Interview with Ross Schwarts, translator of Pushkin Prize 2018 shortlisted book 'Stalin's Meteorologist'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you come to translate 'Stalin’s Meteorologist'?

I translate from French, including Georges Simenon for Penguin Classics. Harvill Secker asked if I’d be interested in translating this book. I read it and I was captivated. Previously, I’d translated [the French academic] Marie Mendras’ 'Russian Politics', but this was very different from anything I’d done before. I prepared a sample which Olivier approved.

Were there particular challenges to the translation?

Were there indeed! French transliterates Russian differently from English. I requested a Russian-speaking editor. You always translate from the source language, so tracking down quotes from newspaper articles and speeches required a lot of research. I needed to read English reference material about the events described and get to grips with the vocabulary used at the time. I probably spent as much time researching as translating. It was a bit like being a student again. It often happens that translations of original documents into different languages vary enormously. Depending on whether the translator into French took liberties, you can end up with something not saying the same thing at all. So it was important to have someone check the English against the Russian.

Did Olivier Rolin’s style require careful translation?

He is a literary writer. The first page of the book with a description of clouds is very lyrical and literary. You aim to preserve the author’s elegance of style and to reflect their voice while making the English read smoothly. And it was important to capture Alexey Wangenheim’s particular voice as filtered by Rolin and to differentiate it from the author’s voice.

Sometimes an image is very clear to the author because they have the picture in their head. But the translator has to be able to see it to describe it, and at my request, Olivier sent me a lot of photos.

What are your current projects?

I have just delivered my 14th Simenon. Now I’m working on a memoir by Sylvie Weil – 'Selfies' (for Les Fugitives) – which is a mosaic-like memoir based on self-portraits by famous women artists; as well as a book on Lebanese photography. I’m always happy to go into new worlds.