Monthly Archives: June 2020

Bittersweet Advantages: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (VIII)


                       Christine Dunbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chatham Translation Symposium, Cape Cod, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Evgeny Reznichenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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