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Translating Pushkin Hills: An Interview with Katherine Dovlatov

March 26, 2014 | by

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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The autobiographical novel is narrated by an unpublished writer, Boris Alikhanov, who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills, a group of estates affiliated with Alexander Pushkin.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 »

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