Saturday, August 24, 2019

Women In Translation Month: A Few Polleny Notes

I’ve been slipshod over the years about posting during Women in Translation Month – WIT began in 2014, led by Meytal Radzinski, and I wrote a post then about some favorite writers – but there’s a lot to note this year, so no shirking. Participating in a London Book Fair roundtable on women in translation this March is one factor. And the first couple dozen entries for this year’s list of translations is another. I’ll start by saying that a few points I made when I summarized the London roundtable for the blog keep running through my head:
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.
Although statistics from Chad Post’s translation database (there’s an article here) show a decline for translations into English from all languages over the last couple years (numbers are down from a high in 2016 of 666, which was surely not a lucky number to hit), they also show that the percentage of translations of women’s books rose from thirty percent (2017) to thirty-six percent (2018). I agree with Chad that that’s “still bad” but is (obviously) “a step in the right direction.” Chad posted other data here, just recently; the data on Russian don’t surprise me a bit.

I’m not sure how things will look for the 2019 Russian-to-English translation list when I have more data at the end of the year, but of the twenty-three books on the list right now, thirteen were written by women. It’s early and nearly all the listings came to me passively; I haven’t yet begun looking at publisher sites. Since I’m an optimist, I’m going to hope women are better represented in this year’s crop of books than last year’s, when roughly twenty to twenty-five percent of the books were written by women. (I say “roughly” and offer a range because some books were written by multiple authors and there was slippage on publication dates. Plus I’m a lousy with numbers.)

So, accentuating the positive, as I love to do, here are a few highlights (a couple of which are my own, since they make me especially happy!) from the initial 2019 listings:

  • Anna Starobinets’s “Beastly Crimes” series, translated by Jane Bugaeva, rules! Dover Publications is bringing out three more Beastly Crimes books in 2019. I haven’t read them but I couldn’t be happier for all involved since translated literature for children is so important.  
  • Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, in Polly Gannon’s translation, was reviewed (here) by Randy Rosenthal in a recent New York Times Book Review. I mentioned briefly earlier this year that Francine Prose reviewed my translation of Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha for the Book Review, too, here. I’m glad some of our books are receiving attention in mainstream media.
  • Zephyr Press is publishing two poetry collections by women: Anzhelina Polonskaya’s To the Ashes, translated by Andrew Wachtel, and Aigerim Tazhi’s Paper-thin Skin, translated by J. Kates. Bonus: both these books are bilingual!
  • The Russian Library’s list for 2019 includes several books written by women: Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die (Бессмертный in Russian), translated by Marian Schwartz; Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life, translated by Barbara Heldt, and Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog translated by me, with a foreword by Lara Vapnyar that’s on LitHub here. A small commercial note: These titles and others are available at a thirty percent discount on the Columbia University Press Website (code: WIT2019). Among the others: In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky. Susan Bernofsky, by the way, compiled a list of some other publishers offering Women in Translation specials this month; visit her blog, Translationista, for more
  • And one more: I’ve seen some very happy reader comments about Bryan Karetnyk’s translation of Irina Odoevtseva’s Isolde, from Pushkin Press.

On a bit of a side note: Despite my pleasure about the potential for an uptick in translations of Russian women writers, I still find it frustrating that (for reasons I’ll never determine since I lack access to full nominee lists, a crucial factor that is often overlooked, and don’t know the first jury’s personal tastes and preferences) only three of this year’s twelve Big Book finalists are women, the same twenty-five percent as last year. I’ve already read two long-listed books written by women that didn’t make the shortlist – Anna Nemzer’s Round and Anna Kozlova’s Rurik – and am especially sorry that Rurik, which (like Round) is edgy, risky, and very contemporary, didn’t make the cut. (I realize that edgy, risky, and very contemporary are qualities that some readers and jurors might hold against Rurik, but I love to see authors at least try to stretch, even if not everything works. I think Rurik works pretty well, though.) All that said, I’ve often noted that books by women seem to do very decently (perhaps, happily, even disproportionately well?) in final Big Book voting, giving an overall impression of quality over quantity. Maria Stepanova, for example, won last year, when only two of eight finalists were women.

Quality is, of course, largely a matter of taste but it’s more important to me than raw numbers – not just for award listings but for my own reading – so I hasten to add that I’m grateful that this year’s Big Book shortlist is such a big (huge, really) improvement, quality-wise, over the 2017 and 2018 lists. One of the good things about a strong, very readable shortlist is that it usually means there are excellent reading prospects on the longlist, too: I already know for sure that Verkin’s Sakhalin Island is irritatingly absorbing despite being uneven and that even if Buksha’s Opens In isn’t my book, it’s well-written and -composed. I’ve heard and read good things about several of the other longlisted books and, in keeping with my tastes and “it’s only fair,” I made sure to buy the longlisted books written by Alisa Ganieva and Marina Akhmedova, and have Alla Khemlin’s waiting, too, along with books by Bulat Khanov and Nikolai Kononov.

Disclaimers: The usual. I translated two books mentioned in this post and know some of the translators, publishers, and authors whose names appear here. It’s ragweed season and my ragweed allergy can cause serious syntactical and logical malfunctions.

Up Next: Alexander Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama (okay but disappointing), Anna Kozlova’s Rurik (energetic and funny), Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Big Book finalist Earthly Paradise (a bit confused), and then something else. (I’m having mixed feelings about Olgerd Bakharevich’s very long Dogs of Europe, which is also on the Big Book shortlist but am going to take the chunk approach; that’s its structure anyway. Plus: Minsk. Minus: wordy.) Two books written in English: Jennifer Croft’s Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories.