‘The past speaks with a multitude of voices and working with it is a collective process.’
Author Maria Stepanova and translator Sasha Dugdale speak about the 2021 International Booker Prize-longlisted In Memory of Memory.
Maria, what has it been like to be longlisted?
A huge surprise and a great honour, of course, and I am immensely glad to see that books like In Memory of Memory, multi-genre, non-linear, probing the space between conventional fiction and non-fiction are gaining interest and attention. It’s a huge thing, and as a devoted reader of documentary fiction I am happy to see its audience is expanding. And oh, it’s so good to know that Sasha Dugdale’s magnificent work had been noticed and appreciated.
How would you summarise In Memory of Memory in one sentence?
It’s a love story which is facing backwards.
How long did it take you to research the book?
The final research took about two years, but actually I was living with these stories for decades: some of them stayed fresh and vivid, some were half-forgotten, almost mummified, and in all the cases I needed to break through to the actual facts and harsh reality behind them. In Soviet times, people were forced to accept a certain official version of history, and it worked itself deep into the fabric of collective memory. So, uncovering individual stories and hidden meanings is a long and painful process, and even now, long after the book was written, I don’t feel my research is complete.
What did writing the book teach you about memory?
That it’s endlessly elusive, maddeningly unreliable – and that there is nothing more fascinating than sharing memories and listening to other people’ stories. The past speaks with a multitude of voices and working with it is a collective process: no story is final if it’s reduced to monologue. If memory is a school, it teaches coexistence.
Hi Sasha, what has it been like to be longlisted?
It’s really exciting for me that the book has been recognised in English. I was full of anxiety as I translated it because I worried so much about ‘carrying it across’ on my own, making sure it arrived intact. So in many ways the longlisting is a relief, I know my job is done, that the book has arrived safely and will be seen and will have many other advocates and friends, and that is a delight.
What did you enjoy about translating In Memory of Memory?
It was a huge voyage of discovery! I learn so much about Russian, and about what English can be made to hold. When you translate it is much like reading a text very intently, so I got to read a brilliant book in the slowest and most intense way, and that can be life-changing. I learnt a lot about my own culture and its attitude to history, memory and myth in looking outwards at another culture.
You have also translated Stepanova’s poetry. How does the process differ and how do the works relate to each other?
The most recent poems Spolia and War of the Beasts and the Animals (both published in the new Bloodaxe edition War of the Beasts and the Animals) are long poems which are occupied with Russia and its recent history and culture. They make many references to Maria’s own family, so there is a great deal of crossover between the terrains of the prose work and the poems.
Translating poetry is a different process because the form of a poem, its shape and sound play an essential role. As a translator you are trying to capture the dynamic between all these elements and the reader, and reproduce it in a different language with an equivalent dynamic. Maria is a formally inventive poet and so I was thinking far more about form and shape when I translated her poetry. The prose presented different challenges, like for example, capturing some of the theoretical or philosophical arguments.
In Memory of Memory mixes various forms (fiction, essay, memoir), did this effect your translation process?
Maria gave me free rein to approach the book as I wanted and this freedom, together with her brilliant sense of English helped me no end. Often if I had a problem with a phrase I would ask her how she thought it should sound in English. So I didn’t think of the book in terms of its mixed genres, but rather in terms of Maria’s own voice and how I could best capture that in English. I’ve been friends with Maria for many years and we’ve spent so much time talking together, so I could hear her voice in and through the text and I translated that.