Sunday, June 19, 2016

Interviews With Translators

Since this blog serves as my online filing system (surprise!) and since I happened to read two interviews with Russian-to-English translators last week, I thought I’d devote a post (meaning this post) to them: translator interviews aren’t exactly uncommon but these two covered points I especially enjoy reading about. The death last week of Gregory Rabassa, who translated from the Spanish and Portuguese, reminded me of an interview with him that I especially enjoyed reading, too.

First off, from a brief Q&A on the Pushkin Press site, here’s the beginning of Robert Chandler’s answer the question “What does being a translator mean to you?”:

I was once introduced to an acclaimed French translator of Shakespeare.  I was taken aback by my own entirely unexpected reaction: I felt envious of him.  He could get close to Shakespeare in a way that I can’t.

The more I think about what Robert says, the more moving I find his answer and the more I envy that French translator, too! The closeness of which Robert speaks is one of my favorite parts of translating. There’s a technical closeness with the text that can result in remembering specific words and usage from specific books, and even where tricky passages are located on their pages, and then there’s an emotional side, too: some books make me cry on each and every draft because I feel the stories so deeply on every each and draft. I learned a lot about thoroughness and collaboration from working with Robert on a Platonov story, and it was a joy to observe and sense his closeness with Platonov.

When asked to recommend just one book from Russian literature, Robert began his answer with this:

Andrey Platonov, ‘The Return’: This short story about an army captain returning home to his family in 1946 is one of the wisest works of literature I know.  It is also both tender and funny.

“The Return” (Возвращение), which I’ve written about in the past (here) is a beautiful story that I love recommending to anybody and everybody. It’s in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and it’s in Soul, in Robert’s translation. I’ll also mention that it makes me happy that Robert cites 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, which Boris Dralyuk is editing for Pushkin Press; I translated a short story by Mikhail Prishvin for the book. I can’t wait to see 1917 toward the end of the year.

Liesl Schillinger’s interview with Jamey Gambrell, on the Los Angeles Review of Books site, could keep me writing posts for an entire month! I have tremendous respect for Gambrell’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (previous post), which I should keep on my desk at all times: just opening Day to any random page is instant inspiration because a) I know this book had to be difficult to translate, b) Gambrell makes it look like this painstaking work was easy to do, and c) I can tell she had fun. Translation is painstaking fun.

I enjoyed the whole interview and—among other things—am glad to see that Gambrell thinks there’s been an upturn in the publishing of literary translations in recent years. (I share her belief so if I’m delusional, at least I’m not alone in my delusions!) Still, it’s Gambrell’s answers about process that felt closest. Nearly a dozen drafts sounds like a lot until I start thinking about how many times I go through my manuscripts, on the screen and on paper (they sure pile up fast…). Probably what I identify with most, though, in terms of process—this is something that has amazed me ever since it was part of my life as a freelance writer, too—is how the work seems to require hours of agonizing thinking about difficult passages but then resolutions seem to appear by magic. Meaning: out of thin air, despite the hours of agonizing thinking. After mentioning a specific passage from a Tolstaya story that’s filled with quotations from Pushkin, nursery rhymes, and all manner of other references, Gambrell says:

I must have spent three weeks on these three or four pages alone. I went back to it again and again. Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning and say, “That’s how I want to do it!” In that sense, I think that’s where being a translator and a writer overlap; when you are working on a piece like that, it sits in your head and simmers, and there is a process going on even if you are not aware of it. You will be in the middle of something, talking to someone, and you’ll suddenly break off and go, “Oh! That’s the word!” It is so wonderful when that happens — so rewarding.

This is one of the best feelings in the world. The shower seems to be where I make my biggest “policy” decisions about translations and cooking seemed to dredge up vocabulary insights and associations. The hows and whys of what goes on in my head are mysteries I don’t think I want to solve. Ever.

Finally, Gregory Rabassa’s death last week reminded me of Susan Bernofsky’s 2013 interview with Rabassa for The Rumpus. I read the interview when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and it’s stuck with me because, I suspect, of the liveliness of the conversation, the mention of similarities between translation and acting, and Rabassa’s multiple uses of the word “fun.”

Disclaimers: The usual, plus I’m feeling a bit lazy and sleepy after a beach outing this afternoon.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I’m still mulling over, trying to figure out how to write about it without giving away the whole story; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I am now officially calling Faith; Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which went to the beach with me this afternoon.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Yasnaya Polyana Award 2016 Longlists + Five Books About Russia (in English)

Another week, another award list! This week the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced its 2016 longlists, one for adult books, the other for children’s books. One thing I like about the Yasnaya Polyana longlist is that it always seems to contain a whole lot of books and authors I’ve never heard of; I’m hoping that this year I’ll have a chance to look into and read more of those books than I did last year. The 42 books on the adult longlist were chosen from 128 nominations; there were 69 nominations for the children’s award, of which 26 were selected for that longlist. The Yasnaya Polyana Award’s shortlists will be announced in September.

Since this longlist truly is long, I’ll only mention a few categories of books from the adult list. Since there’s always a lot of award list overlap, some of these titles and descriptions will sound very familiar.

Books I’ve already read
  • Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky). I enjoyed Three Apples (previous post) and translated excerpts.
  • Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon) (previous post), which combines the personal and the historical in a fairly balanced, disciplined novel about a family.
  • Boris Yekimovs Осень в Задонье. Повесть о земле и людях (Autumn in Zadon’e. A Novel About Land and People), not my favorite finalist for the 2015 Big Book. (previous post with summary)
Books on the shelf and/or on other award shortlists
  • Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel). On the shelf, purchased after taking a look at an electronic copy that Aleshkovsky’s literary agency sent to me. Modern times and the Middle Ages merge through archaeology. A 2016 Big Book finalist.
  • Dmitrii Danilov’s Есть вещи поважнее футбола (There Are More Important Things Than Football/Soccer). I’ve enjoyed Danilov’s other books and have this one on the shelf, too. It’s about soccer (inspired by Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s Faithful), at least nominally. Recent winner of the Nonconformist Award.
  • Alexander Snegirevs Как же ее звали?.. (What Was Her Name, Anyway?). Snegirev very kindly sent me a copy (printed!) of the book, which I’m looking forward to reading.
  • Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals) is, contrary to the title, a novel about human beings, concerning a former academic who’s now working in a business. A 2016 Big Book finalist. (brief interview + excerpt)
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road) is described as a “documentary novel”: the cover sums up the details with “General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.” I’ve been reading small chunks of The Winter Road each night and thoroughly enjoying Yuzefovich’s absorbing, masterful characterizations of people and a time. He works wonders with archival material. 2016 NatsBest winner; a 2016 Big Book finalist.
Other books that sound interesting: some were chosen randomly, eyes closed, finger pointed at screen, and sound like great lucky picks:
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s . Поклонение волхвов (Adoration of the Magi) sounds like it captures a lot, from the familiar biblical story in the title to a family story that begins in the middle of the nineteenth century and concludes in the present, with plot lines that involve a secret society, exile, and a romance with the tsar. Aflatuni’s name keeps popping up on award lists. [Note: I originally listed the wrong Aflatuni book in this post but corrected it on September 13, 2016.]
  • Polina Barskova’s Живые картинки (Living Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting. On the 2015-2016 NOS(E) shortlist.
  • David Markish’s Луковый мёд (Onion Honey or maybe Honey and Onion, a folk remedy for colds and bronchitis). This is a story collection so might be particularly good to read while sick.
  • Igor Shklyarevskii’s Золотая блесна. Книга радостей и утешений (The Golden Fishing Lure [examples!]. A Book of Joy(s) and Comfort(s)). I took a quick online look at the beginning of this book and got stuck—in the best of ways—on the first lines. Upon Googling, I was glad to find this piece by Shklyarevskii’s friend Zoya Mezhirova, who notes the musicality of the beginning of the book. This book looks like it could be a lot of fun to read.
  • Mikhail Ardov’s Проводы: Хроника одной ночи (The Goodbye Party: A Chronicle of One Night) sounds intriguing: Ardov wrote it fifty years ago but it was published only last year. The Goodbye Party is about a young man who lives in a communal apartment and is about to leave for his army service. Nikolai Alexandrov’s brief review is here.
Bonus! Five Books about Russia… in English
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included a “Five Best: A Personal Choice” piece in which translator and novelist Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest (previous post), recommends five books about Russia. I admit that I was lukewarm on Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter, which I wrote about on my now-defunct other blog (here) back in 2010, and the only other book on the list that I’ve read is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, which didn’t quite hit me, either, though I have thoughts of rereading it… Of the other three, I’m most interested in Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, which involves Shostakovich. On a side note, I’m very much looking forward to reading Jean-Philippe Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris, which Anderson translated for New Vessel Press and which is waiting on my English-language “read sooner” shelf.

[Edit: Due to paywall problems, I'll add the titles of the other two books: Helen Dunmore's The Siege and Sylvain Tesson's The Consolation of the Forest.]

Disclaimers: The usual plus: I’ve translated books by two jury members for the Yasnaya Polyana Award. Some of the books on the list have been given to me in paper and/or electronic form.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I loved when I read it and am loving all over again as I translate it; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I do think I’ll call Faith; Maria Galina’s mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which moves quickly except when it doesn’t.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

2016 National Bestseller Award Goes to Yuzefovich

Leonid Yuzefovich won the 2016 National Bestseller Award for Зимняя дорога (The Winter Road), a book that describes itself as a “documentary novel.” In my description of the book for my last post, which lists finalists for the 2016 Big Book Award, I wrote, “the cover sums up the details with ‘General A.N. Pepeliaev and anarchist I.Ia. Strod in Yakutia. 1922-1923.’ I’ve been reading small chunks of The Winter Road each night and thoroughly enjoying Yuzefovich’s absorbing, masterful characterizations of people and a time. He works wonders with archival material.”

Yuzefovich won the very first NatsBest in 2001, too, for his Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind), a fact he noted in his very brief comments after winning today for The Winter Road. Yuzefovich graciously noted that he hopes Mikhail Odnobibl, whose Очередь ([The?] Line) came in second by winning votes from two of the jury’s six members, will receive fame thanks to NatsBest. NatsBest’s slogan is “wake up famous.” Maria Galina’s Автохтоны Autochthons) received one vote. I’m very happy for Yuzefovich, very curious about Odnobibl’s book, and very glad for Galina that her book won a vote, too.

Although commentary on the NatsBest voting and results isn’t yet online, there’s video of the award ceremony available on YouTube here. My post listing the NatsBest finalists is here.

Disclaimers: The usual plus: I’ve translated excerpts of books by Galina as well as NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s entire novel Masha Regina, released by Oneworld Publications last month—just for fun, here’s a Words Without Borders “Watchlist” piece by M. Bartley Seigel recommending it—and was very happy to finally meet Yuzefovich in summery New York last December during Russian Literature Week.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I loved when I read it and am loving all over again as I translate it; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I do think I’ll call Faith; Galina’s mysterious Autochthons; and Aleksei Ivanov’s Nasty Weather/Nenast’e, which is pretty absorbing.