Sunday, August 21, 2016

Read Russia Translation Prize Shortlists & Women in Translation Month

Shortlists for the 2016 Read Russia Translation Prize (the global prize, for all languages) were announced last week for four categories: nineteenth-century classics (three finalists), twentieth-century literature until 1990 (three finalists), contemporary literature (four finalists), and poetry (three finalists). Since Alexandra Guzeva’s article for Russia Beyond the Headlines covers things so well (and since it’s a beautiful beach day!), I’ll send you to her, right here, for all the details.

I do want to add, though, that I’m very excited that Laurus, my translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Лавр for Oneworld Publications, is on the very varied contemporary literature list. There are two other English-language translations that are finalists on, respectively, the nineteenth-century and poetry lists: Michael Pursglove’s translation of Ivan Turgenev’s Smoke and Virgin Soil for Alma Classics, and Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev’s translation of I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky, published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. It makes me very happy to see this recognition for translations of Tarkovsky’s poetry. It also makes me very happy that this is Laurus’s second shortlist: I was pleasantly surprised to find the translation on the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize shortlist earlier this year, along with seven other books, including Stephen Pearl’s translation of Ivan Goncharov’s The Same Old Story, published by Alma Classics. The award was shared by Philip Roughton, who translated Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Heart of Man for MacLehose Press, and Paul Vincent and John Irons, who translated 100 Dutch-Language Poems for Holland Park Press.

Since August is Women in Translation Month, I want to note a few bits of news about English-language translations of Russian fiction written by women:
  • Melanie Moore’s translation of Tatyana Shcherbina’s Multiple Personalities, published by Glagoslav, was on Read Russia’s contemporary literature longlist. (That longlist, though, is so short it’s short!) Melanie also translated Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator for Glagoslav; here’s my previous post about The Investigator and here’s a review of Melanie’s translation written by Lori Feathers for World Literature Today.
  • The U.S. edition of Catlantis, written by Anna Starobinets, translated by Jane Bugaeva, illustrated by Andrzej Klimowski, and published here by New York Review Books, will be available in mid-September. I loved this fun kids’ book (previous post), which is already out in the U.K. from Pushkin Press. Catlantis is a wonderful gift for cat lovers of all ages; my previous post includes a rare Lizok’s Bookshelf cat photo.
  • Yana Vagner’s To the Lake, published by Skyscraper Publications, will be out this fall, too, by an unnamed translator. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, known in Russian as Вонгозеро.
  • Looking back at the post I wrote for the very first Women in Translation month, in 2014, at the invitation of Meytal Radzinski, who writes Biblibio, I found a few items to update. I mentioned, above, Melanie’s translation of Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator, which is already available and want to mention that Margarita’s Klotsvog (previous post) will be on the way in a couple years, too: I’m translating it for the Russian Library series published by Columbia University Press. My translation of Marina Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus came out last fall from World Editions and is on the list for the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award, along with the aforementioned Laurus plus my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, also for Oneworld. And I’m finishing up Marina’s Italian Lessons (known in Russian as Безбожный переулок) for World Editions now (previous post). Some of the other writers I mentioned are already more available in translation now and/or have more books coming soon: Carol Apollonio’s translation of Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall (Праздничная гора) (mentioned here) is already out from Deep Vellum Publishing and Carol’s translation of Alisa’s Bride and Groom (previous post) is on the way. Also: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Kukotsky Enigma is out this month from Northwestern University Press, in Diane Nemec Ignashev's translation.
  • Finally, on (yet) another personal note, I think I’ve already mentioned somewhere along the way that I’m working on Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes for Oneworld Publications and loving it—one of my favorite aspects of translation is enjoying a book all over again when I translate. Of course there are many phases of “all over again” with all the editing, revising, proofing, correcting, and checking! Which is why I have to love a book (previous post on Zuleikha) to translate it…
  • And now, truly finally, since I could go on and on and but have already written enough and, yes, the beach beckons: several of you have mentioned other books written by Russian women that you’re working on, that will be published in English translation within the next year or two, so I know there’s more to come. I’ll be watching for details on those so I can add them to future translation lists!

Up Next: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s family saga Jacob’s Ladder, Alexander Snegirev’s Faith/Vera, Anna Matveeva’s Vera Stenina’s Envy (Matveeva and Stenina are headed to the beach with me…), and Read Russia results, which will be announced on September 10 in Moscow.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Big Book Three: “The Usual?” and the Unusual in Maria Galina’s Mysterious Autochthons

I have a feeling this may be one of my least informative, least conclusive, and most rambling blog posts ever: I haven’t been kidding when I’ve used the word “mysterious” to describe Maria Galina’s Автохтоны (part one/part two)(Autochthons), a book that was shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller Award and Big Book Award. Pronouncing the English-language title—which looks mysterious, at least to me—turns out to be easy enough, and I’ve now come to think of the word as meaning “the locals,” in the sense of extraordinarily peculiar long-term, indigenous locals. I have no earthly idea how I can possibly describe the novel after presenting something of a plot summary below. At least I’m not alone: Elena Vasileva, for example, writing on, says the characters’ many unreliable accounts of events can cause schizophrenia (or suspicions of such) among readers.

And so, a bare plot summary. Galina sets Autochthons in an unnamed city on the brink of Europe (reader consensus seems to be that it sounds a lot like Lviv), where an unnamed out-of-town visitor claiming to be a freelancer for the theater journal Teatr settles in at a hostel and gets to work, for an unnamed reason that is revealed later, on research into some local—and very obscure—theater history from the 1920s by interviewing a slew of local experts (ha). Among the juicy and dry details, there’s talk of death on the stage, of philosophy, of one of anonymous man’s interlocutors resembling Yuri Lotman, and even of the use Spanish fly. Or maybe not.

Though I wasn’t quite self-diagnosing schizophrenia, all the details and stories that anonymous man uncovers did make me wonder what was happening to my head: Was my memory failing? Was I just confused? Was I reading too much at a time? Too little? Or was I so caught up in the quirky and oddly, charmingly eerie atmosphere and characters of Autochthons that I was zipping through the more serious and, really, more technical material? I suspect the latter but don’t regret, at all, having reading that way. Even little details like the breakfast spot where the waitress always asks “the usual?” («Как всегда?»)—because that establishes both a past and a future—feel at least as important as anonymous man’s formal research. There are clearly patterns here and the city’s legends (urban legends?) are said to include a little sex, fear, violence, and morality, plus a sad ending. Of course everything ends up blending anyway.

Meanwhile, Galina plays with a pile of cultural references, Russian and otherwise. Every person is said to hide the maniac within and when our unnamed hero confronts someone who’s following him in a wax museum, he steps out from behind a Dracula figure. Jack the Ripper’s there, too, and no, of course, this is not the only mention of vampires. Other variations on the human, hmm, condition and form appear, too, perhaps most notably in someone who purports to be a sylph… he asks unnamed man if he’s ever seen Angel Heart, which shows the hazards of pursuing oneself. I haven’t even mentioned world history, meaning the non-theater part, (then again, all the world’s a stage, right?), which also comes up plenty, perhaps most memorably when one character is accused of having been a Nazi collaborator. In any case, Galina twists and blends detective and fantasy genres with local myth plus a figure who comes to a new place as a seemingly clean slate but turns out to be nothing of the sort.

I mentioned in my “up next” sections of previous posts that Autochthons made me think a lot about my own reading habits. For one thing, this is yet another novel complex and puzzling enough that I’d need to reread to understand because I focused so much on one layer in my first reading. I’m not alone here, either: in her review, critic Galina Yuzefovich also mentions the need for a second, slower reading. I always find it difficult to get to know lots of characters at once, particularly when they’re offering up so much unreliable information; Autochthons is certainly appealing enough to read again.

My second “thing” is odder: I most enjoyed reading Autochthons in the dark, with a new book light. (Side note: it’s the Mighty Bright Recharge, which I love and which is worth the extra money for its dimmer, discrete light, very flexible neck, and easy (re)charging.) It didn’t even feel right to read Autochthons using regular lamp light. Somehow, sitting in the dark with a small pool of light from the Recharge illuminating only two pages of the book felt just right for a novel as slyly occult and metaphysical—not to mention slyly humorous—as Autochthons.

August is Women in Translation Month so I also want to note that Maria Galina’s novel Гиви и Шендерович was translated by Amanda Love Darragh, as Iramifications. Amanda won the 2009 Rossica Prize for the translation.

Up Next: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s family saga Jacob’s Ladder, which I’ve almost finished and will move up since Ulitskaya is another woman who’s been translated. Then Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which has been waiting so patiently…

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve translated excerpts from some of Maria Galina’s novels, including her Mole Crickets, which I enjoyed very much four years ago.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Farewell to Fazil’ Iskander

I was very sad to see the news that Fazil’ Iskander died last night; he was 87.

Though I only began reading Iskander in 2011, when I read some of his stories about an Abkhazian boy named Chik, I listed Iskander in my 2011 year-end post as my “favorite discovery.” I noted that the little I’d read “[was] enough to give me a new favorite writer whose stories I want to ration and read over time.” I have done just that, reading several more of his stories, some about Chik, some not, in the past five years. Iskander’s combination of humor and a keen sense of humanity—which feels particularly strong to me in his characterization of what it means to be a child—won me over very quickly. For more on the Chik stories: I featured Iskander in my “Favorite Russian Writers A to Я” series.

In 2011, Iskander won a special Big Book award as well as the “Contemporary Classic” prize from the Yasnaya Polyana Awards. Iskander’s books have been translated into numerous languages: according to, a number of his books have been translated into English, including Chik and His Friends, translated by J.S. Butler for Raduga in 1985.

 Up next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera and Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons, both of which force me to look at my own reading habits and book preferences from new angles, and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Big Book Two: Vodolazkin’s Soaring Aviator

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator) is the first of this year’s Big Book finalists that I read: though I’d sworn I’d wait to read The Aviator when I could get it in print, I happily accepted the final text of the book from Vodolazkin and read a short passage on my reader each evening. It made for particularly nice spring reading. Though I always prefer print reading over electronic, I have to admit that limiting myself to short sections (to avoid the eye and attention strain I seem to get when reading electronically) was a good way to both extend my enjoyment of the novel and to consider, over time, the ways Vodolazkin develops his story and main character, Innokentii Platonov. I’m sure I would have loved a good binge-read, too, but it wouldn’t have done justice to this meditative (I think that’s the word I’m looking for) novel.

I’m afraid this post won’t do the novel much justice, either. That’s not just because I loved The Aviator so much in ways that I can’t explain, other than by saying that some books just seem to go right to the head and/or the heart, a phenomenon I think most of you understand. Nor do I want to gush. Beyond all that, I’m going very light on details in this post because one of the reasons I enjoyed The Aviator so much is that Vodolazkin didn’t tell me much at all about the novel: I began reading with only one bit of background (which spoiled nothing whatsoever but that I won’t mention because I don’t have context) and I had no expectations whatsoever about plot, character, or anything else. If I’d known more, I wouldn’t have gasped, audibly, when I found out what caused Platonov’s rather unique condition.

On an analytical, big-picture level, I was pleased to see how nicely The Aviator dovetails with Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post) and Solovyov and Larionov (brief summary on a previous post), both of which I’ve already translated. What I’d previously called a diptych now feels like a solid triptych. Each book examines—from very different angles—history, events, and time, which has a tendency to spiral in Vodolazkin’s novels. Since I’m translating The Aviator now, it’s easy to remember what details come very early in the book so I don’t spoil anything. Or at least very much. And so, a few things…

The Aviator is written in journal form, beginning with an undated entry by a man who’s quickly identified as Innokentii Petrovich Platonov. He appears to be a hospital patient with amnesia. His doctor, a man named Geiger (whose nose hairs Platonov sees on the third page), suggests the journal as a method for resurrecting his memory. As the days pass, Platonov begins remembering bits of his past and his personal story: he’s fairly quick to remember he’s the same age as his century, which can quickly be identified as the twentieth. And his location quickly sets the book in St. Petersburg, something that feels wholly organic. That’s not just because of mentions of landmarks or of street names that evoke the past, but because there’s a whiff of that old Gogolian feeling (since Gogol’s not mentioned in the novel, perhaps this is ingrained in my thinking? or even somehow idiopathic?) that unusual things can and most likely will happen there. The novel also incorporates Petersburg poet Alexander Blok’s “The Aviator” (here in Russian and here in English).

Vodolazkin works in elements from many genres, including love story and murder mystery, touches of science fiction and history, as well as coming of age, plus the bonus of references to Robinson Crusoe, which I realized I’ve somehow never read (!). There’s a little bit of everything, but all that everything flows together (everything matters here) very, very smoothly, gathering speed as time, history, events, and people, too, in their way, spiral. Of course there’s humor (I can’t imagine Vodolazkin writing without humor) and an almost improbably suspenseful ending. Most of all, though, from the perspective of a translator spiraling through a first draft of The Aviator—each draft and (re)reading of a book and its translation has the feel of spiraling history for me, too—I’m enjoying the book as a portrait of how a person grows and develops, more than once.

Though I have dozens and dozens of electronic notations on my PDF that mark time stamps, telling dreams, bits of history, and curious details about Platonov’s neighbors, not to mention incidences of flying, I’m keeping those to myself, with the hope that you’ll read the book, too, either now in Russian or later, when translations begin coming out. That said, if you’d like more details about The Aviator, visit the Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency’s page about the novel here; the book’s cover art, by Mikhail Shemyakin, also offers insight into what happens in the book.

Up next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera and Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons, both of which force me to look at my own reading habits and book preferences from new angles, and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily.

Disclaimers: The usual. I am translating The Aviator for Oneworld Publications.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The 2016 Russian Booker Longlist

The Russian Booker Prize announced its 2016 longlist last Wednesday: the list contains 24 books chosen from 71 eligible nominations. Finalists will be announced on October 5 and winners—one laureate plus one English-language publication grant—will be announced on December 1.

Here are a few of the books on the list. Six titles are familiar from the Big Book shortlist and I’ve read books by other writers on the list, but I’m also very happy to see quite a few author names I’d never heard before.

First off, the books that are already on the Big Book shortlist (because it’s just so easy to cut and paste on a hot, stuffy summer night):

  • Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel), which I bought after reading the beginning of the PDF that Aleshkovsky’s literary agency sent me: archaeology and medieval constructions caught me.
  • Evgeny (Eugene) Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which I read earlier this year and loved for its blend of genres, epochs, and themes, some familiar from Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov. I’m translating this book and enjoying it all over again as I see, up-close, how the book works.
  • 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. (brief interview + excerpt)
  • Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Jacob’s Ladder) is a family saga set during 1911-2011. I’m in the middle of Jacob’s Ladder and finding it pleasant reading, particularly the story thread that begins in the more distant past.
  • Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Persecution, perhaps?) sounds fairly indescribable: I find mentions of youth, irony, cynicism, and this time we live in.
  • 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.

A few others, some by authors I’m not at all familiar with, so was curious about:
  • Anatolii Korolev’s Дом близнецов (The House of Twins would be the literal version, hmm) sounds like it’s an intellectual thriller/detective novel about positivism (as a Gemini, I’d been hoping for zodiac madness, but alas!); Korolev has referred to it as a treatise (тракат).
  • Anna Berdichevskaya’s Крук (Kruk, which looks to be a shortened version of Круглосуточный клуб, or round-the-clock club; the title also sounds like the word круг, which means circle, among other things, and is part of the “round-the-clock” word) is described as a historical novel about a very recent time; six people (five young, one elderly) meet.
  • Oleg Nesterov’s Небесный Стокгольм (excerpt) (excerpt) (Heavenly Stockholm, perhaps) is set in the early 1960s and, how ‘bout that, written by the leader of Megapolis, a fairly well-known (rock) band. (The Megapolis YouTube channel… “Эхо” sure hit my mood on a summer night… maybe for the Hawaii sound with the piano and water…)
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one still sounds interesting.
  • 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.

Disclaimers. The usual.

Up next. Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which, yes, I’m still mulling over, trying to figure out how to write about the book without giving away the whole story; Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which I am now officially calling Faith; Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons; and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily. The Vodolazkin, Galina, and Ulitskaya books are Big Book finalists.