Here’s a picture from this month’s Best Translated Book Award, with some of the winners and several judges.
A good time was had by all.
Approximately five minutes, the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards were announced at a special celebration at Idlewild Books in New York City. Hopefully the party is raging, and the winners are enjoying themselves . . .
Competition was pretty steep for this year’s awards. The poetry committee came to a consensus rather quickly, granting the award to Elena Fanailova for The Russian Version, translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.
On the fiction side of things we debated and debated for weeks. There were easily four other titles that could’ve easily won this thing. Walser, Prieto, Aira were all very strong contenders. But in the end, we gave the award to Gail Hareven for The Confessions of Noa Weber, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and published by Melville House Press.
For the poetry finalists, each of the five judges is writing about two books. Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—is up first.
The Russian Version obliterates the stereotype of what Great Russian Poetry should sound like. Fanailova has the candor and compassion of Akhmatova and a gift for striking metaphor that might bring Mandelstam to mind, but she is also ruthlessly quick to fire “from the hip,” as she says in the title poem, and her aim is impeccable. In the ironic poem “(The Italics are Mine),” she writes:
In the era when poetry flowed
From human shortcoming,
When poetry was waiting
For dry remainders,
It did its best, I beg your pardon,
Like a hysterical bitch . . .
All of the poems in The Russian Version veer off in delightfully unexpected directions like this. What begins in sweeping historical statement often turns to sly aside or to some in-your-face metaphor. Turovskaya and Sandler do a superb job of keeping these shifts in tone in Fanailova’s poems palpable and surprising. Throughout the book, the voice in these translations are as lively and distinctive as in any poetry currently being written in the US, if not more so. To the credit of both Fanailova and her translators, the poems consistently come across as both alluringly raw and carefully honed. “Now you can say what you actually think,” Fanailova writes in “The Queer’s Girldfriend, “and not what Great Russan Poetry demands.”
Instead of striving for Great Russian Poetry, Fanailova tells of a “tired Petersburg,” a grandmother who sets an apple tree on fire and has the stained dress of a “perpetually slovenly cook.” In an excerpt from her 2002 collection Transylvania Calling, she writes of a woman off to an abortion clinic “like a soldier marching the familiar march” and in the next line of soldiers “fucking beautiful Uzbek girls/unbraiding bridles with their tongues.” Powerful juxtapositions like these, of a tired city and a tree on fire, or of a woman marching like a soldier and soldiers marching over women, crop up throughout the poems. Fanailova, never takes these moments too far or editorializes unnecessarily. Like the scars of the married couples she describes in the same poem, she lets her lines “speak for themselves.”
A well-placed silence is key to the craft of poetry and Fanailova is a master of such silences. In a poem earlier in the collection, she writes:
I love to keep silent,
And to guard the thin-walled, fragile things
I save in cigarette papers.
In the selections contained in this book, spanning nearly twenty years of work, Fanailova knows just when to quietly roll up a poem in cigarette paper and when to let it unfurl. Her version of Russia is one told through a “grease-paint made of crystals” and the result is mesmerizing.
Our latest review is by Margarita Shalina, who reviews Alexandr Skidan’s Red Shifting, a collection of poems which won the Andrei Bely Prize in 2006.
Alexandr Skidan’s mentor, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, describes Red Shifting as “[s]omnambulistic.” Indeed, Skidan creates dream-poems. What is at play in the dream-poem? Incest and GAS! The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Bely and Blok. Vladivostok and St. Petersburg. In this exploration of the inside versus the outside, the reader must first accept being trapped in a dream. Next, the reader must become Daniel, deciphering the secrets and codes Skidan has hidden in his dream-poems “like Nebuchadnezzar.”
In “Delirium”, Skidan’s subject is the biblical story of Lot who God instructs to flee Sodom before the city is destroyed. Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the destruction of the city. Lot flees to the desert, alone with his two daughters. Uncomprehending, the daughters believe it is the end of the world. That only procreation with their father will ensure the continuation of the human race. They get him drunk and seduce.
(…) the fading of the annihilated echo. lot, falling like a stone in the oblivion of a sling,
conceives the unknown, led by
the degree of “fall;” the daughter enters him and again –
the daughter, another. A daughterly darkness, cascading down,
A self contained ellipsis ushers in this velvet destruction of the echo creating a vacuum of sound. Throughout the poem, the echo will reappear – “[b]ut these dances by the fire fire.” Dance implies music but the only music is Lot’s drunkenness and incestuous sex. In the end, the annihilation of the echo will be complete. There will be no words in the last stanza, instead a series of dots representing words, lines left unspoken, silence.
Skidan uses his intellect as reflective armor. Each poem contains a riddle in which he confesses through masque. In the world of Red Shifting, characters from mythology, critical theory and literature coexist with Skidan’s intimates from contemporary St. Petersburg. At times these friends, acquaintances and civilians are signified by a single letter, at times by entire first names. The title poem, Red Shifting, is possibly the most direct poem in the collection. It is a day in the life, where the poet shifts in and out of conversation with those around him while observing and contemplating everyone that he encounters. He desires the cool G as they smoke cigarettes.
(I take out a cigarette, and before my eyes are these two
photographs; I want to forget them, want to see them, but in order
to forget them, I need to write about them, and in order to see
them – I need the opposite: to be with G.)
The poet plays with repetition but does not literally repeat himself. Skidan’s echo theme now plays out through doubling, or two-ness. Through the two photographs of the quote, then again in “I have two dead people on my hands.” Taking it further, Skidan introduces two-ness in love—Blok and Bely, both in love with Lyubov Dmitrievna, then The Sheltering Sky. This bread crumb trail moves away from G to the absent A. A may return and this possible return rattles the poet and again the dream-poem ends in silence, “The thought which I didn’t have the power to say out loud.”
In “Red Bridge”, and again in “Piercing of the Lower Lip”, it is San Francisco reflected across the Pacific Ocean as Vladivostok that the poet contemplates – “I heard a pacific newspaper rustle in the wind, and standing at the far end of Golden Gate Bridge…I saw Vladivostok.” Through poetry, Skidan allows himself to exist in two places, at two points in time with the Pacific Ocean serving as an enormous mirror warped by distance. This writing from an intentionally distorted perspective is what Dragomoshchenko refers to as Skidan “building a backward mirror.” But there is another mirror, the mirror of translation. Principal translator Genya Turovskaya, has successfully created a mirror image in English of Skidan’s careful and intentional Russian language while preserving Skidan’s uniquely erudite voice peppered with controlled bursts of vulgarity. Retaining Skidan’s love of vocabulary rooted in Latin, Turovskaya’s translations are astute echoes, clear reflections containing microscopic detail.
Alexandr Skidan was awarded the St. Petersburg-based Andrei Bely Prize in 2006 for the Russian edition of Red Shifting.
By Alexandr Skidan
Translated by Genya Turovskaya
Ugly Duckling Presse
170 pgs, $15.00
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