“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.

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