Sunday, September 10, 2017

The 2017 Russian Booker Prize Longlist

I was planning to blog today about Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak), which is very good… but then the Booker longlist popped up last week. The Yasnaya Polyana shortlist will be on the way soon, too, so award season is definitely upon us.

And so. Here are some of the nineteen books that hit the 2017 Booker longlist. The shortlist will be announced on October 26 and the award ceremony is scheduled for December 5.

First off, here are books that have already won or been shortlisted (Big Book shortlist) (National Bestseller shorlist) for other large awards that I track. A reminder: you can read Big Book finalists (other than the Pelevin novel) for free on Bookmate.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Mysterious Year). Won the Russian Prize; Big Book shortlist.
  • Anna Kozlova’s F20. Won the NatsBest.
  • Igor Malyshev’s Номах (Nomakh). Big Book shortlist.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot). Big Book and NatsBest shortlists.
  • Aleksei Slapovsky’s Неизвестность (Uncertainty). Big Book shortlist (previous post).
A few other books are already on my shelves:
  • Andrei Volos’s Должник (a chapter from it) (The Debtor). Book three of a tetralogy. I read the very beginning of this novel about a man who’s drafted and sent to Afghanistan. It looks promising.
  • Vladimir Medvedev’s afore-mentioned Заххок (part one) (part two) (Zahhak). An excellent, harrowing (how often do I get to say that?) polyphonic novel about Tajikistan in the early 1990s.
  • Aleksandr Melikhov’s Свидание с Квазимодо (A Meeting [not sure what kind] with Quasimodo) is about a criminal psychologist.
  • Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…). This book has hit about a million longlists but hasn’t made any of the major award shortlists yet. About the Russian North.
There are several books by authors I’ve read before – Irina Bogatyreva, Sasha Filipenko, and Elena Chizhova – and several others I’m interested in but since learning about new writers from longlists has become something of a hobby, I’ll mention three books by authors I’d never heard of. Based on brief looks, none of these are calling out to me. Then again, several books that became big favorites had the same initial (lack of) effect on me.
  • Kalle Kasper’s Чудо: Роман с медициной (The Miracle: A Novel with Medicine).
  • Vladimir Lidskii’s Сказки нашей крови (literally Tales of Our Blood). About/related to the 1917 revolution. (Oops, this one turns out to be a cheat! I wondered if something sounded familiar here and saw that the book was already a runner-up for the Russia Prize.)
  • Aleksandra Nikolaenko’s Убить Боборыкина. История одного убийства (Killing Boborykin. The Story of One Murder). (Also a bit of a cheat: I forgot this title was on the NatsBest longlist, too. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun.)
Up Next: Medvedev’s Zahhak. Shamil Idiatullin’s Brezhnev City, which got off to a slow start for me… but reads very differently now that I’m reading it as a novel-in-stories. And the Yasnaya Polyana Award shortlist, which I’m looking forward to very much.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’m translating excerpts from Zahhak. (How could I turn down polyphony!?)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Becoming a Literary Translator

Enough people write to me asking how to become literary translators that I’ve long intended to write something resembling a how-to post. Thank goodness I was saved by Susan Bernofsky, who translates from the German into the English and wrote a post (here!) covering the basics. Best of all, her suggestions are pretty close to what I would have said had I written the post: what she outlines is a lot like what I did when I was getting started. So rather than writing about those basics, I’m going to add a few more suggestions and bits of advice, many/most of which are somehow connected to what Susan writes. I never give individual advice to translators because I think we all need to find our own paths to the profession, based on our interests and skills. What I write about here is what worked for me but of course it may not work for you. One other thing: I’ll write from the perspective of a native speaker of English who translates from Russian to English, so just substitute your own languages if that’s not your angle!

Read a Lot. This, like everything else in this post, probably sounds ridiculously, even insultingly, obvious… but reading is what helped me most as I found my way, so it’s always my first answer when people ask me about becoming a translator. Or about what to translate. Read as much as you can in Russian to learn what’s being written, what you like to read, and what you might want to translate. Журнальный зал is a great source of new literature. Read as much as you can in English—books written in English and books translated into English—for the same reasons. Read periodicals, too, for world news, literary news, stories, essays, vocabulary, and examples of differing usage of things like, say, serial commas. The hardest part for me is reading outside my genre, particularly book-length nonfiction, which I never seem to get to. Even so, varied reading has a magical way of bringing me words and even oddball spellings I need for my translations. As an example: a historical detective novel translated from the French told me that an architectural word I doubted was just the thing for my translation, too.

Know Your Taste & Know Publishers’ Tastes. I love all that reading because, well, I love to read, get a kick out of the serendipitous words tossed at me while I walk on the treadmill, and find that every book I read gives me a chance to know who’s publishing what, in Russian and in English. That last point is important because each book tells me more about preferences, both my own and publishers’; it doesn’t take too many books to find patterns. All those preferences are important because if you’re going to pitch a book to a publisher, you want to know why you like it, what you think the author does well, why you think the publisher would like it, and why the book would fit the publisher’s list. All that reading also gives a sense of global trends, context that can be very helpful when you pitch books.

Don’t Forget You’re a Writer. A lot of people outside translation don’t seem to know this but translators are writers. (We can even join the Author’s Guild, something I recommend highly.) Reading is also invaluable for observing and learning from tics and flourishes in other writers’ work… this is ridiculously helpful when you’re translating, say, a novel where there are lots of shifts in verb tense. (Can you tell I’m watching for that right now?) Back in the days when I wanted to write my own fiction, I took a few two-hour writing workshops and even attended the Stonecoast Writers’ Conference. Twice. Lots of the advice—like limiting most dialogue tags to a simple “s/he said”—has served me very well as a translator and it’s been fun to run into a couple of my writer-teachers at book events. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice, though, came to me from Richard Rhodes’s How to Write. Rhodes says that when he asked Conrad Knickerbocker, public relations manager at Hallmark, how to become a writer, Knickerbocker said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” It’s the same for translators. Standing desks are fine (I used to use one) but writing is still a lot of work.

Be a Member of the Book Community. Join the American Literary Translators Association and/or the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and attend conferences. Go to readings and signings at local bookstores, libraries, or universities. Go to book fairs and chat with publishers, agents, and other writers. Bonus reason to buy more books as you do all that: you’re supporting our industry. Keep things light as you get to know your colleagues. Getting into this business takes time so there’s no need to rush. Don’t forget your local library, either. My small local library’s collection and Maine’s interlibrary loan system have saved me on many occasions, often (I confess) just before deadlines. Libraries are also a great place for programs about countries, books, and professions like translation, so do offer to speak.

Love What You Do. I only translate books that I love in some way: I want a book to engage me emotionally (I’ve had to end a few workdays because I was sobbing over my translations), intellectually, and linguistically. If a book doesn’t do all that for you, it can still be pretty enjoyable if it teaches you a lot. Example: I didn’t feel a deep emotional connection to the article-length texts about art and artists that I translated for a museum book, but I sure did enjoy learning about the art and the artists. I think I love what I do most when I read through a draft (third? fourth? it varies…) that makes me realize my translation is coming together into a book, a real book that real people can read. Getting to that point involves months of agonizing decisions over words, cursing my own lack of knowledge of arcane subjects (this happens a lot), and long, long hours of, yes, applying ass to chair. I couldn’t put in all that time agonizing, cursing myself, and sitting on my butt if I didn’t love the work, meaning if I didn’t love the fact that all that agonizing, cursing myself, and sitting on my butt help me makes those books. I suppose that probably means I love the agony, cursing, and sitting, too, doesn’t it?

I hope that those of you reading this who hope to become literary translators find the same satisfaction of agonizing over words, cursing yourselves, and sitting on your butts for days on end as you find your own way into the profession.

Up Next. Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak), which I’ve finished. And more Big Book reading: Shamil Idiatullin’s Brezhnev City, which I’ve resumed reading and which now seems to have caught me, too, despite its slow pace, and Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

August Is Women in Translation Month: Translations of Russian Women

Looking back at my Women in Translation Month post from 2014 was an interesting exercise. For one thing, the blogger known as Biblibio, who started Women in Translation Month back in 2014, now uses her real name, Meytal Radzinski. And she continues to read and write about tons of books (do visit her blog!) and has generated tremendous awareness of and reactions to gender-based disparities in translated literature. According to the Women in Translation site (there’s a site now!), only about 30% of new translations into English are of books written by women. This year’s list of Russian-to-English translations (here) is in that range.

That’s a downer of a datum, but I’m happy there are books—meaning books translated into English—already available or on the way from some of the authors I mentioned in my old post. I’m working on Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (previous post) for the Russian Library/Columbia University Press and my translation of Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (Italian Lessons) (previous post) is in process, too, for World Editions. Meanwhile, Carol Apollonio’s translation of Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom (previous post) is coming this year, from Deep Vellum, and Melanie Moore’s translation of Khemlin’s The Investigator (previous post) is already available from Glagoslav. I’m also at various stages with two other books, both for Oneworld, written by women that I didn’t mention in that post because I hadn’t yet read them: Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post) will soon be edited and I’ll be starting on Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky (previous post) later this year.

Since I’m one to accentuate the positive—while simultaneously trying to find ways to counter the negative—I want to highlight three of the books on this year’s translation list that are written by women and that (bias warning!) particularly interest me:
  • Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher (Phoneme Media). I’m embarrassingly long overdue to read this National Bestseller Award winner, which I’ve heard so many good things about over the years.
  • Polina Dashkova’s Madness Treads Lightly, translated by Marian Schwartz (Amazon Crossing). I read lots of Dashkova’s detective novels, including this one, in the early 2000s, when I got myself back into Russian reading: her writing and characters are clear, and she always seems to address social and political issues, too. Quality genre fiction like Dashkova’s deserves to be translated. Publishers Weekly gave Madness, in Marian’s translation, a starred review.
  • Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov (Russian Library/Columbia University Press). It’s great to see a translation of a nineteenth-century novel written by a woman… and this one sounds like particular fun. I’m looking forward to it! This translation also received a star from Publishers Weekly.
This year’s disappointingly all-male Big Book shortlist (the list) made me vow to seek out female authors’ books that made 2017’s Big Book longlist or National Bestseller shortlist. (I’m sure there are plenty of books that will keep me reading far longer than, say, Pelevin’s Big Book finalist Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons.) I mentioned a few candidates in my Big Book shortlist post: Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him, maybe?), Anna Kozlova’s NatsBest-winning F20, and Elena Dolgopyat’s short stories. Other candidates, whose authors are completely new to me, include Olga Breininger’s There Was No Adderall in the Soviet Union and Viktoria Lebedeva’s Без труб и барабанов (Without Trumpets and Drums). I’ll be interested to see what hits other award lists later this year—more lists, from the Yasnaya Polyana, Booker, and NOS awards are on the way—and what other books might find their way into English in the coming years.

More literature by women will make its way into translation one poem at a time, one story at a time, one book at a time… so I’m just going to keep on reading. And translating. And recommending good books to publishers. Translator recommendations, after all, are how some of the translations mentioned in this post got signed in the first place. And I know there are more on the way.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhok), which has taken over my reading: this polyphonic novel set in Tadzhikistan is ridiculously suspenseful and absorbing. And more Big Book reading: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year and Shamil Idiatullin’s Brezhnev City.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Big Books 1 & 2: Slapovsky and Pelevin

It gives me no joy whatsoever to report that the first two Big Book finalists I’m done with weren’t very satisfying. It gives me even less joy to say that this pair left me so indifferent that I couldn’t bring myself to finish either one. I read most of Aleksei Slapovsky’s Неизвестность, which I guess I’ll continue calling Uncertainty, but could only get to page 41 of Viktor Pelevin’s Лампа Мафусаила, или Крайняя битва чекистов с масонами (Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons) before throwing in a frayed old towel. I know it’s time to quit a book when I don’t want to sit down to read.

So. Slapovsky’s Uncertainty was a mixed experience; this is the book that bills itself as “роман века,” which in this case means it’s a novel covering the all-important century of 1917-2017. As I mentioned in my Big Book descriptions, Uncertainty is told through diaries, poetry, and other written materials, including a letter, a court’s death sentence, and interview transcripts. The Russian word for “datafiction” has been used to describe the genre; it’s not inappropriate.

My primary problem with Uncertainty is its tremendous unevenness. The novel is a family saga of sorts—its contributors from a family of Smirnovs span six (or so—I’ll admit I don’t want to go back to count) generations over the course of a century—and the contributors’ contributions vary tremendously in quality, length, and interest. The first chunk, Nikolai Smirnov’s diary (1917-1937), looks at the period immediately after the 1917 coup, examining political and personal (dis)loyalties with varying levels of detail; Volga Germans, the Cheka, and Nikolai’s relationships with women enter into the diary. There is also folk wisdom, such as a mention that the primary fight isn’t between socialism and capitalism or various social classes but between smart and foolish people.

I found the next chunk, a diary written by Vladimir (1936-1941), the most interesting: Vladimir is a teenager who’s very taken with Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered and he addresses many of his entries to Pavka, its hero. Vladimir faces difficulties from being critical in school, troubles with girlfriends, and problems being taken into the armed forces. An eye chart thus makes its way into his diary. So do Stalin’s famous words that a son doesn’t answer for his father. The interview transcripts, recorded in 2016 by Anya Smirnova with her grandmother, father, and mother, follow Vladimir’s diary… and this is where the book began flailing for me. There’s some moderately lively and funny material—asides, one-sided conversations because someone’s out of the recorder’s range—and some contemporary material about teenage Anya’s friendship (or more?) with a much-older man who’s not Russian. But the transcripts are often fluffy and contrived, so I skimmed a bit to get to the grandmother, Ekaterina, who’s one of the book’s most interesting characters: she discusses relationships, abortion, and the family curse, which she says is wanting to please everybody in order to be praised. Toward the end of the last tape, she orders vodka in a café. It’s an understatement to say I think Uncertainty could have benefited from more female perspectives. A fairly brief death sentence for Anton, dated 1954-1962, follows the transcripts.

Skimming changed to skipping when I reached a bulky swath of stories, otherwise unpublished, written by Viktor, an illustrator, dated 1965-2016. I read a bit more than half and couldn’t go on: the stories describe childhood and adulthood, and probably the most affecting involve Viktor’s alcoholism. Not much in the stories felt original enough to keep me reading, though. The novel’s final piece, a 2017 letter by Gleb Smirnov, addresses a familiar topic by focusing largely on Gleb’s relationship with his girlfriend. In some senses it brings the reader back to Nikolai’s diary: for very different reasons, neither of them spells well.

Uncertainty is unsatisfying not so much because it’s so fractured—Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder (previous post) is fractured, too, reflecting fractured times and fractured families, and Ulitskaya makes better use of form than does Slapovsky—but because, perhaps paradoxically, there aren’t enough motifs to reinforce the family ties and breaks that connect and disconnect the various generations, and, most crucially, keep the reader engaged with the drama and tragedy of problems that face the Smirnovs over the century. All that damage and brokenness may be the point here but—and this felt even worse—I also constantly had the sense I wasn’t receiving any new information from the book, that I was reading familiar, recycled material from other novels. It seems as if I read a mishmash of material that started off with some moderately interesting stories about family and history… but then the book became so thoroughly dull and muddled in the middle that I lost interest. I do wonder if Viktor’s stories clarify anything about previous narrators, though I don’t wonder nearly enough to go back and continue reading. There’s a lot of uncertainty about fates in Uncertainty and the long section of Viktor’s stories created a brutal break in momentum. (Critic Vladislav Tolstov called those stories “графоманские тексты,” a graphomaniac’s texts; Tolstov’s final paragraph on Uncertainty, which I read as I was finalizing this post, beautifully sums up my thoughts on the book.) Although I give Slapovsky credit for even attempting to address Big Questions in Russian history, Uncertainty’s inability to hold my attention—I love reading about the human side of history in fiction—is frustrating.

I suppose it’s something of a plus that I was done with Methuselah’s Lamp so quickly that I wasn’t bored for long. That reading followed my familiar Pelevin pattern: after reading a not-so-satisfying book (Uncertainty), Pelevin pulled me in with his narrator’s voice. But it didn’t take many pages for our narrator Creampie’s tale to lose its oomph. The connection of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” with Creampie’s prattling about investments and gold didn’t seem clever for long. That, combined with a near-death experience, signaled the beginning of the end of my reading.

Disclaimers: I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the Big Book Award’s jury, and received electronic copies of all the Big Book finalists. You, too, can read most of the Big Book finalists for free on Bookmate, here: nine of the ten finalists, all but Pelevin, are available and the Bookmate platform is easy to use and synch between devices. I’m using it myself for a lot of my Big Book reading.

Up next: I’m still chipping away at Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year, which looks brillianter and brillianter after these two books. I’m also working on Andrei Rubanov’s The Patriot, which captures a time and place even if it’s not my book. I’m most enjoying Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhok), which I just started.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Books in English: Expats, Love, Life, Literature, and Moscow

On the surface, two novels set in Moscow that I read this spring and summer—Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and Guillermo Erades’s Back to Moscow—have a lot in common. Both feature young expats who come to Moscow at tumultuous times, both include lots of literary references, and both end rather sadly, with departures that fit their times. Both novels also mention the dangers of falling ic(icl)e(s) in spring. The differences, of course, are greater the similarities; I’ll try to summarize…

Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist begins in 1914, when Gerty Freely moves from England to Moscow, to work as a governess for the Kobelev family. What struck me most at the beginning of the book was Gerty’s appreciation of Moscow, where she and I both love walking. Here’s the beginning of a paragraph early in the novel:

Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections. At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might. I was still ignorant of politics, yet as a Chapel girl I couldn’t help but be shocked by the contrast between the golden domes and palaces and the crowds of beggars at their doors.

My favorite part of the novel begins after the Kobelev family decamps for Yalta, thanks to unrest after the coup/revolution of 1917, leaving the house in the care of servants and family friend/lodger Nikita Slavkin, a futurist and inventor whose ideas include things like “unbreakable rubber crockery sets that you could fold together and use as a pillow [and] a portable shower bath.” As time passes, Gerty and Nikita become involved (somewhat) romantically, some of the Kobelevs return, the house becomes a commune for young members who share things as intimate as underwear, and there are mentions of real-life futurists. Beyond the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by early Soviet communal living experiments—there’s even a daily timetable here for comrades’ activities and there are jealousies, too—and any book that quotes Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter” (in Gary Kern’s translation in the book) wins lots of bonus points, particularly since Gerty notes, “read aloud, [it] always reduced us to helpless snorting heaps.”

Hobson wrote The Vanishing Futurist in the first-person, from Gerty’s perspective as she’s going through old papers and looking for a way to tell her daughter about her past. I particularly admire Hobson’s ability to combine the light—crushes, humor, whimsical inventions—with political and historical realities of the time, which are, of course, linked to Slavkin’s disappearance. Hobson also has a light touch with bits of Russian she includes, mentioning, for example, “using the polite “Vy” or noting that millet porridge was called blondinka, something I hadn’t known, perhaps because I’d do just about anything to avoid the stuff. Whether my kasha of choice is grechka or blondinka, Peter Pomerantsev’s blurb on the back of my book is very apt: “That rare case of a profound book being unputdownable.” That made The Vanishing Futurist perfect reading when I was painfully busy and particularly valued an enjoyable, smart novel with a good sense of plot and history.

The operative cover blurb for Erades’s debut novel, Back to Moscow, comes from Publishers Weekly: “Russia’s capital is the most dynamic character in Erades’s boozy bildungsroman.” Russian literature grad student Martin comes to turn-of-the-century Moscow with surprisingly low proficiency in either Russian or literature, and seems to spend more of his time studying The eXile and going to bars (some of which I remember from the 1990s, too) to drink and meet women. The biggest problem with Martin as a character is that he’s kind of a jerk, a fairly unpleasant first-person narrator whose attitudes toward women make him a literary character that I at least hoped would become a prime candidate for redemption. What felt oddest to me is that when I think back to The eXile of the 1990s, Martin seems like almost a milquetoast and/or a wannabe by comparison; I wonder if that might have been among Erades’s intentions. In any case, his treatment of his girlfriends can be awfully callous and he does some truly dumbass things, but his defense of a tutor early in the book establishes that at least part of his heart is kind. Making him redeemable.

Beyond his (nearly) main occupation of boozing and womanizing, Martin spends a lot of his time reading Russian novels, analyzing and discussing female characters (here we have life and literature!) in a way that felt a bit Cliff Note-like to me, doing occasional work with a Russian businessman friend, and, yes, enjoying Moscow itself. I can’t say that Back to Moscow is my ideal novel—it feels a bit too disjointed, obvious, laden with gratuitous uses of words like “elitny” and “interesno,” and rather predictable twists, though I suppose that’s typical of the genre—but Erades, like Hobson, too, manages to conjure up the feeling of being an expat exploring Moscow. Of course it helps that Erades gifts Martin with a nice apartment by Pushkin Square, making it all the easier, for example, to go to the Stanislavsky Theater to see Heart of a Dog, a Bulgakov adaptation I loved back in the day, too… And I give a nice plus to Martin’s tutor for talking with him about superfluous men.

What’s odd about the combination of these two books, which I read in fairly rapid succession, is that I enjoyed The Vanishing Futurist far more during my reading but came to appreciate Back to Moscow nearly as much after finishing. I suppose that’s partially because of an observation in Erades’s very brief, very last chapter, and partially (to suppose again) because Martin comes to Moscow around the time I left and his account of his girlfriends’ sadness about current events (among other things) felt so familiar. Though they’re not my own, I found plenty of sadness and exhilaration to identify with in Gerty’s world and in Martin’s world. Finally, I have to say I was pleased to see that at least two Goodreaders said Back to Moscow made them more interested in Russian classical literature. I hope The Vanishing Futurist helps bring Khelbnikov, as well as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok, who also get mentions, to some new readers, too.

For more: Max Liu,, on Back to Moscow (he also mentions the superfluous man discussion) and Anna Aslanyan, on The Vanishing Futurist.

Disclaimers: Thank you to Faber & Faber for the copy of The Vanishing Futurist and to Picador for the copy of Back to Moscow!

Up Next: Aleksei Slapovsky’s rather uneven but easy-reading Неизвестность, which I suppose I’ll call Uncertainty.