Interview with Thomas Campbell, translator of Pushkin Prize 2018 shortlisted book 'Other Russias'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you become a translator?

I read a lot of literature at college, where I studied ancient Greek, which was the first language I translated. I started studying Russian literature during perestroika. Recently, I’ve been translating Finnish contemporary poetry—for fun, as it were, for the time being—in addition to working full time as a professional translator from Russian to English. It doesn’t matter what the language is, you should have a good amount of in-country experience and lots of varied reading under your belt to be able to get your bearings in a new text, to know what is what. My adviser at the University of Washington (Seattle) used to lead annual summer hikes in Olympic National Park. We’d be walking in the forest, he’d point to a plant, rattle off the name in every language he knew and say, ‘Translators have to know everything, and since that’s not possible, you have to know when you don’t know something, know that you need help, and find someone who knows and can help you’.

How did you get involved in Victoria Lomasko’s work?

Vika and I had many friends in common. There is a rather large community where political activists and progressive artists overlap in Russia. The first work of hers I ever translated was a series of illustrations for an issue of the Chto Delat newspaper I co-edited, on migrant workers and their plight. Vika had only recently started doing full-fledged graphic reportage (e.g., Forbidden Art, published in Russian and German), but her drawings were so poignant, immediate and touching that I asked her whether I could republish them on the Chtodelat News blog, which I edited for five years. Soon after, we met in person, and we immediately hit upon the idea of doing a book of her work in English together.

What do you like about 'Other Russias'?

It offers a view of Russia that is not typical, that offers hope and shows a way forward despite its generally bleak tone. I think the best piece is “Feminine,” in which she visits women in her hometown of Serpukhov, in Moscow Region. The portraits are extraordinarily witty takes on what it means to be a woman in a place with no opportunities but getting married to a lout and holding down a bad job, something you would find in thousands of small towns the world over, not only in Russia.

How would you describe her genre?

She has invented a unique approach to graphic journalism. She never takes photos that are later turned into drawings back in the studio, as some artists do. She draws what she finds at the scene of the event. Meanwhile, the prose narrative she writes in the calm of her flat to accompany the pictures guides readers through the pictures in the most informative, unobtrusive way possible, thus letting her characters, who are drawn from life, after all, to shine, along with the sometimes desperate straits in which they find themselves. There is an emphatic, deliberate gap between her language as narrator and the language used by many of her characters, which is alternately hilarious, macabre, shocking, depressing, and often quite wise and politically aware, despite the lowly social status of most of her subjects. But you immediately sense those people really said what Vika has quoted them as saying. Readers and exhibitiongoers who have been following her work over the years should have seen how her style has been evolving to tell stories in which the pictures and words are arranged and weighted in a way that is not typical of a genre that sometimes has also been dubbed comics journalism. By the time of the 2011-2012 fair elections protests in Russia, Vika had figured out how to make snapshots of big, motley crowds on the move, and record “soundbites” of what they were saying using only her eyes, ears, a sketch pad, and pens.

Were there particular challenges in translating 'Other Russias’?

I translated her reportages one after another as she produced them, while also translating stories she had done before we started our collaboration. We published most of what went into the book on my website The Russian Reader, in the online magazines Words Without Borders and Drawing the Times, and at numerous art shows in Russia, Europe, and elsewhere, before we finally found publishers for the book. So, we had lots of practice before joining the premier league. The only challenge I faced was somewhat similar to the challenge Vika faces herself: staying out of the way of her stories and the rich language of her characters by rendering them as close to the bone as possible, intervening and embellishing slightly only when I thought a non-Russian reader would be utterly nonplussed by a specific situation or something profoundly Russian.