poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

September 17, 2010

Lost in Translation

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 5:05 PM
Tags: ,

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?

A Request.

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.


  1. […] War and Peace posts a mini-review of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman; Csíkszereda Musings reviews William Blacker's Along the Enchanted Way; Poemless wonders why there are “so few translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world.” […]

    Pingback by Global Voices in English » CEE: Books and Reading Notes — September 18, 2010 @ 3:12 AM | Reply

  2. […] War and Peace posts a mini-review of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman; Csíkszereda Musings reviews William Blacker's Along the Enchanted Way; Poemless wonders why there are “so few translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world.” […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | CEE: Books and Reading Notes — September 18, 2010 @ 2:03 PM | Reply

  3. Andrey Rubanov’s “Do Time Get Time”. I started reading, but very soon felt a revolt for it, for personal reasons.

    However, I have heard good comments about that book.

    Comment by Evgeny — September 18, 2010 @ 2:12 PM | Reply

    • Why were you revolted by it? It’s ok, I recommend books that revolt me too, namely Gary Shteyngart’s.

      Comment by poemless — September 18, 2010 @ 3:42 PM | Reply

      • You know, Poemless, there’s a point of view, that no matter what did you do to get money, it’s OK as well as you become rich. I think it’s very much wrong.

        Comment by Evgeny — September 18, 2010 @ 3:54 PM | Reply

        • I agree.

          Comment by poemless — September 19, 2010 @ 1:29 PM | Reply

  4. Poemless, by the way, have you read Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s “Matisse”? What’s your opinion about that book?

    I enjoyed it painfully. IMHO, it explains much.

    In a way, you can call it anti-Pelevin. Pelevin’s hero chooses to become a part of the elite, then suffers the consequences/implications (“Generation P”, “Empire V”..). Ilichevski’s hero chose to stay himself, and had to stand the consequences. Basically, that’s all about the eternal soul for money or money for soul trade.

    Comment by Evgeny — September 18, 2010 @ 2:45 PM | Reply

    • I have not read it, but I did notice it when I was looking up the Russian Booker prize. I think I would like to read it. But I don’t think it is in translation, and thus does not answer the question, what are 5 novels *in English translation* or what can be done to get it on that list.

      Comment by poemless — September 18, 2010 @ 3:55 PM | Reply

  5. p.s. No sci-fi, please!

    This kills it. IMHO, it is precisely sci-fi (fantasy, cyberpunk, dystopia, etc) in which modern Russian literature distinguishes itself.

    Then again that might be because that’s the only modern Russian genre I actually read. 🙂

    Comment by Tolya — September 18, 2010 @ 3:22 PM | Reply

    • Offtopic it be, which Russian books of that genre did you read recently?

      I’ve read Kaganov’s “Lena Squatter” and Gromov’s “Rebus-Factor”. Both published this year. Enjoyed the both.

      Comment by Evgeny — September 18, 2010 @ 3:39 PM | Reply

      • Too few, unfortunately.
        The Dozor series. Currently on Metro 2033. Next thing: look into Lukyanenko’s older cyberpunk works.

        Comment by Sublime Oblivion — September 24, 2010 @ 7:41 PM | Reply

    • Well you are right that it is a popular genre, and one that modern Russian lit is known for. But you know, the request wasn’t mine, even though I don’t like sci-fi. 🙂

      I come across a lot of funky experimental poetry-manifesto type stuff. I suspect this is also very Russian genre, though perhaps a more obscure one.

      Comment by poemless — September 18, 2010 @ 3:48 PM | Reply

  6. We’re doing Mikhail Shishkin’s MAIDENHAIR (Венерин Волос) in 2012, which I know is a bit far away. But he’s alive, and young(ish), and the book was published only four years ago in Russia. I know it’s not much, but we’re trying…

    E.J., from Open Letter

    Comment by E.J. — September 18, 2010 @ 5:04 PM | Reply

    • E.J.,

      Thank you so much for stopping by. I am looking forward to the Shishkin, and since this is a blog about Russia (ostensibly), 2012 may as well be tomorrow in the minds of many. 😉

      I first learned of Open Letter when you published Ugresic’s delightful little book of essays, Nobody’s Home.

      Thank you for what you do, and keep up the good work.

      Comment by poemless — September 19, 2010 @ 1:40 PM | Reply

  7. Taking this from a different angle, what about the case of Alexander Ikonnikov? He has his books translated in German and English (Lizka and her men,trans. Andrew Broomfield, Serpent’s Tail) but seems to be completely unpublished in Russian.

    It reminds me of the difficulty I had in finding Kurkov’s books in Russian when he first became popular in the West – I’d go as far to say that nobody had heard of him then.

    Comment by keith100 — September 19, 2010 @ 9:03 AM | Reply

    • Keith,

      Wow, I have no idea how to account for that. But thanks for mentioning Ikonnikov.

      This also touches upon an issue I alluded to in the post: those who do get published in English often do so by British publishers. As an American, I find this irksome not only because my country is dropping the ball, but because the British English is sometimes even less comprehensible than the original Russian or is jarring, because why would some guy in Kiev be using British slang?

      FWIW, I didn’t count Kurkov because last time I did that, I got reminded that, no, he is Ukrainian. OTOH, he does write in Russian. Which makes his work Russian, right? Can you write Russian novels but not think Russian thoughts? Apparently.

      Comment by poemless — September 19, 2010 @ 3:09 PM | Reply

      • Poemless, I don’t know about Kurkov, but very generally speaking, there’s a shared post-Soviet mindset among the post-Soviet states. Even if we take Russian science fiction/fantasy, which authors come to mind? Sergey Lukyanenko, born in Kazakhstan? Vladimir Vasilyev, born in Ukraine and alluding much to the Ukraine in his books? Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, who live in the Ukraine? Of course, there are also good authors who were born in Russia and live there, but my point is that national borders are no obstacle for culture development.

        Comment by Evgeny — September 20, 2010 @ 2:14 PM | Reply

        • Well, Kurkov is technically Russian as he was born in Russia, and as he writes in Russian,
          to me he’s Russian Literature, unless he can only count as World Russian along with the rest Evgeny mentions.

          There was something about the english variety issue in “Why translation matters” by Edith Grossman
          which is quite interesting on the issues poemless raised.

          I personally think that anything noticably too much American or English English can be grating in translation but Mayakovsky’s good in Scots which makes me contradictory on this one.

          Comment by keith100 — September 20, 2010 @ 2:39 PM | Reply

          • Haha! A Scootish Mayakovsky. I have to check that out!

            Comment by poemless — September 20, 2010 @ 3:20 PM | Reply

            • Edwin Morgan is the man you’re after – “Wi the haill voice” or “Collected Translations” which has other Russians as well and shoulde be easier to get.

              Comment by keith100 — September 20, 2010 @ 3:32 PM | Reply

        • Look, tell it to Scott

          I would love to take a fraternal attitude to it all, but I cannot pretend to understand what it is like be born and raised with one identity only to have it replaced by another. Nor do I know if imposing a national identity on someone after the fall of the USSR is any more or less cumbersome than imposing a Soviet identity was. Hell, I have heard of people in the former Yugoslavia who have lived in something like 5 or 7 countries or something but have never moved. I’ll leave it up to individuals to figure out how to self-identify.

          It is my experience that lit from the former Soviet Union/Eastern Bloc countries is rather distinct stylistically and thematically.

          Comment by poemless — September 20, 2010 @ 3:15 PM | Reply

  8. But in answer the original question, I doubt it is possible to gauge the current state of any literature through translation – the selection, translation and publishing process takes too long for virtually anything to get issued when its truly current. And those that do get published probably either fit the publisher’s preconception of what Russia is/should be or what english speakers should like – the choice is either political or economic not artistic.

    Comment by keith100 — September 20, 2010 @ 3:25 PM | Reply

    • I am going to have to disagree. Whether it is possible or probable are separate matters, and you seem to be arguing the latter.

      Regarding time, I am speaking of the past 20 years here. A whole generation, even. Secondly, American bestsellers are able to get their stuff published in foreign languages in a timely manner.

      Regarding the “publisher’s preconception of what Russia is/should be or what English speakers should like,” it seems that the small presses listed in the piece do in fact look for artistic quality. Take the Shklovsky book I recently recommended. Not modern, but the most art-for-art’s-sake writing I have read in a while. And how do you explain Tolstaya, Ulitskaya or Kurkov? How do they fit into our preconception of what Russia is/should be? (This reminds me: should we add Makine to the list? Since we’re going all diaspora now?)

      Anyway, why does everything have to be political with Russia? Americans love stuff like Pushkin and Chekhov. I don’t think the only audience for Russian books is the one looking for spy stories or gulag writings. I suspect no one actually reads the latter for enjoyment anyway.

      Doom has said that he thinks the reason is to do with ideology. Americans just can’t handle Russian thought. Or something. I find this attitude incredibly ignorant and smug. It’s profoundly unhelpful.

      Comment by poemless — September 20, 2010 @ 4:52 PM | Reply

    • I agree… Try reading one day Oleg Divov’s “Vybrakovka” (Олег Дивов, “Выбраковка”, можно легко найти текст в гугле). It’s get discussed in Russian forums until the now… It would be of great interest to see how would English readers react have such a book got translated…

      I think, the modern Russian literature is very flexible and adopts a truly great variety of viewpoints.

      Comment by Evgeny — September 20, 2010 @ 5:50 PM | Reply

  9. And surprisingly enough, the works of Natalia Kliuchareva (Rossia Obshii wagon, Fox Mulder pakhoj svinia) have been made available to French readers (Actes Sud Publishing) but not yet to English-speaking readers.
    What a shame…

    Comment by Genia — September 21, 2010 @ 2:47 AM | Reply

    • Not terribly surprising, I shouldn’t think.

      Comment by poemless — September 21, 2010 @ 5:01 PM | Reply

  10. “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.”

    Anything like this?..


    To my shame, of that anthology (“Life Stories: Original Works by Russian Writers”) I’ve only read Sergey Lukyanenko’s story. Well, it was good, but I have no idea about the other stories in that book.

    Comment by Evgeny — September 21, 2010 @ 3:27 PM | Reply

    • Spasibo, Zhenya! Now I owe you a mug.

      You know, I write these things so that others will provide the answers. I shouldn’t have to do all of the work myself. 😉

      Comment by poemless — September 21, 2010 @ 5:00 PM | Reply

  11. So a quick browse through my a catalog brings up the following in English:

    Lizka and her men – Ikonnikov. London : Serpent’s tail
    Metro 2033 – Glukhovsky. London : Gollancz
    Drunks – Durnenkov(s). London : Nick Hern
    Give me – Denezhkina. New York : Simon and Schuster
    Do time, get time – Rubanov. London : Old street
    2017 – Slavnikova. New York : Overlook.

    Along the way, I managed to stumble across this brilliant series:

    Glas New Russian Writing.


    I’m going to have a look at Nine of Russia’s Foremost Women Writers.

    Comment by poemless — September 21, 2010 @ 4:57 PM | Reply

  12. I can’t believe Yulia Latynina didn’t make the list of great Russian fiction writers. I know you said no sci-fi, please: but still.

    “Even Canada”? Yes, alas! our destiny ran awry. Only as far back as the era of Mackenzie King, we still had a shot at being the dominant North American power, with an economy, population and industrial base growing faster than those of our Southern neighbour. But, well…I guess we turned to drink, or something.

    There must be private translators who would do an entire novel. I suppose that’d be prohibitively expensive, though.

    Comment by marknesop — September 22, 2010 @ 3:47 PM | Reply

  13. Coming to this thread late, but I suggest you get hold of Garros & Evdokimov’s novel “Headcrusher.” It’s a brutal but funny satire on post-Communist corporate life, and says a lot about how people’s mentalities have changed since the old system collapsed. Think of a combination of “Office Space” and “American Psycho” set in post-CCCP Riga.

    BTW, the authors are Russo-Latvians writing about their home turf – another aspect of the “accidental internationalism” of post-Soviet writing.

    Comment by Scowspi — September 24, 2010 @ 4:17 AM | Reply

  14. […] posts a follow-up to her earlier entry about the contemporary Russian literature available in […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Russia: Lost and Found in Translation — September 27, 2010 @ 2:03 PM | Reply

  15. i as many others discussed this question on some other forums and what i think the reasons behind such drought of russian authors in the west.

    i believe two-three factors contributed most: 1. parochiality of modern pop culture 2. politicization of book marketing. 3. it’s a fault of russian writers.

    from these the second brought more damage than others. why? because publishing business in the west needs some labels and very quickly. with political label it’s easy for publishers to market book, to find niche audience. for example indian writers like arundhati roy, salman rushdie, aravind adiga and others easily slip into pattern. this rule even applies to non-political oriental writers like orphan pamuk, khaled hosseini etc.

    then most damaging was third point – russian writers by default are working on topics (ideas) which are of academic interest in the west, they often don’t know how to write books which can be marketed overseas. it’s not only parochiality of russian inward looking culture is responsible, many come to writing accidentally and lack tools which were developed in the wider world in 20th century while after rejecting methods of so-called socialist realism (which was only acceptable manner of writing in Soviet Union) they were left virtually naked (in proffesional sense). To prove the point Mr Sorokin’s writings are enough – it’s degenerative mannerism and “chernukha”.

    so westerners with a taste of russian literature will have to wait to “discover” new Chekhovs and Dostoevskis. Talented writers are appearing all the time and publishers perhaps need to roam inside piratic free e-libraries to check reviews of readers. many young writers like Olga Gromyko (from Belarus) shot to fame via internet-libraries.

    Comment by FarEasterner — October 4, 2010 @ 3:19 PM | Reply

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