Category Archives: Translation

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

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

Translating foreignness and folksiness in Aslan’s Bride

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

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

Nadezhda Chernova

Ossetian woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrei Astvatsaturov

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian cover for People In Nude

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

Lucy Webster

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

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.

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)

A Tale of Two Conferences (and Three Cities): Washington DC meets Moscow and St. Petersburg!

November 2020 is a busy month for RusTrans. After spending many months in socially distanced limbo, and our diaries cross-hatched with cancelled conferences, we finally reaped the benefits of inhabiting the virtual world! In a way which would not have been possible pre-Covid, where costs and logistics would normally limit our attendance capacity, the entire RusTrans team managed to be in three places at once: Washington DC and Moscow and St. Petersburg. With conferences slashing their costs to encourage online participation, everyone has won. (All we had to do, with varying success, was mind the time differences – and work through weekends).

And so, over two weekends in November (05-08 and 14-15) we participated in the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference in Washington DC, the theme of which this year (most fittingly) has been “Anxiety and Rebellion”. On Friday 06 November, RusTrans Postdoctoral Fellow Cathy McAteer presented her latest archival research (dating back to the blissful days when archives were open for researchers) to the panel ‘Literary Translators from Russian: Networks and Reception’. Her paper, ‘From Wedgwood to Wordsmith: A Micro-Historical Cameo of Michael Glenny’, explored the professional background of famed British translator of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (as well as works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the less well-known dissident author Georgii Vladimov (Vernyi Ruslan/Faithful Ruslan)). Her microhistory spotlighted some of Glenny’s translatorial dispositions (as gleaned from a range of primary material: letters, reviews, articles, notebooks spanning decades) and emphasised some translators’ natural inclinations towards the role of ‘translator-humanitarian’, which Glenny assumed later in his career by advocating for struggling living authors (Vladimov, for example, in the months preceding his ultimate defection), and for deceased authors denied full literary recognition (Bulgakov).

Fellow panellists gave fascinating papers on their research into authors/translators, networks and reception. Natalya Rulyova presented ‘Collaborative Self-Translation: Joseph Brodsky and His Translators’; Anna Karpusheva spoke about ‘Svetlana Alexievich’s Prose in the West: A Puzzle for a Translator’, and Julia Trubikhina gave us ‘Translating Elena Shvarts: The Shapeshifting of the Lyrical Subject’. Our chair Ronald Meyer skilfully (and genially) kept us on time and our discussant Elena Zemskova provided careful scrutiny, insightful commentary, and apposite questions, for which our thanks.

At midday British time on Saturday 7th  (early morning for some in the US), RusTrans Principal Investigator Muireann Maguire participated in and chaired her panel, ‘Literary Translation from Russian in a Global Context’. This panel united three papers: Muireann’s ‘Houses of the Dead: Dostoevsky in Irish Literature’, Elizabeth Geballe’s ‘Scandalous Homage: E.-M. de Vogüé’s ‘Translation’ of Dostoevsky’, and Lana Soglasnova’s ‘One-poem Multilingual Translations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective’. Acting as co-discussant (with Dr Jinyi Chu), Cathy used her slot to draw parallels from all three papers with Pascale Casanova’s titular concept of the World Republic of Letters. Casanova’s research tracks the global ebb and flow of national literatures. Muireann’s, Elizabeth’s, and Lana’s papers each spoke to some aspect – or incarnation – of the emergence and disappearance of national literatures in translation. Death, an overt literary theme in both Elizabeth’s and Muireann’s papers, also served as a metaphor for translation. Elizabeth described how the French scholar Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé demanded a literary re-naissance for moribund French realism specifically through translations of Russian literature. Muireann spoke about Irish novelist’s Máirtín O Cadhain’s homage to Dostoevsky in his 1949 masterpiece Graveyard Clay, which owed its genesis, as she argued, to The House of the Dead, a text very much alive in translation. And yet, unlike its transnational exemplar, O Cadhain’s novel itself has risked literary death because it is written in a localized  (and now almost extinct) dialect of Irish, and was not translated into any international languages until the twenty-first century.  The common theme binding all the anthologies explored in Lana’s paper is the resuscitation of dead poets, short-story writers and minority ethnic languages, projecting them either internally or externally into dozens of world languages as an act of outward-looking advertisement. The rationale behind such large-scale projects recalls Johann Herder’s 18th century claim, cited by Casanova, that ‘each epoch and nation possesses its own special character’ (2007, p. 76). One way to challenge unequal distribution of power in the emerging literary world is by creating a repository of national literary wealth which springs from ‘a country’s entire cultural and historical development’ (ibid.). It seems this might be the key skopos behind these anthologies, which we were told require significant investment, but also have the capacity to act as a vehicle for healing, by allowing the State to atone for historical instances of national domination of peoples, literatures, and languages.

Naturally, there were other ASEEES conference panels/roundtables which coincided specifically with RusTrans research interests, including ‘Translating Transculturally from the Caucasus and Central Asia’, a roundtable featuring US translators Kate Young, Carol Apollonio and Shelley Fairweather-Vega in discussion with fellow colleagues about the translation publishing, funding, and reception in the West of literature from the Caucasus and Central Asia, about the legacy of Soviet ideology over publishing practices, the quality of editing translations, and the willingness (or lack of) among Western publishers to take on commissions (taking us back to a now-familiar sticking point: if translators are not paid to come up with a sample text for translation, how is this supposed to happen sustainably?).

We also welcomed the panel ‘Overcoming the Anxiety of Authorship: Film Adaptations of Russian Classics in the 1990s-2000s’ chaired by Olga Hasty, with papers by Alexandra Smith, ‘Reimagining Fathers and Sons for the 21st Century: Dunya Smirnova’s 2008 Appropriation of Turgenev’s Novel’, Olga Sobolev’s ‘So could it be the same Anna?: The 2012 British Screen Version of Tolstoy’s Novel’ and Olga Partan’s ‘Anton Chekhov’s Plays on the American Screen: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) and The Seagull (2018)’, with Milla (Lioudmila) Fedorov as discussant. A major theme of this panel was that the reader as viewer, now that some weighty  Russian literary classics increasingly bypass reading by being repackaged as a visual, on-screen experience instead. This realisation may have made purists panic, only for them to be rapidly placated by Olga Sobolev’s statistics: sales of War and Peace, it seems, rose by 50% after the BBC aired Andrew Davies’s tv adaptation. If only we could now establish how many of those purchases were read (from start to finish –  not just the Natasha scenes – and for long enough to realise that there is no incest in the original!), and how many readers went on to pick up another Russian novel afterwards. 

A panel which surprised with its methodological offerings (on top of its fascinating content) was Sunday’s ‘Tamizdat as Cold War Literary Phenomenon’, with Denis Kozlov as Chair and papers by Ann Komaromi ‘Time-Delay Tamizdat’, Yasha Klots ‘Fantastic Realism Goes West: The Tamizdat Project of Abram Terts and Nikolai Arzhak’, Jessie Labov ‘Digitized Tamizdat: East-West Networks of Texts, People, and Ideas during the Cold War’, and Alexander Jacobson ‘The Case of the Four Gulags: Tamizdat as Publishing Practice’ (the discussant was Olga Matich). Jessie’s paper applied theoretical methodologies which offer a highly relevant framework for the interpretation of digital archive research. We came away with titles to consult – including Katherine Bode’s Reading by Numbers (2012) – a reading exercise which will come into its own as we spend the next few years extracting meaningful data from digital resources. Our thanks to all these wonderful panels, the erudite speakers, and to the organisers of ASEEES for not balking at the prospect of transferring their major conference online. Our team has come away with online innovations inspired by ASEEES which will help to shape our own (admittedly smaller) Translation Phoenix conference next Spring in Cambridge.

And just when you thought the weekend was quite busy enough with one conference, cue: Institut Perevoda’s 6th International Congress of Translators on the theme of ‘Literary Translation as a Medium for Cultural Diplomacy’, beaming in from Moscow and St. Petersburg from 12th-15th November. And so began the fun of juggling time zones, but how worth it! This year’s Congress, though shorter than ASEEES, hosted over 350 participants from 53 different countries (plus Russia), and offered a packed programme of Zoom panels, split into seven sections and running in parallel throughout the day:

  1. Prose Translation
  2. Poetry Translation
  3. Theatre, Cinema, Graphic Novels
  4. Children’s and Youth Literature
  5. Writer, Translator, Publisher: the art of compromise
  6. The Linguistic Landscape of Literary Translation
  7. The Science of Translation: Schools and Workshops

And not only that, but interviews too (with Maria Stepanova, Roman Senchin, Andrei Astvatsaturov, for example), a flashmob, videos by key industry players, and an announcement in the last few hours of the Congress of ReadRussia’s finalists.

François Deweer

There was impressive flexibility for participants to move from one panel to another and catch a flavour of all seven categories. This Congress was an opportunity to re-connect with familiar faces (Marian Schwartz, Lisa Hayden), re-connect with some also juggling ASEEES (Carol Apollonio, Kate Young), and make new acquaintances through the chat and discussions; share global industry knowledge; and muse on the future of translation publishing, especially as it navigates a route out of the unexpected challenges posed by Covid-19. Cathy’s paper ‘Современная русская литература за границей: случай ошибочной идентификации’ (‘Modern Russian Literature Abroad: A Case of Mistaken Identity’) featured in the section ‘Writer, Translator, Publisher: the art of compromise’ along with papers on translating from Korean (Alexandra Finogenova) and Italian (Marina Arias-Vikhil) into Russian, about Georgian reading preferences in Russian literature (Tamara Rekk-Kotrikadze), and what the French Russian Library is publishing and selling (by our exemplary moderator, and co-ordinator of France’s Russian Library, François Deweer).

Carol Apollonio

Cathy’s paper – gauging the extent to which the Anglophone West’s obsession with classics of Russian and dissident literature prevents the promotion of new Russian literary sensations in translation – posed more questions than it could answer, and duly prompted some lively discussion in the chat. If you would like to hear the paper for yourselves, you can watch it here, and in fact, all the papers which were presented during the Congress. Institut Perevoda did a marvellous job of uploading all panels in record time on YouTube for free catch-up for all (ASEEES, alas, does not yet appear to have recorded or uploaded anything like the same amount). You’ll find Lisa Hayden talking about translating Vodolazkin, Marian Schwartz sharing her author-translator interactions with Nina Berberova, Galina Alekseeva discussing the history of Tolstoy in Anglophone translation, and Carol Apollonio on the enhanced understanding students can gain of a source text by considering multiple, historical translations (in this case, of Crime and Punishment), and many, many more! On Nov 14th, the longlist of finalists for the «Читай Россию/Read Russia»  prize 2020 was officially announced (it includes many brilliant translations and many friends of RusTrans); the winners will be announced on Dec 22nd. Can you handle the suspense?

Cathy McAteer with Muireann Maguire

 

 

Anger Management Issues: Translating Bulat Khanov’s Gnev

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

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

Anger

                                           Gnev (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Булат Ханов на Non/fiction 2019

 Bulat Khanov

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

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

William Barclay

Translating the Uncanny Valley: Victor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Sligh (contact translator)