Monday, September 24, 2012

Moscow Trip Report: Translator Congress, Book Fair, Book Shopping

In early September I spent a short week in Moscow thanks to the Institute of Translation, which invited me to the second International Congress of Literary Translators, where I spoke and served as co-moderator, with Natasha Perova of Glas, during sections categorized as “Translation of Contemporary Literature.”  I went to Moscow a few days early so I could work down my jetlag before the Congress (mixed results), go to the Moscow International Book Fair (success), and visit friends, colleagues, and favorite sites (success). A few jumbled highlights:

The Congress. I called my conference paper “Оптимистический взгляд с другого берега: Что такое «хорошо» в современной русской литературе (“An Optimistic View from the Other Shore: Contemporary Russian Literature & The Meaning of “Good”) and spent my 10 minutes speaking first (very fast!) about the unique internal logic I think governs good works of fiction. Internal logic is my take on Jonathan Lethem’s thought that a writer should teach the reader to read his/her book. Then I mentioned three favorite books—Khemlin’s Klotsvog, Senchin’s Yeltyshevs, and Gigolashvili’s Devil’s Wheel—that I think work particularly well. A sequel on internal logic appears below…

As for Congress highlights, I particularly enjoyed a plenary session talk from Natalya Ivanova, first deputy head editor of the thick journal Znamia. Ivanova named names in a talk about contemporary fiction, quoting contemporary writers who find fault in today’s literature, then saying there’s plenty worthy of translation, then offering her own examples of good writers (e.g. Mikhail Shishkin, Fazil Iskander, Liudmila Petrushevsksya, Vladimir Makanin, and Alexander Kabakov) plus two nonfavorites she sees as nostalgic for the Soviet past: Mikhail Elizarov, whom she accused of writing poorly, and Zakhar Prilepin, whom she considers a better writer, prolific, and unusual. Ivanova also listed recent books about problems in contemporary life written by Olga Slavnikova, Alexander Ilichevsky, Iurii Buida, Dmitrii Danilov, Vladimir Gubailovskii, and Maria Galina, among others.

Other Congress highlights: Michele Berdy’s talk about language, including current uses of words like вообще (a.k.a. “вооще!”) and актуальный, and the fact that Russian plates “stand” on a table… hearing numerous talks (and even a slight related outburst) mentioning who gets translated into various languages: I made a list of popular names in the sessions I attended, noting the prolific Prilepin as well as Akunin, Marinina, Shishkin, Sorokin, Erofeev, and classics like Bulgakov… meeting people like Zaven Babloyan, who translates from Ukrainian to Russian and gave me a copy of his translation of Sergei Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad; and Kristina Rotkirch, who translates Russian into Swedish and interviewed writers for the useful Contemporary Russian Fiction, published by Glas… and, of course, getting caught up with literary agents and translators I’d met before. It’s always nice to see familiar people when you’re tired after travel! The only downside of such a big event is that I wasn’t able to hear nearly as many papers as I wanted. Here’s a PDF of the Congress program. Just ask if you have questions.

Vladislav Otroshenko and That Internal Logic. I visited with writer Vladislav Otroshenko on my first full day in Moscow; I translated his short story “Языки Нимродовой башни” (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”). We talked about all sorts of things, from Cossacks and Vikings to the story and my Congress paper, focusing a fair bit on my “internal logic” idea, something he feels, from a different angle, as a writer. I must have been a little more lucid that day than I thought because he ended up writing a piece for Russian Pioneer about what he calls the “Lisa Hayden Moment.” In short, this is a point within a story or novel when a reader realizes the piece does or doesn’t work. His essay extends, very logically, what I told him: I rely a lot on instinct and intuition, which are inherently difficult to describe, so it was wonderful to see his summary.

The Moscow International Book Fair. I spent an afternoon at the book fair—it’s held in a pavilion at what used to be VDNKh, the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, what a strange feeling to go there again!—where I heard Margarita Khemlin speak about her new book, Дознаватель (The Investigator), which I’m looking forward to reading. I was pleased to see other writers, editors, and book people I’ve met in my travels, too, particularly Irina Bogatyreva, who has a story in a new collection compiled by that prolific Zakhar Prilepin. The AST and Eksmo booths both bustled with novelist talks, panels, and book signings but I was even more struck with all the publishers focused on specialized books; railroad sticks in my mind for personal reasons.

What I brought back. I started with
Voroshilovgrad and will soon work through the
pile of 2012 Big Book finalists on the right.
Book Shopping. Of course I brought back lots of books: some were given to me by writers and translators, but I purchased most of my books at Falanster, Biblio-Globus, and Moskva. I even bought one—Prilepin’s Книгочёт, a book about books and even, in one essay, drinking—at Domodedovo airport because I thought (correctly!) the short pieces would make good plane reading. Each store was fun in its own way… Falanster’s relatively random selection is great: the Vita Sovietica sort-of-a-dictionary is useful fun, and I snapped up German Sadulaev’s difficult-to-find Raid on Shali; I wish I’d thought to go back for some thick journals though I’m not sure I could have hauled much more home. I especially enjoyed Biblio-Globus because I went there with Dmitrii Danilov, who recommended several books, including Mikhail Butov’s Freedom; he also gave me his new Description of a City. Even Moskva, which I’ve always found convenient but a bit too dark and crowded, was fun because the cashier mentioned liking Valerii Popov’s Big Book finalist To Dance to Death, prompting another customer to notice my large stack of books and ask for recommendations because she thought I looked young enough to suggest books for her 30-something daughter who lives in Germany. I was flattered she thought I was young enough for the task: perhaps I was feeling especially youthful because, earlier that afternoon, the ticket seller at the Tretyakov Gallery asked if I needed an adult ticket (!!!); I told the truth about my age but was happy she sold me a Russian citizen ticket without asking my provenance. Anyway, I was more than pleased to suggest books on the Moskva shelves. Of course the poor woman didn’t know what hit her, particularly since I’m not even Russian: she seemed a little overwhelmed with the choices and I’m not sure she was familiar with chernukha. I showed her the laminated list of 2012 Big Book finalists that was hanging on the wall… and hope she picked up a finalist or two—maybe Popov’s book, Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets, or Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us)’s Women—after I left with my two heavy bags of books.

Disclaimers: The usual and more: many of the people I mention in this post are colleagues with whom I am on friendly terms, as are certain individuals (including editors and literary agents) who work with/at entities or people that I mention. A few organizations and individuals, particularly the Institute, fed me much-needed snacks, meals, caffeine, and/or a glass or two of wine, and helped me in various financial and nonfinancial ways, with my travel.

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us)’s Women, Ergali Ger’s Koma, the Russian Booker shortlist…

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