Sunday, December 11, 2016

Autumn 2016 Combined Trip Report: Moscow and Oakland

A new travel truism, for personal use: the busier I am when I travel, the less there is to report. And a corollary: the more tired and jetlagged I am during travel, the fewer notes I take. And of course: the fewer notes, the less there is to report. It’s a vicious circle.

And so. My Moscow trip, for the International Congress of Literary Translators, took place in early September and my Oakland trip, for the annual American Literary Translators Association conference, took place in early October. Both trips were lots of busy fun and I brought home nice stacks of books each time… Some details:

Moscow first. I visited the Moscow International Book Fair several times, largely because it was a convenient and surprisingly pleasant place—the pop-up coffee shop was a nice touch, with cake and couches—to meet up with friends and colleagues. Plus, of course, I could get a lot of my book shopping done. That despite the fair seeming considerably diminished since I last visited, in 2014. Another plus: strolling the ever-weird grounds of what I still call VDNKh. The biggest programmatic highlight was a roundtable on Russian literature in translation. I couldn’t stay long but was pleased to hear literary agent Julia Goumen speak about her agency’s authors who have been successful in translation with books that might be considered unconventional. (There’s another truism in here somewhere, about the wisdom of matching the right kind of unconventional to the right publisher…) As examples, Julia listed Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, which hit the New York Times bestseller list, plus Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post) and Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus (previous post), both of which have been sold for translation into more than 20 languages, including into English (by me). Another bit: Eugene Reznichenko, director of the Institute of Translation, spoke of the fact that translators sometimes take on functions akin to an agent’s and noted that a translator’s recommendations and agreement to translate are often seen as a sort of seal of approval.

The Congress of Literary Translators was, as always, hectic fun, with eight concurrent tracks running both days. It all began with a plenary session, where I spoke after Vladimir Grigoriev (who talked about Ekaterina Genieva: Genieva died in summer 2015 and had been director at the Library for Foreign Literature for years), linguist Maksim Krongauz (who discussed English-to-Russian translations and issues related to domestication and foreignization), and Eugene Vodolazkin (who, among other things, professed that translators and authors should love one another). I hadn’t known Vodolazkin’s topic but I enjoyed riffing on it in my talk since I do, after all, only translate books and authors that I love. My topic, though, was Russian literature in translation, focusing largely on business aspects, things like why the dearth of books translated into English makes it so important to match books with translators and publishers who fit them. Strenuous editing, targeted marketing, and the benefit of a cluster of publishers that focus on translations fit into all this, too. It was such a relief to finally give my talk that I didn’t write down a single word from the next two talks, by Mikhail Yasnov and Eugene Reznichenko; they spoke about, respectively, the Russian translation school and the Institute of Translation’s first five years. Another Congress highlight: an evening event with authors Dmitry Danilov, whom I love reading, and Guzel Yakhina, whose Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes I loved reading (previous post) and am now translating, that was moderated by translator Mikhail Vizel, whose articles about literature I also love reading. I still need to read Danilov’s book about soccer, which he considers more avant-garde than his Description of a City (previous post), which was such a favorite. And it was nice to hear Yakhina mention that rights have been sold for a miniseries based on Zuleikha. I’ve already written about my biggest highlight of the Congress, the Read Russia Award, here. There’s a photo of my very heavy pile of books below.

The American Literary Translators Association Conference felt pretty calm after all that, despite attendance increasing to around 450 souls (!) and despite considerable Russian-related activity, including another Russian translation workshop, which Anne Fisher and I co-organized. The workshop involved verbs, around 20 people, and some Gold and Silver Age literary chocolates. As far as sessions go, my conference got started with “Translation and Performance: Staging the Russian Word,” chaired by Ainsley Morse and also involving Caroline Lemak Brickman, Alexandra Tatarsky, and Matvei Yankelevich; and featuring zaum (beyonsense) and even mime. Bilingual Readings included these translations: Marian Schwartz reading from Andrei Gelasimov’s Into the Thickening Fog, Katherine Young reading poems by Inna Kabysh, Jesse Irwin reading from prose by Friedrich Gorenstein, Jim Kates reading poems by Sergey Stratanovsky, and Jamie Olson reading poems by Timur Kibirov. Of course I took no notes (this seems to be a bad trend) but particularly enjoyed hearing Kate read Kabysh and Jamie read Kibirov, both because it’s always a pleasure to hear them read and because I’ve heard them read their translations of these same poets at ALTA conferences past and it’s a pleasure to build on past readings and impressions. My personal ALTA highlight was participating in a roundtable with Aviya Kushner and chair Curtis Bauer: “Grace, Gratitude & Kindness.” Put briefly, we discussed acts of generosity and were truly grateful for audience members’ contributions, both to the conference session and to our own translation practices.

As for that heavy bunch of books, here it is, in a spectacularly awful photo.

I’ve already read Sasha Filipenko’s Hounding (previous post), the first volume of Boris Minaev’s Soft Fabric and part of the second (they’re good but I’m a bit indifferent…), attempted Sergei Soloukh’s Stories About Animals (previous post), put Oleg Nesterov’s Heavenly Stockholm in limbo (it’s simultaneously and oddly dull yet absorbing), and used Morkovkin’s quirkily helpful Big Universal Russian Dictionary, (I had to translate that title because I love it so much), which you can glimpse here, many times. (One of our cats likes it, too, as a chew toy.) I’m amazed that I really did translate pieces about contemporary art some years ago for the book that says State Tretyakov Gallery on the spine. And my final literary act in Moscow was to buy the Strugatsky book at the airport with my last rubles: it’s Beetle in the Anthill and I’m reading it now. I think I finally may have found a Strugatsky novel that I truly enjoy.

The California books include several translations. The only Russian translations are Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad, edited by Polina Barskova (please check the link for all the poet and translator names!), and Marian Schwartz’s translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s Холод, known in English as Into the Thickening Fog. Just in time for the Polar Vortex! I brought home a bunch of other translations, too, chosen at Bay Area bookstores on a lengthy excursion with my very patient cousin: Laia Jufresa’s Umami, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, which I’m reading now; Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 38¸translated from the French by Roland Glasser; Sofi Oksanen’s When the Doves Disappeared, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers; and Sara Nović’s Girl at War, which isn’t a translation, though I’m including it here because Sara was at ALTA a couple years ago in Milwaukee.

Disclaimers and the Like: The usual. Particular thanks to the Institute of Literary Translation for bringing me to Moscow for the Congress, the many people who fed and coffeed me in Moscow, and all the publishers and authors who gave me so many of the books in the photo: Vardvan Varzhapetyan, Shashi Martinova, Vremya, Anastasia Strokina, and Maria Galina. And Amazon Crossing, too, for handing out copies of the Gelasimov book at ALTA.

Up Next: Reading roundup. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s peculiarly compelling The Ant King. The Strugatsky book. (I think I’m on an insects-in-the-title kick here, hmm, what’s next?) Plus I’m rereading Crime and Punishment, something that was precipitated by the offer of a copy of Robert Belknap’s Plots from Columbia University Press. Belknap focuses on King Lear and C&P so I’m planning to reread Lear, too, and make this a winter reading project that will culminate in reading Plots straight through. (It’s already been fun to read random bits and pieces…) I’m enjoying C&P far more than I could have hoped, in part because I’m reading it in Russian but also because I’m keeping Oliver Ready’s translation nearby. Oliver’s notes are very informative, his translation reads beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to read peculiar bits (such as an ambiguous phrase or non-standard language) in the Russian, wonder how he’ll translate, and then find his fantastic solutions. It’s no wonder his translation was shortlisted for the English-language Read Russia Prize in 2015—that being the year he won for a different book, Vladimir Sharov’s Before & During (previous post)—and the 2016 PEN Translation Prize. Anyway, more on all that in the coming months!


  1. Lisa, I am thrilled to see you are translating Yakhina's novel. I did not have a lot of room to pack books coming back from home, but "Zuleikha" made it through! Next on my list to read, now that I am officially done with my graduate program and can return to reading what I love! Looking forward to the translation. BTW, I well remember queuing up for hours as a foreign language student to enter the main pavilion of the Book Fair at the VDNKh, in the hope of snagging some good foreign language books when they were not easy to come by. Good to see that things have righted themselves, and good Russian language books are in high demand as well. And lastly, thank you for encouraging us to read Dostoyevsky - as you know we suffer through Crime and Punishment in 9th grade. I have an old paperback copy of the Brothers Karamazov someone gave me in the US, translated by M Garnett, not sure how it compares to modern translations.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Margarita! I'm glad you're finished with your program--congratulations!--and wish you lots of happy reading in your new life. :)

      Zuleikha is a lot of fun to translate and I hope very much that you enjoy the book. (There's no acupuncture for me to ask you about...) And Dostoevsky, I have to admit that I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying the book... then again, I'm surprised that much of anything stuck with me from when I was 18: as you well know, it's a pretty heavy book for kids!