The Bookshelf: Kolyma Stories.

New York Review Books has sent me a review copy of Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, newly translated by Donald Rayfield. The publisher’s page accurately calls the collection “a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature”; Solzhenitsyn himself famously wrote “Shalamov’s experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own…I respectfully confess that to him and not me it was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all,” and if you have any interest in the Gulag, in how people react to the extremes of experience, or simply in great writing, you should try Shalamov, and this is part of the first complete edition in English: “This is the first of two volumes (the second to appear in 2019) that together will constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text.” In short, this is a must-read.

Having said that, I’ll discuss the translation, comparing it both to the original and to the previous English version translated by John Glad (Penguin 1980, rev. ed. 1994). The first thing to note is that the Penguin has far fewer stories, and the stories are often cut; whether the cuts are the translator’s choice or reflect the then available Russian text, I don’t know, but it’s an unfortunate fact that emphasizes even more the importance of the new version. Furthermore, Glad makes too many errors and poor choices; in Сухим пайком [“Dry Rations” in Glad, “Field Rations” in Rayfield], for instance, he calls Butyrka “Butyr Prison,” has “fruits” for ягоды ‘berries,’ and renders положительному ‘positive’ as “decent.” When the narrator’s coworker Savelev starts fantasizing about a future neither of them believes in, he begins “Помечтаем,” which Rayfield correctly renders “let’s dream a bit”; Glad has “Just imagine,” which simply doesn’t work in this context. I don’t want to overemphasize this — every translation has errors, and I don’t understand Rayfield’s “standard” for заветный in “заветный мешочек,” which Glad renders “a small cherished bag” — but Glad seems to have more than the necessary minimum.

However, I’m not letting Rayfield off the hook entirely. He consistently uses a more formal register than I think is appropriate for the stark simplicity of the Russian, but that’s a matter of taste. More troubling is his tendency to overexplain. Every translator has to choose how much to fill out a minimalist original, and that too can be a matter of taste; I don’t like his “Trampling the Snow” for the title of the very short first story, По снегу (Glad’s “Through the Snow” is both more accurate and more to my taste), but I’m sure a lot of readers are fine with it. What truly bothers me is the way he ends the same story. It’s about how men create a road through virgin snow by walking back and forth over it; here are the last two sentences:

Из идущих по следу каждый, даже самый маленький, самый слабый, должен ступить на кусочек снежной целины, а не в чужой след. А на тракторах и лошадях ездят не писатели, а читатели.

I would render it literally:

Of those following the tracks, each, even the smallest, the weakest, has to walk on a piece of fresh snow, not in someone else’s tracks. On tractors and horses it is readers, not writers, who ride.

Glad has:

Each of them – even the smallest and weakest – must beat down a section of virgin snow, and not simply follow in another’s footsteps. Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.


Of all the men following the trailblazer, even the smallest, the weakest must not just follow someone else’s footsteps but must walk a stretch of virgin snow himself. As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.

Glad’s ending is syntactically weak, but Rayfield’s is to my mind unacceptable. He feels that the читатель ‘reader’ is a subordinate because he only reads or obeys the rules, and the ‘writers’ are the bosses. I’ll let native speakers weigh in on whether that’s a reasonable interpretation, but whether it is or not, it’s the kind of thing that belongs in notes, not in the text, where the reader innocent of Russian can have no clue that it’s not what Shalamov wrote. Me, I’ve always admired the piece as a meditation on the difference between being a writer exploring new territory and a reader following in the trodden path, and I don’t like to see that entire aspect wiped out.

But I don’t want to end on a complaining note. Let me provide a brief passage in both translations for further help deciding whose style appeals to you more. It’s from the wonderful and heartbreaking Сука Тамара, which both translators render literally as “Tamara the Bitch” (she’s a dog who wanders into the camp area):

Скоро выяснилось, что Тамара берет пищу только из рук и ничего не трогает ни на кухне, ни в палатке, есть там люди или нет.

Эта твердость нравственная особенно умиляла видавших виды и бывавших во всяких переплетах жителей поселка.


We soon learned that Tamara would take food only from our hands and, if no one was present, would touch nothing either in the kitchen or in the tent. This moral firmness touched the residents of our settlement, who had seen a lot of things in their lives and had been in a lot of scrapes.


We soon realized that Tamara would only accept food she was given, that she never touched anything in the kitchen or the tent, whether there were people there or not. These firm moral principles were what won over the inhabitants of the settlement, men who had seen everything in their lives and had had a tough life.

I should add that the stories are compact, intense, frequently cruel, and occasionally almost unbearable (Andrei Sinyavsky wrote “Он пишет так, как если бы был мертвым” [He writes as if he were dead]), so I would advise not reading more than a couple at one go if you would prefer to avoid depression. But by all means read them.


  1. “Bosses and underlings” translation is simply wrong. Glad’s translation is weak. This prologue must be finished much shorter something like “Tractors and horses are for the readers, not the writers”.

  2. made him injection of the elixir of vivacity, hope, composure, anger and self-esteem – the complex medicinal composition necessary for the person in prison, especially the newcomer

  3. S K Lewicki says

    Thanks for the review; I’ve had and enjoyed the Penguin version for years and knew the NYRB edition was due but hadn’t found anything until your post that compared the two. I shall have to get the new version.

  4. I discovered Shalamov this year when my wife brought a collection of his stories from the Russian library. I agree with Hat that reading more than one or two at a time really is depressing, and that he’s worth reading. Only very few of his stories seem to have been published in full pre-perestroika – the annotations in the collection I read mostly showed publication dates after ca. 1988. A few stories had publication dates from the 1960s; those were mostly nature sketches from the Taiga and stories that avoided showing camp life too realistically . So I assume that the cut stories in the 1980 edition were based on sanitised versions that were able to be published before perestroika or on incomplete samizdat versions.

  5. He feels that the читатель ‘reader’ is a subordinate because he only reads or obeys the rules, and the ‘writers’ are the bosses.

    I’m not defending it either way, but isn’t this the opposite of what Rayfield’s translation implies? The bosses/readers ride the tractors, while the underlings/writers walk through the snow?

    I know of Rayfield primarily as a Kartvelologist. He was editor-in-chief of A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (2006), for example.

  6. This prologue must be finished much shorter something like “Tractors and horses are for the readers, not the writers”.

    Even shorter: “Tractors and horses are for readers, not writers.” I think that’s perfect.

    I’m not defending it either way, but isn’t this the opposite of what Rayfield’s translation implies? The bosses/readers ride the tractors, while the underlings/writers walk through the snow?

    You’re absolutely right. Even on his own terms, it’s an incorrect translation.

  7. SFReader says

    I know of Rayfield primarily as a Kartvelologist. He was editor-in-chief of A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (2006), for example.

    I can imagine how it went:

    “Professor Rayfield, we would like to offer you a contract for translation of Shalamov’s Kolyma stories!”

    “But I specialize in Georgian, not Russian!”

    “Surely they can’t be that different!”

  8. David Marjanović says

    Putting the LOL in Kartvelology.

  9. As far as I know Rayfield is a Russian specialist with a subspeciality in Georgian, not the other way around.

  10. All joking aside, clearly he does both, and I don’t know which, if either, he’d consider primary now. I think he started in Russian, and he’s an emeritus professor of Russian in a Russian department, but his work on Georgian is quite extensive. It wouldn’t suprise me if he’s a bigger figure in Georgian studies than Russian, if only because it’s a smaller field.

    Wikipedia entry.
    His page at QMUL, with an (incomplete?) list of recent publications. (Linking to an old version on because the formatting is easier to read than the current page, while the content doesn’t appear to have significantly changed.)

  11. I agree that the Rayfield translation completely misses the point of the last sentence of “Though the Snow”, a sentence that I found so profound in Russian. It seemed that Glad came closer to an important point that Rayfield missed. (Glad’s shortcomings mentioned above seem less severe that this.) I worry that there may be other such instances in this new translation.

  12. I’m at the home stretch of this gargantuan task (has the second part truly already come out?), and am occasionally disappointed by encountering a story that I’d already read in the collection before (three times so far). They’re very obviously different drafts or versions of the exact same tale, and someone at NYRB should have easily captured these. Is it possible that no editor read the whole thing over a span of less than several years?

  13. Wow. I hope it’s a misguided decision to present all variants (though you’d think they’d have mentioned it), rather than simple oversight…

  14. I mean, I can forgive the tenth time he describes a concept as if it’s being introduced for the first time, since it’s a short story format and they need self-sufficiency, or the stories (mostly in book III) where paragraphs seem to be misplaced or unfinished, which is more about the editorial decision of what to keep once the author isn’t available for clarifications, but this phenomenon is just irritating. [A concrete example is book II’s “Major Pugachiov’s Last Battle” and the final section of book III’s “The Green Prosecutor”].

    As an aside, it looks like the second part is indeed out, and I’ll be sure to check it out. And thank you for your part in getting me to read this book, it’s definitely been an influential one to me, a very important complement to Solzhenitsyn indeed.

  15. SFReader says

    The Green Prosecutor

    Since we are in spoiling mood today, I’ll just go and tell everyone that the Green Prosecutor in Russian prison slang means escape.

    Siberian forest, the Green Prosecutor, will give you freedom.

  16. Got around to finding another one of the duplicate stories: “The Descendant of a Decembrist” and “The Engineer Kiseliov”.


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