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Posts Tagged ‘Russian’

Translating Pushkin Hills: An Interview with Katherine Dovlatov

March 26, 2014 | by


Photo: Nina Alovert

Sergei Dovlatov, one of the great writers of the Soviet samizdat period, immigrated to New York City in 1978 and published his bone-dry, deeply thoughtful stories in The New Yorker all through the 1980s, until his tragic early death in 1990. Even in translation, Dovlatov’s work is a gateway drug to Russian humor: twenty percent booze, fifty percent understatement, and thirty percent bureaucratic despair. The writer is a household name in Russia, and the publication of Pushkin Hills—the first English translation of his 1983 novel Zapavednik, translated by his daughter, Katherine—has been greeted with celebration in the émigré literary scene. 

The autobiographical novel is narrated by an unpublished writer, Boris Alikhanov, who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills, a group of estates affiliated with Alexander Pushkin. Alikhanov’s wife and daughter are leaving him for the West, and he is thus forced to weigh the merits of abandoning his country, his mother tongue, and even Pushkin, his literary heritage. The alternative is to remain in Soviet Russia, where almost everything external is false, and where the absurdities of the Pushkin estate function as a microcosm for the society. As the narrator observes: “Christ, I thought, everyone here is insane. Even those who find everyone else insane.”

Using language to subvert the regime was one of Dovlatov’s specialties, and his novel is rich with characters who speak in tongues—the more insane you are, the more sane, perhaps, in a mad society. Dovlatov writes with a deceptive minimalism—in fact, his humor and linguistic dexterity have made him one of the most difficult Russian writers to translate. His daughter Katherine, who also represents his estate, was happy to discuss her technique with me.

Pushkin Hills was originally published in 1983, after your father had emigrated to New York. But he wrote it in Russian. Can you talk about that?

Father was “nudged” to leave Russia in August 1978. Like many émigrés of the Third Wave, he spent a bit of time in Vienna before coming to New York in the early months of 1979. He knew a lot of words in English, and he could get by on the street or supermarket, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he was fluent. He wrote everything in Russian. His writing is language driven, and so of course he wrote in the only language he knew well. Read More »


Shades of Red: On Indian Summer

October 1, 2012 | by

Babie leto. The summer of old women. Even today, years after leaving Russia, that’s what I always call Indian summer in my head. The stress on the first syllable, the second merging seamlessly into that bright le of false warmth. The time of year I’m happiest to live where I do, forgiving for once the winter cold that lasts just a little too long, the days that grow just a little too short a little too quickly—and then seem to stay there indefinitely. The summer of the old women. I’ve often wondered why it is that some elderly hags should get special claim to these days of deceptive warmth, what it is in the ember of reds and honeyed yellows of the leaves that calls to them above everyone else. It seems somehow unfair, that privileged ownership.

A falling spindle of fine thread, catching the rays of the sun on its way down from the sky, letting the light play off its gossamer thinness. The flower crab spider’s web carried through the air by the autumn wind. It’s the finely spun yarn of a young girl who has been weaving without rest for days and nights on end. Long, long ago she was kidnapped by the sun, and now, she must spend her endless lifetime spinning fine thread for his pleasure. On the bright, clear days of babie leto, you can see her handiwork spiraling through the air. She is the woman of the second summer. And she may be timeless, but old she most certainly is not.

A lumbering long-haired creature of mythological proportions who comes out of hiding with the first notes of warmth that follow the early fall cold. His name is Baba. His hair is like a collection of finely spun spider’s webs—and he can use it to tickle people to their deaths. He is the true owner of those waning days of warmth, old women be damned. They’d better watch out for his deceptively inviting hair.

There are the more prosaic explanations, of course. Read More »