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Celebrating “PUBLISH” Success!

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

The Best of World SF: 2 Image

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

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

Cathy McAteer and Muireann Maguire

Chicago, Chicago!

RusTrans goes to ASEEES 2022

10-13 November 2022

Three years and one pandemic since RusTrans last crossed the pond to the US (see our ALTA November 2019 blog post), three of our team – PI Muireann Maguire, PDRA Cathy McAteer and PhD candidate Anna Maslenova – arrived to an unseasonably warm (23 degrees) Chicago for ASEEES 2022.  Muireann arrived hot-on-the-heels from her epic journey across Northern US consulting archives for her research on American publishers of Russian literature; Anna arrived from the British Library where she has been participating in a short-term PhD placement digitising material on indigenous Siberian peoples; and I arrived from my own digitised scans of the Olga Carlisle archives at the Hoover Institution. Having not seen our US friends and colleagues in-person in all this time, our own exuberance added to a general mood of infectious excitement in the spacious lobby of the conference venue, the historic Palmer House Hotel (legendary birthplace of the brownie, setting for scenes in The Fugitive).

Palmer House Hilton peacocks

Working to a theme of precarity, this year’s ASEEES set out to grapple with the macro and micro concerns currently dominating the field of Slavonic and East European Studies, from the obvious consideration of Russia’s war in Ukraine, to the lesser (but still relevant) concerns over job precarity in academia and the need for diversity and decolonisation. The theme could not have been more apt for present times and, not surprisingly, panels and roundtables devoted to Ukraine and Ukrainian Studies were plentiful; in evidence too, were warmly welcomed Ukrainian academics who have taken up scholarships in the US and elsewhere in Europe having been forced to leave Ukraine. In so many respects, this was their conference.

For RusTrans, ASEEES presented an opportunity for the three of us to re-engage with the Translation Studies’ community, with translator-scholars whom we first met at ALTA42, such as Carol Apollonio, Ellen Elias-Bursac, Olga Bukhina, Brian James Baer, and with some of our contributors to the RusTrans edited volume Translating Russian Literature in a Global Context. An impressive range of panels and roundtables attended to themes that are at the heart of RusTrans. The opening afternoon, for example, saw ‘Publishing in Precarious and Extreme Conditions: Stories from the Practitioners’ (with Irina Paperno, Igor Nemirovsky, Irina Prokhorova, Katharina Raabe and Matvei Yankelevich), in which Matvei flagged his concerns that, in the same way that Cold War literature became inextricably linked with the Gulag and has struggled since to shake off this association, Ukrainian literature risks becoming similarly typecast but in a purely war setting.

Friday saw the first of three ‘Precarity of Translation’ panels scheduled during the conference. This panel, the Precarity of Tradition, started with Anna’s paper ‘Vladimir Chertkov vs. the Maudes: Precarious Translators of Tolstoy’s Religious Works in English’, drawing on her thesis research.

Anna Maslenova, RusTrans PhD student

Brian Baer (Kent State University) followed with his analysis of Merezhkovskii’s Voskresshie Bogi in translation, and then University of Eastern Finland’s Hannu Kemppanen presented his insightful (and impressively succinct) assessment of over a century of Soviet/Russian translation practice to present day in his paper ‘Precarity or Stability?: Features of Translation Culture in the Soviet Union and Russia’.

In the panel dedicated to exploring ‘Changing Dynamics of Cultural Politics During the Thaw Period’, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice’s postdoctoral scholar Ilaria Sicari presented her archival research on ‘Books as Ideological Weapons of the Cultural Cold War’. Ilaria drew on archived reports, readers’ letters, statistics and official correspondence to elaborate on the political aims, methods and target reader profiles of the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Book Distribution Programs that were conducted between 1951 and 1991.

Ilaria Sicari

The objective of these programs was to counter Communist propaganda by distributing specially selected works in Soviet/East European countries with softer, more penetrable, border controls (Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, the Baltic States). Ilaria gave a content-rich and engaging analysis of this significant era in modern Europe of translation as soft power.









Dartmouth College’s Ainsley Morse chaired a roundtable ‘New Scholarship on Contemporary Russian Literature and Culture for Children and Teens’, which brought together in discussion Olga Bukhina (independent scholar and translator), Kelly Herold (Grinnell College), Jenny Kaminer (UC Davis) and Andrea Lanoux (Connecticut College). Their presentations and group discussion tracked developments in the post-Soviet landscape of children’s/YA literature in translation from 1991 (with reference to authors like Mariam Petrosyan, Yulia Yakovleva, Liudmila Petrushevskaya, and Narine Abgaryan whose Maniunia features among our seed-funded RusTrans commissioned translations). They introduced their edited volume Growing Out of Communism (Brill, 2021) and explored the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on authorship and translation publishing, including small but brave anti-war literary gestures.

Friday afternoon brought Muireann’s stellar panel ‘Irreverent Approaches to Russian Literature: Expect the Unexpected’. Muireann’s paper utilised her recent research at William Golding’s Exeter-based archive – which she was inspired to visit having read Golding’s Leo Tolstoy essay in the prose anthology The Hot Gates. She drew meticulous (and eye-opening) comparisons between the eponymous lives and deaths in Golding’s novel Pincher Martin and Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych.

RusTrans PI Muireann Maguire

Muireann’s paper joined other wittily irreverent presentations by Bryn Mawr’s José Vergara (paper: ‘Dostoevsky: Pop Star’, accompanied by YouTube clips for Scott Helman’s song ‘Dostoevsky’ and David Robert Mitchell’s film ‘It Follows’), Uni of Missouri’s Tim Langen (‘Steampunk Tolstoy or Android Karenina’), Uni of Indiana’s Jacob Emery presenting a Nabokovian paper ‘Prankster Ghost vs Teenage Ghost Tricker’, with chair Thomas Seifrid (USC Dornsife) and equally droll discussanting by Eric Naiman (Berkeley)

Jose Vergara





Saturday morning dawned with ‘Literary Afterlives’, a panel chaired by Ilya Vinitsky with Uni of Indiana’s Lizi Geballe animatedly presenting  on Tolstoy’s Gospel Translators, Rutger’s Chloe Kitzinger drawing compelling complit parallels between Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent and Zora Neale Huston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the inimitable Eric Naiman once again treating the audience to a Russian reimagining of Knausgaard’s ‘bathroom scene’. Amherst discussant Dale E. Peterson tied all the loose ends with aplomb and oversaw much audience engagement.

Lizi Geballe

Saturday rounded off with our long-awaited Literary Diversity and Translation roundtable featuring from RusTrans Cathy and Anna (who organised our submission to ASEEES – thank you, Anna!), our chair Natasha Rulyova and her PhD student Mukile Kasongo (both from University of Birmingham), and Brian Baer (a busy and active ASEEES participant!). Presentations began with Brian’s definition and exploration of what we mean by literary diversity and how it can manifest itself in the 21st century *if* publishers are willing. Mukile made a case for hybrid translation as a means of retaining an essential flavour of ethnicity at a text-based level. Anna coordinated her PhD research on the much maligned turn-of-the-century US translator of Chekhov and Korolenko, Marian Fell, with photos Anna has digitised as part of her British Library PhD placement on indigenous Siberian tribes. Cathy presented her latest archival research on women diversifying and decolonising literary translation during the mid- to late-twentieth century up to the present day (Olga Carlisle and Mirra Ginsburg through to Marian Schwartz, Katherine E. Young, Carol Apollonio and Lisa Hayden).

Brian Baer and Cathy McAteer

Natasha concluded with an overview of her AHRC grant application to fund literary translation into English of Russia’s ethnic authors in a bid to diversify and decolonise the Russian literary canon abroad while giving voice to new writers from remotest Russia. If successful, this grant will involve in varying capacities Brian, Cathy, and several independent publishers.

O’Hare airport – thank you, Chicago!

Chicago, ASEEES, we had a ball – see you in Philadelphia in 2023 (fingers crossed!)

RusTrans Returns… to Dublin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for…

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

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




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

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




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

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

Go raibh maith agat!


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

Image design and artwork: Dr Cathy McAteer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bulat Khanov

Packaging Bulat Khanov’s Ire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read an extract from William’s translation of Ire here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelley Fairweather-Vega

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

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

Translating Dmitry Bykov’s novel June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1:

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

Part 2:

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

Part 3:

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

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

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

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

Huw Davies



Translators on Lockdown: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (X)

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

Here are some of their stories.

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

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

         Ekaterina Simonova

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

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

One of Julia’s recent translations

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


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


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


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

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

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

New Russias in Manchester: A Festival of Diversity

New Russias

As a PhD researcher, it’s easy to focus solely on my own interests in Russian culture and neglect the bigger picture. That’s why heading to Manchester on the weekend of 7th-9th February for the New Russias Festival was so rewarding. Organised by PhD students from Leeds and Manchester Universities, the weekend began with a symposium studying Russian culture since 2010, of which more below. This was followed by a plethora of cultural events, including gigs from Motorama and Pompeya, readings and talks from writers Elena Chizhova, and Anatoly Kudryavitsky, and screenings and discussions with director Sergei Kachkin, not to mention an art walk following Russian artists’ impressions of Manchester, where, thankfully, it was still sunny.

The beginning of the art walk led by artist Alisa Oleva

Friday’s symposium offered panels on the music, cinema,  arts, and literature (respectively) of contemporary Russia, with many areas of crossover and consensus. The music panel, with presentations from Alexei Semenenko, Caroline Ridler and Ilya Yablokov, explored how the music industry wields power, with artists joining forces with politicians for their mutual benefit  (Тимати and his Black Star empire are a good example of this) but also joining in protesting against the status quo. They discussed rap as protest art, mentioning rap by Хаски, Дельфин and Oxxxymiron, as well as the endurance of Viktor Tsoi’s protest song Я Хочу Перемен. Tsoi’s cult of personality has been politicised and used by activists on both sides of the political divide. My favourite takeaway from the conference was Russian TV presenter Kiselyov’s insistence that rap was a Russian invention; he proceeded to rap Mayakovsky to prove his point. You can draw your own conclusions…

Sergei Kachkin talks to Adelaide McGinity-Peebles about his film On the Way Home

Jade McGlynn, Irina Schulzki, Åsne Høgetveit, and Natalija Majsova discussed their areas of research and expertise in the next panel on contemporary cinema. Here also we heard how developments in technology are making it easier for directors to produce their own films, leading to a move away from Moscow, with filmmakers such as Kantemir Balagov making films that celebrate victims and outsiders in a break from traditional cinema. This increasingly independent cinema appears to challenge Ministry of Culture-funded films, which tend towards a genre of  ‘happy war films’ (as Jade McGlynn put it). 2018’s Танки is an excellent, if terribly scripted and historically inaccurate, example of the latter genre.

Vlad Strukov talks about contemporary art in Russia

Talk of non-Moscow-centric culture continued with Vlad Strukov’s paper about the art scene in the Caucasus, including the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, and its importance to the art scene in general, both inside Russia and beyond. Turning back to Moscow, Fabienne Rachmadiev talked about the recent Pavel Pepperstein exhibition in Гараж, and Margarita Kuleva spoke, among many things, of the tradition of тусовка in art establishments, describing the communal, and in many ways still Soviet, lifestyle of workers in establishments such as Гараж, Strelka and Winzavod.

The end of the day saw the panel on contemporary literature, with contributions from Sarah Hudspith, Anna Ponomareva and myself. Here the discussion was based on the future of Russian literature in translation, and how it should be promoted in the West. Sarah Hudspith asked why literature is taught in traditional language degrees, and why we teach certain texts – usually just the classics – and not others. Anna Ponomareva talked about her comparative literature course at UCL and why it is so important to read across cultures, regardless of whether we read these texts in English or the original. I then voiced the idea that politics might often be involved in the selection of texts for translation. It is important to remember that if we only read what the Big Five publishers translate, then we are only seeing part of the picture – we are reading a version of Russia that is in effect curated for us.

What we clarified this weekend is that contemporary Russia offers huge cultural diversity: to reduce our conception of Russian culture to a tiny canon of “classics” in any genre, from art to cinema, would be a tragic mistake. The New Russias Festival has done an excellent job in highlighting what is happening in Russia right now. Please do it again next year!

Many thanks to Marco Biasioli for providing photographs.

Sarah Gear, University of Exeter

(Blog)Post-horses of Enlightenment: RusTrans Goes to Glasgow!

Sarah Gear, RusTrans PhD Student

This December, RusTrans took a momentary break from the madness of advent to attend a lively conference at the University of Glasgow.  I (Sarah) spent my weekend at ‘Translation as an Act of Cultural Dialogue’, a conference held in honour of Pushkin’s 220th anniversary, organised by Drs Jamie Rann and Andrea Gullotta (Glasgow) in partnership with Institut Perevoda and the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature. We spent the conference listening to and taking part in discussions about Russia-Scotland literary relations, poetry, drama, and the importance and enduring relevance of Pushkin.

 Irina Kirillova

This is the first year the conference has been held in Glasgow – up until now it has taken place in the small Scottish border town of Moffat – a theme taken up by the first speaker, Professor Irina Kirillova, who answered the first question of Why Moffat? (it is indeed a very small town!) and went on to talk about the genesis of this conference and its importance in helping maintain cultural relations between Russia and Scotland. Professor Kirillova then gave the floor to Scottish poet and translator Dr Tom Hubbard, an attendee of the preceding Moffat conferences, who gave a fascinating paper on translating Pushkin’s poem Autumn into both English and Scots, focusing on Edwin Morgan’s English translation, along with Alistair Mackie’s Scots version. It is interesting to note that both of these poets decided to add a little embellishment of their own at the end of each of their translations. Tom talked about the similarities in sound between the two languages – the Scottish ‘ch’, for example, being the same as the ‘х’ in Russian – and also reminded us about the Edwin Morgan conference to be held next year in Glasgow, celebrating this prolific Scottish poet and his translations into Scots and English from many languages, Russian included.

Tom’s Russian counterpart, poet and translator Grigory Kruzhkov (whom Tom later delighted in teaching some Scots words) spoke next, about Yeats and the poet Nikolai Gumilev. He took us on a journey through Gumilev’s time in London in 1917, and talked about his meeting with W.B. Yeats – it appears he was the only Russian to meet the Irish poet. Gumilev went on to translate Yeats’ nationalist play Countess Cathleen.

Aleksandr Livergant (l) and Grigory Kruzhkov (r)

Matters came right up to date with the next talk by translator Christine Bird, who discussed her translation of Andrey Ivanov’s play, С училища, which is set in Minsk, and the challenges of bringing Belarusian dialect and swear words into English while maintaining the necessary tone – a topic that provoked lively debate about the (il)legality of putting such words on a PowerPoint presentation in Russia – and a discussion about how to carry over the shocking nature of such words, when in Scotland they have rather less power, perhaps due to their wonderfully expressive overuse…

In keeping with the theme of theatre, translator, art manager and curator Maria Kroupnik talked about the good work carried out by Class Act, a Scottish theatre initiative (transported from Scotland to Russia) that works with young children in both Scotland and Russia, with the aim of demystifying the theatre and showing kids that it is open to all, and not just a select few.

Just before the lunch break, Aleksandr Livergant, translator and long-time editor of Innostrannaya Literatura, presented on the British edition of his magazine that came out in October 2018. This came with a large feature on Scottish poets, tracking their history from the 17th century to the present day, and taking in the most famous Scottish Makars, or national poets with a varied collection of translations from Walter Scott, Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Alistair Reid and Edwin Morgan, who, it was good to learn, has had his own poems translated also.

Following this, we braved the pouring rain (as a one-time resident of Glasgow I can say that Glasgow certainly lived up to its rainy reputation this weekend) and made our way to a street-food market nestling under the Gothic arches of Glasgow University. Taking shelter from the wet, we safely installed ourselves in a snug canteen in the vaults where we enjoyed lunch (while listening to carols from the university choir) and discussed the morning’s events.

Aleksandr Livergant

The afternoon session was chaired by poet and children’s’ writer Marina Boroditskaya along with Glasgow’s own Andrea Gullotta, and focused on the importance of interpretation. Aleksandr Livergant resumed the floor to talk about Nabokov’s translation of Evgenii Onegin, and the role that writer and critic Edmund Wilson played in this – trying to persuade Nabokov to work on something shorter! Indeed – the project took Nabokov 20 years to complete, and resulted in non-favourable reviews from Wilson himself.

(l-r) Irina Kirillova, Marina Boroditskaya, Grigory Kruzhkov









Dr Jamie Rann then took the conference in a deliberately surreal direction, with a discussion of Zaum poetry and Pushkin’s treatment by the Soviet avant-garde. He talked about Aleksei Kruchenykh and his experiments with sound, and Dmitrii Prigov, who rewrote all of Onegin by hand, substituting either the word безумный (mad or insane) or неземно (unearthly) for each adjective in the poem. He also talked about the Transfurists (also known as Neo-futurists, poets like Sigei, Aksel’rod, Nikonova-Tarshis) who wanted to create an international language that wouldn’t require translation – an interesting idea in a room full of translators! In essence, this discussion of Zaum brought a fourth language to the room – English, Russian and Scots being already represented.

Andrea Gullotta (l) and Jamie Rann








The University of Edinburgh’s Dr Alexandra Smith considered more canonical translations of Onegin. She discussed Nabokov and the fact that he felt that he had to translate Onegin in order to be seen as legitimate in America, and discussed his sometimes fraught relationship with Wilson. She talked about Stanley Mitchell’s 2008 translation for Penguin Classics, and also covered Charles Johnston’s 1970s translation, which it was felt provided the most natural (if not the most accurate, if we were to ask Nabokov) translation. Johnston claimed that its aim was simply to recreate the same magical feeling that he had experienced when reading Onegin for the first time in Russian. Dr Smith demonstrated that, in accordance with Lawrence Venuti’s theories on invisibility, each translator brings their own background and cultural knowledge to a translation.

Dasha Kuzina from Institut Perevoda then discussed the importance of Pushkin, and the fact that his revered status can really daunt Russian school children (who are often drilled in his verse and personal mythology from a young age) and deter them from engaging with and enjoying his work. Her solution to this is to introduce Pushkin as a real person to them – as someone who made mistakes and who lived a real life, and describe him as someone they can relate to, rather than a revered, unassailable museum piece.

After a quick coffee break, the talk left Pushkin in peace for a while to consider some other intriguing aspects and questions around Russian literary translation with a presentation from Dr Olga Allison of the University of Glasgow. Olga considered whether differences could be seen between translation choices made by male and female translators, which she did by examining different translation solutions offered for some of Lewis Carroll’s puns.

Svetlana Gorokhova, Library for Foreign Literature




After that it was my turn, and here I moved even further away from Pushkin to consider contemporary Russian literature. I looked briefly at current translation trends, and talked about the fact that it is the smaller presses who are taking all the risks when it comes to publishing contemporary writers. I then went on to consider whether a writer’s politics affects if they are translated or not, by whom, and how their politics influences their reception in the US and the UK. To do this, I compared the reception of Day of the Oprichnik by liberal writer Vladimir Sorokin with Sankya by nationalist Zakhar Prilepin.  Day of the Oprichnik has been much better received in the UK and US than Sankya, even to the point that it has entered into the literary canon via Penguin Classics, and this difference comes despite the success of both novels in Russia (in fact – Sankya could in many ways be seen as more successful). It seems that liberal authors are deemed safer to publish and promote by the big five publishing houses than nationalist writers. I ended by asking the question which will feature throughout my PhD research, namely whether we are prepared to read nationalist writers in the West, and indeed, whether we should.

Liudmila Tomanek, an independent scholar, then talked about the importance of preserving polyphonies with relation to Svetlana Alexievich’s war time accounts (many of which have, as a point of interest, been published by Penguin Classics) and Dr John Bates of Glasgow University brought us back to Pushkin when he considered the relevance of Pushkin scholarship in Poland in the 1950s, and asked to what extent academics at that time towed the party line.

The day was rounded off with a documentary by Michael Beckelhimer, Pushkin is Our Everything, that took us from Pushkin as he really was (and as described by Dasha Kuzina earlier in the day) to how he has been used by successive political regimes to represent Russia and what it means to be Russian – all themes that RusTrans can relate to! He concluded that Pushkin’s importance in Russia is vast, and he envied the fact that Russia, unlike his native America, possesses such an important poet.

Stop anyone on the street, Beckelhimer says, and they will be able to recite you a bit of Pushkin.

A huge thank you to Polina Avtonomova from the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature, and Dasha Kuzina from Institut Perevoda for providing me with photos of the event. You can read more about the conference on the Library for Foreign Literature website here.