Sunday, October 28, 2012

Trip Report! American Literary Translators Association Conference, Early October 2012, Rochester, NY

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, which looks ready to windily, rainily slither around us nearly all week (!), I’m so distracted today that I’m glad I wrote up my summary of the American Literary Translators Association conference a couple weeks ago. This was my second ALTA conference: ALTA has quickly become a favorite element in my fall calendar thanks to the ever-welcome combination of приятное с полезным/business with pleasure. Here are some highlights:

I started off ALTA 2012 with “Translation Challenges in Modern Russian Prose,” in which John Givens spoke of translating Vasily Shukshin with Laura (Michael) Givens and addressed the vexing question “Do Russian Peasants say ‘Ain’t’?” as he discussed “deformed Soviet speech,” something that seems to hold inordinate power over me, too. Will Evans then talked about potential uses of intertextuality and interactivity for/with/in his translation of Oleg Kashin’s Роисся вперде (Fardwor, Ruissa!) and Carol Apollonio looked at some particularly difficult passages and words in German Sadulaev’s Таблетка (The Mayan Pill), a book she said includes invented language and a demonic possession theme. The session highlighted one of my favorite aspects of ALTA: panelists’ candor about their projects and Difficult Moments in Translation.

The second time slot presented a scheduling dilemma: I choose the “Linguistics & the Culture of Humor” panel over “Translating Poetry: In & Out of Slavic Languages,” missing, alas, several colleagues, because I was so interested in hearing Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson speak about their work on Ilf and Petrov’s The Golden Calf: I interviewed them for the blog a few years ago. Gurevich did most of their speaking (Anderson had been sick), mentioning technical things like translating (or not) names and bits of verse in The Golden Calf, general things that make humor work—I couldn’t agree more that the element of surprise is key—and the Gurevich-Anderson team’s translation of Pavel Sanaev’s Похороните меня за плинтусом (Bury Me Behind the Baseboard), a book featuring an unbalanced grandmother. The other panelists were fun(ny), too... and you can read more about humor and ALTA in Jascha Hoffman's essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review.  

I took part in the bilingual reading program on the afternoon of Day One, reading the first several sections/languages in my translation of Vladislav Otroshenko’s Языки Нимродовой башни (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”)—I’m grateful to the audience for their sense of humor! This was a Slavic languages bloc(k), so I’ll list all the other readers: Robin Davidson with poems by Ewa Lipska (Poland), Magdalena Mullek with prose by Lukás Luk (Slovakia), and Danuta Borchardt with poems by Cyprian Norwid (Polish). Marian Schwartz led off the session, reading the beginning of her translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s Венерин волос (Maidenhair), out this month from Open Letter Books, based at the University of Rochester. Chad Post, publisher at Open Letter, also interviewed Marian at the very end of the conference. Marian read chunks of the book again and spoke, among other things, about Maidenhair’s subtexts (e.g. Agatha Christie) and Shishkin’s help—provided in the form of extensive notes and a full review—in translating this wonderfully, crazily complex book. I just have to say: Shishkin is truly a force of nature! I missed a bit of Marian’s talk to run across the hall and hear Jamie Olson read his very enjoyable translations of poetry by Timur Kibirov in the bilingual reading program.

¡Declamación!—the reading and/or singing of memorized verse—is another ALTA highlight. I recited a poem from Konstantin Vaginov’s Bambocciade, in the original and in my translation. I’m only an accidental poetry translator but have to admit it can be ridiculously fun to piece together something with rhythm and rhyme. And I’ll say this again: memorizing a poem to recite is a very useful exercise. Now I can recite poems in Russian when people ask, as happens more often than you might think, to hear some Russian. Other Russian declaimers: Marian recited a beautiful passage from Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Нездешний вечер” (“An Otherworldly Evening”) and Sibelan Forrester sang a baleful wedding song. Sibelan’s translation of Vladimir Propp’s The Russian Folktale came out in September.

Getting beyond Russian themes, highlights included: A fun panel moderated by Jamie Olson on work habits, in which translators talked about getting up painfully early to translate, working in public places using documents stored in the cloud, carrying around lines of poetry to translate, dread and deadlines, and “bulldozing” up a first draft. Some translators tell me they use far more electronic resources than old-fashioned reference books printed on paper so I felt less like a Luddite when Bill Johnston said he uses no online dictionaries and Russell Valentino mentioned having lots of books open at the same time. I make frequent use of online dictionaries and Google Images but find the paper stuff so useful in a mysterious way—zoning out while gazing at definitions and synonyms on paper is a strangely fruitful act for me—that I’ve been thinking about how to add another surface around my desk so I can have more room for (open) books… In a marketing panel, Matvei Yankelevich mentioned that The Overlook Press has reprinted his collection of Daniel Kharms stories, Today I Wrote Nothing, in an Ardis edition… A session on music and musicality in translation focused mostly on poetry, and it was a treat to hear Carolyn Tipton, Stephen Kessler, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Roger Greenwald talk about and read from their work… Finally, I loved panels on authorisms and stylistics: I seem to be drawn to fussing over quirks rooted in Russian’s structure and/or writers’ neologisms and linguistic tics, particularly the afore-mentioned “deformed Soviet speech,” so enjoyed hearing about reader tolerance levels (Russell Valentino), dialogue tags (Elizabeth Harris), removing “it” when “it” is a “dummy subject” (Bill Johnston), and translating Heinrich von Kleist (Christiane Eydt-Beebe).

For more: 

  • The program for the conference is online, in PDF format, here
  • Jamie Olson blogged about ALTA on The Flaxen Wave here
  • Susan Bernofsky has posts about ALTA on Translationista here and here; the second post was written by translator Bill Martin. 
  • I’ll add more links later, when they’re available: Open Letter recorded many sessions that will be posted online.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, and then more 2012 Big Book finalists.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Marina Stepnova’s Lazar Lindt and All His Women

Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazar’s Women) is one of “those” books: in this case, “those” books are the ones that compel me just a touch more than they repel me. Oddly, for this reader, “those” books have a tendency to be novels where form and content are absolutely inseparable (a big plus) and books that inexplicably leave me with painfully unforgettable scenes and atmospheres (an even bigger plus).

Moving on to the specifics…

Lazar’s Women, which is billed as a family saga, begins in the early twentieth century and continues to the present. And, yes, it truly is a family saga: each of the women—Marusya, Galina Petrovna, and Lidochka—that the title encompasses occupies, with some overlap, a specific historical period, and each (sort of) has her own place in the life of one Lazar Lindt. In my reading, Lindt is almost an incidental character, first feeling unrequited love for Marusya (his mentor’s wife) because of her welcoming home, then marrying the all-too-young Galina Petrovna and cosseting her in Soviet-era ways, and finally serving as a mythical figure in the life of his granddaughter, Lidochka, whose mother drowns in the book’s first chapter, leaving her to be raised by Galina Petrovna, now a rather cold widow.

The plot summary sounds pretty typical and trite, even (or particularly?) when you add in Lazar’s role as a mathematician who works on a bomb—Lazar is a creator and a destroyer all rolled into one, living in a remote scientist city with the mathematical-sounding name Ensk—so it’s Stepnova’s treatment of her material that gives the book its interest. I read the first hundred or so pages of Lazar’s Women thinking (as I still do) the novel is overwritten, overloaded, and overwrought… but then I grasped the book’s logic and began reading it as an allegorical, abstract representation of history, love, nonlove, and the effects of Soviet life on the psyche that demands all Stepnova’s literary “stuff.”

In her review for Izvestia, Liza Novikova likened Lazar’s Women to books by Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina—and I completely agree with Novikova, who cites themes and devices that Stepnova handles differently, almost rebuking her schoolmarmish elders—but I found myself thinking even more of Vasily Aksyonov’s trilogy that’s known as Generations of Winter in English and Московская сага (Moscow Saga) in Russian. I disliked, almost intensely, the trilogy but couldn’t put it down. And I still can’t forget Aksyonov’s portrayals of the Soviet era’s perversion of life and love. Lazar’s Women had a similar effect on me, partly because it also dissects various types of perversion, but I think Stepnova’s book is better composed—compiled might be an even better word—than Aksyonov’s. For one thing, Stepnova uses her magpie techniques to offer all manner of tchotchkes, emotions, and accessories but Aksyonov uses his in what I consider a cheaper way, stuffing in cameo roles for historical figures, including Stalin. Stepnova’s book is also far more affecting in its affectedness: the book is even something of a tearjerker in spots. I fogged up more than once, and one male reader told me he cried.

I think critic Viktor Toporov’s description of Lazar’s Women as высокое чтиво is perfect: my English-language version of that would be “high-class pulp” because I read Lazar’s Women as a piece of very readable postmodernism that offers traditional alongside trashy. Stepnova combines elements and specifics like high class Soviet-era privileges, low-class words related to the body, a bathroom scene involving a smoking ballerina, the flexible saga genre, and a first-person narrator with an identity and a very distinctive voice but only (apparently) a cryptically tangential presence to the actual story.

Early in the book, though, that narrator tells doubting readers to check Yandex, a Russian search engine, if s/he doesn’t believe the facts in one part of the novel. Zakhar Prilepin criticizes the mention of Yandex in his review (which I read in Prilepin’s Книгочет), but I think he’s reading too literally and missing the point. Prilepin says (in my translation), “People write books about what Yandex doesn’t know and will never know,” adding that it doesn’t matter if we believe (my italics) what’s in a book or not. Okay, sure, fiction addresses mysteries of life that a search engine’s algorithms can’t grasp. I found the Yandex advice a bit puzzling at first but the further I read Lazar’s Women, the more I read the mention of Yandex as a a mysterious narrator’s reminder of the hierarchies and interdependencies of fact and fiction… that isn’t so far off from the novel’s portrayals of hierarchies within Soviet and post-Soviet society, which Stepnova inserts into a work of fiction that manages to feel simultaneously historical and anti-historical.

So, yes, Lazar’s Women irritated the hell out of me with its diminutives, barfing, and ballet. And, no, it’s not a gentle or genteel family saga. But that’s probably why the book works so well, why it feels a little unusual and important, and why it’s been shortlisted for this year’s NatsBest, Yasnaya Polyana, Big Book, and Russian Booker awards. It didn’t win the first two, and I haven’t read all the Big Book and Booker finalists, but Lazar’s Women is a very good book, a book I can’t help but respect—IMHO, respect > liking, when it comes to books—so I’d be more than happy if Stepnova won either award.

Up Next: Trip report from the American Literary Translators Association conference, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, which I’m enjoying very much, though it’s a bit of a shock to the system after the historical abstraction and brutal dreaminess of, respectively, Lazar and Voroshilovgrad.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five Years of the Bookshelf

One of these years I'll bake
some myself.
It’s time for the cupcake again! It was five years ago today that I first posted to Lizok’s Bookshelf. The last five years have felt like about two, maybe three, years, particularly given how much I’ve enjoyed meeting—in real life and over e-mail—so many new friends and colleagues through the blog. It’s very gratifying (and even more humbling) to go to conferences and book fairs, and have people ask, “Are you Lizok?” A huge thanks to all of you for visiting, reading, and getting in touch.

Something feels a little different each year when I write these posts, and this year the biggest change is that contemporary Russian literature has become an even larger part of my work and life. I’m still writing a bit for the Read Russia site in these post-BookExpo America months, plus lately I’ve been working more on literary translation, which I love. I’m very curious—almost agonizingly curious!—to see what the next year brings.

Here are a few annual report statistics… It’s always fun sifting through Google data to see what brings people here.

Geography. The top five visitor countries haven’t changed: United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Italy. Among those countries, Italians spend the most time (average of 2:28), and Canadians are the fastest (1:14) readers. Top cities are New York, London, and Moscow; the cities seem to fluctuate, but Londoners still take more time than New Yorkers (minutes are so damn short in New York!) and Muscovites. One surprise: Lilburn, Georgia, was in fourth place though its speed reader(s) only spend(s) a bot-like average of six seconds (six seconds!) per visit.

Popular Posts. The most popular post, again this year, was Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature, which froze out “The Overcoat” for the second year running. “Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers” was next, followed by Pushkin’s Belkin Tales and Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time. I do, of course, find a certain irony in the fact that my primary interest is contemporary fiction but more readers come here to read about classics. I keep amassing nineteenth- and twentieth-century classics… and I love reading them, truly I do, but I rarely seem to get around to as many as I’d like because I love the discovery element of contemporary fiction even more. Then again, winter’s on the way…

Common and Odd Search Terms. “Lizok’s bookshelf” is now the most common search phrase, and I observe lots of combinations of book titles or author names together with “Lizok.” I was extremely surprised to find the string of shubert in kiev leonid girshovich as the second most popular search term… I didn’t even finish the book! After those terms came: Russian literature reading list, The Golden Calf online, Compromise Dovlatov review, Drawings from the Gulag, Lizok “Twelve Chairs,” index:of Russian novelists, and The Foundation Pit summary. I’m happy to know so many people are seeking out Ilf, Petrov, Platonov, and Dovlatov.

I haven’t noticed a lot of strange search terms lately, though I just saw that someone asked again whether it’s safe for pregnant women to eat gefilte fish. I still can’t/won’t answer that question. That query draws visitors thanks to my post on Dina Kalinovskaia’s wonderful novella Oh, Shabbat!… which reminds me I still want to try making my own gefilte fish, especially after seeing Lake Ontario when I was in Rochester, New York, recently and learning Lake Ontario harbors carp. Back to searches: I also sometimes see strange series of words and numbers that make it look like people are trying to contact someone (e.g. Dostoevsky) beyond the grave, perhaps through some strange combination of phone and e-mail. Please, people, don’t even try! And then there are sausage-related searches: sausage fun, sausage links drawings, and sausage people. I have no idea what any of that means but here are posts mentioning sausage. Some searches, like those seeking specific translators, make me happy, though: Amanda Love Darragh is particularly popular, and Marian Schwartz and Andrew Bromfield pop up pretty regularly, too.

On that cheery note, I’ll sign off until next weekend… and thank you again for visiting. I hope to meet even more of you, virtually or in real life, soon!

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s Lazar’s Women, Zaven Babloyan’s Russian translation of Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and a trip report on the recent American Literary Translators Association conference.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

2012 Yasnaya Polyana Winners

The Yasnaya Polyana Award announced 2012 winners today: Evgenii Kasimov won the “XXI Century” award for his story collection Назовите меня Христофором (Call Me Christopher) and Andrei Dmitriev received the first-ever “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” award for Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), a book that’s also on the Booker and Big Book short lists. Valentin Rasputin won the “Contemporary Classic” award. I listed Yasnaya Polyana finalists in this previous post.

The other Rasputin:
I still know close to nothing about Kasimov and his book, though I’ve already seen bits of (the inevitable!) grumbling about his win. (Kasimov is in politics.) Edit on October 11: The plot thickens... reports that Iurii Buida claimed, in a Facebook post, that he would have won the prize for Blue Blood (previous post) had he been able to attend the award ceremony; Lenta also reported that Vladimir Tolstoy, the jury chair, claims Buida never got any official notification from the jury.

I’ve heard mixed reactions to Dmitriev’s book—inevitable, too, of course, for a book on so many short lists—which I’m looking forward to starting soon. Finally, I’ve read very, very little of Rasputin’s writing, though I’ve had one or two of his books on my shelves for years. Several English-language translations are available, including Farewell to Matyora and Live and Remember, both translated by Antonina W. Bouis, and Siberia, Siberia and Siberia on Fire, translated by Gerald Mikkelson and Margaret Winchell.

Disclaimers: The usual, plus I translated a story by Vladislav Otroshenko, a Yasnaya Polyana jury member.

Up next: Literary translator conference trip report (lots of Russian notes!), Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us) and all his women, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and much more.

Image credit: Valentin Rasputin, creative commons, via Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Russian Booker 2012 Short List

The 2012 Russian Booker finalists were announced today. Six books made the list:

  • Marina Akhmedova: Дневник смертницы. Хадижа (Khadija, Notes of a Death Girl)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Evgenii Popov: Арбайт, или Широкое полотно (Arbeit, Or A Wide Canvas)
  • Olga Slavnikova: Легкая голова (Light Head)—previous post
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (Lazar(us)’s Women)
  • Aleksandr Terekhov: Немцы ([The?] Germans)
I’ll write soon about the Stepnova book and plan to read Dmitriev’s novel next. I’m in Rochester, NY, for a few days for the American Literary Translators Association conference.

Up next: Yasnaya Polyana winners, maybe an ALTA trip report, Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us) and all his women, Andrei Rubanov’s short stories, and Zaven Babloyan’s Ukrainian-to-Russian translation of Serhij Zhadan’s strange Voroshilovgrad journey, which has me reading The Wizard of Oz…