Olga Grjasnowa and Katy Derbyshire: the pursuit of precision in language and interpretation

Writing and translation both require the right choice of word. Olga and Katy discuss their work.

Olga and I sit down at a safe distance on my balcony after she drops her children off at kindergarten. It’s just reopened, so she’s back to work and feeling liberated. She brings cake. There are wasps and a man strimming weeds along the pavement.

She and I have known each other since her first novel came out in 2012 (later translated as All Russians Love Birch Trees by Eva Bacon). We were introduced by a mutual friend and I attended one of her very first readings, which she didn’t seem to enjoy much. Has it got better, I ask? It has, she tells me, much better, it’s even fun now, especially the Q&As – rather than the often interminably long reading section many Germans prefer. She and I have both discovered the joys of public appearances, after a bumpy start. As a translator, I feel live events make me more visible, although that’s less extreme for writers. I translated Olga’s third novel, City of Jasmine, and we did events in London and Boston with the book. We assure each other we particularly enjoy sharing a stage together…

Katy Derbyshire © Anja Pietsch
Olga Grjasnowa © Valeria Mittelmaß

Her new book – which she’s chosen to call Caucasian in English – is different to her previous work, all of which takes place in present-day settings. This time she goes back to the North Caucasus in 1839, to investigate the true story of a young boy taken hostage by the Russian army and brought up in Saint Petersburg. How did she come across Jamalludin? It was in another novel, she tells me, but one about his father Imam Shamil of Dagestan. It’s actually incredibly contemporary, Olga says, partly because little has changed in the Caucasus region, where she grew up, and partly because it’s so clearly tied in with colonialism. Previous depictions of the boy emphasize how much he benefitted from being taken away from his family, coming of age protected by the Tsar, and Olga wanted to challenge that.

The subject is a little ambivalent for her, she says, because on the one hand the story has only ever been told as colonialist propaganda, and on the other it’s close to her own family history. She’s from the sixth generation to have been born in Baku, and yet – like Jamalludin – they have switched languages over the years. There have been Azeri speakers and Yiddish speakers, and eventually they settled on Russian for pragmatic reasons. Nowadays, most of them have swelled the ranks of mass emigration; only about 200 extended families are left in Baku of its Soviet-era population.

She did a lot of research, mainly using Russian and English sources, so some of the writing work was a kind of translation in itself. For the first time, that made her worry about her German. I read an un-edited version of the manuscript (and later an edited one) but I can’t say I noticed that. Alongside the research, putting herself into the protagonist’s shoes was the best part, she tells me. She often talks to therapists to get a deeper insight into her characters; for All Russians Love Birch Trees, she learned she needed to trigger her protagonist’s PTSD, and for Caucasian she asked a professional about attachment disorders. It was hard for her to understand how a child raised to fear and fight the Russians might come to identify so strongly with them as an adult that he could be used as a propaganda tool. How can I make life even tougher for my character? she asks the experts.

We talk a little about plausibility in fiction. Olga thinks it’s key; there’s no point in writing stories or characters that aren’t logical and believable. I think fiction should be allowed to do anything, I argue for a while, and plausibility isn’t always necessary; there’s room for nonsense and impossibility. We agree in the end that internal logic is important – Gulliver’s Travels works because Swift’s world is consistent. Still, I can’t imagine her next book will be absurdist fiction; she does have her style. What is her style? she asks – she just writes the stuff, largely intuitively. What stands out to me, having read all her work and translated some of it, is the cynical sense of humour underlying it, subtle but driving at times. Olga pulls a face; no one wants to boast about being funny. But she admits it is there, that dark comic undercurrent. Can I translate it? I try, I say. Whether my readers notice it is another question…

But that’s always going to be an issue, for writers and translators – each reader interprets a book individually. And so does the translator, and then in turn the translator’s readers. I find a mental image that comforts me: the process is bow-tie-shaped, I say, with all the possible interpretations of the original narrowing in the middle into the translator’s understanding, then fanning out again on the other side. More metaphors come up when we talk about the joy we both take from our work. Writing and translation require us to choose the right words thousands of times over, to find the ones that fit perfectly; a process of constant – and highly satisfying – problem-solving. Olga likes to compare it to solving equations, while I often talk about it as verbal sudoku: word choice with an added dimension.

Those readers’ interpretations can be troubling, though, Olga tells me. Sometimes people identify themselves in her writing, feel like she’s telling their story. It goes back to the plausibility she bakes into her work – but human lives aren’t as singular as we like to think, she says, and human emotions even less so. Writing this piece, it occurs to me that this strengthens the case for translating literature: emotions as universal entities, gaseous spectres that ignore temporal, cultural and linguistic boundaries. Jamalludin’s experiences – of forced separation from his family, of learning a language out of necessity, reluctantly fitting in to a society he never chose for himself, followed by ambivalence about returning to his origins – speak to us across time, place – and hopefully language. Rights are available from Aufbau-Verlag.

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