new russian writing
A Glas - SRF partnership
Blog postings 2016-
Paean for Ludmila Ulitskaya from Natasha Perova
Among the authors published in Glas in its early years Ludmila Ulitskaya is one of those I’m particularly proud of and I follow her success with much satisfaction. Her literary career is a bit of a Cinderella story. She started writing rather late in life, when she was about 50, and already by 60 she was an international celebrity. But I met her when she had only several unpublished stories to her name and was finishing her famous short novel Sonechka. Some years earlier she submitted her stories to Novy Mir, the then leading literary magazine, but they never even responded. In the early 1990s she happened to meet the Russian-born Gallimard editor Semyon Mirsky who loved her writing at first sight. When Sonechka was awarded the Medici Prize for foreign fiction in France the Novy Mir editors called Ulitskaya to reproach her for her “unpatriotic” action in sending her texts to France before showing them to the magazine. “Look on your shelves,” she retorted, “you’ll find them there – they’ve been sitting with you for almost seven years.”
Since then Ulitskaya has received many prizes, both in Russia and abroad. Her novels Sonechka and Medea and her Children were shortlisted for the Russian Booker, Kukotsky’s Enigma won the Russian Booker Prize. Her prizewinning novels also include The Big Green Tent, Sincerely Yours, Shurik, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, and Yakov´s Ladder (the last two won Russia’s topmost prize: the Big Book.) And most of her novels have been published in many countries.
A geneticist by training Ulitskaya has an extraordinary insight and understanding of human nature. Her prose is always wise and witty without being accusatory or condescending. There have never been heroines in literature who were less heroic while at the same time being so striking and psychologically precise. In her intelligent narratives human dignity triumphs against all odds over misery and oppression.
And yet her first literary efforts published in Russia were met with hostility or simply ignored, as is often the case here with works by independent-minded authors who have a distinctive voice and critical eye for detail. Her Funeral Party, devoted to Russian emigre life in the USA, was the first novel which was noticed in Russia and reviewed positively, but only after it came out in America. As her success in other countries grew, especially in France and Germany, she was increasingly appreciated at home. Today she is a bestselling author of fine fiction.
In the UK she was noticed almost at once thanks to the competent and elegant translations by Arch Tait. Readers of Glas invariably singled her out in all our collections. The press has been generous with their praise. Suffice it to quote from Lesley Chamberlain’s review of Sonechka in The Observer:"Ulitskaya's fresh, delicately sensual writing, full of the joys and pitfalls of every day, is a world away from gloomy, fear-driven reflections on the plight of human beings under the Soviet heel. Sonechka, twisting and turning unexpectedly among a small group of sympathetically drawn characters and across the generations, is in the end a tribute to the civilizing, humanly sustaining power of reading. With Ulitskaya, contemporary Russian fiction rediscovers a consoling and universal normality."
Or from the World Literature Today: “Ludmila Ulitskaya’s writings combine telling sociological detail with acute psychological portraiture. Her heroines contend with trying, at times even agonizing circumstances in a manner that evokes compassion and admiration without bathos. It is a pleasure to enter Ulitskaya’s fictional world.”
Ulitskaya is very much like her books: wise and witty. This small woman fearlessly defends human rights and always speaks out when the truth is trampled.
How can translators help
The prestige of the translation profession has grown markedly in the past decade. And rightly so. Translation is crucial for international cultural exchanges, which are, in their turn, crucial for preserving at least a semblance of peace in this world. Translators’ role as “post-horses of culture”, to quote Chekhov, cannot be over-estimated. This profession makes translators citizens of a cross-cultural space where they are busy building bridges between different national cultures whether they are aware of it or not. Often the cultural gaps are so wide, or simply insurmountable, that translators have to be double-inventive to the point that they practically become co-authors of the translated work, and should be recognized as such.
Moreover, they are helping to put right the history of 20th century Russian literature which has been misrepresented for a long time. It should be noted that in the post-perestroika years many formerly banned or overlooked Russian classics were finally published and this completely transformed the literary map of Russia. Add to this the new works written today and you get a largely different picture from the one presented in textbooks. Regrettably, most of these newly found treasures remain unavailable for the non-Russian reader. And here again the role of literary translators is invaluable. In the last 25 years that I’ve been promoting contemporary Russian literature I saw the rise and fall of interest for it. The highest interest came with the perestroika and it has never risen so high again, and probably never will. Unfortunately the political situation plays a role here, but all the more reason to discover and spread the news about the positive aspects of a culture you work with.
What can translators do in practical terms? They can be constantly on the lookout for interesting books and offer them to publishers they know. To do this a translated excerpt of about 10-15 pages is necessary, but surely if you like a book you won’t mind spending a couple of weekends to translate an episode from it as a sample: it won’t take too much of your time. But then you’ll probably continue translating the selected author for many more years and share his/her success. Many translators did just that. Andrew Bromfield translated excerpts from Pelevin long before the latter became an international celebrity, and since then he’s been Pelevin’s main translator. Robert Chandler introduced Platonov, Grossman and Teffi having first produced translations of their works on his own initiative. Arch Tait translated Ulitskaya when she was still little known even in her home country. And Joanne Turnbull gave Krzhizhanovsky to the English reader. It is noteworthy that the first English translation of a Krzhizhanovsky story, published in Glas 8, went unnoticed because the translation, made by a retired Slavist, was rather colorless. But then Joanne translated a collection of Krzhizhanovsky stories for Glas (No. 39) and everybody gasped. Since then Krzhizhanovsky has been published all over the world while Joanne translated several more books by this author of genius for the NYRB Classics and each won her a prize. This is a good example of the power and importance of the translator’s talent.
Translators can also share information about Russian books in blogs and social networks, at conferences and in the press, and thus create awareness of the wealth of literary talent in Russia, regarding this work as a mission. There are not so many literary agents dealing with new Russian writing, their efforts don’t bring them much remuneration because translated literary fiction is not seen as commercially viable in the West. This is why what translators can contribute to the process is so important, and can be really rewarding. We all want to do something for the heart and to feel good. Literary agents, including me, will really appreciate translators’ help in creating sample translations. Occasionally I get such voluntary help and it always leads to something constructive both for the author and translator. Translators look up the list of authors on my site and select the one which seems like “their cup of tea”. The latest such offer came from Melanie Moore, an excellent literary translator, who wanted to work with Liza Alexandrova-Zorina, one of the most talented and sharpest young authors today whose themes and manner were likened to Zvyagintsev’s films. I have high hopes for this collaboration.
The language barrier remains part of the cultural barrier which exists between Russia and the West. There is not enough awareness of this situation on both sides, and translations can help in overcoming the problem more than diplomacy or politics. The role of translators in cultural exchanges is crucial – no one else can do what they can.
Russia worries about its image.