Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?
Hendrix… is a novel about the city and people of Lviv, a place with a fascinating and complex history, and streets full of the sediment of rising and falling empires. To acquaint myself with some of that sediment, Philippe Sands’ East-West Street is a brilliant and innovative book about the city and the experience of the 20th century across central and eastern Europe more broadly. I also found Serhii Plokhy’s work on Ukrainian history engaging and dependable. Finally, the late, great historian and activist Marko Bojcun, with whom I was privileged to work in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign here in the UK, wrote brilliantly on Ukrainian history and politics, including a collection of essays on modern Ukrainian political economy and a historical academic work on the workers’ movement at the time of the revolution. Marko passed away very recently; he will be deeply missed, and his work deserves to be read widely.
What was your path to becoming a translator of literary fiction? What would you say to someone who is considering such a career for themselves?
My path into translation was one of constantly making friends with translators and showing them my work, discussing and getting advice, going away to edit, then discussing some more, until finally someone told me to pull the trigger and get in touch with an author. I was helped in that process in no small way by one of my tutors at university, Oliver Ready, who is himself an excellent translator of Russian literature. Oliver gave me some very important early pointers on where to go and who to introduce myself to. I was also extremely lucky to be mentored, first informally, then formally through the National Centre for Writing’s Emerging Translator Mentorship, by the translator Robert Chandler. Robert took me under his wing and encouraged me to submit my work to publishers and editors – without him I would never have had the confidence to put myself out into the world and call myself a translator.
My advice to anyone who’s interested would be that translation is a profession that necessarily starts as a hobby. If you’re at all interested, go and find things that intrigue you, things that you think the world needs to read, or hear, or see, and just try your hand. Get used to showing your work to others; get used to reaching out to authors that you’d like to work with; get used to reaching out to other translators (we’re a friendly bunch!); get used to receiving criticism of your work and learning to use it to your advantage; get used to calling yourself a translator, because eventually you might reach a stage where you would like to try and publish something, and you will have to project your translation to others as a profession, when it might still feel like a hobby.
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
Because the world is far too interesting a place for us to only care about what happens in its Anglophone regions.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
The first one is a cheat: The Gospel According To… by Sergey Khazov-Cassia, translated by me, forthcoming from Polari Press. Very much the project that propelled me into literary translation, and working closely with Sergey and any number of others on it has been an incredible journey that has taken me from a witless undergraduate student to a witless professional translator.
Crime and Punishment, in the Penguin edition translated by Oliver Ready. Oliver’s translation, apart from being the best out there, was the book I read at the age of 17 as I was looking to apply to study Russian literature at university. My enduring obsession (‘love’ wouldn’t be the term, I don’t think) with that book and its writer dragged me firmly into the academic world of literary studies, as well as its translator eventually showing me the way into that world, too.
Finally, Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk. The first of Andrey’s books that I read, in a wonderful translation that I was very glad to see win the inaugural National Book Critics Circle translation prize in America recently. The book itself is a vitally important one to understand the second half of the 2010s in Ukraine, and the layers of complexity to the cultural and political questions at play in the current war. Boris’ painstaking and meticulous approach to all of his translations makes the ease and lightness of the prose he produces all the more impressive; it was a style I found hugely useful as a reference point when coming to my own translation of Andrey’s work.