Sunday, October 19, 2014

Moscow Trip Report: Book Fair, Kongress, and Miscellany

My trip to Moscow last month turned out to be even more packed with events, meetings, and, of course, books than I’d expected… I’ll just get right to it with a few highlights…

With visible soft sign.
Andrei Platonov. I visited Andrei Platonov’s grave at the Armenian Cemetery on my first full day in Moscow: I wasn’t quite sure where to find Platonov and had to ask several people before a helpful security guard and his friend (who’d never heard of Platonov and grilled me about what to read) led me to Platonov’s grave. I would certainly have found it without the guard: two people were celebrating Platonov’s life, graveside, with vodka and a book. There’s something a bit odd about Platonov’s gravestone: at certain times, depending on the sun’s angle, the soft sign at the end of the word писатель (writer) seems to disappear. I noticed it was missing as we stood, talking, and everyone assured me it existed… and it did reappear a while later. Platonov turned up again, in the form of a book of his letters, published in 2013 by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST: writer Vladimir Sharov very kindly gave me his extra copy and it’s a nice, heavy book with lots of photos, footnotes, and a lengthy introduction by Natalya Kornienko. For more: EricNaiman’s review in The Times LiterarySupplement complements positive comments I heard from a writer friend.

The Congress of Literary Translators. The main reason I went to Moscow was the Congress of Literary Translators, hosted by the Institute of [Literary] Translation at the Library of Foreign Literature. Each attendee presents a brief paper within a small “section”: with over 200 attendees from 55 countries, there were nine simultaneous sections. That might sound like a madhouse but everything seems to work itself out. Scheduling conflicts meant I missed a few talks I wanted to hear, but each section I attended magically worked out to a manageable size that allowed dialogue. I’ve come to appreciate the short presentations, too: at first it felt difficult to come up with something meaningful and brief but I now think of the mini-papers as executive summaries or micro-length case studies of current work… My paper addressed usage and translation of old language in contemporary fiction, drawing on my work on Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album, and Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Laurus. I spoke most about Laurus since I could offer a method for my handling of old Russian words: I have a raft of reference materials but find it particularly useful to compare Bible translations (the Elizabeth and Tyndale translations) on the STEP Bible site from Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge. One of the high points of my Kongress was the chance to speak with Vodolazkin about Laurus—particularly that old language—and my translation. During a joint evening session with Valerii Popov, Vodolazkin, who’s a scholar of Russian medieval literature at Pushkin House, mentioned that he had to get away from the philological before he could write the book: he didn’t want to write a professory book. And he didn’t which is why, I think, his medieval setting and occasional archaisms work so well, so organically… As for other papers, I particularly enjoyed Christine Mestre’s talk about translating dialogue in Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s The Little Man: Christine mentioned topics including mistakes in characters’ speech and handling details on what people do as they speak. The Little Man is one of the books I brought home so I’ll be watching for those elements. A few other papers of interest: Margherita Crepax on enriching language through translation; Oliver Ready on his translation of Vladimir Sharov’s Before & During, which I’d just read; and Kristina Rotkirch on Margarita Khemlin.

The Moscow International Book Fair. I made two trips to the book fair this year: beyond more opportunities to buy books and hear presentations, the weather was so nice I was more than happy to make the trip twice and do more walking between the Metro and the pavilion at VDNKh where the book fair is held! My biggest book fair highlight was probably hearing Marina Stepnova speak and then meeting her when I asked her to sign a copy of her new novel, Безбожный переулок, known in English as Italian Lessons, about a Moscow doctor and, well, freedom. Another highlight: meeting, by chance, Viktor Remizov, author of Воля вольная, known in English as Ashes and Dust, which I’m reading now. Remizov’s book looks at freedom, too, but from a completely different angle: through hunters and fishermen in the Russian Far East. They’re an odd pair to read one after the other but both are very good. I also bought Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection Легкие миры. Among other things…

All Those Other Books. It’s obvious from the photo why my checked baggage was overweight this time! Fortunately, all I had to do to avoid charges was pull out the copy of Sofia Lubensk(a)y(a)’s idiom/phraseology dictionary and stick it in my (wheeled) carry-on bag. This isn’t the updated 2014 edition of Lubensky’s Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms but, at 500 rubles, the 2004 edition is easy on the budget. As is the new Ozhegov dictionary I bought in the cheap-paper edition to save space and weight—it has 43,000 more words than my (very!) old Ozhegov but takes up less than half the space. My new dictionary of Russian Orthodox terms (for children!) is very helpful in translating Laurus, as is the “almanac” Текст и традиция (Text and Tradition), which Vodolazkin gave me: it includes his very engaging article about medieval writing and contemporary literature. And then there’s an anthology of Russian translations of contemporary Georgian poetry, compiled by poets Maxim Amelin and Shota Iatashvili, both of whom were at the Kongress… I loved hearing various translators read some of the poems at an evening presentation, particularly since I knew next to nothing about contemporary Georgian poetry before meeting Shota. I also brought back a few “thick” journals that I bought at the book fair: the woman at the thick journal booth particularly recommended a few specific novels (she even threw in a free issue so I could finish one of them!) so I bought those issues and then, of course, started by randomly reading articles and reviews. I wish it were more practical/reliable to subscribe to a journal or two. As for the other books in the photo, it’s hard to pick favorites but I’m particularly looking forward to Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, which many people recommended, Aleksei Nikitin’s Victory Park, and Aleksei Tolstoy’s Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid, which I’ve always wanted to read, if only because of the word “hyperboloid.”

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual. I work on occasional projects for the Institute of Translation, which subsidized many of my travel expenses, and Read Russia. Many of the books in the photo were gifts. Thank you!

Up Next. Yasnaya Polyana Award winners on Tuesday. Then books galore… After something of a summer slump, I’ve been having a great reading run, starting with Evgeny Vodolazkin’s first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, and followed by Marina Stepnova’s latest book, Italian Lessons and Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust. There’s also a bunch of books I’ve been reading in English. I’m glad to have lots of books waiting for posts: after Ashes and Dust, my next Russian-language book will likely be Zakhar Prilepin’s rather long (okay, very long) The Cloister, which has relatively small print, too, meaning it will take some time.

Image Credit. Platonov’s grave photo by Andranikpasha, through Wikipedia Commons.


  1. You've got the wrong link in "Eric Naiman’s review in The Times Literary Supplement," and I'm eager to read the review!

  2. Thank you for the alert, Languagehat! It should be all set now. Enjoy!

  3. Thanks, that's a great piece, and of course very sad. "But my love is a difficult thing" -- no kidding! Poor Platonov, poor Maria, poor Russia.

    1. You're very welcome, Languagehat. Yes, I think "sad" is the operative word... I don't quite know how to express this but I feel a special kind of heartbreak when I read Platonov: one element of the heartbreak is wonder, because of the beauty of what he writes. I think that's a big reason -- along with, of course, the difficulty of Platonov's language -- why working on one of his stories in collaboration with Robert Chandler took so much energy. The story is "Бессмертие," which I highly recommend.