Thursday, April 15, 2010

Translating 2017: An Interview with Marian Schwartz

I was thrilled when translator Marian Schwartz agreed to an e-mail interview: beyond wanting to learn more about her translation of Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, for which she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, I wanted to find out what she’s working on now.

In a recent interview with The Boston Globe Marian said, “I think a translation is considered ‘good’ when the reader likes it, even if it’s tough going.” Marian’s translation of 2017 feels faithful to a very difficult original: I thought I was reliving favorite scenes when I read her versions. Which is to say I think the translation both reads well and manages to preserve the complexity and peculiarities of Slavnikova’s writing... fitting Marian’s definition of “good.” This could not have been easy!

Marian mentions below that she translated a manuscript that is slightly shorter than the Russian novel I read this winter. I think Slavnikova’s rearrangements make the opening chapters of this second version of the novel flow better than the Russian book I read. It should help readers avoid some of the difficulties I had getting into the rhythm of 2017 (previous post).

(Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of 2017 from Overlook Press. I should also add that I have quirky ways of reading translations of books I’ve already read in Russian. Though I didn’t read the translated 2017 cover-to-cover, I spent several hours reading the opening chapters and numerous assorted other passages, occasionally comparing original and translation.)

I haven’t changed anything in Marian’s answers, and I only added links. I want to add one thing here, though: I love her idea about the future of foreign literature. For more information about Marian’s background, awards, and work, please visit her Web site, including this page, with links to full reviews of her translation of 2017.

Here you go:

1. How did you come to translate 2017? Did you find the book or did the book find you?

Several years ago, Natasha Perova of Glas asked me to translate something for Nine of Russia's Foremost Women Writers. One of the choices she offered was an excerpt from an earlier version of this novel, an excerpt that included Slavnikova's spectacular set piece on transparency, which may be my favorite nugget in the whole book. Slavnikova's ability to write these set pieces about abstract ideas that are nonetheless integral to the novel reminds me of Berberova. After I got the NEA to complete the translation, another excerpt ran in Subtropics. But then Slavnikova did a somewhat shortened version for Gallimard, and that's the manuscript I translated for this edition.

2. I noticed in your acknowledgements that you thanked a friend and colleague for help with geological terminology. Was that one of the most difficult aspects of translating 2017?

I am very fortunate to have a colleague, R. Michael Conner, who specializes in translating Russian geology, so on the one hand I knew the scientific language was going to be a problem, but on the other I knew I had an authoritative source. Mike had helped me in a similar way when I translated Lost in the Taiga, which takes place in Siberia and describes the terrain at great length. So no, that wasn't difficult in the way the general density of Slavnikova's style is. As you know, Russian creates dense language in an entirely different way from English. Russian relies more on inflection; English on position. These kinds of passages become even harder when movement is involved, since Russian conceptualizes motion in what is, for English speakers, a totally alien fashion. It's at these moments that I have to step back, take a deep breath, and reimagine how English constructs a sentence out of these same components, while preserving the tone. Of course.

3. 2017 has a lot to offer, including a love story, wilderness adventure, and philosophical themes. Are there any themes or plot lines in the book that you think should be especially interesting or universal for people who read the book in translation?

The novel's attraction, I think, is not that it's universal but just the opposite, that it gives non-Russians very direct access to the kind of exotic Russian culture and psyche that has fascinated Western culture for over a hundred years. We read The Brothers Karamazov for the philosophy, but we're also intrigued by the characters' daily existence and general worldview. Some of that is going on here, too. In Spartan living conditions, educated men plot secretive prospecting expeditions and a whiz-kid computer programmer shuts himself in to figure out how to unlock secrets guarded by futuristic safeguards of his own making. Women turn to stone, for goodness' sake! Yes, there are several plot threads, but what really holds the reader, I think, is the emotion. There are sections that make my heart pound every time I read them.

4. What are you working on now?

Right now I'm translating an art book for Yale University Press on the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. This is a period near and dear to my heart, and the book works with newly accessible archival materials that shed surprisingly new light on what I'd always considered a well-studied period. Little did I know.

5. What favorite writers or pieces of Russian fiction would you like to recommend to readers?

Akashic Books is putting out Moscow Noir in June, and for it I translated several stories, all but one by authors I'd never heard of let alone read, and three of them impressed me very much, Andrei Khusnutdinov, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Aleksandr Anuchkin. All the stories are a little more violent than I usually go for, but if you can accept that convention, then you're going to enjoy this collection.

The two more "literary" writers who I think should find publishers here are Mikhail Shishkin and especially Leonid Yuzefovich, who in addition to Cranes and Pygmies, which you reviewed, has a terrific historical detective trilogy (later made into a TV mini-series). Yuzefovich is a historian with special interests in Mongolia and medieval diplomacy (!), and he manages to bring all that into play. The Inspector Putilin series is set in St. Petersburg and loosely based on an actual detective who lived there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

6. What question do you wish I had asked? And please answer it!

What does the future hold for foreign literature?

My crystal ball tells me that we are finally going to figure out how to publish and deliver great international literature electronically. I believe there are at least 5000 potential readers for almost any first-rate foreign novel, which would make publishing those books viable. Exactly what kind of portal or portals have to be devised is beyond my expertise, but we're seeing success of this sort already in science fiction, for example. International literature is one more kind of niche market, one of many that suddenly have a future. My hope is that this will lead to a much broader range of literature being published, not just the highest art (which clearly must be published), the most stylistically and intellectually challenging, but also books that are more conventional narratively and will have a wider audience. I'm not often this optimistic, but in this case I am. It's crazy, I know.

2017 on Amazon


  1. reading it ws fun
    esp since i recently read
    lolita nd turgenenve
    nd the idiot...

  2. Only discovering your interview with this very great translator now - thank you for keeping it up on your blog. I'm now keen to read everything Marian S. has recommended here, esp. the Moscow Noir anthology.

    1. Everything stays on the blog, Pig State Recon! I love the Moscow Noir anthology, too. There's a post about that somewhere on here, too. Happy reading.