Interview with Max Lawton: on reading Russian literature, translating Sorokin, books in need of translation and retranslation, learning languages, and ambitious projects

We finished this interview a month ago when even in the worst nightmare I could not have conceived that the deranged Kremlin dictator would launch an open, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If we were talking now, this conversation would definitely be different. At first, I thought about updating our exchange considering the present situation but then decided to leave it as it is. All the updates that you need are in Vladimir Sorokin’s withering indictment of Putin translated by Max for The Guardian. Let this interview read like a document from another era when literature still held priority in our minds.

The Untranslated: What was your relationship with Russian literature before you learnt the language and how has it changed since you started to read it in the original?

DostoevskyCoverMax Lawton: It would be nice to claim that my desire to read Russian literature stemmed from something organic or intellectual, but I first encountered Russian literature as physical objects. 1. My dad’s old copy of Crime and Punishment with a face that looked like a composite of many illegible photographs––what was ostensibly Raskolnikov’s visage––on the cover. Looked like a Chuck Close collage in my memory, but turns out to have been a painting by Seymour Chwast. An old book from the Suttons Bay Library (where my dad grew up in Michigan) that had been sold off after being DISCARDed (as was stamped in big letters on its first page). 2. The main actor’s girlfriend reading a copy of the famous Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club sticker intact) in the audience of my mom’s play in Chicago in about 2003. ‘What a mysterious object,’ I thought in the first case, knowing someone murdered an old woman with an axe in it and remembering Gromit reading some canine version of the novel in A Close Shave. Still, I never bothered to open the thing. And, in the second, I think the flowers against the lady’s bare thighs, plus the book’s deckle-edged paper, were what made an impression. Then, thinking P+V were the way to read these books I’d been abstractly entranced by the objective manifestations of, I made it a habit to ask for their translations of Russian classics at all birthdays and Christmases. It would be many years before I’d finish all of them. And so, alas, my first introduction to Russian literature was by way of new translations seen on shelves of Barnes & Nobles in the suburban Midwest-–seen and sometimes purchased.

The set that I was most attracted to was the five Vintage paperback editions of Dostoevsky’s long novels and, having been given three of the five, I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was 13, excited to see why it always made Michel Houellebecq cry when he came to the last chapter (yes, I did read The Elementary Particles much too early). I didn’t cry, but found myself in an almost entirely incomprehensible world of droshkys and samovars and elders and scandals during visits to salons involving the rupture of social norms I didn’t quite grasp… This world was as different from mine as any chapter in Telluria. Plus a vision of Christianity that has had an enormous impact on my intellectual life to this day. Yes, an awful cliché: Dostoevsky made me a Christian (kinda). P+V are often raked over the coals for their unnatural-sounding texts, but, in the case of Dostoevsky, I find the unnaturalness of the prose to be stilted in an enchanting way. Like a strong British cheese. I still am a great fan of their Dostoevsky.

I continued to flick my way through various P+V translations and completed my set of Dostoevsky’s Big Five. Eventually, I began to study at Columbia where, during my freshman year, I took two enormous lecture/survey classes about Russian literature with Liza Knapp, a wonderful professor who specializes in 19th-century Russian literature at Columbia. There, I read and understood (in undergraduate fashion, to be sure) all of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s masterpieces. So, no, we read neither Resurrection nor The Adolescent, but all the others––yes. I could almost always sense that I was reading a translation, it was something about the way the sentences were put together and because of words like “frippery,” but the artistic visions presented in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were powerful enough to blast their way through to the reader despite the distortion inherent to re-rendering. I also began to study Russian my freshman year. Then, my sophomore year, reading Nabokov with Cathy Nepomnyashchy, another wonderful professor of Russian literature at Columbia who tragically passed away the following year, I continued to feel somewhat immunized to issues of translation. After all, it seemed Nabokov had kinda written all of the texts of his that’d been translated. However, in The Gift in particular, I could sense an idiom that was untranslatable. I didn’t like that book at first, but wanted to have another crack at it––in Russian ideally. And, in another survey course, while reading Gogol and Pushkin, I sensed the whole of an idiom––an atmosphere, a feeling, a set of meanings––that didn’t come through in translation (or came through only in the briefest of snatches).

It was probably during my sophomore year that Vladimir Sorokin became my holy grail. I’d read about Blue Lard and was obsessed with the notion that he was a transgressive Russian novelist somehow akin to Houellebecq (a comparison from an over-expansive article in a fashionable periodical, I’m sure). I read a few of his books in French, but saw how much he’d written and would obsessively buy (yes… a reader by way of a commodity fetishist, there are a great many of us, I’m sure) any of his books that I could find, capable of reading no more than a few lines in my second and third years of Russian study before I’d collapse down onto my thin dorm mattress, exhausted by the effort. And I read those books of his that were translated into English by Jamey Gambrell too. But I was never satiated… Whenever I was reading his books in French or English, I felt like I was visiting an alien planet I couldn’t wait to share my recollections of, but then could remember nothing when I was done. I’d forgotten what was so profound or important. It was as if I’d neglected to take any photographs.

Soon, I began to be able to read in Russian (emphasis on began to) and realized that the entire language of translated Russian I’d grown so accustomed to was a mere shadow of the world of light it had come down from. Like bootleg DVDs vs. IMAX. I discovered idioms that couldn’t possibly be translated into English––Gogolian strangeness, Pushkinian lightness, Nabokovian long-windedness, Sorokinian what-the-fuckness––and became quickly obsessed with the notion of translating Sorokin. I’m not entirely certain of why I was so sure I wanted to do it (or believed that I could). I could sense a world of incomprehensible words and objects through the screen of the Cyrillic-crabbed page, could sense something utterly new, and directed all of my energy toward seeing what lay beyond those strings of words––toward understanding what made Sorokin’s brilliance tick. I had to learn the language better, to study it more, and I devoted myself to doing so––at Middlebury in the summer and at Oxford during the year. I devoted myself to reading and understanding Sorokin with all of my intellectual energy.

In the process, I discovered that any given language is not one single language, but many dialects, some of which, as, for example, in Platonov’s case, are limited to a single speaker. Increasingly, the sounds, shapes, and rhythms of Russian became a part of my understanding of language as such. I learned why the last lines of Limonov’s It’s Me, Eddie are so brilliant. Heard the speaker stuck inside of A School for Fools and, no, I wasn’t listening to the audiobook; he spoke through the ink on the page––his microphone. I laughed aloud at mere combinations of odd words in Bely and Gogol. I was starting to get it… or am starting to get it. But continue to work (as in: read) every single day.

The Untranslated: Tell me about your stay in Moscow and your collaboration with Sorokin. I am particularly interested in how his elucidation of his works as well as their cultural and political context helped you in translating them.

M. L.: My two stays in Moscow so far (and perhaps a third by the time this interview is published) have provided invaluable context for my translation work. Living in a concrete apartment from the 70s during the whole summer of 2018, I now have quite a concrete sense of the Soviet odor that permeates all of Vladimir’s early work. Or its Post-Soviet decay, I guess. The rotting of that which was already putrefied. The swastika etched onto the wall of the elevator, presumably with a car key. The cigarette butts covering over every landing. The armored doors. The moldy shower-room with paint peeling in giant chips off of the ceiling. How could I have ever translated the early stories or The Norm without these memories as background? And how could I be Sorokin’s translator AT ALL without having amply sampled the country’s cuisine, both high and low, from bench outside supermarket to AC’ed dining room with exp(a/e)nsive view, from greasy chebureki in kitschy canteen to delicately prepared nel’ma at Chemodan, a fantastic Siberian restaurant on the Boulevard Ring. I’ve only just stopped short of eating the vatrushki sold by elderly women in Moscow underpasses, but hope to one day work up the courage to try one.

I met Vladimir on my very first night in Russia. Out of an inveterate sense of laziness, I’d never gone to the not-so-inconsiderable trouble necessary to acquire a visa and, as such, had never been there, even after six years of studying “Russian language and literature” and having spent two of those years working with Sorokin. I emailed him that I was on my way, to which he asked if I’d like to have dinner about 40 minutes after I landed. Too bashful to suggest we meet a bit later, I spent the whole flight on board the unhappily old chartered Czech Airlines plane praying to be on time. And was, thanks to my actor friend Max Stoyanov who graciously drove me from the airport to Café Pushkin at high speed. It was a hot June day and my first taste of Russia was cold, fancy kvass. I’d only ever had it in Brighton Beach and was shocked at the difference between this and what you got in giant bottles imported from Ukraine in NYC.

Nothing in Russia was extraneous as regarded my development: not asking where the forks were in the grocery store and getting nothing more than a puzzled look in reply (I wanted to eat a tub of shuba (a tasty herring, beet, and mayonnaise salad) on a park bench outside the supermarket, which made no sense to the Russian sensibility), not the drunk guy in a bookstore who needed help finding the third, five, and seventh Erast Fandorin books (the historical series of wannabe-Sherlock Holmes novels by Boris Akunin) then was yelled at in Byzantine mat (Russian curse words) by a middle-aged woman who seemed kinda unhinged and eventually apologized to me (standing there open-mouthed with a fancy copy of the complete Kolyma Tales in hand), and certainly not the older man who cornered me at a bar to tell me that the only way to have sex in Russia was behind monuments in the middle of the night… Suddenly, Sorokin made a lot more sense.

And Vladimir himself, endlessly kind and gracious, inviting me to his home and introducing me to his family, showing me the tastiest spots in Moscow, and roasting us the most delicious of wild game, just as described in his books (well… with maybe a few key differences…). His daughters Masha and Anya also serving as wise guides, Virgils to my Dante––like last summer when we accidentally went to Gorky Park for an evening wander on the Airborne Forces Day and ended up in the midst of a drunken crowd shouting profane slogans straight out of Zakhar Prilepin’s novels…


Max Lawton and Vladimir Sorokin at Sorokin’s home in Vnukovo. Photo by Maria Sorokina

Vladimir has always trusted my instincts and given me a good deal of freedom. To most of my questions about made-up words or gibberish, he replies that he’d prefer I change them as little as possible or not translate them at all. He often tells me that he doesn’t know what made-up expressions or acronyms mean. He builds them based on intonation alone. In Telluria, he created a profane form of address based on the name of the company that heats his house in Moscow (Buderus). The areas he most scrutinizes in my translations are, yes, profanities, but also physical objects. He sometimes refers to movies like Blue Velvet in attempting to describe the precise feeling an obscene expression is intended to convey. The fact that he is able to read and evaluate my translations, sometimes giving me permission to make an intentional departure from the original so as to make the translation as self-contained as possible, gives me confidence I much need if my translations are to even approach their forebears in terms of linguistic punchiness and stylistic inventiveness. As a living author, he is able to co-sign my most daring decisions (like making the Nabokov-clone’s text in Blue Lard read like the English Nabokov rather than the Russian). For this and everything else he’s done for me (an awful, awful lot), I am filled to bursting with gratitude most eternal.

Of course, there is another subset of instances when I simply don’t know a term or word that is archaic and hard to find in dictionaries, bound or digital. In those cases (mostly to do with hunting and architecture––sometimes with religion too), Vladimir gives me concise, handy definitions, which often become footnotes.

The Untranslated: To what degree have you been inspired by your favourite Anglophone authors in doing your translation of Sorokin’s works? Were there cases when their style or diction helped to solve a translation problem?

 M.L.: The rural idiom of Faulkner and McCarthy has been an enormous aid in rendering Sorokin’s own rural Russian. This is a side of Vladimir’s work that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough airplay. He is a sort of half-patriot divided between soil-borne love for homeland and its provincial traditions and a longing for European cosmopolitanism. As such, his loving depictions of down-home speech and ways of life are one of the only through lines that unite all of his work, from 1979 to now. It is a great gift to have an idiom at my disposal that is able to make this through line legible to Anglophone readers. Certain conceptual sci-fi writers like William Gibson have also led the way in terms of how to smoothly and effectively weave neologisms into knotty, muscular prose. While Sorokin’s style is rather different from Gibson’s, the mere existence of a predecessor is a blessing in this case.

There are a variety of instances when I’ve made use of pre-existing idioms that aren’t necessarily literary (or don’t necessarily belong to an Anglophone tradition/author). Rather than narrating the thefts I’ve committed, it might be more efficient to merely enumerate them as a list.

And so:

I have attempted to cultivate Joyce’s ear for gibberish in a Wakeian mode whenever Sorokin starts to play with neologisms and gibberish.

I turned to Blake for the metaphysical style of the Pasternak-clone’s poem “Pussy” in Blue Lard (in the first part of the novel, famous Russian writers are cloned and the reader is given access to their highly imperfect texts).

I pilfered from the English Nabokov to doll up the Russian one’s clone in Blue Lard.

I let Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Stilton-flavored prose infiltrate the clone-Dostoevsky, the clone-Tolstoy, and Roman.

I tried to make Roman’s narration as stiff-limbed as Constance Garnett.

I looked to Mid-Atlantic-accented English as it appears in detective films and TV series (cf. Dragnet, Hitchcock’s early films, and anything with Humphrey Bogart) for help with the antiquated rhythms of Soviet speech in the second half of Blue Lard.

A certain King James-ness of intonation is not alien to the Blue Lardian Earth-Fuckers, the characters who transport the blue lard from the lab of scientists cloning Russian writers in the first part of the novel to the alternate-history Soviets in the last.

The clean precision of Hemingway’s short-story sentence is Vladimir’s paragon in the creation of his own short stories. To have ignored Old Man Ham, then, would have been practically suicidal on my part.

I looked to Humbert Humbert’s narration as inspiration for the style in the letters that make up the first third of Blue Lard.

I brushed up on Chaucer, Donne, Burton, Jonson, and Shakespeare in the interests of creating a dialect for Sorokin’s New Middle Ages that is both familiar and wonked in equal measure.

I re-read Ivanhoe before editing the noblewoman’s diary from Chapter 17 of Telluria.

I imitated Céline’s style for the harem of phalluses and the robot robbers in Telluria (especially the latter).

I have often imitated the inarticulately precise rhythms of Bret Easton Ellis’s style of dialogue (the new story “Tatar Raspberry” will be a wonderful showcase of this imitation, as well as the dialogue-heavy first part of The Norm).

I was thinking of the spirit of Sátantángo the whole time I was translating “The Scourge,” a vicious novella about collectivization in The Norm––not the style, but the spirit.

I have imitated the simple syntactic rhythms of the Old Testament whenever language dries up and becomes violence (cf. Their Four Hearts).

In more general terms, I would not write half as well as I do (however well that is) without having read Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s English is very rhythmic. So is Sorokin’s Russian. A necessary alchemy from an earlier source.

But, most of all, what I have read is Vladimir’s Russian. I’ve let it enter my head, allowed it to take me over, felt it flow into my hand and take control of my fingers as they type… Vladimir’s Russian goes in through the eyes, gets chewed up in the brain, then shoots out from under my nails and into the word-processing docs where the text constitutes itself. Vladimir’s Russian has taken me over like Voodoo medicine or an ancient spell. Vladimir’s Russian has forced itself through me and become my English. THIS, then, the primary gist of what has come to pass.

 The Untranslated: The first novel by Sorokin to be published in your translation (forthcoming from Dalkey Archive in April) is Their Four Hearts, arguably his most radical work. There is an anecdote about the typesetters who refused to compose its text shocked by the content. But that was twenty years ago in Russia, shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today’s Western blasé reader might ask you: What does this book have to offer that I haven’t already read in the works by William Burroughs, Bret Easton Ellis, Samuel Delany, Georges Batailles, Pierre Guyotat, and a dozen other so- called transgressive authors?

4HeartsM.L.: Transgression is always at play in Sorokin’s early work, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it the operative principle of the texts. Their Four Hearts is certainly shocking, I’d be a fool to deny that. But I think that the difference lies in the sense of classical unity and proportion that Sorokin always brings to the depiction of absolute atrocity. Guyotat’s works, much as I find them to be fascinating, are characterized by a total flabbiness of form. This is not so with Their Four Hearts. In fact, I’d say that Their Four Hearts is defined by its energetic combination of a transgressive idiom with the neat movement from scene to scene––the movement from beginning to end of book with total logic––that defines the work of Golden Age Hollywood directors like Hitchcock. What do you get when you cross Hitchcock and Guyotat? Their Four Hearts!

Beyond that, it’s worth remarking that the use of sex and violence in Sorokin’s early work is a kind of shock treatment for Russia. According to the aesthetic principles of the young Sorokin, the ideological restrictions that all art was subject to in the Soviet Union had to be attacked with great violence. They were a suffocating stricture, not only for Sorokin, but for the gut bacteria of the entire nation’s writers––with no probiotic pills or health-store kombucha in sight. One need only think of the furor that greeted Pamuk’s mildly critical portrayal of Atatürk in Nights of Plague. Without Sorokin, Russian writers might still be subject to this same sort of perpetual outrage… And, as Sorokin’s sex and violence (and scatology and TOTAL ABERRATION) are a form of shock treatment, so too must they be directed neatly and accurately toward their ideological targets. Yes, Sorokin has damn fine aim and his texts shock the ideal shockees each time he flips the switch to set the current flowing.

In this particular case, Their Four Hearts is the inversion of a Soviet production novel, in which things are only destroyed. It is a total desacralization of Soviet speech that is hilarious if you’re at all familiar with the tropes it’s deconstructing (and, even if you’re not, the twisted monologues of characters like Shtaube are mesmerizingly fucked). Sorokin wrote this novel as the Soviet Union fell. A profoundly spiritual man, he was attempting to come to grips with what it all had meant. Why the death? Why the production quotas? Why the ideological focus on making mechanical objects highly efficient? Why the shit-eating––both metaphorical and not? Was there any purpose to all of it? A metaphysical purpose, perhaps?

If all you’re looking for, then, is SHOCK AND AWE, there are many purveyors of the stuff––rape and violence in a single liquid medium, often with a saucy Gallic aftertaste (oh, New French Extremity, you were nothing compared to the books that had come before you…). And certain books might actually deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Sorokin in terms of accuracy of aim and level of craft (I’m looking at you, American Psycho). But I might also be tempted to claim that “transgressive” lit has heretofore been defined by an appalling flabbiness, one that is utterly alien to Sorokin. As if blood and guts and the nausea they call forth in the reader were enough to be called a book’s engine. It also bears mentioning the tautness of “binary bombs,” Sorokin’s pet name for his early stories. In these tales, the first half is an utterly normal portrait of Soviet life, the sort that was omnipresent in mealy-mouthed Soviet trash, whereas the second half is totally aberrant, filled with spoken gibberish, mutilated bodies, and feces gobbled down. There is no reason for the bomb’s detonation––no narrative purpose––but waiting for the other shoe to drop, the anticipation the reader feels just before the world of the text goes wrong, structures the stories in a way that entirely preserves them from transgressive flab…

So, if you assent with me that transgressive literature is often painfully structureless (hello, Mamleyev!!), then what Their Four Hearts offers is something like the spectacle of the Marquis de Sade being brought on as script-doctor for North by Northwest. Totally wicked.

The Untranslated: The second Sorokin novel in your translation is Telluria, which is going to be published by NYRB Classics in July. This book represents the “New Middle Ages” discourse of Sorokin’s oeuvre. Such works depict a dystopian future in which society has reverted to archaic language and practices despite some elements of scientific progress. Which aspects of this brave new medieval world in Telluria would be immediately relatable to the English-speaking reader and which might be misunderstood or misinterpreted?

TelluriaCoverM.L.: The first thing to say is that this book is a satire of the sort of ode to medievaldom offered by Houellebecq in Submission and by Alexander Dugin, the Russian crypto-fascist who founded the National Bolshevik Party with Limonov, in pretty much all of his philosophy. Given the book’s international setting (it’s as much about Europe as it is about Russia), it’s difficult to imagine that parody not landing for the Anglophone reader. In Russia, conservative odes to medievaldom take up a relatively large amount of cultural space, but they’re not alien to American or European ears either. In all of Sorokin’s books that take place in the New Middle Ages––Day of the Oprichnik, The Sugar Kremlin, Telluria, Manaraga, and Doctor Garin––he is very critical and suspicious of this discursive mode, this totalized longing. He ain’t exactly buyin’ it, so to speak. However, he’s not buying it more in the context of Russia. Which is to say: his portrayals of the new oprichniks and a Russian cyberpunk-feudal society are brutally critical. Day of the Oprichnik and The Sugar Kremlin are the defining works of satire treating contemporary Russia. In Telluria, on the other hand, Sorokin seems to almost long for the kind of “return to human scale” offered by a collapse into medievaldom. Indeed, the most convincing nail-trip (tellurium nails are hammered into the brain to produce vivid hallucinations in the text) in Telluria is a lengthy sojourn spent with the apostles (again, remember Sorokin is religious). Plus the crusaders aren’t exactly parodied like the oprichniks are. While writing about Europe, Sorokin is more interested in what the possible benefits of medievaldom might be than when he deals with Russia. And, not having had this conversation with him, I could perhaps imagine his response as to why: the European Middle Ages were quite different from the Russian and certain things that were common in Europe do deserve our attention––unlike in Rus’ or whatever… This ambivalence shouldn’t surprise us. There’s a thread of nostalgia for the long-past that runs through much of Sorokin’s work, always deconstructing itself even as it looks back wistfully. In Part 3 of The Norm, the narrative about the young man returning to his childhood home in the country exemplifies the values that Sorokin himself holds dear. But they’re still torn apart brutally. Same with Roman, the first 75% of which represents something like Sorokin’s ideal. And yet… it still turns sour… very, very sour. As such, the fact that Sorokin is hunting for the positive sides of a catastrophic collapse back into an earlier mode should not mean that he is presenting this nostalgia in un-deconstructed fashion. It is the tension between ode and submersion blender that should guide our readings of the text.

Anyways, this discourse surrounding the book should be easily accessible to Anglophone readers. I mean, there’s even a Dugin meme-video making the rounds on Instagram that’s soundtracked by MGMT’s “Little Dark Age.” What might be confusing is the language, the strange and uneven use of archaisms. And the most important thing to note there is that not everyone uses them. They’re a sort of code, a buy-in to the system. They seem to be in more prevalent use by the poor and with those who represent the powers that be, but this isn’t always the case. I have tried to be very consistent in my application of English archaisms so that they might represent an equivalent system to the Russian. As for the rest, there are very few elements of the European sections that require any elucidation whatsoever. Some elements of the Russian, on the other hand, might: Victor Pelevin as a meditating bat surveying the “manifes-dough,” a parodic concretization of the masses protesting against Putin, is an example that comes to mind.

I am happy Edwin Frank, the NYRB editor, chose to put this book out first because of how punchy and accessible it is. It represents the perfect foil to the lavish extremity of Their Four Hearts. I heartily recommend all new readers gobble down both books in succession so as to make up a complete Sorokin refection (a very unhealthy breakfast, indeed…). Either one of the two will present an incomplete picture. But maybe read Telluria first. It’s certainly a bit easier to understand than Their Four Hearts… and a touch lighter on the stomach too.

The Untranslated: Now let us zoom in, and explore a bit your translator’s laboratory. What I am going to do is to quote your translation of a passage from Blue Lard along with the original.   would like you to explain your choices with respect to certain “weird words” or zaum’ Sorokin is notorious for copiously using in his works. Here you have left some of those words as they are and come up with the English equivalents for some of them. I would like you to explain each case, but in such a way that a person who doesn’t know Russian will understand you.

 Why did you translate:

oznezil as got ongry

khokhorep as houghmagandy

obrodo as choorfolly

The door to the throatcuttery opened silently. The butchers came in with their morning victim, bowed to Alexander, and got to work. One pressed the Japanese youth’s shaved head to the sacrificial washstand and the other ripped open his throat with a curved knife from Turkmenistan. But if this ritual, sumptuously familiar to him since his childhood, had always calmed Alexander before today, bringing forth sleep and a calm mind, now the throatcutting had an unexpectedly rousing effect on him. When the butchers, with their heavy bodies, began to squeeze blood out of the Japanese man, who, vivisected, was dying in agony, Alexander jumped up, ran to them and kissed his own palm as hard as he could. The butchers looked at him fearfully. Once they had gone, he put his hands down into the warm blood. “I must,” he thought purposefully, “must as husband… must as a monad.” This ablution gave him strength. Jumping up, he smashed his head on a ceiling beam. Svetlana returned joyfully with a bunch of funny mortells. “Today!” she shouted at Alexander’s unhirsute chest. “I’m ready, my undarling!” Alexander took offense and gat ongry. The conception was held at noon. Svetlana cleaned their bedroom with bandages and burrs. Her husband tormented her for a long time, attacking with bugles and retreating with homemade baked goods. “Houghmagandy, houghmagandy, houghmagandy!” she sang, actively disturbing him. “Sislov! Sislov! Sislov!” Alexander roared, attempting to sweat with all his might. Their servant Afanasy skillfully took part in their union. After about eight hours, Alexander’s sperm sprayed out onto the rubberized sheet. “Too kessy, too choorfolly…” Svetlana mumbled palely, pulling herself up on a palpatetic rope, her torso quivering. Afanasy skillfully pushed Alexander’s sperm into her. “More evenly, you bastards!” she cried suddenly, unleashing an avalanche of slobbery kisses onto the servant’s indifferent face. “Nasal Ferdinand…” Alexander exhaled, plunging into a shallow sleep. Sealing her vagina with a nutty ligature, Svetlana rushed over to the incubator. After nine months of wooly silence, a silence that recalled the profile of a young Roosevelt, they met in the nursery. Husband greeted wife with roses, honey thread, dried udder, an axe, a flower, and dandruff, all of which he presented in a characteristic frenzy. “I missed you monstrously, my undarling darling!” he burst into hysterical laughter and gritted his teeth enviously. “I worship you, you bastard!” Svetlana could hardly contain her indifference, sensing an approaching fit of vipr.

goluboe-saloДверь горлорезной бесшумно отворилась, вошли резники с утренней жертвой и, поклонившись Александру, приступили к делу. Один прижал к жертвенному рукомойнику бритоголового японского юношу, другой кривым туркменским ножом вспорол ему горло. Но если раньше этот хорошо знакомый с детства ритуал всегда успокаивал Александра, навевая сон и благодушие, то сейчас горлорезанье подействовало на него неожиданно возбуждающе. Когда резники стали выдавливать своими грузными телами кровь из агонизирующего японца, Александр вскочил, подбежал и со всего маху поцеловал собственную ладонь. Резники испуганно покосились на него. Когда они вышли, он опустил руки в теплую кровь. “Я должен, – сосредоточенно думал он, – должен как муж, должен как монада”. Омовение придало ему силы. Подпрыгнув, он проломил головой потолочную балку. Светлана вернулась радостная, с ворохом смешных мортелл. “Сегодня!” – закричала она в безволосую грудь Александра. “Я готов, недорогая!” – набычился и ознезил Александр. Зачатие проводили в полдень. Светлана убрала спальню бинтами и заусенцами. Муж мучил ее долго, набрасываясь со стеклярусом и отступая с домашней выпечкой. “Хохореп, хохореп, хохореп!” – пела она, активно мешая ему. “Сислов! Сислов! Сислов!” – ревел Александр, изо всех сил стараясь потеть. Слуга Афанасий ловко подмахивал им. Часов через восемь Александра вырвало спермой на прорезиненную простынь. “Слишком кесси, обродо…” – забормотала побледневшая Светлана, подтягиваясь на пальпотивной веревке и вибрируя торсом. Афанасий умело запихивал в нее сперму Александра. “Ровней, скотина!” – вдруг закричала она, обрушив на оторопелое лицо слуги лавину слюнявых поцелуев. “Фердинанд носовой…” – выдохнул Александр, погружаясь в неглубокий сон. Запечатав влагалище ореховой вязью, Светлана поспешила в инкубатор. Через девять месяцев шерстяного безмолвия, напоминающего профиль молодого Рузвельта, они встретились в детской. Муж приветствовал жену розами, медовым нарезом, сушеным выменем, колуном, цветом и перхотью, преподнесенными со свойственным ему остервенением. “Я чудовищно соскучился, недорогая дорогая! – истерично захохотал он и заскрежетал зубами от зависти. – Я боготворю тебя, гадина!” Светлана с трудом сдерживала равнодушие, чувствуя подступающий приступ випра.

 M.L.: Boy, is this a tricky and interesting question! For a few of these words, there will be very precise and “satisfying” answers. For some of the others, as we are entering into the territory of the “Wakeian,” there will be only the rehashing of instinct. My instinct. Then the fear that shades in to replace it as I think back on why I did it how I did. The danger in translating Sorokin is that I either under- or overcook the translation. I have been guilty of both tendencies at various times. In undercooking, I don’t translate enough and let weird words that actually mean something congeal into a very alienated form of Translationese. I was especially guilty of this in my first few drafts of the letters in the first part of Blue Lard. Overcooking the translation, on the other hand, is when I refuse to let gibberish just be gibberish. I was especially guilty of this in my first few drafts of Their Four Hearts, frightened of the globs of meaningless languages that are littered all across its blood-spattered surface. Having just finished working with the copyeditor on the final draft of Telluria, I found a few moments of both under- and overcooking. Both dangers are equally present; both mistakes can just as easily be made. In this passage, I think the translations you picked out are good (there’s always the fear that your keen eye might make me rethink something, Andrei!). None of them make me cringe. But the embryonic tendencies of over- and under-explication are also present in the impulses that lie behind each of them. The easiest one to explain is “houghmagandy,” a word used by Nabokov in Pale Fire. Because the English Nabokov has his pet words and this is a text written by a clone of Nabokov, I combed through a few of the original’s English texts to find notable words, then synonymed them into the Nabokov clone’s text in Blue Lard. A clone of Nabokov in English couldn’t just sound like a translation of a Russian text, that would make no sense. And the pet words seemed like a good way to avoid that danger––talismans of the Anglophone Nabokov.“Khokhorep” is pure gibberish, but phonetically similar to “houghmagandy.” This translation is medium-rare––just right for my taste. The others get trickier.. The words “oznezil” and “obrodo” are also gibberish, but you can tell which parts of speech they are. Sorokin also loves using excessive o’s in his gibberish words, don’t ask why. “Oznezil” is clearly a past tense verb and bears some resemblance to the verb “obozlilsya”, or “got angry.” I thought it would be funny to just switch the letters around and make the Nabokov-clone sound like a malfunctioning robot––an effect at play in many of the clones’ texts, especially Dostoevsky’s––so that’s where “gat ongry” comes from. This translation is perhaps a touch overcooked because it explicates the meaning more than Sorokin does, but the sound of it makes me smirk and I think it works. Same thing with “obrodo,” which looks a bit like an excessively o-filled version of “bodro,” or “cheerfully.” Therefore: “choorfolly.”

I’m grateful to my readers Yelena Veisman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Ben Hooyman for pointing out under- or overcooked translations wherever they find them. Not to mention mistakes, but better we should pretend those don’t exist…

The Untranslated: Which books in any language you can read should be translated into English ASAP?


The Marquis de Sade. Print made by H. Biberstein. © The Trustees of the British Museum

M.L.: I’m thinking longingly right now about Sade’s last novel, which Jonathan Littell was just telling me about. It was called Les Journées de Florbelle and is meant to have been a maximalist version of The 120 Days of Sodom. Thousands of pages. His son had it burnt after he died. Little shit. All of Sade’s lost texts should be translated out of oblivion, then translated into English. And all of his extant texts should be given fancy new editions and new translations by Penguin and OUP every few years––they deserve it. All of Guyotat’s late novels, insane mixes of Finnegans Wake and Sade, must absolutely be translated: Progénitures, Joyeux animaux de la misère, and Par la main dans les enfers: Joyeux animaux de la misère II. It’s shameful they haven’t been. Come to think of it, the whole of Guyotat’s Prostitution also needs to be translated. Only a long excerpt has been published. The two lesser Tolstoys––Alexei Konstantinovich and Alexei Nikolaevich––and their historical novels should be retranslated with careful attention paid to kitschy historical language––those books being The Silver Prince and Pyotr the First. A poet should retranslate Doctor Zhivago so that readers understand how beautiful Pasternak’s prose is. Fyodor Sologub’s The Petty Demon should be retranslated and read by EVERYONE. It’s like Gogol at his most acerbic mixed with Edgar Allan Poe. I thought the murderous, schizophrenic dénouement was hilarious. Vladimir didn’t agree when we discussed it at the first feast I attended at his home and I feared this readerly misprision had spoiled the impression I’d made––that I’d seemed unhinged. I’m sure I did. Mikhail Shishkin’s The Taking of Izmail must absolutely be translated, as it’s a deeply important contemporary Russian novel. His already translated works pale in comparison in terms of erudition and complexity. The Children of the Dead, Elfriede Jelinek’s zombie novel about the Holocaust should have been translated long ago. Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs, the baroque German metaphysical comedy beloved by Schmidt and Bernhardt, is shamefully out-of-print in English, even though it was translated a long time ago. It should be retranslated and reprinted. Of course, all of the books you’ve identified as worthy of translation should have been published in English, like, yesterday. I’m rereading the first book of Antonio Moresco’s trilogy, translated into French by Laurent Lombard, right now (I read it before in my less-than-stellar Italian, which was a bit like deciphering it––this is much more pleasurable) and it’s just such a trip… It’s shameful the trilogy hasn’t been translated into English-–a true gap in what English-language readers have access to. I’m a big fan of Vladimir Makanin’s staccato prose; someone especially ought to translate his novel Underground. Régis Jauffret’s two vicious volumes of Microfictions must be translated. Each more than 1,000 pages long; they’re made up of hundreds of very short stories filled with markedly contemporary violence and degradation. They’re mosaic-novels that somewhat resemble Sorokin’s Telluria in cribbing the fragment-method from Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Thinking more of Russian classics, Goncharov deserves to have all of his books retranslated; they should be as readily available as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s novels, as they’re quite good and are important points of reference for Sorokin’s Roman (a selfish reason I want more people to read them). Another one: I hope that Oliver Ready continues to produce his fantastic renditions of Vladimir Sharov, whose body of work is formidable––a whole shelf of modern classics, there’s no doubt. I also read a few non-German novels in German last year because they haven’t yet appeared in English: Paul Berf’s translation of Knausgaard’s Out of the World and Heike Flemming’s translation of Krasznahorkai’s Herscht 07769. Those are coming out in English in the next few years (from Archipelago in Martin Aitken’s translation for Knausgaard and New Directions in Ottilie Muzlet’s translation for Krasznahorkai) and are very worthy of your attention. I’m happy they’re being/have been translated.

The Untranslated: What’s your translation routine? Do you have any rituals or, maybe, superstitions related to your daily work? I am also curious how your workspace is organised.

M.: My workspace is just my apartment. Usually sitting on my couch and sometimes at my dining table. Or anywhere else I might find myself. My routine is simple: 2,000 words every day when I’m working on a project. Right when I wake up, I leap out of bed, brush my teeth, make coffee, and get to work; it’s my favorite time of day. If I have the text and my computer and a wi-fi connection to look up words, almost nothing can get in the way of my daily quota. Plus my morning coffee. It’s not too interesting of a routine. No cold showers or cocaine. But it is very effective. This routine also exists in the context of being a student and teacher in a PhD program. I teach or TA twice a week and am always enrolled in a couple of classes. Working around those responsibilities might mean waking up early to get the work done. But, sometimes, I have to translate as my second or third item of the day. I try to avoid this, as morning energy is great for writing, but there’s rarely a situation where I can’t manage to get my words done at some point during the day. Even if I’m on a long flight and haven’t yet hit my quota, I just buy the wi-fi and do it on the plane. Otherwise, I can’t relax. And it’s the same when I’m writing: 2,000 words.

Having all of my Sorokin books with the marginal notes I make in them in my apartment is handy to refer back to when I run into a problem that resembles one I’ve run into before, but all of my translations are also on my computer, so I can also refer to them there.

A.: I know that you are constantly working on expanding your arsenal of the languages to translate from. Do you have any tips for those who would like to learn a language so they can read literature in the original?

M.L.: My advice would be to get a grammar outline (like a Schaum’s book or whatever), then work on that and a digital program like Duolinguo in tandem. Just to get an arithmetic understanding of how verbs conjugate and tenses operate––maybe even memorizing a bit of vocab as you go. Of course, there’s no replacement for a class or a tutor. So, after you get through the equivalent of a first year of language study with grammar outlines and Duolinguo, then you should get into a class or find a tutor. This might be a financial investment, but having another language also makes you more valuable no matter your profession. The reason I think you should avoid paying for a first-year language class is you can easily acquire that knowledge on your own. By dint of sheer repetition. Don’t waste your money on that first year. As you get better, then, during the second and third years of study, hopefully under the wing of a tutor or teacher, I would recommend you get a Kindle to read with. It makes an enormous difference to be able to tap words you don’t know and see their definitions or translations. If you can begin to read at a trot rather than a sluggish ooze, it’ll be no time before you’re reading at a gallop. Then, of course, if you want to speak better, you’ll have to go to a country where the language is spoken. And find a romantic partner from that country. At that point, you’ll be well on your way to fluency. But if you just want to read, you can tap out after you get the Kindle.

As an example, I started to learn German with Duolinguo and the McGraw Hill German Grammar Drills book, then slotted into the Intermediate German Course at Columbia during my PhD program. After a year of Intermediate German I could read essentially all of the books that I was interested in reading, but I continued on to the “advanced” year of the progression to polish my writing and speaking. My Kindle helped me to read as I was just getting revved up (Handke’s early work is nice and simple from that perspective). As such, it took six months of individual study to “memorize the grammar,” then a year of classroom work to be able to read. After a further year, my speaking became more or less fluent. I am looking forward to spending time in Berlin so as to develop my speaking even more.

The Untranslated: What are you currently working on and what are your future plans?

M.L: I am currently working on completing the Sorokin novels signed up with NYRB and Dalkey. 6 of the 8 are done (not to say that they’re entirely polished) and Roman, which I’m currently working on, is more than halfway complete. Marina’s Thirtieth Love is still virgin territory. I’m also excited about five Sorokin books that aren’t yet signed up: The Sugar Kremlin (which I’ve already translated), Doctor Garin, Manaraga, Nightingale Grove (selected stories), and The Complete Dramatic Works of Vladimir Sorokin. Everything needs to come out; to understand Sorokin entirely, the whole is a necessary ingredient to every one of its parts.

LittellVieilleHistoireI am also thrilled to be working with Jonathan Littell on translations of The Wet and the Dry, a work of nonfiction, and An Old Story, his second novel, for OR Books. The Kindly Ones is one of my 20 favorite novels of all time and An Old Story is every bit its equal. It’s sort of like the most extreme and ambitious nouveau roman possible. Talk about New French Extremity… To be working with Jonathan is an incredible honor, and I hope my work will be up to the standard of Charlotte Mandell’s very fine translations of his previous fiction. Were I not translating An Old Story, it would be high on my list of texts that need to be brought into English from your previous question. And, in fact, that’s true of many of the projects I’ve embarked on. My colleague from Columbia, Cosima Mattner, and I have completed a 20,000-word sample of your beloved novel Schattenfroh. I hope that we will be given the opportunity to translate the whole text. It’s perhaps the strangest book I’ve ever read and gives me the same feeling to work on that I had first embarking on my Blue Lard odyssey. Speaking of books you love, I have also completed a 15,000-word sample of Remember Famagusta that one publisher has said they would like to take on; I simply haven’t yet had the time to polish the sample and submit it to the official review process (it’s an academic press), etc. I have spoken with one editor about translating the newly discovered Céline novels, as well as working with Iain Sinclair on a complete, single-volume translation of Guignol’s Band, which doesn’t yet exist in English (it’s split into two books by separate translators and the translations are… yeah…). I recently co-translated Elena Botchorichvili’s A Light Rain and hope to translate several more of her elegant puzzle-box novels. I am in talks with one publisher to translate Mikhail Elizarov’s brutal and immersive Earth, a tour through the Post-Soviet graveyard industry with one of the greatest femmes fatales in recent Russian literature. I have also been in talks with a publisher about possibly translating Limonov’s early autofiction, which would be yet another dream project, as those books are so iconic. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but this is enough to keep me busy for at least 6 or 7 years, if not much, much more (and, let’s be honest, you surely must know I want to translate all the books I listed in my response to your question about what books should be translated into English ASAP… well, maybe not Goncharov… but if any publishers pay me to translate Guyotat, I’ll weep with joy and terror at the task that lies before me).

I would also love recommendations from Turkish readers about what authors are as good as Orhan Pamuk (or better) and deserve to be translated. I’ve not yet found anything that really gets my pulse pounding.

I hope to soon find a publisher for my novel Progress, a text that forces the reader to stick their head into the battery-acid river of how I imagine our era. I have about 30 short stories planned and am working on those as I translate. I will then write my second novel in the next few years––I already have a rough sketch of what it will look like.

My dream is to be nothing but a writer and translator. The two professions reinforce each other. Translation for staying in shape when you aren’t writing and are waiting for ideas to seduce you, as Sorokin says you must let ideas do before you begin to write. And writing to stay in touch with the electricity indispensable to good prose––in both original texts and translations.

About Max Lawton

Max Lawton is a translator, novelist, and musician. He received his BA in Russian Literature and Culture from Columbia University and his MPhil from Queen’s College, Oxford, where he wrote a dissertation comparing Céline and Dostoevsky. He has translated many books by Vladimir Sorokin. Max is also the author of Progress, a novel currently awaiting publication, and is writing his doctoral dissertation on phenomenology and the twentieth-century novel at Columbia University, where he also teaches Russian. He is a member of four noise-music ensembles.

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34 Responses to Interview with Max Lawton: on reading Russian literature, translating Sorokin, books in need of translation and retranslation, learning languages, and ambitious projects

  1. Zoran Roško says:

    Maybe Hans Henny Jahnn and Reto Hänny ?

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    That’s very interesting advice about learning additional languages… my only reservation is that some of the Duolingo courses are better structured than others and may teach some bad habits. The Indonesian one — which I’m using to refresh my Indo which I learned from a combo of travel courses, correspondence and two years at university including immersion at the University of Jogjakarta — is (as we say in polite Indonesian) less than good. The most egregious problem is its impolite use of the 2nd person and any beginner needs to understand the social consequences of that from the start.
    As for Russian Lit, or any other Lit that comes from pariah states, did we stop reading American Lit when they invaded Iraq?

    • Why would you presume I stopped reading Russian literature or any literature for that matter? It’s just there other things claiming most of my attention at the moment.

    • Max Lawton says:

      Duolingo is certainly not good enough to be used on its own without a grammar outline, but the way it’s designed sets off the digital-dopamine receptors that social media also preys on; that little ding is a handy way to get verb forms or case endings stuck in your head. As one half of a first step.

      • Lisa Hill says:

        I agree, and I find the stories with the listening component good for reinforcing sentence structures and new vocab, plus it’s good for refreshing languages learned to tourist level some years ago. But yes, a good grammar is essential, and I like having a book of verbs like the Barron ones as well.
        What would you recommend for a German grammar?… I’ve just started toying with that on DL, but I’ll need a good book if I’m to make any real progress. (I’m learning French (Intermediate) and Latin (Beginner) with a teacher, and refreshing my Italian, Spanish and Indonesian with DL). ,

  3. languagehat says:

    That may be the best, most enlightening translator interview I’ve ever read — I’ll definitely post about it at LH. A quibble: “attacking with bugles” doesn’t work for “набрасываясь со стеклярусом,” because it is impossible for an English-speaking reader to interpret “bugles” as anything but the musical instrument, whereas стеклярус is a particular kind of tube-shaped bead. I would translate it here as “glass beads” to preserve the стекл- root.

    • Thanks, as usual! I will definitely get Max to explain his choice and will post his response here.

    • Max Lawton says:

      This is a good note! However, the word for this sort of glass bead technically is “bugle.” Still might be worth changing in the final edit… the issues of translation are many!

      • Live and learn! (But I think “bugle beads” would have been less confusing)

        [ byoo-guhl ]SHOW IPA

        Also called bugle bead. a tubular glass bead used for ornamenting dresses.

      • languagehat says:

        However, the word for this sort of glass bead technically is “bugle.”

        Yes, of course, but as I say, it simply doesn’t work here. You have to forget the Russian for a minute and just imagine what a reader will think on reading “attacking with bugles” — bearing in mind that the technical term “bugle” is utterly unknown to anyone who doesn’t deal with beads (or doesn’t spend a lot of time reading dictionaries!).

    • Max Lawton says:

      Totally agree! Good note 🙂

      • languagehat says:

        While I’ve got your attention, let me say how awed I am that you’re taking on the task of translating Норма and Роман — I’ve recently read them both, and I can’t imagine how I’d deal with some of the elements, like that last section of Роман. By the way, I said in my review of Роман that I assume Vospennikov is stressed on the first syllable, since it’s presumably based on the noun во́спенник [vospennik], a dialect equivalent of о́спенник ‘vaccinator,’ but you’ve presumably heard Sorokin say it — am I correct? (I wrote about Норма here, if you’re curious.)

      • Max Lawton says:

        Fantastic reviews! I just glanced them over.
        Don’t be awed just yet… still have to deliver…
        What an awesome question! I’m passing it along to Sorokin. I’ve never heard him say the name aloud.

      • Max Lawton says:

        As it turns out, Vospennikov was simply the family name of a girl Sorokin went on a date with when he was a teen!

  4. languagehat says:

    OK, I’ve posted here:

    Looking forward to hearing what Sorokin says!

  5. Yikes. I hope Blue Lard hasn’t already gone to the presses, Max. Your translation of ‘я должен’ is erroneous. Instead of ‘I must,’ it should be translated as ‘I am indebted’ (I am indebted as a husband, I am indebted as a monad). That’s got to leave you in a cold sweat, huh?

  6. Thanks for stopping by! But I am indebted to tell you that his translation is correct :). The Russian phrase Я должен corresponds to the English “I must” unless it is something like Я должен тебе 5 долларов – I owe you 5 dollars.

  7. J.T. says:

    Fantastic interview! Thanks, Andrei and Max!

  8. Jake Hansen says:

    What an excellent interview! Many thanks for this, Andrei & Max.

    Quick question (particularly for Max): As someone living in the US, have you found a good source for hard copies of newly released Russian fiction? I’d love to stay more abreast of contemporary Russian authors but have struggled to find a reliable way to get my hands on their books (in the original).

    • languagehat says:

      In lieu of Max, as someone who buys a lot of Russian books I can share my methods. I used to get books from St. Petersburg Bookstore in Brighton Beach (; the problem is that they’re not really oriented to literary fiction and only have the really popular authors like Pelevin. I’ve recently discovered Globus Books in San Francisco, and I can highly recommend them; I had been wanting to get Oksana Vasyakina’s Rana but was afraid it wouldn’t be available here (obviously I can’t order from Russia any more), but Globus had it for a very reasonable $13, and I grabbed it along with a very nice Remizov двухтомник and a cheap A.N. Tolstoy paperback, and they only charged $4.95 for shipping (and it got here in a week, as opposed to at least twice that from Brighton Beach). Mind you, some of their stuff is very pricey, but if you pick and choose you can get some good deals. For older books (say, four to ten years old) I’ve had good success with AbeBooks/Better World Books; I’ve gotten some great stuff for only $4 (of course, it’s ex-library, so you have to scrape off the library tags, but they’ve all been in good shape). Hope this helps!

      • Jake Hansen says:

        Amazing. I’m so glad I went ahead and asked that question, even though it seemed a little out of place. Globus looks like an amazing source and exactly what I was looking for. Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

    • Thank you! I’m sure Max can also weigh in on this issue.

      • Max Lawton says:

        Sorry for late reply! Highly recommend LitRes for ebooks and VashaKniga for ordering online. If you’re in NYC, RBC Video is the best. The Russian websites I sometimes use are now unavailable, but hopefully they’ll be back soon!

      • Jake Hansen says:

        Wow, more wonderful resources. Thank you!

  9. languagehat says:

    Oops, forgot to give you the Globus link:

  10. languagehat says:


    As it turns out, Vospennikov was simply the family name of a girl Sorokin went on a date with when he was a teen!

    That’s great to know, but did he say where the stress goes?

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