Sunday, October 4, 2009

Notable New Translations: Life Stories, Scary Fairy Tales, Resurrection, and Belkin

Late summer and early fall brought a varied crop of translations:

-The anthology Life Stories, published by Russian Information Services, translates most of the short stories in a Russian collection that came out in Russia earlier this year: Книга, ради которой объединились писатели, объединить которых невозможно (hmm, roughly: A Book for the Sake of Which Writers Impossible to Get Together Got Together).

Like Tin House’s Rasskazy (previous posts), Life Stories contains stories by contemporary Russian fiction writers… but the writer rosters differ greatly. Rasskazy writers are all 40 or under, and many of them are relatively unknown. Though the Life Stories writers aren’t exactly old timers, the collection includes big names like Evgenii Grishkovets, Vladimir Voinovich, Dina Rubina, Vladimir Makanin, and Viktor Pelevin. Only one author, Zakhar Prilepin, has a story in each book; I began Life Stories with his “Grandmother, Wasps, Watermelon” (Бабушка, осы, арбуз), translated by Deborah Hoffman. Life Stories also includes Alexei Bayer’s translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s “Жанна” (“Joan”), which I wrote about in this previous post.

I’ll write more about the collection later this fall but want to add that Life Stories is not just an anthology. Like its Russian counterpart, the book’s sales benefit the Vera Hospice Charity Fund and hospice care in Moscow. All profits go to the fund, and the writers and translators waived their fees and royalties.

Also: There will be a Life Stories reading on Saturday, October 17 at 4-6 p.m., at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. (PDF of event information)

-A new book of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, collects stories translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. For a sample, read “The Fountain House,” which appeared in The New Yorker this summer. There is also a Petrushevskaya story in Life Stories: “Joe Juan” (“Джо Жуан”) translated by Lise Brody.

-Tolstoy’s Resurrection, I learned from the Literary Saloon, has been retranslated by Anthony Briggs and published by Penguin Classics. I, too, found the book curious when I read it several years ago. As I wrote in handouts for a “Forgotten Classics” literature workshop, a lot of Resurrection is fairly obvious, but, thanks to stylistic and thematic differences and similarities, the book should be interesting for people who have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin also recently reappeared, thanks to Melville House, in a translation by Josh Billings, a Portlander. I’ve read these stories enough times that the words in Josh’s translation feel familiar, even in English. That’s a bit eerie but also very welcome because his translations feel clean and modern, just as Pushkin’s language does. (previous post on The Belkin Tales)

Life Stories: Original Works by Russian Writers on Amazon

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales on Amazon


  1. Josh sent me his translation too, but I was put off by the fact that the first two pages I glanced at had horrendous translation errors (the epigraph for "The Stationmaster" renders knyaz' as "King" rather than "Prince," and the one for "Lady-Maid" has "You are well dressed in every respect" when the Russian says "You look pretty in anything you wear"). Are these just isolated glitches? I don't care how smooth the English is -- if it doesn't accurately represent the Russian, I can't bring myself to recommend it.

  2. Languagehat, I'm surprised I didn't notice "King" -- I would have known right away that was incorrect! Interestingly, after I saw your comment, I looked at another translation I have on the shelf and noticed that one didn't get everything exactly right with those epigraphs, either... it makes me wonder if publishers assume nobody (and obviously "nobody" includes me) reads epigraphs very carefully. I noticed some proofreading inconsistencies with names in the new book, too.

    You know, I was thinking about writing a brief disclaimer for all my posts that discuss translations... I think I may do that. When I mention actual translations, I only (cl)aim to convey whether a translation, ИМХО, as they say, comes reasonably close to capturing the voice I heard in the original. I don't compare translations and originals for accuracy, though I do sometimes look at individual passages that seem strange or over-anglicized. (There's one interesting term I may mention in a future post...)

    I could write on and on and on about difficulties with translation but will stop here for now!

  3. I hardly ever see reviews of translations based on a comparison with the original; it's perfectly understandable, of course, given time constraints, but I think it would be good to add a disclaimer, which most people don't bother to do (in fact, I'm not sure most people even realize it's an issue).