Sunday, December 18, 2011

Trip Notes: Literary Translator Conference

It took me a few weeks to get caught up on my sleep and work (ouch!) after traveling to Kansas City for the American Literary Translators Association conference the week before Thanksgiving… here, at last, are a few conference highlights:

I don’t often write about films but want to be sure to recommend Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten) The Woman With the 5 Elephants to anyone interested in literary translation, Dostoevsky, and/or moral ambiguity. Jendreyko profiles Svetlana Geier, who left Ukraine for Germany during World War 2; the five elephants of the title are five of Dostoevsky’s long novels that Geier translated.

Jendreyko makes beautiful use of silence in the film, showing us Geier’s translation process—which includes dictating translations to a woman at a manual typewriter and, later, taking notes on the typewritten copy as she listens to comments and criticisms from a crustily endearing musician friend (see photo)—as well as her food shopping, cooking, and first trip to Ukraine in decades. Jendreyko’s film tells us that Geier’s father was a political prisoner and that Geier’s knowledge of German helped her leave the Soviet Union, but he doesn’t push her, at least on camera, to explain much about how she managed to go to Germany. Instead he cuts in scenes from a silent Crime and Punishment (Robert Wiene’s Raskolnikow, I believe), along with Geier’s comments on Dostoevsky and Raskol’nikov.

Though I’d dreaded the 9.30 p.m. screening time after a long day at the conference, The Woman With the 5 Elephants was so oddly suspenseful and puzzling that it kept me fully alert, awake, and even enthralled. I’m not sure what left the strongest impression on me—Geier’s occasional mischievous looks into the camera, uncertainty about her past, the silences, or Geier’s wonderfully old-fashioned translation techniques—but the film was well worth staying up to watch.

My personal highlights of the conference were reading from one of my works in progress, Konstantin Vaginov’s novella Бамбочада (Bambocciade) and reciting, from memory (eek!), Arsenii Tarkovskii’s brief poem “Портрет” (“Portrait”), in the original and in my own translation during the “Declamación” program. I’ve always thought of myself as a horrible memorizer but I can’t tell you how glad I am that Marian Schwartz urged me to take part. Declamacion was as fun as promised, and I particularly enjoyed hearing poems—e.g. Chinese arias—sung. I’m already thinking ahead to next year so I can prepare a poem that’s a little longer. There’s a lot to be said for memorizing a poem and reciting it in public.

A few other things to mention… Poet and translator Peter Golub gave me a copy of St. Petersburg Review (no. 3, 2009), a nicely produced thick journal of essays, fiction, poetry, and drama, with many pieces translated from Russian and Chinese… A few new releases from Russian-English translators: Marian’s translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s Жажда (Thirst) came out from Amazon Crossing last month… Psalms, Jim Kates’s chapbook of translations of psalms by Genrikh Sapgir, is out this December from Cold Hub Press… and Jamie Olson’s translation of Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak’s “Tale of How There Once Was a Fly Who Outlived the Others” (“Сказка о том, как жила-была последняя муха”) was published in the fall 2011 issue of Chtenia. Congratulations to all!

Bonus! The afore-mentioned St. Petersburg Review is one of the organizers of a poetry event on December 21 at 6 p.m. at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City. Host will be Alissa Heyman; poets Polina Barskova, Irina Mashinski, and Eugene Ostashevsky will read.

Up next: Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club), then highlights of 2011.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image credit: Site for Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten.


  1. Thank you for this fascinating post, Lisa. You are so brave to read poetry in public without a text - I'm very impressed. I also really want, now, to see that documentary _ I have read a couple of newspaper articles about this extraordinary translator, but that's all to date. Thanks for the conference review!

  2. And thank you, Russian Dinosaur, for the comment! I think you would enjoy the film -- it has an eerie undertone.

    The poem I read was very short, and I purposely chose one that would be relatively easy to memorize because of simple vocabulary, rhyme, and strong rhythm. And that I could easily translate, with rhyme and rhythm, despite not being a poetry translator. Rhyme was particularly useful in keeping me on track. I'm glad I remembered "Портрет", which I used a few years ago in an adult ed class. I did most of my memorizing during fall cleaning: it was a great way to keep my mind occupied during boring tasks!

  3. the dvd is out at last:

  4. I'm way behind on reading blogs, Lisa, but I figure it's never too late to comment?! ;-)
    I watched that documentary at the Translation in the Catskills Conference -- what a treat. I'm so glad I got to see it.
    As for participating in Declamación, congratulations! I don't translate poetry and the thought of memorizing anything longer (or anything at all?) completely overwhelms me. It's a real treat to sit and listen to everyone's creative work though. I'm so glad you had a good experience at ALTA 2011. Perhaps we can meet in person at ALTA 2012? Happy New Year!

  5. Thank you for your comment, Lisa. I agree: it is never too late to comment! I love getting new comments on very old posts; it's great to know the information is still relevant.

    I also hope to meet you at ALTA this year -- I loved the 2011 conference and am already looking forward to Rochester.

    As for Declamación, I'm not a poetry translator, either, but it was fun to translate a short poem and memorize the original and the translation. (Bonus: I think oral renditions are more forgiving than paper!) I found that making my own translation helped me memorize both versions. I also found that I memorized best during fall cleaning: I think my head was open to anything while I was doing mindless tasks!