The Literary Tourist Interviews Shelley Fairweather-Vega

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews Russian and Uzbek translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Shelley’s translation of The Sin Collector, a thriller about a historically-minded serial killer, is the first translated novel of an engaging detective series by Russian novelist and scriptwriter Daria Desombre.

Andrea Gregovich: I named this interview series The Literary Tourist because I’m reading translations from all over the world and asking questions about languages, cultures, and traditions that I, as a literary writer and a translator of Russian, know little to nothing about. This is the first Russian book I’ve read for this series, so I can approach this interview as more of a specialist from the linguistic and cultural point of view. But I find myself a tourist still, because of this book’s genre! Suspense thrillers are not a type of book I usually read. Were you familiar with this genre? Did you have to change your thinking as a translator to make the language of a suspense thriller work in English?

Shelley Fairweather-Vega: I’m glad we’ll be able to dive into the specifics here as we talk shop, Andrea! It’s especially nice for me to be able to discuss the book with someone who knows her way around the source language.

I feel as if I’ve been reading books in this genre forever. The element of suspense in books like this keeps you turning the pages quickly, which means you read fast—and that means that, as a reader, you can consume a much bigger volume of books like these than you might other types. All that fast, tense reading leaves a nice database of language in your head. I tapped into that database when working out how The Sin Collector ought to sound in English. Fortunately for all of us, although the book belongs firmly in its genre, it’s not all stereotypes and tropes. It’s a lot more interesting than that! The genre conventions just give the story a familiar frame, holding together the more interesting elements of the plots and the characterization.

AG: You weren’t kidding when you told me there were a lot of historical details to fact-check in this book, in which a serial killer plots the sites of his Russian-Orthodox-inspired murders based on a map of ancient Moscow, which was originally constructed as a new “Heavenly Jerusalem.” Did you and the editors make an effort to get all the details factually perfect? Did you discover any inaccuracies in the original text? Have you encountered this curious phenomenon where fiction writers in the non-English speaking world don’t worry so much about factual accuracy, and think we’re too uptight about it?

SFV: Yes, a lot of work went into the historical and geographical details. I did my share of research in the original translation, naturally, because I wanted to make sure I was getting things right. I’ve been to most of the important Moscow sites where the plot unfolds, but my memory was hazy. I’ve never relied so much on Google Maps for translation work as I did for this book.

I had been warned in advance—by you!—that AmazonCrossing has a rigorous copyediting routine. This included fact-checking beyond the items investigated to ensure the translation was accurate. At that stage, the editor calculated how many minutes it would take characters to walk from one point to another. She verified compass directions I had ignored. She noticed how the descriptions of the seasons seemed a little off as the book’s timelines progressed, noting whether twilight was setting in as fast as it should, for example. But most importantly for the book, one editor drew up a whole table listing the “sins” the Sin Collector was out to punish, the locations associated with them, and every detail of the crime. She basically created the dossier the detectives Andrey and Masha should have had. And… there was information missing. Whole sins seemed to be missing. Scenes of the crime got left out or repeated. I hadn’t even noticed—my excuse is officially that I was too swept up in the story to count.

So we had to fill in some holes late in the process. I was able to change how characters discussed their progress very slightly to make sure their count of crimes lined up with the editor’s calculations. The author, Daria Desombre, came up with some last-minute changes to the geography of some of the crimes so that the symbolism would work out better. And, no, the Russian publisher clearly hadn’t noticed or hadn’t been bothered by those things. Our publisher was.

AG: The original title of this book was The Ghost of Heavenly Jerusalem, which makes sense once you get into the plot of the book and would, I think, be appealing to the sort of Russian readers who get into a book like this. Yet Amazon Crossing, as they so often do, made what I think was a shrewd marketing choice in changing the title to The Sin Collector. Did they have a particular rationale in how they chose this new title? Were there other possibilities? And were you involved in the choosing process?

SFV: My official assignment consisted of two parts: (1) translate the book, and (2) give it a title. I came up with ideas as I was reading and translating, and the provisional title we used evolved throughout the editing process. At first it was “The Map,” which I suspect everyone agreed was a dull choice. I remember that I really wanted to emphasize that this book is the first in a series and that it stars a plucky young female detective, so one category of the titles I suggested focused on that: I suggested “Masha Maps Murders” or something cute like that, part of the idea being that subsequent titles in the series could follow that same format. The other option, I thought, was to keep it more serious and name the book after the crimes or after the bad guy. I suggested “The Toll House Murders” or “The Toll House Killer,” which comes from the old religious text inspiring the murders, but I was never quite happy with how much those titles reminded me of the Keebler elves. Those options evolved into “The Toll Collector” and then, after some discussions I didn’t take part in, “The Sin Collector.” And after that we had to make more changes to the English text, to make sure our characters called the killer by that name a few times.

The title is a good one in the sense that it sounds like a “real” crime novel. On the other hand, it’s also the name of another book, and it’s a card in the game Magic: The Gathering, and it’s awfully close to the title of a murder mystery by Jeffrey Deaver called The Skin Collector. Oh well.

AG: Andrey, the police detective who works with the heroine Masha Karavay, has a male dog named Marilyn Monroe. Russians have such a different perspective on American pop culture, so it would seem like this is a joke that translates into a whole different meaning for a reader in English (or maybe even loses its original funniness). Like, what do you think a mutt named Marilyn Monroe means to a Russian?

SFV: That mutt’s name was the first question I remember asking my fellow translators about as I worked on this book! He’s not Marilyn in Russian—in the original, Andrey names the dog Ranevskaya, after a Soviet actress with a big nose and dramatic personality, known for her overacting. She was very famous, I learned… but not among English speakers. So we had to come up with another name, one that would be as familiar to our readers as it would conceivably be to Andrey, who would tell you he’s not really a high-culture kind of guy. We considered Bette Davis, because of the idea of “Bette Davis eyes” being so dramatically expressive, but I thought that might be too obscure. I wanted Scarlett O’Hara, but Desombre thought Andrey wouldn’t have heard of her. In the end, we went with Marilyn Monroe, and re-built the joke around her exaggerated femininity (versus the dog’s non-feminine behavior) instead of Ranevskaya’s famously big, not to say dog-like, nose.

This isn’t the first male dog named for an American pop culture icon by a Russian-speaking character in an English-language book—I made some mental apologies to Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. from Everything Is Illuminated. But it was Andrey who named him after a woman, not me.

AG: Even though it’s ostensibly a formula-driven crime novel, the book is rich in Russian history, in a very clear, almost didactic sort of way. The descriptions of Old Believers and the schism in the Russian Orthodox church are very easy to grasp and give an excellent introduction to what are usually difficult topics. There are also hints of the trauma of Soviet and post-Soviet history, and the way these things still persist and echo in contemporary Russian culture. This is another instance where I think the value of the novel may be different for readers in translation. Why do you think all this easy history is good for English-language readers, and what’s in it for Russian readers?

SFV: Desombre’s original version made it fairly simple to present just the right didactic balance in English, I think. The complicated scheme behind the murders follows two pieces of history that I don’t think the average Russian reader today is any more familiar with than the average English reader would be: the idea of building a city based on the idea of “Heavenly Jerusalem,” as described in the New Testament, and the revelations of an Orthodox saint named Theodora. Fortunately for all of us, Desombre has two characters with a scholarly bent explain the biblical connection to us, and Masha finds St. Theodora’s text herself and reads it for us.

In terms of the Russian reading experience and the English-language reading experience, the bigger difference, I think, will come from the references to current events and 20th-century Russian history that you mention. Here, I added a little explanation the original text lacked. Masha jokes about the Russian demographic crisis, for example, to explain why young women seem so interested in her male boss (whom she considers, at least at that point, completely unattractive). The editors thought that reference might be too obscure, and we fleshed it out a little. Desombre was worried about an elderly character’s references to his parents being repressed and the GULAG, but I thought our readers would know enough to not be stumped by that story and decided not to elaborate with more educational details. The book addresses other current issues that readers outside Russia might be only vaguely aware of—the Olympics and national prestige, alcoholism, the urban/rural divide—but they’re not central to the plot, and in English we largely continued to present those largely as the characters experienced them. In any work in translation, we always have to decide case by case what to make more user-friendly and what to leave to be absorbed at face value.

AG: You told me that, despite how Russian this book feels, Daria Desombre is clearly influenced by western narratives, particularly television writing (which is in fact her forte). How do you see that influence emerging in the text of this novel?

SFV: You know, I’m not sure whether it’s a “western” thing, or just a modern thing. Both she and I wanted to make sure this book had a very contemporary feel in English; we even updated some references to cell phones and apps to bring it forward a few more years. I do think crime series for television influenced the style, the pacing and structure, and really everything in this book. There’s a description of a thunderstorm that fits just right with a terrifying scene in a mental hospital. The action shifts back and forth between the main characters. Every witness interview could almost be the focus of its own episode, if the book were a series on Netflix. Desombre adapts American and European shows for Russian audiences, and judging from this book, I think she must be very good at what she does. She’s certainly absorbed every detail of the format.

AG: Desombre seems to make a lot of fun word choices in Russian, and you in turn made some fun translation choices. Two in particular really made me want to give you a high-five: one character is described as “some fancy-pants antique dealer” and another character’s parents “must have really been loony-toons.” What were the original words for “fancy-pants” and “loony-toons”? Were you at all concerned about choices like these bringing non-Russian implications into the text, or with a book like this, do these words in fact make the Russian-ness of the story more relatable?

SFV: I remember being pretty happy about those English phrases. It’s always satisfying to land on just the right expression for a character and situation, and I think that, especially when translating speech, it’s vital to come up with things that would actually come out of that character’s mouth, all other things equal, if he or she were speaking English instead of the language of the original text. I suppose I think this makes those characters seem not more or less Russian, only more real.

However, sadly, I can’t take credit for either one of them! Those two phrases were both brilliant moves by the first editor, Anna Rosenwong.

For “fancy pants,” it’s Andrey speaking, who, again, is jealous of the antiques dealer Innokenty and feels generally inferior to him. In Russian, he says:

…как бы он ни старался, он знал: никогда ему, простолюдину, не достигнуть высот обходительности этого специалиста по иконам. Семнадцатого века, понимаешь.

Originally, in English, I had:

…no matter how much he would have wished otherwise, he knew he was just too average a guy to ever reach the heights of charm where a specialist in historical icons felt at home. Seventeenth-century icons, no less.

Anna had orders to lose thousands of words. She shrank all of that down to what we have in the end, in an utterance that’s still Andrey through and through:

He knew he could never compete with some fancy-pants antique dealer.

The “looney tunes” phrase comes from the thoughts of a different character, a witness, remembering her dead boyfriend’s strictly religious parents. She says in Russian something I hadn’t read before:

Мозги у его родителей всетаки явно с загогулиной.

I translated it just as “off in the head,” and Anna replaced it with “looney-tunes.” I thought her idea was more in character and we kept it.

AG: There was also a perfect moment in which a character was about to say “shit” I think, but corrected himself: “Check out the kind of shi—uh, shenanigans he landed in with this one.” Was this one difficult to make work?

SFV: Phew—I’m glad that came through the right way! In the Russian, the character catches himself about to speak crudely, and thinks his audience is too proper to approve, so adjusts his word choice. In my English version, the phenomenon works out the same way, but the vocabulary is actually quite different. In this scene, Masha the detective is interviewing a sleazy show-business agent about his deceased client, a heartthrob singer who drowned in a sewage accident. He wants to show her a video of the dead guy performing.

Here’s the original:

Конинов нажал на какуюто кнопку на пульте, лежащем на столе, и белая стена напротив превратилась в огромный экран. — Такой проект проср…. Простите, упустили!

Маша хотела спросить, имеет ли он в виду под «упущением» смерть популярного певца Лаврентия в жидкой грязи, образовавшейся при прорыве трубы в Лубянском проезде, но промолчала.

And here’s the translation, after a couple rounds of editing and pruning:

Koninov pressed a button and the wall across from him transformed into an enormous screen. “Check out the kind of shi— uh, shenanigans he landed in with this one.”

Masha wanted to ask whether those shenanigans had anything to do with the pop singer’s death in the liquid muck that oozed out of the burst pipe in Lubyansky Passage, but she kept quiet.

You’ll see the shit and shenanigans are a stretch; what the agent starts to call it is a project they просрали, literally “the project we shat all over,” but he changes the verb to the more innocuous упустили, putting it more mildly, in the sense that with the singer’s death the world has missed out on a lot of star potential. So in Russian the speaker doesn’t cover his tracks by using a different word with the same initial sound. But Masha picks up on the упустить in her own thoughts, wondering if the agent might consider the bursting pipe that killed his star just a slip-up, too, rather than the vile murder it really was. It was going to be difficult to find a pair of related words in English that conveyed the same two meanings the same way. So I decided to alter things a bit, take advantage of the alliteration in shit/shenanigans, keep the concept of bodily waste involved, and get across the irony of Masha’s thoughts by calling the fateful “accident” mere shenanigans in English when it’s a “missed opportunity” in Russian.

You know, I had to look back at the original and my drafts to answer this question. But I remembered the final line as soon as you brought it up. That’s how much the English version of the narrative has really become the story, now, in my mind.

AG: I think of myself as a connoisseur of profanity in both English and Russian, so I was also excited to see you use the phrases “bite me” and “shitstorm” in this book! What were these words in the original, and how did you decide on these fun choices? (Incidentally, I once taught the American phrase “bite me” to a Russian woman who wanted to learn some good insults in English, and she was surprised Americans would insult one another by talking about biting each other.)

FSG: “Bite me” is what Andrey thinks to himself when presented with what he sees as an underhanded insult from Masha’s snobby best friend. In Russian he says exactly the same: А вот выкуси, “Here, have a bite.” I don’t think I’d heard or read that one before.

The “shitstorm” comment comes during the boss’s rant about how his detectives aren’t solving crimes quickly enough.

In Russian, it was:

— Ты представляешь себе, — продолжал распаляться полковник, — какой пистон я получил сверху?!

The boss is worried about getting a пистон from his superiors, something like a tongue-lashing. But I needed an English word that sounded a lot angrier, one I could imagine a real senior police officer shouting at his underlings in English. So I ended up with this:

The colonel was raging. “Can you imagine what kind of shit storm is going to come down on me?”

And I’m psyched to hear you enjoyed those choice words! It’s a special thrill typing them out, honestly.

AG: On a related note, there’s a passage in which a wimpy guy is described as needing “a girl with balls.” This one jumped out at me because in the book I translated for Amazon Crossing, a tough female character is described as “a babe with balls of steel.” Do you know if this is common in the Russian vernacular right now or something? It seems to me that talk about women having balls in English might occasionally happen at frat parties and such, but it’s pretty unusual. I wonder, does this occurring in both of our novels perhaps shed light on the nature of women’s empowerment in that country?

SFV: One really fun thing about translating this book was figuring out voices for all the different minor characters. The detectives interview the friends and loved ones of all the victims, and those witnesses all have distinct personalities and backgrounds. And most of them are women, and most of them are women who don’t need men, have given up on men, or wish their men would treat them better. There could definitely be a message about women’s empowerment in there.

In The Sin Collector, a woman who describes her deceased boyfriend as “kind of a wimp” is the one who says he needed a girl with balls. This was an easy choice, because the Russian uses the slang word for testicles, too: ему бабу нужно с яйцами, she says. I can’t say how common it is in Russian right now, but it’s certainly understandable in both languages.

AG: Is Daria Desombre working on more of these Masha Karavay detective novels?

SFV: There are four more Masha Karavay books in the series, all out in paperback from Eksmo in Russian. I’d very much like to get more of them into English. I’ve read only the second one in the series so far, and I thought it was great. Lots of reader reviews of The Sin Collector have mentioned waiting impatiently for the next book in the series. Masha and Andrey (and Marilyn Monroe) have a real fan base already.

AG: In addition to Russian, you translate Uzbek! How did you pick up this unusual language, and how is it going finding a publisher for your Uzbek novels?

SFV: Yes, before I ever heard of the book that became The Sin Collector, I had finished translations of two novels by the Uzbek writer in exile Hamid Ismailov. I’m very proud of that, but the whole process has been a lot slower and drearier than translating detective fiction. Those Uzbek novels are serious business, and it takes me about three times longer to translate a paragraph in Uzbek than it does a paragraph in Russian, probably because my knowledge of that language is a lot more academic and less grounded in actual living experience. Of those two novels, I’m hoping to hear from a publisher any day now about one of them. The other is still up for grabs.

Anyway, I’m glad to be able to say I’ve translated both a Russian detective thriller and two Uzbek contemporary epics. Also in my portfolio of published or soon-to-be-published translated books is a popular science book about human emotions and our capacity for abstract thought, coming out in June from Routledge, and a handful of mostly twentieth-century Russian poetry in the collection 100 Poems About Moscow that came out in Russia last year. And I’m working on a really good children’s adventure story based on Kazakh mythology. I translate full time, and I’m afraid I’d get bored without this kind of variety in my work.

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 released in 2016 by Amazon Crossing.

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