Saturday, December 6, 2014

More Miscellany: Booker Goes to Sharov… AATSEEL Awards… Russian Literature Week… Two Translations...

1. The Russian Booker Prize was awarded yesterday to Vladimir Sharov for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). Sharov won third prize from the Big Book Award jury last week, too, so he’s had a busy award season. In other Booker news, Учительская газета reported, in a newsy article, that Natalya Gromova’s Ключ. Последняя Москва (The Key. The Last/Final Moscow) won the Booker’s grant award, which covers the book’s translation into English. 

Return to Egypt has not (yet) been translated into English, Sharov’s До и во время does exist in English, in the form of Oliver Ready’s translation, Before & During. I’m not even sure where or how to begin describing Before & During: this complex novel’s frame story involves a man checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he begins compiling stories for a Memorial Book. The novel’s primary character, though, turns out to be Madame de Staël, who seems to give birth to just about everyone, including herself. I’ve seen the word “phantasmagoria” used to describe the book more than once, and it’s more than appropriate for Sharov’s quirky combination of religion, Russian history, and culture… Stalin, Lenin, Scriabin, and Tolstoy are among the real-life figures who put in appearances, making for alternative history at its most peculiar. Before & During has a peculiar charm, too: I don’t usually have much patience for monologues but something about the book’s wackiness and, I’m sure, Oliver’s lucid translation, mesmerized me and I finished, even though I’m not exactly sure what I read. This is (yet another!) book it would be fun to research while rereading. For detailed descriptions of Before & During, see Anna Aslanyan’s review for The Independent and Russian Dinosaur’s detailed account. Caryl Emerson’s review in the April 11, 2014, issue of The Times Literary Supplement (which I happened to buy) contains a summary of the scandal at the journal Novyi mir when Before & During was first published in the nineties.

2. The American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) announced its annual book awards last week. Most exciting (for me anyway!) was that Sibelan Forrester won the scholarly translation award for The Russian Folktale, by Vladimir Propp, published by Wayne State University Press. I loved reading Propp years ago in grad school so this was a great reminder that I’ve been meaning to buy Sibelan’s book of Propp. The best literary translation award went to Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto for I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary: The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms, published by Academic Studies Press. Sophia Lubensky’s revised Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms (Yale University Press) won the language pedagogy award—I use an older edition of this book and find it ridiculously helpful in my translation work. Part of the fun of Lubensky’s dictionaries is that they include quotations from literature, with English translations… the new edition apparently includes contemporary authors like Akunin, Pelevin, Ulitskaya, and Sorokin. Finally, Katia Dianina won the award for literary and cultural studies for When Art Makes News: Writing Culture and Identity in Imperial Russia, published by Northern Illinois University Press.

3. I spent about 1.5 days in New York last week for Read Russia’s first annual Russian Literature Week festivities, enjoying two panel discussions: one panel looked at nineteenth-century classics, with translator Marian Schwartz, New York Review Books editor Edwin Frank, and Esther Allen, a translator from the Spanish and associate professor at Baruch College; the other panel focused on differences between translating classics and contemporary literature, with Marian Schwartz, Russian and Polish translator and New Vessel publisher Ross Ufberg, and translator and Columbia University professor Ron Meyer. I kept terrible notes but, in the midst of hearing about books like Marian’s translation of Anna Karenina, The Captain’s Daughter from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Ross’s work on Vladimir Vysotsky’s stories, my memory zeroes in on two topics that I always find especially relevant and interesting: making sure the beginning of a book, particularly the very first page, has, as Marian put it, “zing,” and the special challenges of working on what will be an author’s debut in English. I also jotted down that someone said the word “pal” dates back to Shakespeare… this was interesting to learn since I’m using the phrase “be a pal” for a contemporary-sounding utterance in my translation of Vodolazkin’s Laurus, a book set in the Middle Ages that includes a spectrum of language ranging from archaicisms to modern slang. Flexibility is fun!

Speaking of fun: a highlight of Russian Literature Week was seeing translator friends. And it was particularly fun to see Katherine Dovlatov after reading Pushkin Hills, her translation of Sergei Dovlatov’s Заповедник. I read the first half of Pushkin Hills on a non-fun JetBlue flight last summer. But if ever there was a perfect book for a delayed flight on a stifling plane, this is it. Pushkin Hills tells, in first-person narrative, the story of one Boris Alikhanov, who has marital troubles as well as a job as a tour guide at the Pushkin Hills Preserve. Although I will always prefer the first half of the book—for its focus on the wonderful absurdity of working at a place dedicated to Pushkin (Our Everything!)—I came to appreciate the second half more. The novel’s second act includes a visit from Alikhanov’s wife and a visit to a KGB officer. Dovlatov’s humor felt absolutely perfect on that hot, tardy plane, thanks to, of course, a very funny original plus, of course, Katya Dovlatov’s translation, which renders her father’s short sentences into funny, colloquial English that reads beautifully. (Let me just say: that is not easy.) I think Katya succeeded so well because, as she notes in this Paris Review interview, she read the Russian out loud and then tried things out in English, “to keep the same musicality, the same tone.” She made lots of bang-up word choices, like scrud and booze-up, that capture the feel of her father’s novel and keep the text lively. And keep me laughing. No easy feat on a late airplane, particularly for a book I first read and enjoyed in Russian. Pushkin Hills was published in the U.S. by Counterpoint Press and in the U.K. by Alma Classics. Also of interest: Marisa Robertson-Textor’s “All Dovlatov’s Children: Recent Soviet Émigré Literature.”

Up Next: Back to the books, starting with Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons) or Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov. There are also lots more English-language translations and originals on the shelves, just waiting. I’m not sure, though, about Prilepin’s The Cloister… it might have won the Big Book last week, but after nearly 300 pages, The Cloister feels a little too big, a little too wordy, and a little too stuffed with, well, stuff that could have/should have been pared down a bit. Or a lot. But we’ll see.

Disclaimers: The usual, for knowing so many people in this post. Thank you to Dedalus Books for the copy of Before & During and Counterpoint Press for Pushkin Hills. Read Russia brought me to New York for Russian Literature Week.


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