Understanding is Not the Most Important Thing: Shishkin, Schwartz, and Post in Conversation

By Katherine Sanders

At the end of Book Expo America events on June 7, readers gathered at McNally Jackson Books for a Bridge Series discussion with Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, his translator Marian Schwartz, and editor Chad Post about Maidenhair (being released in October by Open Letter), a groundbreaking novel that traces both personal and collective histories through fact and fiction.  Shishkin and Shwartz started the discussion by reading from the first chapter in both the original Russian and the English translation. It is mesmerizing:

Question: Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum in Switzerland.

Answer: I lived in an orphanage since I was ten. Our director raped me. I ran away. At the bus stop I met drivers taking trucks across the border. One took me out.

Question: Why didn’t you go to the police and file a statement against your director?

Answer: They would have killed me.

The format of this conversation, and many like it throughout the novel, no doubt come directly from Shishkin’s own experience working as a translator for Asylum Seekers within Switzerland’s Immigration Department. The book is filled with these interviews as well as diary entries from a Russian singer living in war-torn Russia in the early twentieth century, and letters the protagonist writes to his young son whom he nicknames “Nebuchadnezzasaurus.” Shishkin has lived in Germany and spent many years in Switzerland, but he was born and attended school in Moscow. Fans of his work talk about his unique approach to the Russian language, and perhaps this comes from his conscientious distance from the motherland. Shishkin himself said from an early age he felt that “the Russian language is my enemy.” He didn’t relate to the “great, mighty Russian language” taught to him in school and, as a writer, he tried to bring what he termed “dead words” to life.

One way Shishkin brings his prose to life is by filling it with the voices of many characters. Translator Marian Schwarz talked about the challenge of recreating all these voices in English. She admitted that when she first started the project she received a more-than-forty-page document of explanatory notes from Shishkin himself to aid with the translation, but “even this wasn’t enough.” Considering not just the voices, but the various registers within these voices, along with allusions, neologisms, palindromes, and what Schwartz called a “fantasmagorical group monologue,” translating Maidenhair was no simple work. She talked about recognizing early in the process that translating this book would mean not just bringing it to a new language, but recreating its artistry in a new language. “I had to find a way to make English do what he does with Russian,” she said.

It was clear that Shishkin and Schwartz had a high level of trust for each other. In another interview about having his work translated, Shishkin has said, “I would compare the situation with the theater—like a director, a translator must feel completely free. The translation is like an adaptation for the stage, an interpretation.” Shishkin not only gave Schwartz a dynamic text to translate and supplementary text to support that translation, but also his total trust. As Schwartz noted, she often had to make difficult decisions, even cutting a sentence or passage altogether if it just didn’t work in English, which Shishkin fully supported. The overall effect is a stunning work in English that is sensitive to characters, voices, and emotions, and despite being over five hundred pages long, is constantly engaging.  

A draft of this translation was delivered to Chad Post, Director of Open Letter Books, who immediately fell in love with it. Maidenhair includes a combination of letters, diary entries, official reports, interviews, and stories wrapped up into a mosaic-like, yet seamless, narrative. Post echoed Knizhnaya Vitrina, a Russian book reviews publication, in saying, “this is the kind of book they give the Nobel Prize for.” Post is a translation enthusiast, having worked at Dalkey Archive Press before founding the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books more than five years ago. The press’s mission is “to increase access to world literature for English readers” and Post knew immediately that Maidenhair would open up not only contemporary Russian literature to new readers, but give them an unforgettable reading experience. Post described the process of reading the book as sometimes ambiguous. The reader is left “not always knowing what is going on,” but the overall aesthetic creates an instinctual coherence along with a sense of searching and wonderment.

Shishkin summed up this feeling another way when he said, “Understanding is not the most important thing.” He talked about the phenomena of being in love, “you don’t know how it works, you just love.” He explained that he had the chance to read his mother’s diaries from when she was a teenager living in the 1940s and 1950s in Russia. At first he was shocked and disappointed that there were little to no references in those entries to the important historical events that were going on at the time; instead she wrote about her everyday life and her ongoing hope of finding love. Shishkin soon came to realize that her writing wasn’t from a simple naïveté, but a seeking for love in dark times—“seeking beauty in a world filled with destruction.” This in turn led him to write Maidenhair, “a book about human warmth.”

This human warmth was felt at McNally Jackson as guests lined up to purchase advance copies of the book and have Shishkin sign them. People seemed reluctant to leave. One of my favorite moments during the evening was when Shishkin told a story about a man who was imprisoned and drew a picture of the ocean and a boat on the wall of his cell. He drew it with great care and detail until it was completed. Then one day the guards realized the prisoner was no longer in his cell and the drawing had disappeared too. “Reading is part of my struggle for human dignity,” said Shishkin. And maybe this is more important than understanding—human dignity and warmth; and we can expect an abundance of both from the pages of Maidenhair.


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