Today I have for you an interview with Lisa Hayden Espenschade, professional translator who blogs about Russian books at Lizok's Bookshelf and everything else she reads at Lisa's Other Bookshelf. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa at Book Blogger Con back in May and have been reading her blog avidly ever since. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about herself, her blog and her favorite Russian books.
1. How old were you when you started to study Russian? Why? What interested you about studying the language and culture?
I didn’t start learning Russian until I was a sophomore in college but I’ve been interested in Russia since I was a child. I asked my parents to renew my Jack and Jill magazine every year solely because I loved their occasional “Baba Yaga” stories. I wrote my first paper about the Soviet Union in sixth grade, which was also the year I read my first piece of Russian literature, Chekhov’s “The Bet.” In college, I wasn’t a particularly serious student until I started taking Russian history, which fascinated me so much that I couldn’t stop studying.
2. What are some of your favorite novels in Russian? Favorite author we probably haven't heard of but should have? What would you recommend for nonfiction for someone trying to get situated in Russian culture and history?
My favorite novel in any language is War and Peace: I love Tolstoy’s scope as he describes life. Even the war scenes get more interesting with each new reading! I’ve read War and Peace four times now, twice for classes, and twice on my own. I’m sure Gary Saul Morson, the professor who taught me the book both times, is one reason I love it so much; Dr. Morson also taught me a lot about literary theory and writing. I like Doctor Zhivago, too, but it’s a book I enjoy most as a literary puzzle. Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Translator is a favorite post-Soviet novel.
There are many, many Russian writers available in translation that I wish were better known here! Here are three whose short novels I’ve enjoyed very much: Irina Grekova, Vera Panova, and Vladimir Makanin. I also recommend Varlam Shalamov’s stories about prison camp life. Two favorite classics that don’t get enough attention are Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, a novel in stories, and Saltykov-Shchedrin’s supremely depressing Golovyov Family. One more: I love Alexander Pushkin’s Belkin Tales. Pushkin is known as “our everything” in Russia.
I don’t read much nonfiction now but always like to recommend James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe as a comprehensive introduction to Russian culture and history; Suzanne Massie’s Land of the Firebird is informative, too. I should also mention Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers, which provides an excellent picture of the effects of the Stalin-era Great Terror.
3. You read a lot of English-language novels, too; you have a whole separate blog for them. Do you have a different experience reading in one language or culture versus the other?
Yes, it’s very different! I’ve picked up speed in reading Russian but still read about twice as fast in English. A friend who took Russian with me used to say she gave each Russian word individual attention… I still do even when the vocabulary’s familiar because I’m always watching for new uses of words and phrases, particularly in contemporary literature with lots of slang. Reading in Russian is a much more intense experience for me than reading in English, both because it’s my second language and because it’s so colorful. Russians like to call their language “great and powerful,” and I can’t argue! My English reading has become more analytical since I started translating fiction. I think more about word choice and usage now, especially when I read English translations.
4. Who is your favorite character in a Russian novel?
Back to War and Peace! I love Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov. Sure, the young Natasha is a little bratty, but there’s a reason Tolstoy gives her so many wonderful scenes: she’s curious, loyal, intuitive, and dares ask what’s for dessert. Pierre, whose last name means “without ears,” gets in trouble for a boys’ night episode with a bear, bumbles his way into awkward situations (such as marriage), and is always looking for meaning.
5. Have you done a lot of traveling in Russia/the former Soviet Union? What are some of your favorite places? Do you have a favorite bookstore (or bookstores)? What is your impression of the literary scene?
I traveled a lot when I visited Russia in the ‘80s and lived in Moscow during the ‘90s. Some of my favorite places are Arkhangel’sk, Portland, Maine’s, sister city; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, which I caught at its most colorful during foliage season; and Moscow, where I lived for six years. I like St. Petersburg’s architecture, but Moscow has a busy, more chaotic feel that I prefer… probably because I was fortunate to have a quiet but centrally located apartment! I worked on several interesting projects in Minsk but my favorite non-Russian city was Baku, which I visited several times and enjoyed for its old city.
I haven’t been back to Russia since I left in 1998 so don’t know much about bookstores these days. Back then, I bought books everywhere, from vendors on the streets, in a used bookstore that sold difficult-to-find editions, and in state shops with routine selections. A sentimental favorite is Dom knigi (House of Books) on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. My friends and I went there as students in 1983, naively asked for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky novels, and got laughed at because they weren’t in stock!
|Presented as part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza|
One of my favorite Moscow literary events was a reading with Vladimir Voinovich. The room was so crowded that I sat almost next to him; his melodic voice mesmerized me. I have a favorite literary place, too: Boris Pasternak’s dacha. The dacha is now a beautiful museum, and every year there’s a concert on May 30, the anniversary of Pasternak’s death. That’s my birthday, and I went every year. There was always music and poetry, often read by Pasternak’s neighbors Evgenii Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. Once or twice the museum even served tea and cake. There’s no better way for someone like me to spend a birthday afternoon.
Lisa, thank you so much for answering these questions! It's been such a pleasure to learn more about you and your love of Russia and Russian literature!