Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 5: Jamey Gambrell, In and Out of Russia

"By reading literature in translation, we become citizens of the world."

Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 5: Jamey Gambrell, In and Out of Russia

THE FIRST TIME I SAW the name “Jamey Gambrell” was around 1980, in Life magazine. It appeared as a translator byline in an article about the Soviet-Afghan War, written by the Russian reporter Artyom Borovik, who had been embedded with Soviet troops in Afghanistan. I remember being struck by the honor, as I saw it, of being chosen to bring such an eye-opening account to American readers. At the time, I was a freshman in high school and assumed Gambrell must be a well-established translator. I had no idea that the Borovik piece was the first translation she had ever published. Since then, she has translated scores of articles, short stories, essays, and poems from the Russian, and more than a dozen books — including many by the contemporary Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin, most recently, his acclaimed novel, The Blizzard. While creating this body of work, Gambrell has led a multifarious career as an art journalist, magazine editor, documentary film producer, and professor. This spring, on the heels of the New York premiere of the one-man show “Brodsky/Baryshnikov” — which featured her translated surtitles of Joseph Brodsky’s poetry — Gambrell received an email from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, informing her she had won the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation, which recognizes “a significant contribution to the art of literary translation.” Mistaking the email for spam, she nearly hit delete. Luckily, she paused and opened it instead. In May, she came to New York to receive the award. In our interview, we discussed the fertile serendipity of her continent-hopping career.


LIESL SCHILLINGER: This spring you won the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation, awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Did you know that was going to happen?

JAMEY GAMBRELL: I had absolutely no idea whatsoever. I got an email in my inbox that I almost deleted as I was going through on the iPad; but then I noticed it said, “Dear Ms. Gambrell,” so it probably wasn’t spam, because spam usually uses your email address. I mean, it’s not an open nominating process, unlike the PEN Translation Prize, so you don’t know about it, and it’s not given often. It was just very gratifying.

I loved your translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik — what a brilliant book — and you have just translated his novel The Blizzard to great acclaim — Masha Gessen gave it a terrific review in The New York Times Book Review, and praised your translation — she wrote, “Her translation is as elegant, playful and layered as the original — and never appears labored.” It seems to me The Blizzard has received more praise in this country than Sorokin’s excellent previous novels. Why do you think that might be?

I do think The Blizzard has received more attention than the others. I think it may be because each book he writes is very different from the others. He is a very good writer, but because his style varies so much, it’s taken a number of novels for people to get a sense of him, and for word to get around. 

Who are some of the other Russian authors you have translated? 

Marina Tsvetaeva, Aleksander Rodchenko, Tatyana Tolstaya, Joseph Brodsky, a little Chekhov, some others, too.

From which languages do you translate, and how did you come by them?

I’ve translated from French and Spanish, but mostly I translate from Russian — which I studied in college, first at the University of Texas in Austin, and later at the Sorbonne and at Columbia. I’m living proof that you can actually learn Russian even if you didn’t grow up with it. I have always been a language person. I started with French. I’m a New Yorker, I grew up in the village, and I went to high school at Elisabeth Irwin in Manhattan, which is sort of a red-diaper baby progressive school. I had two years of French literature taught in French there, with an excellent teacher who was Belgian; and we had the choice of studying Russian literature in translation, or Greek, or Latin American literature. I took Russian literature in English, and just loved it. I read everything I could get my hands on, starting at about 15 or 16. At UT, I was a French major, but I also took one college year of fairly intensive Russian. I’d studied a little German as a kid, so I didn’t freak out when I saw cases and tenses in Russian. Still, unlike German and English, Russian doesn’t have articles. Because UT didn’t have much of a French department, I went on NYU’s study abroad program in Paris, where I learned a lot of French, but I also studied Russian, alongside French students who had studied Russian for five or six years preparing for their Baccalauréats. I had composition, I had translation, I had conversation, I had a lot to memorize. I learned a lot of French from having to translate into it from Russian for my classes.

What was the first book you translated?

The first book I translated, in 1991, was a collection of short stories by Tatyana Tolstaya, Sleepwalker in a Fog. Tolstaya wrote that after her first collection, On the Golden Porch.

Were you in Russia when you did that translation?

I spent most of the 1990s in and out of Russia. I was in Russia during the August coup of 1991, when Gorbachev was put under house arrest in Sochi. I was working on a film by Andrei Konchalovsky, called Blizhny Krug­ [The Inner Circle], based on the life of Stalin’s movie projectionist. The day we were supposed to start working at Mosfilm, a friend called me at 6:30 in the morning and said, “Do you know what’s happening?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Turn on the TV.” I had been up late reading memoirs of Lavrentiy Beria [head of the NKVD, precursor of the KGB under Stalin] and Vyacheslav Molotov [a member of the “troika,” which included Beria and Georgy Malenkov, and briefly ruled the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin]. There was nothing on but classical music, always a bad sign in the Soviet Union.

When did you become aware of translating as a thing to do?

I started translating when I started learning French. I just did it for fun. For publication, the first thing I translated from Russian appeared in Life magazine, a piece on the Afghanistan war by Artyom Borovik. It must have been 1979 or ’80. He was a journalist, famous for his coverage of Afghanistan. Life ran a lot of excerpts of his articles from the Russian press. He was writing in a much more direct way than Soviet journalists had done before. Now, you can see that it’s still really Soviet in tone — there is a lot of Soviet pathos about “our boys,” similar to our American pathos about the military — but it revealed more about the actual conditions of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan than anything ever had in the Soviet press. He was embedded with different groups, it was much more brutal than he described, but still it was more realistic than other accounts. At this point, I translate mostly literature, but for many years I translated a lot for art magazines, both Artforum and Art in America. I was an editor at Artforum with Ingrid Sischy, and then I became a half-time permanent staff editor and writer at Art in America for about 15 years.

Do you, unlike most of the translators with whom I have spoken, work more as a journalist than as a translator?

When I was in the art world, I wrote often. I have always been a writer and a translator and an editor, doing all those three things, which was nice, because I could have different kinds of work to do. I have been co-producer and written the script for a couple of documentary films. One was on the Sotheby’s auction in 1988 in Moscow, which was a big glasnost event. The film was called USSaRt, directed by Barbara Herbich. I interviewed the artists in their studios for the film. Much later, I translated a volume for MOMA of writings by Rodchenko, in conjunction with a retrospective. I met Andrew Solomon in Moscow in 1988; he called me before he went to Moscow, because he had read some of my articles, and he went with us on a couple of shoots for an independent film project. He wanted to write what eventually became The Irony Tower. He met a lot of the artists who appear in his book through Sotheby’s and through other artists who were in the same circles that we were filming. USSaRt aired on PBS and on Russia’s Channel Two, in 1991.

How did you come to start translating?

I had friends who wanted things translated, and I did a lot of translating just on my own, either for them or because I was interested in it, and then eventually things started getting published. In the 1980s, I translated a lot of articles by Komar and Melamid, and I also traveled with them and interpreted for them. But I was working on literature at the same time, translating the diaries of Marina Tsvetaeva. Toward the end of the decade, I met Tatyana Tolstaya and started translating her stories, and before long, my focus moved to literature.

How, in your experience, does the act of translating differ from the act of writing? Does it use a different muscle?

First of all, I write, but I don’t write fiction; but I’d say it is a different muscle, because I can always make myself sit down at the computer to translate, no matter how uninspired I’m feeling. I can make myself go forward, and at least work on a draft of a translation. There’s always someone else’s text, which determines what the next step is. So if you’re someone who tends to procrastinate or gets blanked out, it allows you to do something that will ultimately contribute to a good translation even if you are feeling completely brain-dead. When you’re doing your own writing, you can have a day when things click, but there are also days when you sit there blankly, thinking, what now? When I was doing straightforward reports and interviews from the art scene in Moscow, Barcelona, or Madrid, that was easier.

What do you like about translating?

One of things I like about it is that it is the most intimate and intensive form of reading there is. You know how you have an explication de texte in French? If you like doing those kinds of close analyses, which I always did, well, you do that in the course of translating. You almost get to the point where you see things or make connections the author isn’t even aware of. At times, it feels like you are putting yourself in a trance.

You have translated both living and dead authors; what is your experience of working with living authors?

It is an honor to have the living author there to answer your questions. It is an honor, because it’s an opportunity. Both Tolstaya and Sorokin are really good to work with. Tolstaya is a real philologist; she knows English and German and quite a bit of Greek, and she knew very well what she did know and what she didn’t. Volodya [a nickname for Vladimir] is that way too; I can ask him about tone, intonation, register, ask him if a word should be formal or zhargon, slang. I know Volodya well enough that if I need to email him along the way I could, and he’s really good about getting back to me. But I try not to bug him. They are both very respectful of translators and know that ultimately the decision needs to be made by the person whose language it is.

Some translators with whom I have spoken have told me they had problems working with living authors, who interfered too much in the process.

The danger of working with a living author is when they know English, but not as well as they think they do, and misread parts of your text. I’ve heard of one author who looked up English words in the dictionary, and based on the definition, decided the translator was wrong, and wanted the words changed. But the words the author wanted were wrong.

What are the advantages and perils of dictionary definitions?

Dictionaries are, of course, absolutely necessary, and I love dictionaries. When I’m teaching a translation seminar and tell my students they should buy dictionaries, they look at me like I’m insane, and say, “The actual book?” I say yes. They are used to online dictionaries — Polyglossum or ABBYY Lingvo — and those are good, but you need the paper ones, too. I have a huge collection of dictionaries. Online dictionaries don’t go into great depth for the most part. Generally speaking, when you are dealing with a complex author or subject, there is a point you get to where you need many examples of usage, and you need to look at the root of the word. For instance, with a Russian word like бессмысленный, which might mean thoughtless, or stupid, or mindless, or unconscious, the context is very important, and you look to the root, мысль: thought or idea, for guidance. There might be context in English where if you use it, it means not having senses at all, and you have to juggle between the two languages. Certain words are used in one context in one language, but not in the other. In that kind of case, it is really helpful to have many dictionaries and encyclopedias. I have a lot of old Soviet dictionaries and reprints of 19th-century dictionaries, like Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Great Living Russian Language.

What is your process?

Generally speaking, I tend to do a very rough draft first, just to get through the whole thing, and because, by the end of the rough draft, I have a sense of what language is going to be particularly important in the book — the usage of certain words is going to repeat itself. This technique is especially very important in poetry, but it matters in novels too. In other words, when I first encounter a work, I do not know yet if a given word or phrase I come across is a chance appearance, or if it will come to play an important part in the language of the book. So, I go through the manuscript once, then I go back to it and I may do 10 more drafts. I remember in one of Tatyana’s stories, there was a character who thought he was a good poet, but he wasn’t, and he launched into this long, rhymed extrapolation, dense with references to Pushkin, Russian folklore, myths, and proverbs — an incredibly rich piece of writing, very, very evocative to a Russian reader. It was rife with quotations from Pushkin, which any Russian would recognize but few Americans would, and there were also little nursery rhymes that Russian children would know — like “гусы, гусы, гa гa гa; естб хотите? да да да!” [“Geese, geese, hiss, hiss, hiss; Are you hungry? Yes, Yes, Yes!”] I must have spent three weeks on these three or four pages alone. I went back to it again and again. Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning and say, “That’s how I want to do it!” In that sense, I think that’s where being a translator and a writer overlap; when you are working on a piece like that, it sits in your head and simmers, and there is a process going on even if you are not aware of it. You will be in the middle of something, talking to someone, and you’ll suddenly break off and go, “Oh! That’s the word!” It is so wonderful when that happens — so rewarding. One of the most famous Russian translators of English is a man named Viktor Golyshev, who was a friend of Joseph Brodsky’s. I remember talking to him about how he goes about translation; he said that he sits down and reads the whole book before he begins; but once he finally starts translating, he goes sentence by sentence, and doesn’t advance to the next sentence until he’s got the previous one polished, but I can’t work that way. 

Have you ever translated something that has been previously translated, and if so, what’s your policy on looking at the prior translations?

I usually ignore them. When I am done with mine, though, I may go back and look at how somebody else has done them. But I don’t have that much problem with that, because mostly I translate work that hasn’t been translated before.

Do you have a favorite among the works you’ve translated?

One of my favorites is a book of the essays and diaries of Marina Tsvetaeva, which she wrote mostly between 1918 and 1922 — after the Revolution, but before she left Russia [Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922, 2002]. They are like workbooks for her poetry, in a way. You will understand her poetry differently after you have read them. They’re very difficult, and they had never been translated before. I worked on that for over 15 years, on and off.

How did you come across these writings of Tsvetaeva?

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, Tsvetaeva hadn’t been published a lot, but I knew about her because I worked part time in a Russian bookstore called Russica, at 799 Broadway. It was on the third floor, so people only came there if they knew about it, and really cared about Russian writers. A wonderful émigré, Sasha Sumerkin, who was Brodsky’s Russian secretary, worked there. He started publishing reprints of books of poetry from the ’20s, by Akhmatova and Mikhail Kuzmin, for example, and then started publishing original work by all sorts of people. He came out with a five-volume set of the collected poems of Tsvetaeva, which had not been published in Russia at the time. This was in the early 1980s. They started with two volumes of her prose, and I worked with them on that. A lot of it had been published in émigré publications between the wars, between 1922, when she left Russia, and 1938, when she went back. There were old microfiches of these publications, so I worked on that project, and that’s how I became interested in her.

What do you regard as your most significant collaborations?

Both Tolstaya and Sorokin. I met Sorokin in the late 1980s; he came out of the same group of unofficial underground artists as Komar and Melamid and artists like that, these Moscow conceptual artists. Sorokin is known as a writer, but he is also an artist; in fact, he’s painting now — he had an exhibit of his paintings at the last Venice Biennale. We became friends long before I translated anything of his. We met at an exhibition in Berlin actually, in 1988. It was called the Bahnhof Exhibition. It was the first time the Soviets had permitted artists to go to the West, under Gorbachev. A group of German artists came to Moscow and did a show, then a group of Soviet artists showed their work in Berlin. It was 1988, and stuff was starting to happen between Europeans and Russians, so they did something in Moscow, and got all these artists invited to Berlin to put on a show, which was more meaningful for the Russians because they had never been out of the Soviet Union. I spent the whole summer of 1989 in the Soviet Union, while Gorbachev was presiding over the first elected congress of Soviet People’s Deputies. I hung out with all those artists while it was going on, and read the first drafts of many of Sorokin’s stories in samizdat manuscript. A little later, Natasha Perova, a real champion of contemporary Russian literature, asked me if I would translate some of Sorokin’s stories for a small journal she was running, called Glas — from the root word for voice, like glasnost. It formerly had been the Soviet journal Soviet Literature, which published Russian literature in English, in horrible translations (or nonnative translations, let’s put it that way), but after it was kind of privatized, in 1991, she improved it. Sorokin was very known in Russia in literary underground circles, but not outside Russia at all, so I translated him for Natasha Perova, and then I translated a few things for Jean Stein at Grand Street. By then, I was already translating Tolstaya and various other people, and I had worked with Joseph Brodsky. The first novel of Sorokin’s I translated was Ice, that came out in 2006. New York Review Books published it. 

What do we get out of reading foreign literature in translation?

We become citizens of the world. There’s a body of literature out there, very good, very interesting literature, and if you’re not trying to know the literature of other countries, you’re impoverishing your understanding of the world. Americans read much less literature in translation than people in other countries. For a long time, the number that went out was three percent — only three percent of the books published in this country were translations. I don’t know if that’s changing in terms of numbers of books sold, but I do think more literature in translation is being published lately, by places like Words Without Borders, Archipelago, New York Review Books, FSG, New Vessel Press; these are people who are very interested in world literature.

Whether or not there is more interest in literature in translation lately, do you think the work of translators is getting more recognition than it once did?

I think they are getting a little more recognized. It is hard to say; but, for example, it is really shocking nowadays if a translator isn’t mentioned in a review. But usually they’re mentioned and not much is said; and I understand why — because it is very difficult to talk about the quality of a translation, particularly if you don’t know the language it’s being translated from. For instance, if I were to review a book translated from Chinese, I can’t evaluate the accuracy and all kinds of other things; I can just tell you if it reads well for me.

Do you read much literature in translation from countries besides Russia?

I don’t have nearly as much time for reading books that have no relation to Russia.

You recently translated a variety of Brodsky poems for a one-man show performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, conceived by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. It had its New York premiere this spring. What inspired that production? I sense there’s a big Brodsky renaissance, or reconsideration going on?

Last year, Brodsky would have been 75; he was born in 1940. This is the 20th anniversary of his death. They made a big deal of it in Russia last year; they’re trying to co-opt him as a Russian nationalist, it’s very bizarre. Someone just wrote a biography called Brodsky as a Russian Poet, meaning, not a Jew. They did some kind of documentary on him on Russian TV. It’s more than rehabilitating him; they’re trying to say, if he were alive he’d be a Putin supporter and he would come back to Russia. Baryshnikov told me that on May 24 last year, which would have been Brodsky’s 75th birthday, there were poetry readings in Petersburg and Moscow, where people of all ages came and recited Brodsky; they knew the words like Russians do, by heart. It went on for hours and hours and hours. Pretty amazing.

What did your work on Brodsky and Baryshnikov entail, and did you have a prior Brodsky connection?

I have translated some of Brodsky’s essays. For the Hermanis theater piece, I retranslated Brodsky’s poetry for the Baryshnikov performance. It’s really hard but it’s really interesting. What makes it so hard is, this is not a translation to be read on paper. People read this on surtitles projected onto the set as Baryshnikov recites or reads, so the text is important but it can’t be too distracting. One of the poems I had previously translated, so I redid part of my own translations.

Do you think Brodsky would have liked Sorokin’s novels?

Brodsky was very picky, but I think he would acknowledge Volodya’s incredible abilities with language.

Is there some characteristic trait that literary translators have in common?

Translators share a love of language, a curiosity about it. And you do have to be focused. I guess you have to be very detail-oriented, though you wouldn’t say I was detail-oriented.

How would you fill in the blanks in this sentence? A translation is to the original as X is to Y?

I have two thoughts about it. My first thought was, as reality is to a dream; and the other which is more mundane is a blocking rehearsal in theater. Not a dress rehearsal, but rather where the actors read the words and everyone stands in their places, and the director gives instructions, and figures out how it all comes together. Seen that way, a translation is to the original as a blocking rehearsal is to a finished performance. But in a funny way, I think the translation is to the original like reality is to a dream, because there’s a dream state you get into when you’re translating, when all is going well, when things have extreme clarity but don’t necessarily make sense when you look at them logically. But in the context of the dream, which is the original, they make total sense. You have to put them into reality.


 Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic and translator.

LARB Contributor

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and many other publications. She translates fiction and nonfiction from German, French, and Italian; recent novels translated include Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic (Viking), and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils (Penguin Classics). She is the author of the book Wordbirds, an illustrated lexicon of necessary neologisms for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster).


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