Navigating Translation: Marian Schwartz Discusses Her Award Winning Work As A Literary Translator

Marian Schwartz

Today’s feature is part of our weekly celebration of  International Translation Day (Sept. 30). Marian Schwartz translates Russian classic and contemporary fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova and translated the New York Times bestseller The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov. Her most recent publications are Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Andrei Gelasimov’s Into the Thickening Fog, Daria Wilke’s Playing a Part, and half the stories in Mikhail Shishkin’s Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories. She is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships, as well as prizes including the 2014 Read Russia Prize for Contemporary Russian Literature and the 2016 Soeurette Diehl Frasier Award from the Texas Institute of Letters.

EC: Hi there, can you explain a little about yourself and how you came to work as a book translator? What are some of the languages that you speak / translate?

MS: When I started studying Russian in college, at Harvard, I was already fluent in French, and indeed I’ve always been interested in languages, taking up Spanish as an undergraduate and doing my minor as a graduate student in Czech. But I only translate from Russian.
EC: Who are some of the writers, organizations etc. that you currently work with? What other sort of writing, creative outlets do you enjoy?

MS: The American Literary Translators Association has been my rock ever since I joined the organization, in 1979. ALTA has been an ongoing source of knowledge, camaraderie, and access throughout the years. I’m also a long-time member of the PEN Translation Committee and have been very active in the literary special interest group of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association. My other creative outlet is the guitar, which I’ve been playing since I was twelve and have gone back to more seriously in the last fifteen years, mostly classical but with side trips into Americana and samba.

EC: What are some of the basic or unexpected challenges of what you do?

MS: Russian as a language was fairly stable through the Soviet period, but since the Soviet Union’s collapse the language has been changing at a breakneck pace. I never dreamed that either of those things would happen. Keeping up and even just deciphering the latest language developments is a huge challenge, and thus all the more gratifying when the challenge is met.

EC: To what extent do you, as a translator, have in the promotion of the titles that you have worked on?

MS: Generally my role is fairly circumscribed, limited to local readings and occasional readings around the country, but then most small presses, who publish most translations, don’t have the money or the staff to promote their titles heavily. I’m taking great pleasure in my more active role in promoting Madness Treads Lightly.

Madness Treads Lightly
Only three people can connect a present-day murderer to a serial killer who, fourteen years ago, terrorized a small Siberian town. And one of them is already dead. As a working mother, Lena Polyanskaya has her hands full. She’s busy caring for her two-year-old daughter, editing a successful magazine, and supporting her husband, a high-ranking colonel in counterintelligence. She doesn’t have time to play amateur detective. But when a close friend’s suspicious death is labeled a suicide, she’s determined to prove he wouldn’t have taken his own life. As Lena digs in to her investigation, all clues point to murder—and its connection to a string of grisly cold-case homicides that stretches back to the Soviet era. When another person in her circle falls victim, Lena fears she and her family may be next. She’s determined to do whatever it takes to protect them. But will learning the truth unmask a killer…or put her and her family in even more danger?

EC: What is the experience of working with Ms. Dashkova like?
MS: Ms. Dashkova has been a pleasure to work with, always responsive to my questions. I was lucky enough to meet with her in Moscow last year and came away full of admiration for her intelligence and insight.

EC: What is your writing process like and what are you and Ms. Dashkova’s roles in that process?

MS: Our writing processes are completely separate, in that I begin working with her final text. In my process, a translation goes through four phases, each of which involves detailed interaction with the text, from the first, very rough pass, through the query and research phase, and onto the point where I let go of the original text and read my translation as a work in English. The last phase always involves reading the entire text out loud, which is something I think all writers should do no matter what kind of text they are creating.
EC: Do you have any funny, inspiring or profound encounters with people who have read your translated work or writing?

MS: My long collaboration with the émigré writer Nina Berberova led to a two-book collaboration with Jacqueline Onassis, who was a great admirer of Berberova. Working and interacting with Onassis at Doubleday showed me what it means to publish at the highest level. She took her role as editor on my translation of Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar utterly seriously. I’ve always felt that that book’s phenomenal success had to be attributed in large part to her. Unfortunately, she died before our second project together, Vasily Peskov’s Lost in the Taiga, was published.

EC: What are some of the rewards or most enjoyable aspects of your work?
MS: My biggest reward has been the luxury of working in solitude and spending my days with the Russian and English languages for nearly forty years. My work has also been an excuse to consort with writers and translators of similar bent. I had always hoped that my efforts would make a contribution to Russian literature and its writers, and I think, having published eighty or so book translations, I can say that I have.

EC: What are some of your upcoming projects, events etc. that you would like to share with our readers?
MS: I’ll be part of a local reading for International Translation Day at the wonderful Malvern Books, here in Austin. I’ve decided to read from what is perhaps Nina Berberova’s finest collection of novellas,The Tattered Cloak. The book was published decades ago but remains in print, thanks to New Directions. In November, University of Notre Dame Press will be publishing my translation of the third of eight volumes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s cycle of historical novels,The Red Wheel, which has been a rather monumental undertaking.

Even more curious about ‘Madness Treads Lightly’? Check out my interview with it’s author Polina Dashkova, the ‘Russian Crime Queen’!

Stay tuned and remember to click the ‘Subscribe’ button because we have a lot more interviews and fun planned for the site. I hope you enjoyed this piece. To show your support, please leave comments / questions, share the interview via social media and follow us online. Cheers! Erin.


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