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Literary London

Last week I went on a whirlwind trip around London for a selection of literature-related events, in particular the London Book Fair and the Translators’ Association annual Translation Symposium. I listened to a wealth of words of wisdom and encouragement from eminent translators, authors and publishing professionals, and chatted with so many people who had all come together to celebrate a common love of literature. To list every event I attended and to relate all my interesting conversations would take far too long, so here are just a few of the main impressions I came away with.

First of all, despite the looming cloud of Brexit and the fact that the Translation Symposium took place in Europe House just across the road from crowds of demonstrators and TV crews outside the Houses of Parliament, literary translators remain a positive bunch. Everyone was clearly motivated by an irrepressible passion for sharing good literature across political, geographical and cultural borders no matter what. The Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair, which seems to grow with every passing year, as well as LBF’s decision to showcase literary translation by nominating a representative translator for each show (Jeremy Tiang was this year’s inaugural translator) bears witness to this.

The LBF seminar guide referred to authors as ‘central to our business’ and, of course, without authors, the world of literature would simply not exist. Fittingly, a large area was set aside for a packed schedule of author events. In the same guide, the tag-line for the Literary Translation Centre was ‘Making words travel’. Without translators, literature would remain hidden away in its own cultural ‘slot’ where no-one else can see it.

There was much discussion about self-publishing, which is becoming increasingly popular in our modern, digital era. Although it gives more control to the author, it also requires a range of additional skills, and demand for related services has increased accordingly, including editing, cover design, marketing, financial advice, and much more. There are all kinds of assistance available, both formally from professional bodies, and informally from friendly colleagues happy to share their own experiences.

Now I’m back at home in a much calmer Lincolnshire, it’s time to look through my notes, develop some of the ideas that I picked up, and put some of the things I learned into practice!



Word of the week

Because translation is all about words, I have started a ‘word of the week’ post on my Facebook page. The process of translating something from one language into another is not merely a case of systematically replacing each word with its equivalent in another language. Even machine translation has moved on from there to a certain extent, although it still has a long way to go (not surprisingly this is a hugely controversial subject in the translation community, so I will discuss it more fully in a future post).

A translator, especially in the field of literary translation, must have a ‘feel’ for both languages – the language of the original text (the ‘source’ language) and that of the translated version (the ‘target’ language. This deeper understanding of language can only be acquired by using the language as much as possible, for example by living in a country where it is spoken, being immersed in its culture, talking with other speakers of the language, reading, watching TV and films, listening to the spoken word and songs, and so on. Then, with experience, you begin to realise that no words are absolute equivalents: they all have their own nuances, cultural backgrounds and connotations, variation in usage etc., so that every word becomes a subject in itself.

As a translator, I work with words all the time, juggling them and trying to find the best fit into the great crossword that is the translated text. As a result, I encounter so many fascinating words and am constantly adding to my vocabulary as well as learning new things about words I thought I already knew. So, I decided I would choose just one word each week – often Russian, but also English, French, or any other language – and share what I have discovered along the way. There are so many words in the world, and how they are used is changing all the time, so there will be plenty of material to keep me going for a lifetime of learning!

This week I have picked a rather weighty word to kick things off: Cудьба [sud’ba], meaning ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, or perhaps something else…

One Heart Is All I Have

Over the last few months I have had so much fun working with author Nataliya Lang on the translation of her new book One Heart Is All I Have. Having already translated The Driving School, a few years ago, I was very excited to be asked to work on another of Nataliya’s novels. Nataliya is a talented writer and a wonderful person who cares very much about her writing and ensuring that the characters’ emotions and psychology are properly explored and conveyed, at the same time as giving her readers a story to enjoy.

The narrator of One Heart is Anna, a young woman who is just embarking on a writing career and is looking for a subject for her new novel. By pure chance, she meets Eduard, a cantankerous woman-hater, in an airport waiting room, and is annoyed when their paths cross again and he ‘serenades’ her with his misogynistic songs one evening in a park in Leipzig. When Eduard suggests she should write a book about him, she boldly accepts the challenge and, although this leads to some gruelling emotional adventures, she also meets a selection of other interesting characters along the way. Agnieszka, a widow with a seriously ill son, Bertha the café proprietor, Laura the cat-loving housekeeper, the enigmatic Iola, and many more have all played a part in Eduard’s life. Intrigued by his complex personality, Anna sets about trying to figure out how a lovestruck student became an irritable middle-aged man and why he has such fond memories of the GDR with its bland cuisine and political prisoners.

Despite the psychological subject matter and the careful attention to emotional detail, the story is simply told and easy to read. The characters are serious yet entertaining and the accounts of their lives interweave with those of Eduard and Anna, gradually adding pieces to the puzzle that is Eduard. Not all the questions are answered, though, as the story is to be continued in Part 2. I can’t wait to read it!

HERZ_T1_English_BOD_new (1)



Silent listening

At a time of political tension between my homeland and a country whose people, language and culture I greatly admire and I have spent a large part of my life studying, I find myself thinking about the importance of communication.

Understanding is essential for communication, and to understand we must first listen. Reading is a form of silent listening which requires patience and cultivates empathy. By reading another person’s words, we are given access to their minds, allowing us to look through a window onto their thoughts so, the more widely we read, the more minds we visit and, consequently, the more detailed the picture of humanity which begins to take shape in our own consciousness.

Of course, language barriers can prevent us from reading literature from many countries and communities with which we are not familiar. However, in our modern world, there is an invisible army of translators constantly working hard to solve this problem. They are highly dedicated and motivated people hidden in attics, at kitchen tables, or in corners of coffee shops, eagerly tapping away on computer keyboards in their unprepossessing yet grandiosely ambitious task of making all of the world’s literature available to everyone.

Despite their efforts, though, writers and translators can only do half of the work. Books are there to be read. They are doors. Open them and step into the lands on the other side. Read. Enjoy. Understand.

Door 3

The Universal Draught

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This week, another exciting project is meeting the world for the first time. The Universal Draught is the product of my transatlantic collaboration and friendship with author Elena Lebedeva-Fradkoff.

Elena’s stories in this collection take their inspiration from the realm of dreams, blending the real and the surreal to form a curious concoction of images and emotions. From Midzuorsi, the enigmatic talking kitten, and Sasha, a young woman with strange powers, to a grotesque circus of confusing horrors in ‘The Mutant’, and a colony of giant wasps and waspish humans, the stories and their characters are blown along on a draught through the universe of imagination.

The book also contains a collection of stunning, and equally eerie, dream-like illustrations by artist Paul Kulsha, which perfectly reflect the mood and tone of the stories.

‘The Universal Draught’ is not light, easy reading. It is a deliciously challenging read encouraging those who step inside its world to think, imagine and dream along with its motley cast of characters.

The Tale of the Snail and the Duckling

I am very pleased to have worked with Serge Kozlovsky on his book, The Tale of the Snail and the Duckling, and would like to congratulate him on its recent publication.

As all good fairy tales should, the story has an underlying message about the value of friendship and helping those in need. This, coupled with the impressive, vivid artwork, makes it ideal for children, but also a read which can be enjoyed by adults, too.

Snail and Duckling


War and Peace Challenge

The recent 150th anniversary of Tolstoy’s monumental novel, War and Peace has sparked all kinds of celebrations. Although rather heavily anglicised, I loved watching the BBC’s recent adaptation. In Russia, a live, non-stop reading of the entire novel, featuring all kinds of celebrities, eminent scholars, students, actors, Prime Minister Medvedyev, a cosmonaut on the International Space Station, and many other volunteers, was quite an undertaking, and particularly impressive. So, almost thirty years after I first read this book, I found myself turning back to the original text, setting myself the challenge of translating a small extract from this vast work of literature.

There are already plenty of excellent English translations of the novel, from Constance Garnet and Aylmer and Louise Maude, to Pevear and Volokhonsky or Andrew Bromfield in more recent times, to name but a few. My personal favourite is the 1957 version by Rosemary Edmonds, which I read one summer whilst studying Russian in an idyllic forest setting not far from Moscow. Although I would not dare to compare my humble efforts to these pillars of the translation world, there is much personal pleasure to be found in working on even just a small sample of such a wonderful text, and a lot to be learned in the process.

An abridged version of this particular chapter was printed in the July/August 2015 edition of Russian Life (an excellent magazine which I heartily recommend) and it led me to seek out the full text. Thus, I began to read it again, in the way that only a translator does, picking apart every word, and peering between the lines and into the spaces to see what I could find…

Book Two

Part 3

Chapter XV

Since that morning, Natasha had not had a minute’s freedom to think about what might lie ahead for her.

In the damp, cold air, and in the cramped semi-darkness of the jolting carriage, she imagined vividly, for the first time, what would be waiting for her there, at the ball, in those brightly-lit halls – music, flowers, dancing, the Sovereign, and all the brilliant young people of St Petersburg. What lay in store for her was so wonderful that she could hardly believe it was true: it was so incongruous with the cold, dark confines of the carriage. She only realised all that awaited her when she stepped across the red carpet in the doorway, went into the entrance hall, took off her fur coat, and walked beside Sonya and ahead of her mother, between the flowers on the illuminated staircase. Only then did she remember how she was supposed to behave at a ball, and attempted to adopt the majestic airs which she considered essential for a girl at such an occasion. Fortunately for her, though, she was completely dazzled: she could not see anything clearly, her pulse was racing at a hundred beats per minute, and her blood began to pound in her head. She could not assume those airs which would have made her seem ridiculous, and she walked about, overcome with excitement but trying her hardest not to show it. But this manner suited her best of all. Guests were entering ahead of them and behind them, conversing in the same hushed tones and wearing the same ball gowns. The mirrors along the staircase reflected ladies in white, blue and pink dresses with diamonds and pearls on their exposed arms and necks.

Natasha looked in the mirrors and could not tell her own reflection from the others. Everything merged into one brilliant procession. Upon entering the first hall, Natasha was deafened by the constant noise of voices, footsteps and greetings, and the light and brilliance blinded her all the more. The host and hostess had been standing at the entrance door for half an hour already, repeating the same words to people as they came in: “Charmé de vous voir.” They greeted the Rostovs and Mrs Peronskaya in likewise fashion.

The two girls in white dresses, with identical roses in their black hair, curtsied in exactly the same way, but the gaze of the hostess lingered involuntarily on the slender Natasha, giving her alone a special smile over and above the usual welcoming one. As she glanced at the girl, perhaps the hostess was recalling her own golden, irretrievable girlhood and her own first ball. The host also followed Natasha with his eyes and asked the count which one was his daughter.

“Charmante,” he said, kissing the tips of his fingers.

The guests gathered in the hall, crowding in front of the door, as they waited for the Sovereign. The Countess took up her position at the front of the throng. Natasha heard several voices asking about her and sensed that she was being watched. She realised that those who were paying attention to her found her pleasing, and this observation calmed her slightly.

“There are some who are just like us, and there are others who are not so nice,” she thought.

Mrs Peronskaya told the countess the names of the most important personalities at the ball.

“That grey-haired man you see over there is the Dutch ambassador,” said Mrs Peronskaya, pointing to an old man with a silver mop of curly hair, who was surrounded by ladies who were laughing at something he was telling them.

“And she is the Queen of St Petersburg, the Countess Bezukhova,” she said, pointing to Hélène as she walked in.

“How lovely! She could rival Maria Antonovna; see how the old and young flock around her. She is both beautiful and clever. They say that the prince is… mad about her. And as for those two, they may not be so pretty but they have even more people around them.”

She pointed to a woman who was walking across the room with her plain daughter.

“She is a millionaire bride,” said Mrs Peronskaya. “And those are her suitors.”

“That is Countess Bezukhova’s brother, Anatole Kuragin,” she said, gesturing towards a handsome cavalry guard as he passed by, his head held high and looking beyond them. “He is so fine, is he not? They say he is to be married to the rich girl. Your cousin Drubetskoy is also very attracted to her, too. It is said that she has millions of admirers. And that that is the French ambassador himself,” she said, as the countess enquired about Caulaincourt. “Look at him – he’s like some kind of king. But still, the French are so very nice. There is no-one nicer in society. Ah, there she is. No, our Maria Antonovna is the best of all! And she is so simply dressed. Delightful!”

“And as for that plump gentleman in the glasses – the worldly freemason,” said Mrs Peronskaya, pointing to Bezukhov, “if you stand him next to his wife he is such a laughing stock.”

As Pierre walked along, waddling under the weight of his amply proportioned body, he parted the crowd, nodding to right and left so nonchalantly and good-naturedly, as if he was wandering through a busy market. He was clearly looking for someone as he made his way through the mass of people.

Natasha was pleased to see the familiar face of Pierre, the ‘laughing-stock’ as Mrs Peronskaya called him, and knew that he was looking for them, and in particular for her. Pierre had promised her he would be at the ball and introduce her to the young men.

Before he reached them, though, he stopped next to a very handsome, dark-haired man of medium height, wearing a white uniform, who was standing by the window and chatting with a tall gentleman with stars and a ribbon on his uniform. Natasha immediately recognised the young man of medium height, in the white uniform: it was Bolkonsky, who seemed to have become younger, happier and finer.

“We already know Bolkonsky over there. Do you see him, Mama?” Natasha said, pointing to Prince Andrei. “Do you remember, he stayed overnight at our house in Otradnoye?”

“Oh, do you know him?” asked Mrs Peronskaya. “I cannot bear him. Il fait a present la pluie et le beau temps. His pride knows no bounds! He takes after his father. The person he is talking to is Speransky – they are working on some kind of project together. See how he behaves towards women! That one is talking to him, but he has turned away,” she said, pointing at him. “I would give him a piece of my mind if he treated me like that.”