Author Archives: Muireann Maguire

Chicago, Chicago!

RusTrans goes to ASEEES 2022

10-13 November 2022

Three years and one pandemic since RusTrans last crossed the pond to the US (see our ALTA November 2019 blog post), three of our team – PI Muireann Maguire, PDRA Cathy McAteer and PhD candidate Anna Maslenova – arrived to an unseasonably warm (23 degrees) Chicago for ASEEES 2022.  Muireann arrived hot-on-the-heels from her epic journey across Northern US consulting archives for her research on American publishers of Russian literature; Anna arrived from the British Library where she has been participating in a short-term PhD placement digitising material on indigenous Siberian peoples; and I arrived from my own digitised scans of the Olga Carlisle archives at the Hoover Institution. Having not seen our US friends and colleagues in-person in all this time, our own exuberance added to a general mood of infectious excitement in the spacious lobby of the conference venue, the historic Palmer House Hotel (legendary birthplace of the brownie, setting for scenes in The Fugitive).

Palmer House Hilton peacocks

Working to a theme of precarity, this year’s ASEEES set out to grapple with the macro and micro concerns currently dominating the field of Slavonic and East European Studies, from the obvious consideration of Russia’s war in Ukraine, to the lesser (but still relevant) concerns over job precarity in academia and the need for diversity and decolonisation. The theme could not have been more apt for present times and, not surprisingly, panels and roundtables devoted to Ukraine and Ukrainian Studies were plentiful; in evidence too, were warmly welcomed Ukrainian academics who have taken up scholarships in the US and elsewhere in Europe having been forced to leave Ukraine. In so many respects, this was their conference.

For RusTrans, ASEEES presented an opportunity for the three of us to re-engage with the Translation Studies’ community, with translator-scholars whom we first met at ALTA42, such as Carol Apollonio, Ellen Elias-Bursac, Olga Bukhina, Brian James Baer, and with some of our contributors to the RusTrans edited volume Translating Russian Literature in a Global Context. An impressive range of panels and roundtables attended to themes that are at the heart of RusTrans. The opening afternoon, for example, saw ‘Publishing in Precarious and Extreme Conditions: Stories from the Practitioners’ (with Irina Paperno, Igor Nemirovsky, Irina Prokhorova, Katharina Raabe and Matvei Yankelevich), in which Matvei flagged his concerns that, in the same way that Cold War literature became inextricably linked with the Gulag and has struggled since to shake off this association, Ukrainian literature risks becoming similarly typecast but in a purely war setting.

Friday saw the first of three ‘Precarity of Translation’ panels scheduled during the conference. This panel, the Precarity of Tradition, started with Anna’s paper ‘Vladimir Chertkov vs. the Maudes: Precarious Translators of Tolstoy’s Religious Works in English’, drawing on her thesis research.

Anna Maslenova, RusTrans PhD student

Brian Baer (Kent State University) followed with his analysis of Merezhkovskii’s Voskresshie Bogi in translation, and then University of Eastern Finland’s Hannu Kemppanen presented his insightful (and impressively succinct) assessment of over a century of Soviet/Russian translation practice to present day in his paper ‘Precarity or Stability?: Features of Translation Culture in the Soviet Union and Russia’.

In the panel dedicated to exploring ‘Changing Dynamics of Cultural Politics During the Thaw Period’, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice’s postdoctoral scholar Ilaria Sicari presented her archival research on ‘Books as Ideological Weapons of the Cultural Cold War’. Ilaria drew on archived reports, readers’ letters, statistics and official correspondence to elaborate on the political aims, methods and target reader profiles of the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Book Distribution Programs that were conducted between 1951 and 1991.

Ilaria Sicari

The objective of these programs was to counter Communist propaganda by distributing specially selected works in Soviet/East European countries with softer, more penetrable, border controls (Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, the Baltic States). Ilaria gave a content-rich and engaging analysis of this significant era in modern Europe of translation as soft power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dartmouth College’s Ainsley Morse chaired a roundtable ‘New Scholarship on Contemporary Russian Literature and Culture for Children and Teens’, which brought together in discussion Olga Bukhina (independent scholar and translator), Kelly Herold (Grinnell College), Jenny Kaminer (UC Davis) and Andrea Lanoux (Connecticut College). Their presentations and group discussion tracked developments in the post-Soviet landscape of children’s/YA literature in translation from 1991 (with reference to authors like Mariam Petrosyan, Yulia Yakovleva, Liudmila Petrushevskaya, and Narine Abgaryan whose Maniunia features among our seed-funded RusTrans commissioned translations). They introduced their edited volume Growing Out of Communism (Brill, 2021) and explored the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on authorship and translation publishing, including small but brave anti-war literary gestures.

Friday afternoon brought Muireann’s stellar panel ‘Irreverent Approaches to Russian Literature: Expect the Unexpected’. Muireann’s paper utilised her recent research at William Golding’s Exeter-based archive – which she was inspired to visit having read Golding’s Leo Tolstoy essay in the prose anthology The Hot Gates. She drew meticulous (and eye-opening) comparisons between the eponymous lives and deaths in Golding’s novel Pincher Martin and Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych.

RusTrans PI Muireann Maguire

Muireann’s paper joined other wittily irreverent presentations by Bryn Mawr’s José Vergara (paper: ‘Dostoevsky: Pop Star’, accompanied by YouTube clips for Scott Helman’s song ‘Dostoevsky’ and David Robert Mitchell’s film ‘It Follows’), Uni of Missouri’s Tim Langen (‘Steampunk Tolstoy or Android Karenina’), Uni of Indiana’s Jacob Emery presenting a Nabokovian paper ‘Prankster Ghost vs Teenage Ghost Tricker’, with chair Thomas Seifrid (USC Dornsife) and equally droll discussanting by Eric Naiman (Berkeley)

Jose Vergara

 

 

 

 

Saturday morning dawned with ‘Literary Afterlives’, a panel chaired by Ilya Vinitsky with Uni of Indiana’s Lizi Geballe animatedly presenting  on Tolstoy’s Gospel Translators, Rutger’s Chloe Kitzinger drawing compelling complit parallels between Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent and Zora Neale Huston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the inimitable Eric Naiman once again treating the audience to a Russian reimagining of Knausgaard’s ‘bathroom scene’. Amherst discussant Dale E. Peterson tied all the loose ends with aplomb and oversaw much audience engagement.

Lizi Geballe

Saturday rounded off with our long-awaited Literary Diversity and Translation roundtable featuring from RusTrans Cathy and Anna (who organised our submission to ASEEES – thank you, Anna!), our chair Natasha Rulyova and her PhD student Mukile Kasongo (both from University of Birmingham), and Brian Baer (a busy and active ASEEES participant!). Presentations began with Brian’s definition and exploration of what we mean by literary diversity and how it can manifest itself in the 21st century *if* publishers are willing. Mukile made a case for hybrid translation as a means of retaining an essential flavour of ethnicity at a text-based level. Anna coordinated her PhD research on the much maligned turn-of-the-century US translator of Chekhov and Korolenko, Marian Fell, with photos Anna has digitised as part of her British Library PhD placement on indigenous Siberian tribes. Cathy presented her latest archival research on women diversifying and decolonising literary translation during the mid- to late-twentieth century up to the present day (Olga Carlisle and Mirra Ginsburg through to Marian Schwartz, Katherine E. Young, Carol Apollonio and Lisa Hayden).

Brian Baer and Cathy McAteer

Natasha concluded with an overview of her AHRC grant application to fund literary translation into English of Russia’s ethnic authors in a bid to diversify and decolonise the Russian literary canon abroad while giving voice to new writers from remotest Russia. If successful, this grant will involve in varying capacities Brian, Cathy, and several independent publishers.

O’Hare airport – thank you, Chicago!

Chicago, ASEEES, we had a ball – see you in Philadelphia in 2023 (fingers crossed!)

Viktor Pelevin’s iPHUCK 10 – New Blog Post from Isaac Sligh

Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik (left), are currently co-translating Viktor Pelevin‘s mystery novel iPhuck10 (2017) with support from a RusTrans bursary. Below, Isaac discusses the challenges and excitement of translating the ‘man of mystery’ of Russian letters. You can read an extract from their translation here.

As an outsider with a vested interest in Russian culture, I first became intrigued by the writer Victor Pelevin as a cultural figure—a strange emanation of the social milieu of Russia in the 1990s. This was a time of bandit capitalism, gangsters, fast cars, loose morals, violence, hedonism. Young people voraciously digested the influx of Western pop culture and products and their secondhand replications at the hands of savvy Russian producers and businessmen. An American visiting Russia in the 1990s would, I think, have encountered a kind of hall of mirrors full of strange refractions and scrambled transmissions of familiar culture back home. As Pelevin summed it up perfectly in the opening line of his novel Generation P (1999), ‘Once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun, and chose Pepsi.’

In many ways, Pelevin typifies that age. He is his own kind of literary gangster; he gleefully and shamelessly appropriates from any aspect of culture, high or low, Western or Eastern, on which he can get his hands, and, just like a savvy art dealer in his novel iPhuck 10 (2017), polishes it up and sells it to the highest bidder. He is particularly interesting for the Western—perhaps we should clarify ‘Anglophone’—reader, who will enter that very same hall of mirrors in one of Pelevin’s works. You never know what might jump out at you. I have said before that Pelevin is a heavily allusory writer: he wants to surprise, confuse, and entertain by means of inferences to an impressively wide array of cultural reference points. This is not to imply that Pelevin is a kind of collage-artist with his prose, or that he is impulsive to the point of disarray. He is a great storyteller, comfortable in both satiric and sincere modes, and as a craftsman his fascination with allusion extends into calculated experiments with form as well as content.

My wife and translation partner Viktoria comes to this project from a different perspective. She knows Pelevin not only as a writer but as a figure who has been embedded in the cultural consciousness of Russians for the better part of three decades. I often sketch Pelevin as a writer and cult figure in rough terms to Americans as a kind of Thomas Pynchon, but with the popular cachet of a Banksy, whose fame he incidentally parodies in iPhuck 10. For the last thirty years, people have struggled to piece together the facts of Pelevin’s life or even whether he exists at all. Google him thoroughly and one will only find a handful of photos, mostly from the 1990s; a single VHS-ripped video tucked away in an archive at the University of Iowa; a print interview here or there. People report sightings: he’s dead, he’s living in Thailand, he’s wandering the streets of Moscow, he’s meditating in a monastery in Tibet. He has lived his life like one of his characters: one can only catch a fleeting glimpse of him just as he disappears around a corner.

Suffice it to say that this all makes for a fascinating figure to take on for a translation project. We are very lucky therefore that the task of translating such a bestselling author has fallen to us. Among his bestsellers, the novel Generation P is reported to have sold 3.5 million copies, and it inspired Viktor Ginzburg’s major motion picture adaptation in 2011. Pelevin’s sales figures make a strong commercial argument to any potential publisher. Over many years, his work has found a home at leading independent presses and at the major publishing houses in America and the U.K., but his last few works have languished untranslated. We feel that publishers will see in Pelevin a great opportunity for bringing a successful Russian author back to the Anglophone readership.

We are now hoping to achieve this aim by bringing one of the funniest and most incisive of his recent novels, iPhuck 10, to this audience. In my last RusTrans blogpost, ‘Translating the Uncanny Valley’, I wrote that the book’s subject is “the strange, murky nexus we face in modern times between artificial intelligence, corporate greed, algorithms, virtual reality, and our own private and public lives”—hence that crass but clever pun in the title. Readers will find particularly arresting—quite literally—the novel’s hero and narrator, a Machiavellian, suave, and witty A.I. algorithm named Porfiry Petrovich: a dandy, novelist, and gumshoe police detective who exists only in the binary ether, a ‘spirit’, as he calls himself.

iPhuck 10 is part hard-boiled, Hammettesque detective thriller; part Orwellian dystopia; and part straight-up satire of the vagaries and pretensions of the contemporary art world and market. As we have said before, we believe that it is one of the major Russian novels of the 2010s awaiting translation. To potential publishers, please feel free to reach out; to readers and fans of Pelevin, please reach out as well with questions or comments. We look forward to bringing this remarkable book to you soon.

For inquiries about availability and rights, please email us here and we will gladly put you in contact with the relevant parties.

Read an extract from Isaac and Viktoria’s translation here.

Sana Valiulina’s I’m not Afraid of Bluebeard – New Guest Post from Polly Gannon

Polly Gannon (left), the acclaimed translator of Andrei Bitov and Liudmila Ulitskaia among other major names in Russian literary fiction, is currently translating Estonian-born, Dutch-based novelist Sana Valiulina‘s mystery novel Ne Boius’ Sinei Borody (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard, 2017) with support from a RusTrans bursary. Here she talks about finding eerie and ‘echoey’ links between Valiulina’s novel and current real-life developments in Russian politics. You can read an extract from Polly’s translation here.

Translators Also Cry: Reflections on Translating Contemporary Russophone Fiction

by Polly Gannon

A caveat before I begin . . . this is my first-ever blog post, and I have two fears. One is that I will be tongue-tied and not be able to begin at all; and, two, that I won’t be able to stop, once I start talking about this subject. (The second is more likely!)

I will begin (well, here we go, that wasn’t so hard) by saying that I haven’t finished translating the entire novel, which is long: 602 pages. Other projects intervened, and temporarily took priority; but now I’m back on track. I have now completed well more than half the novel, and things are rolling right along. One reason things are gaining momentum is that several people in the publishing world have expressed an interest in seeing it, and I want to be able to show as much as possible, as soon as possible. Another reason—and this is somewhat discomfiting to talk about in a number of ways—is that on the ground, “the situation is fluid.” Some of the fictional events in the book are being overtaken, mirrored, embodied (many ways to describe this) by real-life events in Russia. This seems to be the proverbial case of “life imitating art.” The book is, thus, timely, in a way that it didn’t set out to be.

The narrative can be viewed as sort of foreshortened “historical novel,” which tries to account for, to illuminate, a period in the recent Soviet/post-Soviet past, from the Brezhnev era up to (nearly) the present. The novel, which is divided into four parts, ends with an allegorical tale that recounts and reimagines the circumstances surrounding the death of Sergei Magnitsky (called “the Accountant” in the novel) in police custody. It’s probably not necessary to point out the echoes of these events with events in the more recent past—most obviously, the fate of the “Berlin Patient,” as the authorities insist on calling Alexei Navalny (with, so far, a different outcome and one that still leaves room for hope). Equally discomfiting are recent reports of widespread systematic torture (with graphic evidence, in the form of many hours of video footage) in police stations and prisons across Russia. Strangely (or perhaps not), I was translating the fictional scenes of these “methods, ”disturbingly graphic, as practiced on the Accountant, just when the current reports were coming to light. Discomfiting, indeed . . . To describe this experience in terms that fellow translators might be more inclined to understand than others, I really felt that I was translating a prophecy that was being played out during the very act of translating. Things got very “echoey” . . . !

Sudden change of subject (that’s okay in a blog post, right?): One of the reasons I was initially drawn to this novel was because it opens with the musings of a child, a young girl. The narrative is “voiced” by this character, who grows older, year by year, during the course of the first part of the novel. Translating the idiom of a young girl growing into adolescence, whose perceptions develop and change along with her linguistic “abilities,” was a challenging task— and it involved a constant reaching back into memory, checking the original Russian against how I remembered having spoken myself at those ages. (It was also poignant and sad, in a way that translating is not, usually, in my experience.) (Though I have discovered, over the years I’ve been doing this, that “translators also cry”!)

The character of the young girl migrates through all four parts of the novel—changing, playing various roles, and growing into adulthood—though she can only be said to be a true
“protagonist” in the first part. And although, thereafter, she doesn’t play a defining role in the narrative action, I find that her voice and perceptions do, indeed, feature prominently in urging possible readings of the novel. The voice of this young girl is a registering, even a witnessing, presence, with the moral tenor or burden that the term “witness” implies. It is still a departure, it seems to me, for a “history” of this nature to begin, and unfold, through the lens of a character who is a girl-child. She is the one whose perspective sets the larger scene, and points the way forward in the narrative; so a lot depends on capturing a voice that “rings true”—still innocent, though not immature; precocious, though not wise beyond her years.

I could certainly elaborate on other pitfalls I was aware of trying to avoid . . . but perhaps this is enough for a first blog post…!

Read a taster of I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard here.

Bristol Translates! with Lucy Webster

Lucy Webster, who is currently translating Andrei Astvatsaturov’s People in Nude part-funded by a RusTrans bursary, earlier this month attended the Bristol Translates! translation summer school at the University of Bristol (July 5th-8th, 2021). Here she tells us all about her experience and why she’d go back next year…

This year the 2021 Bristol Translates Summer School—a three-day course of language-specific literary translation workshops followed by one day of panel discussions and presentations—was held online at the beginning of July. The Russian workshops were led by some of the biggest stars in the Russian translation world—Anna Gunin, Oliver Ready and Robert Chandler, and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to learn from them.

From a technical perspective, the organisers did a fantastic job dealing with any issues people had. I didn’t experience problems personally, but I do think some attendees were left cursing Microsoft Teams. Of course, as with any virtual alternative, the real downside to this format was not being able to sit together in our groups and go grab coffee or dinner at the end of the day, which would have given us some extra time to get to know each other without having to continue staring at our screens. However, the Teams format did mean that there were attendees from across the globe; some like me, who perhaps wouldn’t have been able to afford or physically reach the in-person event, were enabled to join in the fun.

During the workshops we were presented with texts the tutors were either currently working on or had worked on in the past. We discussed the texts first as a whole class before splitting up into smaller working groups to produce our own versions. After spending the last year working at home alone and living mostly inside my own head, the co-translation exercises were wonderfully refreshing. The texts were by no means straightforward, and all had their peculiarities. We had some brilliant conversations regarding the most appropriate ways to express Russian euphemisms; how best to render ‘несообщительный’ (unsociable); and we explored challenges like translating a passage in which one character taught another the alphabet through alliteration. How to translate words beginning with, for example, the Russian letter (Б) when their English translations absolutely do not start with the equivalent English letter (B)? We would then read our draft translations back to the group. At first, this was a daunting prospect, but it soon emerged as a really worthwhile exercise in self-confidence.

Robert Chandler

One of the main things all three tutors impressed upon us was the importance of hearing both your translation and the original text read aloud by someone other than yourself and, ideally, someone who has absolutely no connection to the text. We were lucky enough to have two native Russian speakers in our group, and Anna Gunin’s husband also read out one of the original extracts. Their readings really helped us to get a feel for the rhythm and voice of the originals. Similarly, and although this may seem like an obvious point it’s worth emphasizing; consulting native speakers of the source language, who are also translators or writers themselves, can have an enormously beneficial impact on your work. As someone whose network of such contacts is currently rather small, getting to hear how the Russian-speaking members of our group sometimes understood a word differently really drove home the fact that this is what I’m missing. Additionally, after our session with Robert Chandler, my notebook was filled with reminders such as, ‘ATTEND TO ASPECT!’, ‘BE ADVENTUROUS WITH VERBS!’, and ‘DON’T TAKE ANGLICISMS FOR GRANTED!’, each of which had been accompanied by an eye-opening anecdote about Robert’s own past translation mishaps.

I’m currently working on pitching a sample from Andrei Astvatsaturov’s first novel People in Nude as part of the RusTrans  ‘Publish: Studying Translation Dynamically’ study and so was also on the lookout for any pointers I could apply to this project. This mostly came from Ros Schwartz’s ‘Pitching to Publishers’ presentation, in which she gave some detailed and very sensible advice. For example:

  • sending a hard copy of your pitching pack to publishers is much better than sending an email
  • you should aim to send out pitches on a rolling programme of 4-5 letters every 2-3 weeks.

Ros also emphasised that you should include a resume outlining why you are the right translator for the job rather than just a CV containing your work history. I will absolutely be remembering this when I  send out another batch of pitches at the end of August.

Overall, the Bristol Translates Summer School was an intense but invaluable experience that has helped me to unwire (another word much-used at Bristol Translates, meaning to disconnect and relax) and refocus my approach to literary translation, while motivating myself to move forward with some of my other, currently dormant projects. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to both industry newcomers (like me) and experienced translators alike.

Read an extract from Lucy’s translation of People in Nude here!

Narine Abgaryan’s Manunia (And Me) – Guest Post from Sîan Valvis

Narine Abgaryan

Translator Sîan Valvis is producing the first English-language version of Russian-Armenian author Narine Abgaryan’s 2010 novel Manunia with support from a RusTrans bursary. Here she talks about the charms of translating fiction with simultaneous appeal for all ages, and Abgaryan’s talent for capturing both the grittiest aspects of her characters’ lives and their most idyllic moments. You can read part of Manunia and Me in Sîan’s translation here.

“It’s a children’s book for adults,” said my Russian friend, enthusiastically recommending Manunia and Me (my working title for Manunia). Narine Abgaryan’s autobiographical novel is the first volume in a bestselling trilogy (2010-12), detailing her wonderfully peculiar childhood in a remote town in Soviet Armenia in the 1980s. She and her best friend Manunia find themselves caught up in mishap after mishap in this upper middle-grade book about friendship.  Manunia’s feisty and formidable grandmother, Ba—short for babushka —keeps an eye on both girls.

Manunia and Me is suitable for all ages, perhaps particularly YA readers. Indeed, Abgaryan’s trilogy has had tremendous success in Russian-speaking countries, largely down to the fact that parents enjoy the narrative as much as its younger readers do. Beautifully written and brilliantly funny, the trilogy has been adapted by Armenian director Arman Marutyan for a TV series currently in pre-production.

Born in 1971, Narine (pronounced Nar-ee-nay) Abgaryan is an award-winning writer, named in 2020 as ‘one of Europe’s most exciting authors’ by the Guardian newspaper. In 2016, she won the Yasnaya Polyana prize, Russia’s most prestigious literary award, for Three Apples Fell from the Sky, which was published in English by Oneworld (2020) in Lisa Hayden’s translation. (For Lisa’s own blog post in this RusTrans bursary series, see here).  The Guardian called Three Apples ‘[a] magical realist story of friendship and feuds […] set in the remote Armenian mountain village of Maran, where […] an ancient telegraph wire and a perilous mountain path that even goats struggle to follow is their only connection to the outside world’. Another YA story-cycle by Abgaryan, Semyon Andreevich (2012) was named “the best children’s book of the last decade in Russia” in a report by an Armenian radio station. Her latest novel for adults, 2020’s Simon, is already being optioned for translation into English. I  believe Manunia and Me could be at least equally commercially successful as Three Apples on the Anglophone market. To quote Abgaryan herself as cited in the same Guardian article: “Humanity is in dire need of hope, of kind stories.”

Each chapter sees the girls haplessly bumbling their way through life: whether it’s setting Ba’s bloomers on fire, or playing with the rag-and-bone man’s kids, who are strictly out of bounds. A bout of head-lice means the girls have their heads shaved by Ba, who accidentally dyes their scalps blue with her homemade hair-mask—though she’d have you believe it was entirely part of the plan. The girls learn a valuable lesson about life and death when they find a baby bird, fallen from its nest. And again, when they play at being snipers—complete with a real shotgun. Even when touching on controversial                                                                                              themes, like death and religion, Abgaryan’s writing remains light and uplifting. With its array of oddball characters and swathes of lyrical passages, her storytelling puts me in mind of Gerald Durrell’s outrageously funny childhood memoirs, the Norwegian author Maria Parr’s children’s fiction, and the Hans Christian Andersen-award-winning Japanese writer Eiko Kadono.

Over the course of the narrative, you might get the impression that Ba was a bit of a tyrant. This is absolutely not true. Or rather, not absolutely true. […] I came face to face with this force of nature and lived to tell the tale. Kids can survive just about anything—a bit like cockroaches.

(from Manunia, Chapter One)

The narrative unfolds over the course of one long, sumptuous summer, as the girls are on the cusp of adolescence, mirroring a moment in time, just before the end of the Soviet Union. While the focus is on the girls’ antics, Abgaryan hints at the adult world just on the fringe of the girls’ awareness. The plot is set against a backdrop of characters from various cultures: Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Georgians, Romani travellers, Jews and Christians—all thrown together by circumstance, rubbing along with surprising harmony.

Translating a text with such a melting-pot of influences is not without its challenges, from sensuous descriptions of Armenian food—gata, matnakash and matsoon—to accented dialogue and specific cultural references. Capturing the girls’ speech was also tricky—Abgaryan switches seamlessly between her adult voice as she looks back in retrospect, and her child-self, blithely babbling away to her best friend. Finding the right voice for Ba was trickier still. Cantankerous at the best of times, she always seems to ‘boom’, ‘snap’ and ‘bellow’ at the girls. I found myself channelling matronly characters from old British sitcoms, hopefully imbuing Ba with the same warmth, humour and humanity as in the original.

By the end of the book, you realise that Manunia and Me is a paean for a world where, in spite of its shortcomings, children enjoy a happy, carefree life in a diverse and multicultural society. Come for the humour, stay for the touching depiction of life in the final decade of the Soviet era.

Read an extract from Sîan’s translation of Manunia here.

 

Nadezhda Chernova’s Aslan’s Bride – Guest Post from Shelley Fairweather-Vega

Translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega is preparing an anthology of new women’s writing from Kazakhstan with support from a RusTrans bursary. Here she talks about the translation issues involved in making a largely unknown ‘small’ literature appeal to Anglophone readers and publishers, and how she dealt with them in her version of ‘Aslan’s Bride’, a short story by Kazakhstani author Nadezhda Chernova. You can read part of ‘Aslan’s Bride’  here.

Translating foreignness and folksiness in Aslan’s Bride

We translators are supposed to make the foreign more familiar. This is true whether we prefer to domesticate or foreignize when translating, whether we explain all aspects of the text to its new readers or leave multiple semantic and stylistic mysteries for them to consider. Even the most literal translation cannot help but make the original text more intelligible, however slightly, to readers in the new language – the mere act of using familiar words, a familiar alphabet, makes the foreign text that much more understandable, moving it from the realm of the completely incomprehensible to the realm of what could possibly be comprehended.

Yet occasionally we come across a story that purposefully resists our attempts to drag it into familiarity. Some writing is intentionally surreal or nonsensical, of course. But some, like Nadezhda Chernova’s “Aslan’s Bride,” uses the most commonplace, colloquial language possible, and nevertheless places foreignness center stage, forcing characters and narrators to grapple with the unknown. Translating this story, then, presented me with an unusual task: preserve the aura of both folksiness and foreignness, and make sure the characters’ own sense of estrangement reaches target-language audiences intact.

Nadezhda Chernova

Ossetian woman

Chernova is a Russian writer who has had a long and successful career in Kazakhstan, and is well-placed to tell stories that span the multi-ethnic space and painful history of that country. I was introduced to her work by Zaure Batayeva, a Kazakh writer and translator, who is collaborating with me on Amanat, our anthology of recent Kazakh women’s writing that is just about completeAmanat is a Kazakh word meaning ‘sacred trust’, and “Aslan’s Bride” is one of the highlights of this collection. In the story, a hapless young woman with the Russian nickname “Milochka” – “Sweetie,” maybe, though I decided not to translate it into English – leaves her loveless world behind and sets out to points unknown. What she finds is a strange village by a beautiful sea, where the women all wear black and speak a different language (in other words, they’re as incomprehensible to Milochka as an untranslated text!), and where, thirty years after the end of World War II, one woman, Tomiko, is still expecting her son Aslan to return from the front lines.

Presented here is the first part of the long short story, accounting for about 30% of the full text. The foreignness in the storytelling is not immediately apparent. On the contrary, our introduction to Milochka is unremarkable almost to the point of dullness; she is “not a pretty girl” in an unnamed, uninspiring city, working in a library and clinging desperately to a terrible love affair. The narrator, channeling Milochka’s own thoughts, speaks in naïve (but rather sweet) clichés. In translating this portrayal of Milochka’s drab life, it was important to retain all the naivete of Milochka’s thinking, all her quiet desperation. And so I replicate Chernova’s use of clichés (“her heart would burst from her chest in happiness”), occasionally altered slightly (“She bided her time, but her time just wouldn’t come”). And I tried to keep the English as casual and innocent as possible, too, down to the matter-of-factness in the way Styopa’s death is announced, and the simple way in which Milochka cries at his grave (“for a  while”).

Readers’ first clue that there is more to the world is Milochka’s discussion with her cynical neighbor, Antonina, about geography. Milochka wonders if she should go north to find a husband. Antonina dismisses the idea: “Nonsense! Anyone who can’t get married here won’t have any luck up there. Maybe someone would amuse himself with you a while, dabble a bit, a month maybe, and then—whoosh! They’ve all got lawfully wedded wives sitting down south, waiting for their men to come back rich.” Now we know Milochka is living her life in an in-between place, neither north nor south, across which people travel to make their fortunes. And yet, given that the Milochka we meet in the first couple pages is not one to take charge of her own fate, we are still surprised when we learn of her sudden departure into the unknown.

Where does she end up? This is somewhat of a mystery, both in the original and – intentionally – in translation. There are clues, such as the discussion of north and south already mentioned, and Milochka’s thoughts about explorers who cross “the Gobi Desert and the Asiatic steppe and the winter forests of Old Rus’,” and if we know that Chernova is a Kazakhstani writer, we can assume the warm sea Milochka reaches is the Caspian Sea. But who are the somber people she meets there? Again, there are clues, which may or may not be intelligible to the story’s original readers, and certainly less so to us reading in English. The people speak a different language and have strange (non-Russian and non-Kazakh) names: Costa, Tomiko, Aslan. In a poster, Stalin’s mother looks like one of the local women, who dress in all black. I puzzled over those clues while translating, but did not have a good answer until I consulted with Zaure. Her theory is that Milochka stumbled upon a community of Ossetians living on the Caspian Sea, a generation after being deported there by the autocrat in Costa’s poster. To the Soviets, and indeed to the czars before them, remote and underpopulated Kazakhstan seemed the perfect place to send undesirable individuals and groups. A long list of ethnic communities, including many from the Caucasus, were deported there during and after the Second World War. Kazakhstan reported a population of about 4,000 Ossetians as late as a 1989 census. So this theory is a good one.

To Milochka, however, the name of the place she has moved to, and the origins of the people there, are of no real interest. The only thought she articulates to herself on meeting Costa is “What a sloppy old slob!” as she giggles at his clothing and the size of his nose. The original and the translation both persist with Milochka’s idiomatic framing of everything around her, including the descriptions of what otherwise might have been portrayed as exotic foreign characters. For instance, later in the story, we’re told in quite familiar terms that “Tomiko was all business” and “Costa went around sighing over Tomiko,” and they eat berries from a bush or tree whose Russian name, кизил, covers a genus of over 80 diverse species on three continents. My search for an appropriately vague and folksy name for that berry landed on “houndberries.” Does it matter, either to Milochka or to us readers, what exact type they are?

The approach I embraced as I completed this translation is to simply preserve these mysteries, letting English-language readers wonder about everything from the houndberries to Tomiko’s language. In this modern-day Kazakhstani fairy tale, we don’t need to know the name of the city or the sea, or why people have the names that they have, any more than we need that information in a tale from the Brothers Grimm. I admit this approach has backfired – one literary journal rejected “Aslan’s Bride,” citing its length but also the editorial board’s difficulty placing the story in time. The year, however, is the one detail that is specified with certainty in the text. This leaves me to wonder if the editors’ real disorientation was in space, not time. That is an understandable response. It’s also exactly the response I want this translation to provoke, and celebrate.

“Aslan’s Bride” is part of a planned anthology of contemporary women’s writing from Kazakhstan, collected and translated by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega and financially supported in part by RusTrans. Final arrangements with a publisher are pending, but you can learn more about the anthology and individual stories by contacting Shelley at translation@fairvega.com. Read an extract here.

Andrei Astvatsaturov’s People In Nude – New Guest Post From Lucy Webster

Andrei Astvatsaturov

Translator Lucy Webster is working on contemporary Russian novelist Andrei Astvatsaturov‘s autobiographical novel People In Nude [Liudi v golom, 2009] with support from a RusTrans bursary. Here she talks about the inspiration behind Astvatsaturov’s novel and why she’s passionate about pitching this novel to English-language publishers (translations into Italian and French as well as other major European languages have already appeared). You can read an extract from Lucy’s translation here.

From Peter to the Pit – The Appeal of Translating Andrei Astvatsaturov

What do my dad, a retired joiner who grew up in a British mining town in a terraced house and shared a bed with his granddad and brother, and Andrei Astvatsaturov, an associate professor at St Petersburg State University who spent his youth hanging out in shabby Leningrad loft apartments discussing philosophy, have in common? At some point during each of their lives they could be found sitting at their kitchen tables playing with figurines of sailors and Native Americans, using any old rubbish they could find to stage a battle scene.

In his first novel People in Nude Andrei Astvatsaturov draws an ironic self-portrait by recounting stories from his childhood, university years and early adult life, focusing on episodes that show how the circus of people he has encountered over the years have influenced his character. Despite the fact that, stylistically, Astvatsaturov claims to write in the American rather than the Russian tradition, seeing himself as following in the footsteps of Anderson, Hemingway, Salinger and Vonnegut rather than Dostoevsky, it cannot be denied that People in Nude is a very Russian text. His anecdotes are littered with references to classic Russian literature and Soviet realia such as poems about Lenin, the Pioneers and Little Octobrist youth organisations, and Leonid Gaidai’s classic comedies. Leningrad/St. Petersburg almost becomes a character in itself, particularly in the second part of the book, shaping the way the protagonist’s parents raised him in contrast to his fellow Jewish comrades down in Odessa and providing him with the environment required to become a member of the academic bourgeoisie so typical of the city. I’ll admit that after reading this, you might be thinking that an English-language reader could find this to be quite an alienating and unrelatable read. And yet…

What I find most appealing about Astvatsaturov’s writing, aside from his dry, deadpan sense of humour, is his uncanny ability to encourage the reader to conjure up images from their own memories, as well as envisaging Astvatsaturov’s own. Many of the earlier chapters describe interactions between Andrei and his father and feature a few memorable conversations. When translating these pieces of dialogue, I found myself thinking about how my own parents used to respond to things I said when I was younger—their quirks and set phrases—and I subsequently drew upon this to help me figure out the tone and rhythm of the characters’ reactions. Moreover, Astvatsaturov’s talent for vividly describing characters and scene setting makes it easy for any reader to relate to his experiences, regardless of whether they grew up in a different time or place to the protagonist. You don’t have to have walked around the reading rooms of the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg to be able to imagine the strange folk that often frequent a public library (trust me, I used to work in one). Everyone has encountered a surly teacher who makes you think they exist solely to antagonise you. And I’m sure there are many readers who, like my dad, spent their afternoons playing with toy soldiers and other figurines they had been bought from the local newsagents.

Of course, I’m a staunch advocate for promoting translated literature as a means of broadening our worldviews and gaining an understanding of how the world outside our Anglophone bubble works. However, I think the potential of People in Nude to highlight, broadly speaking, how surprisingly similar our experiences of certain parts of life turn out to be is just as significant as its potential to introduce readers to, say, the songs of Soviet singer and actress Taisia Kalinchenko or the writings of  writer-philosopher Vasilii Rozanov. Especially at a time when the political relationship between Russian and the West is strained to say the least.

Russian cover for People In Nude

A lot of my pitch to publishers revolves around the book’s relatability and Astvatsaturov’s deceptively light and easy-going narrative voice. This makes his work a pleasure to read, particularly for those who are not necessarily in the mood to confront the classics. The most challenging part of trying to get this translation published is the fact that this is my first proper foray into literary translation, and as is the case for all emerging translators, the key is to get both Astvatsaturov’s and my name out there. This is why I decided to attend the first virtual ALTA conference last autumn and use my three pitching sessions as a first experiment in trying to get publishers interested in this text. All three seemed intrigued and wanted to know more, but only time will tell as to whether anything will come of it. I also intend to continue cold pitching to a few other UK publishers in the coming months. In the meantime, I’ve already submitted a reading of the titular chapter to the fantastic Translator’s Aloud YouTube channel as a way of promoting the sample and myself as a translator (you can watch my reading here). I’ve also been lucky enough to have been accepted onto the Bristol Translates Summer School, so hopefully this will be a great networking opportunity. It goes without saying, I am very much looking forward to learning from some of the most respected translators of Russian literature working today.

Lucy Webster

Read an extract from Lucy’s translation of People In Nude here.

Dmitry Bykov’s June – New Guest Post From Huw Davies

Translator Huw Davies is translating Dmitrii Bykov’s historical novel June (Июнь, 2017) and pitching it to publishers with the aid of a RusTrans bursary. Here he talks about how the novel spotlights a special Soviet preview of what we now call ‘cancel culture’. You can read the passage he discusses here.

Picture this scene from a novel: the student body at a university has been convened so that an allegation of harassment, made against one of the male students by a female student, can be discussed and a decision reached on how to punish him. We, as readers, already know that the allegation is false and that the girl who made it, Valya, was coerced into doing so by someone who had misunderstood the situation. Fairly quickly, the focus of the debate shifts away from the ‘he said, she said’ of the alleged incident, and the discussion becomes an assassination of the accused’s character, with a series of his peers standing up to cast aspersions on him and only one speaking out in his defence. Now transpose the image in your mind to the Soviet Union in 1940, and you will have something resembling the nightmarish scenario which confronts Misha Gvirtsman, one of the protagonists of June, at an early stage of this novel in three parts by Dmitry Bykov.

It is a memorable set-piece that poses challenges to the translator. There is a diverse range of characters whose voices need to sound convincing – from Misha’s sole defender, who has an Engels quote (real or made up) for all occasions, to the two main accusers, the “twitchy” Nikitin who needs, “at any cost”, to make someone else “the odd one out”, and the forthright Goltsov, who seems to take an inordinate amount of pleasure in not being “overly sophisticated”. Goltsov even appears to have rehearsed his speech in advance, and he calls for the student body to “purge the ranks” of people like Misha, with their “lordly attitude” and “high-brow sparkle”. The grandstanding of these self-appointed prosecutors calls to mind the show-trials of the 1920s and ’30s, and the talk of “purges” reminds us of those who were exiled or summarily executed during the Great Terror. Misha senses his accusers have calculated that “the less there was of him [Misha] at the university, the more there would be of them” – but he also suspects there is a more sinister reason for the hostility towards him, one that goes beyond mere jealousy of his skill as a poet.

Misha’s public humiliation can be seen as an instance of ‘cancel culture’ avant la lettre. He is suspended from the university for a year. Will he continue to be drawn, against his better judgement, to Valya? The love-hate relationship between them is of the kind one might find in a novel set in the present day, but it is taking place at a particular moment in history when there is a global catastrophe around the corner. The death of Valya’s ex-boyfriend – killed in action after volunteering to fight during the Soviet-Finnish ‘winter’ war – serves as a reminder of the fate that may await Misha. The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, about which these characters are blissfully unaware (during a parlour game at a party, they take turns putting on a blindfold, symbolizing this ignorance of what the future holds) will ultimately upend all of their lives and cast everything into uncertainty.

Read the extract here

 

Figgle-Miggle’s You Love These Films So Much – New Guest Post from Sarah Vitali

Sarah Vitali is an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Her translations from Russian include Vladislav Khodasevich’s memoir Necropolis (Columbia University Press, 2019), Linor Goralik’s short story “Agata Comes Home” (included in Found Life, Columbia University Press, 2018), and poems by contemporary Russian poets Aleksey Porvin and Maria Malinovskaya. She is translation editor of the literary magazine American Chordata.

Read her laugh-out-loud extract from You Love These Films So Much here

A Film by Any Other Name

Figgle-Miggle’s Ty tak lyubish’ eti fil’my (literally, You Love These Films So Much) is an unconventional crime novel loosely structured around a series of murders that take place among the Saint Petersburg intelligentsia. It is comprised of short sections told from the viewpoints of five different characters: a dachshund, a drug addict, a double agent, a film critic, and a schizophrenic.

In our first conversation, the author gave me two instructions for translating her work. First, “Don’t dumb down the dog too much. Let him use a big word every once in a while.” The second was that I find a place to include the word “prudish,” an English adjective she is particularly fond of.

These instructions are telling. The first speaks to the importance of voice in Figgle-Miggle’s work, the irreducibility of the characters she creates. The dog in question is Korney, a comically macho, self-important dachshund and the constant companion to Princess, a glamorous and acid-tongued academic. But just because he provides the novel with much of its comic relief doesn’t mean that his voice shouldn’t be complex. His vocabulary is a reflection of his personality, but it also offers a funhouse mirror insight into the world that surrounds him, the world in which the action of the novel takes place.

The author’s second request is a reminder of why many people start writing in the first place: the sense that words are there to be enjoyed. Figgle-Miggle is interested in the texture of a text, in using language to create worlds with a flexible and insidious internal logic. Her pseudonym comes from the delightful word figli-migli (“shenanigans”), and she is nothing if not a trickster. For years, her true identity remained a secret. Though she frequently appears on the long- and short-lists of major Russian literary prizes, winning the prestigious National Bestseller Prize in 2013, she is still known for her reclusiveness. Her sharp, yet supple satire has led critics to liken her to Nikolay Gogol and Jonathan Swift. Perhaps the defining sensation of reading Figgle-Miggle is feeling the ground shifting under your feet.

Because the narrative perspective is constantly changing, the novel has a mosaic structure. However, the pieces don’t fit together neatly. And, as you may have noticed, the narrators are meant to seem unreliable in one way or another: either by profession (the double agent), by mental illness (the drug addict and the schizophrenic), or by species (the dachshund). The film critic doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. Strikingly, all of these perspectives are male – even the dog’s. However, over the course of the book, we learn that the central node connecting all of these characters is the highly-strung, highly-educated Princess. The dog is her dog, the double-agent is her husband, the drug addict is her brother-in-law, the schizophrenic is her neighbor, and the film critic is her lover. Princess’s mother, a powerful woman with mysterious business ties, also flickers ominously at the edge of our vision. The reader constantly finds herself trying to catch a clear glimpse of the women in this world – the author included. This, too, is part of Figgle-Miggle’s mischief: the most important things seem to lie just beyond our grasp.

Oftentimes, a book’s title will provide some kind of framework for understanding and interpreting the work. When dealing with such elusive material, finding a title for the English text becomes particularly complicated. The original title of this book, You Love These Films So Much, comes from a song by the legendary Russian rock band Kino. In it, the band’s frontman, Viktor Tsoi, declares that he no longer wants to be a part of the movies playing in his partner’s mind. The song’s tone is measured, embodying the matter-of-fact diagnosis the singer issues for his failed relationship: “I knew things would go bad, but I didn’t know it would be so soon.” Because this song is so well known, the book’s title will evoke a particular atmosphere for Russophone readers, and might even set the tempo for their reading. Of course, an Anglophone reader couldn’t be expected to have the same kinds of associations.

As I consider potential English-language titles, I have been thinking about the aspects of the original I most want to capture. First and foremost, I want to maintain the emphasis on narrative and the way that the stories we consume can affect how we perceive and re-present the world around us. At the moment, my favorite option is Screen Time. On the one hand, this phrase makes us think of the amount of time we spend looking at our screens and the narratives we engage with as we do so. It also suggests the seductive pull of our devices and our (often futile) attempts to limit their power over our lives. On the other hand, this proposed title raises the question of whose stories and perspectives are featured in the novel, how much ‘screen time’ is devoted to each, and, last but not least, what the other characters get up to when the camera’s not on them…

Read an extract from You Love These Films So Much here.

Sarah Vitali

Tasha Karlyuka’s Being Frosya Shneerson – New Guest Post from Michele A. Berdy

Translator, author, and Moscow Times columnist Michele Berdy writes about the author Tasha Karlyuka, whose novella Being Frosya Shneerson Michele is translating with support from the RusTrans project. You can read an extract from her translation-in-progress here.

Translating Tasha Karlyuka

Several years ago, the Short Story Project, a web-based program based in Israel, sent me a text to translate by a young writer named Tasha Karlyuka. Born in Kyiv, living in Tel-Aviv and writing in Russian, she works as a chef while writing screenplays and prose. I sat down to read it and instantly fell through time and space into a Soviet communal apartment by the sea, where a troubled teenage girl lives with her larger-than-life grandmother and eats the only thing her grandmother knows how to cook: chicken morning, noon and night.

I instantly fell in love with the writing — the kind of storytelling that carries you along, as if you were listening to your friend sitting across the table in a café or your kitchen, telling you about what it was like growing up. She’s very, very funny as she describes Uncle Isaac cutting up “Mein Kampf” for toilet paper in the shared toilet or the vendetta between her grandmother and a neighbor who can’t forgive her for stealing Lenya Utesov away 56 years ago. Karlyuka has an eye for the absurd in human relations, sympathy for outsiders and misfits, and a gift for seamlessly moving from comedy to the surreal, from the pain of being human to beautifully lyrical observations.

Some of Karlyuka’s characters are émigrés — from the former Soviet Union and Africa — but she doesn’t write about émigré life per se. She writes about being Black in a white country; being a religious Jew with people who are not; being desperate; being in love with everyone but the right person. She often writes about an enormous, dysfunctional, multi-national, multi-racial and multi-confessional family in a way that reminds me a bit of the young Philip Roth — or rather, it would if he’d been a woman with a master’s degree in psychology and walloping great sense of humor.

Karlyuka’s novella Being Frosya Shneerson (Byt’ Frosei Shneerson) is about a little girl — the Frosya of the title — born into this large family. Grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, aunts and a great-grandmother all vie to control Frosya’s upbringing. One wants to turn her into a good observant Jew; another wants to baptize her; her mother, a famous pianist, wants her to be “the female Mozart,” while another grandmother feeds her whole grain oats and nori; an aunt arrives with her new husband, who is Black and a Muslim, and news that she is pregnant. Her father, a tailor, is considered the family failure — but he is the person she loves most deeply, even as he leaves a trail of threads, pins, and fabric scraps wherever he goes. And Frosya? She is the product of this family: strong-willed, wicked and too smart for her own good.

Karlyuka’s Being Frosya Shneerson is shortly to be published in Russian: a Russian-language extract from the novella in Snob magazine can be read on this page.

Read an extract from Michele’s translation of Frosya’s adventures here!