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.
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