Monday, November 30, 2009

Notable New Translations: What 2009 Brought

It’s the season for year-end lists so I thought I’d take a look at translations that brought Russian fiction into English translation for the first time in 2009. I always enjoy acknowledging translators and their publishers, and the list is so varied it should provide some fun ideas for personal reading or holiday gifts. I began by looking at the translation database from Three Percent (available here, updated here on 2 December), then added a few items that weren’t on that list…

Those of you who visit this blog regularly can probably divine that I think 2009’s most exciting releases are anthologies of contemporary Russian short stories: Rasskazy, from Tin House, and Life Stories from Russian Information Services. (All posts: Rasskazy Life Stories) Both books are treats because their varied voices, literary devices, and topics form a tremendous mosaic. I’ll be writing a full post about Rasskazy within the next week or so and hope to get to Life Stories in December.

Several more of Boris Akunin’s novels (previous post) made it into English this year, thanks to translator Andrew Bromfield: Pelagia and the Red Cockerel (Random House), plus two of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin books, Coronation and She Lover of Death (imports in the US; Weidenfeld & Nicholson). I love Akunin’s Fandorin novels, and She Lover of Death is a sentimental favorite because it was the first book I read when I got back into reading Russian fiction about five years ago. Bromfield is prolific: his translation of Andrei Rubanov’s Do Time Get Time, from Old Street Publishing, came out in May, too.

Last weekend’s post about Anna Starobinets (here) mentioned her story collection An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin and published by Hesperus Press, as well as Liudmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, and published by Penguin. (Edit: Jessa Crispin's "A World of Novels: Picks for Best Foreign Fiction," on, includes Petrushevskaya's book and links to the title story, which actually carries the modest title "Revenge.")

Northwestern University Press brought out two new Russian titles in 2009: Gaito Gazdanov’s Night Roads, translated by Justin Doherty, and Ivan Shcheglov’s novella The Dacha Husband, translated by Michael Katz. I’m familiar with Gazdanov – I just finished his atmospheric Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Ghost of Alexander Wolf) – but Shcheglov is a new name for me. Another writer I haven’t read is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whom Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov translated for the (partially) new collection from New York Review Books, Memories of the Future. (previous post)

Amanda Love Darragh, who won this year’s Rossica Prize for translating Maria Galina’s Iramifications, translated A Jewish God in Paris, a trio of novellas by Mikhail Levitin; Glas published both books. Polly Gannon’s translation of Max Frei’s The Stranger (Overlook) brings the first book of the popular, magical-sounding science fiction series Labyrinths of Echo into English. I’ve never read Frei but have the second book in the series – I just never seem to start with the first book.

I should add that there are several ongoing sources of translated Russian stories and excerpts, too: Rossica, from Academia Rossica, and Readings/Чтения, from Russian Information Services. Glas has also published a number of anthologies of translations, and the Glas Web site includes many samples.

A slightly off-topic note about a book that had already been translated: late fall 2009 brought two new translations of Ilf and Petrov’s Золотой телёнок: The Golden Calf from Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson (Open Letter) and The Little Golden Calf from Anne O. Fisher (Russian Information Services). Either Calf would make a fine holiday gift. I haven’t (and won’t!) compare the quality of the translations but have observed, based on my online preview of the Open Letter book and an advance copy of the book from Russian Information Services, that the books show clear differences in philosophy.

I’m not trying to be diplomatic when I say that I don’t honestly know which one I’d choose if I were buying a gift (likely to happen soon) or planning a first-time reading of the book. On the one hand, I like Open Letter’s philosophy of minimalist notes. Notes distract me because I compulsively look to see if I’m missing something. On the other hand, cultural differences mean notes will help readers understand the book, so the RIS book’s detailed historical introduction, hundreds of notes, plus two appendices are pretty useful and, yes, fun to read. Interestingly enough, Complete Review’s review calls the Open Letter book’s explanatory notes “a very limited and almost random grab-bag: more (or none) would have been preferable.” All that aside, I often like to say that the best translation is the one you’re most likely to read and love, so compare the first pages for yourself on Open Letter’s site or Look Inside from Amazon.

Disclosure: I received complementary copies of three books and one journal mentioned in this post: Rasskazy, Life Stories, The Little Golden Calf, and Чтения/Readings. I always welcome notifications about new translations.

Rasskazy on Amazon
Life Stories on Amazon
Boris Akunin on Amazon
Do Time Get Time on Amazon
An Awkward Age on Amazon
There Once Lived a Woman... on Amazon
Night Roads on Amazon
The Dacha Husband on Amazon
Memories of the Future on Amazon
A Jewish God in Paris on Amazon
The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo) on Amazon
The Golden Calf on Amazon
The Little Golden Calf on Amazon


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