The Literary Tourist Interviews Jeffrey Zuckerman

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews French translator Jeffrey Zuckerman. Jeffrey received the PEN/Heim Translation fund grant in 2016 for his translation of The Complete Stories of Hervé Guibert and has two recent novels in translation, Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016) and Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017). Radiant Terminus is a notorious pseudonymic author’s sci-fi tale about life in a future Siberia after a widespread nuclear disaster.

Andrea Gregovich: As a Russian translator, I was sucked into this book far more than I’d expected: it takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic Siberia but is written by Antoine Volodine, a French author. The details of life in the taiga, the vibe of the collective farms, and the institutions and overall culture felt authentically Siberian and Soviet to me, even in this dystopian take. What is Volodine’s background with Siberia and the Soviet Union—how is it that he’s so skilled at writing about it?

Jeffrey Zuckerman: It’s lovely to hear from you, Andrea, and I’m so glad this book has captured a world you probably know well. The (former) Soviet Union is a space that Volodine often returns to in his writing, and while he doesn’t seem to be on the record as having lived there for extensive stretches of time, it’s true that he has Slavic heritage—“Volodine,” after all, is the French transliteration of Володин.

For many years, Volodine taught Russian in the French school system before he abandoned the practice to devote himself entirely to writing (and, occasionally, translating Russian authors such as the Strugatsky brothers and Alexander Ikonnikov). In addition to that deep-seated knowledge of the language and its speakers, one reason the former USSR figures so strongly in Volodine’s work may be that it’s the site of failed communism. Throughout his books, he’s often been drawn to the ideals that communism, in theory, aspired to—for example, a place for everyone in society, and a “radiant future” they might all work toward—and the human consequences of Communism’s failure in practice—dissidents and antagonists in prison, stories and myths suppressed from the broader conversation, and so on.

One of my best friends from college spent a year or so living in Moscow immediately after we graduated. What struck me most about the pictures she showed me was the sheer vastness of Russia. Certainly there are the major cities, from Kaliningrad to St. Petersburg and Moscow to Vladivostok, but she described train trips that lasted for days, and the image I had of Russia became those taigas and vast, nearly desolate steppes. What better place could there be for humans to feel small in the face of colossal forces?

AG: There’s little question that Antoine Volodine doesn’t fit the standard writer or pseudonym templates at all. How would you explain this unique persona and his interconnected body of work? And what is post-exotic literature all about?

JZ: Volodine is just one of many voices within the broader framework of post-exoticism, which itself refuses to cohere neatly into a particular genre or category. (After all, there isn’t any existing “exoticism” for this literature to have come after….) What unites those works is a shared set of concerns: the rubble of communism, as I mentioned above, and those voices that have been stifled or silenced. Sometimes there are madmen, and sometimes there is a blurring between reality and dreams. Death is a destination only reached after a very long passage from life through a tarry, ashy realm we might consider the barzakh, or the Bardo, or simply limbo.

And Antoine Volodine himself doesn’t quite fit into any category. If his name happens to be more visible among the works published here, it’s because he’s the spokesperson for all the storytellers and writers who fit within post-exoticism, and early on in his career he had to allow his name to be imposed on other authors’ stories in order to be published.

But now five post-exotic authors have been published in French. In addition to Volodine’s imprimatur, there’s Maria Sudayeva, who Volodine met on a trip to Macau and who published a book of protest slogans that have seeped into many of Volodine’s subsequent books (including Le Port intérieur [Inner Harbour] and Songes de Mevlido [Dreams of Mevlido]). Lutz Bassmann, who might be considered the father of post-exoticism, has had many of his acidulous writings brought out, from We Monks and Soldiers in Jordan Stump’s very fine translation to a novel set in prison and written entirely in haiku. And then there are two authors whose work is meant for children: first, Manuela Draeger, whose madcap stories somehow give an unexpected sense of wonder to post-exoticism’s harsh landscapes (there’s a wonderful collection of them, translated by Brian Evenson, called In the Time of the Blue Ball); and, second, a man who’s collected Russian oral folktales, or byliny, and set them down in five volumes with all sorts of post-exotic quirks like very small nuclear reactors. That last writer’s name is Elli Kronauer, and I’d known about his books for several years. They haven’t been translated yet, so Elli Kronauer feels like the most mysterious heteronym to me, and his name sticks firmly in my mind.

Which is why, when I read the very first page of Terminus radieux several months before its publication in French, I gasped in shock. It’s no secret that all these post-exotic books and authors bear upon the same universe and deeply influence one another, but even so I was unprepared for these two lines:

At Kronauer’s feet, the dying woman groaned.

                        — Elli, she sighed.

AG: So what are we to make of this? Is Kronauer a post-exotic author, a post-exotic character, or some combination of both? What the heck is going on here?

JZ: It would seem that Elli Kronauer has appeared as a character within this post-exotic novel. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I knew Manuela Draeger, similarly, was both an author of several books and (as Brian Evenson, a fellow translator of Volodine) a librarian found within Volodine’s own books. But I was caught off-guard all the same, and reminded again that “there isn’t even the thickness of a cigarette paper between reality and our fictions.”

But even saying that Kronauer is both an author and a character would still be too simple. In a quick note to me, Volodine happened to say: “I should mention that the Kronauer of Radiant Terminus bears the same name as the author of Russian byliny, but of course isn’t the same person.” Make that of what you will . . .

AG: The character names in this book were unique, and one called Barguzin caught my attention in particular. It’s a curious coincidence—the characters in a Russian novel I translated were always driving around in a model of van called a Barguzin, and they always referred to it as “the Barguzin”. A quick Google shows that it’s also the name of a ballistic missile, as well as a place name: there’s a river, mountain range, nature preserve, and village called Barguzin. So I thought to ask you, did you look into the word “Barguzin” at all, or did you just transliterate it as a name? Are any of the other unusual character names worth a closer look?

JZ: Barguzin is indeed also the name of a river in Russia, and, similarly, Hannko Vogulian’s name alludes to the Vogul people of the northern Ural mountains. I should point out that nearly all the characters’ names had to be re-transliterated from Russian so they would be pronounced correctly. After all, some of Russia’s most famous authors are known in French as Pouchkine and Tchekhov and Dostoïevski, while our English-language bookshelves sag under volumes by Pushkin, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky. So la Mémé Oudgoul became the Gramma Udgul, and Oumroug Batiouchine became Umrug Batyushin. (At a couple of spots, I asked Volodine to send me the original Russian names so I could make sure I was right!) They’re still pronounced the same way, thankfully.

And the sorcerer Solovyei’s name towers above all the others. When the post-exotic author Elli Kronauer penned a set of Russian byliny, his first—and most famous—one was the story of Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Robber. The Russian word for nightingale is Солове́й, which transliterates to… Solovyei. Knowing the story of a warrior hero who makes his way into a strange place where an evil monster can whistle so loudly that the trees bend down and the humans are stunned if not killed gives many, many more layers to a reading of Radiant Terminus.

AG: One detail that kept reminding me that this book was written in French were the lists of names of wild plants growing in the fields, according to the knowledge of Kronauer (for example: “Murmuring mauvegarde, chugda, marche-sept-lieues, epernielle, oldcaptives, saquebrille, lucemingot…”). I’m curious how you came up with translations for these plants. I’ve been in the position of trying to ferret out appropriate names for specific Siberian plants that have various arcane nicknames in both languages without a clear genus/species to work with. And plant names would seem particularly problematic in a fanciful, irradiated future vision of Siberia, in which the plants must be mutating all the time. What’s the story on these French-sounding plant names?

JZ: Well, it goes without saying that those plant names are French (marche-sept-lieues literally means walk-seven-leagues, for example). In the original French text, practically all the plant names are in French. And in France, most plants have their own particular French name. But English plant names have many, many different origins; there are “forget-me-nots” and “foxgloves,” of course, but also plenty of names from French, Latin, German, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, and other languages. I wanted the same degree of linguistic hybridity we might find in an Anglophone plant nursery in my English translation—and these plants, by the way, are all fictional. The mushrooms are all real names, but the French grasses and flowers are invented. This meant that I had a rare moment of absolute freedom where I could transliterate or directly translate or leave untranslated those names; I chose whatever would sound most beautiful and chime with the surrounding names: “vieille-captive” became “oldcaptives”; just as the French word “sommaire” means “summary,” so “terbabaire-du-camelot” became “huckster terbabary”; other names stayed in French…

But one of the happiest moments in this process of translation also led to one of the saddest. The book spans mind-boggling stretches of time; at one point, a few centuries just go by without a hiccup. And Kronauer comes back into the world after extended isolation. He sees grasses that are yellow and brown and completely unfamiliar. I was so looking forward to playing with invented names once again, but then I translated Kronauer’s sad realization: “I don’t even know the names of these grasses… These are new species. These are new species, but they’re dead.”

AG: I’ve been fixated on the Russian-ness of things in a way that makes it sounds as if I’ve forgotten the novel is in French. I didn’t forget, but it really does read like an authentic Russian novel for me in English translation. The overall narrative has the expansive feeling I get from Solzhenitsyn, but then there were those passages in an alternative font (which was how things like audio recordings and journal entries were set apart from the rest of the text) that gave me a very Dostoyevsky feeling. Also, I recently read a Russian novel about Tatars, Zuliekha Otkrivaet Glaza by Guzel Yakhina, which depicts the taiga quite like Volodine does—as a spooky, dangerous forest haunted by dark and destructive spirits. So this is why the French names for the grasses struck me—they pulled me out of that Russian feeling for a moment as I read, reminding me of the French.

In your opinion does this book fit more into a French or Russian literary tradition? Is there a French-ness about Radiant Terminus that perhaps got lost in translation for me?

JZ: It’s true that Radiant Terminus plays off the many motifs of Russia’s most prominent novels, but I’m inclined to say these allusions are there to be subverted, just as Volodine toys with the conventions of plot, setting, time, protagonist and even authorship. (Is it possible that the narracts making up the book’s last part undo nearly everything that came before? I wouldn’t rule it out.) Similarly, to have the names of so many plants in French is both a trope and a trap. Ultimately, post-exoticism is separate from all these national traditions. When I and another translator interviewed Volodine for The Paris Review, he was very clear on this point:

I didn’t feel attached in the least to contemporary French literature, with all that implied about traditions, schools, and debates. I was steeped in translated literature, mainly from South America, the Anglophone world, Russia, and Japan. I knew French literature well, but I placed it among the others and not as an inescapable and necessary literary mold. Starting with the publication of my first book, I completely abandoned France’s cultural heritage and went independently and alone down a path that, in a way, had come from nowhere and went nowhere. “From nowhere, to nowhere”—this phrase nicely defines the literary process of post-exoticism, and I’ve reused it many times in clarifying or explaining it.

So, to answer your question, no, there isn’t a particular Frenchness, or Brazilness, or Macauness, or Bardoness that was reduced or erased in translation. But there was post-exoticness in spades, and I hope Radiant Terminus gives its English readers the same subtle unease that Terminus radieux did its French readers.

AG: I always like to ask translators how they go about educating themselves in jargons and other specialized vocabularies they don’t know how to use fluently in English. Were there parts of this book that took you outside your own areas of expertise? And how did you go about researching them?

JZ: Well, yes, Radiant Terminus is a story very much fueled (ha!) by nuclear reactors. I’d learned about them some fifteen years ago in chemistry class, but I’d forgotten most of the specifics. The nice thing, though, is that my father was a nuclear engineer for many years. Early in the book, it becomes clear that one of the towns had a reactor breakdown and the reactor’s core simply sunk straight down through the earth. I got to that page, pulled out my phone to call my dad on Facetime, and half an hour later he’d talked me through all the details of how the Chernobyl disaster had happened—overheated fuel rods, all sorts of fail-safes that had been overridden—and how reactors have changed since then. It was a wonderful and happy coincidence to have him a quick phone call away…

AG: Tell me about the Grandma Ugdul’s three waters: “the heavy-heavy water, the deathly-deathly water, and the lively-lively water.” This woman, many hundreds of years old, who I would describe as a nuclear shaman, uses these three waters to revive people from the dead. What choices went into your rather poetic translation of this curious concept?

JZ: The Gramma Udgul is easily one of the funniest and most charming characters—she’s become immortal through radiation, she goes and talks to the well that was dug by the reactor core sinking through the earth, and she is absolutely convinced that she knows “what’s what” when, well, she definitely doesn’t. If Solovyei is a sorcerer in the most commonly accepted sense, of conjuring things out of nothing, the Gramma Udgul wields a different kind of magic by working with the elements of the earth. You’re right to think of heavy water: in French, that would just be eau lourde. And Grimm’s fairy tales often invoke the remarkable powers of the water of death and the water of life—in French, eau morte and eau vive. Volodine’s own joke was to intensify that trio as eau très lourde, eau très morte, and eau très vive, literally sticking “very” (not “super”) on top of each name. The translation that makes those three kinds of water both rhyme and sound silly is heavy-heavy water, deathly-deathly water, and lively-lively water. So when the Gramma Udgul takes those three kinds of water, she can help a character, who is out of commission due to too much radiation, die properly and come back properly:

The Gramma Udgul had to shake him over and over, put him in the sunlight when there was sun or in moonlight when the moon shone, and she rubbed his forehead with heavy-heavy water, then with deathly-deathly water, then she poured lively-lively water between his eyes, as in the tales the bards had sung. Barguzin responded to this treatment and regained normal color. He got back up, thanked her, and went back to work in the kolkhoz repair shop.

AG: I am a sucker for a dark, meandering book like this, especially when the story involves mad shamanism and a dystopian vision of Siberia. At first it felt like the story wasn’t really going anywhere—I mean there is plenty going on and stories are being told, but there is a certain lack of plot urgency. What was it like to translate such a bizarre story with so little driving plot? Did you ever lose your bearings in the text, or find yourself not knowing what the heck was going on?

JZ: Welcome to post-exoticism—after all the revolutions, collapses, and apocalypses, there’s a great deal of waiting. This was actually much more plot-driven than most of Volodine’s books, so there was a thread I was following all the way through. But it’s true that language gets deformed in this universe, as does time itself. I’d been translating Volodine’s work off and on for about four years before I agreed to do Radiant Terminus, so when I dove in, I was prepared for long stretches of wandering, trains going down tracks that seemed never to end, and abrupt microstories of different characters. And for the deformations of proper French that Volodine unleashes upon his readers.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deep I would sink into the process of translating. I would get up each morning, take care of normal day-to-day work, eat a really big lunch, and then head to my workspace and start translating. Because I’d gotten to know Volodine’s style intimately, I could take each sentence head-on, and finding the right equivalent was akin to getting a word right in a crossword puzzle: just satisfying enough to pull me forward to the next sentence.

I translated sentence after sentence and page after page in a happy daze: at some point I would realize my head was starting to hurt, but I was so absorbed in the process that it took a couple more sentences before I realized it was a headache, and then a couple more sentences before I realized it was due to not having had anything to eat or drink for hours. It wasn’t a healthy process, and when I came to the book’s end I had to take a week to recover. But it was a remarkable experience that I’m glad to have had. It took me seven weeks to make a preliminary translation.

AG: This is my first Volodine book. If I want to keep going down this wild literary rabbit hole, which of his books should I read next? Are more of his books planned for English translation?

JZ: The very first Volodine book I ever read was Minor Angels, and I’ve consistently heard from nearly every other Volodine aficionado that it’s the best place to start: a book composed of 49 short sections, called narracts, that perfectly depict the world of post-exoticism and its many crossings. That and Radiant Terminus and Lutz Bassmann’s We Monks and Soldiers should make for an illuminating entrance for any English-language reader—and the stories of Manuela Draeger’s In the Time of the Blue Ball are delectable palate-cleansers. Be warned: despite the title of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, it’s not a good place to start. It’s a dense and complicated book that requires its readers to already be well acquainted with many details of post-exoticism. But it’s a wonderfully multifaceted checkpoint to visit after journeying through some of the post-exotic writers’ volumes.

In French, there will be a total of forty-nine post-exotic texts, the final volume of which will be Lutz Bassmann’s Return to the Tar. I don’t know of any further titles currently set to be translated into English, but I know I’d love the opportunity to delve into my favorite of Volodine’s books, his very first one: Comparative Biography of Jorian Murgrave. It welds together a dizzying number of prospects—a monstrous Murgrave landed on Earth, mysterious murders of every single person who attempts to write some part of his biography, a maximum-security prison by the Arctic ocean, psychobiologists determined to invade this creature’s dreams, two investigators bound together body and soul and flitting around the world to piece together all these fragments of Jorian Murgrave’s biography, and possibly one of the most affecting, beautifully sad endings I’ve ever read in fiction.

And in the meantime, Volodine himself is hard at work in a villa in Japan, patiently setting down lines in French for whatever book may come next in this extraordinary edifice. I’m just lucky to have been a small part of bringing his work to a whole new cadre of readers. And I’m glad to have been able to answer your questions, Andrea. Thank you.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was recently released by Amazon Crossing.

Photo of Jeffrey Zuckerman courtesy Julia Sanches.

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