This is not about the movie Lost in Translation. But for this post, let’s pretend Scarlett Johansson is playing the part of me and Bill Murray the part of Russian Lit. Ok?
Q. I am interested in learning more about the current state of Russian literature. Can you please recommend 5 contemporary Russian novels that are available in English translation? (Besides Pelevin, whom I’ve already read.) Thanks so much! p.s. No sci-fi, please!
When I saw something like this question recently asked of a group of so-called Russia experts, I thought it was a reasonable enough request and began composing a response … until I was stopped dead in my tracks. I see a glut of Russian popular fiction everyday, but have no clue what kind of novels are being hailed by the Russian literati, let alone what is available in English translation. Probably no coincidence, those two facts. Chagrined, I sat back and let someone else respond. Everyone seemed to run into the same problem: there was lots to recommend, but many of them are not in English translation. Well, it is simply unacceptable that I should not know the answer to this inquiry. So I began my search and eventually came up with the following response:
A. I have been patiently waiting for an answer to your very specific question. Until you get one, here is a list of writers (in translation) people recently came up with when I asked who Russia’s leading thinkers were:
Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Tatyana Tolstaya, Sergei Lukyanenko, Lyudmila Ulitskaya…
But your question was enough to get me wondering, so I looked up the recent winners of the Russian Booker Prize:
2005: Denis Gutsko’s Without a Way
2006: Olga Slavnikova’s 2017
2007: Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Matisse
2008: Mikhail Yelizarov’s Librarian
2009: Yelena Chizhova’s A Time of Women
2017 is the only one I see readily available in English translation.
Others proceeded to recommend simply reading Russian literature … in Russian. Duh. What’s the problem with that, eh? How can anyone possibly appreciate Russian literature if they don’t read it in the original? Harrumph!
1. Well, personally, I might, but I am too lazy. My vocabulary is such that I require the frequent use of dictionaries and more brainpower than I am wont to exert while reading for pleasure. Because I read for work all day (yes, in Russian too) when I read for pleasure, the idea is to take a break. I understand the philosophy of self-improvement would advise that I force myself to make the effort to regain fluency so that I might be able to read for pleasure again. It is a beautiful idea. Like quitting smoking. We’re in New Years resolution territory here…
2. I suspect that most native English speakers don’t read a lick of Russian. Or any other foreign language, for that matter. They should be denied the opportunity to read anything published outside the Anglo-lit-o-sphere? Because Americans are not already ideologically isolated enough?
3. I’ve never heard a writer boast of being “read by everyone who speaks my native language!” Mostly it is the number of languages one has been translated into that signifies the degree of one’s literary success. While there is consensus that nothing can replace the experience of reading a novel in its original language, most writers are more than happy to sacrifice some artistic merit in order to reach a wider audience.
4. And as reading novels organic to lands not your own can make you wiser about the world, exporting your novels can make the rest of the world wiser about you. I know Russia is making an effort to reach a global audience by exporting Russia Today. But really, when cultivating allies, why not aim for the cream of the crop, the intellectual elite, people with an IQ of over 100, people who can … read. Don’t complain the world doesn’t take you seriously when hard liquor and dumbed-down tv news are your main exports. Just sayin’…
So… Why are there so few translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world?
The good news? It’s not personal or anything.
WBEZ: U.S. Publishes Few Books in Translation. (<-click to listen to the show.)
Americans don’t get the chance to read many books written by authors who aren’t from this country. That’s because just about three percent of all the books published in the United States are translated from another language. Chad Post is publisher of Open Letter Books. They’re dedicated to the translation of works of fiction here in the United States. Without small publishers like Open Letter Books, there would be hardly any translated books in our bookstores at all. Other countries are different. Chad says that more than half the books on the market in France and Spain have been translated from another language. Even Canada is way ahead of us.
(“Even Canada”!) My own personal, unscientific observations seem to confirm this. It seems contemporary Russian authors are more likely to get a translation published in the UK than here in the States.
But the problem is not entirely on our fat apathetic end. The Russians have some work to do themselves:
Russia Profile reported on the First International Congress of Translators recently held in Moscow in the article, “Gained in Translation.” While the translators know the dearth of Russian lit in the Western market is a problem and are trying to do something to fix it (primarily in that most Russian of ways: by setting up institutes), they also point to numerous culprits of their suffering.
Lack of government support:
This time the literary translators were not left to their own devices: the congress was timed to coincide with the annual 23rd Moscow International Book Fair and backed by the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications. Thus international publishers, contemporary Russian writers and even government officials could join their efforts in finding new ways of promoting Russian literature in the modern world. “Translators don’t get attention from the government. This functional vacuum has to be filled,” said Vladimir Grigoryev, the deputy head of the Agency for Press and Mass Communications, at the opening ceremony.
Lack of pay:
Literary translation is notorious for being among the most underpaid areas of academic work in Russia and elsewhere. The organizers’ plan is to set up a Translation Institute, which would not be an educational institution but a state-supported organization securing grants, especially for long-term projects. Here, not everything has to be done from scratch. “We at Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, already run the International Center for Translators for those who translate Russian literature into foreign languages,” said Vsevolod Bagno, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We have a yearly contest for the best translations of Russian literature in four nominations and a database of published translations from Russian, but we’d like the new institution to reinforce our efforts.”
If it is not overly long and cerebral, it doesn’t meet Western expectations:
“Modern Russian literature in the West is perceived in light of stereotypes that have been piling up for decades. Against the backdrop of the great literature of the past, anything coming from Russia is expected to be prophetic and somewhat world-scale,” said Professor Oliver Ready, an Oxford scholar and translator of modern Russian authors, adding that UK publishers often complain that the reality depicted in modern Russian prose is too specific and insular.
If it is overly long and cerebral, it doesn’t meet Western needs:
Russian authors also tend to write long, complex books, which can be hard to adapt for an English-speaking audience. “I was extremely lucky to translate books by Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin, the most published modern Russian authors, because they fit into existing niches without much adaptation. They have become really popular in the West,” said Andrew Bromfield, a prominent UK translator famous for his translations of Leo Tolstoy.
So everyone’s stuck reading Pelevin and Akunin.
The translators’ convention coincided with the Moscow International Book Fair, which hosted an “International Drawing-Room” debate for Russian and foreign participants, from which the following wisdom arose:
Voice of Russia: Russian literature produces uncloned stock.
… in 2011 Russia is to be an honourable guest at the London Book Fair and in 2012 an honourable guest in the USA. For this reason, the guests of the “International Drawing-Room”, a discussion floor arranged at the Moscow Fair for the first time, talked about the problem of promoting Russian literature on the international market, in particular, the English-language market. As the writer Dmitry Bykov said, we should make an effort towards a dramatic entrance into the English-language book world. Dmitry Bykov believes that modern Russian literature is capable of attracting the attention of this world:
“Today’s world has a marketing approach to literature. If something is a success, innumerable clones spring up. In this respect, Russia is a country where marketing strategies do not work, so Russia can be described as a provider of fresh, uncloned and unpredictable stock. Modern Russian literature is honest, it is a literature of protest, and there has always been a market for that in the West.”
Probably more so during the Cold War… Granted, we’re much more likely to be made aware of your existence if you write something politically scandalous, Rushdie-like. But still, for all our hemming and hawing about Putin in our airspace, we’re no longer inclined to read your books out of charity or prop you up to spite your masters. However much VVP has managed to roll back freedom of speech, y’all can’t even compete with Middle Eastern theocracies or the Chinese. So don’t even try. Which leads me to another factor contributing to the drought of Russian lit in American book bookstores, one that dareth not speak its name:
Russia is not hip. Impossible!, you’re thinking. Sorry, however tragic it may be, debating marketing strategies is just about a thousand times less sexy than publishing the samizdat of some poor soul forced into exile by real-live commies. But at least we have the memory of that, and our lingering Stockholm syndrome from Russian lit classes of yore. Your literary greats may be gone from our lives, but they are not forgotten. It’s more than the French can say.
Bosnian American Chicagoan wonderboy decides to whip us pathetic Americans into shape.
Because writers refuse to acknowledge reality and can easily slip into a reverie wherein capitalism and Oprah do not exist, they are either the most ideal or very worst possible candidates to take on the responsibility of introducing more foreign language writers to the English speaking world. On the one hand, I admire the whole Rise up with fists!, DIY attitude. On the other, well, do they let you market your own books, Sasha? I am referring to Aleksandar Hemon, who has edited the impressive Best European Fiction, 2010. The publisher’s decription goes like this:
Best European Fiction 2010 is the inaugural installment of what will become an annual anthology of stories from across Europe. Edited by acclaimed Bosnian novelist and MacArthur “Genius-Award” winner Aleksandar Hemon, and with dozens of editorial, media, and programming partners in the U.S., UK, and Europe, the Best European Fiction series will be a window onto what’s happening right now in literary scenes throughout Europe, where the next Kafka, Flaubert, or Mann is waiting to be discovered.
Hemon is so genius that he not only writes brilliantly, but he has the foresight to write in English, even though it is not his native language, to avoiding the very issue of translation. His native language is Bosnian. See, he’s so genius that he had the good sense to be from Bosnia while there was a war going on there. So maybe I should be less skeptical about his ability to sell escoteric lit. (I actually think he is a fantastic writer and his prose stands on its own merit. But would he have been slathered with such hype had he been from … Belgium?) Anyway, I’m as giddy as a little girl that he’s using his powers for good:
Omnivoracious: Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.
Amazon.com: In a recent interview with the Paper Cuts blog, you said: “I think American literature is crippled by the shortage of available translations.” Do you mean that the body of literature available to us as readers is incomplete, or also that American literature as an art form is not developing as fully as it should because emerging writers are not reading widely enough?
Aleksandar Hemon: Both. Literatures, cultures, writers need to communicate among themselves, to reach for and explore what might seemingly be outside their experience.
Amazon.com: In your introduction to the anthology, you expressed an urgency for translation to keep up with the “rapid developments in European literature.” What are some of these developments, and do you see them happening more rapidly in Europe than in America?
Hemon: Europe is a rapidly changing place, on every level. Immigration, post-communist transitions, the unification, steady presence of war and conflict, the inescapable challenges to the notion of national literature/culture–it all exerts pressure upon writers who must be aware of the transformational possibilities of the situation.
Amazon.com: In your mind, what needs to happen in order to get more of this writing translated, so it can be more readily available to American readers?
Hemon: You cannot wait for the mainstream publishing to snap out of their profit dreams, which have recently turned to nightmares. There has to be a kind of grassroots push, a movement, as it were, against the inherent isolationism of American capitalism as practiced in the publishing industry. There need to be grants and government support and a few publishers, mainstream and independent, who are not afraid to challenge American readership. We need to build a network of translators, publishers and readers. We hope that our annual anthology might provide an upsurge in interest for European fiction and then, as we publish it every year, become a habit to many readers. […]
Amazon.com: What percentage of these stories or excerpts were translated specifically for this book? Did the anthology launch any further translation projects?
Hemon: Pretty much all of them. Moreover, for each published piece there were 3-4 translated ones, which are now circulating in various ways. The anthology in and of itself generates translations.
Amazon.com: For you, what was the most exciting outcome of this project?
Hemon: The project is already indelible. There is no way to go back from this point–the moment it was published the anthology became essential and necessary for American literary life. If the project, somehow, failed to live on, American literature and culture will be sentenced without parole to eternal provincialism.
I am wholly in solidarity with Sasha’s righteous mission. Which is why I read the whole book. My review? Honestly? I liked his introduction best. Oh, I know. After all my bitching about no translations, I get a whole anthology of them and I am still unsatisfied. In hindsight, I don’t know if this Noah’s Ark exercise is the best method of importing contemporary writers to the promised land. With 35 writers representing 30 countries, the focus was on getting a snapshot of the European lit scene rather than uncovering unique talent, the effect was of throwing everything at us to see what would stick. I ended up with the impression that some authors were included because well, someone has to represent Luxembourg, and others may have deserved a better translator.
Bookslut has a different gripe:
The only frustrating thing about the anthology is the fact that not all of the authors have full-length books available in English (yet) — several, though, have been published in English by Dalkey Archive and others. My own list of authors to explore grew by at least a dozen after reading this, and I’m already drafting emails to publishers begging them to translate and publish some of these authors in the States. I’m more than a little sad that I haven’t been paying enough attention to European writers (I don’t keep up with their sports cars or supermodels, either, though I’m pretty well-versed in their beers and drug laws); it’s great to have Hemon help me find who to look out for. Like Dalkey Archive Press itself, this anthology is fascinating, accomplished, and absolutely crucial. America and Europe don’t always agree on much; I hope readers in both places can agree that we needed this book.
And who was chosen to represent Russia for this anthology? (drum roll…) Pelevin. I fucking kid you not. I am going to go bang my head against something hard, you can keep reading.
So what lessons can we learn from Sasha’s little experiment? First, while there must be countless literary talents who have yet to find their way into English translation, not being translated does not an unsung literary talent make. Regardless what language you are published in, it still helps to be a very good writer. Secondly, having a brilliant short story buried in an anthology isn’t going to make a splash on the American stage unless your little amuse bouche is followed by an entree. Thirdly, I think Victor Pelevin has tapped into some of that space time continuum magic he’s always writing about, because he is everywhere, Zelig-like, and it is freaking me out, man. Lastly, Hemon has put a spell on me and can make me read anything.
I sauntered over to see if my peeps at Unbound Europe have anything on offer. I’m lying. I don’t have “peeps.” But I do have a few dashing ex-professors who are publishing a slew of literature from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe in English translation at Northwestern University press. And I do mean dashing; in fact, they may be entirely to blame for my current neurosis. But that’s beside the point. They were also the ones who introduced me to brilliant but then obscure authors like Dubravka Ugrešić. It seemed a logical place to go searching for brilliant but still obscure Russian authors. … This looks potentially interesting, if I just ignore the inclusion of Ms. Latynina. As if finding her in translation were difficult. As if avoiding assult by her deranged thoughts were even possible. Anyway, slim pickings on the Russia front at Unbound Europe.
So … we’re kind of back at square one on our search.
For myself, I would actually very much appreciate a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation. I think a snapshot of the good, the bad and the ugly of fiction published in post-Soviet Russia would be fascinating. Perhaps it is too much to ask for no Pelevin or Latynina or science fiction. But surely such an enterprise can be successfully undertaken. But by whom? I don’t see how literature fits into Dima’s pro-modernization push. Surkov tells us to read Dostoyevsky, and we can, because he is in translation. But what are you doing for your living, breathing writers, Slava? Perhaps the problem is actually too much dependence on the state? Maybe writers and translators should go maverick? I’d have a hard time believing Sorokin has made it abroad with federal funding (but that might be the American in me, who thinks of federal funding as if it were Santa Clause, a nice idea, but it doesn’t actually exist.) It is heartening to find presses like Open Letter Books, Dalkey Archives. Archipelago Books or even university presses making inroads into bringing literature in translation to American audiences. Still, if only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations, you probably need a maths degree to figure the percentage of the books by Russian authors published in the U.S., and a graduate maths degree to figure the percentage of the books by living Russian authors published in the U.S. Yet there is no shortage of crap American literature in Russian.
So while I dwell upon this cruel injustice, can anyone answer our friend’s request?
Name 5 contemporary Russian novels that are: available in English translation, not by Pelevin, not science fiction.
And then go buy something from one of the small presses publishing translations, to support their efforts.
And thanks for reading.