From the Introduction by Antonina W. Bouis
Hemingway acknowledged that he would not have known Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky if not for the translations of Constance Garnett. How could we learn about other cultures and civilizations without reading their literature? And how could we do that without translation, the most vital and underappreciated art?
While Russian literature provided the world with the gold standard for novels, it also gave us quintessential short stories, certainly by the acknowledged master Anton Chekhov (who was a dab hand at plays, as well), but also by Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, and Isaac Babel, among many others.
In the nineteenth century, Gogol’s stories created a new form within the genre. His tales of life in a Ukrainian village poked gentle fun at characters who are universal in their cares and concerns, and his stories about bureaucrats in St. Petersburg, the new capital built on swamps and the bones of the laborers, present the city in an eerie and phantasmagorical light. Pushkin, who is the most beloved writer in Russia to this day, Shakespeare and Byron rolled into one poetic genius who argued with tsars and died in a duel over love and honor in 1837, published Gogol’s stories in his literary magazine. He claimed that all Russian literature came out of the pocket of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”
Most readers of this volume will have read some Russian literature in college or at a good high school. If scenes still dance in your heads of cavalry charges, aristocrats dancing and falling in love in brilliant ballrooms, rural gentry spending cozy evenings philosophizing, oppressed or luminous peasants ruminating in their muddy villages, passionate revolutionaries conspiring in underground cells, and miserable prisoners of the gulag going about their day, you are in for a surprise.
Today’s writers treat contemporary issues: the characters are oligarchs and drug addicts, policemen and soldiers, office workers and teachers, feral animals, as well as workers and farmers. You will also find greater diversity among the authors; the Russian classics were men from the two great cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In this anthology, about a fourth of the stories were written by women. Some of the writers are in their twenties and thirties. Some live far from the capital cities. Others are also television celebrities, former prisoners, poets, playwrights, and political activists. Some are famous, some are notorious. All have won serious literary prizes and critical acclaim.
There are “long short stories,” or novellas, by Olga Slavnikova and Vladimir Makanin in this volume; these popular writers are translated by the well-known Andrew Bromfield and the up-and-coming Bela Shayevich. Two pieces by Edvard Radzinsky and by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Marian Schwartz and Leo Shtutin, represent writers already known in America. Alexander Kabakov’s story “Shelter,” sensitively translated by Daniel Jaffe, traces the life arc of many Russians, from semi-dissident posturing as students in the Soviet 1970s to success in the new capitalist Russia, with its spiritual emptiness. Ludmila Ulitskaya describes the age-old story of women loving the wrong men, but the setting is Queens, New York, when three old friends have a reunion, one of them on a business trip from Moscow, in “Dauntless Women of the Russian Steppe,” in Arch Tait’s fluent translation. The narrator of Andrei Rubanov’s “Gonzo” is a young drug addict, his language rendered into lively English by Polly Gannon. The narrator in Dina Rubin’s story is a life model (and former electrical engineer) living in Israel, and her weariness can be felt in Marian Schwartz’s translation. Dmitry Bykov tells a supernatural tale about journalists on a train passing through a creepy town, the mysterious dread convincingly conveyed by James Rann. Another Moscow journalist has an eye-opening experience in war-torn Grozny in Sergei Shargunov’s “Chechnya, To Chechnya!” deftly translated by John Narins. More exotic locales and experiences lie in store for the hikers in the Altai Mountains in Irina Bogatyreva’s “Stars over Lake Teletskoye,” another gem by Tait. The typical Soviet story about factory workers committed to meeting the work plan is turned on its head in Alexei Lukyanov’s “Strike the Iron While It’s Hot, Boys!” with its flow of swear words and puns, cunningly rendered into English by Michele A. Berdy.
And this brings us back to Hemingway’s point: you wouldn’t be reading these stories without their translators. This volume presents a wide range of Russian writers and of today’s translators in America and England. Some, like Hugh Aplin, Andrew Bromfield, Jamey Gambrell, Arch Tait and Marion Schwartz, have a large body of work. Others are new to me. The publication of this volume of new short stories from some of the best writers in Russia today is an opportunity for me to praise the unheralded English-language translator. Other cultures value the skills and talents required in translation. There are schools, prizes, fame and glory (well, almost). But English-language readers seem not to be aware of the work that goes into delivering literature from another culture to them.
A good translation should be transparent and unobtrusive, and then, of course, like a good mobile phone connection, it is taken for granted. Strangely enough, not only is a good translation not credited with bringing an otherwise inaccessible work to light, but the blame for a bad translation somehow falls on the original text. Clumsy wording and awkward English grammar are attributed to the author, not the invisible translator. Some writers never get a second chance, having been introduced to readers in an inadequate translation and found lacking.
Americans read little in translation. We seem to consider books to be tools in the most pragmatic way. If there’s an enemy, we need to learn about him, as if we need to know another culture only when we fear it. The heyday of Russian literature in English translation was the Cold War. Today there are many volumes of Arabic literature, which is wonderful, for surely we all have much to learn, but why does it have to be out of fear?
Why not get to know friends better? Russia and America never fought against each other in a war. Russia sent battleships to aid Lincoln during our Civil War, Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz and marched into Nazi Berlin in World War II, and the Russian president was the first world leader to call the White House to offer help on 9/11.
Russians and Americans have so much in common: a sense of manifest destiny with the pioneering spirit that led to the conquest of enormous tracts of land, the development of rich agriculture and industry, science and technology, and a long reign as the two superpowers who divided the globe between them. Both nations face a present with a multiethnic, multiconfessional populace that is coming to terms with the depression and confusion of being just one more pole in a multipolar world.
Russians pride themselves on being big readers. But if you look around, in subways and buses, on beach blankets and park benches, Americans are reading books and e-readers. So I don’t think Russians necessarily read more, but they are certainly more passionate about literature. American writers were translated into Russian in Soviet times and the visits of John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Arthur Miller were major events, not only for the obvious political spin, but because people read and loved their books. Here’s an example of the passion and pride. A chambermaid at my Moscow hotel once asked for my autograph because she had seen the many books delivered to my room from my authors and had seen me drinking tea and vodka (ah, the clichés!) in the hotel restaurant with some of her favorite writers. She was pleased to know that Americans would be reading their works. I was flattered, of course, but I was even more interested in the cultural differences between the readers of our countries that this revealed. I doubt any American would be so thrilled by the prospect of Gore Vidal or E. L. Doctorow being brought to the Russian reading public that they would solicit a translator’s autograph.
Where do we look for an understanding of the human condition? Not in diet books or travel guides: we turn to fiction and poetry. Writers and poets describe and illuminate our souls. We can find find similar but different approaches to our issues, which are universal, in the writing of Russian authors.
So I say, read the literature of your friends, and not only of your perceived enemies. “Like” Russia. “Friend” Russia. Read Russia!