Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Laura Esther Wolfson Talks about Her Blind Date with the Russian Language

Photo by Florence Montmare
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors stands as my literary revelation of the year thus far, an  essay collection that mixes favorite elements of mine:  subtle irony, intellectual curiosity and a love of Russian literature and of authenticity. Laura Esther Wolfson was generous enough to answer my questions about writing and her love of Russian language and literature. Follow her on Twitter as @EstherLaura and check her website for updates on book events and publications. 

How did your love story with the Russian language begin?

Like many love stories, it began as a blind date. For all that I knew about Russian, I could have chosen French, Swahili or Chinese almost as readily. (And in fact I did consider them all, and other languages too.) I sought adventures in remote latitudes, precisely where was unimportant. I boarded the Russian language as if it were a long-distance train that would carry me off to faraway places.

What tipped the scales toward Russian was a desire to read books I loved—Anna KareninaDoctor Zhivago—in the original.

During the early stages of foreign language immersion, I lived in a state of euphoria: able to speak and understand, but continually aware, as in a dream, of moving within a network of uncertain meaning and shifting shapes I could put my hand through. Everything I encountered was weightless, and so was I.

Who are your favorite Russian writers?

I love Pushkin and Babel best. And Tolstoy. But there is so much of Russian literature that I have yet to read; omissions from this list are as likely due to ignorance as to taste.

Is there a book you wish you had written yourself?

I cannot imagine writing someone else’s book. Every book is to a large extent the result of idiosyncrasies in the author’s upbringing, education, taste, reading habits, surroundings, experiences, relationships, and more. You cannot have anyone’s idiosyncracies but your own.

I want to write in my own voice, but more prolifically, and much, much better.

What kind of books in translation appeal to the American reading public nowadays?

I cannot say with any certainty what kinds of translated works the American reading public wants now—the answer is probably ‘many different kinds’— but I do think that developments of the past decade amply disprove the tired notion that American readers are not interested in translations.

Publish it, and they will come. See Elana Ferrante, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Haruki Murakami and other translation sensations. Publishing houses specializing in translations have proliferated: Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, New Vessel Press, Open Letter, Two Lines Press  and more. Why, even Amazon has leapt on this bandwagon, yes, bandwagon, with AmazonCrossing, its translation arm. The magazines Words Without Borders and Asymptote specialize in literary translation. Each year, the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, founded in the aftermath of 9/11, introduces to the U.S. reading public dozens of authors working in many languages. Clearly, there has long been a thirst for high-quality literary translations that is only now being slaked.

Do certain languages become fashionable for geopolitical reasons? Was Russian such a language during the Cold War, and is Mandarin the new Russian?

My undergraduate Russian instructors, who are, thirty years on, my friends and colleagues, tell me that whenever Russia makes the headlines, enrollment spikes. But only for one semester. There is no question that during the Cold War, perestroika and glasnost, there were many more students enrolled in Russian classes than there are now, pace Robert Mueller and Donald Trump.

I cannot speak about Mandarin, though of course I’ve heard that it’s fashionable for people in certain circles to enroll their children in Mandarin classes. I cannot point to specific political events that might be a factor.

When someone asks me what language to study, I suggest Spanish. It’s such an important language in the United States, where I live, and knowledge of it unlocks the rest of the hemisphere. I also sometimes mention Arabic, whose speakers are now center stage in world affairs. But Arabic takes years to master, and unforeseen events could crowd it out at any time, pushing some other language to the fore and leaving high and dry anyone who chooses to study it based on geopolitics.

The best and most meaningful choices are often those we make for no other reason than love or obsession.

Have you tried to write in languages other than English?

Asked at a public event if she ever thought of writing in English, Russian author Tatiana Tolstaya, who lived and taught in the United States for many years, replied (in flawless English) that the only language she could ever write in was the one whose nursery rhymes and lullabies she’d heard as a tiny child. I could not agree more.

I cannot imagine writing in any language except English. My writing is shot through with wordplay and sound play, rhymes and half rhymes, alliteration, assonance, irony, literary allusions and quotations. It is sprinkled with foreign words that, stripped of their English-language scrim, would be about as interesting (and as visible) as a shooting star at noon. I could never achieve or even attempt any of this in another language.

What is for you, the most challenging part of being a translator?

It depends on whether we are talking about the work of the interpreter; the translator of commercial, technical, diplomatic or other specialized documentation; or the literary translator. (In the language services industry, ‘translator’ refers specifically to a linguist who works with written materials. The person at the dignitary’s elbow or in the booth with headphones orally transferring meaning into another language is an interpreter, not a translator. And most people who toil in the translation trenches do not translate works of literature, but mundane and necessary materials such as software and other instruction manuals, patents and legal documents.)

Subject knowledge is far more important in language work than the public realizes. How can you translate a text on astrophysics if you are not fluent in astrophysics? Fluency in the subject is as central to the task as fluency in the languages. A professional interpreter or translator specializes in a limited number of subjects that she knows well, prudently declining offers of work that fall outside that range, or, if she decides to take on something new, boning up on the topic thoroughly ahead of time and consulting specialists in the field.

Translators are generally self-employed, always hustling for the next contract. Translation work is often sent abroad to countries where the rates are so low that first-world translators cannot compete. There is also a gray market of semi-or unqualified translators who do poor-quality work and drag down the reputation of the whole profession. Staff translators in international organizations such as the United Nations must master and unswervingly adhere to house editorial and style guidelines, precedents and turns of phrase enshrined in previous documents.

Interpreters must have the words and phrases at their fingertips, improvising ingeniously when they do not. (But the latter should not happen too often.) Interpreters derive pleasure from pressure. They are skilled orators and mind readers, comfortable in the spotlight, yet adept at invisibility. Their work draws on training, habit, adrenaline, and the psychological state of flow. They prepare fiendishly before each assignment.

Literary translators capture subtleties of culture, tone and music. They convey qualities and fragrances, the drift, the waft, the weft, the woof and the whiff. FenĂȘtre=window is only the beginning. Is it bay or casement, dormer or storm? Diamond pane or stained, leaded glass or plastic?

Of course, every category of linguist should avoid the word-for-word approach where the forest becomes overgrown with trees.

What book you would love to translate into English?

After thirty years as an interpreter and translator, I now have the opportunity to devote more time to writing. Translation has, over the decades, provided me with a livelihood; training as a reader and writer; excuses for postponing getting serious about writing; and finally, a wealth of stories. Writing and translation draw on the same part of the mind. For some people, this means that they can switch easily between the two. For me, it means the opposite: Now I need to save that part of my mind for writing. So I won’t be translating much in the near future.

As I was revising For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors for publication, I noticed that the book includes a subgenre of essay about translation that I haven’t seen elsewhere: the essay about not translating, about a work the essayist/translator declined to translate, and her reasons for so deciding. The book contains two of these: “The Book of Disaster” and “Losing the Nobel.” Given how many books I have not translated and never will, this is a vein I could mine for several lifetimes.

What are your writing plans for the coming months?

I recently began something new that is best described as ‘autofiction.’ Meaning that the first-person narrator is nearly indistinguishable from the author, and that while the story hews closely to lived events, the narrative arc is paramount and the purpose of the work is not to say, ‘here’s what happened,’ but to move, entertain, delight or disturb. Thus no one can cry foul at any divergence, real or perceived, from the so-called facts of the matter.

This work, entitled Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra, is about the impact of chronic illness and disability on a love relationship, with sections (that initially appear to be digressions) about international affairs, history and literature .

Ultimately I may choose not to publish it. It is very revealing.

Friday, May 25, 2018

An Icelandic Thriller Hard to Forget: The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Besides the pure curiosity of my first meeting with a representative of the Icelandic literature - adding one more country to the list of my literary travels - and the plan of spending some hours in a company of a thriller that was well received by the professionist book reviewers, I did not know what to expect from The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. 
Tracing the crimes committed by an aparent psychopat targetting women without any aparent connection between each other, the thriller is more than a simple criminalistic investigation. It has that pinch of life which connects the crime story with the outside context of the society, and the more or less observations about the limited social contacts between neighbours and even between people belonging to the same families make it an interesting sociological evaluation in itself. 
It is a very intense reading, where the psychopatic elaboration of the crimes intercedes with the mystery of an adoption mentioned at the beginning of the book and the question if there is any connection between those crimes and what the reader will easily guess as a terrible - blood soaked - secret. 
There are many characters in this book, with more or less forefront role in the story, and the author succeeds to connect them in so many various ways that it almost looks like a puppet theatre very well coordinated. Most of the main characters, especially the children ones, are hard to forget and at least a couple of days after finishing the book I had them in my mind, as much as you can have a complex human being from the real life, thinking about the motivation or their psychological depth.
At the end of the story, each and every one piece of the domino is falling down to its place. And what and ending this story has! Completely unexpected and exactly how I like my thriller stories: unexpected, outrageously surprising and impossible to predict.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, May 6, 2018

How to be a Healthy Writer

I am not a full time writer (yet) but all my working life I've spent on a chair, in the front of a computer, tiping either my academic papers and articles or books or journalistic articles or translations. Everything I ever did for money in my life involved writing - from a chair in the front of a computer. I even had a vintage time, in my first university year, when I even wrote my papers at a typing machine - also from a chair. Such work habits lead in time to various issues: my poor sight, back pain, excessive use of coffee and cigarettes. Those were the times and it took me a long time to realise that I really need to change everything in order to have a longer, healthier life. At the time, there were not too many books or mindsets pledging for a healthier lifestyle; if you wanted to deal with words for a living, you had to be self-distructive, crazy and drunk, smoking packs of cigarettes after the other when the writing was blocked and avoid sleep because it cuts you from the genuine root of creativity. 
Such a romantic view is proved greatly toxic in fact, and you need to witness the slow or sudden death of your ex-colleagues to realize that life is a gift that literally gifted or not, you have to reason to waste.
The Healthy Writer is an example of how writers can start changing dramatically their toxic life,  one step at a time. It helps, among others 'reduce your pain, improve your health and build a writing career for the long term' (which means also that you can increase your lifespan). The main keyowrds are empowerment and sustainability: as a writer you can avoid health issues that may impede your writing - both in length and quality - and create long-term strategies for a better mental and physical health. It calls both for balance and clear acknowledgment of your limits, also taking into account the personal health history. 'We need to bear in mind that health is intrinsically bound up in all sorts of factors that include whether you work for a living, where you live, what you eat, whether you smoke and your social and family circumstances'.
The book was written based on the personal experiences of the writers - one of whom Dr. Euan Lawson is a medical doctor - but also following surveys done within the community of writers. What I personally liked very much about this book is its realistic approach: it offers a systematic overview of the threats the writer cope with in his or her daily life - from sleep deprivation - sleep being considered 'one of the basic bulding blocks of a healthy resilient life' (note to my insomniac self) - to peculiar work space or serious mental health issues - with simple, doable solutions - from yoga to walking or proper eating habits. 
Those new habits may have a dramatic influence on the quality and quantity of writing as well. 'Persistance is the secret of success in writing as much as general fitness or finishing ultra-marathons'.
Provided with a list of questions at the end of every chapter, aimed at figuring out the main issues that one may deal with from the health point of view featured as well as with a list of bibliographical references, The Healthy Writer is one of those books you keep near your desk as you may need to return to a specific section later. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by one of the authors in exchange for an honest review  

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Book Review: Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

Important thing about me: I am fascinated and passionate about novels set in the former post-Soviet/post-Communist time. As myself I am familiar at a certain extent with the life in those countries, I love the feeling of reading fiction inspired by hard and always worth a couple of novels realities. However, it is not enough to have the perfect details and set of characters in order to write a good book.
I had a similar impression when I had my first encounter with the Arkady Renko novels, in Stalin's Ghost: great setting, interesting characters and some curious story developments, but in the end of the day, the domino pieces did not match together and the entire story ended up in a very disappointing course of events. 
It happened the same in the case of Tatiana, which features the extraordinary pressures against the work of investigative journalism in post-Soviet Russia. There are all the elements for an excellent story: local mafia, former USSR problems - Kursk submarine drama, for instance - and state of mind and also Chechen fighters. It seems that the author has a subtle knowledge of the realities in this troubled part of the world. The dialogues are the part I've loved the most in the book: full of live, smart and witty. However, when all those parts were brought together: the dialogues, the bizarre characters, the circumstances, the story failed of being more than plain, less exciting than the everyday news in the Russian media. There is something in the art of storytelling which is missing and it is enough to discourage me from liking the book.
However, will give another - last - try to this author, as I have his latest book ready for a review. Hopefully things are sounding better but as for now I am not impressed at all.

Rating: 2.5 stars