Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Translators’ Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian… Finally!

If you were to ask me what I enjoyed most at the Translators’ Coven, which I attended at St. Antony’s College in Oxford, England, last month, I’d probably say something like “everything” or “all of it.” Those two days of formal and informal discussion about translation, Russian, and English—mostly Russian-English translation, but with one panel about English-Russian work—were even more fun and informative than I’d expected. Though it’s always difficult to explain what’s so fun and informative (I’ve already tried and failed quite a few times), the lively official coven report, compiled by Boris Dralyuk and available online here in PDF form, should give you a sense of why I had such a great time and why I hope so very much there will be another coven next year. I’ll use this post to amplify and complement certain points in Boris’s detailed report…

So many translators… I think it’s safe to say that everybody was surprised the coven drew so many people: in his opening remarks, Oliver Ready said he and Robert Chandler had expected a much smaller gathering so had to reserve a larger room when it turned out that over 120 people (!) wanted to come. I’m tremendously grateful to Oliver and Robert for organizing the coven, and to sponsors CEELBAS, the Prokhorov Foundation, and the Russkiy Mir Foundation for funding the coven and supporting my travel, care, and feeding. It was a wonderful treat to have a chance to meet, speak with, and listen to so many colleagues from what feels more and more like a true community: the coven added to my impression that Russian-to-English literary translation is experiencing something of a boom, to borrow a word from conversations with one of you. It was especially encouraging to hear how busy everybody is translating and, yes, publishing. I’m already taking entries for the 2014 new translation list.

A chance meeting… Speaking of the value of community, Boris’s report notes that the coven provided a chance for Peter France and Anatoly Liberman to learn, by virtue of speaking on the same panel, that they’ve both been translating Baratynsky (a.k.a. Boratynsky)… but without knowing of each other’s work. I mentioned Peter’s work on Mandelshtam in a previous post about poetry translation events in London the week after the coven; Peter also translates Batiushkov and Annenskii, who was one of my big favorites in grad school. Anatoly spoke of handling various technical problems of poetry translation, such as differing quantities of syllables in Russian and English. Anatoly, by the way, writes the “Oxford Etymologist” columns for the Oxford University Press blog: you can learn about words like “pumpernickel” and “flute” here.

Retranslations… Though I’ve never retranslated anything beyond isolated lines of classics that pop up in contemporary work, I loved the panel on retranslations. Rosamund Bartlett spoke about her work on Anna Karenina, offering very practical bits on topics like Tolstoy’s use of repetition, which she sometimes preserves and sometimes does not, depending on shades of meaning, the value of switching word order in exceptionally long sentences, and the vexing question of feminine surnames. I also appreciated Oliver’s account of spending about five years translating Crime and Punishment, which he wrote out by hand; Oliver, too, mentioned repetition, saying he kept a glossary so he could preserve repetition, as appropriate.

Collaborative translation… Discussion of collaboration was a highlight, too: Anne Fisher spoke about translating poems by Maxim Amelin with her husband, poet Derek Mong: she showed us drafts, beginning with a crib and ending with polished lines, and acknowledged disagreements. After Anne spoke, panel chair Robert Chandler added that he and his wife, with whom he collaborates, sometimes try “something silly” when they’re stuck. I like that approach, too: I often repeat lines over and over to myself, out loud (and, hmm, usually staring blankly at the wall), trying out new words. It often works for me. Robert is, of course, an active collaborator: I’ve been enjoying working on a Platonov story with him and am just getting started on a play. It’s been especially instructive seeing how Robert draws on opinions and advice from experts on Platonov and railroad technology from the early twentieth century. But back to the coven itself! Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, both of whom are co-editing Anthology of Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky with Robert, spoke of their work together, using the example of Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Field Hospital” and some of Irina’s poems. It was fun hearing how they work on poetry that Irina did not write: Irina gives Boris a summary of elements in the poem she sees as crucial. I liked Irina’s metaphor of “the bristles of each line” in a poem that the translator should feel.

“Productive” and “rowdy”… Boris’s summary uses those adjectives to describe Chris Tauchen’s presentation about his work on Nikolai Kononov’s short story Аметисты (“Amethysts”). Chris asked attendees to look at a problematic passage and offer translation ideas. As Boris notes in the report, “there is little translators like to do more than translate.” He’s right: it was fun talking over ideas with the people sitting nearby… this involved, of course, repeating lines over and over, out loud, trying out new words. I drew on that theme in my own talk about translating dialogue for plays, too, highlighting the importance of intonation.

English-Russian translation… The panel on translating Julian Barnes and Peter Ackroyd from English to Russian was a nice change of pace on the second afternoon: Anna Aslanyan’s observations on looking to Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler for help when she was working on Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, which is partially set in the eighteenth century and uses spellings like “fabrick” and “agonie,” was reassuring after my work on excerpts from Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Laurus, which contains bits of archaic Russian. Alexandra Borisenko and Victor Sonkin’s presentation on retranslating Flaubert’s Parrot was filled with humor, some of which drew on passages from Soviet translations where meaning was overshadowed by what Boris neatly summarizes as “the prudishness of the Soviet approach.”

The non-coven cows… Finally, I can’t help but mention how much I loved walking around Port Meadow in Oxford with Anne Marie Jackson and dozens of cows the day before the coven. It was just the thing to shake off one plane flight and two bus rides.

Other posts about the coven:
Alan Shaw on Prosoidia, here.
Erik McDonald on XIX век, here

Disclaimers: The usual. And, again, my profuse thanks to coven’s sponsors and organizers!

Up Next: Back, finally, to writing about books! Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Orphics, Iurii Buida’s Thief, Spy, and Murderer, and then, at some point in the future, Maxim Kantor’s huge (608 large pages) Red Light/World, which I started last Sunday and am finding very intriguing so far… it reads like a combination of a dishy contemporary novel, a historical novel, and a sociopolitical rant. We’ll see how that goes.

Photo Credit: Sarah Charlesworth, Creative Commons, via Wikipedia

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The 2013 Russian Booker Prize Long List… All of It

Every so often, I enjoy going through an entire book award long list, methodically looking for books I might enjoy reading. I’m not quite sure what possessed me to sift through the entire 2013 (Russian!) Booker Prize long list on a slightly cloudy but warm and very beach-worthy Saturday afternoon, but there you have it.

So here’s the long list, in Russian alphabetical order by author, with comments, some of which may be a bit odd and uneven since many of the books don’t seem to have gotten much attention… or at least not the kind of attention that I.I. Google recognizes and rewards. I starred the books I’m most interested in. The short list will be announced on October 3.

1. Aleksandr Arkhangel’skii: Музей революции (Museum of the Revolution). I always hate to start a list on a negative note but I tried reading this novel and just didn’t get very far, due to lack of interest; I didn’t even read far enough to get into the museum conflict…

2. * Nikolai Baitov: Любовь Муры (Mura’s Love). The publisher’s blurb says this epistolary novel is about two women’s forbidden love in the 1930s and 1940s, though two reviews I looked at dispute the “forbidden” part. There are, however, two women. And there is love.

3. * Nadezhda Belen’kaia. Рыбы молчат по-испански (Fish Keep Quiet in Spanish). A novel about international adoptions of Russian children.

4. Vladimir Vester: Отель разбитых сердец (Heartbreak Hotel). The book’s subtitle, Секс, кино, один ствол и вечно живой Элвис ПреслиSex, the Movies, One Gun, and an/the Eternally Alive Elvis Presley—seems to say it all.

5. Evgenii (Eugene) Vodolazkin: Лавр (Laurus). One of my favorites (previous post). Already a finalist for this year’s NatsBest and Big Book.

6. Andrei Volos: Возвращение в Панджруд (excerpts) (Return to Panjrud). Volos, who is originally from Dushanbe, often writes about Central Asia. His agent’s site says this novel is about a poet in the Middle Ages. Finalist for this year’s Big Book.

7. * Valerii Votrin: Логопед (The Speech Therapist). The Speech Therapist’s publisher describes the book as depicting a “linguistic antiutopia.” There are two main characters: a speech therapist and a journalist. Watch your spelling and punctuation, people!

8. * Alisa Ganieva: Праздничная гора (excerpt) (Holiday Mountain). A novel about Dagestan… in which Dagestan becomes separate from Russia, resulting in problems and not-so-happy endings.

9. Vladimir Gubailovskii: Учитель цинизма (The Teacher of Cynicism or Cynicism’s Teacher?). A 2012 Big Book finalist. The main character is math student at Moscow State University in the late Soviet era.

10. Denis Gutsko: Бета-самец (Beta Male). This sounds like a novel about a middle-aged guy (not an alpha!) with good connections but not a lot of ambition who is presented with a situation that changes his life.

Menshikov in Berezovo (1888)
11. Andrei Demkin: Ненаписанный дневник (excerpt) (The Unwritten Diary). A historical novel about prince Aleksandr Menshikov and his exile, and the work of artist Vasilii Surikov, who really did paint Menshikov. Hmm.

12. Oleg Ermakov: С той стороны дерева (From the Other Side of the Tree). Apparently about a man who goes to Lake Baikal and finds everything he was looking for and more, including love and local myths.

13. Andrei Ivanov: Харбинские мотыльки (The Moths of Harbin). A novel about Russians in Estonia during 1920-1940. This sounds like a difficult but interesting novel.

14. Aleksandr (Alexander) Kabakov: Старик и ангел (The Old Man and the Angel). A professor in his seventies has regrets about his life, then a heart attack changes all. A review on compares Kabakov’s writing to Aksyonov’s.

15. Anatolii Kurchatkin: Чудо хождения по водам (The Miracle of Walking on Water). According to the Tver’ libraries’ description: a man suddenly discovers he can walk on water, though only when other people are around.

16. Maya Kucherskaya: Тетя Мотя (Auntie Motya a.k.a. Auntie Mina). Another one I couldn’t quite get into: this book about a couple’s not-so-successful life together felt too contrived to me. As of this writing, it’s the top gatherer of Facebook “likes” among 2013 Big Book finalists, though.

17. * Vadim Levental’: Маша Регина (Masha Regina). Levental’s debut novel is about a woman from the provinces who becomes a world-famous film director. Another 2013 Big Book finalist.

18. Olesya Nikolaeva. Меценат. Жизнеописание Александра Берга. (The Patron/Sponsor/Philanthropist. The Life of Aleksandr Berg). A detective novel about the murder of a monastery official.

19. Aleksei Slapovskii. Вспять. Хроника перевернувшегося времени (Backward. A Chronicle of Time Upended (or something of the sort!)). Time goes backward in a provincial town, giving people another last Friday instead of a new Sunday. Sounds like déjà vu all over again.

20. Sergei Solov’ev: Адамов мост (Adam’s Bridge). This one seems to defy summarization India. Jungles. He and She.

21. Andrei Tavrov: Матрос на мачте (The Sailor on the Mast). In this novel, Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov meets a young woman who’s traveling around the Caucasus.

22. Margarita Khemlin: Дознаватель (The Investigator). Another one I read and enjoyed (previous post).

23. Vladimir Shapko: У подножия необъятного мира (At the Foot/Pedestal of an/the Immense World…). This work is called a poem but isn’t written as verse, though one observer who read the first installment in a journal says “poem” fits in the Greek sense because the book is an epic set in the Soviet era and looks at a huge number of characters who are regular people. Our observer sounded rather eager for a sense of what it might all mean…

24. *? Aleksandr Ebanoidze: Предчувствие октября (A Premonition of October). A novel about the Moscow intelligentsia during the transition years.

Disclosures: The usual, including my work translating various texts by Vodolazkin and Khemlin.

Up Next: Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s The Orphics, which still creeps me out; Iurii Buida’s Thief, Spy, and Murderer, which petered out; plus last month’s coven…

Image: Painting by Vasilii Surikov, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

London Trip Report: Russian Poetry Week & A Bit More

Ah, travel! Ah, returns home! Ah, trip reports! My recent trip to Oxford, for the first-ever Translators’ Coven, and London, for Pushkin House Russian Poetry Week events and assorted meetings, was worthy of a slew of adjectives like fantastic, marvelous, wonderful, and, yes, productive… but trips are always difficult to describe, particularly because I’m not a very consistent note-taker, particularly when the topic is translation. I get so caught up in the programs that I forget to write. Nonetheless, here’s a very unmethodical, very noncompletionist summary of sorts, of What Went On In London. I do have more detail in my notes about certain things—including more poem titles—so add a comment if you have questions. I’ll write about Oxford soon.

File:Переделкино могила Арсения Тарковского.jpg
Tarkovsky's grave, in Peredelkino.
Pushkin House Russian Poetry Week, organized and led by Robert Chandler, with lots of participation from Irina Mashinski and Boris Dralyuk, began on June 16 with Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize Evening, which featured winners of, appropriately, the Brodsky-Spender Translation Prize. The night was particularly fun because Sasha Dugdale, a writer, translator, and editor, interviewed two teams of translators—Boris and Irina (on Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Полевой госпиталь”/“Field Hospital”) and Glyn Maxwell and Alexandra Berlina (on Joseph Brodsky, memorably including “Ты не скажешь комару”/“You Can’t Tell a Gnat”)—about their work. My notes for this session are awful, though I did scribble down that Irina finds it particularly difficult to translate favorite poems; Maxwell said some words in Brodsky translations are “haunted by each other” rather than rhymed, as in the originals; and Sasha compared Brodsky with Toblerone chocolate. This is high praise, indeed!

Sweets came into the program again on the second night—with the spotlight on Osip Mandelshtam—when writer, teacher, and translator Victor Sonkin discussed Mandelshtam’s life and noted that Mandelshtam enjoyed tea with candies. My favorite portions of the discussion concerned one poem, “Вооруженный зреньем узких ос”: Robert read several translations of the poem, and I especially enjoyed Peter France’s version, which began with “Armed with the eyesight of thin-waisted wasps.” It was the “thin-waisted” that caught me—over “skinny” (Andrew Davis) and “slender” (John Riley)—somehow “thin-waisted” sounds and even looks better to me, both in my imagination and on the page, where a hyphen makes “thin-waisted” almost physically resemble a wasp. You can get a feel for Peter’s love for poetry and translation in these translator’s notes (and Mandelshtam translations!) in Cardinal Points.

Lucky for me, Phoebe Taplin wrote a piece about the third event—“The Soviet Union’s Other Poets”—for Russia Beyond the Headlines, mentioning specific poems. There were, once again, lots of highlights, including more mentions of a poetry anthology that Robert, Boris, and Irina are co-editing for Penguin… the book will include around 50 poets and cover the years from Pushkin to Brodsky, guided by birth years, though there seems to be some creative interpretation of dates. The book will be out within the next couple years and will include, by design, lots of poets who are relatively unknown in the West, such as Boris Slutsky, David Samoilov, Vladimir Kornilov, and Maria Petrovykh. They, along with Tarkovsky, were all part of the Wednesday program. Translators/speakers included Robert, Boris, and Irina, as well as Katherine Young and Stephen Capus.

By the time the final night rolled around—this after four muggy London days and three muggy London nights of talk about poetry, prose, and publishing—my note-taking ability sank from a polite “minimal” to nearly zero. I guess it’s appropriate that, for a program about Afanasii Fet and Fyodor Tiutchev, one of the titles I wrote down was “Silentium!” I also noted that Tiutchev was careless in his work, rarely checking proofs and allowing Ivan Turgenev to make changes. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t remember anything else: I remember, for example, that Robert also discussed Tiutchev’s famous “Умом Россию не понять” and read a translation from fellow coven attendee Anatoly Liberman; I particularly like Anatoly’s final line, viewable here, if you scroll down.

Those muggy London days also included… a visit to the Calvert 22 Foundation, where there was no exhibit but I met with Jamie Rann, who works as comment editor at the online Calvert Journal, which contains a nice variety of articles and beautiful photos… meeting with Sarah Wallis and Paul Mitchell, who wrote and directed Russia’s Open Book, a one-hour documentary about contemporary Russian literature. The trailer is online here. I’ll be writing more about Russia’s Open Book later this year. I found, thanks to I.I. Google, that an animated chunk of the film, by Andy Acourt, won an International Motion Arts AwardRussian book shopping at Waterstone’s Russian bookshop (orderly, great selection, even if it’s pricey) and Русский мир (chaos, not much of interest that I haven’t already read) accumulated a nice stack of books that includes Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Орфики (I’ll call it The Orphics for now), which I already read and can’t quite let go of, Iurii Buida’s Вор, шпион и убийца (Thief, Spy, and Murderer), which I’m reading and enjoying now; Maxim Kantor’s rather large Красный свет, (Red Light); and a collection of stories and a play by Nina Berberova.

I should also add that the trip generated a number of contributions to the list of Notable New Translations for 2013. There are lots of great new entries but I was especially happy to hear about Sasha Dugdale’s collection of Moscow stories for Oxford University Press, where authors range from Nikolai Karamzin to Igor Sutyagin.

Disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Coven trip report. And Ilichevskii’s Orphics, which really and truly creeped me out with its perspectives on Moscow in 1991 and, really (of course), what came before and what came after. Then Buida’s Thief, Spy, Murderer.

Image credit: A. Savin, Creative Commons, through Wikipedia.