Explore translated literature with Asymptote Book Club


Translated literature… a topic I bang on about on a regular basis, probably risking boring you all to death! However, some of the best books of my life are those translated from other languages and, in an increasingly fragmented and hostile world, I do feel that absorbing another country’s culture has to be a way to help us try to understand each other.

I guess also that many of you will, like me, be avid followers of Marina Sofia’s excellent blog, Finding Time to Write. She’s started working for the Asymptote Journal which covers world literature in translation, and she recently gave me the heads-up about a new book club the Journal will be hosting – the Asymptote Book Club.

The idea is that you subscribe, either for three months or a year, and each month you get sent a lovely book of translated lit. Tempting or what… The three-month sub would be an ideal Christmas gift for the book lover in your life (hint, hint, family…) or just a great investment to treat yourself and widen your literary horizons.

As well as reading the books, there will be plenty of online interaction with blogs and discussion groups, which sounds fun. The translators will be much to the fore, which is a plus point for me as I think they’re the bee’s knees, basically.

You can read more about the book club here – go on, treat yourself, you know you want to…. 🙂


Some thoughts of a Monolinguist


It occurred to me recently, while browsing the lovely Pushkin Press site recently and trying to resist the temptation of another rediscovered 20th century classic, how lucky I am as a modern reader. For where would my reading be without translators?

I am a total monolinguist – I was good at French at school, but that was a long, long time ago and I have no vocabulary left. Additionally, I think the French I would speak would very formal and old-fashioned, because the version my children were dealing with at school was very different to the one I learned. As for other languages – hopeless! I once dreamed of learning Russian, but I think it’s beyond me. So, staring at my piles of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Zweig, Szerb, Hesse, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and the like, it’s sobering to realise how much of my reading pleasure is dependent on the people who undertake to approach a piece of art in another language and render it in English so that I (and many others) can enjoy it.

And it’s only recently that I’ve started to think more deeply about which translators’ work I like best, and which I’ll choose to read. Admittedly, in the early days of my reading, there was much less choice than there is now, and I more often than not ended up with any Penguin Classic I could find. You still often can’t go wrong with one of their volumes, but the range available is so much wider nowadays. Some independent publishers, like Hesperus, Pushkin and Alma, specialise in bringing us lost works in sparkly new versions, and NYRB are also responsible for many. So in no particular order, here are some of my favourites:

happy mosc

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, for their sterling work on bring Platonov to the English-speaking world


Len Rix, champion of Antal Szerb


Anthea Bell, known best for many volumes of Stefan Zweig, but also translator of Irmgard Keun


Joanne Turnbull, who’s given voice to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

gambler alma

Hugh Aplin, quietly translating away so many volumes of Hesperus and Alma Classics

rilke in paris

Will Stone, who rendered “Rilke in Paris” so beautifully and has staunchly defended Zweig’s work


The Maudes, whose translations of Tolstoy were contemporary and are still definitive in my mind


David McDuff, whose versions of Dostoevsky are really wonderful


William Weaver, doyen of Calvino translations

These are just the ones that spring to mind, translators who’ve provided some of the books which have given me so much pleasure recently. Alas, it’s likely that I’ll stay a monolinguist forever, so thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for giving me the freedom to read literature from around the world!

Echoing translations…


When I was considering posting Akhmatova’s “Echo” earlier in the week – for a long time, one of my favourite poems, I had a quick look online for a digital version. I guess I was feeling lazy and didn’t feel like digging out the old handwritten version I had, as I couldn’t remember at the time where it came from.


Well, I was in for a shock! And I shouldn’t have been, really, bearing in mind the amount of grumbling and pondering I’ve done here about the issues of translation, particularly from the Russian! But the three versions I found online of “Echo” were so different from the one I knew and loved, that I feel it’s worthy of contemplation!

Just as a little reminder, here is the version I posted earlier this week:

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

(translated by Richard McKane)

Here is the first version I found online:

Long ago were paths to the past closed,
And what shall I do with past, at all?
What is there?  Just washed with blood flat stones,
Or the door, immured in a wall.
Or the echo, that all time me worries,
Tho’ I pray it to be silent, hard…
To this echo happened the same story,
That – to one, I bear in my heart.

And the second:

There’re no paths to where the former gone is.
I don’t crave for the passed by long ago.
And what is there? The lit with blood floor stones,
The immur’d and forgotten door,
Or echo which still doesn’t have any patience
To be quite mute, though I’ve prayed much for that…
This helpless echo fell in the same station,
In which is one in my heart set.

And finally the third:

All the ways to past are now closed,
What the past for me today, what for?
What do you see there? – The bloody stones,
Or the bricked up surely so heavy door?
Or the echo, which is still repeating
Words, and never could this action stop,
I am asking it to end, but really
It is carrying weight, as in my heart, for long.

Well! What a difference! At some points, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading a different poem (and some of the lines do seem rather clumsy and strange to the English-speaking ear)! And yet, if you look again, you really aren’t – the sense of the short verse, that of the echoing weight of the past in the poet’s heart, which she’ll never be rid of, is still there in all versions. But the elegance is not.

Translating poetry from any language must be unbelievably difficult, and from Russian particularly so. I remember that in the back of my battered old film tie-in paperback of “Doctor Zhivago” from the 1970s there were translations of Zhivago’s poems – two versions, a literal one and one that tried to catch the rhythms of the originals. I recall this being actually quite a useful aid to me as a reader as it helped me to appreciate both aspects.

At the end of the day, I suppose any translation of a poem is going to be a version of it; and I certainly love the version of “Echo” I’ve known for so long. I *did* track down its origin – I took it from an old book I’ve had since the 1970s, “Post War Russian Poetry” (a Penguin).  The only collection of Akhmatova’s work I have is the Selected Poems (again a Penguin), translated by D.M. Thomas. Alas it doesn’t contain “Echo” – but I would have been interested to see how Thomas rendered it!

Translation, Translation, Translation….


Yes, that vexing, troubling subject that exercises my brain so much has reared its head again! This time, it’s come to the fore owing to my plan to read the Russian “Ulysses” – Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”!

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

I must confess that, despite my love of Russian literature, this one has only recently hit my radar, and I’m probably not the only one in that situation as it does seem to have been somewhat neglected over the years. Not much of Bely’s work is available in English and my first encounter with “Petersburg” was when I stumbled across a hardback edition entitled “St. Petersburg” in the local Oxfam Book Shop. I had a quick look, but left it there for a week or two; then, having looked it up online, picked it up and brought it home with me. Turns out it’s a hardback first edition with dust jacket – not bad for the princely sum of £2.49!

However, when the subject of translations starting bothering me so much recently, I did a little more digging and discovered that thing were a bit more complicated with this book. For a start, there are two versions of “Petersburg” – one longer one published in 1916, and a shorter version, heavily edited by Bely, which came out in 1922. To make things worse, there are four translations and I wasn’t clear which one was of which book, and which was considered better/more accurate/more accessible etc etc….. Not a straightforward choice, then.

Having just read the David McDuff translation of “The Brothers Karamazov” and got on very well with the writing style, I thought it would be good to try his version of Bely. So I ordered a bargain price copy of the Penguin version online, thinking this would be what I would get – however, when it arrived it turned out to be the translation by Maguire and Malmstad, since republished by Indiana University Press and reckoned to be a good one! So although that wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was a pleasant surprise as I had been putting off getting the IUP version as it is quite pricey! Then there is the Pushkin Press version, a recent translation by John Elsworth and much-lauded, which I managed to find online, again for a reasonable cost. So I have these three lovelies to choose from:

The three versions of Petersburg!

I sat down last night to have a look at them – after all, I’ve often advocated reading several translations and have tried comparing various versions of books in the past to see which one appeals most. This led to some further discoveries – the Penguin Maguire and Malmstad is based on the later, edited version; the 1st edition hardback translated by Cournos appears to be the same one; and the Pushkin Press is based on the longer, earlier version. So it gets even more complex, especially when you realise that the Maguire and Malmstad has copious notes and the other two versions none at all…. which is a little odd in the Pushkin Press edition. The Penguin notes may even be slightly over the top, but I’d rather have too many than not enough!

At a quick glance, there *are* differences in the translation styles, and oddly enough it was the Maguire and Malmstad which grabbed me most to begin with. But I think I may well splash out on the McDuff so I can compare them all and decide which one I will take the plunge into – truly it’s a difficult business reading translated literature!!!

Why I don’t read Pevear and Volokhonsky translations….


russian alphabet

“As I begin the life-chronicle of my hero, Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in something of a quandary.”

translator: David McDuff (Penguin Books 1993)

“Starting out on the biography of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in some perplexity.”

translators: P/V (Vintage, 1992)

‘Nuff said…….

(and for some awful reason, the Vintage edition has the epigram and dedication on the copyright page – cheapo!)


For an interesting take on the whole translation hype, have a look here.


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