We're delighted to welcome writer and translator Alex Shvartsman to our blog, to discuss his translation of K.A.Teryna's 'Morpheus', from our June 24th 2019 issue, as well as other aspects of his work, and the current crowdfunding campaign for his novel. You can find out more about Alex on his website.
As both a translator and a prolific writer of short stories, can you tell us a bit about how you got started in translation, and how your fiction and translation feed into one another?
I got into translation for the same reason many people get into blogging, writing reviews, and other fannish activities: I loved certain stories and felt the strong desire to share them with my friends. Except many of my genre-reading friends do not speak Russian. And while I'm not a reviewer and am a lazy blogger at best, in this case I had, ahem, a particular set of skills…
I found that I quite like translation. It combines some of the best parts of writing fiction, such as figuring out the right voice, tone, and tempo to the language, with the puzzle-like quality of relaying complex cultural references or even puns to another language and culture.
It has also improved my own writing somewhat, by sharpening some of the tools in my writing toolbelt and adding new ones I've had to discover or learn in order to solve all those pesky translation problems.
What are some of the biggest challenges in translating from Russian? Was there anything about 'Morpheus' that was particularly tricky?
As such things go, "Morpheus" was actually a relatively easy translation. The story is set in the late Soviet era, but I've already translated some stories (including those by K. A.) set in that period (and I've also lived in it myself, when I was very young), and the dream/nightmare like quality of the setting is also something I've had an opportunity to work with, both in translation and in my own fiction. Compare this to "Untilted," another excellent story by K. A. Teryna which both of us were lucky to have previously appear at Samovar. Now, that story relies on verbal cues and specifically misspelled words, and even its title in Russian is a pun; that I consider to be my translation masterpiece 🙂
The most challenging aspect to any translation is to relay the cultural subtext that may be obvious to the reader in the original but completely missed by an Anglophone reader in a faithful translation. In such cases I tend to look for analogous cultural references in English at the expense of walking a little further from the original text of the story. I'd rather translate the author's intent than their exact words, when necessary.
Do you work closely with the author when you're translating their work?
This depends on the situation. I'm very lucky to work with K. A. Teryna whose excellent command of the English language allows her to read the translations and tell me if I screwed something up, or missed a reference. But this is not always possible. Some authors can't read English well enough to check my work; in those cases I try to be extra careful and ask questions if I even suspect there may be a hidden meaning somewhere in the text that's eluding me. The worst possible situation is translating work by an author who already passed; in this case the best one can do is have other bilingual readers check one's work. We have an excellent small group of Russian genre translators who help each other out with difficult bits. This also generates really fun debates in our on-going Facebook chatroom.
Are there other authors you'd really like to translate, or whose work you'd like to see in English translation?
My favorite Russian novel is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I'm not quite satisfied with any of the extant translations and it's something I might consider tackling eventually – but I'd have to wait, as the book is still under copyright and should be entering public domain in another ten years or so.
There are a growing number of exciting ventures with a focus on speculative fiction in translation – can you tell us more about Future Science Fiction Digest, which you edit? Are there particular kinds of stories you're looking for?
I've been privileged to work with the Future Affairs Administration over the past year to produce a quarterly science fiction digest. Each issue is 50,000+ words and at least half of that material comes from non-Anglophone countries, be it translations or works originally written in English by authors whose primary language and life experience both differ from those in the US, UK, Canada, etc. Our goal is, in many ways, similar to that of Samovar – to highlight the best of international fiction; something there just isn't enough of because of the additional cost and difficulty of acquiring quality stories in translation compared to English language short fiction.
The current issue features stories by authors from Russia, China, Sri Lanka, and Bulgaria, alongside those by several American authors. I try to find stories that are told in ways and from perspectives that aren't just emulations of classic English-language sci-fi (and there's a lot of that kind of material floating around, believe me.) I want unique cultural perspectives to shine through, whenever possible.
All of our issues are available as ebooks and print but are also free to read on the website (with stories being gradually posted throughout the life of the issue), so please do check it out!
And finally, your novel Eridani's Crown is about to be published – can you tell us more about it (and about how you manage to find the time for all of this!)?
I carve out a little time here and there because, on top of all of these editing and translation projects, I also have a day job... So writing can be slow and it took me three years to complete my debut novel.
Eridani's Crown is an epic fantasy tale of how power corrupts; my elevator pitch for it is "the character arc of Breaking Bad meets the atmosphere of Game of Thrones."
The book will be published in October 2019 and I'm currently running a crowdfunding campaign to offset some of the costs (especially the cost of producing the audio version, which is considerable.) Please take a closer look if you're so inclined.
Thank you Alex, and good luck with the crowdfunding campaign!