Place: Russia

What’s New in Translation? May 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Yiddish and Hebrew poetry to an extraordinary Russian account of exile.

 

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The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated by Douglas J. Weatherford, Deep Vellum

Reviewed by Nozomi Saito, Senior Executive Assistant

Juan Rulfo’s prominence within the canon of Mexican and Latin American authors has been undeniable for some time. Regarded by Valeria Luiselli as one of the writers who gave her a deeper understanding of the literary tradition in Mexico and the Spanish language, and depicted by Elena Poniatowska as a figure deeply rooted in Mexican culture, it is clear that modern Mexican and Latin American literature would not be what they are without Rulfo. Indeed, Rulfo often has been credited as the figure to whom the Latin American boom of the 1960s and ‘70s is indebted, and Gabriel García Márquez has said that it was because of Rulfo’s works that the former was able to continue writing and ultimately produce One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Yet for all the recognition that Rulfo’s works have so rightly earned, there has been a persistent misconception that he only published two works of fiction, The Plain in Flames (El Llano in llamas, 1953) and Pedro Páramo (Pedro Páramo, 1955). The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro, c. 1956) for too long remained excluded from Rulfo’s oeuvre, even being miscategorized as a text originally intended for the cinematic screen. To reclaim and secure its position in Rulfo’s canon, Douglas J. Weatherford has brought forth The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, which provides deep insight into the work, ruminations, and personal life of the legendary writer.

The result is a text that is refreshing and diverse. The titular story follows the rise and fall of Dionisio Pinzón, an impoverished man whose crippled arm prevents him from farm labor, the only viable work in the town, and whose destiny changes when someone gives him a golden cockerel that has been badly beaten, having comprised the losing side of a cockfight. While the majority of the story follows Pinzón’s migration in pursuit of wealth, his path eventually intersects with that of the singer Bernarda Cutiño, familiarly called La Caponera, whose own migratory wanderings lead them from one town to the next, to various cockfights throughout Mexico.

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Translation Tuesday: A Poem by Elena Fanailova

No one can bear it, physiologically, Except for perverted aesthetes

Elena Fanailova has been one of the most boundary-pushing poets in the contemporary Russian poetry scene for over twenty years. Known for her keen observations of both Russian authorities and her own peers in the intelligentsia and art world, Fanailova shows off the height of her incisive yet colloquial, even witty, narration style in “masha and lars von trier,” a poem in which everyone is complicit in the crimes of their culture. 

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

masha and lars von trier

          Diary, summer 2006

1.

The Russian after-party is fucking up the championship
Russian Masha is losing Wimbledon
To a wooden machine by the name of Amélie
Behind whom stands a thousand-year-old blitzkrieg
And all of France, the Church’s eldest daughter

Russian Masha is getting nervous, you can tell,
No matter how loud you yell.
Her powerful serves splinter against the mechanics
Of the still more powerful machine and its instruments
Here nothing will come of it
Except her volleys,
Lesser versions, knockoffs,
Pitiful byzantinism

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What To Do With an Untranslatable Text? Translate It Into Music

Translators and musicians team up on a sweeping audio interpretation of Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake, the final book by Irish writer James Joyce, is a bit like the alien language in the movie Arrival. As the film’s spaceships tower mysteriously over the Earth, so Joyce’s book casts its strange shadow over world literature. Most literary minded people are aware of the text’s presence, but no one actually knows how to read the book, save for a select few who claim it is the greatest thing ever written.

In order to read Finnegans Wake, you must become a translator. You must translate the text out of it’s idiosyncratic, multilingual semi-nonsensical language, and into… music? For example, see Rebecca Hanssens-Reed’s interview with Mariana Lanari, about the process of translating the Wake into music.

For the last three years I’ve pursued the music that is Finnegans Wake. I organize an ongoing project called Waywords and Meansigns, setting the book to music. This week we release our latest audio, which is 18 hours of music created by over 100 musicians, artists and readers from 15 countries. We give away all the audio for free at our website (and you can even record your own passage, so get involved!)

Listen to a clip of the project here!

It might sound strange, but translating the book into music is easier than, say, translating it into another foreign language. But that hasn’t deterred Fuat Sevimay, who translated the book into Turkish, nor has it stopped Hervé Michel, who calls his French rendering a “traduction” rather than a “translation.”

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Noah Birksted-Breen on Contemporary Russian Theatre

The conditions are very tough for a young playwright; you can only hope that you get picked up by a really good TV series

Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director, writer and translator. After doing a Modern Languages degree at Oxford University, including one year at the St. Petersburg State University, he completed an MA in Playwriting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. In 2005 he co-founded Sputnik Theatre Company, which is dedicated to bringing contemporary Russian plays to the UK, and has so far produced five plays for his company. Sputnik also launched the first Russian Theatre Festival in the UK in 2010 with four new Russian-language plays translated into English and premiered at the Soho Theatre.  In 2006 Noah won the ITV Theatre Directors’ Award, working for a year and a half as resident director at Hampstead Theatre. He has translated plays by, among others, Oleg Bogaev, Yelena Gremina, Natalia Kolyada, Natalia Moshina, Yuri Klavdiev, and Yaroslava Pulinovich. 

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, caught up with Noah in the middle of his commute between Oxford, where he’s in the final stages of his doctoral dissertation, and London, where he lives with his family.

JS: I first came across Sputnik back in 2005 or 2006, when I saw your brilliant production of Russian National Mail at the Old Red Lion theatre. How did you discover this play, what sparked your interest in contemporary Russian drama and how did Sputnik Theatre start? 

NBB: I started hearing that new Russian playwriting was vibrant and began to actively look into it. I was travelling to Russia a lot at that time in my job as a project manager for an NGO that was working in that region, so I could also attend plays.  Then, in 2005 I co-founded Sputnik with Leila Gray and started producing new Russian plays. Russian National Mail by Oleg Bogaev was our first production. Right now Sputnik consists of me and then different collaborators for each project. I also have a Board of Trustees—people who are quite big in the industry and they help out. Ideally, I’d like to have a Russian set designer to work with on a permanent basis, and money to commission Russian playwrights, but funding is a problem.

Over the past 3 or 4 years I haven’t produced any plays as I’ve been working on my doctorate—on contemporary Russian playwriting between 2000 and 2014, focusing on four specific theatre companies and their programming of new plays. However, it is a practice-based doctorate, and it includes a non-academic part, in cooperation with Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, so I was able to continue the work I’ve been doing with Sputnik and bring it to a larger theatre. In consultation with the artistic director, Simon Stokes, we identified four plays, which I translated. As it is very difficult to sell a new Russian play in the UK in general and even more so to a regional audience, rather than doing full productions we decided to do them as rehearsed readings at the Frontline Club in London. This was January 2016. The first play was Dr. by Yelena Isaeva, one of the longest running productions of teatr.doc, the renowned studio theatre in Moscow. It’s a surprising, sometimes shocking, often funny and moving play about contemporary medicine in rural Russia. Then we did Joan, by Yaroslava Pulinovich, which is a play about a self-made businesswoman who has made it to the top for all the wrong reasons, and about the ruthless business practices of 1990s Russia and its gangster capitalism. For the third play, Grandchildren: The Second Act, Alexandra Polivanova and Mikhail Kaluzhsky interviewed the grandchildren of prominent Stalinists, whose testimonies bear witness to the very human desire to forgive those we love, even when we know their worst crimes. And last but not least, Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Yet Started depicts the dehumanising effects of living in a society on the brink of an all-out war. (videos of post-performance discussions can be viewed here, here, here and here).

JS: I managed to catch two of the plays at the Frontline Club: Joan and Grandchildren; both were excellent and very different.  Are you planning to publish these four plays and can we expect to see full productions of any of them?

NBB: I published two of the plays, Dr. and Grandchildren, in a bilingual edition, and have included all the footnotes so you can get a full experience of the text, if you’re interested. I published them through Sputnik, funded by the Translation Institute (Institut perevoda) in Moscow. As for full productions, the rehearsed readings were very well received and Simon Stokes really liked one of the plays, The War Has Not Yet Started. He decided to do a full production at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in May 2016, directed by Michael Fentiman. He is more of an auteur director, adding his own images, rather than a typical new play director, where you’re tend to be quite faithful to the script. The result worked extremely successful—very theatrical and enjoyable—though it felt rather eclectic in places.  It’s very hard to get attention for a new Russian play so it was covered mostly by the local press, and by the Stage, the industry paper.

It was good to see how well Durnenkov’s play worked in Plymouth as artistic directors often assume that a contemporary Russian play can only be staged in a niche theatre like the Royal Court, or The Bush, or the Gate or some other theatre that specializes in contemporary plays. In fact, a play like Joan is actually quite a crowd pleaser and the Royal Court would not necessarily be interested whereas—I may be hopelessly idealistic here—I feel that it could actually be staged in a more mainstream theatre. It’s a sort of revenge drama, which asks big questions but at the same time it’s a very entertaining piece with a great deal of situational comedy. The problem is how to convince theatre managers—I spoke to a couple of directors and they felt it could only be staged if there was a star actor in the main role, because otherwise no-one is going to come and see a new Russian play. But if you got Helen McCrory it could be put on at the Old Vic, or the Young Vic [laughs].

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My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…

Q&A with Polina Barskova, editor of Written in the Dark

For me, this anthology presents a great lesson of humanity.

Today, we feature editor-in-chief Lee Yew Leong in conversation with Polina Barskova, scholar of the devastating Siege of Leningrad, in which as many as one million perished from famine. Working with a team of historians and translators on “miraculous” archival material, Barskova produced Written in the Dark, an important human testament of its time. After reading this interview, be sure to check out a selection of works from the anthology which we arranged with The Guardian to showcase on a recent Translation Tuesday

Your project presents a literary phenomenon that has been “unknown even to Russian readers for 70 years,” according to the introduction accompanying the anthology. Can you give our (mostly non-Russian) readers a bit of background into the dire circumstances that resulted in the writing gathered here? Why was it unknown for 70 years, even in its native Russia?

The Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) was a complex disaster indeed, resulting in around one million deaths from famine. But yet another dire consequence was Soviet power doing everything possible to conceal the humanitarian catastrophe that happened in the city. For decades, only the Soviet version of the heroic fight could be published; all other voices and opinions were suppressed. The poems collected here present the human suffering, not the official version of heroism.

Your work as a scholar on the Siege undoubtedly helped you unearth these important poems, whose survival has been called a “miracle.” Can you shed some light on the discovery, and the process of presenting an English anthology?

This anthology is a collective effort: many scholars worked to unearth and preserve and interpret these texts. My job was mainly to put them together, to organize them into one coherent poetic and historical statement. It is mainly due to the families and disciples of these poets that these texts have survived. In every case, their survival is a miracle.

And with this feeling of awe I’ve been talking about the anthology both in the West and in Russia, and curiously very different audiences receive the book with equal enthusiasm.

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In Review: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism

Secondhand Time is one of the four books shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. 

Russian thinkers in the nineteenth century began referring to the Russian soul (Russkaya dusha) as a way to crystalize a national identity around the idea that Russia and its people possess a singular, exceptional destiny. Be it Dostoevsky’s high-strung and philosophical protagonists, Goncharov’s ambitionless, sensitive Oblomov, or Tolstoy’s nature-inspired, contemplative heroes, Russia’s iconic authors portrayed their countrymen as uninterested in replicating Europe’s then burgeoning industrial capitalism and its protestant work ethic; rather, these characters’ thoughts and actions sprang from a loftier, more spiritual sensibility.

Today, Russians’ views of their country’s tumultuous history and uncertain, post-Soviet future are shaped, in no small part, by whether or not they believe in Russian exceptionalism, and this question frames Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s latest book to be published in English, Secondhand Time. As she did earlier with Voices from Chernobyl (1997), the work that precipitated her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Secondhand Time, originally published in 2013, Ms. Alexievich gives readers history “in miniature,” by presenting the reflections of ordinary Russians as told in their own voices. For this latest book Ms. Alexievich collected Russians’ thoughts about their post-World War II history that she recorded between 1991 and 2012. She writes that she specially sought to interview “sovaks,” a term that Russians use pejoratively to describe those who remain stuck in Soviet attitudes and behaviors.

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English (Random House, 2016) serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment.

Ironically, most Soviets felt a sense of security under the old system, despite the government’s repression and cruelty. Without the dual rudders of government control over everyday life and the ideology that justified it, those who came of age under the Soviet system now feel uncomfortably adrift. There remains nothing to replace the old ideals that grounded their lives except empty consumerism:

“No one can convince me that we were given life just to eat and sleep to our hearts’ content.  That a hero is someone who buys something one place and sells it down the road for three kopecks more.”

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The Happy Translator with Many Heads

Because we were many, our golden moments were also many.

At the time of Teffi’s famous dinners with Rasputin in 1916 (memorialised in an unusual, humanising account), she was at the peak of her renown, one of the most celebrated and beloved of Russian writers. Her admirers came from across the political spectrum and included not only Vladimir Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II but also many writers. Following Teffi’s death in Paris in 1952, her work sank into oblivion—perhaps because she was a woman and an emigrée, and because some wrongly thought her work too witty to be serious. Fortunately, after long years of obscurity, Teffi is being rediscovered. Three volumes of her work are now available in English translation: Subtly Worded (2014), Memories (2016)[i], and Rasputin and Other Ironies (2016) (published as Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me by NYRB in the United States) This is largely thanks to the efforts of expert translator and my former mentor, Robert Chandler, who is one of the principal translators and a great advocate of collaborative translation.

Each book has been translated collaboratively and is the product of anywhere from three to six hands—or heads—and that’s only counting the translators named on the copyright page.In the case of ‘Rasputin’, the number is probably closer to ten, as Robert took the text to translation summer school and his entire group had a go at it, multiplying the golden moments in translation. While Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have been a central guiding presence throughout, the rest of us have been involved in some books but not in others or have played different roles from one book to the next.

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Translation Tuesday: A selection from “Written in the Dark,” a new anthology of Russian poets from Ugly Duckling Presse

With plaintive, ardent reverie, / We drink these soundless words.

Fresh from launching our Fall 2016 issue yesterday, featuring exclusive writing from 31 countries, by such authors as Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai, and Anita Raja, we present a selection from “Written in the Dark,” a new, groundbreaking anthology out from Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems gathered therein were written in 1942, during the most severe winter of the Nazi Siege of Leningrad, in which one million people perished. Charles Bernstein compares these poems to “the sparks from two sticks of wood, creating a fire that warms even in an apocalypse.”

 

. . .

The creek sick of speech
Told water it took no side.
The water sick of silence
At once began again to shriek.

—Gennady Gor

translated from the Russian by Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matvei Yankelevich

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The Belarus Free Theatre takes its highly politicized “Burning Doors” on the road

In order to transmit the trauma experienced by Pavlensky, Sentsov, and Alyokhina, playwright Nicolai Khalezin also traumatizes the audience.

This hell-bent play by what The New York Times has called “[t]he world’s most visible and lionized underground theater” keeps finding ways to pull the rug from under the feet of astonished audiences. 

“It will not be his balls, but ours, behind the door,” a buffoonish technocrat rants to his doppelgänger, as the two leisurely defecate in their ministerial toilets, in unison. Moments later, the other one expounds on the evils of modern art: “Before Picasso, art was normal.” (As it turns out, he owns two of the deviant’s paintings.) When they finish shooting the shit, and shitting, they pull up their government-issued trousers to discover a lack of toilet paper. Following the pair’s exit, masked bandits inexplicably slip onto the stage to replenish the needed supplies in a sort of winking parenthetical—or, better still, a puckish middle finger.

These gag lines satirizing the absurdities and hypocrisies of dictatorships—specifically the Putin regime—are the sort of irreverent zingers that some of us relish: comedic relief with a reactionary backhand, using both shock and shtick to slice through inaction and fear. It’s a particular specialty of Burning Doors, performed by the UK-based Belarus Free Theatre, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year despite being banned in its home country. Currently in the second staging of its UK tour at the Soho Theatre, one of London’s essential performing arts labs, the show is a wielding and warped montage of vignettes based on the testimonies of artists targeted by Putin. These include the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, who nailed his own testicles, referenced above, to the cobblestones of Red Square; the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently serving a twenty-year prison sentence in the Russian Far East; and the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina.

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Asymptote Podcast: Literature in Transit

A new episode goes live!

What ever happened to savoring the moment, or better yet, the moment in between two others? Why don’t stories ever focus on the euphoria of transition? There’s a lot to be learned in between point A and point B that we might not recognize. Today on the Asymptote Podcast, Blog Editor, Allegra Rosenbaum brings us literature in transit; literature from the places in between places, where the rules and regulations that govern our lives disappear behind us, as new ones loom up ahead. Allegra has spent most of her life traveling and with the help of Ezra Pound, Blaise Cendrars, Agustín Fernández Mallo, and Teju Cole, she tries to figure out what is going on in those moments of transition. This is the Asymptote Podcast.

In Review: It’s No Good by Kirill Medvedev

"Medvedev uses everything as 'an opportunity to think a little' about what is in the world and is the world around him."

 

It’s no Good is a collection of Russian writer Kirill Medvedev’s poems, essays, actions (mostly reports of his protests), and obituaries, taken from his published books, blog, websites, and Facebook account.

Perhaps reading what appears in the copyright page of the book (“copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev”) and the first lines of the first poem in the collection “I’m tired of translating / I probably won’t translate / anymore” will be enough hint that we are in for a ride that will demand us to look, question, rethink, and look again and again. A writer who makes the choice to leave the literary scene behind is not one you can read and walk away from unscathed. READ MORE…

Asymptote Podcast: The Devil

New Year, new podcast episode!

This month, we examine a character who has been influencing the minds of authors for thousands of years: the Devil. We’ll be taking a look at that fiery hell-demon we all know and love to hate (or fear), but we’ll also discuss how other cultures view this figure. We first consider Maximon, a Guatemalan saint not recognized by the Catholic Churcha fusion of Satan, Judas, Cortes, and the Mayan trickster god Mam. Then we’ll move on to Russia, where we will look at how the Devil influenced two hundred years of their literature. We’ll end with an exploration of the Voodoo religion, which isn’t as devilish as you may think.

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My 2015 as a BTBA Judge, and Reading Resolutions for 2016

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh.

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh. For months now, as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, all I’ve read are eligible books, books published in the US translated for the first time this year. Yet, there were a few months before that reading took over. For years now, I’ve taken pleasure in not being partway through any books when the new year begins, so as to open each year fresh. This year, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Golden Calf (trans. Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich) made for a great New Year’s Day read. (To call it fitting, however, would be a lie.) The novel is hysterical, absurd, and clever, fueled by ambitious and clueless characters, fleeing and bumbling in pursuit of fortune.

Taking advantage of a bitter winter, I read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). It is rare for a project so vast to also be unflagging in both its entertainment and ability to find new shades and twists for its ideas: of cultural memories, of what it is to read another human being, of violence and intimacy. But this trilogy accomplishes it. From it alone, I could pluck a number of examples of one of my favorite narrative tricks: to make a scene continue endlessly through digression after digression. Unlike any other art form, the novel is thus able to manipulate the experience of time, both of the readers’ and the characters’.

But yes, this year has been a culmination of reading more and more books the year they’re published. The best way I can think about it is by describing the books that stand out in little, meaningful ways. Starting with where I live, in Vermont, so close to Montreal, Quebec literature has had much of my affection this year. Not just the translations, like the Raymond Bock and Samuel Archibald story collections Atavisms (trans. Pablo Strauss) and Arvida (trans. Donald Winkler)­—so similar in their arc as collections and interest in familial depths but with different approaches and destinations—but also classics like the narratively unsettled Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro). Anne Hébert’s novel is as much a story of a women trapped by culture and time, and her murder plot, as it is a stylistic achievement, melding aesthetic with the narrator’s psychology. READ MORE…