Literary translator, writer, and Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk is as approachable as he is accomplished. Speaking with him, you get the sense that he is as interested in you as you are in him. He is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016) and co-editor of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), and has translated several volumes from Russian, including Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). Here, we discuss a life of language, literature, and what it means to be “home.”
Tonya Kelley: Having just wrapped up reading your translation of Bessarabian Stamps, one of the first things that stood out is the wit and sentimentality you’ve maintained throughout the text. How do you familiarize yourself with the original author’s work when you’re embarking upon a translation?
Boris Dralyuk: First, thank you for your kind words, which are important to me — and would have been important to my good friend Oleg Woolf, who passed away in 2011. I should say that Oleg and I became friends through my translation of his magical Stamps. We met in New York, at a reading, and liked each other from the start, but it wasn’t until my flight back to Los Angeles, during which I read the slim Russian book he had inscribed to me, that I knew we were going to be friends.
I started translating the stories as soon as I finished reading them — as soon as the plane landed — and Oleg and I began to correspond. We racked up hundreds of emails over the course of the project, and when the translation was finished, we raised glasses of wine on our respective coasts. We toasted our collaboration across a great distance, but couldn’t have felt closer to one another — an appropriate celebration for a translation, now that I think of it.
Oleg was married to Irina Mashinski, a brilliant Russian-American poet, who played an enormous part in our project. She has remained one of my dearest friends. As has Robert Chandler, an inspired and inspirational translator of Russian, who sat on the editorial board of Oleg and Irina’s literary journal, Cardinal Points. Robert, Irina, and I went on to co-edit The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015) and to collaborate on Cardinal Points, the seventh volume of which will appear this fall.
My experience with Oleg’s book taught me that an author’s work can reach out a hand of friendship to the translator. And if you're open to that gesture, if you respond as you would to a friend — attentively, sympathetically — you’re well on your way.
TK: What was your academic path?
BD: I applied to UCLA as a high school senior, in part simply because I wanted to stay in Los Angeles. But I had another solid reason: I knew I wanted to study Russian literature — more specifically, translation — and it just so happened that UCLA had a terrific Slavic department, which was then chaired by Michael Henry Heim, a towering figure in the field of translation. He had brought Danilo Kiš, Bohumil Hrabal, and, perhaps most famously, Milan Kundera into English. I wanted nothing more than to learn from the man who had done that — who had introduced anglophone readers to a whole library of masterpieces. I was accepted, but still didn’t know what to expect: Would I have the chance to speak to him, show him my own feeble efforts at translation? I couldn’t have antiquated the warmth and generosity that Mike would show me on the very first day of classes and in the 12 years to come. In the days after his untimely death in 2012, I wrote about our first meeting — and about the many things he had done for me: http://international.ucla.edu/euro/article/128251
I went on to receive a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, and to teach there and at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. But as much as I loved — and still love — teaching, I am not, at heart, an academic. My passion is translation, and although the art has gained some respect in academia over the past few decades (largely thanks to the efforts of Mike and a few other tireless advocates), it’s still something of a red-headed stepchild. Eventually, I decided to cede my place to someone who would be of greater use to the university and who could get more out of the academic environment.
TK: How did your first translation project come to you? How do you go about choosing your projects now?
BD: My first project came to me through a now-defunct journal, whose editor asked me to translate first one piece, then another, and then to collaborate with him on an entire collection. Around the same time, a small co-op press asked to translate a short story for a standalone book. I met more and more people, both in person and over email, and the opportunities kept coming — some very small, some larger. I tell you, nothing was too small for me! Now I can be more selective, but I’m still driven by curiosity and enthusiasm for the art. I have a very hard time saying no!
TK: Do you have a favorite project?
BD: My translations of Isaac Babel, especially of the Odessa Stories, mean the world to me. These vibrant, vital, thrilling tales — lush in language, rich in humor — embody the spirit of my hometown. I loved every second I spent in that world: a true homecoming. But you don’t have to be from Odessa to enjoy Babel. Jewish gangsters, sweet wine, and the salty sea — what’s not to like?
TK: Speaking of Odessa, what do you consider “home” these days? Has the meaning of “home” evolved over the years, as is the case with many of us transplants?
BD: An excellent question! Home is Los Angeles, but a Los Angeles I see through the prism of my émigré experience — studded with flecks and glimmers of Odessa. (That’s no surprise, really: I live just down the street from the Odessa Deli on Santa Monica and Ogden.) I wrote an essay about “my” Russian Los Angeles for LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books) some time ago: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/land-columbus-echoes-las-russian-past
TK: Compared to the other places you’ve lived and worked, is there anything that you think makes the Los Angeles literary scene stand out?
BD: The Los Angeles literary scene is uniquely diverse, and uniquely decentered. These qualities lend the scene extraordinary vitality. Los Angeles is the best place to try something new, to experiment, to work without the pressure of external expectations. Unfortunately, those same qualities can also breed a sense of loneliness, isolation. Sure, no one’s looking over your shoulder, telling you how to write — but it can also feel like no one’s looking at all. That’s beginning to change. People are looking in our direction. Presses like Phoneme Editions, Unnamed, Les Figues, Red Hen, and Writ Large, to name just a few, make up a genuine local publishing industry — an industry that reflects the city’s spirit of inclusivity and diversity. And I’d like to think that LARB is very much a part of this transformation.
TK: Can you describe your relationship with Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) over the years? Where did you start? Where are you now? How did you get there?
BD: I first volunteered for LARB when it was little more than a gleam in the eye of our Editor in Chief, Tom Lutz. My first job was on the noir beat, soliciting and editing reviews of crime fiction. I’m hopelessly addicted to detective stories, especially the hardboiled variety, so this was a dream gig. I had to step back after about a year, in order to finish my PhD, but I stayed in touch with Tom, continued to contribute to the journal, and, when the opportunity came up, stepped in as Executive Editor.
TK: When you’re choosing reviews to include in an issue, what are you looking for?
BD: We publish three pieces a day and cast a very wide net! Our goal is to reflect the diversity of voices and interests both in our city and around the world. We look for thought-provoking, original, challenging — but clearly communicated — pieces. Just take a look at our main page on any given day; you’ll find essays, reviews, and interviews on a remarkable variety of subjects.
TK: How do you make time for “pleasure” reading (or not)? What genres appeal most to you?
BD: I engage in a very dangerous activity: reading while walking. I walk to and from work, and read along the way. . . These days I gravitate toward poetry, literary essays, crime fiction — not necessarily in that order. Right now I’m reading The Best of Don Marquis, who’s always good for a laugh.
TK: What projects are you currently working on?
BD: I’ve just finished a translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s intentionally inept Sentimental Tales for Columbia University Press’s Russian Library series. Zoshchenko was the greatest satirists of the Soviet period, and these devastating stories of provincial life in the 1920s and early ‘30s were both a joy and a terror to render. I drew on folks like Marquis, Ring Lardner, and Damon Runyon to set the tone. . .
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016) and co-editor of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), and has translated several volumes from Russian, including Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016).
About the interviewer: Tonya Kelley is an MFA candidate at Mount Saint Mary's University where she is an editor of the literary magazine, The Rush. She is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer, and a past recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship award for poetry. She resides in Los Angeles.