Cambridge). The hour-long discussion about Russia’s past, present and future – as seen through the eyes and experiences of Khodorkovsky and as researched by Galeotti – attracted a swathe of questions from a fascinated audience, in both Russian and English.

Muireann and I started out on Saturday with another dose of Dostoevsky at the panel entitled ‘Virtual Sequels, Subtexts, and Unreliable Narrators’ convened for the BASEES 19th-Century Study Group. This panel featured: Inna Tigountsova from QMUL presenting ‘Birds in Fedor Dostoevsky’s “Poor Folk” and J.W. von Goethe’s “The Sufferings of Poor Werther”,

Sarah Hudspith (above middle) from University of Leeds with ‘Ippolit’s “Necessary Explanation”: Success or Failure’, Alexander Burry (below) from Ohio State University with ‘”The Stone Guest” as Subtext in “The Brothers Karamazov”’,

and Rolf Hellebust from Dalhousie University speaking on ‘Dostoevsky’s Virtual Sequels’. A series of lively and thought-provoking papers, chaired by Olga Ushakova from Tiumen University and with Muireann as discussant. The panel prompted much discussion and audience engagement.

And then RusTrans had its first, official conference panel ‘Answers in the Archives: Translators and their Microhistories’, made up of Dr Natalia Rulyova’s (University of Birmingham) fascinating paper on Brodsky’s interlinear translators, my paper on the Penguin Russian Classics translators (see below), and Muireann’s paper on Daisy Mackin, the Irish translator of Russian literature for An Gum. Three papers which all drew on original archival research and interviews in order to construct translator microhistories, and which resulted – pleasingly – in much interest and animated discussion from the audience.

And so, we had our fair share of information exchange, hearing and discussing the latest views on Russian literary translation but also introducing the RusTrans project to scholars who have been following our recent RusTrans tweets and social media updates and were keen to know more. Time well spent.

The finale for day two (and the last port of call for me before dashing for the last train home) was another keynote roundtable (below) ‘Witnessing the Collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union’ with former diplomatic correspondent for the BBC Bridget Kendall (University of Cambridge), the historian Timothy Garton Ash (University of Oxford), and civil rights campaigner and politician, Jens Reich. Prompted by chair Matthias Neumann, all three interviewees offered their very personal reminiscences of a key moment in European history, and in their careers, to a packed and evidently appreciative auditorium.

Manuscripts Burn at Pushkin House

American poet and Russian translator Katherine Young and I met for tea in Russell Square on Tuesday afternoon this week. I confessed during our conversation that, for me at least, poetry translation feels like the ultimate art form when it comes to crafting words. The pinnacle of the translation world. To hear Katherine present her poetry translations at Pushkin House later that evening – my thoughts were proved right. This week, Rustrans came to London for Manuscripts Burn, an evening listening to Katherine recite and talk about her translations of politically charged war poetry and literature.

Katherine split the evening in two parts: poetry and prose, with case studies concerning the literary usage of Russian as a source language in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Katherine first provided detailed background information to poets affected by the Russia-Ukraine conflict: Lyudmila Khersonska, Inna Kabysh, Xenia Emelyanova, and Iya Kiva. All the poems feature in the Words for War anthology (see below), edited by a Russian-Ukrainian couple now living in the US, Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, who wanted to document the collective experience of war, especially the impact of war on people away from the field of battle.

9781618116666.jpg

The poems which followed were acts of civic witness and demonstrated a moral clarity which, as Katherine pointed out, touches on politics. Lyudmila Khersonska, writing in Russian, lives in Odessa and has four collections of poetry. Her trademark style is one of beautiful, powerful but often tragic images created through meteorological and botanical references, a poetic-pathetic fallacy of thunder, lightning, snow, hurricane, hail. Nature responding to war with elemental force. When faced with poems rooted in culture- and event-specific references (little green men, Crimea’s annexation), Katherine identified as one of the translator’s key challenges the need to render a poem without voluminous footnotes. So, once again, I feel justified in putting poetry translation high on the wordsmithing pedestal.

Katherine introduced Inna Kabysh’s poetry, describing her style as deeply personal, anguished, movingly religious in its motifs. Her poetry tiptoes round politics and acts as testimony to the sorrow and dismay that many Russians feel about the conflict with Ukraine. Katherine recited from one of Kabysh’s long poems (Sevastopol Stories), painting a stark picture of ravaged Ukraine, one of graves, destroyed orchards, ‘If there’s no God, I’ll tell him – be’.

Xenia Emelyanova grew up in post-USSR. Her poetic discourse is described as ‘highly self-conscious and sceptical’ and she is tipped as one of the next big things in Russian poetry. Just after the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out in 2014, Emelyanova wrote a poem, recited it on camera, and released it on social media, not knowing how it would be received. With lines like ‘It’s time to shake off our impotence, Stop the slaughter, stop the war’, it’s easy to understand the trepidation over what responses her verse might prompt. Katherine consulted fellow poets to debate the moral quandary of whether to translate Emelyanova’s work, the concern being that Emelyanova might be exposed to danger. The consensus among poet-translators, though, was that poets write to have their voices heard, and so Katherine translated it. Poet-translators have since faced further moral dilemmas: whether to ‘like’ activist poetry on Facebook or not, for fear of upsetting personal and professional diplomatic relations (maybe even putting future visas at risk); and whether to accept invitations to judge a poetry prize in occupied Ukraine which, inevitably, would provoke moral and ethical judgments from expectant onlookers. At the same time, Katherine explained that US publishers tend not to know what is going on in places like Ukraine, so translator-activists face home-grown difficulties of their own when trying to get political poetry published in English.

My personal favourite was a poem by Russian-speaking, Jewish poet Iya Kiva, who used to live in Donetsk before the 2014 outbreak of war. Her father was killed while fighting in the conflict and she now lives as a refugee in Kiev. Her poetry mirrors the hand-to-mouth existence she now lives there; words and images pared down to absolute simplicity, the only appropriate way to express herself after all she has experienced. The poem I loved has no title, but starts:

is there hot war in the tap,

is there cold war in the tap,

how is it that there’s absolutely no war

it was promised for after lunch

we saw the announcement with our own eyes

‘war will arrive at fourteen hundred hours’

You can read the rest of Katherine’s translation here: https://www.asymptotejournal.com/poetry/iya-kiva-a-little-further-from-heaven/ and Katherine’s poems – each one greeted with reverence and artistic appreciation – can be found in Words for Warhttps://www.academicstudiespress.com/ukrainianstudies/wordsforwar

Katherine then moved to her second case study, that of the prominent Azeri-born, Russian writing novelist Akram Aylisli (born in 1937), who is now a de facto political prisoner and held effectively under house arrest. Aylisli’s act of civic witness transcends two generations, his own and his mother’s. His mother witnessed part of the Armenian genocide and, as the village storyteller, she voiced an account of the events she had seen (‘They drowned Armenians in their own blood’). Much later, Aylisli wrote an account of Azeri history, spanning his story of socio-political upheaval, ethnic cleansing, and corruption over three novellas under the overarching title Farewell, Aylis. The first novella was published without problem, but the remaining two are more graphic. Originally, Aylisli had no intention of publishing these two stories, but in 2004, a single event changed his mind. At the NATO Partnership for Peace Training Programme in Budapest, an Armenian army officer was hacked to death in his bed by his axe-wielding Azeri counterpart. Aylisli was moved to print his remaining novellas after the Azeri officer was given a hero’s welcome on returning home. Azeri outrage at Aylisli’s novellas manifested in a variety of ways: his books were burned in Baku in 2013 (manuscripts do burn, after all, Bulgakov); Aylisli’s wife and son were fired from their jobs; an empty coffin was paraded outside their house; and a reward was offered for cutting off Aylisli’s ear.

9781618117946.jpg

Aylisli wrote his books in Russian both during and after the Soviet Union. There is no authoritative version of his works in Azeri, but his works have been translated (one of his novellas was shortlisted for the German Booker prize) and are popular in Armenia. Aylisli relies on Russian support for his literary success and his work has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On 30 March 2016 (tomorrow marks the third anniversary), Aylisli was detained at the airport while on his way to a literary festival in Italy; after resisting the authorities with violence, he had his passport confiscated, which means he has not since been able to access the medication he needs. Katherine was made aware of Aylisli by Glas editor Natasha Perova. Perova wrote to her saying, ‘I understand you like to take on lost causes; I have one for you’. At first, Katherine thought that publicity would suffice, but soon realised that Aylisli’s case required more than that. Katherine has become Aylisli’s agent and translator – in itself, an arrangement of competing interests which, Katherine recognises, must be managed ethically – she raises awareness of his situation and, of course, translates his work, of which she is very proud.

Thank you, Katherine, for a most remarkable, thought-provoking evening.

Katherine Young

All the Fun of the Fair!

Yes, last week was the London Book Fair and @Rustransdark, aka @CathyMcAteer1, headed along on Thursday, the last day, to attend panels and meet friends old and new. To get to them, I first had to navigate my way from country to country, weaving my way past plenty of tempting stands – China Universal Press & Publications Co. Ltd, the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Publishers and their accompanying Publishers’ Associations, Turkey’s impressive and alluring Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Italian Trade Agency, the Swedish Literature Exchange, and naturally, the huge stand devoted to Indonesian literature (this year’s market focus, promoted under the superlative strap-line: 17,000 islands of imagination). A good, global effort all round.

ReadRussia stand

Tucked in the far corner, I finally found the Literary Translation Centre, the Institute for Literary Translation (Institut Perevoda), ReadRussia, and a most energetic buzz of networking translators, publishers and literary agents. There was just time for me to enjoy a quick catch up with English PEN award-winning literary translator Anna Gunin, before all eyes and ears (an eager and tightly packed audience) turned to the panel for ‘Women in Literature & Translation: Realities and Stereotypes’. This panel featured other award-winners, the literary translator, Lisa Hayden, Guzel Yakhina, the author of Zuleikha (Lisa’s latest translation), the Petersburg-based literary agent Julia Goumen, Ksenia Papazova Managing Editor from Glagoslav Publications, and panel chair, Daniel Hahn, writer, editor and translator.

Guzel Yakhina, Lisa Hayden, Julia Goumen, Daniel Hahn

The discussion started with Guzel, who introduced her latest novel in the context of the gender debate. Her protagonist Zuleikha goes on a journey of discovery, experiencing slave-like conditions as a young wife, but then metamorphoses into a stronger, more independent woman with every major life-change that comes her way. Her novel is, therefore, a triumph of women’s strength and adaptability. Guzel placed Russia in the vanguard of equal rights (women got the vote as early as 1917 in Russia, compared to as recent as 2015 in Saudi Arabia) and said that, as a female writer in Russia, she had never been discriminated against because of being a woman. Guzel’s view was endorsed by Julia, who added that the key question in Russian literary circles is not who wrote the novel, but whether the novel is a good one. Excellence will be awarded. She illustrated this view with the fact that the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award has historically been judged by a panel of 6 men who have, in the past, championed female talent, awarding the prize to Liudmila Saraskina in 2008, Elena Katishonok in 2011, and Guzel in 2015. This is indeed impressive and yes, suggests a gender-neutral approach to selection, although I find myself wondering at what point a female writer will be allowed to take a place on the actual judging panel?

Lisa Hayden extended the theme of women’s visibility to the translation industry, remarking that, according to the stats, translated literature is predominantly a male domain and, unless women establish themselves in translation, women won’t get translated (see The Guardian, which cites research by the University of Rochester reporting that only 33.8% of translated books were by female authors in 2016, as opposed to 63.8% by men: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/31/lost-to-translation-how-english-readers-miss-out-on-foreign-women-writers). The panel unanimously agreed with Daniel Hahn that translators should be mindful always of what and whom we are translating, and why. The translator is vested with the power to shape literature by decisions such as these. This discussion prompted interesting responses from the audience. One respondent working in publishing asked Julia whether there is a deliberate correlation between books which get selected for publication and the author being beautiful, young, and female in Russia? Having had a discussion up to that point which seemed generally to be breaking the usual gender stereotypes, it was a bit of a bump back down to earth to hear that yes, definitely, young, beautiful female authors look good at book launches and interviews and, consequently, sell books well. That said, as Ksenia Papazova from Glagoslav Publications rightly pointed out, you don’t have to fit these criteria to be a success in Russia: Liudmila Petrushevskaya, Liudmila Ulitskaya, and Elena Chizhova are a powerful triumvirate of stylish 60+s.

Guzel drew attention to the fact that, in Russia, 45% of senior roles are held by women – they came out top of all individual countries in a Forbes 2016 global review of senior women in the workplace. And yet, another comment from the floor highlighted a Russian paradox: namely, that whilst there may be a semblance of gender equality and impressively early suffrage in Russia, society still seems trapped in a traditional patriarchy which has been shored up by stereotypes and does not appear to be changing radically any time soon – old-fashioned chivalry coupled with rigid views of what a woman’s role should be. This, it was remarked, is one of the stark socio-cultural differences which visiting Western females notice when they arrive in everyday Russian society.

But, it seems, we in Western publishing might fall into a similar trap ourselves when it comes to book covers. The books assembled on the panel table betrayed no visual sign of gender (author or translator) except for the Anglophone version of Zuleikha, which is the only one to have a picture of beautiful female eyes looking out, tempting the reader in. It was widely thought that a distinctly “female” cover would serve as a turn-off for male readers – the jury is still out, perhaps this line of enquiry can continue here? – but, the gender anonymity of the Russian texts was generally praised by the audience as a positive move in terms of gender-neutral book promotion. Similarly, recalling the #namethetranslator campaign, it was noted by members of the audience that Lisa Hayden’s name is (most disappointingly) absent from the cover of Zuleikha, only appearing on the cover page of the book. The campaign, therefore, continues!

The panel covered a satisfyingly broad number of topics in just an hour, all of them fascinating, and skilfully steered by Daniel Hahn. There was a palpable sense of audience disappointment when it all had to come to a close. For those wanting to continue some of these themes, many returned later for one last, translation-oriented treat to end not just the day, but the whole Fair, In Conversation: Jeremy Tiang. Jeremy had an even shorter allocation, just 30 mins, but they were his alone (well nearly, discussion being prompted by Chris Gribble, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Writing). The seemingly multi-talented Jeremy, who started out as an actor, then a playwright, then a translator (http://www.jeremytiang.com/) proved himself a most entertaining raconteur too, describing all aspects of the translator’s lot – the highs and the lows, his in particular – with wit and irony. As the London Book Fair’s inaugural translator, Jeremy provided excellent advice, extolling the virtues of being part of a translators’ collective (his is the US-based Cedilla & Co., but there are others, such as the London-based Starling Bureau) in order to combat the loneliness and isolation that comes with a career in translation. Collectives not only foster solidarity, but help translators to group together to achieve maximum visibility. With visibility, comes translator validity, and with that, the hope of professionalization: translators aren’t ‘in it for scraps’, they are claiming validity as artists! The same rallying cry that translators have issued for decades and more, but Jeremy actually made it sound a plausible and attainable goal. A good message to take home at the end of a fabulous Book Fair!