Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chizhov’s Translation

I enjoyed Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally: Translation from a Literal Translation) so much that I’m not quite sure how to write about it… I seem to have a particular problem writing about books I like this much, with especially particular problems when the books are as nicely composed as this one. At least I’m not alone: Leonid Yuzefovich’s summary of Translation notes that most reviews just don’t seem to capture what Translation is about…there’s just too much there and you just have to read the book. My favorite thread to pull in Translation involves Chizhov’s examination of identity: that thread intertwines with subthreads looking at doubles and various literal and metaphorical types of translation. I seem to read suitcaseloads of books about identity but Translation feels deeper—or perhaps more mysterious or lovely or down-to-earth in its metaphysicalness?—than most of my other reading.

Translation gets off to a promising start. Oleg Pechegin, a Moscow poet who’s not very successfully self-published, is on a stuffy train to Koshtyrbastan, a country you won’t find in any atlas unless you’re living in Pechegin’s world. While riding the train, Oleg meets a man who tells him what he claims are truths about Koshtyrbastan—scary things like bodies being thrown into a salt lake to disintegrate—but the man quickly disappears. I had the feeling (correct, it turns out) I’d just met a human Chekhovian gun. Oleg is on his way to Koshtyrbastan to do the job in the novel’s title: turn literal translations of the Koshtyr president’s popular and influential (of course!) poetry into poetic Russian translations.

Oleg goes from being a poet nobody knows or reads to a poet who’s been translated into Koshtyr. With a large print run. He now has a large house, too, as well as a comely young cook at his full disposal. All these perks come thanks to Oleg’s childhood friend Timur, who grew up in Moscow but has returned to his roots in Koshtyrbastan, where he has a high-level job and has taken a second wife. Timur has arranged everything, promising (pretty much, anyway) he can arrange for Oleg to meet the People’s Leader himself, Rakhmatkul Gulimov. Meanwhile, Chizhov mixes in flashbacks—they’re a little drawn-out for my taste, though they do end up having a place—showing Oleg and Timur back in Moscow, covering, among other things, an episode of jealousy involving Polina, Oleg’s ex-girlfriend, as well as Oleg’s friendship with a poet who dies in a fire.

Lots of fine threads shoot through the novel and its account of changes in Oleg’s identity: how he does and doesn’t adapt to an unfamiliar Eastern life, how he attempts to channel the People’s Leader, how he feels his foreignness in a place where he looks painfully different and doesn’t speak the language, and how he manages to make the translations work under, well, extraordinarily difficult conditions. Many things make this novel work for Chizhov, particularly a wonderful mix of genres—existential novel, psychological thriller, love story, fantasy, political thriller, even action, with a helicopter rescue scene—that keeps things moving.

I think it was Translation’s pervasive sense of creepiness that was responsible for keeping me up late reading: Koshtyrbastan’s isolation, Gulimov’s ubiquity, Koshtyrs’ admiration for Gulimov, and, especially, Oleg’s transformations as he searches for his inner Gulimov so he can complete the translations. Chizhov blends all this together beautifully: I was interested to see that his talk at this year’s “Writers’ Meetings” program at Yasnaya Polyana looked at the book “как роман о поиске вдохновения” (“a novel about the search for inspiration”). I was glad I didn’t know too much of the book’s plot before I started so don’t want to list specific ways Oleg searches for inspiration… but I will say that Chizhov incorporates various sorts of doubles and borders, both internal and external, as well as Gulimov’s idea that everyone is a poet. Oleg’s eventual and inevitable fate makes the book a wonderful cautionary tale that can be read on many levels, either as a fairly straightforward thriller or as an existential novel about a very human, rather confused, artist.

In the end, perhaps the novel’s epigraph from Osip Mandelshtam—“Поезия – это власть”/“Poetry is power”—is what matters most, even if one part of me wants to say that quotation is too big and broad to sum up the book and another part of me wants to say that quotation is too small and narrow to sum up the book. Then again, I couldn’t agree more with Yuzefovich that Chizhov doesn’t offer much in the way of answers… then again (again), as Yuzefovich continues, Chizhov doesn’t ask his questions in ways that make the reader expect them. And thank you, too, to Yuzefovich for helping me understand why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s because Chizhov left me with vivid pictures and questions that still won’t leave me alone more than a month after I finished the book. At least I’m not alone with those questions.

Translation is a finalist for the Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Prize and I’m very much hoping it wins something somewhere—as I mentioned in my Yasnaya Polyana post, it was probably the (prize-eligible, for calendar reasons) book I heard praised the most when I was in Moscow earlier this month.

Disclaimers. Theusual.

Up Next: The NOS(E) Award long list. A Moscow trip report. Books read in English.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

There’s a Reason They Call Them Shortlists: Yasnaya Polyana-2014

The Yasnaya Polyana Prize announced its shortlists today… and these shortlists sure do put the short in the shortlist. Choosing a meager four books from the “XXI Century” long list of 41 books—winnowed down from 153 nominees—feels a little sad. Then again, according to jury chair Vladimir Tolstoy, the list includes only books the whole jury could approve without serious objections. Even so, I have to wonder if the short shortlist is a reflection of what I perceive as a general lack of excitement about releases from last year/season, the crop from which the 2014 Yasnaya Polyana lists generally draw. The “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” prize shortlist is even shorter: only three books. Winners will be named on October 21.

The one book I was rooting for did make the shortlist: Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literal title translation: Translation from a Literal Translation) is also the (2014 prize-eligible) book I heard praised most universally in Moscow earlier this month. I’ve already started drafting a post about Translation: I enjoyed it tremendously and thought it was very, very good, despite a bit of flashback-based flabbiness in the first half.

In any case, here’s the full shortlist for the “XXI Century” award:
  • Dmitrii Novikov’s В сетях Твоих (In Thy Nets... see comments on the title; beyond the apparent religious usage Languagehat mentions, I’m still sensing a play on words here with a northern fishing theme and idioms about being draw into something...), this is a collection, led by a long title story/novella, set in the Russian north; Novikov is from Petrozavodsk. [Edit: There are several corrections to this entry!]
  • Arsen Titov’s Тень Бехистунга (Behistun’s Shadow?), a historical novel, apparently a trilogy, set during World War I. Help! Does anyone know if Бехистунг is an alternate spelling for Бехистун, which is Behistun in English? This seems to fit with Titov’s writing, at least circumstantially…
  • Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally Translation from a Literal Translation), about a Moscow poet who goes to fictional Koshtyrbastan to make real poetry from some literal translations.
  • Sergei Shargunov’s 1993, about family and events during a year I remember as memorably unstable.
As for “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth,” we have:
  • Evgenii Bunimovich’s Девятый класс. Вторая школа (Ninth Grade. School Number Two)
  • Elena Matveeva’s Ведьмины круги (literally Witch Circles but this phrase in Russian is also what’s known as fairy rings in English… I have no idea how a fairy ring or even some sort of witch community might be related to a girl who brings home a stray dog in the title story, but well…)
  • Roman Senchin’s Чего вы хотите? (I’ll go with Whaddya Want?)

Disclaimers: The usual. Plus I know Yasnaya Polyana jury member Vladislav Otroshenko because I’ve translated some of his work, including Addendum to a Photo Album, which just happens to be scheduled for release March 8, 2015, from Dalkey Archive Press. I also translated a short story by Roman Senchin for the Read Russia! anthology.

Up Next: Moscow trip report, including all the books I brought back. (Overweight baggage alert!) Chizhov’s Translation, some translations into English, and Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov. I really have been reading, despite two breaks for travel and the cold that, inevitably, ensued after Moscow—I can’t wait to get caught up on my posts!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Live from Moscow: Winners of the Read Russia Prize

I’ve prepared this post to automatically appear on September 6, when Read Russia Prizes will be awarded in Moscow, at the conclusion of the International Congress of Literary Translators. I’ll be at the ceremony and will add a comment—likely from Anonymous!—with the winners’ names. Here are lists of finalists; the award’s long list is here.

For 19th-century classic Russian literature:
  1. Vera Bischitzky for her translation of Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov (Germany);
  2.  Alejandro Ariel Gonzales for his translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella The Double (Argentina); and
  3. Jorge Ferrer Diaz for his translation of Alexander Herzen’s work My Past and Thoughts (Spain).

For 20th-century Russian literature (works written before 1990):
  1. Alexander Nitzberg for his translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita (Austria);
  2. Daniela Rizzi for her translation of Osip Mandelshtam’s prose works The Noise of Time (Italy);
  3. Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov for their translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s collection Autobiography of a Corpse (United States);
  4.  Henryk Chlystowski for his translation of Mikhail Slonimsky’s book of short stories Warsaw (Poland); and
  5.  Elizabeth and Robert Chandler for their translation of Vasily Grossman’s book An Armenian Sketchbook (Great Britain).

For contemporary Russian literature (works written after 1990):
  1. Julie Bouvard for her translation of Eduard Kochergin’s novel Christened with Crosses (France);
  2. Ives Gauthier for his translation of Andrei Rubanov’s novel A Successful Life (France);
  3. Nicoletta Marcialis for her translation of Zakhar Prilepin’s novel Sin (Italy);
  4. Ljubinka Milincic for her translation of Georgy Vladimov’s novel The General and His Army (Serbia);
  5. Ewa Rojewska-Olejarczuk for her translation of Viktor Pelevin’s novel T (Poland); and
  6. Marian Schwartz for her translation of Leonid Yuzefovich’s novel Harlequin’s Costume (United Kingdom).

For poetry:
  1. Abderrahim Lataoui for his translation of Selected Masterpieces of Russian Poetry, by 19th- and 20th-century poets (Morocco);
  2. Liu Wenfei for his translation of lyrical works by Alexander Pushkin (China); and
  3. Martina Jakobson for her translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s book A Herd of Deer (Germany).

Up Next: A nap, please! And then lots of books I’ve read but not posted about during one very busy summer.

Disclaimers: I work on small projects for Read Russia and know many of the translators and publishers named in these lists.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Women in Translation Month: Some Contemporary Russian Reading Ideas

When the blogger known as Biblibio invited me to write a guest post for Women in Translation Month—it’s right now, this August—I was quick to agree to write something for both our blogs. For one thing, I’ve been enjoying Biblibio’s posts for years. For another, I knew it would be easy to put together a list of wonderful female Russian writers; I’ve even translated a book and two stories by a couple of them. Best of all, it’s always fun to make lists like this by remembering good books and the people who write them. Here are some of my favorites.

Margarita Khemlin is one of my very favorite writers, both because I love her books and stories, and because she’s one of the first writers I chose to translate. I started reading Khemlin with her first book, the story collection The Living Line, and moved on to her novels—Klotsvog, Krainii (The Endman), and The Investigator—reading each as soon as I could after it was published. Margarita’s stories and novels are generally about life in eastern Ukraine, and I particularly love the language she uses to tell, with quiet but dark humor and occasional dialogue in surzhik, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, about Jewish heritage and the never-ending effects of World War 2. I’ve published translations of two of Margarita’s stories from The Living Line: “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” appeared in Two Lines (the “Counterfeits” edition, 2011) and was reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, too (PDF download); “Shady Business” came out in issue 17 of Subtropics earlier this year. “Shady Business” took me forever: I knew the words (and got great help from Misha Klimov, a local colleague, on the ones I didn’t, those being the surzhik) but wanted to be sure I was capturing the emotions of elderly characters who’d survived the war. I still can’t believe how much feeling and history Margarita can pack into so few, seemingly simple, words. I’m sure that’s why I love her writing so much.

Marina Stepnova’s novel The Women of Lazarus also looks at history, through an unconventional family saga that begins just after the Russian Revolution and continues to the present, focusing on various women in the life of Lazar Lindt, the Lazarus in the title. I loved the novel’s combination of history, various forms of poshlost’, postmodernism, and cultural commentary when I read it but didn’t truly appreciate how much Stepnova had achieved until I was working on a late draft of my translation. (The many, many levels of new-found appreciation I find through translation are a big reason I love translating so much.) Stepnova, a literary magpie, fills her novel with colorful and changeable language, historical perspectives and figures (Beria has a cameo), Soviet science, references to pre-revolutionary cookery, and ballet. Among other things. But everything comes together, creating an almost ridiculously readable and comprehensive novel about the meaning of family and the meaning of country and culture and heritage. Among other things… it’s a very rewarding book that can be read on many levels.

Alisa Ganieva won notice by winning the Debut Prize for the novella Salam, Dalgat!, which she wrote under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev because of taboos against a woman writing about a world that is “absolutely male.” I loved Salam, Dalgat! for its story of a day in the life of a man searching Makhachkala, Dagestan, for a relative. As I wrote earlier, “With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.” Translations of Ganieva’s writing are available and on the way: Nicholas Allen’s translation of Salam, Dalgat! appears in the anthology Squaring the Circle (Glas, 2011), Marian Schwartz’s translation of the story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (PDF download), and Carol Apollonio’s translation of The Russian Wall (Праздничная гора) will be published next summer by Deep Vellum.

Since I’ve been so chatty about the first three writers, I’ll keep things shorter and limit myself to brief notes on four more writers I’ve especially enjoyed reading. Each has a story in the same Read Russia! anthology I mentioned above and each has at least one novel already out in English translation… I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya and think my favorite is probably Sincerely Yours, Shurik, which has never been translated into English. Of those that exist in English, I particularly enjoyed the polyphonic Daniel Stein, Interpreter, (which Arch Tate translated for The Overlook Press) about a Polish Jew who works for a Nazi officer and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel. The Big Green Tent is on the way, too, in Bela Shayevich’s translation… And then there’s Olga Slavnikova, whose 2017—beautifully stuffed with gems, metaphors, and plot lines—won the Russian Booker. I particularly enjoyed the expedition scenes and carnivalistic episodes; Marian Schwartz translated 2017 for The Overlook Press… Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets appealed to me because of the voice Galina creates for her narrator, a man who rewrites books (e.g. a classic by Joseph Conrad) by incorporating clients into the plot lines. Though Mole Crickets hasn’t been translated, Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for translating Galina’s Гиви и Шендерович, as Iramifications, published in 2008 by Glas… Finally, there’s Anna Starobinets, whose Sanctuary 3/9 kept me up late at night: the novel’s combination of folk tale motifs, suspense, and creepiness is perfect. Sanctuary hasn’t been translated into English but three other Starobinets books have: An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin for Hesperus; The Living, translated by James Rann for Hesperus; and The Icarus Gland, coming this fall from James Rann and Skyscraper Publications.

Happy reading! And a big, huge thanks to Biblibio for the invitation... and all this month’s posts about books written by women.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated work by some of the writers mentioned in this post and met all of them, if only briefly. I work on occasional projects for Read Russia and have translated a book for Glas: appropriately enough, it’s Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, with four very diverse plays by Yaroslava Pulinovich, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Olga Rimsha.

Up Next: Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally Translation from a Literal Translation), which I’ve finally finished. And which I already miss. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even slowing down a little in the last sections because I didn’t want it to end. Several books read in English, including a wonderful Dovlatov translation.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

DIY: Self-Posting About Self-Publishing

Several Russian-to-English translators have written to me in the last several months, telling me they’ve self-published books: some self-published their translations in collaboration with their Russian authors, at least one self-published translations of poems that are in the public domain.

I’m creating this post as a place for translators and/or writers to post comments containing information about the books they’re self-publishing. I’m interested in the information for lots of reasons: one book a translator told me about was pretty popular in Russia, another sounds like a young adult book, one contains a classic’s poems, one is a short story… and I have no idea what else might be floating around.

If you’d like to post a comment about your self-published translation, please be sure to include the following information:
  • Title of the book, preferably in both Russian and English
  • Names of the translator(s) and the Russian author(s)
  • ISBN, publisher/platform name, and year
  • A link to online information about the book
  • Broad genre information: novel, short story, poetry, play, history book, etc.
I’m interested in other things, too, if you feel you can summarize briefly enough for a comment:
  • A brief description of the book
  • Why you decided to self-publish the book in the first place
Thanks very much to everyone who posts—I’m looking forward to reading about your books!

Up Next: I’m still very much enjoying Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally Translation from a Literal Translation), which is still thick. Plus there are all those books in English, including a couple about the FSU written in English as well as Vladimir Sharov’s До и во время, which I’m reading in Oliver Ready’s translation, Before & During.