Tag Archives: translation

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

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

Translating foreignness and folksiness in Aslan’s Bride

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

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

Nadezhda Chernova

Ossetian woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa writes:

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

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

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

The Big Wheel Effect: Salnikov’s Chilling Department

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

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

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

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

Anger Management Issues: Translating Bulat Khanov’s Gnev

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

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

Anger

                                           Gnev (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Булат Ханов на Non/fiction 2019

 Bulat Khanov

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

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

William Barclay

Translating the Uncanny Valley: Victor Pelevin’s iPhuck 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Sligh (contact translator)

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

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. 

Research In the Time of Coronavirus – The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (II)

The RusTrans Team, clockwise from top left:               MM, CM, CK, AM, SG   

We begin our coronavirus interview series at the very beginning – with ourselves! Our team consists of five researchers, all involved in different research studies on the translation and overseas reception of Russian literature within the framework of the ERC-funded RusTrans project. As researchers, and coincidentally as female researchers, we find ourselves particularly vulnerable within one of the sectors likely to be hardest hit by the economic effects of the virus – academia. British academia in particular is threatened by a massive funding shortfall (caused by falling recruitment, particularly of high-paying overseas students), which the government is so far refusing to compensate: hiring freezes, cancellation of sabbatical leave, and a short-term shift to online teaching are just some of the immediate measures already taken or planned by university managers. Academic jobs, no longer known for their security, suddenly got a whole lot rarer – which is particularly worrying for graduate students and early career scholars. In the early stages of lockdown in the UK, it was already evident that women researchers were being disproportionately negatively affected. So, within this rather worrying context, what’s our experience – good and bad? Has our research stopped? Have we changed our plans? Read on to find out…

Dr Muireann Maguire, Principal Investigator: Parenting in Quarantine

Lockdown… where to start. Professionally, from the project perspective, there was a fusillade of disappointments straight away:  the London Book Fair folded, then our first RusTrans conference, planned for April 3rd (which would have been a really exciting event with brilliant international and home speakers) had to be cancelled; various research talks I’d been invited to give were also cancelled; future conferences and talks were thrown into a state of uncertainty. Conferences are vital for academic life: we don’t just air our research and listen to other people’s ideas (although that’s clearly essential), we find real-life opportunities to talk to other people –  not always a strong point for academics. We use conferences to network, which sounds rather frenetic and cliquey, but actually means making friends, discovering new connections, and mentoring younger colleagues. So it is really sad for our entire profession that these events have been paused, and that their future looks uncertain.

On the other hand, we were able to re-schedule the RusTrans conference for next year at the same venue, and lots of those same brilliant speakers have already agreed to attend; as a project team, we’d already benefited from the chance to attend several very exciting conferences in 2019, including ALTA, the translators’ Camelot; and we’re all in the happy position of having already completed such substantial amounts of archival research that we actually benefit from being forced to reflect, consolidate, and write up. I try to support my team through regular email and online conferencing. At least one of our RusTrans projects has been enhanced, rather than harmed, by lockdown: our competition to seed-fund new translations of contemporary Russian literature into English ran on schedule and has been a joy to assess – we’ve had so many exciting submissions. Moreover, I’ve been asked to be a Read Russia prize judge, which is a big responsibility and an even bigger honour.

Finding time to write is where my own problems begin. As an academic and a translator, I like to think that the psychological effect of lockdown for me is minimal. But I’m also a mother, with two young children. When schools closed, my life as a scholar broke. It broke in a good way – I’m using my skills to make my children as excited about literature and culture as I am. I’m lucky that I have a supportive partner at home who guarantees me child-free hours every day, over and above the post-bedtime oasis. Email, admin, Teams, Zoom, all those little deadlines that tick regularly round, I can handle. But to write I need the escape of a library; I need coffee shops with background chat; I need an infinity pool of silent time, a routine that’s just for me; I need to not be tired, every day. I’m the kind of person who needs to be working at 120% to feel happy with herself, and it’s an effort not to blame myself now for falling (far) short of my own expectations. I would probably have complained about all the same things before lockdown started, but now I can assure you (with every other lockdown parent out there) that the struggle is real. 

Dr Cathy McAteer, Project Research Fellow: Less Confusion, More Delay

Lockdown has been a period of adjustment in so many ways (for starters, all my children plus one extra are now back home indefinitely, and I can vouch that the most frequently asked questions among 4 young adults from 9am-9pm concern food) but in terms of fulfilling my day-to-day RusTrans commitments, I’ve been lucky. I’m not campus-based, I’m a remote researcher dealing with paper more than people. I have not had to adjust, therefore, to confinement or social distancing. I do that anyway! I have, however, encountered disappointments and professional stumbling blocks. First, there have been postponements: my March 2020 Exeter-Duke fellowship at Duke University, our own RusTrans conference in April, and the annual BASEES conference for all Russian and Eurasian Studies scholars (also April), where every single member of our team was scheduled to present a paper. Next, I’ve encountered ongoing difficulties in gaining copyright permissions from a major institution for my first research monograph (due out later this year, fingers crossed). Finally, I’ve had to defer actual archival research until further notice, since all the archives are closed and the material I need isn’t necessarily digitized. Happily, there is plenty of other RusTrans work to keep me occupied in the meantime – including immersing myself in judging submissions to our translation competition – and my world feels considerably richer for accessing online reading groups such as our student Sarah’s and Pushkin House’s Facebook reading group, as well as Teams meetings, Zoom conferences (like the Center for the Humanities CUNY’s excellent Translating the Future programme), and yes, I’ll admit, the very occasional exhibition/film/live stream. Да здравствует культура!

Sarah Gear, PhD student: Successful online reading group

This has definitely been a strange couple of months, and although it has meant many cancelled opportunities, it has allowed me the time (and given me the impetus) to find new ways of reaching out to people and continuing with my research. I think the most rewarding result of this has been the online book group I started in April. Thursday evenings have now become a time to connect with readers around the world and discuss the contemporary Russian literature that I spend my days reading and researching. Our choices have been quite varied – so far we have discussed Zakhar Prilepin’s Sankya and Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, and we are just about to start Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which will lead us down yet another avenue. Through our chats we have linked these novels to arts movements, films, podcasts, and poetry. We have contextualised the politics, and considered the themes of violence, nationalism and the impact of publishers, while discussing the novels’ translations, with invaluable contributions from both Russian and non-Russian speakers. I don’t know if the fact that everyone is participating from quarantine has added to their enthusiasm, but it is heartening to see so much genuine interest in contemporary Russian fiction, and a complete joy to discuss it with readers who have such varied perspectives. This move to online interactions has in many ways normalised the use of Zoom and Skype – and in the coming weeks and months I hope to capitalise on this, as I start to interview the translators, publishers and authors of the same books we discuss on Thursday nights. As for everyone, these past weeks haven’t been easy, but there are at least some strong positives to be found.

If you’d like to join Sarah’s reading group, please contact her here and if you’d like to fill in her reading survey, you can access it here.

Christina Karakepeli, PhD student: On missing actual books

The biggest effect the lockdown has had on my research (apart from the obvious one of not being able to go back to Greece) is that it has kept me away from books. Actual books. Not books on pdf files, books on Kindle or on online readers. I never considered the importance of studying from a book. In literature, I am and remain a staunch supporter of reading from a physical copy (despite Kindle’s amazing built-in dictionary). But when studying or researching I never had an issue with reading on my laptop. And yet, not having access these months to the library has made me rethink this relationship. A large percentage of what I need to research is available online: almost all the 19th-century Greek newspaper and periodical archives, theoretical works, literary works (thank you lax Russian copyright laws). I could jump from one book to another, have multiple tabs open, read texts in different languages simultaneously. But I kept finding myself asking for an actual book. I tried to force myself to read books, albeit online, from start to finish, trying not to get distracted by email notifications or tempted to open a new Google tab every time I saw a term or a word I did not know. There is a difference. Sitting down and dedicating time to read a theoretical work on its own maybe does not provide you with more information than what you would get from a thorough research on multiple sources, but it does allow you to delve into someone else’s train of thought and reasoning process (not to mention the treasures one can find in footnotes!); and this triggers and maybe rejuvenates your own reasoning process. In the end, it is the (sadly e-)books I’ve read in these past two months that I’ve kept turning to whenever I want to interpret new information and ask ‘what would x author think?’ before trying to form an opinion on my own.

Anna Maslenova, PhD student: No libraries, but some tea parties

It has never been easy for me to work from home, and therefore the quarantine has had a dramatic effect: it’s hard both to start and to finish working. I am trying – not always successfully – to follow a schedule on weekdays. At the beginning, my daily routine was complicated by trying to stay in touch with my family and friends at home in Russia, who were also going into lockdown; everyone was worried, so we talked by phone several times a day. But now everybody has seemingly calmed down, and life continues in ‘quarantine’ mode. I still Skype my family more often than before, since we feel the distance very keenly at the moment: it is very frustrating I cannot go back to Russia to celebrate my grandmother’s and father’s big birthdays in June as planned, but hopefully we will have a huge party when it is all over. I miss working in the British Library (the reason I moved to London), but some talks and workshops continue online. Now is a golden moment for reading, which is my main activity. Quarantine means I can finally turn to those thick volumes which I have been postponing reading for years.

Since shortly before lockdown, I’ve been lodging in London, in the attic flat of the house of an elderly Woolf scholar. She has weak lungs, and, therefore, her GP strongly recommended her to self-isolate. Thus I am very happy to help my landlady with her weekly shopping. Since I keep my distance from others during my daily constitutional, and wear a facemask and gloves while shopping, she and I decided that it would be safe enough to have a cup of tea in her garden once in a while, so I am enjoying English tea parties and some face-to-face communication sometimes.

You can read more about our team and their research here and here. Stay tuned for out next post – an interview with Russian novelist and editor Inga Kuznetsova and her Russian publisher Igor Voevodin of AST, whom we asked about the immediate effects of coronavirus on their projects and careers.

Members of the RusTrans team in simpler times

Dublin Rules

A thoughtful sphinx from the National Library of Ireland

“We must get into touch also with our contemporaries, – in France, in Russia, in Norway, in Finland, in Bohemia, in Hungary, wherever, in short, vital literature is being produced on the face of the globe,” wrote Padraig Pearse, Irish writer, schoolteacher, poet, revolutionary martyr and legend – here, campaigning against what he perceived as the parochialism of the Irish literary revival up to 1906, the time of writing. Ever since the foundation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893, the movement to create a vibrant and original Irish-language literature had been gathering impetus. Over the next four decades, major Irish writers would choose Russian literary models – principally Turgenev and Gorky, but also Tolstoy and Chekhov – to inspire new literary styles that were both realist and experimental.

My first RusTrans-related research project, with the working title “Pushkin on Grafton Street” is a study of the influence of Russian realist literature, in translation, on the formation of Irish literary consciousness in the first half of the twentieth century. To this end, I am reading  fiction, memoirs, and critical essays by Padraig Pearse, Daniel Corkery, Padraig Colum, Padraig O Conaire, Seamus and Seosamh O Grianna, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and a few others, to map the reception of Russian themes and styles by these major early (and mostly Irish-language) writers.  This was a very self-aware process; Máirtín Ó Cadhain in particular was very conscious of the danger of sovietizing Irish letters by over-encouraging writers to adhere to set aesthetic standards, which could prove as sterile as the excesses of Socialist Realism; as he put it, the worst new Irish writing was “as harmless as cement or tractor novels”.

A secondary research direction  is translation itself: a major early achievement of the young Irish Free State (it became independent of Britain in 1922) was the foundation of An Gúm (“The Project”), which commissioned both new Irish-language fiction and translations into Irish from English and other languages. There was surprising enthusiasm for translating from Russian into Irish, as various versions of Tolstoy short stories on the pages of Irish-language newspapers attest. Not all these versions were translated from Russian, however; most appeared

Chekhov, Short Stories (translated by Daisy Mackin, 1939)

in Irish via an English-language crib. One of the only translators to work exclusively from Russian to Irish was the uniquely experienced Maighréad Nic Mhaicín, known as Daisy Mackin, a young woman originally from Donegal, who had studied at the Sorbonne, worked as a translator in Moscow, and later taught Russian at Trinity College Dublin for three decades. An Gúm paid Daisy Mackin to translate Turgenev and Chekhov into Irish, but funding dried up after the Second World War. One of the most exciting discoveries of my research trip to Dublin was a complete handwritten, final-draft manuscript of Daisy’s Irish translation of Konstantin Simonov’s wartime play Russian People. Never performed or published, it sits in the archives of Ireland’s National Library inviting some ambitious director to take it on. I am very grateful to Daisy’s daughter Mairead Breslin Kelly for allowing me to interview her about her fascinating parents and to reproduce images like the picture of a formal visit to Moscow in the 1960s by academics from Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast, including both Daisy (front) and Máirtín Ó Cadhain (far right), who became Professor of Irish at Trinity towards the end of his life.

 Irish visitors in Pushkin Square, Moscow

Which brings me to the personal element of this post: the joy of working in one of Dublin’s most beautiful buildings, the National Library of Ireland. Every library and archive has its own rules, which take time to learn (hence the title of this blog; perhaps also, given the subject, a nod to the espionage tradition of playing by “Berlin Rules”, etc.). The library boasts marble floors, a sweeping staircase that rises in a double curve to the reading room, and an overabundance of carved griffons, lions, and other mythological creatures. It took me a while to get used to the automated system (especially to access manuscripts), but the staff were friendly and helpful. The Early Printed Books reading room in Trinity College library, where I accessed volumes of Sean O’Faolain’s Herzen-inspired journal The Bell, was another treat: you reach it via a lengthy tunnel and a narrow, concrete spiral staircase which comes out in the same building where the Book of Kells is kept. Next time I return to this research, I may well be learning Galway Rules as I follow up the archives of the O Grianna brothers in NUI Galway.

A carving from the National Library of Ireland