Sunday, May 15, 2016

Translation Potpourri for a Sleepy Sunday

What better for a blustery Sunday afternoon than a translation potpourri? And so: two novels written in English, one essay, one short course, and a link…

I’ll start with Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest since it’s a novel with a Russian theme: a modern-day British publisher, Katya, hires Ana to translate a journal written by Zinaida Lintvaryova, a young doctor whose own illness has blinded her. The title’s summer guest is none other than Anton Chekhov, who visits the Lintvaryov estate in Sumy, in eastern Ukraine. The journal, which begins in 1888, makes up the bulk of the novel but Anderson intersperses occasional chapters set in the 2010s, chronicling Katya’s personal and professional problems—her husband’s absences and their publishing house’s difficulties—as well as Ana’s work on the manuscript. Of course I relate heavily to Ana, who can be observed checking spellings, splurging on books, and hoping for a new project (did Chekhov really leave behind a draft of the novel he read to Zinaida? could she translate it?), not to mention making an impulsive trip to Ukraine toward the end of the book. Anderson’s greatest success in The Summer Guest, though, is Zinaida’s journal, which beautifully meshes Chekhov’s gentlemanly humor and humanity with Zinaida’s fears and hopes. The rapport he and Zinaida develop is poignant, and the scene where the Chekhov brothers take Zinaida out in a rowboat is particularly lovely: Zinaida feels freed, “suspended” from her darkness. Though the framing device in The Summer Guest felt a bit thin to me because I wanted to see Katya and Ana in greater depth, and some of the current events mentioned felt a little tacked on, I’ll simply say (to avoid spoilers!) that the frame allows Anderson to make the journal count twice. More important to me, as a reader and recommender, though, is the readability of the journal’s story, the colorfulness of the Chekhov and Lintvaryov families, and the many admirable choices that Anderson makes when incorporating bits of Russian language and background into her text. Her own translation work informs her well; so, apparently did her research, which she notes in a brief but informative afterword…

Which made me especially happy to read Anderson’s “Spurn the Translator at Your Own Peril,” on The Millions. I won’t say much about it because you can read it yourself, here. (I know at least one of you already read it: thanks to the reader who sent the link!) Anderson writes about reader perceptions of translation, translator and author invisibility (she takes a fun angle on this because of the mysterious Elena Ferrante), what is (ahem!) found in translation, and even how we do it. She mentions two to ten pages a day. And yes, of course she’s right that “it is a pleasure.” She’s also right that translators make “interesting protagonists within the fiction that is their province”: she notes novels including Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, which I was lukewarm on, and Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear

I loved Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear. She had me with her first sentence: “In a crumbling park in the crumbling back end of Copacabana, a woman stopped under an almond tree with a suitcase and a cigar.” Whether it was the repetition of “crumbling,” the combination of the suitcase and the cigar, or the thought of almonds, which I enjoy eating on just about anything, yes, dear reader, I bought the book. In hardcover. I had to find out what happens when American translator Emma Neufeld goes from snowy Pittsburg to blazing-hot Brazil in search of the almond tree woman, Beatriz Yagoda, who happens to be Emma’s author. Beatriz has gone missing because of gambling debts and Emma goes missing on her lets-go-running-and-lets-get-married boyfriend because, well, our authors are part of us in some mysterious way. Has Novey ever used the hairbrush of one of her authors? I don’t know and I don’t need to know but I will say that I, personally, have never used a hairbrush (or comb or other grooming device) belonging to any of my authors but oh my, what a wonderful, fitting metaphor. On the same page (23, if anyone’s looking), there’s a mention of Emma’s (earlier, of course) confession to Beatriz that she “hadn’t been quite as dutiful in her last translation as in Beatriz’s earlier books, and Beatriz had replied that duty was for clergy. For translation to be an art, she told Emma, you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes.” Yes, yes, and yes. I couldn’t wait to buy the book because Novey mentions “the risk-taking, the reckless joys of translation” in an LA Times interview that my cousin clipped and sent to me… Risks and joys are what make translation so exhilarating and I feel lots of reckless joy and risk-taking in Ways to Disappear, too, and all of it works and pays off for Novey. For more complete views: Heller McAlpin’s review on or Catherine Lacey’s review for the New York Times Book Review.

If you’re a translator looking for a short course in London, in mid-July, you might consider Translate in the City, where the tutor for Russian is Robert Chandler. I think I first heard about the program from Anne Marie Jackson, an alumna of the very first “Translate in the City” course: among other things, Anne Marie is a co-translator of two volumes of Teffi that were just released (herewith, the 2016 translation list for details), including Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, reviewed in today’s New York Times Book Review by Masha Gessen. Translate in the City covers eleven languages and all are taught by instructors whose main work is literary translation. Robert notes that many students come to London from the US for the program.

And, finally, to end on an especially happy and translation-related note, here’s an article by Alison Flood for The Guardian: Translated fiction sells better in the UK than English fiction, research finds. And here's a Monday-morning addition, also in The Guardian: Daniel Hahn's The Man Booker International prize: a celebration of translation.
Disclaimers: The usual. Thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy of The Summer Guest. The book has a release date of May 24, 2016. Especially recommended for Chekhov fans.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I just plain loved. Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I may yet call Faith. Maria Galina’s Autochthons, which is getting eerier… The Big Book finalist announcement is coming up soon, too.


  1. "between two and ten pages in a day" is very encouraging! I've been slotting in a bit of translation occasionally in the mornings and demoralising myself at taking half an hour to do a paragraph. There is hope!

    1. Defeated by the forms. My name's Ivan. I've commented here before on Akunin and Pasternak

    2. Thank you for your comments, Ivan! And yes, the forms can be a total pain in the neck.

      Volume, yes, can really vary, and I find that a lot depends on how, exactly, I'm working and what draft I'm on. And, of course, the book itself, which determines a lot about how I work; every book has its own working rhythm. It really can feel horribly demoralizing to get stuck in a half-hour paragraph (even when it's just because it's so long!) but that makes the relief of easier passages and (certain!) simple dialogue seem all the nicer.

      Enjoy your translating!

  2. I think I first heard about the program from Anne Marie Jackson, an alumna of the very first “Translate in the City” course: among other things, Anne Marie is a co-translator of two volumes of Teffi that were just released (herewith, the 2016 translation list for details), including Memories.
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