Author Archives: Muireann Maguire

Anger Management Issues: Translating Bulat Khanov’s Gnev

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

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


                                           Gnev (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Булат Ханов на Non/fiction 2019

 Bulat Khanov

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

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

William Barclay

Translating the Uncanny Valley: Victor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Sligh (contact translator)

When is Russian literature not Russian literature? A post by translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“When is Russian literature not Russian literature?” is the latest post in our blog series from translators currently commissioned by RusTrans. In this series, translators reflect on current issues in translation practice and/or the translations they work on. Here, Shelley Fairweather-Vega discusses her practice of translating Central Asian women’s writing.

“The Russian kids in their neighborhood didn’t want to let her into their games. Kalbitka, kalbitka! they screamed at her. She didn’t take offense because she didn’t understand.

-from “Black Snow of December,” by Asel Omar

As a translator of both Russian and Uzbek, I often find myself stuck between two worlds, eerily similar but also irreconcilably different. Throughout my career so far, only half of the fiction I’ve translated has actually been Russian, in the sense of having being written by people who identify as ethnic Russians and live in Russia itself. Only perhaps 75% of it is even in the Russian language before I get to it. My project for RusTRANS is two stories from a future anthology of short stories by Kazakh women. One of the authors I’ve translated for this project has the quite Russian-sounding name Nadezhda Chernova, while the other, Asel Omar, sounds not at all Russian.  To remove all doubt about her national origins, Omar no longer uses the -ova ending that was tacked on to virtually all Central Asian surnames (-ov for men) during Soviet times to make citizens there sound more Russian. Half the stories in the anthology, including these two, were originally written in Russian. The other half were written in Kazakh. So are they Russian literature?

My first instinct is always to say “no.” The Central Asian writers I work with don’t see themselves as the heirs of Pushkin and Tolstoy, though many have studied their work thoroughly. They’re more likely to actually be descended from people cruelly persecuted by the devoted fans of Russian literature’s biggest stars. They may share a language, but that language was thrust upon them by colonial powers; thematically, they have a different cultural heritage to hearken back to, different epic heroes, different myths, religions, values, and histories. And as a translator of Central Asian literature, I take offense on behalf of the whole huge, diverse region when readers see Uzbek or Kazakh literature as a special, minor, exotic branch of Russian literature.  Sadly, that happens surprisingly often – more than is seemly for people educated in a Western tradition, supposedly forewarned against the temptations of Orientalism and hip to post-colonial thinking.

The Uzbek writer in exile Hamid Ismailov has gone so far as to posit that everyone is looking at the issue the wrong way round: it’s not that Uzbek literature is a wild backwater of Russian literature; rather, Russian literature owes its whole existence to Central Asian literature. Ismailov’s alter-ego protagonist in Of Strangers and Bees comes up with this theory on the fly, when he’s asked to give a lecture on Russian literature to a European audience and finds himself completely unprepared, improvising as follows:

“Russian literature is a vast ocean. But even an ocean is measured by its shorelines. It starts from its shorelines. If it has no shorelines, it does not exist itself. What gives an ocean its shape is its shorelines. […] Take Dostoyevsky’s five novels. They are essentially nothing other than the Hamsa written over again. But all that is another story,” I declared […] By the time I was done, things had developed in such a direction that I was not, in fact, the student of Bunin and Akhmatova; no, historically speaking, they were students of my national literature.

I’m not sure I would go that far in describing the two Kazakh stories I translated for RusTRANS. Both were written originally and solely in Russian, for one thing (even the word “kalbitka,” in the citation above, was an insult of vague and undocumented origins used by Russians to belittle the locals, so it’s a Russian word, too). Every Central Asian writer my age or older was raised and educated mostly in the Soviet system, with its strictly uniform curriculum across republics and institutions. That means fiction from the region can bear a strong resemblance to fiction from Russia proper (as does Russophone writing from places as diverse as Ukraine, Latvia, Brooklyn and Israel). But the more Uzbek and Kazakh and Tajik writing I translate, the more ideas and viewpoints I discover that are not Russian at all.

Chernova’s story, “Aslan’s Bride,” is a story about a girl with a Russian nickname, Milochka, who yearns for love. After a short and ugly relationship with a Russian drunk, she decides to leave town. Milochka travels to the ends of the earth and finds herself in a village by the sea, full of women dressed in black who do not speak her language. Though we are never told where she is or what language people speak there, we understand that the place she left behind is a standard-issue mid-1970s Soviet city, and this new place is very different. Milochka is taken in by an old woman who wants to betroth her to her handsome son ­– who left for the war thirty years ago and still has not returned. Our heroine agrees, and finally finds her place in the world. So here we have a protagonist leaving Russia, or a place standing in for Russia; learning a new language; and becoming family with a people still devastated, thirty years later, by Soviet involvement in World War II. This is completely unlike any Russian story I’ve read about the Great Patriotic War.

Omar’s story, “Black Snow of December,” centers on a young man named Rustem, a journalist who is an ethnic Kazakh, remembering a neglected moment in Kazakhstan’s history: three days of protests, violence and arrests precipitated by personnel changes in the Communist Party in December 1986, known to people who remember it simply as Jeltoqsan, “December.” Rustem recalls the fear and anxiety his Kazakh family suffered during those events and the varying reactions of their Russian, Jewish, and Korean friends and neighbors. He also ponders his own family’s history: his “pre-revolutionary” grandfather was made an orphan by the Bolsheviks, and went on to work as a Soviet spy, while secretly memorizing the work of dissident Russian and Kazakh poets. Russian writers also portray the ambiguities of the Soviet system and ordinary people’s ways of coping with it ­– though they usually make those ordinary people Russian, sometimes Jewish for a twist. But would a typical Russian writer have Rustem fired from his newspaper job, years later in independent Kazakhstan, for writing about this sensitive period in the country’s history – and walk away happily through a numbingly cold night, focused on the future? I’m not sure.

One thing these very different stories have in common is that they center the experiences of people that “real” Russian literature keeps on the periphery, on Ismailov’s “shorelines.” They allow Central Asian characters to be genuine, ordinary people, not merely exotic foreign types. The somber women in black, not the flighty Milochka, are the characters who are most at home in “Aslan’s Bride.” The Kazakh population of Almaty are the ones being asked not to speak their own language to avoid offending anyone in “Black Snow.” When I read and translate these stories, I see decolonization at work. Russian and Russianness is a fact of life and ever-present, but it’s not the crux of the story. In this literature, the Russians don’t have to be the storytellers. The Russians don’t have to be the ones teaching us what Russian literature can be, even when their language is wielded to write it.

If these Russian-language stories are so non-Russian, then where do I get off applying for a program like RusTRANS? Why do I lurk on Russian translation listservs and Facebook groups? The purely practical answer is that there is no KazTRANS or UzbTRANS program, no Kazakh or Uzbek translation listservs. There are simply not enough of us translators from Central Asian languages (yet), and not enough interest (yet) in this new type of Central Asian literature, and without my Russian translation comrades, I’d be very lonely at conferences. For this type of literature, there are no awards to follow. There are no fellowships to fight over and almost no institutional support, and what does exist comes from a source that makes me squeamish: the Kazakh and Uzbek political machines. So as long as I’m translating from Russian, I plan to keep boldly trying to have it both ways, and doing everything I can to attract the attention of Russian literature lovers to non-Russian Russian literature.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega

Subliminal Translation: Huw Davies on Translating Dmitry Bykov’s “June”

In the first instalment of our new blog series by translators working on texts for the Publish project, Huw Davies tells us about the strangest aspect of translating Dmitry Bykov’s latest novel – how to translate coded, subliminal messages!

Translating Dmitry Bykov’s novel June

I have been enjoying the challenge of creating a sample translation of the novel June by the acclaimed Russian poet, journalist and novelist Dmitry Bykov, published in Russian in 2017. The novel is set shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It is divided into three parts, each telling a different story set in the same period, and each shorter than the one before – conveying a sense of hastening towards the impending disaster of war. In the final part, we meet a professor of linguistics named Ignaty Krastyshevsky, who believes he can avert this looming catastrophe, if only he can influence a certain key decision-maker by smuggling something he dubs a ‘controlling text’ into one of the reports on Soviet cinema that he writes for a living. Below is an excerpt from my translation:

Outwardly there appeared to be nothing unusual about the text, and only the most experienced linguist – the aforementioned Strelnikov, for instance – could have suspected that there was something ever so slightly amiss about the synonyms used. The Controlling Text (or CT) was always designed like a mosaic, whose pieces were too vibrant to form a homogeneous surface; and indeed, there were times when Krastyshevsky required substitutes for the words one might ordinarily choose. They were not highlighted in the text in any way, of course, but we shall highlight them here, so that the nuts and bolts of his method might become clearer. “As a BLACK cloud makes its way MORE OR LESS RAPIDLY over Europe, the WORLDWIDE interest in oUr cinemAtography is becOming clearer than DAY. The humanity and the NECESSARY orientation of Soviet cinema has covERED the Western viewer, lISTener, reaDER, again and again, TIME AFTER TIME, with that indubitable, OBVIOUS truth, that man is a broTHER to his fellow man. BLUE, YELLOW, GREEN – all of these colours are having to make way for red, which, with time, will take up a leading position on the map.” Anyone with the slightest ability to read between the lines and at least a basic grasp of the rudiments of linguistic influence will be able to read, in this passage, the phrase Aravi tari omi, or “No war” in the native language of the intended recipient.

Krastyshevsky’s reports are read by none other than “the only real decision-maker in the country since 1929”, the “intended recipient” whose native language is Georgian (Bykov deliberately refrains from naming him in the novel, but for those slow on the uptake, the man in question is of course Stalin). Thanks to his incredible ability to harness the power of what he calls “linguistic influence” by putting the vowels and consonants of his written reports in exactly the right order, Krastyshevsky will be able to plant the phrase “No war” in his recipient’s mind and make him act accordingly.

We never find out what becomes of Krastyshevsky; he is last seen shouting coded messages to some mysterious ‘emissaries of the gods’ from atop a Moscow apartment building, while a policeman hurries up to get him. Besides his unresolved fate, this part of the novel raises many other questions: is Krastyshevsky really a linguistic genius, or is he insane (we are told that “he was good at recognizing madness in others, because…because…”)? Does Bykov want us to think that the novel itself is intended as a ‘controlling text’ (even though it appears not to meet Krastyshevsky’s own specifications for this) – and if so, who is its one and only “intended recipient”, the one who will unconsciously grasp its true meaning and act accordingly? Does the translator of the novel need to concern himself or herself with the answers to these questions? How can the translator accurately render the texts and incantations that Krastyshevsky crafts with such care (though they sound like gobbledegook) in a way that suggests he might well be a madman, while still leaving open the possibility that he is the greatest linguistic genius the world has seen? At one point, while listening to a radio broadcast of Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Krastyshevsky hears a secret message encoded within The Dance of the Knights, one “so distinct that it could be written down in words – and he hastened to do so, helped by the fact that he could now hear this music within him night and day. At first, the words were not the right ones, they were random, but it was not through random happenstance that they came to him: they lent the whole experience a coloration akin to that of a Gothic forest. Night – yes – night – yes – night – pine aspen palm fir pine aaaaaspen!” It is not often that translators get the chance to translate the ramblings of a madman, or, for that matter, the secret verbal message encoded in a piece of classical music (let’s keep an open mind about which description is accurate), and it is an enjoyable experience, particularly when the source ‘ramblings’ contain made-up or incomplete words that nonetheless rhyme with other words in the sentence: take for instance my rendering of one such line, “set sail on the ocean blue, the trotian true, the clotian clue.”

Krastyshevsky’s story prompts us to think about the reality of living in Stalin’s totalitarian rule during ‘The Terror’, when anyone inclined to question foreign policy decisions openly by, say, writing a letter to a newspaper, or going on a ‘Not In My Name’-style protest march, would have had to have been… insane, surely? The first two parts of the novel portray  other frightening aspects of life in this period. Part one tells the story of Misha Gvirtsman, a young student and poet, who is denounced by his classmates (apparently due to a false allegation of harassment against a female student, but in fact, Misha suspects, because of a deeper, underlying resentment that has to do with his high-brow intellectual tastes and Jewishness). When the student body is convened to discuss the matter, hardly anyone is prepared to stand up for him, despite his ability as a poet, which everyone seems to acknowledge. Even people he thought were friends jump on the bandwagon and call for him to be expelled from the prestigious Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. 

In part two, Boris Gordon, a journalist, has the love of his life, Ariadna, taken away from him by the secret police (she is an émigré who has returned to the Soviet Union after several years in Germany and, as such, a subject of suspicion). Until she was taken, Boris failed to recognise just how precarious and dangerous the situation had become, for he was not particularly “fond” of any of the other people within his orbit who were arrested and never heard from again. His father fears that a war with the Germans may be around the corner, and believes “that Germany is surrounding him with spies, that Tukhachevsky was a spy, that the plumber’s a spy” – but Boris dismisses these notions, assuming his father is losing his marbles (madness is one of the novel’s recurring themes). Just as hardly any of Misha’s classmates stuck up for him when he was denounced at university, almost none of the people whom Ariadna had helped in the editorial offices where she worked (where she first met Boris) seem to have any sympathy for her plight.

The novel contains some wonderful twists and turns. As we have seen, there are quite a lot of different characters involved, including interlocutors who almost seem to spring from nowhere to badger our protagonists; they appear to work for the intelligence services. The voice of the narrator remains constant throughout, though, and acts as a unifying thread, as demonstrated by the seamless manner in which the opening lines of each part can be joined together.

Part 1:

When Misha Gvirtsman was expelled from university in October 1940, he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands.

Part 2:

Boris Gordon, by contrast, hardly ever had any free time, because he had a job in journalism that brought with it considerable responsibility; a wife; and a mistress.

Part 3:

And as for Ignaty Krastyshevsky, all his time was free time, and yet he did not really have any time at all.

The most important voice for the translator to get right, then, is surely that of the narrator – so that the overall tone of the novel remains the same in English. June is full of literary allusions to the works of Joyce, Shakespeare and others, and seems to have multiple layers of meaning. Given how vividly it conveys what it might have felt like to suffer at the hands of a brutal totalitarian regime, I think it is important to bring this period of Soviet history to life in the imaginations of English-speaking readers.

I have cerTAINly enJOYed the work I have done ON THIS novel so far, and I would love to secure a COMmission to translate the REST of the book. 

Publishers take note: the sentence above was a carefully crafted ‘controlling text’ that has planted an unshakeable desire to publish this book in English deep within your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Huw Davies



Translators on Lockdown: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (X)

In our absolutely final post of this mini-series about the effect of the current pandemic on the translation and publishing industries, we invited translators to speak to us about how the situation has affected them professionally and personally. We hear about the real problems of working with children and spouses at home, loss of income and unrelenting deadline pressures – but we also hear about new discoveries, re-evaluations, and hope for the future.

Here are some of their stories.

🐱‍🏍”For a translator already working full time from home, you’d think times of quarantine would be business as usual. But of course, it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, my family is now permanently installed in my home office (they think of it as their house). While other translators in my professional network, in fields like marketing and law, have seen a huge drop in business as their clients closed up shop, my clients – the authors, artists, screenwriters – seem to be working overtime, passing plenty of translation work on to me. They all have more time to write, and a new topic to address: the virus. The news articles I translate every week are full of pandemic politics. The animated creatures in the children’s TV show hassle each other about wearing masks. The artist in New York gives interview after interview about his creative take on social distancing and the metaphorical meaning of contagion. Yevgeny Vodolazkin’s coronavirus play had to be translated fairly quickly (two weeks). Hamid Ismailov’s coronavirus story had to be translated almost immediately (five days, during the same two weeks I was translating Vodolazkin) [you’ll find it in this anthology of international coronavirus fiction from Restless Books, published August 2020: And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again]. My translations of quarantine poetry from Kazakhstan were accepted in record time, by two journals in the space of a weekend. So along with the general distress of knowing the world is falling apart around us, there has been this sense of urgency, that this is a time to work faster, more seriously – at least on topics related to the plague. Is it due to the fear that the virus could wipe us all out any day now, the sense that we have to get done as much as possible before we’re inevitably debilitated by illness or, for instance, the people who keep the internet running stop showing up for work? Or is it the perverse fear that the virus could disappear, cease being an issue, that readers could lose interest in everything being written (and translated) about it? How strange it feels to take advantage of a global calamity this way, to translate straight through the crisis, about the crisis, hoping desperately to finish your work and get it out in the world before it’s no longer relevant – while all the while also wishing desperately for the opposite, for the whole mess to disappear and for life to get back to normal, so that nobody will ever need to think, write, or translate about COVID-19 ever again. As far as I remember, there are plenty of other things to write about. Aren’t there?” – Shelley Fairweather-Vega (translator from Russian and Uzbek)

🐱‍🚀”While I’m lucky enough to have had a few of my translations published in journals and other websites, I’m still very much an early career translator, so I don’t earn any money from literary translation. I spend the majority of my working day on different forms of commercial translation, mostly from Spanish, since I live in Madrid. For me, then, despite all the problems it brought, being confined to my small flat for several months at least opened up new stretches of time I could devote to Russian literature and literary translation. One of the most positive aspects of this was being able to spend more time reading speculatively, allowing myself to stumble across new, interesting, unexpected writing. This, in turn, led to one of my most rewarding lockdown experiences.

         Ekaterina Simonova

Whilst reading the latest issue of the journal Interpoezia, I came across a couple of poems by Ekaterina Simonova, a poet based in Ekaterinburg, collectively titled ‘Я думаю только по-русски’ [I only think in Russian]. I loved these poems and knew immediately that I wanted to translate them. Fortunately, another author I’ve worked with was able to put us in touch. Over the course of lockdown, I translated a number of her poems, mostly from her latest collection ‘Два ее единственных платья’ [Her only two dresses], and I greatly enjoyed our correspondence. She was always very happy to help clear up anything I wasn’t sure of, and she was very supportive. I’ve sent some of the translations to journals, and I’m planning to submit the poem ‘Помнить снег’ [Remembering Snow] for the Stephen Spender prize this month. Who knows what will happen or when they’ll see the light of day, but I’m delighted to have got to know her and her poetry. She’s even promised to post me a copy of her previous collection once things in Russia have calmed down a bit. I think I’ve had it pretty easy during lockdown, but whatever difficulties I have had, reading and translating Russian has been a constant source of joy.” Robin Munby (translator from Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese)                                           

🐱‍👓 “There are a few challenges as I see it.

One of Julia’s recent translations

One, the low-grade anxiety — this country [the US] is so much better than what we are seeing. Two, I am extremely sensitive to word choices, more than ever before, seeing the linguistics effects of the current environment. And finally, writing may be a solitary occupation, but translation is nearly always a team effort (writer/translator/editor), and this process is evolving — something that I am trying to adjust to. My writers are in LA, my editor and agent are in NYC, and I am in Boston — the epicenters of both COVID-19 and civil unrest. This makes our priorities shift almost daily, pushing forward deadlines and defining creative choices. We need good literature now, we need different voices, and that’s where translators come in. Oh, one more thing of a more practical nature. The novel I am working on is aptly named Pandem and remarkably timely, although written circa 2003) was commissioned by a Russian businessman.”  – Julia Meitov Hersey (translator from Russian)


Stephen Dalziel’s translation of this book has been shortlisted for the 2020 Pushkin House Book Prize


🐱‍🐉”Translation has played a huge role in helping me through lockdown. I received a new commission to translate a book from Russian in February, so this has given me a focus for virtually every day. Being in regular e-mail contact with the author has helped enormously, too. As long as works are required to be translated and we receive the commissions, I believe we are in a very fortunate place, and will continue to be in ‘the new normal’”Stephen Dalziel (translator from Russian and former Russian affairs analyst for the BBC).


🐱‍👤”I’ve been very fortunate in that I’m working on a long-term project that was commissioned before the pandemic, so I haven’t found my work drying up. I am working on a Russian historical crime thriller by Yulia Yakovleva, which is a dream come true, but the circumstances in which I’m working are far from what I imagined when we signed the contract! My sons haven’t been to school since 16 March and won’t go back until September, so my working hours were reduced straight away to around 3 hours a day. In the first few weeks of lockdown I started my work day at 4pm when my husband finished his full-time hours, but as I was so tired after a full day with the kids I started trying to get up early (for me!) and work 7-9am before he starts. We’re lucky to have an office and we take it in turns: we have two desks, each with our own computer and screen, but only one chair between us (otherwise I think we would both go and hide from the children at the same time!) Happily my publisher was able to extend the deadline for this book as there was no way I could have finished by the end of July as planned. I’ll be working on it until mid-September now, when I’m due to be starting a German nonfiction book. Every day that I’ve struggled to meet my daily translation target I have wondered whether I shouldn’t have asked for a longer extension, but I wanted to avoid further delay on the German book.   I lost around £2000 worth of adjunct projects including teaching on the Warwick Translates literary translation summer school, a talk about children’s literature in translation scheduled for the ITI & Friends festival, and a translation slam at London Book Fair. I also had to cancel a weekly part-time teaching commitment because I didn’t think I could cope with teaching online alongside my ongoing translation work. But part of me was relieved when the events were cancelled as it was around March that I realised how much I had over-committed this year. I was eligible for a grant via the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and by coincidence it was very close to the amount I had lost due to cancelled projects. This has been a testing time but in many ways it has felt like going back a few years to when I was translating challenging books in challenging circumstances with toddlers and babies and not enough sleep. At least during the lockdown I’ve mostly had better sleep, although strangely since the lockdown has partially lifted I have struggled more with anxiety and insomnia. I think the initial weeks of lockdown were such a retreat from the normal rush that I was finally able to shut off the world and recuperate after a stressful winter. Now I have just as little time to work but need to translate five pages a day compared to the three a day I was managing at the start of lockdown; unsurprisingly, anxiety about the approaching deadline is starting to creep in. But as with every project I have found that I’ve sped up as I’ve got into the book, so fingers crossed I’ll get there in time for about a week off in between the first draft and the edits.” – Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (translator from Russian, German, and Arabic and co-founder of World Kid Lit )

🐱‍💻”The biggest blow for me – Azerbaijan’s literary translation centre postponed a commission to translate a novel and collection of reviews, because the fall in the oil price means they’re short of money. Luckily I had only just started the project. On the plus side, it has given me time to start work on a pitch for a different Azerbaijani novel, which I’m passionate about. I’m anxious, though, that it will be even harder to find a publisher in these challenging times. As ever in my professional life, I’m juggling other writing work with literary translation to earn a living. I was sorry to miss the London Book Fair, as it was to  have been a treat after completing translation of a history book, this one from Russian. I was even sorrier not to have a party in April to celebrate the publication of the paperback version of an extraordinary memoir, Days in the Caucasus, by Baku-born author Banine. A plus side of the pandemic has been some excellent online webinars and workshops from the Society of Authors and Federation of Entertainment Unions (I can access the latter as a member of the NUJ). No more excuses – I’ve had all the training and must make time to finish my website and boost my social media activity!”  –Anne Thompson-Ahmadova (translator from French, Russian and Azerbaijani)

A sincere thank you to everyone who has participated in this ten-part mini-series on Russian-English translation and the coronavirus crisis!  We wish you the best of luck in meeting your goals, staying healthy, active and sane, and we hope you continue to find both inspiration – and readers!

Transformative Potential: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (IX)

In the very last interview of our blog mini-series, RusTrans speaks to Will Evans, an award-winning publisher, writer, translator, bookstore owner, and literary arts advocate. He is the founder and executive director of Deep Vellum, a nonprofit literary arts centre and publishing house founded in 2013. He founded Deep Vellum Books in 2015, an independent bookstore in Dallas’s historic Deep Ellum neighborhood. Evans graduated from Emory University with degrees in History and Russian Literature, and received a Master’s degree in Russian Culture from Duke University. In October 2019, he was awarded CLMP’s Golden Colophon Award for Paradigm Independent Literary Publishing. Throughout the pandemic, Deep Vellum has used its Emergency Funding to support Texas writers in need (43 at the last count); it regularly donates a large proportion of website sales to charities such as LGBTQ support organizations; and recently, the publishing house was approved for a $50,000 award from the US National Endowment for the Arts that will enable it to continue reliably funding translators, authors, designers, and in-house staff.

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?

WE: In the midst of the hardships and changes brought about by this crisis, being able to spend so much more time around my now 4-year-old son and nearly 2-year-old daughter has been a true joy.  Watching them grow, reading with them, spending an incredible amount of close time together: this is something I hope I never lose after this current crisis has passed. But this crisis also calls thrown into sharp relief the value of times of physical connection (as opposed to physical office space), times when you can be in the same room with others. It exposes the need that we all have to connect in ways that are personal, professional, and profound. And I hope some day that my stress levels drop a bit so I can find more time to read on my own, to write, to translate, but that’ll be when the kids are older and we’re on to the next major global crisis of some sort. I have a couple of open translation manuscripts and novel sketches on my computer at all time, they glower at me, beg me to revisit them, and I optimistically—or naively!—think I’ll get to them all someday…

Now that’s a familiar feeling! 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?

WE: I hope that all the translation publishers large and small are able to see the crisis through, and that somehow from this a new wave of publishers will emerge with fresh energy, new perspectives, and new approaches to the challenges of the industry. We always need new leaders, and our industry (publishing and the literary arts broadly interpreted), is primed for new leadership. For translation publishers, I think the greatest advantage has been witnessing the reading public’s willingness to participate in digital events. This could be transformative in how we are able to engage our authors and translators from far-flung locales in events, partnering with bookstores and organizations around the world to present these incredible books to readers anywhere and everywhere. The Internet was supposed to have already fulfilled this transformative connective potential, and yet the current crisis has, for the first time that I’ve seen in publishing, truly brought people together.

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?

WE: The world will never forget Russian culture. Any cancelled events have led to the creation of new events, and new ways to connect, and that is inspiring. We at Deep Vellum have recently signed a few new Russian books that are going to be coming out over the next several years—two from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, including her amazing The New Adventures of Helen & Other Magical Tales, a more positive, for her, version of the scary fairy tales we all fell in love with, translated by Jane Bugaeva, as well as Petrushevskaya’s novel Kidnapped: A Crime Story, translated by the inimitable Marian Schwartz, a book I cannot wait to see in English! We’re also preparing the English debut works of Nataliya Meshchaninova, an emerging superstar director and screenwriter in the world of Russian film and TV, whose heart-wrenching, profoundly beautiful autobiographical novel is beautifully translated by Fiona Bell, and the debut of Dmitry Lipskerov, whose hilarious satirical novel The Tool & The Butterflies is a modern-day interpretation of Gogol’s The Nose, but set in Putin’s Russia, with the narrator waking one morning missing his… tool. It’s great. And we’re finalizing details to publish our third book by Alisa Ganieva, a writer and person I admire to the absolute highest, with her most socially engaged, political novel yet (which is saying something!), Offended Sensibilities. How can readers forget about Russian literature when this much good stuff is coming out? And between what little we at Deep Vellum are doing, we look around and eternally admire the great Russian books coming from Columbia University Press, Pushkin Press, Oneworld, and New York Review Books and just smile at the rich diversity of Russian writers whom the independent publishing world is providing for readers. But, of course, that means we all have more to do to find the broad readership each author deserves for posterity.

As a publisher and bookshop owner, are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

WE: Some aspects of Deep Vellum’s sales are up. More and more readers buying directly from our website, which is incredibly helpful in navigating the crisis. On the other hand, our sales to bookstores have dropped precipitously and don’t look like they’ll recover any time soon. We’ll have to find a way to continue to help bookstores around the country, and the world, keep going, we need them, and we will keep putting out books that readers never knew they needed so profoundly. And every moment is a golden moment for reading if you’re reading the right things.

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)?

WE: I’d be surprised if Lisa Hayden’s translation of Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha isn’t nominated, but I’d be shocked if Marian Schwartz’s monumental translation of Solzhenitsyn’s March 1917 cycle doesn’t win! And here’s to putting in print that whenever Robert Chandler completes his translation of Platonov’s Chevengur, that is the Russian translation (that I’m not publishing!) to which I’m most looking forward!!

Thank you for speaking with us, Will. Good luck with your wonderful press and thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for Russian literature! Thank you also to all our readers and followers for following this blog – we hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you have views of your own about the coronavirus crisis and its effects on the translation industry, get in touch!


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.