I received a beautiful hardback copy of Brisbane in advance of the book/blog tour for the launch of the English edition from Plough Publishing. I was under no obligation to write a positive review. The dust cover is stunning and the book inside is blue with white lettering. Part of the cover design (six wavy lines representing vibrating guitar strings) is embossed on the front cover. On the dust cover there is writing along these lines. The top two lines are in Cyrillic script; the remainder are quotes from the English translation.
Marian Schwartz explained, ‘The second string, in Cyrillic, is actually a conversation in Russian and Ukrainian!’
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!’ is a well known saying. This novel merits a good, somewhat enigmatic cover design.
As I read Brisbane I was bearing in mind that I hoped to interview the translator.
Here is the interview with Marian Schwartz (who according to her bio in Brisbane has won numerous prizes for translation):
Thank you for making this novel accessible to English speakers, Marian. Translators, like illustrators, are often taken for granted.
As a prize-winning translator do you have a set procedure for tackling the translation of a new book? Once you have translated it do you go back and edit your work?
I like to think of a translation as involving four stages. My first time through is sinfully fun: I translate nonstop and put down every stray thought, every spark of inspiration, every wild possibility that comes to mind without looking anything up or worrying about consistency. Sometimes those sparks are word choices. Or I’ll pick up on a tone of voice, or a passage will remind me of another author. Absolute fireworks.
The next pass has its pleasures as well, when I go through the text painstakingly to make sure I’ve read the original correctly, to do any research needed (taking time to go down many a rabbit hole), and to compile a list of queries that require the author’s input. Or a native speaker’s.
Once all those questions have been answered, I set the Russian original aside and work on the text as an English text. This is such a critical moment because the translator is recreating another writer’s voice, which is not quite the same thing as writing as if you were the writer writing in your language. Because translators, too, have voices, aesthetic preferences, and those always come through in the translation.
Lastly, I read the whole thing out loud, as any writer should. It’s amazing how much your ear picks up that your eye missed.
That’s a lot of work! Brisbane is a novel of over 300 pages originally in Russian with some Ukrainian. It includes technical terms about music and about pronunciation differences between the two languages. I noticed from your Twitter bio that, like the main protagonist (Gleb), you enjoy playing the guitar. No doubt that helped with some of the musical terms. Was much research needed?
Even with the musical terminology, I went to a trained musician to make sure everything was just so. I find that that kind of scientific precision gives a text a certain sheen. Over the years I’ve consulted with specialists from geologists to food scholars to make those technical points perfect. For BRISBANE, I even checked with my guitar teacher to make sure we say “pick” rather than “plectrum.” Most readers aren’t specialists, of course, but my goal is to produce a text that is error-free to a specialist.
Towards the end of the book as Gleb’s Parkinson’s disease progressed I enjoyed the juxtaposition of tremolo and tremor. There is more wordplay with headlines from The Palindrome. What was the original language of these?
Like most of the novel, these were originally in Russian. The use of Ukrainian is very limited, which is why I chose to mark it with italics.
Weren’t those palindromes entertaining? As it turns out, neither Vodolazkin nor I actually invented the palindromes; we worked from the many lists of palindromes available online. In fact, one of the characters, Kleshchuk, got his name retrospectively from a particularly great palindrome Vodolazkin used. Unfortunately, “Kleshchuk” doesn’t appear in any English palindromes, but I’m very happy with the ones I did use.
Another challenge for you as the translator must have been the song – keeping the original metre to fit the music. Do you enjoy these puzzles?
Perhaps it’s more a matter of imagery, emotions, and tone that one looks for in translating songs than the original meter, strictly speaking. After all, words can be shifted to fit music. I do enjoy translating poems and songs that appear in novels because I’m working inside such a rich context and have a deep sense of how the songs fit into the text. Although I never translate stand-alone poetry, I’m quite proud of the poetry and songs I’ve translated in various books.
While you were translating Brisbane were you immersed in the story as I imagine the author was or did you remain detached?
Bingo! You’ve hit on the key to why a literary translator does what she does at all. It’s certainly not a practical profession, and even sympathetic readers of translations are hard-pressed to appreciate how a translation is made, so it can be a rather lonely endeavor. I do what I do largely because of that immersive experience. When I’m translating a novel, the entire book exists simultaneously in my head. That is, I hold it in its entirety, with its rhythms, connections, sounds, emotions, ideas, and imagery. It’s an incredible and totally addictive experience that doubtless explains my persistence over the decades.
And a final question: How many languages do you know?
Apart from English and Russian, my French is quite good and I also have some Spanish. Long ago, I studied Czech, but that faded quickly.
Yes, if languages are not used we soon forget them. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Marian. I am sure my readers will have found your answers interesting and illuminating, as I did.
Brisbane is a complex novel, which reminded me in various ways of And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Housseini, a book I reread immediately. Both books are in American English.
Brisbane is about places I am unfamiliar with. Some of the content is grim, but there are strands of hope threaded through the book. Gleb’s father referred to the story of Jacob, who worked for his father-in-law Laban to acquire his two wives, Leah and Rachel. This was in connection with Gleb learning to play one musical instrument before he progressed to the one he really wanted to play, but there are other resonances with this story later. I was particularly interested in the influence of Gleb’s grandfather – a character with faith. His grandmother also taught Gleb some stories from the Bible.
The imagery is evocative of life seen through the eyes of a musician and uses a rich vocabulary. It is not a light read, but well worth the effort. The two voices – of Gleb and his biographer – alternate first person and second person narrative; Gleb’s diary is about more recent events and his biography starts at the beginning of Gleb’s education.
I have read Brisbane again to pick up more of the early clues, which have repercussions later in the story. On the second reading the time-line became clearer to me. This would be a good book for reading groups as there is a great deal to think about and discuss.
A preview of Brisbane is available here.
Brisbane is available as a hardback book or an e-book. It was published on 2nd June 2022.
About the author and translator
Eugene Vodolazkin is the author of Laurus, which won both of Russia’s major literary awards – the National Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award – and was shortlisted for the National Bestseller Prize and the Russian Booker Prize. An expert in medieval history and folklore, Vodolazkin was born in Kiev in 1964 and has worked in the department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House since 1990. He lives with his family in St Petersburg, Russia.
Marian Schwartz, who translated this novel into English, is a former President of the American Literary Translators Association and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships and numerous prizes.
She has also translated works by Berberova, Radzinsky, Bulgakov, Olesha, Lermontov and Tolstoy into English.
From the press release
Brisbane is a richly layered narrative from award-winning writer Eugene Vodolazkin (born in Ukraine and now living in Russia), which explores universal themes including music and art, identity and purpose, community and belonging, nationalism and individualism, weakness and mortality, and giftedness versus graft. Through the dual narrative of Gleb’s day to day life after his diagnosis and his recounting of his life to Nestor, the hopes, dreams and fears of Gleb, his family and friends are explored against the backdrop of a restless Ukraine suspicious of Russia and its power.