Sunday, June 19, 2016

Interviews With Translators

Since this blog serves as my online filing system (surprise!) and since I happened to read two interviews with Russian-to-English translators last week, I thought I’d devote a post (meaning this post) to them: translator interviews aren’t exactly uncommon but these two covered points I especially enjoy reading about. The death last week of Gregory Rabassa, who translated from the Spanish and Portuguese, reminded me of an interview with him that I especially enjoyed reading, too.

First off, from a brief Q&A on the Pushkin Press site, here’s the beginning of Robert Chandler’s answer the question “What does being a translator mean to you?”:

I was once introduced to an acclaimed French translator of Shakespeare.  I was taken aback by my own entirely unexpected reaction: I felt envious of him.  He could get close to Shakespeare in a way that I can’t.

The more I think about what Robert says, the more moving I find his answer and the more I envy that French translator, too! The closeness of which Robert speaks is one of my favorite parts of translating. There’s a technical closeness with the text that can result in remembering specific words and usage from specific books, and even where tricky passages are located on their pages, and then there’s an emotional side, too: some books make me cry on each and every draft because I feel the stories so deeply on every each and draft. I learned a lot about thoroughness and collaboration from working with Robert on a Platonov story, and it was a joy to observe and sense his closeness with Platonov.

When asked to recommend just one book from Russian literature, Robert began his answer with this:

Andrey Platonov, ‘The Return’: This short story about an army captain returning home to his family in 1946 is one of the wisest works of literature I know.  It is also both tender and funny.

“The Return” (Возвращение), which I’ve written about in the past (here) is a beautiful story that I love recommending to anybody and everybody. It’s in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and it’s in Soul, in Robert’s translation. I’ll also mention that it makes me happy that Robert cites 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, which Boris Dralyuk is editing for Pushkin Press; I translated a short story by Mikhail Prishvin for the book. I can’t wait to see 1917 toward the end of the year.

Liesl Schillinger’s interview with Jamey Gambrell, on the Los Angeles Review of Books site, could keep me writing posts for an entire month! I have tremendous respect for Gambrell’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (previous post), which I should keep on my desk at all times: just opening Day to any random page is instant inspiration because a) I know this book had to be difficult to translate, b) Gambrell makes it look like this painstaking work was easy to do, and c) I can tell she had fun. Translation is painstaking fun.

I enjoyed the whole interview and—among other things—am glad to see that Gambrell thinks there’s been an upturn in the publishing of literary translations in recent years. (I share her belief so if I’m delusional, at least I’m not alone in my delusions!) Still, it’s Gambrell’s answers about process that felt closest. Nearly a dozen drafts sounds like a lot until I start thinking about how many times I go through my manuscripts, on the screen and on paper (they sure pile up fast…). Probably what I identify with most, though, in terms of process—this is something that has amazed me ever since it was part of my life as a freelance writer, too—is how the work seems to require hours of agonizing thinking about difficult passages but then resolutions seem to appear by magic. Meaning: out of thin air, despite the hours of agonizing thinking. After mentioning a specific passage from a Tolstaya story that’s filled with quotations from Pushkin, nursery rhymes, and all manner of other references, Gambrell says:

I must have spent three weeks on these three or four pages alone. I went back to it again and again. Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning and say, “That’s how I want to do it!” In that sense, I think that’s where being a translator and a writer overlap; when you are working on a piece like that, it sits in your head and simmers, and there is a process going on even if you are not aware of it. You will be in the middle of something, talking to someone, and you’ll suddenly break off and go, “Oh! That’s the word!” It is so wonderful when that happens — so rewarding.

This is one of the best feelings in the world. The shower seems to be where I make my biggest “policy” decisions about translations and cooking seemed to dredge up vocabulary insights and associations. The hows and whys of what goes on in my head are mysteries I don’t think I want to solve. Ever.

Finally, Gregory Rabassa’s death last week reminded me of Susan Bernofsky’s 2013 interview with Rabassa for The Rumpus. I read the interview when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and it’s stuck with me because, I suspect, of the liveliness of the conversation, the mention of similarities between translation and acting, and Rabassa’s multiple uses of the word “fun.”

Disclaimers: The usual, plus I’m feeling a bit lazy and sleepy after a beach outing this afternoon.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I’m still mulling over, trying to figure out how to write about it without giving away the whole story; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I am now officially calling Faith; Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which went to the beach with me this afternoon.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Yasnaya Polyana Award 2016 Longlists + Five Books About Russia (in English)

Another week, another award list! This week the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced its 2016 longlists, one for adult books, the other for children’s books. One thing I like about the Yasnaya Polyana longlist is that it always seems to contain a whole lot of books and authors I’ve never heard of; I’m hoping that this year I’ll have a chance to look into and read more of those books than I did last year. The 42 books on the adult longlist were chosen from 128 nominations; there were 69 nominations for the children’s award, of which 26 were selected for that longlist. The Yasnaya Polyana Award’s shortlists will be announced in September.

Since this longlist truly is long, I’ll only mention a few categories of books from the adult list. Since there’s always a lot of award list overlap, some of these titles and descriptions will sound very familiar.

Books I’ve already read
  • Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky). I enjoyed Three Apples (previous post) and translated excerpts.
  • Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon) (previous post), which combines the personal and the historical in a fairly balanced, disciplined novel about a family.
  • Boris Yekimovs Осень в Задонье. Повесть о земле и людях (Autumn in Zadon’e. A Novel About Land and People), not my favorite finalist for the 2015 Big Book. (previous post with summary)
Books on the shelf and/or on other award shortlists
  • Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel). On the shelf, purchased after taking a look at an electronic copy that Aleshkovsky’s literary agency sent to me. Modern times and the Middle Ages merge through archaeology. A 2016 Big Book finalist.
  • Dmitrii Danilov’s Есть вещи поважнее футбола (There Are More Important Things Than Football/Soccer). I’ve enjoyed Danilov’s other books and have this one on the shelf, too. It’s about soccer (inspired by Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s Faithful), at least nominally. Recent winner of the Nonconformist Award.
  • Alexander Snegirevs Как же ее звали?.. (What Was Her Name, Anyway?). Snegirev very kindly sent me a copy (printed!) of the book, which I’m looking forward to reading.
  • Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals) is, contrary to the title, a novel about human beings, concerning a former academic who’s now working in a business. A 2016 Big Book finalist. (brief interview + excerpt)
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road) is described as a “documentary novel”: the cover sums up the details with “General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.” I’ve been reading small chunks of The Winter Road each night and thoroughly enjoying Yuzefovich’s absorbing, masterful characterizations of people and a time. He works wonders with archival material. 2016 NatsBest winner; a 2016 Big Book finalist.
Other books that sound interesting: some were chosen randomly, eyes closed, finger pointed at screen, and sound like great lucky picks:
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Муравьиный царь (The Ant Tsar/King). This book sounded interesting when it turned up on the NatsBest longlist in the spring: I have no idea what it’s about but even some quick Googling turns up some interesting possibilities for subtexts for the title…
  • Polina Barskova’s Живые картинки (Living Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting. On the 2015-2016 NOS(E) shortlist.
  • David Markish’s Луковый мёд (Onion Honey or maybe Honey and Onion, a folk remedy for colds and bronchitis). This is a story collection so might be particularly good to read while sick.
  • Igor Shklyarevskii’s Золотая блесна. Книга радостей и утешений (The Golden Fishing Lure [examples!]. A Book of Joy(s) and Comfort(s)). I took a quick online look at the beginning of this book and got stuck—in the best of ways—on the first lines. Upon Googling, I was glad to find this piece by Shklyarevskii’s friend Zoya Mezhirova, who notes the musicality of the beginning of the book. This book looks like it could be a lot of fun to read.
  • Mikhail Ardov’s Проводы: Хроника одной ночи (The Goodbye Party: A Chronicle of One Night) sounds intriguing: Ardov wrote it fifty years ago but it was published only last year. The Goodbye Party is about a young man who lives in a communal apartment and is about to leave for his army service. Nikolai Alexandrov’s brief review is here.
Bonus! Five Books about Russia… in English
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included a “Five Best: A Personal Choice” piece in which translator and novelist Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest (previous post), recommends five books about Russia. I admit that I was lukewarm on Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter, which I wrote about on my now-defunct other blog (here) back in 2010, and the only other book on the list that I’ve read is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, which didn’t quite hit me, either, though I have thoughts of rereading it… Of the other three, I’m most interested in Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, which involves Shostakovich. On a side note, I’m very much looking forward to reading Jean-Philippe Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris, which Anderson translated for New Vessel Press and which is waiting on my English-language “read sooner” shelf.

[Edit: Due to firewall problems, I'll add the titles of the other two books: Helen Dunmore's The Siege and Sylvain Tesson's The Consolation of the Forest.]

Disclaimers: The usual plus: I’ve translated books by two jury members for the Yasnaya Polyana Award. Some of the books on the list have been given to me in paper and/or electronic form.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I loved when I read it and am loving all over again as I translate it; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I do think I’ll call Faith; Maria Galina’s mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which moves quickly except when it doesn’t.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

2016 National Bestseller Award Goes to Yuzefovich

Leonid Yuzefovich won the 2016 National Bestseller Award for Зимняя дорога (The Winter Road), a book that describes itself as a “documentary novel.” In my description of the book for my last post, which lists finalists for the 2016 Big Book Award, I wrote, “the cover sums up the details with ‘General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.’ I’ve been reading small chunks of The Winter Road each night and thoroughly enjoying Yuzefovich’s absorbing, masterful characterizations of people and a time. He works wonders with archival material.”

Yuzefovich won the very first NatsBest in 2001, too, for his Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind), a fact he noted in his very brief comments after winning today for The Winter Road. Yuzefovich graciously noted that he hopes Mikhail Odnobibl, whose Очередь ([The?] Line) came in second by winning votes from two of the jury’s six members, will receive fame thanks to NatsBest. NatsBest’s slogan is “wake up famous.” Maria Galina’s Автохтоны Autochthons) received one vote. I’m very happy for Yuzefovich, very curious about Odnobibl’s book, and very glad for Galina that her book won a vote, too.

Although commentary on the NatsBest voting and results isn’t yet online, there’s video of the award ceremony available on YouTube here. My post listing the NatsBest finalists is here.

Disclaimers: The usual plus: I’ve translated excerpts of books by Galina as well as NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s entire novel Masha Regina, released by Oneworld Publications last month—just for fun, here’s a Words Without Borders “Watchlist” piece by M. Bartley Seigel recommending it—and was very happy to finally meet Yuzefovich in summery New York last December during Russian Literature Week.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I loved when I read it and am loving all over again as I translate it; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I do think I’ll call Faith; Galina’s mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which is pretty absorbing.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

2016 Big Book Finalists: Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan

Today the Big Book Award announced eleven finalists for its 2016 season. Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order, by author surname, followed by a bit of commentary:
  • Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel), which I bought after reading the beginning of the PDF that Aleshkovsky’s literary agency sent me: archaeology and medieval constructions caught me.
  • Evgeny (Eugene) Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which I read recently and loved for its blend of genres, epochs, and themes, some familiar from Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov. I’m translating this book and enjoying it all over again as I see, up-close, how the book works.
  • Maria Galina’s Автохтоны (part 1) (part 2) (Autochthons, I guess), which is, I can now confirm, a Galina-esque combination of phantasmagoria, magical realism (though hmm?), history, and a regular-guy (anonymous) hero. I finished Autochthons yesterday and still wonder what I read—not, apparently, an unusual reaction—because the book is (usually) cozily disorienting.
  • Vladimir Dinets’s Песни драконов (Dragon Songs) is, according to the full title, about love and adventures in the world of crocodiles and other relatives of dinosaurs. Dinets, who lives in the US, writes in Russian and English, and an English version of the book already exists: Publishers Weekly loved it. This could be a fun surprise. For online animal pictures, check Dinets’s blog.
  • Aleksei Ivanov’s Ненастье (Nasty Weather, this title is a toponym, too, so I’m going to rethink it) is about an Afghan War veteran who robs an armored car, betraying his comrades. I enjoyed Ivanov’s Geographer (previous post) and this one, which I began last night, is off to a good start.
  • Alexander Ilichevsky’s Справа налево (From Right to Left) contains essays.
  • Anna Matveeva’s Завидное чувство Веры Стениной (Vera Stenina’s Envy) is a novel about two women and their relationship, which, yes, has strong elements of envy.
  • Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals) is, contrary to the title, a novel about human beings, concerning a former academic who’s now working in a business. (brief interview + excerpt)
  • Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Jacob’s Ladder) is a family saga set during 1911-2011; I read the beginning after Ulitskaya’s agent sent me the text. This one’s already on the shelf.
  • Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Persecution, perhaps?) sounds as indescribable as Galina’s book: I find mentions of youth, irony, cynicism, and this time we live in.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road) is described as a “documentary novel”: the cover sums up the details with “General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.” I’ve been reading small chunks of The Winter Road each night and thoroughly enjoying Yuzefovich’s absorbing, masterful characterizations of people and a time. He works wonders with archival material.

As for commentary, there were a few books I was especially sorry didn’t make the list… Vasily Avchenko’s Кристалл в прозрачной оправе (excerpt) (Crystal in a Transparent Frame), with its ocean theme, and Dmitry Danilov’s Есть вещи поважнее футбола (There Are Things A Little More Important Than Football/Soccer) are at the top of my list. Our cats were rooting for Aleksandr Arkhangelsky’s Правило муравчика. Сказка про бога, котов и собак (excerpt) (The Rule of the Purrer/The Right Cat Rule. A Tale About God, Cats, and Dogs), which I’ll have to read if only to figure out what to do with the title. Based on some good reviews, I was a little surprised Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) didn’t make it, though wonder if the combination of dozens of characters and their stories (including, apparently, sex and vampires, which I wouldn’t think would put people off!) might have, nevertheless, put off the experts. Sasha Okun’s Камов и Каминка (Kamov and Kaminka), which purports to involve art and a detective story, looks so appealing that I may have to read it sooner rather than later. And, finally, as I mentioned in a quick note to Klarisa Pul’son, who wrote this prediction of the finalist list, I was surprised that crocodiles knocked poets out of contention for this year’s award: I was expecting either Zakhar Prilepin’s book on Anatoly Mariengof, Boris Kornilov, and Vladimir Lugovskoi, or Dmitrii Bykov’s book on Vladimir Mayakovsky to make the short list. I thought Klarisa did pretty well by (correctly) predicting six out of eleven books that made the shortlist: even without having read all the books on the long list, I was nearly certain Yuzefovich, Ulitskaya, Ivanov, and Vodolazkin would be finalists; I would have put Aleshkovsky, Avchenko, and Kuznetsov at the top of my “probably” list.

I’ll start posting about finalists soon since I’ve already finished two. All in all, this list looks far more to my taste than last year’s—with some old favorites plus some new names and species—so I’m very much looking forward to reading the finalists as well as the books from the long list that are already on the shelf.

Disclaimers: I’m a member of the Big Book’s jury, the Literary Academy, and will vote on finalists later this year. Authors and literary agents have given me electronic copies of several of these books. I am translating one of the finalists.

Up Next: The National Bestseller Award winner. Then three books, all difficult to write about: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which truly does soar, Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I do think I’ll call Faith, and Maria Galina’s Autochthons. I’m now reading Aleksei Ivanov’s book, which I’m thinking of as Nasty Weather for now, because of the sound play.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Translation Potpourri for a Sleepy Sunday

What better for a blustery Sunday afternoon than a translation potpourri? And so: two novels written in English, one essay, one short course, and a link…

I’ll start with Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest since it’s a novel with a Russian theme: a modern-day British publisher, Katya, hires Ana to translate a journal written by Zinaida Lintvaryova, a young doctor whose own illness has blinded her. The title’s summer guest is none other than Anton Chekhov, who visits the Lintvaryov estate in Sumy, in eastern Ukraine. The journal, which begins in 1888, makes up the bulk of the novel but Anderson intersperses occasional chapters set in the 2010s, chronicling Katya’s personal and professional problems—her husband’s absences and their publishing house’s difficulties—as well as Ana’s work on the manuscript. Of course I relate heavily to Ana, who can be observed checking spellings, splurging on books, and hoping for a new project (did Chekhov really leave behind a draft of the novel he read to Zinaida? could she translate it?), not to mention making an impulsive trip to Ukraine toward the end of the book. Anderson’s greatest success in The Summer Guest, though, is Zinaida’s journal, which beautifully meshes Chekhov’s gentlemanly humor and humanity with Zinaida’s fears and hopes. The rapport he and Zinaida develop is poignant, and the scene where the Chekhov brothers take Zinaida out in a rowboat is particularly lovely: Zinaida feels freed, “suspended” from her darkness. Though the framing device in The Summer Guest felt a bit thin to me because I wanted to see Katya and Ana in greater depth, and some of the current events mentioned felt a little tacked on, I’ll simply say (to avoid spoilers!) that the frame allows Anderson to make the journal count twice. More important to me, as a reader and recommender, though, is the readability of the journal’s story, the colorfulness of the Chekhov and Lintvaryov families, and the many admirable choices that Anderson makes when incorporating bits of Russian language and background into her text. Her own translation work informs her well; so, apparently did her research, which she notes in a brief but informative afterword…

Which made me especially happy to read Anderson’s “Spurn the Translator at Your Own Peril,” on The Millions. I won’t say much about it because you can read it yourself, here. (I know at least one of you already read it: thanks to the reader who sent the link!) Anderson writes about reader perceptions of translation, translator and author invisibility (she takes a fun angle on this because of the mysterious Elena Ferrante), what is (ahem!) found in translation, and even how we do it. She mentions two to ten pages a day. And yes, of course she’s right that “it is a pleasure.” She’s also right that translators make “interesting protagonists within the fiction that is their province”: she notes novels including Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, which I was lukewarm on, and Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear

I loved Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear. She had me with her first sentence: “In a crumbling park in the crumbling back end of Copacabana, a woman stopped under an almond tree with a suitcase and a cigar.” Whether it was the repetition of “crumbling,” the combination of the suitcase and the cigar, or the thought of almonds, which I enjoy eating on just about anything, yes, dear reader, I bought the book. In hardcover. I had to find out what happens when American translator Emma Neufeld goes from snowy Pittsburg to blazing-hot Brazil in search of the almond tree woman, Beatriz Yagoda, who happens to be Emma’s author. Beatriz has gone missing because of gambling debts and Emma goes missing on her lets-go-running-and-lets-get-married boyfriend because, well, our authors are part of us in some mysterious way. Has Novey ever used the hairbrush of one of her authors? I don’t know and I don’t need to know but I will say that I, personally, have never used a hairbrush (or comb or other grooming device) belonging to any of my authors but oh my, what a wonderful, fitting metaphor. On the same page (23, if anyone’s looking), there’s a mention of Emma’s (earlier, of course) confession to Beatriz that she “hadn’t been quite as dutiful in her last translation as in Beatriz’s earlier books, and Beatriz had replied that duty was for clergy. For translation to be an art, she told Emma, you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes.” Yes, yes, and yes. I couldn’t wait to buy the book because Novey mentions “the risk-taking, the reckless joys of translation” in an LA Times interview that my cousin clipped and sent to me… Risks and joys are what make translation so exhilarating and I feel lots of reckless joy and risk-taking in Ways to Disappear, too, and all of it works and pays off for Novey. For more complete views: Heller McAlpin’s review on or Catherine Lacey’s review for the New York Times Book Review.

If you’re a translator looking for a short course in London, in mid-July, you might consider Translate in the City, where the tutor for Russian is Robert Chandler. I think I first heard about the program from Anne Marie Jackson, an alumna of the very first “Translate in the City” course: among other things, Anne Marie is a co-translator of two volumes of Teffi that were just released (herewith, the 2016 translation list for details), including Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, reviewed in today’s New York Times Book Review by Masha Gessen. Translate in the City covers eleven languages and all are taught by instructors whose main work is literary translation. Robert notes that many students come to London from the US for the program.

And, finally, to end on an especially happy and translation-related note, here’s an article by Alison Flood for The Guardian: Translated fiction sells better in the UK than English fiction, research finds. And here's a Monday-morning addition, also in The Guardian: Daniel Hahn's The Man Booker International prize: a celebration of translation.
Disclaimers: The usual. Thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy of The Summer Guest. The book has a release date of May 24, 2016. Especially recommended for Chekhov fans.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I just plain loved. Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I may yet call Faith. Maria Galina’s Autochthons, which is getting eerier… The Big Book finalist announcement is coming up soon, too.