Category Archives: New Russian Literature

Bristol Translates! with Lucy Webster

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

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

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

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

Robert Chandler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narine Abgaryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Manunia, Chapter One)

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

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

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

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

 

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

Andrei Astvatsaturov

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian cover for People In Nude

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

Lucy Webster

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

Conferencing in Cork: Sarah Gear on Reading in Translation

RusTrans PhD student, Sarah Gear, spent two days online-conferencing at University College Cork this week, the theme being ‘Reading in Translation’.  The questions which this event answered (and created!) proved relevant not just to readers and translators of Russian literature, but readers of any age and any language… Read on to find out what she discovered… 

On Monday 17 May, Jennifer Arnold opened Reading In Translation: Approaches to the Study of the Reception of Translated Literature by posing the question ‘who is this reader that everyone seems to be basing translation and publishing decisions on?’ Over the next two days, speakers provided a wide variety of answers as we heard from researchers, bloggers, publishers and translators themselves. It became clear both from these presentations, and through the questions and conversations at the end of each session, that readers of translations are far from a static end-point of the translation process, but an integral part of the dynamic exchange between author, text, translator, critic, blogger, publisher, source and target cultures – not to mention between readers themselves. Indeed, reading communities, whether they are formed through schools, book groups, blogs or social media, were a recurring theme, reinforced by the virtual coming together of so many delegates, all readers of course themselves, for this fascinating exploration of translation reception.

Keynote speaker Leo Tak-Hung Chan addressed the search for the identity of this real reader at the end of the first day, in his talk Rediscovering the “Real” Reader of Translations: From Historical to Empiricist Approaches. Dr. Chan talked about the methodological challenges in charting reader response to texts, and considered the use of microhistories, ethnographic studies, and research on book groups, quoting a wide range of sources, and looking outside of Translation Studies for inspiration. Dr. Chan pointed out that translators are often seen as the closest readers of a translated text, and so it was interesting to hear from translators Anton Hur, Daniel Hahn, and Gitanjali Patel in the evening panel later that same day. All three spoke about their reading habits, and how this informed their work. Daniel Hahn made the interesting point that “We keep translating literary fiction. Most of the time it doesn’t sell well, and that serves us right“, which begs the question of what we should translate, and what publishers could do differently. This question linked in part to my own paper What do We Want to Read? Adventures in Contemporary Russian Fiction, where I talked about the low sales of contemporary Russian literature in translation, and the number of novels translated by the Big Five that fall into the trap of being overtly political, or portraying Russia as ‘bad’  – a trend that has not agreed with the tastes of the online Contemporary Russian Reading Group which I run using Discord (get in touch with me if you’d like to join).

Communal reading and reader reception was discussed in the panel, Researching Reading Groups: A Methodological Approach by Duygu Tekgül-Akin, who talked about her fascinating work with UK book groups, providing some touching insights into British reading culture. Jennifer Arnold talked about her own work in Cork with library-based reading groups, and the effects of selecting translated literature tailored to particular communities – she noted the positive effects of choosing a translation from Polish for a community that had a large number of Polish members. Bethan Benwell also shared experiences of her book-group research, where she tracked the reading of three different Anglophone books across the world, recording the responses of book groups to what she termed ‘diasporic fiction’ and evaluating them in consideration of their locations, taking into account the ‘situated’ nature of their responses.

The theme of communal reading was reprised in the second keynote talk, Book Events, Babbling Beasts and Bestsellers: Researching Shared Reading where Danielle Fuller spoke about ‘mass reading events’. She highlighted the One Book One Community project that she witnessed being run in Chicago, and described the enthusiasm of a teenage book group when the whole city was invited to read Pride and Prejudice. Her discussion of the importance of reading in school communities also underscored the power that literature has to challenge and stimulate young people. This was also a topic highlighted by Gitanjali Patel, who runs Shadow Heroes, a school-based programme of workshops led by translators, which encourages teens to interpret texts not based on the responses they think they are supposed to produce, but on their own reactions as readers.

This idea of reader as collaborator, and ultimately as the ‘producer of meaning’, was beautifully illustrated by Helena Buffery’s discussion of theatre translation, Reading The Future: Rehearsed Readings and Border Crossings. She described the way in which she approached the translation of a script by workshopping it with actors and translation students, using actors’ own experiences to create a ‘collaborative meaning-making process’ and noted that translation problems resolved themselves when they were read by actors, who brought their own meaning to the text.

In contrast to these considerations of group reading responses, Callum Walker gave a fascinating talk, Idiosyncrasies and Commonalities in the Reading Experience of Salient Style: Insights from an Eye-tracking Experiment, about tracking eye movements of individual readers in order to assess the effects of translation decisions on the reading experience – in this case three versions of Queneau’s Zazie dans le Métro. It was fascinating to hear about the link between text complexity and eye movement, and about the variation of response between different readers.

Translation decisions were measured on individuals in a very different way by Katinka Zeven and Lettie Dorst, who presented their work, Daisy Buchanan in Retranslation: Characterization and Reader Reception, on translations of The Great Gatsby, comparing two translations from Dutch written 40 years apart, and asking their readers for their impressions of central female character Daisy Buchanan. They pointed out that just as society changes, so do the novels’ readers; this enabled them to consider the effect of translation strategies on readers’ opinions of Daisy in a study that was temporal rather than cultural. They discussed the effects of retranslations and the difficulties of creating unbiased reader surveys along the way.

With her paper Disoriental: Translation and Reception through the Prism of the Paratexts, Clíona Ní Ríodáin continued to consider the effects of translation strategies on the reader with a discussion of Désorientale by Négar Djavadi, and its translation from the French by Tina Kover. As with the previous talk about The Great Gatsby, Clíona considered paratextual elements and their effect on the reader and reception of the book, and this provoked a lovely discussion with Tina Kover who was attending, about the use and effectiveness of footnotes, italicisation of foreign words, and how this was tied to her understanding about how much ‘hand-holding’ the readers of her translation might need.

The response of reviewers as readers was considered by the next couple of speakers. Malin Podlevskikh Carlström, with her talk Receiving the Intertextual: The Reception of Tatyana Tolstaya’s Kys’ in Sweden and the United States, discussed the critical responses to translations from Russian into both English and Swedish of Tatiana Tolstaya’s The Slynx. She explained how the domestication of major intertextual elements of the Russian text in the Swedish translation affected the nature of the reviews it received. Following this, Tiffane Levick, with her paper Fact or Fiction? Reading and Receiving Life on the Fringes, talked about the presentation of authors themselves, discussing the translation of Faïza Guène’s Kiffe kiffe demain in both American and British editions, and explaining that the presentation of Guène as peripheral, stressing her Algerian parents, and placing emphasis on the fact that she was from the banlieue of Paris, influenced the way her novels were presented in translation, ultimately encouraging both textual and paratextual foreignizing strategies.

This idea of manipulating literature via translation to conform to national stereotypes was taken up in different ways by Marjorie Huet-Martin and Owen Harrington Fernández. Marjorie, in her paper Translating for ‘Cultural Outsider Readers’: the Case of Ian Rankin’s Rebus Novels, discussed the ways in which Scottish culture was brought over into French in translations of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, provoking the conference’s first footnote conversation. Owen, with his talk Censored Interactions in Translation: A Model, discussed the sanitising of translated literature for children, using the example of Elvira Lindo’s Manolito Gafotas, translated from the Spanish, and considering how it was made more acceptable to an Anglophone audience.

As a counterpoint to the search for a definition of the reader of translations, Laura Linares pointed out in her paper, Who Reads the Periphery, that finding readers is not always the main aim of a novel in translation. Describing the scenario of supply-driven translation of Galician fiction, she talked about the revolution of print on demand, and the efforts of independent Small Stations Press to translate and publish Galician literature. Laura explained that their main initial concern was often not to find an actual reader per se, but to legitimise the Galician language and culture through the sheer fact of Galician novels existing in English.

The conversation titled Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone between Helena Buffery, Ann Morgan and Helen Vasallo was an inspiring one about reading from different cultures. Through their blogs, Ann’s A Year of Reading the World and Helen’s Translating Women, Helen and Ann talked about the enthusiasm of other readers, writers, and translators for the projects, and the pure curiosity that drives them. Both women saw their projects as a way to push back against what Helen called the ‘eurocentrality of translated literature’ which is obsessed, she said, with the ‘cult of the familiar’; Ann agreed, citing what she termed the ‘genrefication of national literatures’ as a major obstacle to discovering new and innovative voices from across the world. From this conversation, it became obvious that readers, whoever they are, are not a passive audience, but a dynamic community that can effect change by reading more widely, and demanding more diverse books from publishers.

This theme was nicely echoed by a roundtable titled Blogging the World, chaired by Jennifer Arnold, with book bloggers Stuart Allen (Winston’s Dad), David Hebblethwaite (David’s Book World) and Marcia Jarnell (Lizzy’s Literary Life), who talked about their reading habits, and the reasons behind their decisions to read and blog about more translated literature. Among many other subjects, they talked about being part of the International Booker shadow jury, and the act of collecting books vs. reading them (something I am also definitely guilty of) and of simply being guided by what interests them when it comes to selecting books, rather than specifically seeking out either translated, or non-translated titles.

Tying all of this together, the final discussion, The Publisher and the Reader, heard from independent publishers Tice Cin from Tilted Axis, Maddie Rogers at Peirene Press and Emma Wright at The Emma Press. These three women provided a fascinating insight into how publishers take their readers into account, and the motivation behind their publishing decisions. Reprising the subject of community reading, Maddie spoke about the Borderless Book Club she runs, and its success over the past year, as well as its importance as a model and route to interest more and more people in literary translation.

Growing from this dynamic, wide-ranging, and thoughtfully organised two-day forum was a renewed understanding of the varied and complex nature of readerships, and of the dynamic role readers can and should play in the reception of translated literature. As Jennifer Arnold stated in her closing comments, hopefully this conference, and the conversation it has started, will act as a springboard for sharing more information and research about reader reception of translation, and pave the way for more research in this fascinating area.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Read the extract here

 

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

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

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

A Film by Any Other Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Vitali

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

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

Translating Tasha Karlyuka

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danishevsky’s Mannelig in Chains – New Guest Post from Translators Alex Karsavin and Anne O. Fisher

Co-translators Alex Karsavin and Anne O. Fisher on their project, Ilya Danishevsky’s 2018 novel Mannelig in Chains, which seeks to show rather than tell what queer subjectivity feels like, from the inside out. Their translation has been seed-funded by the ERC Horizon 2020 Fund via the RusTrans project. Read an extract from their translation here

Having weathered a history of persecution and repression, Russia’s LGBT writers of the 1990s and early 2000s sought to bring homosexual relations out into the open. If the aughts were defined by a literary corpus that was formally conventional, often confessional, and concerned with liberal visibility politics, the last decade has seen the emergence of a more formally diverse, radical literature that posits itself as ‘kvir’ rather than LGBT.

The first wave of such writers, including Oksana Vasyakina, Nastia Denisova, and Lida Yusupova, foregrounded a poetics of queer embodiment firmly anchored in liberatory feminist politics. A good example would be Galina Rymbu’s poem ‘My Vagina’ (2020), written in response to the case of Yulia Tsvetkova, an activist threatened with six years in prison for ‘disseminating pornography’ in the form of body-positive art.

The second, and ongoing, wave of writing has proven more speculative, and thus more difficult to define. This newest generation seeks to convey alternative queer modalities formally rather than thematically. They create queer literature of a deconstructionist bent, working to disrupt dominant modes of signification, often dispensing with grammatical gender and linear diegesis altogether in favor of fragmentation, liminality, syntactic defamiliarization, and simultaneity. The cumulative effect of these formal strategies is to present a counter-hegemonic subject, whose fluidity precludes co-opting into any monolithic whole. Writers of this wave include Lolita Agamalova, Georgi Martyrosan, Andrei Filatov, Inna Krasnoper, and many others.

Of course the lines between the two waves aren’t fixed. (See Filatov’s essay ‘Kvir Buttons’ [in Russian] for an in-depth breakdown of the two waves, and the gradations between them. It is his theorization of the scene that we, albeit loosely, have adapted here.) For example, scene leader Galina Rymbu, whose early work pastiched queer poetics with leftist sloganeering, is now experimenting with autotheory, while integrating the tenets of new materialism and posthumanism into her work. In similar fashion, Ilya Danishevsky exists somewhere between these waves. His protagonist’s sexuality and politics are recognizable; however, little else in the 2018 novel Mannelig in Chains lends itself to such a direct interpretation.

We read the fluid, often alienating, experience of being interpolated as queer in Russia as encoded in the novel’s language. Mannelig’s protagonist is a gay youth adrift in the detritus of Russia of the late 90s-early aughts. Time is not linear: it surges, eddies, and finally congeals into memory. Surfacing out of the diegetic haze, characters flicker in and out of focus. It’s not only the borders of identity that are porous, but the borders of chapters as well: motifs from one section seep into the next, constantly pulling the reader back and forth.

Russophone critics were drawn to these qualities, with most finding them compelling and generative; Elena Kostyleva, for example, called the text a touchstone of a new ‘dirty modernism’, in which ‘all structures are fragile, all identifications fallen’. But another way of understanding these qualities is that they identify Mannelig as part of what scholars, most recently Jose Vergara, have called the Joycean tradition in Russophone literature. Mannelig is the first participant in this tradition, however, to deploy the Joycean aesthetic as means of exploring and manifesting a queer poetics. The Homeric parallels, with chapters named after the books of the Odyssey (as in Joyce’s Ulysses), are just the most obvious signs of the link. The text’s temporal discontinuity and self referentiality create a circular flow to events, much akin to Finnegan’s Wake—and in fact Danishevsky told us that he was thinking of the transformation of the washerwomen in Joyce’s novel when he mentioned a ‘tearful stone’ (associated here with the river Jordan, not the river Liffey) in Chapter Four of Mannelig, ‘Back-to-Back Obligations (Tempestad Grande, Amigo) // The Laestrygonians’. Punctuation-free stream of consciousness narration pervades Danishevsky’s text, which teems with allusions to Irish mythology, an overbearing estranged mother, and Catholicism. Not to mention the fact that for Bloomsday 2020, Danishevsky organized a marathon reading of Ulysses (in Russian) through the Voznesensky Center as a fundraiser for Russian doctors. An adequate elaboration of Mannelig’s Joyceanism must remain outside the scope of this brief treatment; we hope simply to demonstrate that Mannelig bespeaks a queering not only of 90s Moscow, but also of genre, subverting the formalist wheelhouse to show, rather than tell, what queer subjectivity feels like, from the inside out.

Early in the translation process, we had an email conversation with Danishevsky about translating промоина (gully, rain channel, hole, cavity), a recurring word in Chapter Eight, ‘Remains of Nebuchadnezzar, Part 1.’ His explanation helped us better understand the chapter, and the book as a whole:

AK and AF: Should this be translated according to sound or according to meaning?

ID: According to how it sounds, to the feeling you get from the word. It’s exactly this unsuitability (непригодностью) for living, this escapism, this being-parallel-to-existence (which I feel in all academic work) […] The whole text there’s written in ‘unsuitable’ language (‘непригодным’ языком), maximally alienated from yourself…

In one way Danishevsky’s explanation created another challenge, since there are so many shades of meaning for непригодность, all apposite to the text: непригодность means inadequacy, insufficiency, uselessness, and incompetence, while something that is непригодный (unsuitable) is something that should be scrapped or discarded. But the primary effect of his explanation was to confirm our perception of the text’s Joycean, self-referential, self-interrupting language, allowing us to work with these discards and false starts and dead ends as the basis of the work, not as flaws in it. These непригодности (insufficiencies), as well as the sense of maximal alienation (from oneself, from the body politic), emerge in places like the following excerpt from ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, where the narrator is carrying an empty glass jar to be used in a neopagan rite meant to free him from his feelings for an acquaintance in a Moscow suburb, a rite suggested by the female friend he texts:

That is to say, you do not write her that you’ve brought a glass jar to the town of the man you love, due to the fact that a kind of nimbus of meanings is making the expression ‘the man I love’ too overloaded; due to the fact that it’s not all as simple as that; is it ‘man’ as in his body, or ‘man’ as in the political construct, and so forth; and also, what is this ‘I,’ and what is this ‘love,’ and does that word say more about the referent than about you; and so forth; all of this is unclear, which is why you can’t (won’t) say things like that. You will use more evasive strategies, even for yourself. (from Mannelig in Chains)

This passage owes as much to deconstructionism as it does to Joyce, manifesting Danishevsky’s characteristic blending of disparate critical and literary frameworks. Another echo of Joyce occurs in chapter four, ‘Back-to-Back Obligations (Tempestad Grande, Amigo) // The Laestrygonians,’ which ends in a narrative fragment inviting us to recall the parallax on which Bloom fixates in ‘The Laestrygonians’—although it’s true that Danishevsky’s personae tend to suffer from too much understanding, rather than too little:

thinking of those days, of the fact that they’ve ended, I think about how everything that comes after them will also end, and how it’s not really so far off, I just need to hold on for as long as it takes and wherever it takes me and how then I’ll no longer need to try. how I’ll be able to simply observe the way it seeps through all the surfaces I look at, leaving me with less than what’s left to each of them—and everything will someday just disappear—and there won’t be any more of this, or of what I remember when I examine it. (from Mannelig in Chains)

In translating Mannelig in Chains, we are working toward another time that, we hope, is also ‘not really so far off’: the time when we can introduce readers to Danishevsky’s Moscow, a city every bit as disconcerting, and as strangely illuminated, as Joyce’s Dublin. Read an extract from Chapter 1 of Mannelig in Chains, ‘Shadows over Mutabor’, in our translation here.

Written by Alex Karsavin and Anne O. Fisher (2021)

Salnikov’s The Department – New Guest Post from Translator Lisa Hayden

Lisa C. Hayden is one of the best-known Russian-to-English literary translators working today; she is also a participant in the RusTrans “Publish Translations” case study, for which she produced a 10,000-word sample from Alexei Salnikov’s 2017 novel Otdel (The Department). You can read more about Salnikov here and you can read a short extract from Lisa’s translation of The Department here.

Lisa writes:

Translating extended excerpts from Alexei Salnikov’s The Department was a perfect project for the rather dysfunctional summer of 2020. Salnikov’s strange and sinister world is mine yet not mine, and the hidden forces that he depicts are both personal and state-based, banal and evil.

After consulting with Salnikov’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova, who also checked in with Salnikov, I settled on translating three chunks of the novel. The beginning is a scene-setting necessity that describes the department itself. A lengthy section detailing the main character’s presence at his first killing contains questions too good to skip. And a visit to a co-worker’s wife shows two characters away from work.

Taken together, these three extracts show the odd world Salnikov has created, showcasing its disorienting but realistic weirdness and absurdities. Not to mention Salnikov’s sly humor. It’s my hope that these chunks of the book will capture a publisher’s imagination the way the Russian version of The Department captured mine back in 2019. As the pandemic continues to continue, I find myself ever more drawn to books with the “twisted normalcy” I mentioned in a post from my personal blog which I wrote in 2019 (see below). I very much hope a translated version of Salnikov’s peculiar world will soon be available to anglophone readers, thanks to these excerpts translated under the aegis of the RusTRANS project.

The Big Wheel Effect: Salnikov’s Chilling Department

Alexei Salnikov’s Отдел (The Department), the author’s debut novel, is one of those marvelously maddening books that’s nearly impossible to write about because the experience of reading was so total, so all-consuming, and so invasive that it moved in and occupied my psyche. The visit may be permanent. Thanks to dark humor, a macabre plot, and Salnikov’s portrayal of twisted normalcy in a place that seems irreparably fragmented, The Department is a painfully (in an almost physical sense) tense book to read. Although it’s easy enough to recount plot basics – Salnikov knows how to tell a story – it’s far harder to interpret the novel because Salnikov packs in so much, so many layers: writer Shamil Idiatullin’s blurb on the back of the Russian edition offers five possible takes on The Department (including a dystopia that reinterprets/revisits American and Soviet writings or the “we were just following orders” scenario) and I could add several more, including an old favorite, the absurdity of contemporary life.

The gist of the story is that a man, Igor, who lost his job long ago, finally succeeds at finding work in a certain murky office (the department in the title) located in an old heating plant. He has a few coworkers – his boss’s first two initials are SS, leading to a nickname – who are also, for various reasons, unemployable outcasts. They all know they’re a bit off. The most immediate reason, I suppose, has less to do with their backgrounds than with their jobs, which involve killing. Sometimes they do that by making house calls, sometimes they do the job in the department’s basement, which they call Hollywood. Either way, Igor has problems at home, too. Mild spoiler: his wife (who’s pretty successful at work, frustrated with Igor’s job situation, and even mentions PMS and menopause – I think Salnikov is one of the first Russian writers I’ve read who mentions пэмээс) will end up bailing on him, taking their son with her.

For Igor, that’s something of a relief, particularly given the nature of the department’s work, which is a strong, stressful force that serves to bond the guys: they take smoke breaks together and drink together, like lots of co-workers do, making them seem pretty normal for much of the book. At least until the next killing assignment. For me, anyway, this, another variation on the banality of evildoers, is at the root of the tension I mentioned in my opener: Salnikov shifts between relatively mundane things – bureaucracy or a wife’s affair – and that killing, resulting in contrasts that remind me of nothing more than the scene in The Shining, where Danny rides his Big Wheel over bare floors (noisy) and rugs (quiet). It’s the sound that matters there, jarring the viewer each time those big wheels hit the bare floor. In The Department, the killing sure seems pointless (slight spoiler: Igor’s job is to read dozens of inane questions to the victim, for a weird interrogation about things like fear of heights, frequency of sharpening kitchen knives, and the like) and about all that we know is that it’s brutal. And that we don’t want to look. It’s as if the plot hits that bare floor, jarring the reader’s nerves and sensibilities after the soft rug of, say, Igor talking with his son (even if there is a mention of guns, aliens, and terrorism). I should add that Salnikov made a brilliant choice in choosing Igor’s part of the killings. Allegedly the victims are threats – one is a young woman and at one point, Igor wonders who will be next: someone disabled, a child, a cancer patient, or even a panda – but the killers themselves have no idea why. They even wonder if they’re aliens. As, of course, they are themselves in their society: the department’s location isn’t even on the map. What’s scariest is that Salnikov constantly forces the reader to ponder how bad these characters’ actions are, forcing the reader to ponder what they would do in, say, Igor’s place.

All that pondering – you know what they’re doing is wrong but yet… – has a Big Wheel effect on the reader, too, and ratchets up the suspense because the reader becomes so involved. Salnikov builds a world that’s ours yet not (we hope, we really hope) ours, a place where horrible things that are part of some larger plan are hidden, occult, and in the shadows at a derelict heating plant, along with characters who aren’t clued in. Salnikov wraps up the novel’s epilogue with Igor telling a small lie, a lie he wants to believe. The novel’s final paragraph speaks about lies and illusions that, essentially, hold the world together. It’s horrifyingly homey. Ignorance is bliss. Better the sweet lie than the bitter truth.