Interview with Max Lawton.

The Untranslated (see this post) has posted Interview with Max Lawton, subtitled “on reading Russian literature, translating Sorokin, books in need of translation and retranslation, learning languages, and ambitious projects.” As I said in the comments, it may be the best, most enlightening translator interview I’ve ever read; I’ll quote a few bits and send you over there for the whole thing, which is long and worth every paragraph:

Eventually, I began to study at Columbia where, during my freshman year, I took two enormous lecture/survey classes about Russian literature with Liza Knapp, a wonderful professor who specializes in 19th-century Russian literature at Columbia. There, I read and understood (in undergraduate fashion, to be sure) all of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s masterpieces. So, no, we read neither Resurrection nor The Adolescent, but all the others––yes. I could almost always sense that I was reading a translation, it was something about the way the sentences were put together and because of words like “frippery,” but the artistic visions presented in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were powerful enough to blast their way through to the reader despite the distortion inherent to re-rendering. I also began to study Russian my freshman year. Then, my sophomore year, reading Nabokov with Cathy Nepomnyashchy, another wonderful professor of Russian literature at Columbia who tragically passed away the following year, I continued to feel somewhat immunized to issues of translation. After all, it seemed Nabokov had kinda written all of the texts of his that’d been translated. However, in The Gift in particular, I could sense an idiom that was untranslatable. I didn’t like that book at first, but wanted to have another crack at it––in Russian ideally. And, in another survey course, while reading Gogol and Pushkin, I sensed the whole of an idiom––an atmosphere, a feeling, a set of meanings––that didn’t come through in translation (or came through only in the briefest of snatches). […]

Soon, I began to be able to read in Russian (emphasis on began to) and realized that the entire language of translated Russian I’d grown so accustomed to was a mere shadow of the world of light it had come down from. Like bootleg DVDs vs. IMAX. I discovered idioms that couldn’t possibly be translated into English––Gogolian strangeness, Pushkinian lightness, Nabokovian long-windedness, Sorokinian what-the-fuckness––and became quickly obsessed with the notion of translating Sorokin. I’m not entirely certain of why I was so sure I wanted to do it (or believed that I could). I could sense a world of incomprehensible words and objects through the screen of the Cyrillic-crabbed page, could sense something utterly new, and directed all of my energy toward seeing what lay beyond those strings of words––toward understanding what made Sorokin’s brilliance tick. I had to learn the language better, to study it more, and I devoted myself to doing so––at Middlebury in the summer and at Oxford during the year. I devoted myself to reading and understanding Sorokin with all of my intellectual energy. […]

The rural idiom of Faulkner and McCarthy has been an enormous aid in rendering Sorokin’s own rural Russian. This is a side of Vladimir’s work that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough airplay. He is a sort of half-patriot divided between soil-borne love for homeland and its provincial traditions and a longing for European cosmopolitanism. As such, his loving depictions of down-home speech and ways of life are one of the only through lines that unite all of his work, from 1979 to now. It is a great gift to have an idiom at my disposal that is able to make this through line legible to Anglophone readers. Certain conceptual sci-fi writers like William Gibson have also led the way in terms of how to smoothly and effectively weave neologisms into knotty, muscular prose. While Sorokin’s style is rather different from Gibson’s, the mere existence of a predecessor is a blessing in this case.

There’s a list of pre-existing idioms he’s made use of (e.g., “I have attempted to cultivate Joyce’s ear for gibberish in a Wakeian mode whenever Sorokin starts to play with neologisms and gibberish”) and a discussion of the highly transgressive novel he translates as Their Four Hearts (“the difference lies in the sense of classical unity and proportion that Sorokin always brings to the depiction of absolute atrocity”), in the course of which he makes this interesting point:

Beyond that, it’s worth remarking that the use of sex and violence in Sorokin’s early work is a kind of shock treatment for Russia. According to the aesthetic principles of the young Sorokin, the ideological restrictions that all art was subject to in the Soviet Union had to be attacked with great violence. They were a suffocating stricture, not only for Sorokin, but for the gut bacteria of the entire nation’s writers––with no probiotic pills or health-store kombucha in sight. One need only think of the furor that greeted Pamuk’s mildly critical portrayal of Atatürk in Nights of Plague. Without Sorokin, Russian writers might still be subject to this same sort of perpetual outrage… And, as Sorokin’s sex and violence (and scatology and TOTAL ABERRATION) are a form of shock treatment, so too must they be directed neatly and accurately toward their ideological targets. Yes, Sorokin has damn fine aim and his texts shock the ideal shockees each time he flips the switch to set the current flowing.

Then he talks about his translation Telluria (the original was discussed at The Untranslated here), which is going to be published by NYRB Classics in July (they’ve sent me a review copy which I’m looking forward to exploring), there’s a detailed comparison of his translation of a passage from Blue Lard along with the original (how I love such comparisons!), and we get the following exchange:

The Untranslated: Which books in any language you can read should be translated into English ASAP?

M.L.: I’m thinking longingly right now about Sade’s last novel, which Jonathan Littell was just telling me about. It was called Les Journées de Florbelle and is meant to have been a maximalist version of The 120 Days of Sodom. Thousands of pages. His son had it burnt after he died. Little shit. All of Sade’s lost texts should be translated out of oblivion, then translated into English. And all of his extant texts should be given fancy new editions and new translations by Penguin and OUP every few years––they deserve it. All of Guyotat’s late novels, insane mixes of Finnegans Wake and Sade, must absolutely be translated: Progénitures, Joyeux animaux de la misère, and Par la main dans les enfers: Joyeux animaux de la misère II. It’s shameful they haven’t been. Come to think of it, the whole of Guyotat’s Prostitution also needs to be translated. Only a long excerpt has been published. The two lesser Tolstoys––Alexei Konstantinovich and Alexei Nikolaevich––and their historical novels should be retranslated with careful attention paid to kitschy historical language––those books being The Silver Prince and Pyotr the First. A poet should retranslate Doctor Zhivago so that readers understand how beautiful Pasternak’s prose is. Fyodor Sologub’s The Petty Demon should be retranslated and read by EVERYONE. It’s like Gogol at his most acerbic mixed with Edgar Allan Poe. I thought the murderous, schizophrenic dénouement was hilarious. Vladimir didn’t agree when we discussed it at the first feast I attended at his home and I feared this readerly misprision had spoiled the impression I’d made––that I’d seemed unhinged. I’m sure I did. Mikhail Shishkin’s The Taking of Izmail must absolutely be translated, as it’s a deeply important contemporary Russian novel. His already translated works pale in comparison in terms of erudition and complexity. The Children of the Dead, Elfriede Jelinek’s zombie novel about the Holocaust should have been translated long ago. Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs, the baroque German metaphysical comedy beloved by Schmidt and Bernhardt, is shamefully out-of-print in English, even though it was translated a long time ago. It should be retranslated and reprinted. Of course, all of the books you’ve identified as worthy of translation should have been published in English, like, yesterday. I’m rereading the first book of Antonio Moresco’s trilogy, translated into French by Laurent Lombard, right now (I read it before in my less-than-stellar Italian, which was a bit like deciphering it––this is much more pleasurable) and it’s just such a trip… It’s shameful the trilogy hasn’t been translated into English-–a true gap in what English-language readers have access to. I’m a big fan of Vladimir Makanin’s staccato prose; someone especially ought to translate his novel Underground. Régis Jauffret’s two vicious volumes of Microfictions must be translated. Each more than 1,000 pages long; they’re made up of hundreds of very short stories filled with markedly contemporary violence and degradation. They’re mosaic-novels that somewhat resemble Sorokin’s Telluria in cribbing the fragment-method from Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Thinking more of Russian classics, Goncharov deserves to have all of his books retranslated; they should be as readily available as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s novels, as they’re quite good and are important points of reference for Sorokin’s Roman (a selfish reason I want more people to read them). Another one: I hope that Oliver Ready continues to produce his fantastic renditions of Vladimir Sharov, whose body of work is formidable––a whole shelf of modern classics, there’s no doubt. I also read a few non-German novels in German last year because they haven’t yet appeared in English: Paul Berf’s translation of Knausgaard’s Out of the World and Heike Flemming’s translation of Krasznahorkai’s Herscht 07769. Those are coming out in English in the next few years (from Archipelago in Martin Aitken’s translation for Knausgaard and New Directions in Ottilie Muzlet’s translation for Krasznahorkai) and are very worthy of your attention. I’m happy they’re being/have been translated.

Coincidentally, I’m reading Makanin’s Андеграунд (Underground) and enjoying it greatly. I agree with Lawton about The Petty Demon (LH) and Goncharov, not so much about Doctor Zhivago (LH); I wrote about The Silver Prince here and about Sorokin’s Roman here. I’ll end with Lawton’s admirable final paragraph:

My dream is to be nothing but a writer and translator. The two professions reinforce each other. Translation for staying in shape when you aren’t writing and are waiting for ideas to seduce you, as Sorokin says you must let ideas do before you begin to write. And writing to stay in touch with the electricity indispensable to good prose––in both original texts and translations.


  1. I started reading, then said to myself, wait, he talks like that? Not many people can even write like that.

  2. I suspect it was an interview in writing (exchange of texts).

  3. Max Lawton says

    Thank you so much for the generous write-up! The interview was indeed a correspondence and not a recorded conversation.
    Also, I’d love to send you the final text of TELLURIA. The galleys that were sent out were simply the final draft I submitted. The final text is a bit tighter with a few mistakes rooted out… How might I send?

  4. Is The 120 Days at Sodom actually worth reading, except for the shock value? I read a translated excerpt and had no particular desire to read any more.

  5. Max Lawton says

    A reply to Brett: Sade’s language in the original is quite funny. He was a marvelous stylist.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett: Way back in the Eighties when the likes of Jonathan Littell and myself were undergraduates, the paperback versions of Sade in translation that you could buy at the Yale Co-Op were the ones in a series that all had a blurb on the back about the excellence of Sade’s prose style by a then-still-living Sterling Professor Emeritus of French. While I don’t think the edition was quite that old, in hindsight it was perhaps akin to the sort of expert academic opinion re redeeming artistic/cultural value publishers of dirty books still needed to be ready to produce on short notice in the 1950’s and maybe early ’60’s before the U.S. legal/political system completely abandoned any efforts to restrict publication and sale of dirty books. Don’t think I read any because in those days I tended to favor Wm. S. Burroughs if I wanted experimental prose with outre subject matter. Maybe Bataille if for some reason someone insisted it had to be translated from French. Although Burroughs’ stuff must have been translated into French, and I think he himself might have quite enjoyed the whimsical concept of a back-translation into English by someone who hadn’t actually read his English original. I might be willing to read such a thing myself.

  7. John Emerson says

    Changing the subject slightly, I deeply regret that Russian isn’t one of the languages I am able to read. Russian literature seems incredibly rich during all periods, even though some of th best writers were basically unpublished. Which leads me to something I may have said here before: isn’t “No great art can be produced under censorship” almost the opposite of the truth? Because American literature during the last century has been produced in complete freedom, but so much of it is lame crap.

  8. David Marjanović says

    But then, “90% of everything is crud”.

  9. John Emerson says

    I admit that John Updike, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and a few others were traumatic for me in my youth, and perhaps I need counseling. I sort of like Philip Roth, but not for good reasons. I do admire Ralph Ellison and Faulkner, and Fitzgerald up to a point. I wish I liked Pynchon.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Because American literature during the last century has been produced in complete freedom, but so much of it is lame crap

    There’ve been some pretty good poets.

  11. John Emerson says

    Did Eliot or Pound admit to being American? Wallace Stevens I guess.

  12. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite novels ever. And, anyone who translates it successfully into any other language has my respect.

  13. Fantastic! That final quote just killed me with its justness.

  14. John Emerson: Gaddis?

  15. John Emerson says

    I’ve said what I am able to say. Since American fiction is crap, I don’t read it. Perhaps I should not be thought of as an authoritative source on American fiction. Beyond that, I tend to avoid books written during my lifetime.

    My other point, however, that literature CAN flourish under conditions of censorship, does hold up.

  16. Max Lawton says

    If anything, I would say that the Anglophone 20th Century in literature was far grander than the Russophone because of the awful censorship in the USSR… Soviet literature mostly sucks, a few gems notwithstanding. There’s a reason Nabokov chose to write in English instead of Russian during that period…

  17. George Ermo agrees with you but is even more sweeping:

    «Литература русской эмиграции ничуть не интереснее литературы, поощряемой в СССР: Шмелев, Зайцев, Мережковский, Иванов и другие в известном смысле даже уступают Платонову, Шолохову или Всеволоду Иванову. Впрочем, русская литература XX века вообще явление гораздо менее интересное, чем, скажем, литература польская или сербская. Русские странным образом оказались в стороне от той гуманистической проблематики, которая волновала и волнует мир, переживший две мировые войны; они по-прежнему апеллируют к именам, составившим гордость цивилизации, но принадлежащим XIX веку, – но эти семена проросли в других культурах».

    «Прогресс в искусстве, безусловно, существует, и напрасно считают, что этот прогресс сводится лишь к совершенствованию инструментария: если писатель и обращается к вечным вопросам, то он их ставит перед своим временем».

    «Чтобы считать Лермонтова великим писателем, нужно родиться и вырасти в России и никогда не выезжать за ее пределы». «…навязчив, как Алданов, по недоразумению считающий себя романистом…» (Гораздо позднее он скажет об Иосифе Бродском: «Он напоминает человека, не знающего, как составить мозаику из тех красивых стекляшек, которых так много в его дорожном мешке».)


    «ЛГ». Кого из советских писателей вы считаете самым интересным?

    Ер. Пожалуй, Платонова. И, наверное, Шолохова, автора «Тихого Дона», хотя, признаться, я не поклонник литературы такого рода… Но как бы там ни было, только в их творчестве нашли развитие традиции русской культуры…

    «ЛГ». А Михаил Булгаков?

    Ер. Если вы имеете в виду «Мастера и Маргариту», то эта книга, видимо, останется в круге чтения для подростков.

  18. John Emerson says

    I would phrase that as “American literature mostly sucks, a few gems notwithstanding”, on the 90% principle.

    And Czarist literature (e.g. Dostoevsky) was also produced under censorship, and Spanish Golden Age and Silver Age literature (inquisition literature).

  19. It may be a phenomenon that the production of really high-quality literature does not depend so much on a having a convivial environment. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of writers who are only likely to produce dross may be more easily discouraged by the possibility of censorship.

  20. The first thing to say is that this book is a satire of the sort of ode to medievaldom offered by Houellebecq in Submission and by Alexander Dugin…

    Not sure about Houellebecq but satirizing an intellectual midget like Dugin seems about as wise as arguing with the Flat Earth Society. However, Sorokin might acknowledge a fellow man of letters in Dugin, who – as far as I can tell – is at least capable of extemporizing inspired nonsense.

    @Max Lawton: “Soviet literature mostly sucks…” Soviet adult fiction and poetry published in 1945-1985 was mostly rubbish. Children’s lit was a little better.

  21. Soviet adult fiction and poetry published in 1945-1985 was mostly rubbish.

    Well, except for Kataev, Trifonov, Grossman, Kaverin, Tendryakov, Nagibin, Prishvin, Baklanov, Dombrovsky, Astafyev, Aksyonov, Kazakov, Solzhenitsyn, the Strugatskys, Rasputin, Bitov, Vladimov, Makanin, Chukovskaya, sure, the rest was mostly rubbish. (Haven’t read Shukshin or Voinovich but they’re supposed to be pretty good.)

  22. Stu Clayton says

    the sort of ode to medievaldom offered by Houellebecq in Submission

    For Christ’s sake, what a po-faced pile of dog doo-doo. Soumission is nothing of the kind. It’s an acidulous satire, calculated to throw “le people” and serious Frenchies into frenzies of outrage.

    I’ve read pretty much everything Houellebecq has written except for the poetry – in the Original French, in order to improve mine. I might well not have bothered otherwise. It’s all amusing, but edifying not so much.

  23. Haven’t read […] Voinovich

    Unbelievable. There’s a Russian author I’ve read (in translation) and you haven’t.
    Chonkin is hilarious, and a wonderfully well-crafted novel.

  24. I’ve actually got a copy, and am very much looking forward to it!

  25. @LH: your list looks too long to me. Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, Dombrovsky and Voynovich couldn’t get their best work published in the USSR. Makanin produced his best novels after1985. At any rate, all the decent stuff was only a drop in the ocean that was Soviet literature: think of scribblers like Georgy Markov, Ivan Stadnyuk, Anatoly Ivanov, and thousands of lesser ones. Being an officially recognized author came with benefits (no need to have a real job) and obligations (sticking to the party line). The result was the exact opposite of what Mandelshtam had called genuine art.

  26. Sorry, but none of that makes any sense. I knew you were going to pull the “couldn’t get their best work published in the USSR” bit; so what? The fact that they wrote stuff that they couldn’t published there is irrelevant; they lived and published in the USSR, so they were Soviet writers, end of story. It’s different for someone like Dovlatov, who only started publishing his real work after he left. But you can’t tell me За правое дело, Один День Ивана Денисовича, and Хранитель древности are “rubbish.” I’ll give you Voynovich, but as I say, I haven’t read him. As for Makanin, what do “his best novels” have to do with anything, even if one agreed (which I don’t) that they were post-1985? Старые книги, Человек свиты, Антилидер, and Где сходилось небо с холмами are excellent works of literature — if you haven’t read them, go do so.

    As for Markov et al.: of course there was plenty of crap; that’s true everywhere. Ever heard of Sturgeon’s Law? And don’t tell your grandmother how to suck eggs; I know all about what being an “officially recognized author” entailed, and I could give an hour-long lecture on the history of Soviet literature and its politics without preparation if need be. That’s not the point. The point is you said “Soviet adult fiction and poetry published in 1945-1985 was mostly rubbish,” and that’s not true except in the Sturgeon’s Law sense (which I presume is not what you meant). There was plenty of good stuff published in the USSR, whatever compromises the authors may have had to make. It’s a mistake to mix up literature and politics — you might as well say “Russian adult fiction and poetry published under tsardom was mostly rubbish” because you don’t like tsardom, and it would be just as true (in the Sturgeon’s Law sense) and just as pointless.

  27. Oh, and “what Mandelshtam had called genuine art” is neither here nor there — Mandelshtam, like most great authors (Nabokov springs to mind), had a very restricted sense of what constitutes “genuine art”; it could be boiled down to “what I write and what a few, mostly dead, authors I happen to respect wrote.” Of course they feel almost everybody but themselves writes rubbish, but there’s no need for us to adopt their prejudices.

  28. Obviously there was a lot of very good literature written (and even published!) in 1945-1985 in USSR. What probably is not so good, there wasn’t enough literary experimentation. Mostly the same old forms, same old psychological approach, etc. There are obvious exceptions, but not enough for literature as large as Russian.

  29. Now that I can agree with, and that’s why Kataev invented mauvism — “the art of writing badly” (i.e., not according to the canons of socialist realism). He got away with it too, probably because the censors couldn’t figure out what he was up to.

  30. It’s an overused quote but it still bears repeating. From The Fourth Prose, translated by Clarence Brown:

    I divide all the works of world literature into those written with and without permission. The first are trash, the second— stolen air. As for writers who write things with prior permission, I want to spit in their faces, beat them over the head with a stick and set them all at a table in the Herzen House, each with a glass of police tea in front of him and the analysis of Gornfeld’s urine in his hand.

    I would forbid these writers to marry and have children. After all, chil­dren must carry on for us, must say to the end for us what is most important to say. But their fathers have sold out to the pockmarked devil for three generations to come.

    Trash is a weak word for мразь, scum would be more like it.

    Now consider For a Just Cause. It was a noble effort and, viewed against the backdrop of what counted for Soviet war fiction in the early 1950s, a major achievement. But that’s a pretty pathetic benchmark, Viktor Nekrasov’s In the Trenches of Stalingrad notwithstanding. How does For a Just Cause measure against dozens of WWI and WWII novels in English, French, German and Italian? Second-rate at best, if not third-rate.

  31. Now you’re changing the goalposts — no longer claiming it’s “rubbish,” just “second-rate.” Fine, За правое дело is second-rate; are you going to say the same about Один День Ивана Денисовича and Хранитель древности? You’re grasping at straws to maintain an indefensible claim. And again, spare me the Mandelshtam — he’s one of my very favorite poets, but he seems to have been an impossible man (he quoted his Stalin epigram to people knowing that that very act might well get them arrested, tortured, and killed, to take an obvious bit of bad behavior), and his views on literature, however strikingly expressed, are as idiotic as those of most great writers (you might just as well quote Tolstoy on Shakespeare or Nabokov on Dostoevsky and Faulkner).

  32. No, I’m not moving the goalposts. Sturgeon’s law only applies to relative values. I’m saying the bottom 90% of post-WWII Soviet fiction was much inferior to the American (British, French, Italian) 90%, while the Soviet top 10% wasn’t that good, although with some notable exceptions – just not as many as you would like. On average, a pretty low score for the Soviets.

    Один день, while immensely important, was another realist novella, while Архипелаг ГУЛАГ was a masterpiece both in content and form. Хранитель древностей was good but Факультет ненужных вещей was great.

  33. Well, we completely disagree. Yes, the bottom 90% of post-WWII Soviet fiction was pretty bad thanks to the mandates of socialist realism, but the top 10% was as good as anybody else’s (what do you consider the Great American Novels of the 1950s, for instance, and are you really ready to maintain they’re that much better than the Russian ones?). Your “another realist novella” implies there’s something wrong with realist novellas (what, only surrealism is worth anything?), which I entirely disagree with, and I disagree even more strongly with your opinion of the relative merits of Хранитель древностей (LH) and Факультет ненужных вещей (LH). I don’t know what your esthetic criteria are, but they’re clearly so different from mine there’s not much point in our arguing. You seem to use literature as a stick to beat political systems you dislike with, and I have no truck with that sort of thing.

  34. If Sturgeon’s Law is construed as only describing quality on a relative scale, then it is tautological—and hence not very meaningful.

  35. We can have it both ways if 90% of everything is of such a low quality that it is not worth our interest, but the remaining 10% can be better or worse compared to top 10% of something else.

  36. January First-of-May says

    Well, except for Kataev, Trifonov, Grossman, Kaverin, Tendryakov, Nagibin, Prishvin, Baklanov, Dombrovsky, Astafyev, Aksyonov, Kazakov, Solzhenitsyn, the Strugatskys, Rasputin, Bitov, Vladimov, Makanin, Chukovskaya, sure, the rest was mostly rubbish. (Haven’t read Shukshin or Voinovich but they’re supposed to be pretty good.)

    I don’t recognize like half of those names, but I would definitely have included Shefner.

    (Lyovshin and Bobrov don’t qualify by genre, and Bobrov barely fits in the period anyway. Veltistov doesn’t qualify by genre and possibly wasn’t even all that great. Eduard Uspensky ditto; Lev Uspensky was great but AFAIK didn’t write fiction. Bulychev doesn’t qualify by genre, while Mozheyko’s best works are post-1985. Sergey Nikitin?)

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    Re US novels of 50s:
    TKAM, RR-1960
    Catch 22-1961
    In Cold Blood-1965
    What happened?

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Eventually worked out RR …

    Reminds me of Anita Brookner’s description of the Rabbit novels as “lovable”, neatly illustrating her unerring knack for finding exactly the wrong word.

    I appear to be the only person in the entire world who thinks that TKAM is overrated.* That doubtless means something, though probably something about me rather than about TKAM.

    * Faulkner’s intruder in the Dust is how it should be done.

  39. UTC is probably also not a pinnacle of belles lettres (idk;dr), but it started a war, which means something.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    True; and a good analogy, I think, inasmuch as both works are overrated (says me) because of their moral-feelgood-factor.

    I don’t have any beef with moral-feelgoodness as such, but I object to being told what to think even by people I actually agree with, and it bleeds into the literary style in a damaging way unless the author is a whole lot better at it than HBS or HL,* or (to be fair) than the great majority of perfectly competent authors. I can’t abide uplift.

    (I should say that I don’t think TKAM is a bad novel at all; just that it can’t carry off its totemic status, which is hardly surprising.)

    * Charles Dickens can do it. I think that has to do with the fact that he loves his “bad” characters even more than his “good” ones; he doesn’t patronise them. They are wonderful monsters.

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