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Literature that people “will never have a chance to read, let alone forget”

June 22, 2020

The RusTRANS blog has an interview with translator Marian Schwartz about how the coronavirus crisis affects her work. Schwartz is convinced that independent bookstores are critical for spreading the word about translations that would otherwise go unnoticed, and perhaps she’s right. I wonder, though, if the exact people who would find out about translations anyway also happen to love independent bookstores, while potential readers who rarely go to physical stores to buy physical books are being missed. I certainly don’t have the answer for what should be done.

Here is how Schwartz sees the medium-term fate of Russian literature in the English-speaking world:

There is no danger that the English-speaking world will forget Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Chekhov, but there is a tremendous danger that they will never have a chance to read, let alone forget, much of post-Soviet and especially twenty-first century Russian literature, given that interest in contemporary Russian writing already seemed at an all-time low, despite the work of several excellent independent presses and new efforts such as the Punctured Lines blog. My own work is still largely focused on neglected writers of the twentieth century such as Nina Berberova and older contemporary writers who grew up in the Soviet era (two of my favorites being Leonid Yuzefovich and Olga Slavnikova). None of them have much of an audience these days, and the current low-visibility situation can’t help.

I believe there is value in creating translations of great literature regardless of immediate circumstances, and I do try to take the long view, but more and more I wonder whether, as a result of this quarantine, I will be following in the footsteps of valiant, out-of-favor Soviet-era writers and translating these important writers “for the drawer.”

Thanks to Punctured Lines and Lizok’s Bookshelf and Roman Senchin’s collected essays and book reviews (specifically this book) and random discoveries on the internet, I find myself reading more twenty-first-century Russian books than I used to and have found some excellent ones, like Anna Kozlova’s F20 (F20, 2017; the title is the ICD code for schizophrenia). It’s an intimidatingly big world, though. There are a lot more people writing now than there were in the nineteenth century!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 22, 2020 8:04 am

    Well, that’s depressing; I guess I thoughtlessly assumed there must be substantial interest in Russian literature because I kept seeing reports of new translations at Lizok’s. But thanks for the pointer to Punctured Lines, which I look forward to investigating!

  2. June 22, 2020 10:25 am

    Oh dear. I hope translators keep translating and publishers keep publishing, because there are so many books out there still to be discovered… 😦

  3. lizoksbookshelf permalink
    June 23, 2020 9:29 am

    I wonder the same as you do, Erik, about independent stores. They do/can help tremendously with handselling but suspect there’s a lot of overlap on the Venn diagram that shows “readers of translations” and “people who love independent bookstores.” I’m not sure how things are in other places, but at least some of our local independent bookstores (not all of which are open to the public) seem to be pretty busy with orders. One has noted receiving many, many dozens of orders a day. And the closest store to my house (where they sold so many copies of A Man Called Ove that Backman came here on his U.S. vacation several years ago!) has seemed very busy all along, too. I love them because they’re still offering free book delivery!

    I obviously can’t speak for anyone but myself about the business of translation (where I think frustrations and difficulties are often very specific to each individual’s practices) but can certainly say that I’m staying very busy, despite having expected a bit of a lull. Things are happening, though sometimes a bit slower than usual. For example, the U.S. release for my translation of Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell From the Sky was postponed from May until August. (That’s probably even a good thing since August is Women in Translation Month!) As for new work, I recently signed a contract with the Russian Library for Maria Galina’s Автохтоны, there are some smaller (but very interesting) projects under discussion, and I’ve also been working on excerpts for agents. Plus there’s my RusTRANS project (an extended excerpt of Salnikov’s Отдел). On another note, though I’ve only been passively taking entries for the 2020 new translation list, there most certainly are entries. I have no idea how many there will be, how many may be delayed, or what will happen later, but I’ve even happened upon at least one novel, Sergei Lebedev’s Untraceable, translated by Nina Bouis, scheduled for 2021.

    I didn’t expect to write nearly that much and could still go on and on for hours about where I feel optimistic and pessimistic (I always seem to feel a weird combination of both) so will stop by saying that I’m glad, Erik, that the blog is helpful for you. And perhaps even gladder that you also thought F20 was so good! The world of Russian contemporary fiction really is intimidating and sorting through the options for translation can be especially difficult!

    • June 23, 2020 4:34 pm

      I’m happy to hear that the situation isn’t entirely bleak and you’ve had plenty of work! I can imagine that the opportunities might be different for different translators (or translators who are set on translating different particular authors) at any given time. And thanks again for your blog! Without it I don’t know if I ever would have started reading current Russian fiction.

      • lizoksbookshelf permalink
        June 24, 2020 8:56 am

        Yes, I think we all have very individual circumstances, given our varying interests and contacts. It may seem odd, but things felt far bleaker to me a year ago than they do now. It’s great to know that the blog is helping readers find contemporary Russian fiction: that was my goal when I started writing it so it’s nice that I regularly hear from people who say it serves that purpose!

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