Tag Archives: Russian literature

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

“If I start forgetting things, Russian literature will be the last to go” – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (VI)

This week RusTrans spoke to Peter B. Kaufman, President and Executive Director of Read Russia, an organization which promotes and fosters Russian book culture through initiatives such as the  biannual Read Russia Prize for new translations of Russian literature, the Chatham Translation Symposium, and regular publications. It also supports the wonderful Russian Library series from University of Columbia Press, which we’ll feature soon on this blog. Peter Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and the MIT Knowledge Futures Group and is the author of The New Enlightenment: The Fight to Free Culture In A World Online, forthcoming from Seven Stories Press (2021).  He established Read Russia in 2011. In 2014, RBTH called him ‘the world’s leading advocate of Russian literature‘.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

I have long been acclimated to the art and rhythms of working from home – as a non-profit administrator, as a consultant, as a writer, a teacher, a producer.  More accurately, at times, it’s living in one’s office.  I’ve known what it’s like to choose whether to wear dress clothes or not; how to schedule meals; negotiate family needs; file bills; go outside.  But the crisis – first of Trump, then of the pandemic – has sharpened my sense of the stakes involved in that home work now, for me, for my cohorts in various places, and for society at large: it has rendered me more restless, impatient, sometimes even desperate to act, creatively, socially, politically, such that time is not lost.  In a bathrobe or in corduroys, I am writing like a fiend.

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on translation publishing? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

It’s hard to make predictions about translation publishing – as the time cycles involved are so lengthy to begin with, involving years, usually, and the pandemic has only been with us for a few months.  But I might try out here a thought I have been having about the English-speaking world coming face-to-face with government lies that almost outpace the lies emanating from the systems of authoritarian regimes that governed post-Revolutionary Russia and post-war Central and Eastern Europe, which are the sources of the literatures outside our own I know best.  That thought is this.  Do you know how love songs can play on the radio when you are happy and you barely hear them, but when you are heartbroken they are so meaningful you sometimes have to stop listening?  Some of the Russian and especially Soviet and post-Soviet works we know – and many of the Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and other Mitteleuropa classics – possess a deeper dimension of meaning precisely because they emanate from societies full of untruths and deprivations, and it might be that these texts will resonate more now with American and British readers who are, as the original readers of these foreign literatures had been, standing in lines, lied to, masked in various ways, always vulnerable and unvaccinated.  Songs about life under a ruptured or absurd social contract may become more resonant to English readers now.  Plus, photos of our ridiculous and shattered lives here could be used as cover art for translations of some of the classic works we love.

Chatham Translation Symposium, Cape Cod, 2019

What has been the impact on your work of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

If I start forgetting things, Russian literature, music, theatre, painting, and dance will be the last to go.  What we who care most about Russian culture in the West need to do is develop strategies and methods for promoting it online – in video and sound – and in ways that make it break through as every other culture, and segment of those cultures, makes itself manifest on the rectangle in front of us, and each bit is a competitor for virtual space and attention.

With your links to the publishing world, are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

It’s a golden moment for something – receptivity, maybe.  We have been skinned, in a way, made raw; everything affects us now.  I believe that plunging into fiction is a great escape; but the lessons and learnings in good writing also make us healthier.  Maybe the new saying should be, That which doesn’t try to kill us makes us stronger.

And finally which book(s) do you think stand a good chance of winning prizes for translated fiction – such as the Read Russia Prize (2020)?

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha, in Lisa Hayden’s translation, knocked me out.

Thank you for speaking with us, Peter. Next week we’ll speak with acclaimed translator Marian Schwartz about the ongoing crisis.

Writing and Publishing In Russia During The Pandemic – the Coronavirus Crisis Blog (III)

How has the current COVID_19 pandemic affected writers and publishers in Russia? To find out more, RusTrans spoke to Igor Voevodin, a senior editor at AST, one of Russia’s largest and most prestigious publishing houses, and Inga Kuznetsova, a poet and novelist whose second novel Intervals (Промежуток) was published by AST in 2019.

Quarantine, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones, have radically re-shaped how we think and behave. How have you adapted to your new working conditions? How has the crisis affected your future plans and/or your creative process?

Igor Voevodin

IGOR: I think that the pandemic and the economic crisis that follows will stimulate a new role for culture in the new millennium. The world is changing fundamentally. Editors and writers who understand this will be able to contend for a place in readers’ hearts – and on their bookshelves. We all need new great books now, because great books can inspire us for the struggle ahead. We can all contribute to creating a new world. Writers, editors, and people from all cultural areas have the chance to be present at the start of a brand-new culture. As an AST editor, I’m constantly looking for new authors, new formats for books and new literary trends. At the start of April, I published Oleg Zobern’s Chronicle of a Time of Plague (Khroniki chumnovo vremeni), a provocative experimental novel which is also the first fictional exploration of the peculiarities of Russian quarantine – an ironic version of the Decameron. Like Oleg Zobern, I’m experimenting on our readers – hoping to provoke, to startle, and even to force people to venture out of their own little worlds and to realize that mankind is not Planet Earth’s sole inhabitant of .

INGA:  As, for me, working on a novel takes up whole islands in the stream of time – it’s a kind of Robinson Crusoe existence, requiring enthusiasm, courage, and self-restraint where socializing is concerned. I would say that my life for at least several months, even before the pandemic, resembled voluntary self-isolation. But the key word here is voluntary. I love people; I’m not a cat person or a dog person, I’m a people person. After long stretches of work on a book, I’m normally delighted to spend time with my friends and family, like a puppy let off the leash. Right now that’s impossible, and it’s hard for me. It’s difficult to be away from my loved ones, unable to hug them, joke with them, share goodwill with them (phone conversations and letters are just not the same thing). Even the creative writing group I ran for teenagers in my little town of Protvino near Moscow has had to close temporarily.

What do you think will be the knock-on effect from lockdown on publishing, at home as well as the overseas market for Russian fiction in translation? Are there advantages as well as disadvantages for people in the creative industry?

IGOR: I think that translations of Russian novels will take off again. But European readers will need new books and new themes that appeal to them. The current situation gives writers a chance to stop and think about where we’re all headed, about who sent us in this direction, and what responsibility they have towards themselves and their readers. I hope that the creative industry will drop fixed ideas and old ways of thinking.

What has been the impact on your personal plans or work of cancelled book fairs, book launches, speaker events and so on? Is there a danger that the English-speaking world will forget Russian culture?

Promezhutok

Russian cover of Intervals

INGA: On March 8th (2019) we were due to fly in for the London Book Fair to launch my new book Intervals, written and published the previous year. The Book Fair was cancelled a few days in advance. March 8th was the last day that I was in Moscow and met with my friends there. Since my son and my elderly parents are both in high-risk groups (for medical reasons), I decided then to stop travelling to the big city, where I work, well in advance of the government’s self-isolation measures. All my literary colleagues, my sister and my closest friends are in Moscow, 120 kilometres away; I’ve now been cut off from them for two months. Sometimes the Russian government’s strict controls make me think the dystopia described in my novel might be coming true: my publisher jokes that we’re all now living in the world of Intervals, which I wrote in the summer of 2019, well before all this. It’s possible that the coronavirus has caused the fairly conservative jury members of one of our national prizes to turn towards dystopian novels. It’s possible that readers who were accustomed to conventional prose will now be receptive to more radical experimental styles and perspectives in their fiction. As harsh as it sounds, dystopia is coming true all around us, and the coronavirus is helping some writers get attention.

IGOR:  The cancellation of public events [like the LBF] has severely affected our business plans.  Overseas sales of rights to Russian novels have fallen in the first half of this year, precisely because international book fairs (where AST normally participates actively) have been cancelled. But it’s also given us time to reconsider and reexamine our publishing models, to come up with new ideas and new ways to carry them out. I don’t think there’s any need to worry that Russian culture will be forgotten. Russia will continue to be a country in which the tectonic plates of culture are always colliding, erupting literary lava. Or to put it another way, this is a country where the tension between state and individuals, society’s values and personal beliefs will go on striking sparks. Russian writers have much to say to European readers. And what they say is so fierce and so genuine, it always stimulates deeper thought.

Are you aware of increased sales thanks to locked-down populations turning to books for relief? Could this be a golden moment for reading?

IGOR: As an editor and a publisher employed in Russia’s biggest publishing firm, I am aware that book sales in this country fell by 60% during April. This fall is predicted to continue. This is caused, in the first place, by the closure of all physical shops and publishing firms due to quarantine, and also the closure of several online bookshops. AST, however, has released a series of e-books and audiobooks called “Stay Home and Read”; the series includes new titles by some of our best authors. Although “Stay Home and Read” has been popular with readers and commercially successful, it can’t compensate for the lack of sales of print books, which provide our basic income.

Quarantine is a golden moment not just for readers, but for writers, who should re-think whether their ideas are needed in our changed world.  We can say that this is a critical moment for literature: the start of a new millennium. Old themes and genres will disappear into the void together with their authors: only writers who can offer their readers a new sincerity will survive.

Inga Kuznetsova

INGA: Since February, I’ve constantly monitored news about the coronavirus, yet I couldn’t really understand it: all the information was either contradictory or not objective enough. I even had panic attacks. I only began coping with my anxiety after I found a speaker who finally made sense: a Russian-American geneticist, Ancha Baranova. I knew straightaway that I had to write a book with her. I convinced my publisher, AST, to let me edit a book based on interviews with Ancha – a book which I managed to complete in just 5 days. The whole editorial teams worked long hours for very little pay, motivated (and this is no exaggeration) by a sense that it was our civic duty to make reliable information accessible to scared people. And at the beginning of April, in an already deserted Moscow, with all the bookshops and printers  closed, we brought out Ancha Baranova’s Coronavirus: A Manual for Survival as an e-book (the print version will follow later). Russian people had almost stopped ordering books during self-isolation, but this book filled a need. It’s been a success. Since completing this project, I’ve stopped suffering anxiety and panic attacks, and I’ve even had several new poems inspired by the pandemic published on an American, Russian-language website, Coronaverse. And I’m working on a new novel, partly inspired (hardly a surprise) by the coronavirus.

Many thanks, Inga and Igor! Next week we speak to Evgenii Reznichenko of Russia’s Institute for Literary Translation and Clem Cecil, outgoing Director of London’s Pushkin House,  about how the pandemic has affected public interest in Russian culture and literature in translation.