In 1985, Jamey Gambrell took her first trip to the Soviet Union as a reporter for Art and America. Her dispatches brought fresh news of the underground art scene to the United States and introduced her to a wealth of artists in Russia, including Moscow Conceptualists Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and Andrei Monastyrsky. Among that group was writer Vladimir Sorokin, whose first stories were published that same year in the Russian-English art magazine, A-Ya.
Since then, Gambrell has translated work by some of twentieth-century Russia’s most significant writers: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow diaries, fiction by Tatyana Tolstaya, and Alexander Rodchenko’s essays. More recently, she took on four highly stylized novels by Sorokin: Day of the Oprichnik, a dystopic satire of modern Russia, and Ice Trilogy, three books that span the twentieth century and describe the strange tale of a group called the Brotherhood. In a café near her apartment on the Upper West Side in New York, Gambrell and I discussed the particular challenges Sorokin presents.
When did you first meet Sorokin?
I met him in ’88. I had become a familiar face in Russia, and I became friends with artists I knew in New York—Komar and Melamid, Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov. Once you meet one Russian, you meet hundreds. And the art world in Russia was pretty small, so an American from Art in America who spoke Russian? I was a very unusual creature, and everyone introduced me to everybody they possibly could. The first time I met Sorokin was at a kind of picnic/boat ride organized by some of the formally unofficial artists after the Sotheby’s auction. But I didn’t know him very well. And then, for the first time, a lot of people were allowed to go out of the country; a group of German artists invited them to do a show in West Berlin. It was so cool that I could get on a plane and go visit all of these people that I knew, with no visas and nobody tapping the telephones. It was exciting. And that’s when I really met him, really talked to him for the first time.
Was Ice the first book of his that you translated?
I translated a number of stories before Ice, and I did a povest—a Russian literary form that’s like a very, very long short story—called “A Month in Dachau,” which gives you an idea of how fun the content is. That was published in Grand Street in 1984. I read a whole lot of his stuff in manuscript, but nobody was very interested in it. There were three or four stories that were translated for this Russian literary journal in English called Glas.
Though he wrote Ice first, it’s the second of the three books. Was it strange translating them out of order?
As it turned out, it wasn’t that strange. What was strange, from a translator’s point of view, was having to wait so long before the whole book came out. And it’s like, Oh my God, help us! Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel?! Because I’d already done the middle one, and now I have to do the first one, and then I have to do the last one, and it’s years and years before you get to see the book. Your desire for immediate gratification is completely trashed.
I already knew what the central weirdness of the book was. I knew about the brotherhood, and I knew, more or less, what the trilogy was about, but I didn’t know the history of finding the ice, or who Bro was. But once I started translating Bro, it all began to make sense. And then, of course, 23,000 picks up the next sentence from Ice. It’s one book, but they are distinct, because the voices are so different. The first book is only Bro’s voice. Ice is told in many voices, but it has the most third person in it. Then, in 23,000 there’s contemporary Moscow and all of the stuff one expects, or expected, from Russians at the time: gangsters; the brutal, weird crimes; the craziness of the budding commercial world and the cooperatives.
What were the difficulties in translating three interrelated but deeply unique books?
The difficulties of translation are many, but as different as the books are, the task of the translation is really very similar, because you’re dealing with very different voices. In Ice Trilogy there are a lot of them, and they’re extremely varied, and some of them are actual out of Russian life–type voices, and then of course there’s the strange mechanized, dehumanized voice of Bro and others when they start talking about meat machines, which drove me nuts at first when I started reading it. It’s like, This is so boring, this is going to sound so weird. But then I stopped working on the translation, and reread the whole thing in Russian and realized, Well, yeah, it’s extremely strange in Russian. And so, there’s nothing else to do it with. You have to go with that weirdness.
There’s a lot of repetition in his work. The same terms, the same phrases get used over and over. Did that make your task feel rote?
I wouldn’t say it gets boring. It does raise the question of whether it needed editing or if it was on purpose, and actually Sorokin and I never had that conversation. He’s a writer who’s enough in control of his medium that I imagine if he repeated something, he meant to repeat it. But there are plenty of Russian writers who came out of the underground world, where if you managed to get something published, there was never editing. What was editing? Official Soviet artists and writers went through a very strict editing system, which didn’t help their literature very much, but it did mean that things like repetition were probably dealt with. In the underground, editing was considered a form of censorship, so if someone was going to edit you, the response was “Who are you, state censor for the Soviet Union?” Of course there were many books that would have been served well by being cut down by a third. But Sorokin is a real pro, and he’s in control of his language. I’ve asked about certain issues, especially about parts that are particularly difficult, where the language is really bizarre and nonstandard and it’s not really conveying information but a state of mind. Generally, he says no, but sometimes he says, “Oh, you can get rid of it” or “Do whatever you want. It doesn’t really matter.” Other times, he will just say, “I think you have feeling for the character, just write it the way you would.” Which is a little like, “Um, I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Some in Russia have campaigned against the violence and obscenity in his work. The government even tried to prosecute him for it. Did that aspect of his writing bother you?
Not all of his books are quite like that, but the majority are. If I hadn’t already known him, in a general social context among artists, I might not have agreed to it, but he’s so unlike his books. He’s a very soft-spoken and mild-mannered individual. Otherwise, it would have been scary to translate them. Even something like “A Month in Dachau”—after a while it was a matter of what to do with the language, because the language was torture, too. It’s like Verlaine said about what he wanted to do with the French language: “Take eloquence and wring its neck”—break the language, which is particularly pertinent in French, because French is so pretty. Tsvetaeva wrote about some of Rilke’s last poems that French is the most ungrateful of languages for a poet, meaning that the language—its sounds, its nature—overwhelms in poetry. It’s a force, in and of itself, that the poet probably has little traction against. I really think she was right; it’s very overwhelming.
Russian, on the other hand, isn’t. Like English, it’s very difficult to find something that distorts or changes. It’s very difficult to shock in English with language. Not that that was Sorokin’s intention, just to shock. If you look at him in a sense as an abstract painter, where the paint on the canvas is what the painting is about—how the paint is applied, how the strokes are used—there’s no message in a way. Painting is about painting. Words on a page are about words on a page. I think that dehumanizing, really extreme violence that takes place in some of the novels is partly an attempt to do the same thing. At a certain point the brotherhood of the twenty-three thousand stop being able to read letters on a page; it just becomes black ink moving around, and words don’t have any meaning. They also can’t see faces; there’s no individuality. So I think, in an American context, you might call him a modernist, plain and simple.