Notable Books: Russian Titles in English Translation, 2009-2019

The impetus for creating this post came from a recent Twitter discussion. We at Punctured Lines decided to accept a dare and came up with a list of notable Russian titles available in English translation from the last decade. This has been an opportunity to take stock of the years 2009-2019, both to remember the books we’ve read and to look back at those that we might have missed.

In this task, we relied heavily on Lisa Hayden’s blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, where Lisa keeps chronological track of the English translations – our deep gratitude for creating and maintaining this resource. Our methodology for choosing among all those works was based on several factors. Rather obviously, for our purposes we only considered works by women. We also wanted to highlight writers whose names may not be very familiar to English-speaking readers but whose work we feel deserves wider exposure and shows the range of contemporary Russian women’s literature.

For this reason, we chose not to include writers who are well-known in the Anglophone world, but of course we love them too. We note proudly the women whose work has been translated into English numerous times: Anna Akhmatova, Svetlana Alexievich, Eugenia Ginzburg, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Dina Rubina, Olga Slavnikova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ludmila Ulitskaya, and Tatyana Tolstaya (whose problematic views on women and feminism may be less known).

One or both of us have read many of titles below, and we’re happy to report that the field is larger than our reading capacity. We included a few books we haven’t read because they sparked our curiosity and to encourage ourselves and our followers to return to these publications. An important factor for consideration was translators whose work we’re interested in. Here we would like to say a huge thank you to translators for their often unacknowledged efforts that allow English speakers to know Russian literature.

Our list has four categories: Contemporary Prose, Contemporary Poetry, Recent Translations of Earlier Prose Works, and a rather catch-all Drama, a Graphic Novel, and an Anthology. The titles in each category are given chronologically by year of the translation. This list reflects our personal opinions and is in no way meant to be comprehensive or conclusive. We welcome your comments and suggestions about these and other titles by Russian women who you think should be on this list. This is, hopefully, the beginning of that conversation.

Contemporary Prose

Elena Chizhova, The Time of Women, translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas; Glagoslav, 2012. 

Linor Goralik, Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview, edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokur; Columbia University Press, 2017.

Ksenia Buksha, The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher; Phoneme Media, 2018.

Alisa Ganieva, Bride and Groom, translated by Carol Apollonio; Deep Vellum, 2018.

Margarita Khemlin, Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden; Columbia University Press, 2019.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha, translated by Lisa C. Hayden; Oneworld Publications, 2019.

Contemporary Poetry

Anzhelina Polonskaya, Paul Klee’s Boat, translated by Andrew Wachtel; Zephyr Press, 2012. 

Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, Relocations: Three Contemporary Russian Women Poets, translated by Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester; Zephyr Press, 2013.

Maria Rybakova, Gnedich, translated by Elena Dimova; Glagoslav, 2015.

Inna Kabysh, Blue Birds and Red Horses, translated by Katherine E. Young; Toad Press, 2018.

Aigerim Tazhi, Paper-Thin Skin, translated by James Kates; Zephyr Press, 2019.

Olga Livshin, A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman, Poets & Traitors Press, 2019.

Recent Translations of Earlier Prose Works

Teffi, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg; NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press, 2016.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov; Columbia University Press, 2017.

Olga Berggolts, Daytime Stars: A Poet’s Memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw, translated by Lisa A. Kirschenbaum; University of Wisconsin Press, 2018.

Doba-Mera Medvedeva, Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva, translated by Alice Nakhimovsky; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life, translated by Barbara Heldt; Columbia University Press, 2019.

Irina Odoevtseva, Isolde, translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg; Pushkin Press, 2019.

Drama, a Graphic Novel, and an Anthology

Yaroslava Pulinovich, Olga Rimsha, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, translated by Lisa Hayden; Glas, 2014.

Victoria, Lomasko, Other Russias, translated by Thomas Campbell; Penguin and n+1, 2017.

Teffi, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Lydia Ginzburg, Galina Scherbakova, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Svetlana Alexievich, Olga Slavnikova, Irina Muravyova, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Margarita Khemlin, Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature, edited by Natasha Perova; Dedalus, 2018.

Overdue Praise for Karolina Pavlova’s Work

Karolina Pavolva was born in 1807 in Yaroslavl, Russian Empire, and published her novel A Double Life in 1848. This year, 171 years after the original publication, Columbia University Press gave this book a new life by releasing Barbara Heldt’s translation in their stellar Russian Library series.

The publisher calls the book “an unsung classic,” and I’m so pleased to see that this book is receiving the attention it deserves. In November, Talia Zax wrote a wonderful review of it for The Atlantic:

The slim mixed-genre novel . . . follows the 18-year-old Cecily von Lindenborn as her mother attempts to find her a husband. Cecily’s days, written in prose, are filled with the pleasures of a rotely feminine aristocratic life: romance, balls, and new dresses. But at night, her dreams are narrated in poetry, sensual verses with an intense pull toward the natural world. Pavlova constructed a strikingly prescient psychological vision: a mind responding to extreme social pressure by slowly and completely separating itself into parts, but giving few external indications of change.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/11/karolina-pavlova-double-life-translated-barbara-heldt-review/601342/

Pavlova had a long and underappreciated career in Russia as a poet, and I’m very pleased to share a recent translation of her poem “Moscow” by Katherine E. Young. (Scroll down to the third entry.)

Genrikh Sapgir’s Sonnets: A Performance from ALTA

On November 9th, 2019, Olga Livshin, Dmitri Manin, and I hosted an off-off-site at ALTA (American Literary Translators Conference) in Rochester, NY. Olga Livshin introduced A LIFE REPLACED, her hybrid collection combining own and translated poems; and I introduced LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, my English-language collection of fiction. Both books deal with issues around parent and children relationships, immigration, and processing the complex inheritance that we brought to the US from the Soviet Union.

To open the evening, we staged a brief performance of Dmitri Manin’s translations from the work of Genrikh Sapgir. A Soviet Jewish poet, Sapgir combines a whimsical imagination with the sharp eye for telling details. Watching this video a few weeks after the performance, I’m surprised to see how effectively Sapgir’s images and Dmitri Manin’s words helped us to recreate a certain spirit of the late Soviet Union, a kind of festive carnivalesque environment in the face of increasing challenges of everyday life and crumbling social structures. Obviously, none of us are trained actors, but we all reveled in the performative aspect of Sapgir’s work.

These poems come from Sapgir’s book “Sonnets on Shirts” that was first published outside of the Soviet Union, in Paris in 1978. Dmitri Manin is working on translating the complete manuscript, and we’re publishing these sonnets in English with his permission.

Thanks to Shelley Fairweather-Vega for recording the performance, and to our lovely and supportive audience! The sonnets below are reproduced in the order in which they appear in the video.

Sonnet of Things Gone Missing

To Ian Satunovsky

At times there is — no beef or ham or cheese
Now hats are gone from store shelves everywhere
But I have known calamities to spare
No place to live. No health. No relatives

No happiness no moral sense no peace
For one’s own labor no respect nor care
No warm and comfy place to take a piss
No prospects for a harvest come next year

But there are FISH-BASED MEATBALLS in a can
And goals — both hazy and utopian
Betrayal cosmos vodka boredom missiles

There’s forest, steppe, construction and ballet
And even people — somewhere far away
And God’s my witness! — though God’s also missing

Something — Nothing

A metaphysical sonnet

A sphere swings. Towards the sphere
A sphere swings. Where they meet, they all
Collapse: one — a pair, one — a pair, one — a pair
We watch from a spherical mirror hall

Everything’s a reflection. A ball or a troll
A thing or a cloudю It swells like a nightmare
Then without a crash… a ball disappears a ball disappears a ball disappears
Gobbled up by a ball

Streaking and splitting they fold and go —
In the third — in the tenth — all the host to the faux
Infinity: one after the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next etc.*

Stop it! Enough! I can’t stand this ordeal!
A ball on a thread in an infinite reel —
A universal game on a childish pretext

*The line stretches to a misconceived infinity. 

Chart of Life

Three wise old men bent over to review
A chart of life in their benevolent wisdom
“He’ll be a poet… under socialism…”
“A wretched fate, indeed” said Lao Tzu

So I was born here not without a reason…
Wartime… cat scavenging the yard for cukes…
Oppression by the bastards and the crooks…
The tedium was stifling like a prison!

And suddenly — a trip to Singapore
On this sweet break from the routine and chore
I saw a mural in a Buddhist temple

On which among pagodas and bamboo
Three wise old men bent over to review
A chart of life and smiled around the table

Recently Published: Paper-Thin Skin by Aigerim Tazhi, translated by J. Kates

In May, Zephyr Press and publisher and translator J. Kates brought to us a collection of poetry by Aigerim Tazhi, a writer who lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan and writes in Russian. According to the Press’s announcement, “Fish, insects, birds, the sea, the sky, humans seeking connection, and death figure frequently in these succinct poems, as do windows, mirrors, and eyes: these are poems of observation and deep reflection. Tazhi gently insists that we look at words and the world “in the eye,” as she seeks to create what translator J. Kates calls a “mystic community of communication.”

A beautiful bilingual book, produced with care and attention to white space around the poems, Paper-Thin Skin speaks to layers of loss–from personal and private to the loss of the country (I read these poems in the post-Soviet context) to climate change and the loss of habitats.

Translating Tazhi to English, Kates makes carefully weighted choices for clarity. In the example below, he changes the poet’s line “Чёрным вестям из нечёрного ящика” — literally “Black news from the not-black box” to read “At dark news from the bright box,” making sure that the English-speaking reader will understand the image of television. He makes this change with attention to the rhetoric device that the poet employs and finding an opportunity to create a sense of parallel and contrast in the image.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

Publisher: Zephyr Press

Translator: J. Kates

The book has been reviewed by Eric Nguyen in Empty Mirror, Peter Gordon in Asian Review of Books, Alison Mandaville in World Literature Today, Zaure Bataeva on her blog.

British Library hosts English-language presentation of Kazakh literature

The British Library held an event last month to promote literature from Kazakhstan as part of the project “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World.” It was the launch of two anthologies, one of prose and another of poetry, that were translated into English. The “anthologies, which are 500 pages each and include works by 60 Kazakh poets and writers, are being translated into the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.” Cambridge University Press is the publisher of the English translations. 

According to the article, the “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World project is part of the Ruhani Zhangyru (Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity) programme, which seeks to preserve and popularise the country’s historical and cultural heritage.”

Promoting lesser-known literatures is a laudable goal and something sorely needed in the West. But as with all projects that seek to project an image of a particular country, we need to be asking what type of image is being projected and for what reason(s), which voices are included and which left out. Of course, it is impossible to answer these questions until these anthologies become available. A project to keep an eye out for.

https://astanatimes.com/2019/09/british-library-hosts-english-language-presentation-of-kazakh-literature/

How Should We Review Translations? Part II

Asymptote journal continues its discussion about translating and reviewing literature. The focus this time is on Korean poetry, but the issues raised are relevant to other translated literatures.

“To me, the most interesting aspect of reviewing a translation—above and beyond the accurate and thoughtful accounting of the book in question that all reviews require—is imagining how it will affect and be affected by its reception within the standards of specific reading communities. Or to put it another way: how the translation speaks to the context of a reading community and how that community speaks to the translation.”

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2019/09/25/how-should-we-review-translations-part-ii/

A profile of Ilya Kaminsky

The Guardian has published a lovely profile of Ilya Kaminsky, related to Deaf Republic, his second collection of poetry.

Odessa was a cosmopolitan place, a “city of laughter” in which poetry was revered, and from an early age Kaminsky wrote and learned it by heart. When he was 12 his prose writing was published in the local newspaper, after he answered a call-out to schoolchildren to contribute, because the paper had no money to pay journalists. At 15, though he thought of poetry as “a private thing”, he produced his first chapbook. He had graduated from school by the time the family was forced into exile.

Unfortunately, I Care: Joanna Chen Interviews Olga Livshin (BLARB)

Read Joanna Chen’s beautiful and insightful interview with poet and translator Olga Livshin about her just-released book A Life Replaced: Poems with translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman:

“And so for me, even when I write in English, it’s as if I am writing in Russian because I’m releasing something that was the first fourteen years of my life, it’s like I carry this genie inside me and I need to let it out occasionally. Let it walk around a little before I bottle it back up.” https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/poetry/unfortunately-care-joanna-chen-interviews-olga-livshin/

How Should We Review Translations? Part I

The beginning of an important, thoughtful, and often maddening conversation by Asymptote journal about the state of translated literature in the U.S. and the role of reviewers writing about it. Shocker: there is relatively little international literature being translated, published, reviewed, and read in this country. There is even less by women/non-Western European writers. A question we have been asking ourselves, each other, and anyone who would listen is what can be done about changing this situation. It is one of the main reasons we started this blog. This is a collective endeavor, which doesn’t have a simple answer. Suggestions welcome.

“For instance, only six of the nearly one hundred books reviewed on my watch were written by African writers. A whole 17% were translated either from Spanish or French. Moreover, only 16% were books of poetry rather than prose […] exactly two thirds of contributors to the Criticism section were men, and […] close to two thirds of the authors reviewed were men.”

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2019/09/23/how-should-we-review-translations-part-i/?fbclid=IwAR3Qh_3jCPSwCo2iXqO9vSZ2Pb_Wdra4rCt7r5ds4BQvGY0pkrOkRbaul54