An interview with Olena Bormashenko

Zack Friedman

Photograph by Andrew Blumberg

A partial list of the objects found in the Zone: a full empty, the burning fuzz, Satan's blossom and its spit, hell slime, a death lamp, the silver cobweb, bug traps, black sparks, shriekers, sponges, carbonated clay, spacells, lobster eyes, rattling napkins, white whirligigs, bitches' rattles, happy ghosts, the grinder, and a maybe-mythical Golden Sphere.

This is the detritus of the Visit, a sudden alien stopover in six spots on our planet. What humans choose to do with these objects, and what humans reveal of themselves by doing so, is the subject of Roadside Picnic, the novel of the Soviet science fiction writers the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that is best known in the West. (It's the loose basis for the Tarkovsky film Stalker). It's a first-contact story with no contact. The visitors came and went, and all humans can do is pick through what was left behind.

An International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures controls the Zone hit by the Visit, which has been fenced off and surrounded with armed guards and police. In what may be a Soviet-era or simply a clever touch, it appears to take place in provincial Canada, a depressed and failed First World that everyone wants to leave, though only a little corner of the world is shown. The Strugatskys follow Red Schuhart, a "stalker" who sneaks into the Zone to pilfer artifacts and sell them on the black market, and a handful of other characters whose livelihoods come from the informal economy in alien artifacts. Some are useful, like eternal batteries; others are destructive, or incomprehensible. The Zone is a blighted area, which seems to some a premonition of Chernobyl: children of stalkers are born deformed, including Red's golden-furred child, who gets the moniker the Monkey. The book's title comes from a conversation about the implications of the Visit in which one character likens it to a picnic after which animals scuttle out of hiding to poke through "an oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about." Here the book's central philosophical theme emerges. On the one hand, perhaps even if we aren't alone in the universe, those other intelligences are so beyond our comprehension that we might as well be—but on the other, no matter where humanity might be placed in the cosmic rankings, what matters is what we choose to do with this incidental contact, and what we reveal about ourselves. The Strugatskys' focus on little, broken, but deeply human characters suggests where they might stand.

Boris Strugatsky passed away in late November, a little more than twenty years after the death of his brother. Following his death, I began an e-mail conversation with Olena Bormashenko, whose translation of Roadside Picnic was published by Chicago Review Press in May 2012, about some reasons to be interested in the Strugatsky brothers and their work.

Bormashenko, born in Ukraine, moved to Toronto in the nineties as an eleven-year-old and was brought up reading the Strugatskys. Now a math professor at UT-Austin, she started translating Roadside Picnic as a labor of love. After picking up, for a friend, a 1970s edition that she felt lacked the original's spirit, she tried to see if she could top it. Her version grew from a hobby to publication.

—Zack Friedman

After an artist's death, thoughts naturally turn to their legacy. And so after Boris Strugatsky's death, there have been a number of tributes to him in the Russian-speaking world, even by Putin. What do you think the Strugatskys' legacy looks like now, both in Russia and in the rest of the world?

I'm afraid I can't speak to what their legacy in Russia looks like—I'm not really in touch with modern Russian society. I do know that for the ex-Soviet immigrant community, the Strugatsky books are deeply influential. They are steeped in the culture of the place that was left behind—a place that no longer exists except in memories. They also reflect certain Soviet ideals (for instance, the paramount importance of scientific progress), which aren't as present in the West. And of course, they were tremendously popular, which makes them a valuable common reference point.

As for the rest of the world, to be honest, the thing I've always found most striking is how unknown the Strugatskys are. Even very well-read people haven't necessarily heard of them; indeed, an intellectual in the United States is more likely to have seen Tarkovsky's Stalker than to have read the book that inspired it...I'd really like this to change, of course—I would love it if they became better known and appreciated.

And in terms of their contribution to science fiction—whether many people know them or not, the Strugatsky brothers' writing is a valuable counterpoint to the more straightforward adventure stories that dominate sci-fi. They demonstrate that science fiction can be as thought-provoking, philosophical, and well written as any other book. Theodore Sturgeon, in his foreword to the earlier edition of Roadside Picnic, starts with "Good science fiction is good fiction," and I think they really do demonstrate that well. (Of course, they aren't the only writers in that tradition, although I do wish it were more common.)

In what ways do you see the Strugatskys' books being Soviet-era works? There are certainly themes of utopia and dystopia, the ambiguities of rational, technocratic management and the disenchantment of the world, the limitations of technical mastery and human knowledge—but such ideas are also explored in Western traditions of science fiction. What contexts would you place them in?

The Strugatskys' books are very clearly Soviet-era works, although the way it shows depends on the book. In some of the earlier books, the influence is pretty blatant! For example, in Hard to Be a God, the heroes are referred to as "communards," and there is an all-encompassing theory of societal progress reminiscent of Marxism; the idea of centrally planning (or directing) a society is considered sympathetically. Similarly, the hero of The Final Circle of Paradise espouses some very Soviet-sounding ideals, like the suspicion of the excessive pursuit of pleasure thought to be typical of capitalist societies. And of course, some of their books have even clearer indications of their roots: Definitely Maybe is actually set in Leningrad, and Monday Begins on Saturday is obviously a satire of the Soviet scientific community.

In Roadside Picnic the Soviet influences are considerably more subtle—and despite the fact that Kirill is Russian, the book is more negative about the Soviet way of life. One way this is displayed is the book's blatant distrust of government and authority—it is pretty skeptical about both the good intentions of those in charge and their ability to deal with the crisis. The officials in Roadside Picnic are neither entirely well meaning nor all that efficient—even Noonan, from whose point of view the third chapter is presented, is not seen in a particularly positive light.

Roadside Picnic also continues a characteristically Russian (if not specifically Soviet) trend of pessimism about human nature. Very little Western science fiction is as bleak and hopeless about the human capacity for progress. Indeed, a lot of Western science fiction is utopian—it explores the way that science can make the world (and human beings) better. Roadside Picnic is blatantly not part of that tradition; but even more interestingly, it is also not dystopian—it's firmly set in the "real world." The people and situations in the book are recognizable—they are merely dealing with an extraordinary event. And this is something rarely seen in the Western examples of the genre.

You started translating the book in your spare time (if I've read correctly) and are coming to translation from a point somewhat outside the typical literary translation industry. Could you talk a little about your background and how you wound up translating Roadside Picnic? Anything you brought to it that other translators might not have? What was it like to learn on the fly?

Yup, you've read correctly! I'm a mathematician by profession—finished my math Ph.D. at Stanford about a year and a half ago. I wound up translating Roadside Picnic because I wanted a friend of mine to read it, bought him the existing translation, and then when I took a look at it felt that there was missing something. So I puttered around with it for years and years—it was very, very slow going at the beginning. Like a lot of people in the former U.S.S.R., I grew up reading the Strugatskys—I was shocked at how unknown and unappreciated they were around here, and wanted to do something to change that. I honestly had no idea it'd get published, though—I didn't even know whether I'd finish.

It was lots of fun to learn on the fly! One thing that tripped me up (and having talked to others, I know I'm not alone) is that at the beginning, I was completely fixated on trying to find the "perfect word" or "perfect phrase." So I'd spend fifteen minutes staring at a sentence, trying to get it just right...and it turns out if you spend any more than ten seconds looking something over, you can't even tell if it sounds like grammatical English. You get sucked right into jamais vu territory. So I had to learn to make a first, rough pass and only then to look things over—it turns out that this enables you to edit your work much more effectively.

Of course, this sounds like I really have it figured out—I'm currently working on another translation, and I'm still having trouble with this very problem. But it's definitely much better than it used to be.

I have to say I particularly enjoy writing in English because I do still have a vague memory of what it feels like to not be entirely fluent. I was eleven when I came to Canada, so I don't make any grammar mistakes while speaking or anything (well, other than the ones everyone does!) but I have a slight accent. So I think I get extra joy out of being able to pick the right word in English.

The book includes a remarkable afterword by Boris Strugatsky on Roadside Picnic's publication history, their years-long struggle with censors. Though Americans might think of Soviet censorship as primarily political, this text points out the prudishness of the regime—their complaints are of "immoral behavior" and "vulgarisms and slang expressions." Any thoughts on the afterword, which you also translated? I think there's a fairly moving element of bitter, exhausted not-quite-triumph to how Boris looks back on this. (Perhaps also the idea that poshlost can be even worse than ideological censorship.)

I thought the afterword was riveting. I've always thought of the Strugatsky brothers as legendary, so reading this personal account of what it was like to write and publish their book was somewhat awe-inspiring. But that's not quite on topic...

I do think that the kind of censorship they were battling against was very common—there was definitely an attitude that literature needs to present an idealized version of life and to "guide our youth." And I was very interested in his perspective that the officials they were struggling against genuinely believed in the demands they were making—that the censorship was as much about petty bureaucrats imposing their own idiosyncratic visions as a central plan about what kinds of books ought to be published.

I also found Boris's discussion of the ordeal quite moving. And it's clear he had complicated feelings about how it went. On the one hand, they managed to slay the beast and publish the book—on the other hand, as he says himself, it was a Pyrrhic victory, since the book got mutilated in the process. And now, after all this time, after the grand battle—all that they fought against so hard is gone, and they can't even explain to the next generation how it went...And of course, there is an admixture of nostalgia for the time he spent writing books with his brother. It's a great, thoughtful afterword—I'm glad I got the chance to both read it and translate it.

On perhaps a similar note, one of the major improvements your translation makes on the 1970s version is that you bring back a lot of the earthiness of the original. Why are the lust and piss and cussin' and all the rest important to the novel?

Despite all the alien knick-knacks, Roadside Picnic is ultimately largely a character study of Redrick and how the alien visitation affects him. And therefore, it's very important for Redrick to have a believable and characteristic voice. As is clear from the book, Red is an uncultured and rough man—so the lust and swearing and all those things are significant aspects of his character. Interestingly, the book seems to be written in a style reminiscent of the American hard-boiled detective story, and Redrick fits neatly into that archetype. So the censoring has the effect of both flattening the tone of the book and making it lose its distinctive style...

One of the most fun parts of Roadside Picnic is the inventory of items the stalkers pick up or flee from in the Zone (hell slime, happy ghosts, and so on). Over the course of the novel, the reader figures out in part what some of these things are and what they do, but many remain mysterious. How, as a translator, do you make these names evocative without spoiling the fun of it? How do yours compare to the original's? What do these devices bring to the novel?

Good question. I found this to be one of the biggest challenges in translating Roadside Picnic—to be honest, I very much doubt I managed to name the items with anywhere near the felicity of the original. In Russian, the names sound very evocative, and also sound like plausible slang for men like Redrick. I was striving for the same mixture—I wanted terminology that would enable the reader to visualize the item in question, and I wanted it to sound like slang. But I really doubt I did them justice.

As for how my word choices compare to the original's—I'd say that the original was considerably more literal in its choices. I took more liberties with the terminology, because I couldn't imagine Redrick using some of the earlier terms...

To me, one of the great things about the novel is the contrast between the essential unfathomability of the "visitors" and the dedication with which the Strugatskys strive to portray complex, well-rounded human beings. (Unlike stereotypical science fiction, which might give you tons of details about alien civilizations but not care a whole lot about people, and particularly not about people like Red Schuhart or Guta.) There's something badass but ethical, for lack of a better description, about Roadside Picnic that I don't think I've encountered often. How do you interpret the contrast between the unknowable aliens and the types of people on whom the Strugatskys focus? Or maybe the metaphor of the title, the roadside picnic by some pretty messy folks, suggests that we might be closer to the aliens than it seems? It's certainly not a book with a simple take on human nature.

There are a number of ways I tend to think of the aliens in Roadside Picnic. First of all, they are definitely partially a plot device—we see what happens to a society when some mysterious and dangerous objects materialize in its midst. This allows for some rich exploration of individual human psychology—Redrick's, Dr. Pillman's, and Noonan's reactions are all very interesting—as well as a contemplation about what happens to a society structurally when such a source of both good and evil appears nearby. (Hence the Institute, and the black market, and the stalkers...) For this purpose, the aliens are almost irrelevant—the Strugatskys' fascinating observations could have been made if the aforementioned objects had simply randomly appeared in Harmont one day.

On the other hand, the presence of the aliens definitely furthers another theme of the book—the one represented by the famous picnic conversation between Noonan and Valentine (Dr. Pillman). And that theme is the book's essential pessimism about (human? alien?) nature. A wondrous event like an alien visitation breeds confusion, government overreach, and corruption; and the unknowable and uncaring aliens showcase that however far ahead of us their civilization is, they are still essentially flawed. I tend to think of this element as part of the "Russian" bleakness of the book that I mentioned earlier...

What's next for you? Another Strugatsky brothers novel? Any more Eastern Bloc sci-fi that English-speaking readers need to experience?

I am, in fact, translating another Strugatsky brothers novel. I'm working on Hard to Be a God, which is a more straightforward adventure story than Roadside Picnic. It's a fun read; it's more amusing and less bleak, but it is similarly interested in human nature and human reactions to insupportable circumstances. The setup is a familiar one: humans are interacting with a race of humanoids at an earlier point of development and civilization. But it's a fascinating take. It's a great book—you should check it out when it comes out.

Hmmm, as for Eastern Bloc sci-fi...I like many of the Strugatsky brothers' books in general. Some of my favorites are Beatle in the Anthill, The Time Wanderers, and The Final Circle of Paradise. I am also rather fond of Stanislaw Lem for a similar take on fundamentally unknowable aliens, but I suppose he's fairly well-known (especially after the recent movie). And I'm afraid I haven't been keeping up—I don't know much about the recently published stuff.