Thursday, August 21, 2014
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.