Saturday, March 28, 2015

Trip Report: Peaks Island. In Praise of Close-to-Home Travel. A List of Russia’s Open Book Books. generally only write reports about big trips with overnight stays—New York for BookExpo America, other American cities for American Literary Translators Association conferences, Moscow for translator congresses…—but a recent three-hour trip to Peaks Island, where I helped host a screening of the documentary Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin at the Peaks Island branch of the Portland Public Library, made for an enjoyable evening. It also brought some realizations about how important it is to get out and tell the public about Russian literature and literary translation.

First, a bit of background, presented rather inelegantly, to save space… “Russia Resurgent” was the topic for this year’s Camden Conference, fwhich is held annually in Camden, Maine, a couple hours up the coast from where I live. Though a three-day conference in Camden is the centerpiece, there’s also a huge multi-month schedule of community events around the state. I was involved with three: I read excerpts from some of my translations at libraries in Scarborough and Kennebunk (a third event, in Brunswick, was cancelled because of bad weather), and helped host a screening of Russia’s Open Book at the Scarborough Public Library, attended by the film’s co-directors, Sarah Willis and Paul Mitchell. Though the Peaks Island trip wasn’t part of the Camden Conference schedule, it came out of the Scarborough screening.

Every event was fun. I love reading from my translations—these readings included excerpts from works by Margarita Khemlin, Vladislav Otroshenko, Eugene Vodolazkin, and Marina Stepnova—and the audiences in Scarborough and Kennebunk were wonderful. People asked questions about everything from how I got started in translation to how I work and how I know my translations are correct. It’s a big plus that public readings can be a great way to gauge your success in conveying humor. And people ask where and how they can find and buy the translated books.

The two screenings of Russia’s Open Book took a little less energy—reading for an hour is tiring even when Q&A is interspersed!—but were at least as rewarding. People engage well with the film’s excerpts from four novels, which are read by Stephen Fry and accompanied by animation. There’s context-setting talk with Russian critics. The ending, with Vladimir Sorokin’s comments about the future, chills my spine (and yes, I mean that literally) every time, even though I know what’s coming. And an hour is perfect to present detail about six writers without putting anyone to sleep. Lots of questions come up: do Russian writers often create parallel universes, do these writers make a living from their fiction, what’s the situation for Russian bookstores. And people ask where and how they can find and buy the translated books.

The audience at the Peaks Island screening even asked if I could create a list of books in English translation by the six writers in Russia’s Open Book. I can. And it’s below. I didn’t see much of Peaks Island during the three hours I was there (particularly since it was dark when I left) but I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the couple dozen people who came to the library on a cold and very windy night. Meeting them—and the people who came to my events in Scarborough and Kennebunk—feels like a perfect antidote to complaints that translators (and even translated literature) are invisible and go unrecognized. People do care about translation, readers are interested in Russian fiction in translation, and I’m glad so many translators make the effort to read from and speak about their work in their communities. The more I get out, the more I realize how important that is.

Without further ado, here’s the list I promised to the Peaks Island audience. Perhaps it will be helpful to other libraries and institutions that screen the film. And please do let me know if I missed anything! Two notes. First, five of the six writers in the film have books available in English translation; Mariam Petrosyan is the exception. Second, I’ve linked each writer’s name to the bios I wrote for the Read Russia site, in preparation for BookExpo America 2012. The publication and awards lists there aren’t all up-to-date, but the bios still provide a fair bit of background on the writers as well as lists of some of the writers’ short fiction available in translation. And a third note: my “previous post” posts are written about the Russian originals, not the translations.

Zakhar Prilepin 
  • Sankya (Disquiet International/Dzanc Books, 2014, tr. Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker with Alina Ryabovolova. This book makes great use of glossaries.) (previous post)
  • Sin (Glagoslav, 2012, tr. Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas) (previous post)

Ludmila Ulitskaya 
  • The Big Green Tent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, tr. Bela Shayevich)
  • Daniel Stein, Interpreter (The Overlook Press, 2011, tr. Arch Tait) (previous post)
  • Sonechka (Schocken, 2005, tr. Arch Tait), novella and stories
  • Medea and Her Children (Schocken, 2002, tr. Arch Tait)
  • The Funeral Party: A Novel (Schocken, 2001, tr. Cathy Porter, edited by Arch Tait)

  • Living Souls (Alma Books, 2011, tr. Cathy Porter) (previous post)

  • Catlantis (Pushkin Children’s Books, fall 2015, tr. Jane Bugaeva). Cat humor, romance, and adventure for children nine and up, plus cat lovers of all ages… more soon on Catlantis.
  • The Icarus Gland (Skyscraper Publications, 2014, tr. James Rann). Short stories.
  • The Living (Hesperus, 2012, tr. James Rann)
  • An Awkward Age (Hesperus, 2011, tr. Hugh Aplin). Short fiction. (previous post)

  • The Blizzard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, late 2015, tr. Jamey Gambrell), (previous post)
  • Day of the Oprichnik (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, tr. Jamey Gambrell) (previous post). My favorite Sorokin book.
  • The Ice Trilogy (New York Review Books, 2011, tr. Jamey Gambrell) (previous posts: first book and second book)
  • The Queue (New York Review Books, 2008, tr. Sally Laird, first published in English in 1988 by Readers International Inc.). I’ve heard lots of great things about this book over the years… I’ve been saving The Queue for a cranky day!
You can screen Russia's Open Book, too, here or through Intelligent Channel's YouTube channel.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual and much more, for my work with Read Russia, talks with Sarah and Paul about the film…

Up next: Eugene Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Lena Eltang’s Cartagena, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I’m still reading slowly to appreciate all the details. Plus maybe a novella or two… Also, translators and publishers, please do send me titles and dates for this year’s releases: I’m hoping to post the 2015 translation list soon!

Photo: Econrad, creative commons, via Wikipedia

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Award News: Spender Prize Winners & the Russian Prize Longlist

Gray weekends with rain and snow flurries seem to make my mind wander… making today the perfect time for a cup of tea and a bit of prize news from the last several days:

Poetry’s not really my beat but I thoroughly enjoyed reading the winning poems from the 2014 season of the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize, which recognizes translations of poetry from the Russian. The three winners are:
  • Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky won first prize for their translation of Anastasia Afanasieva’s “Untitled,” which, in the words of the translators, “tells of loss and exile following the 2014 war in Eastern Ukraine.”
  • Second prize went to Peter Oram for “White Day,” Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Белый день,” into which Oram inserted italicized lines to give it the feel of an English folksong. (I’ve borrowed here from Oram’s description.) I love the effect.
  • I’m especially excited that Katherine Young won third prize for her translation of a poem by Xenia Emelyanova, “Spring rain beats on broken branches.” Kate read several of her translations of Emelyanova’s poems at last November’s ALTA conference and they were wonderful. In her commentary to the translation, Kate writes, “I chose this poem because it reminds me of the playground in the apartment courtyard where I lived in Moscow – the poem so perfectly captures the often-melancholy air of those spots.” I think the poem’s last lines evoke, beautifully, the feeling of being airborne.
The Spender Prize Web site includes judges’ reports, which are fun reading for anyone interested in poetry and/or translation. Congratulations to all the winners, as well as the translators who were commended for their entries: Peter Clark (for Andrei Voznesensky), Robert Isaf (for Alexander Blok), and Vlanes (for Valery Brusov). Maksymchuk and Rosochinsky (for Vladimir Gandelsman), and Oram (for Tarkovsky) were also commended for second entries.

The Penguin Book of Russian PoetryBy the way! The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski, is now out. I heard lots of translations from the book during my trip to Oxford and London in 2013 (previous post) so have been looking forward to the book for, well, years.

The Russian Prize (Русская премия) longlist is far, far messier because it’s three lists—poetry, short prose, and long prose—and each list has 13 or more entries. The Russian Prize is open to writers who write in Russian but live outside Russia. I think the only writer I’ve read at any length (meaning a full book) is Evgenii Kliuev, whose novel Something Else for You (previous post) I enjoyed a few years ago: Kliuev is on the RP list for a book of poetry with the strangely appealing title Музыка на Титанике (Music on the Titanic). I’ve also read a few pieces by Bakhyt Kenzheev and Elena Suntsova, both of whom I know a bit from book fairs and events.

As for prose, there are a few familiar names, though, yikes, I haven’t read any of them yet: Platon Besedin for the collection Рёбра (Ribs); Ulyana Gamayun, whose Осень в Декадансе (Autumn in Decadence) is also longlisted for the National Bestseller; Aleksei Makushinsky, whose Пароход в Аргентину (Steamship to Argentina) was a finalist for last year’s Big Book award and won third prize in reader voting; and Maria Rybakova for Черновик человека (Rough Draft of a Person, I suspect… or at least want to think). Rybakova won the Russian Prize’s second prize award for short fiction in 2012 for her Гнедич (Gnedich), which is on the way from Glagoslav Publications this fall, in Elena Dimov’s translation. Some of Dimov’s excerpts from Gnedich, dated 2012, are available here.

Disclaimers and the Like. The usual for knowing some of these people.

Up Next. Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Lena Eltang’s Cartagena, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I’m still reading slowly to appreciate all the details. Plus maybe a novella or two…

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Quick Takes: Shulpyakov, Georgia, One of My Translations

Sometimes the best thing a book can do for me, particularly during busy spells—like, say, the last two years—is leave me with a pleasant, blurry feeling of having read an enjoyable book. The details that stick (and sometimes there aren’t very many, even if the book is thought-provoking and complex) aren’t nearly as important as the experience of reading a book that carries me away from dismembering and rebuilding sentences, deadlines, and my searches for apt words. On this short “spring forward” day, here are short takes on two books I found especially enjoyable for reasons I can’t exactly explain…

At first glance, Gleb Shulpyakov’s Музей имени Данте (Museum Named for Dante) seems like an odd candidate for a busy-time book: it’s a moderately thick novel about, among other favorite themes, political and social changes, and Shulpyakov incorporates poems, diary entries, and a play. There’s so much in the book—changes in geographical and temporal settings, literary references, love stories, the prickly poet Gek (“Gek” is what Huck Finn is called in Russian), and all sorts of other layers—that I’d even forgotten the main Dante connection (Reminder: not all details stick!) until I looked at my notes: our narrator, a sometime TV journalist and sometime used book dealer finds a draft translation of part of Dante’s Inferno.

There are two aspects of Museum that held particular powers to generate those pleasant, blurry impressions I mentioned above: nineties Moscow and the language Shulpyakov gives his first-person narrator. Nineties Moscow is, of course, a favorite setting since I lived there, though Shulpyakov does well with lots of travel, too, including to a remote island and a dig. Shulpyakov includes tanks in central Moscow, booksellers, mentions of Khasbulatov and Yeltsin that help make this another October Events novel, and references to period details like the MMM pyramid scheme and the TV show “600 Секунд” (600 Seconds). On another level, our narrator notes that he feels like an uncomfortable loser in a new place and time, wondering if he belongs in a place where the comfort of the kitchen is disappearing. This is familiar, too. As for language, Shulpyakov’s writing has a clear, simple elegance that I admire. I think the language is a big part of why the book grabbed me so nicely: the simplicity of the language meant I didn’t have to stop much to sort through difficult sentences, leaving me open to getting fully drawn into the book’s content on an almost subconscious, dream-like level. That’s a great feeling, even if it’s difficult to describe.

Eggplant! Spinach!
Another book I was sorry to finish is Waiting for the Electricity, a novel set mostly Georgia and written by Christina Nichol, who has lived in Georgia. Of course Georgia isn’t Russia and the book is written in English, but the word pirozhok does appear on the first page and the novel was so much fun—the description on the front flap includes terms like “gleeful picaresque” and “visionary satire”—that I stretched my reading out over months so I wouldn’t finish. I feel okay about that because our (un?)faithful narrator says “where there is speed there is no feeling.” Who cares that he was talking about disco, “this doom-boom-doom music,” instead of books?

It wasn’t the plot that kept me going with this book, either, though there’s lots of great material—power outages, a love story, quirky work details—and the thought of a maritime lawyer named Slims Achmed Makashvili sending letters to Hillary Clinton because he wants to go on a technical training program to the United States certainly has its appeal. What I loved was (and maybe there’s a trend here?) the language Nichol gives her first-person narrator. Her language combines beautifully with her eye for details: “Tbilisi is a small city and on the street it is possible to recognize many people: the hundred-year-old Soviet ballerina, the talk show host whose huge yellow sunglasses make him look like a bug, the documentarians who make films about ancient door locks. Look in front of the bank. The security guard was once a famous bison breeder.” In the next paragraph there’s a mention of “the modern American emotion of stress.” Later, when Slims is stopped by a policeman and asked if he’s been drinking and says he hasn’t, the cop asks, “Why is your passenger wearing a seatbelt then?” It’s because Slims’s British passenger refuses to ride without wearing a safety belt. And then there’s all the food, appetizingly torturous given the lack of Georgian restaurants in Maine. Page 261 includes chicken in walnut sauce, tomato salads with peppers and herbs, mutton pilov, a pastry with noodles and cheese, and the line, “The food on the table wasn’t just food but pure philosophy.” This is a book to give someone along with a copy of Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast and a few packets of khmeli suneli, a wonderful spice blend that, for me, makes even a simple burger taste a little bit Georgian.

Finally, I’m very happy to write that my translation of Vladislav Otroshenko’s Приложение к фотоальбому is now out from Dalkey Archive Press as Addendum to a Photo Album. It was nice to read in Kirkus’s review that the reviewer called the book “carefully translated,” and I think the conclusion—“A deeply strange novel that reads like a Chekhov play inspired by the comedy stylings of Monty Python.”—sums things up beautifully.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Waiting for the Electricity from The Overlook Press, thank you!

Up Next: Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Cartagena by Lena Eltang, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I’m still reading slowly to appreciate all the details. Plus maybe a novella or two… 

Photo from salvagekat, Creative Commons. This food even looks familiar: I think it has to be from a Khachapuri restaurant in Moscow...