Opening Up New Worlds: A Conversation About Fantasy in Translation

What if someone wrote one of the best fantasy novels of all time, and there was no way for you to read it?

For a decade, that has been the reality for many prospective readers of Vita Nostra, by the co-writing team of Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Though hailed as the best fantasy novel of the 21st century by the attendees of Eurocon 2008 and the recipient of some eight literary awards, for years, the book was simply inaccessible to many readers, for one simple reason: the authors published it in their native tongue, which made it off-limits to anyone unable to read Russian.

Thousands of science fiction and fantasy novels are published in English every year, but only a small percentage of those began life as works in other languages—which means those of us who can read only in English are missing out on countless books we’d love, if we even knew they existed. Consider the Dyachenkos: in Russia, they are revered fantasists with a bibliography of more than 20 celebrated novels. Yet until this year, only one of them had been published in English—The Scar, released by Tor in 2012 to great reviews but a muted response from readers (possibly because it shared a title and a glancingly similar cover with a Hugo-nominated book by China Miéville).

Typically for a non-English SFF book to make that leap, it requires strong sales (Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, the only translated novel to win the Hugo Award, has a massive following in its native China) or the backing of an influential champion. Or, perhaps, both, and not a little bit of luck: Vita Nostra was obviously a beloved book, but it wasn’t until it drew the attention of author and literary critic Lev Grossman (The Magicians) that it garnered interest from U.S. publishers (it is being released here by Harper Voyager).

But how did Grossman learn about the book? Well, that’s the truly interesting story—because a large part of the credit for the success of any novel in translation goes to the person responsible for dragging it from one language into another. Grossman was personally contacted by a reader who’d read the Russian novel—about a young girl who enrolls in a school for the magically gifted and finds the practice of magic to be nothing like Hogwarts promised—and thought it shared common blood with the book Grossman had just published to great fanfare; with his urging, she provided him a few translated pages, then a few more, then a few more.

Recently, we talked over email with that reader-cum-translator, Julia Meitov Hersey, who ultimately wound up translating the whole of Vita Nostra into English, about how her love of stories led her to working on translating them, and the odd journey the Dyachenkos novel took to the shelves of bookstores in the English-speaking world.

What is your background in fantasy? Did you grow up reading the genre? 
I am rather a cliche—I was shy and unpopular, prefered books to people, and grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, from Decameron to Steinbeck.

My love for sci-fi and fantasy began with The Martian Chronicles and the Narnia books. I remember one particular summer—I must have been in seventh or eighth grade—when I read fourteen volumes of the Anthology of Modern Science Fiction and Fantasy in two months. I still reread some of the stories in that collection every now and then just to relive the magic of that summer, with its dandelion wine and shooting stars.

I loved speculative fiction back then, and I still love it now, although I am less interested in spaceships and robots these days. I do still prefer human stories where the characters find themselves in slightly unrealistic situations—just to make it more interesting. I love One Hundred Years of Solitude, Life After Life, The Leftovers—they are very different books, but the common denominator is that all these novels transcend the limits of one particular genre; these authors tell a damn good story, and they tell it with extraordinary literary taste.

I’m interested to know how you became interested in translation work, and what drew you to translating a Russian novel in particular.
The second part of your question is easy—Russian is the only language I am qualified to translate from. I grew up in Moscow, so technically Russian is my native language. However, I have lived in the States for over twenty years, and my written Russian is by now somewhat archaic, so I am much more comfortable translating from Russian into English.

The reason I started translating was my frustration with the US book market. There is so much remarkable foreign fiction out there, and we know so little of it. We celebrate the big wins, such as Stieg Larsson or Haruki Murakami, but there are so many phenomenal works of literature out there that just don’t get the attention they so richly deserve. Off the top of my head, in Russia we have Dmitry Bykov, Narine Abgaryan, Yana Wagner—extraordinary writers that should be known and celebrated.

As a result, every time I wanted to buy a book for my husband or my kids, I would realize that it didn’t exist. So I started translating just so I could share my favorites with them. I started off with Sergey Lukyanenko’s The Knights of the Forty Islands, then went on to a novel by the Strugatsky brothers, and continued with the Dyachenkos. Until the Dyachenkos, translating books was just a hobby of mine, and I didn’t think anything I translate would ever be published.

How did you first encounter the work of the Dyachenkos?
I try to keep up with the new Russian literature, partly to avoid losing touch with my culture, and partly to keep up my Russian language skills. I usually buy Russian books online, and I picked up a copy of Vita Nostra because it was on sale. Once I read it, I went on to read the entire body of Marina and Sergey’s work—at this point over 20 novels and countless short stories.

How did you come to translate Vita Nostra? Were there other books that you almost translated instead?
Vita Nostra was a revelation. Even at first reading, I found so many levels—yes, it was about a school where practical magic is taught, but it was also about raising children and how far they can and should be pushed. It was about how fragile and anxious we are when we truly love someone. It was about the power of language. It was about responsibility and whether the end justifies the means. And here I have barely scratched the surface.

Vita Nostra’s complexity absolutely overwhelmed and terrified me. I would never have attempted to translate it if it weren’t for Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians trilogy and the upcoming novel The Bright Sword. I went to his reading at the Boston Barnes & Noble when The Magicians first came out, and mentioned to him how he and the Dyachenkos must have been tapping into some sort of collective unconscious, because the two books had so much in common. Lev asked me to translate a few pages, then asked for more, and I just kept going.

Vita Nostra strikes me as a very complex work to translate, as it deals so much with complex, quasi-philosophical language and confounding logic. What was particularly challenging about this translation project?
There were a few things that kept me up at night: the technical terms (astronomy, psychiatry, etc.), hidden quotes [from other novels] (I am pretty sure I missed a few), and the way the language changes from deceptively simple in the “reality” scenes, like descriptions of Torpa [the town in which the novel is set] and the “transformation” episodes (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here). Some of the scenes were so emotionally charged that, when I worked on them, I actually forgot to blink—and ended up needing artificial tears.

I haven’t read a great deal of Russian fiction, and the novel’s style felt slightly alien to me. Do you think there are marked differences in the way Eastern and Western writers approach writing the fantastical?
Yes! And not just the fantastical. I think Western writers don’t just rely on sheer talent. Their books, in any genre, are much more structured. It may have a lot to do with stricter requirements and an extended editing phase—I don’t know enough about Eastern publishing to be the judge.

And sometimes it’s all about grammar. Since I grew up writing in Russian, I feel the difference all the time. Word order is one example of major differences. In Russian I have a lot more freedom in arranging words in a sentence the way I want. English demands discipline. In Russian, the use of em dashes and ellipses is much more acceptable, and I always have to watch how many em dashes per page I can really afford. I love em dashes with passion—almost as much as I love the Oxford comma. I am so grateful to David Pomerico for curbing my em dash addiction. [Editor’s note: I left in all of the em dashes in Julia’s emailed responses.]

Russian-influenced fantasy is a bit of a trend for Western writers right now—Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver; Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. If you’ve gotten a chance to read any of these works, I’m curious to know how they strike you in comparison to native Slavic fantasy novels.
I read and loved both The Bear and the Nightingale and Uprooted, and would like to throw Catherynne Valente’s Deathless into the mix, because it is such a beautiful book. I am continuously amazed at how respectful these books are of their Eastern European origins, and how much research the authors conduct. It may be a trend, but it’s not an easy trend to follow—one must be absolutely fascinated by the subject, and in these books, the authors’ love for Russia shines through.

Strangely enough, I am not as familiar with the native Slavic fantasy novels as I should be. I think I instinctively shy away from them because I don’t really care about the Slavic element by itself—I just want a good story.

What efforts did you make to preserve the distinctly Russian flavor of the novel?
Interestingly enough, I didn’t think of Vita Nostra as having a distinctly Russian flavor. Sure, there are some realia of living and studying in Russia, like sleeping in berths on cross-country trains, having university entrance exams after you graduate from high school, or eating something as indescribable as anchovies in tomato sauce, but Sasha’s story could have happened in any country. Perhaps because my university experience was so similar to Sasha’s (minus the world-changing techniques), I managed to preserve the Russian flavor without really trying to. I was more concerned with the fact that some of the concepts were slightly outdated, like cassette tapes and CD players.

Can you think of examples of anything that literally didn’t translate, and what you had to do to get around them?
Names! There are so many variations of each Russian name, and each variation means something different. From neutral Sasha to informal Sashka to affectionate Sashenka to stern or official Alexandra—and all these nuances are lost on the English-language reader. I made the decision to eliminate all these variations and stick with Sasha, but I hated myself for it.

From what I was able to discover online, your translation was commercially available as an ebook before Harper Voyager acquired the rights. I’m curious to know if there was additional editing done on this now widely available version?
Yes, as my friend Anatoly Belilovsky says, it’s a bit of a Cinderella story. We were able to release Vita Nostra as an e-book through Trident Digital Media and Publishing a few years ago. Then, thanks to the endless heroic efforts of Josh Getzler of HSG Agency, who is now representing both the Dyachenkos and me, we were able to acquire the rights to the novel. He offered it to David Pomerico at Harper Voyager.

David didn’t make a lot of structural changes to the manuscript, but he and his team have truly made the text come alive. In some cases it was smoothing out some awkward phrasing or catching a discrepancy, but there had been some situations when a simple change would make the page sparkle. I remember one example when David changed a single sentence from “Go ahead, check, Kostya said,” to “‘Go ahead’, Kostya said. ‘Check.’”

But all in all, it [will have taken] nine long years for Vita Nostra to become widely available, and so many people were involved.

Are you involved in any more translation projects right now, whether from these authors or others? Is there a “dream project” you’d love to work on?
I have translated four more novels by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko: The Cave, The Valley of Conscience, The Ritual, and Alyona and Aspirin.

Alyona and Aspirin has also been purchased by Harper Voyager and will be published in the fall of 2020. It is, according to Publishers Marketplace, set in “an unnamed city where a well-known journalist and DJ saves a young girl and her teddy bear (who are NOT what—or from where—they seem) from a bunch of toughs—and sets in motion events that force him to confront his formerly stable and enjoyable existence and glimpse the girl’s perspective—full of death and fear—leading to confrontation and possible revelation of her true nature.”

Currently, I am working on a few screenplays and synopses for StoryWorld, a production company based in California. I am also in the middle of translating The Beam, a new YA novel by Marina and Sergey, and a collection of fairy-tales they wrote for their daughter Anastasia.

My dream project? I have a long list of Dyachenko novels I need to get to. I would love to translate Narine Abgaryan’s lovely music box of a novel called Manyunya, Yana Wagner’s Vongozero, or Dmitry Bykov’s In Charge of Evacuation. I wish I could work on some Strugatsky novels, but Olena Bormashenko is just too damn good at it.

I also want to continue working on the the Metamorphoses cycle, of which Vita Nostra is the first part. The other two novels in the cycle are loosely connected to Vita Nostra thematically, but are very different in style and concept.

There is so much I want to do. I just need to remember to blink.

Preorder Vita Nostra, to be published (in English) on November 13, 2018. 

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