Category Archives: Post-Soviet 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.

 

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.