Celebrating “PUBLISH” Success!

February 2023 marks three years since we began sifting through the many submissions we received for PUBLISH, our European Research Council-funded RusTrans project to seed-fund sample translations of contemporary Russophone literature into English. To recap, we initially advertised five bursaries but we received so many exciting proposals that our project PI Professor Maguire made a case to the ERC to allow us to divide our allocated budget between a larger group. Ultimately, we were able to fund 12 translation proposals (by paying the translators for the first 10,000 words of each project at advised Society of Authors rates). These were all passion projects developed by individual translators, competitively selected from among over 30 excellent entries – our selection criteria included cultural and gender diversity, commercial appeal, and political sensitivity.  Our ultimate aim with PUBLISH has been to diversify the modern Russian literary canon. All twelve of our commissions bring a unique aspect of Russian-language literature to English-language readers – all crucial reminders that while the Russian state is culpable of war crimes and political repression, individual writers are not complicit in this regime. You can read extracts from each text on our website here.

Over the last 18 months, we have asked our 12 translators to keep in touch and report on their successes and failures attempting to secure publication contracts for their RusTrans-funded projects. And, not surprisingly (in view of the many hurdles facing literary translation, the double impact of the war on Ukraine on available funding and on public attitudes to Russia), our failure rate, in the short term, has been pretty high. Some translators reached the stage of editorial review before rejection; others have not yet tempted a publisher into expressing interest. The timing was unfortunate: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stopped the Russian-English literary translation industry in its tracks, ceasing the previous trickle of commissions with almost immediate effect. Not without some justification – since Russian literature has enjoyed near-hegemonic status among writing from the regions of the former Soviet Union, 2022 has been a  year of soul-searching for translators and de-Russification for editors and publishers. We hope publishers will re-visit these pitches in time. As we know, translation pitching and publishing can be a long game.

In good news, two of our twelve commissions have made it into print during 2022. We thought our first post of 2023 should be one that celebrates their success. First, Shelley Fairweather-Vega. We supported Shelley’s translation sample of Kazakh women’s writing, and Gaudy Boy Translates picked it up and published the whole collection last summer under the title Amanat. Here, Shelley tells us about what the RusTrans commission has meant to her and her women authors, how Amanat is doing six months on from publication, and about the projects she is pursuing now:



SFV: I’ve been more than pleased with the response to Amanat, released by Gaudy Boy Translates in July 2022. Mostly, I’ve been outright ecstatic. Coinciding with publication, the usual suspects (Voices on Central Asia, Asian Review of Books, and our friends at Words Without Borders) all published reviews or interviews to help spread the word. There were long, wonderful, surprise reviews, too, at The Millions and World Literature Today, and enthusiastic reader comments on Goodreads. But my hands-down personal favorite was the very brief mention we got at the top of Ms. Magazine’s Reads for the Rest of Us feature for July. What if Gloria Steinem herself had picked up a copy? I still blush just thinking about it. Of the half-dozen long books I’ve had published in my translation, Amanat has received the most attention by far.

Cover art of AMANAT in front of a red-orange background

The publisher reports that sales to date are oddly lower than all that buzz might have predicted, several hundred rather than the thousands I’d hoped for. Yet the collection is in libraries all over the world, and it’s being discovered by university instructors looking to teach something different in their Russian or Russophone or post-Russian literature classes. I even spoke to my mother’s book club about it, and recorded an interview that’s being distributed as a podcast through the New Books Network. I hope this means that Amanat will endure, and continue to be discovered by new readers, thinkers, and students. The collection is so diverse stylistically and thematically that I hope almost any reader will find something in it to love.

I’m continuing to work with many of the authors whose work I translated for Amanat. In January 2022, as we were editing the anthology for publication, Kazakhstan was thrown into chaos and grief by the state’s bloody suppression of political protests throughout the country. Many observers linked that month’s horrors to another historical protest that was also brutally dispersed: that of December 1986, poignantly described in Asel Omar’s story “Black Snow of December,” the translation of which was funded by RusTrans. Katherine Young and I gathered and translated some extremely moving Russophone poetry about the 2022 protests, including contributions by Asel, her fellow Amanat author Oral Arukenova, and four other, mostly younger, Kazakhstani Russophone poets, and found quick publication for the collection in the journal Suspect. In more cheerful news, the first children’s adventure book co-written by Amanat authors Zira Nauryzbai and Lilya Kalaus, Batu and the Search for the Golden Cup, will come out this June in my translation. Astute readers of Amanat will easily see Zira’s love for Kazakh mythology and Lilya’s humorous style in this new book. The work is not over, however! I’m translating two novels and an academic tome from Central Asia this year, and am always looking for ways to publish more fantastic Central Asian authors in translation.



Our thanks to Shelley for sharing her latest news. And our other success story lies in the realm of science-fiction (literally – the translation industry isn’t yet that desperate!). Experienced science-fiction translator Alex Shvartsman submitted a proposal to translate K.A. Teryna‘s novelette The Farctory (Farbrika), which a reviewer in The Times described as ‘a dazzling and surreal tale by Ukrainian-born K.A. Teryna, reality collapses into cardboard and cartoon once the machinery that produces colour shuts down’. Yes, Alex and Kate successfully published their story in The Best of World SF: 2 (edited by Lavie Tidhar). ‘The Farctory’ has pride of place as the anthology’s final story. In his introduction, Lavie Tidhar expresses evident pleasure at being able to reproduce this story, and even offers a rare acknowledgement of the translator’s role: ‘The translator is always overlooked, yet vital. I was lucky to have the help of Alex Shvartsman, publisher of Future SF magazine and a tireless promoter of Russian SF in translation. Alex introduced to me the fantastic work of […] K.A. Teryna, whose ‘The Farctory’ closes this book. It is published here for the first time.’  

The Best of World SF: 2 Image

Meanwhile, Alex and Kate continue to collaborate. The next issue of Asimov’s magazine includes his translation of Kate’s story ‘The Errata’, which will be her first English-language publication of 2023. They have also put together a new proposal and are seeking an English-language publisher for Kate’s short story collection. If any publishers reading this are interested, contact Alex here or on twitter: @AShvartsman

(For those of you who want to read the Times review in full, here’s the link (it may be paywalled)). 

Cathy McAteer and 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!)

RusTrans Returns… to Dublin!

You may recall, back in July 2019, our PI Professor Muireann Maguire went to Dublin to research Russian-Irish translator and Trinity College Dublin Russian teacher, Daisy Mackin (see blog post). Last week, RusTrans PDRA Cathy McAteer and PhD candidate Anna Maslenova returned to participate in the ‘Who’s Afraid of Translator Studies: Human Translator in Focus’ conference, 12-13 May 2022.

The exploratory aim of the conference, organised by Trinity College’s Literary & Cultural Translation PhD students, can best be summed up by the original call for papers:

‘… to explore translators’ manifestations across a variety of fields … specifically taking into account their humanity, and investigating the human touch in areas where it may not always be apparent […]. Rather than considering the technical, textual dimension to their work, this conference seeks to draw attention to the staging of the translational self, the fictional representations and literary portrayals of translators, their role throughout history and social movements, so as to rediscover translators as people with their own subjectivity and individuality.’ (my emphasis)

The call naturally piqued our interest (as researchers of historical Ru-Eng translators-cultural mediators) so out we flew to The Emerald Isle to learn what fellow scholars and PhD students are working on and to proffer our own contributions.

Day one (actually just a half day), launched with the theme of translator agency and subversive translation with lively presentations on women translators and Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated (Kiawna Brewster, University of Wisconsin-Madison), the experience of Greek film translators subtitling controversial cinema during the Greek junta (Kyriaki-Evlalia Iliadou, University of Manchester), and empirical research by final-year PhD student and practising Brazilian-German translator Lucia Collischonn (University of Warwick) on exophonic L2 literary translators.

Three poster presentations interspersed the conference and Anna’s came first with her impressive A3 poster detailing the life, career and literary (especially poetic) contributions of Russian-born émigrée translator Nadezhda Zharintseva:

Thursday ended with a bang (see below) with Professor Michael Cronin’s keynote on ‘Translation, Ecology and Deep Time’, immersing us in new, complex territory where translation intersects ecological research. Professor Cronin presented concepts such as terratranslation (where ‘we mistake our world for *the* world’ and ‘posit ourselves as superior to something which we have no access – to something that we lack’ (Deer, 2021)) and nuclear translation, handling hyperobjects – a black hole, for example – and emphasised the need and urgency for Translation Studies to think translationally if we are to conceive of these phenomena.

Friday launched with ‘Human Translators in the Digital Age’, featuring ‘What does it take to be hired as an in-house translator?’ by Minna Hjort, University of Turku, and ‘Visibility of the Translator in Arabic Popular Science’ by Mohammad Aboomar, Dublin City University. Mohammad’s research is dedicated to tracing the English-Arabic translator in science journals – so far, wholly invisible (!) and the reasons yet to be discerned – and Minna, herself previously an in-house translator, is researching the hiring process for Finnish in-house translators with some shock discoveries. Experienced candidates have the potential to earn nearly 6,000 euros a month, whereas their inexperienced counterparts face a monthly salary of 2,000 euros (or less… Minna shared an advert for a Russian-English translator/interpreter offering a salary of 1350 euros/month, with expected 120 days (minimum) travel per year and work at weekends…. Imagine!).

Session three brought ‘Public (im)perceptions of translators’, starting with University of East Anglia’s Dr Motoko Akashi’s fascinating presentation, ‘Celebrity Translators: The Manifestation of their Fame in the Marketing of Foreign Fiction’ in which she revealed Haruki Murakami’s overwhelming success as a brand-forging translator and advocate of his source author, Raymond Carver, so much so that not only does Murakami’s name feature on *every* front cover, but it seems Carver is sold in Japan on account of Murakami’s involvement in the publication. A rare moment of translator eclipsing author, perhaps… but helped by publishing norms in Japan that already recognise the translator as being part of the process and readily put translators’ names on front covers.

Next came Joanna Sobesto (Jagiellonian University) presenting her microhistorical research on the various perceptions of Polish bibliographer and biographer (Tolstoy, Conrad, Dante, Mickiewicz), editor of periodicals, literary critic, translation theorist… and yes, translator too: Piotr Grzegorczyk (1894-1968) whom Joanna described as a ‘servant of greatness’ from the interwar period in Poland. And then Tereza Alfonso, commercial translator but also PhD researcher at Universidad de Salamanca on translators’ agency in the European Union, in which she presented her investigation into so-called ‘eurolect’, distinguishing between the use of official languages of the EU and working languages spoken in EU meetings and on the ground.

Time for…

(And nota bene the beautiful programme design – the pattern is a close-up of the period, hand-printed wallpaper made specially for the Georgian-era Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation (Fenian Street) when it was restored after years of being derelict.)

.. in which Cathy presented her latest RusTrans-funded microhistorical research on recovering forgotten or overlooked female translators of Russian literature in the twentieth century. She focused on the professional careers (the practices, networks, tribulations, and achievements), literary contributions, and socio-political contexts of quietly influential women of words – as translators and cultural mediators – during the Cold War, and connected them to their modern counterparts. (More in Tallinn next week at the History and Translation Network’s inaugural conference!)




Recovering their own translator from the archives, Dr Federica Re (Filippo Burzio Foundation, Turin) and Marco Barletta (University of Bari “Aldo Moro”) followed with an animated joint presentation on Francesco Cusani Confalonieri, translator in the Italian Risorgimento of Walter Scott and E.G. Bulwer-Lytton.

Day two’s poster presentations, ‘Translating One’s Self’ and ‘Silvia Pareschi, Negotiating America through Italian Eyes’ were given by Giulia Laddago (also of University of Bari “Aldo Moro”) and Margherita Orsi (University of Bologna) respectively:




And the very last panel offered insight into the ‘Lives, welfare and working conditions of translators’. University of Bristol PhD candidate Jincai Jiang, presented for the first time (ever) (with humour, aplomb, and excellent slides) on the lives of Chinese subtitlers on Bilibili (China’s Netflix); Bristol and Trinity Dublin alumna, Alicja Zajdel (currently University of Antwerp) explained her empirical research on the working conditions and self-perceptions of audio describers; and University of Vienna graduate researcher Daniela Schlager had the last word of the conference on an elusive, sociological question she hopes her research will answer: ‘Who is a translation expert?’

‘Who’s Afraid of Translator Studies’ delivered a refreshing smorgasbord of theories and insight and exciting scope for ongoing discussion and exploration. We’re grateful to our hosts for the very warm welcome, including abundant tourist information (from the Book of Kells to Bushmills). Our thanks go to the conference organisers and panel chairs, including Andrea Bergantino, Hannah Rice, Danielle LeBlanc, John Gleeson, Nayara Guercio, and of course, to the TCLCTD team, Michael Cronin, James Hadley and Eithne Bowen.

Go raibh maith agat!


Translation Firebird – So much more than just a conference..

Image design and artwork: Dr Cathy McAteer

Readers, our conference finally happened! After two postponements during Covid lockdowns, we got third time lucky on 7-8th April 2022 at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, with a delegation of national and international speakers – publishers, editors, translators, literary agents, cultural ambassadors – ready to discuss the past, present, and most crucially, the future of Russian and Slavonic literary translation.

With some delegates unable to join us in person, our team spent a fortnight during March 2022 conducting recorded interviews. Speakers in the US, UK, Russia and Georgia shared thoughts, experience and wisdom about literary specializations. Ultimately, our two-day conference delivered a mix of pre-recorded talks, live discussions and keynotes, stimulating panel presentations, and vibrant follow-up debate. Inevitably, there were two shadows. The first was cast by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which dominated everyone’s thoughts. The second, Covid’s legacy, which meant we were unable to throw the event wide open to the public. For those of you who couldn’t come and join us in Cambridge, we have done our best to bring you the highlights here and over on our YouTube channel where you can catch some of the recorded interviews that delighted on the day.

Translation Firebird kicked off with Professor Muireann Maguire’s concept of ‘The Curse of the Firebird’, namely, the Western tendency to orient all Russian writers by the nineteenth century, dubbing them the latest Dostoevsky or the new Tolstoy for the benefit of readers. The curse is twofold in effect: pretentious straplines intimidate as many readers as they attract (who likens The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Hjalmar Soderberg? Exactly), while guaranteeing that only  ‘serious’ literature gets translated. Publishers feed prior expectation that Russian literature will prove difficult, and thus it becomes the elephant on the coffee table. More perils of being a firebird: people are scared to engage with Russian authors, especially now. How do we bring a wider range of Russian authors to a wider audience? And how do you introduce any new Russian authors when key publishers have ceased Russia-related operations for the time being for obvious reasons, before other Slavonic literatures have become widely available in translation?

The exuberant and utterly engaging Viv Groskop gave the first keynote of the conference. As an International Booker Prize juror, she confirmed our suspicions that, out of 137 titles, sadly no Russian or Ukrainian title made it to the final Booker list this year (although a Polish title did, and one (Korean) finalist studied Russian). Furthermore, in a space of seven years when 700-800 titles appeared in translation, only *three* have been by Ukrainian authors. Two of those were by Andrei Kurkov, writing in Russian. So, there’s a need to consider the role the International Booker Prize can play in deciding which books reach a world audience. Viv confirmed that cultural gatekeepers (editors, reviewers, etc.) are always operating at the level of stereotype but there is still a lot going on beneath the surface that we, as readers, can help bring out. Yes, people are worried about ‘cancel culture’, Russians are worried about the suppression of their heritage, the stats are reassuring: Kurkov sales are up 800%, while sales of Tolstoy are up too … 30%.

Next we had a series of pre-recorded interviews, featuring Robert Chandler, Natasha Perova and Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler (the last two spoke jointly about translating Ukrainian literature). Then, the inimitable Marian Schwartz, who spoke candidly and wittily in-person about the life’s work of a literary translator. In a nutshell, ‘the only way to make being a literary translator work is to be busy all the time’, a view shared by fellow translator Andrew Bromfield, who could not be with us in person, but kindly recorded his views on the trials and tribulations of a literary translator. Marian treated us to the milestones in her career, from Verbitskaya to Tsvetaeva and Berberova to perhaps her most important achievement of all:

‘In 2014, I got the call to translate the untranslated Solzhenitsyn [The Red Wheel] … Doing Solzhenitsyn was like my career coming full circle since I started with the dissidents. So for me, it has worked out. […] Now with the war everything’s changed again. There will be important things to translate from Russian – I don’t know what they are yet. We’re back to politics and morality.’ The firebird flies again?

The publishing-bookselling industry panel followed – Eric Lane (Dedalus), Peter Kaufman (Read Russia/Russian Library), Thomas Wiedling (literary agent), and Anete Klucnike (Foyles) – with excellent presentations on the here and (right) now of selling translation rights, publishing, procuring Russian literature for sale in London, the cost of books, the difficulties of importing books amid sanctions and newly-imposed travel restrictions. We heard sage opinions: ‘publishing, even literary publishing, is a fashion industry. You can always see what is in fashion’ (Eric), ‘publishers want the cliché – Russian but not too Russian… just let me have something that is different from French’ (Thomas Wiedling), and ‘Read Russia but not Russian Propaganda, Read Russia, not Putin’ (Peter Kaufman).

And the grand finale to Day 1 was 2020’s Read Russia Translation Prize laureate Antony Wood speaking about the achievements of his own publishing house Angel Classics. Started in 1982, Angel was the only imprint at the time solely devoted to literary translations.

Day Two began with a two-part keynote presentation on ‘publishing’s infinite constraints’ from Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum publishing house and advocate for Russian literature (a canon ‘I’ve loved since I read Gorky by accident when I was 14’). In Part One: И жизнь хороша и жить хорошо Will explained, ‘For the past 21 years I’ve been living with Putin. “What does Putin want?” Literature tells us we shouldn’t be surprised at Putin’s move today. It is up to us as publishers, writers, translators, to respond and illuminate.’ And illuminate is what Will did in Part Two of his often hilarious lecture: Все идет по плану. There are ‘1 million books published each year in the US; 500,000 self-published. 80-90% of the remaining 500,000 come out from the big 5, now the big 4. Mega-conglomerates. As a result of rapid consolidation in the ’80s there’s a lot missing’. And what’s missing takes us back to the oft-cited 3 percent. As Will summarised, ‘this includes all translations, including reprints. If you distill the 3% number down to only new translations: only about 500 out of 500,000  – that is a .1% problem. How we as readers discover books’. But Deep Vellum is a publisher of our time, publishing the US edition of Andrei Kurkov’s Grey Bees. It is now the ‘fastest-selling book in Deep Vellum’s history. Kurkov has become the voice of Ukrainian writers. He’s been here, he’s the head of PEN Ukraine, he straddles the RUSS/UKR divide. Deep Vellum publishes a lot of Russian authors, like [Alisa] Ganieva who left because they were against the war. Ulitskaya wrote against the war and her Facebook page was shut down. […] Gorbunova was arrested at a protest for holding a sign that said нет. We are living in history’.

Following Will, we went to the world of literary translation commissions, starting with Lisa Hayden’s recorded interview in which she extolled the gory virtues of her RusTrans-supported translation of Alexei Salnikov’s The Department, followed by a live panel with translators Sian Valvis, Huw Davies and Sarah Vitali, all recipients of RusTrans bursaries and all candid in their accounts of pitching their new projects to publishers (a not entirely happy process).

We followed up with an entire recorded panel on the realities, practicalities and aspirations associated with translating from non-Russian languages/cultures (Dagestani, Kazakh, Uzbek) with Carol Apollonio, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, and Hamid Izmailov (which can be viewed in full here). And then it was back to hybrid presentations with a recording from Natalia Poleva, the foreign translation rights’ executive at Russian publisher EKSMO, and more in-person advice from translators James Womack, Arch Tait, Bryan Karetnyk, and Max Lawton on pitching translations and working with publishers. Our penultimate panel was dedicated to translation technologies and how IT can promote and publicise literature in translation (we heard from innovators like Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Tina Kover, Sarah Gear and Will Evans); and the last panel went to translators Oliver Ready (contrasting the reception of accepted classics, such as Dostoevsky, vs contemporary classics like Vladimir Sharov) , Antonia Lloyd-Jones (on the mass-market appeal of Polish crime fiction) and Olivia Hellewell (on how to fund the translation of Slovenian literature).

The final word came from Peter Kaufman in his poignant keynote: Publishing Russian Literature and Culture in a World Gone Mad.

With our special thanks to translator and former ALTA President Annie Fisher for transcribing the whole event!

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!


Translator William Barclay writes about the dark appeal of Bulat Khanov’s short novel Ire, which he is translating with support from the RusTrans project, and his strategies for framing and packaging it for prospective Anglophone publishers. You can read an extract from his translation-in-progress here.

Bulat Khanov

Packaging Bulat Khanov’s Ire

A quick scan of the books stuffed into the various shelves around my home reveals that three well-known authors crop up most frequently: American master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe, atmospheric English author Daphne du Maurier (Cornwall is my home, after all), and last, but certainly not least, Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky. A few decades ago, as a self-absorbed undergraduate student of Russian, the appeal of the latter’s works, with titles like Crime and Punishment, The Devils, The House of the Dead and Notes from Underground, seemed immediately obvious. I devoured almost all of them over one summer break in anticipation of studying a Dostoevsky module that autumn, so you can imagine my dismay when a last-minute staffing change meant the name of the module was switched to Leo Tolstoy two weeks before term started!

I’ve never regretted it, though, and, given my taste for what I’d call ‘psycho-lit’, it was fairly inevitable that, when the opportunity to be part of the RusTrans project arose, I chose something in a similar vein. Bulat Khanov’s Ire, with its existential depiction of troubled, dissatisfied academic Gleb Veretinsky, leapt out at me. What was there not to like about a contemporary novel entitled Gnev (which simply translates as Anger or Rage)? (Though I have chosen to call it Ire to capture better the lingering, simmering condition exhibited by the book’s protagonist.)

Of course, what I like doesn’t necessarily translate into what a prospective Anglophone publisher is looking for. At the outset, Khanov’s Russian publishers Eksmo acknowledged to me that, for now, Russian readers still prefer post-modernism to realism in their novels, but I am not sure the same necessarily applies to the Anglophone market. I have therefore sought to frame and package my pitches to publishers in ways designed to tap into a number of prevailing cultural narratives: mental health, toxic masculinity, violence inflicted by men against women, and the prevalence of pornography in mainstream society. To some degree, Khanov’s work shines light on all these issues, and, I believe, in doing so he adds an important, and relatively young (the author has just turned 30), male voice to the debate. Discussions in the UK media around toxic masculinity are sometimes notable for the glaring absence of contributions from, well, toxic males, to explain their own understanding of their behaviour. I listened to one, rather unenlightening radio debate about the free availability of pornography in the internet age, for example, in which balance was sought by pitting female sex workers against feminists, while male consumers of the product were reduced to mere context, a silent voice – perhaps too ashamed to participate, perhaps unwilling to be judged. Khanov’s portrayal of Gleb Veretinsky offers a bold, unflinching exposé of one such heterosexual male: an amusingly sardonic, high-minded academic on the one hand, and a porn-addicted, (mostly) horrible husband on the other. As Khanov states simply in Chapter 6, ‘Gleb Veretinsky was a dopamine addict, used to deriving satisfaction in the simplest of ways.’ The porn addiction seems to be an integral part of his developing psychosis, his impatience with his wife Lida and his exasperation with the world around him. He is used to quick fixes, and there aren’t any. In fact, as suggested to me recently by one of the RusTrans team, Veretinsky could be perceived as a modern-day version of Dostoevsky’s existentially unhappy Underground Man and indeed, my 1972 Penguin Classics edition of the English version of that story (translated by Jessie Coulson) opens with the words: ‘I am a sick man…I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.’ Gleb Veretinsky in a nutshell, perhaps.

Maybe it is the former journalist in me that feels the need to make claims about the novel’s relevance to what’s topical. There is plenty to enjoy besides about Ire: the way the reader is drawn down through the streets of the beautiful city of Kazan and its highly regarded university where ‘trees that had observed meetings and farewells, eavesdropped on thousands of private conversations’ greet Gleb ‘with the whisper of rustling leaves’; the way snippets of local life intersperse with amusingly caustic portraits of pretentious academics, lazy students, painters, even amateur whisky connoisseurs; the way the protagonist bemoans the commodification and bureaucracy of higher education, as well as his irksome relationships with his parents, his in-laws and his ex-girlfriend (who left him for a female lover). Some of the novel’s most engaging passages are Gleb’s periodic pep talks with his straight-talking best friend Slava and the novel is awash with striking cultural references, from frequent quotes by early 20th century Symbolist poets to discussions about contemporary fiction, the benefits of tea drinking and references to rock bands like Oasis, Razorlight and Muse.

And all the while, the protagonist’s ire is bubbling away underneath.

I realise some of the subject matter, and my framing of the novel, will not necessarily sit well with some mainstream publishers. But I’m not sure, either, that I accept the idea that the novel and the issues it invokes are especially ‘fringe’ or ‘edgy’. To me, Ire is a fascinating portrayal of straightforward mental breakdown which confronts an honest truth about the reality of male existence in contemporary society. My attempts to find the right Anglophone home for it are ongoing and I am extremely thankful for the continuing support provided by the RusTrans project team. I hope you enjoy the extract provided.

Read an extract from William’s translation of Ire 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.