Sunday, April 7, 2019

London Book Fair 2019 Trip Report, the No-Notes-Means-Minimal-Substance Edition

That’s right: I took no notes at any of the events I attended or participated in during the week of the London Book Fair. I slacked. I’ve pieced together a bit, though, based on memory…

I suppose I have a bit of an excuse for shirking during the first event I attended, since it took place roughly twelve hours after landing at Gatwick and roughly thirty hours after my last real (lying in a bed) sleep. The event was a book club meeting with Alexei Salnikov, who discussed his Отдел (The Department) at the Waterstones/Piccadilly store. In some ways, jetlag was the ideal state for me to be in since I hadn’t yet read the book and didn’t want spoilers; thanks to jetlag, there was no need to tune anything out! Now that I’ve read the book, I think that attending without really processing the conversation was perfect. Among other things, I probably would have disbelieved what people said about The Department. And attending without really listening/retaining fits beautifully with the novel’s absurdity. As did the intensity and urgency of the conversation, which I (think I) do remember. I’ll be writing about the book soon and will only add for now that the book was deeply unsettling in all the right ways. So I loved it.

Thank goodness for real sleep: Day Two included two events! A translation roundtable at the Russian stand brought together eight translators, moderated by Hamid Ismailov, whose The Devils’ Dance, translated by Donald Rayfield with John Farndon, recently won the EBRD Literature Prize.
Photo: Anastasia Kornienko
Here we are, left to right: Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, me (I was cold, not critical!), Oliver Ready, Hamid Ismailov, Alexander Chantsev, Arch Tait, Ola Wallin, and Carol Ermakova. I remember a few things: mentioning my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog for the Russian Library and saying that I look for books that I enjoyed reading and think I will enjoy translating – I see having fun as a critical part of the process. Also: Donald Rayfield learned Uzbek to translate The Devils’ Dance and Carol Ermakova spoke of her translations of Elena Chizhova’s novels. Other details are too murky to mention since I don’t want to get anything wrong or, heaven forbid, start rumors. Day Two also brought me back to Waterstones: Guzel Yakhina spoke, primarily about her Zuleikha, which recently came out in my translation for Oneworld Publications. I talked for a short bit about the translation, addressing (Ура, I remember this part!) how we handled the Tatar words in the Russian text: transliterating and italicizing those that the text already explained, but just translating the rest. This was a lucky case where the Russian text held the perfect solution.

The evening of Day Three took me to Pushkin House for a screening of the first episode of the series Хребет России (The Ridge of Russia), about the Urals, followed by Q&A with author Alexei Ivanov and moderator Anastasia Koro. Thank goodness there’s information here, on the Pushkin House site, about the event and how everything (and everybody) fits together! Tales of Yermak were particularly memorable, though the linguist in me was most fascinated that Ivanov and TV guy Leonid Parfyonov, who’s also part of this road-trip-esque series, stressed different syllables in the plural of the word for Cossack. This struck me because a friend has noted a couple of times that she prefers the stress as казáки; I’d been stressing endings. (There’s lots on the Internet about this stressful topic, here, for example. Fear not: basically, either way is fine. Ozhegov and my two orthographical dictionaries also show stress patterns both ways for the plural, with the root endings as second choice.) Bonus: Yulia Zaitseva, who’s also in the series (she even hang glides!), was in attendance at Pushkin House, too.

Day Four was especially eventful for a roundtable I participated in with Guzel Yakhina, literary agent Julia Goumen, and Glagoslav editor Ksenia Papazova: “Women in Literature & Translation: Realities and Stereotypes,” moderated by Daniel Hahn. There were so many subtopics that it’s very hard to summarize, let alone offer much context, but things began with a brief talk from Guzel during which, among other things, she talked about Zuleikha and said she’d never felt she’d been discriminated against for being a woman. We ended with audience questions, including one from a man who’s interested in translating a woman author. (I hope his project works out!) Other topics included book covers, author age, and specific writers, including Valentina Nazarova, Elena Chizhova, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I talked about the role translators, particularly women, can/should take in working toward ensuring more women’s books are translated and published, noting that since more women writers tend to be translated by women than men (during Q&A, though, I made sure to give men their due and specifically mentioned Arch Tait, whose authors I didn’t list; they include Ulitskaya and Alexievich, among others) we need to actively read, scout, and properly pitch projects if we want to close the gap. (For some stark statistics on how few translated books are written by women, please see this interview with Chad Post from the London Show Daily for 14 March 2019.) I seem to recall repeating that plenty of Russian women are writing high-quality books that deserve to be translated, adding “It’s only fair!” several times. Post-LBF, my biggest hope is that more (“all” is probably asking too much!) translators, agents, scouts, publishers, and others in the industry – men or women – will think more about these disparities when they read, research, and consider projects. Our choices and decisions matter. My reward for finishing my events
Mushy peas, no thanks. Photo: Ilona Chavasse

during the trip was a hot lunch – an old favorite, fish and chips! – with translator colleague and friend Ilona Chavasse (translator of, among others, Yuri Rytkheu – their A Dream in Polar Fog awaits me…), who stealthily immortalized my meal when I stepped away from the table for a minute. The perfect capper to the book fair was Chris Gribble’s half-hour “in conversation” Q&A with Jeremy Tiang, LBF’s first-ever Literary Translator of the Fair. And an excellent choice he was: he’s a thoughtful speaker and I particularly appreciate the wisdom, gentle humor, and love with which he speaks about the realities of literary translation. In an interview with Michelle Johnson of World Literature Today, he said something that I think particularly deserves to be read, remembered, and repeated, repeated, repeated: “Literary translators are artists in our own right. Treat us as partners in a creative process, not functionaries. We have a lot to offer.”

And that’s about it for public events! I did bring home piles of books, most in English… I’m currently enjoying Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk in Sora Kim-Russell’s translation (after loving Hye-young Pyun’s The Hole in Kim-Russell’s translation, this one called out to me, then turned up on the international Booker longlist later in the week!) and have plenty more on the shelves, including Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, and Frank Wynne’s translation of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 2, which I just had to buy after reading VS 1 last year, thanks to the good people of Despentes’s UK publisher, MacLehose Press, who gave me a copy at the Frankfurt book fair. VS 1 is apparently on the way to the US in late 2019, from FSG.

Disclaimers, Disclosures, and Thanks: The usual. Thank you to Read Russia for bringing me to the London Book Fair and giving me books, too!

Up Next: Salnikov’s The Department, which may take a bit of time to process and come to terms with, thanks to a powerful combination of absurdity, unease, tension, and even coziness. The NatsBest shortlist. And then another book. It’s hard to know what to read after The Department.


  1. Thanks for once again helping us experience an awesome event vicariously, Lizok!

    1. My pleasure, fairvega, thank you for visiting! And your comment is a good reminder that I keep forgetting to add a link about Cambridge University Press's upcoming volumes of translations of contemporary Kazakh prose and poetry. I learned about the books at the Kazakh stand and of course your name came up. (If I remember correctly, you don't have any translation in this set but the women I spoke with most definitely knew your name and your work!)