For this blog interview we're delighted to be joined by Ray Nayler, to tell us more about his translation of Anastasia Bookreyeva's 'Scissors'/ 'Ножницы', from our October 25th issue. Ray is a Foreign Service officer, and has lived and worked in Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans for nearly two decades. He's also a writer, and his work has appeared in number of magazines and best of year anthologies. You can find out more about him here.
What drew you to the work of Anastasia Bookreyeva, and what was it about this particular story that made you keen to share it in translation?
The idea to start translating from Russian came out of a conversation I was having online with Neil Clarke in 2019. He asked me if there was any good current science fiction in Russian. I had to admit that I did not know: I was familiar, as many are, with a lot of the Soviet science fiction, and I was reading some contemporary Russian work in general, but I hadn’t been keeping track of much in the way of contemporary SF, especially in short fiction. So I started to hunt down short SF in Russian, and came across a small anthology, Terra Rasa, which contained two stories by Anastasia – “Terra Rasa” and “Scissors”. I knew immediately that I had found an extraordinary talent. I translated “Scissors” first, and then “Terra Rasa”.
What were some of the challenges and rewards in translating this story? Did you work closely with the author?
I think the greatest challenge for me as a translator (a fledgling translator) is trying to hew as closely as possible to the “feeling-tone” of a work. I noticed this problem right away when I finally read Tolstoy in the original. I had never wanted to read him in Russian because I had tried reading him in English translation before and had never cared for him at all. But once I began reading him in Russian, it was like encountering a completely different writer. I felt the English translations of Tolstoy failed to capture the “feeling-tone” of Tolstoy—his particular darkness. What I felt was missing is nothing in the language so much as in the experience of Russia. The feel of Russia, which is as slippery and particular as the feel of America or any other place.
Anastasia is also a very unusual writer: her sentences are clipped, elliptical, and very colloquial. Moreover, she is very much of and for her own world: she is not writing for an audience outside of Russia. Her writing is aimed directly at Russians. So the problem for me was the hew to the feeling-tone of her work, to be true to that, but to also make it accessible—not by dumbing down the language, but by drawing English-speaking readers into the claustrophobic and particularly Russian world she is speaking from.
I feel like I was aided in this more by the years I’ve spent living and traveling in Russia and the former Soviet Union than by my language skills, and by years of living with and caring for my late Russian grandmother-in-law. Language skills are important, of course, but I think what might be more important is a knowledge of the realities in which a work is composed. I knew those realities very well.
You're also a critically acclaimed short story writer – can you tell us a bit about how your fiction and translation feed into one another?
This question really got me thinking. I think in some sense, translation is very much akin to writing: Writing often starts, for me, with a vague idea, a set of images, a feeling-tone that I want to communicate—and that I understand intuitively, because it is my own. This initial mass, this aggregate, this set of incoherent but connected things, has to be structured in order to be understood by others. The act of writing is, to a great extent, the act of passing that vagueness through an apparatus that weaves it into a coherent whole for the reader. It has to be given grammar, form, rhythm, structure, pacing. It has to be worked on, transformed from this pre-linguistic mass through language and form to become a text that can connect with the reader.
Similarly, translation has that same reader as its final target. It has to pass, in a sense, through the membrane separating one linguistic and cultural world from another. In order to do that, and to arrive at its destination in a form that can be interpreted by the reader, it must, like that incoherent idea, be reformed in the new language. It must be given the grammar, form, rhythm, structure, and pacing of that target language.
The difference between writing and translation is that in writing, the membrane stands between a single personal, mental world and the culture at large. In the case of translation, the membrane is between the Russian cultural world, for which the story was written, and the target culture. And with the added challenge of bringing Anastasia’s voice and feeling-tone somehow intact through that membrane as well.
Are there other authors you'd like to translate, or whose work you'd like to see in English translation?
So far, only Anastasia’s work has inspired this need in me to translate. But I would love to discover others out there. I’m looking.
Can you tell us what you're working on at the moment?
I actually can’t talk much about what I am working on right now: I have two top-secret projects in the works, which the world will find out about very soon.
But beyond those projects, I am always working with the short story. Since I started writing, the short story had been the bedrock of my work. I’ve written in many other forms, but the short story is what I come back to. I get up every weekday morning at 5 a.m. and sit down to write, and nine days out of ten what I am writing is a short story.
Thank you, Ray! (And we're intrigued by the top-secret projects!)