by Megan McDowell
In this issue we’re focusing on literary magazines that specialize in translation of eastern and central European writing. Since so little translated literature from any country is published here (around two percent of literary titles published are translations), U.S. readers miss out on much of what’s happening in literature today and end up instead with a false sense that contemporary book culture is made up entirely of what’s being published in this country. Some of the most exciting books being written today are from other cultures and represent a wide range of styles and traditions, and the magazines discussed here offer just a glimpse of what’s out there, more of which we hope to cover in future issues.
Glas: New Russian Writing has been publishing Russian literature in translation since 1991. The “new” in the title means “unknown” more than “contemporary,” for Glas covers much more than the thirteen years it has been published. As the forward to the first issue states: “The sources at our disposal are vast—new works by young talents and established writers, works well known to the readers of samizdat [Soviet-era underground writing] but now freely available for the first time, works that have never been offered for publication before, works that have emerged from decades of imposed obscurity.”
Glas publishes two kinds of issues: collections of writing by one or two highlighted authors and issues of fiction and poetry by various authors organized around a common theme. Past issues have focused on relatively well known Russian writers, including Mikhail Bulgakov and Osip Mandelstam, as well as lesser-known writers such as Alexander Genis, Leonid Latynin, and Asar Eppel. Theme issues have included “Love and Fear,” “Jews and Strangers,” “Through the Looking Glass,” and “The Soviet Grotesque.”
Glas’s editors described the magazine’s mission in plain terms: “The Russians write a lot. And they read a lot. In these turbulent times the Russian literary scene is changing rapidly and every new contribution is avidly consumed. Our intention is to involve our readers in this fascinating process.” A few of Glas’s themes have been repeated, and by comparing, for instance, the multiple issues on women’s writing, this rapid change in the culture’s literature seems to play out. Two collections of contemporary writing by women published four years apart—”Women’s View” (Glas 3, 1992) and “A Will and a Way” (Glas 13, 1996)—suggest a significant change in Russian women’s position and outlook. As the editors say in the introduction to “A Will and a Way,” “The tone of today’s women’s writing is no longer as plaintive as it was [in 1992]. It has a more vigorous and confident ring to it, reflecting increased self-awareness and more feminist attitudes.” The third collection of women’s writing, “Nine” (Glas 30) is scheduled to be published in March 2003.
As a bridge between eastern literature and western readers, Glas has also directly addressed misconceptions that Westerners often possess about day-to-day life during and after communism. For example, issue nine, “The Scared Generation,” includes two works dealing with the persecution experienced during a totalitarian rule, apprising the reader (in a forward): “Westerners often ask why we put up with bureaucratic oppression, food shortages and queues, violations of human rights, and so on even now. Why don’t we protest? [The works in this issue] convey the atmosphere of invisible oppression and all-pervading fear in which the sixties generation grew up.”
Glas is distributed in the United States by Northwestern University Press. For ordering information call Northwestern at 1.800.621.2736 or 773.568.1550; you can also visit russianwriting.com for international distributors.
The new journal Orient Express was started by editor Fiona Sampson with a two-fold objective: like Glas, to reach Western readers with eastern European writing, but also to benefit readers and writers in the countries on which the journal focuses. According to Sampson, eastern and central European writing is largely inaccessible among the countries of the region itself because of the linguistic variety—for instance, translations of Estonian poetry into Lithuanian are rare—and often readers and writers have trouble learning about literatures of countries whose borders they share. And so, in addition to bringing the writing of this region to countries for whom English is the primary language, Orient Express hopes to promote more literary dialogue between the countries of “Enlargement Europe” (the eighteen countries that have applied for membership to the European Union) using English as a lingua franca.
Enlargement Europe includes nations such as Albania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. London-based Orient Express publishes writing from all eighteen of these countries translated into English; the first issue of the journal came out in autumn of 2002. A double issue entitled “Where Do We Come From . . .?,” it includes writing by Peter Zilahy (Hungary), Alexander Prokopiev (Macedonia), Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria), and Ioana Ieronim (Romania), among others. Sampson says “there [will be] different schools of writing in each issue: dirty realism from Hungary, and the widely contrasting postmodernisms of Macedonia and Poland in issue one, for example.” Orient Express employs an editor from each country it covers in order to find the best and most distinctive writing; though only one issue has been published, many of the pieces are the result of months or years of scouting. The goal is to publish “writing which is excellent in its own field,” says Sampson. “This may seem disingenuous but can produce its own kind of rigour, as there’s no temptation to lapse into some cozy consensus.”
In addition to seeking excellence, Sampson looks for pieces that will be effective in English translation. There are a few writers, such as Kundera, Nadas, and Havel, who have made it across the cultural divide, but Sampson says, “there are some pieces which simply fail the register test in translation. English is so much a language of register because it’s so full of synonym, whereas many regional languages are quite homogenous. That produces another diction, another strength.” This would seem to be a fine line to walk: balancing between writing that both registers with western readers and that represents the individual styles, histories and characteristics of the authors’ countries and traditions. In her introduction, Sampson writes of the changes being made in a Europe that is becoming both more united and more aware and connected to the distinct cultures that constitute it: “. . . as Europe shifts on her axis again, the critical mass of the E.U. Enlargement Countries is what engenders this shift. And resists the forces of globalisation by its insistence on the particular, on the coloured-in detail of what is characteristic.”
The collection of writing in the first issue of Orient Express varies widely and is consistently engaging. Many of the stories deal with war and the day-to-day realities of its aftermath (with the notable exception of Natasza Goerke’s magical-realist stories, whose characters range from Patti Smith and Elvis Costello to the Dalai Lama). Sandor Tar’s stories of the misfit habitués of a nameless Hungarian street create a sense of combined dejection and comradery; an excerpt from Nehnad Velickovic’s novel The Lodgers is a lucid and unsentimental account of a family taking refuge in a museum while Belgrade is under siege.
Ultimately, Sampson hopes Orient Express will become the “reliable portal to literature of the region. . . . Not comprehensive, of course, but a reliable introduction, and reliably a good read.” Additionally, she expects the journal to be a source of information for publishers in the U.K. and, ideally, farther afield—obtain a wider readership both through the magazine itself and through eventual book publications (Sampson hopes to publish monographs in the future). The magazine is not currently distributed in the U.S., though Sampson hopes to secure reliable distribution here; to obtain copies or to subscribe, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Orient Express at Wythgreen House, Coleshill near Swindon SN6 7PS, U.K. You can also find information about the journal on Sampson’s website at writersartists.net.
Other resources available to English-speaking readers of eastern and central European writing include Trafika, a magazine edited in New York and Prague that has a “special emphasis on introducing the work of writers who are unknown or little-known to an English-language readership.”All work is published for the first time in English, and while most writers included are from eastern Europe, issues are peppered with their Western contemporaries; the eight issues published to date have included the writing of Don Delillo, Gilbert Sorrentino, Jim Krusoe, and John Barth, as well as Czeslaw Milosz, Natasza Goerke, Anna Swir, Ilona Lackova, and Mohammed Choukri. Issue eight is the first that is available online, and their website is a good place to look for media and film as well as literary resources.
Resources specific to the writing of smaller, newer countries of Enlargement Europe are less easy to come by, although there are a few exceptions. The journal Latvian Literature is a slim publication that features around ten authors in each issue with a short critical essay and sample of each writer’s work. The first two issues of Latvian Literature were put out by Atena Publishers and featured many of Atena’s authors—including some of the most prominent of the country. Recently, however, Atena has been instrumental in forming a new Latvian Literature Centre, which will take over the publication of the journal. Readers can subscribe by E-mailing email@example.com, and Atena’s website is also a good place to look—they have recently added an English section with additional sample translations and author information. The Estonian Literary Magazine is another smaller journal and features critical essays on subjects like ethnofuturism in Estonian poetry, Estonian nature writing, and Estonian voices in the Swedish language, as well as work by and about Estonian authors. It is available both on-line and in print, and its editors can be contacted through their website at elm.einst.ee. Finally, the on-line magazine Vox publishes in English and Bulgarian and is the “literary heir” of a samizdat publication called Glas (no relation). Glas was the first Bulgarian independent literary magazine and was banned by the Communist authorities; its editor began Vox as its on-line continuation when he moved to New York in 1999. Publishing such authors as Dimitar Petkov, Georgi Gospodinov, Vladimir Levchev (the journal’s editor), and Kristin Dimitrova, it is a valuable link to Bulgarian writing.