Jamey Gambrell, RIP.

I’m surprised the name of Jamey Gambrell has never come up at LH (according to the Google site search); she was one of the translators from Russian who seems to have done a consistently good job, and I’m sad to learn from Daniel E. Slotnik’s NY Times obit that she’s died at 65 (which now, at 68, seems to me unforgivably young):

Ms. Gambrell, a native New Yorker, steeped herself in Russian culture and literature, spending time in Moscow in the 1980s and ’90s and becoming involved in its art scene as artists there who had once been underground rose to international prominence. […]

Ms. Gambrell’s process often involved translating a quick draft, then revising it 10 or more times until she captured the nuances of the text. The first book she translated was “Sleepwalker in a Fog” (1992), a short-story collection by Ms. Tolstaya, a great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy; her stories have been compared to Chekhov’s. […]

She also translated several notable books by Mr. Sorokin, including his “Ice Trilogy,” about a cult of people with hearts that can speak, and his “Day of the Oprichnik” (2011), a scathing fairy tale about life in modern Russia.

More recently Ms. Gambrell translated Mr. Sorokin’s “The Blizzard” (released in English in 2015), about a Russian doctor who ventures into a snowstorm to deliver a vaccine to a village battling a zombie plague. The novel is a postmodern take on braving wintry weather, a staple of Russian literature.

The writer and critic Masha Gessen praised “The Blizzard” in The New York Times Book Review in 2016, noting that aspects of it posed “formidable challenges for the translator” — for example, early in the novel Mr. Sorokin uses several nouns in a sentence that Russian readers would instantly recognize as sentimental signifiers of rural life.

“The translator, Jamey Gambrell, has no such words at her disposal and so translates the sentence straightforwardly,” the review continued. “Knowing when to pick one’s battles is the mark of a great translator, and Gambrell is one. Her translation is as elegant, playful and layered as the original — and never appears labored.”

I haven’t read her translations myself, but I certainly trust Masha Gessen on the subject. Incidentally, in the Gessen review, what she actually says about the sentence is “In one breathless sentence describing the driver getting ready for the journey, Sorokin uses eight nouns, seven of which are strongly marked, for the reader of the original, as ‘dewy-eyed Russian writer describing rural life.’” Does anybody happen to know the Sorokin novel well enough to know what sentence that is? I’d be curious to see the original. (I’m eager to read the novel — I greatly enjoy Sorokin — but it’s going to have to wait.) Thanks for the link, Eric!


  1. “Knowing when to pick one’s battles is the mark of a great translator”

    Now that is an interesting observation.

  2. Maybe this one (italic for what can be thought as marked words)

    Перхуша вставил в капор деревянный шкворень, запирая всех лошадей на своих местах, взял дегтярку, смазал оба подшипника протяга, надел рукавицы, взял кнутик и пошел звать доктора.

    Translation courtesy GT:
    Perkhusha put a wooden pin into the hood, locking all the horses in their places, took a tar jar, greased both bearings of the drawstring, put on gloves, took a whip and went to call the doctor.

    Translation courtesy JG:
    Crouper slid the wooden bolt of the hood across, locking all the horses in place; he took the tar pot, smeared the bearings of the drive belt, putt on his mittens, grabbed a small whip, and went to fetch the doctor.

  3. @D.O. The translation “tar” there is definitely wrong in English. Tar is a liquid made of heavy hydrocarbons, whose principal features are being dark, viscous, and sticky. That stickiness is never what you want for a lubricant.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    “Knowing when to pick one’s battles is the mark of a great translator”
    Now that is an interesting observation.

    It’s the mark of a great anybody who anticipates opposition to what he/she is trying to accomplish.

  5. Brett, and yet “tar” is what in Russian is called дёготь and vice versa. A brief read of WP shows that that was probably a variety high in creosote making it a plausible lubricant. That said, I am sufficiently removed from that world to opine on whether people used it for lubrication or Sorokin just missed this one.

  6. AJP Crown says

    It’s a good point about translation, “knowing when to pick one’s battles”, but ‘knowing which battles to fight’ would have been clearer.

  7. @AJP Crown: Except, “Pick [your] battles,” is a standard idiom.

  8. @Brett: in the 19th century, Russia produced many varieties of wood tar, some less sticky than others. A special type of birch tar was used to lubricate wooden wheels and axles. I’ve seen references to tar being used as a lubricant by American farmers in the early days. California pioneers used to grease their wooden wagon axles with tar from the famous seeps.

  9. AJP Crown says

    “Pick [your] battles,” is a standard idiom.
    As is ‘choosing your battles’. But ‘knowing when’ is part of ‘picking’ and that confusion – by a NYT Book Review critic & writer yet – was really my point. I may not know much about book criticism but I know what I don’t like.

  10. I know the person who translated it into Italian, so I asked if she remembered that sentence and had any comments. Her version also sidesteps the whole problem and even avoids getting stuck on the tar or whatever it is. But she told me that for her it was all about balancing things out, the overall effect rather than any one sentence: “The translation can’t be a perfect mirror, sentence by sentence; if you can’t achieve the same nuance in one place you try to bring it out in another. Sorokin often uses words with Ukranian roots, for instance – how can a translator convey that? You have to look for words with a bucolic, archaic shading, but that’s not going to be possible everywhere, so you have to find other points where you can slip some in. Plus there are all the neologisms that crop up in these novels, with their strange mix of the archaic and the ultrafuturistic. In the end that’s what’s so great about his work. Of course, as his translators, we just do the best we can…”

  11. Sounds like a good translator! And yes, Sorokin’s mix of styles and registers is wonderful.

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