“What shapes world literature is which countries get included and which don’t” – A GRB On Translation INTERVIEW WITH REUBEN WOOLLEY – ACCLAIMED INTERNATIONAL BOOKER LONG-LISTED TRANSLATOR


By Sarah Gear

Reuben Woolley’s translation of Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s Jim Hendrix Live in Lviv was long-listed for the International Booker prize in February 2023. He studied Russian and English at Wadham College, University of Oxford, where he is currently completing his Masters in Comparative Literature and Critical Translation.

Reuben is currently working on a novel by Russian journalist and novelist Sergey Khazov-Cassia, The Gospel According To…, which received an English PEN award earlier this year.

Reuben spoke with the GRB’s Sarah Gear about his path to publication for both novels, the impact of funding in shaping world literature and the role of the Russophone translator while Russia wages its illegal war against Ukraine. We’re incredibly grateful to Reuben for his time, and the thought and care he has given to answering our questions.

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Sarah Gear (SG): What led you to translation?

Reuben Woolley (RW): In the second year of my undergraduate degree, when I decided I was interested in translation, I was working almost exclusively with Oliver Ready, the translator from Russian. He put me in touch with the Institut Perevoda [Russia’s Institute for Literary Translation] for a couple of months of internship on my year abroad.

When I was in London that year (2019-2020) I would go to Robert Chandler’s Russian translation masterclasses at Pushkin House. At the end of December, Robert did a longer workshop where the same people would come in and discuss each other’s translations and do more intensive workshopping.  I went, and I was kind of just drinking it all in, what people were saying, picking up bits and pieces of advice.

By the end of that week, I felt I had an actual model for doing translation – an idea of how I might go about it in a structured way, rather than just a class in my undergrad degree. I thought, if I don’t try that now, I’m going to forget it.

So, I picked a book off my shelf which looked vaguely interesting, which was The Gospel According to…  by Sergey Khazov-Cassia. In January, just before I went back to Russia, I took it to Robert’s masterclass, and he was really enthusiastic about it. He encouraged me to get in touch with the author. He helped me with publishers to send it to and people to speak with.

Then several months after that I got onto the National Centre for Writing’s emerging translator mentorship scheme. I was formally mentored for a year by Robert, which involved one-to-one work as well as introducing me to publishers, editors, and talking about the industry in general.

Jimi Hendrix is set in Lviv, Ukraine, miles away from any coastline. It follows an unlikely coalition of characters as they set out to discover why the sea appears to be creeping closer to their land-locked city.

SG: Reuben, can I ask how you came to translate Jimi?

RW: On the day I flew to America to see my girlfriend, Russia invaded Ukraine. The war is unspeakably horrible. I have spent much of the last year-and-a-bit devoting my time to activism around Ukraine. The invasion also meant that a speculative email that I sent in October [2021] to MacLehose Press, saying that I heard they were looking for a translator for a Kurkov book, suddenly came to fruition.

The war drew a huge amount of unprecedented attention to Ukrainian literature, so I spent that holiday coming up with a sample translation of a Kurkov book. I ended up not actually translating the specific book I prepared the sample for, but a few weeks later, Maclehose said ‘we’ve now got the rights to Jimi Hendrix live in Lviv – would you be willing to do it?’

SG: How did it feel to learn you had been long-listed for the International Booker?

RW: It was incredibly surreal. Hendrix is my first translation to be published, and by that point I hadn’t even seen a physical copy of it myself. To learn that the book was suddenly going to get a lot more attention than first expected, and to get such a vote of confidence in my own translation work from the judges, was very gratifying.

SG: Tell me about your other project, Sergey Khazov-Cassia’s The Gospel According To…  which is forthcoming from Polari Press.

RW: The bulk of the novel is a modern story about Eve, who is a gay guy in his thirties living in Moscow. He is falsely accused of paedophilia, and is arrested and taken to pre-trial detention, where he spends the majority of the book. It is a book about people who are persecuted by the state. It’s also about love and desire, living as a refugee, or outside the bounds of a given society. It also poses questions about the role that religion is playing in modern Russia.

I found the book in what used to be the Russian bookshop at Waterstones, Piccadilly. I think if you are looking for gay Russian literature, it should be a golden rule to look at the stuff that is shrink-wrapped in plastic. Anything gay is given the 18+ logo and comes shrink-wrapped in Russian shops. The novel also had a back cover quote from a fourteenth-century pope, claiming that it was heresy that everyone should reject. Which is just enticing.

SG: Russia has very strict laws against what it describes as the ‘promotion of gay propaganda’. Is Gospel available to buy in Russia?

The Gospel According To…  is Sergey’s second novel. His first one was called Drugoe Detstvo [A Different Childhood] which came out in 2014, and was longlisted for the Russian National Bestseller prize.

That was published with Kolonna Publications. They do a lot of translated fiction, a lot of modernist foreign literature, and a fair amount of LGBT literature. It got longlisted, and as a result of the publicity around that, Sergey ended up talking to an editor at the large Russian publisher AST about his next book, which was Gospel.

He sent them a manuscript, and then they just stopped replying to him. They were clearly scared in the wake of the gay propaganda law, and it was close to the annexation of Crimea. Things just kept getting more and more difficult and treacherous in the Russian publishing landscape. Kolonna, which is Russian, but operates from Prague, then agreed to publish Gospel. Bookshops took copies and then didn’t shelve them. So, it’s hard to gauge things like reach and audience size. I think a lot of sales happened through Sergey himself or through Kolonna’s website.

SG: How was your translation commissioned in the end?

RW: I had been translating in lockdown – four chapters that Sergey wanted to do a reading with. We eventually did that reading in a square in Soho in late September 2020, in a tiny little window between lockdowns. That was largely organised by Dan Glass, a brilliant gay rights activist in London who is friends with Sergey and has just put out a book of his own.

We did a couple of readings, and then spent a while pitching to various publishers using the reading to say ‘Hey look, we’ve been generating interest’. Nothing doing. A year later, when things were a bit more stable, we did an event at The Glory, a queer pub and events space in London. That’s where we met Peter Collins who runs Polari Press.

In the intervening year, I must have had fifteen rejections or unanswered emails from publishers. We’d gone the distance and tried what felt like every indie press available to us. But Peter was interested – he had a chat with us about what the project might look like.

SG: Why do you think Anglophone publishers were reluctant to commission Gospel?

RW: Part of this book’s genesis was being shut out of the literary market. One Anglophone publisher explained,  ‘I think this is a good sample and in another climate we would be interested in publishing this book, but we are pivoting away from publishing translated fiction unless it is very literary’.

Meaning that it has won a major award in Russia or could potentially win the Booker in the UK. If the only fiction that is getting translated is the stuff that gets nominated for the Booker, and I now get to say this with some authority, that puts some very bad blinders on translated fiction.

It’s interesting because it reproduces a mirror effect of the things that led to the Russian edition of Gospel being so neglected. It’s reproduced the same dynamic. It’s meant that literature that was pushed out of one market for entirely unfair and authoritarian reasons has now been disadvantaged in this other market for the same reasons.

SG: What was the impact of winning an English PEN award for Gospel in January?  

RW: In the vast majority of cases, modern literature in translation is funded by national funding agencies. Russia is no exception. You have the Institut Perevoda, who I have worked for in the past. Then besides that you have Transcript, a programme run by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation.

With the invasion of Ukraine, it became completely impossible for either of those agencies to give money to English publishers. That made certain something that I had suspected anyway, which was that neither institution was going to fund our book. That meant we were left with very few options. Once I had found a publisher, we could apply to PEN Translates, but they could only afford to fund half of my fee. Which thankfully they did.

SG: How does funding shape commissioning decisions for publishers?

RW: A lot of what shapes world literature is which countries get included and which don’t. A lot of that stems from the influence of cultural imperialism, which languages are preferred over others, which national stories get diminished or neglected.

I think there’s a parallel and very important conversation about the material means that drive the market and shape decisions about which stories within each country get to be translated. If you allow national funding agencies to dominate the literary market, you create a situation where books that a particular national government doesn’t want to fund are left with just PEN, basically.

If the panel of PEN judges didn’t like Sergey’s book in my translation, or even if they hadn’t liked it as much as twelve others that round, it wouldn’t get to be ‘world literature’. There is no other funding source, and you don’t get to reapply with a rejected project.

SG: You are advocating for a book that can’t be published or accessed easily in Russia because it is about the gay scene. Do you see a translator’s role then as an activist?

RW: No, I generally find it unproductive to describe literary translation as activism. Part of the reason for that is that I am also a political activist. Some of that is based around Russia and Ukraine, some of it isn’t. I think far more people should be getting involved in political activism separate to the literary world.

I think it’s good, in and of itself and for its own reasons, that more people are reading Ukrainian literature, learning about Ukraine. If learning about Ukraine through my translations leads people to take political action, that’s a good and positive thing. I think it’s a shame that it took such a catastrophic even to read that literature. Or for markets to take an interest in that literature.

But I do think literary translation is first and foremost a job. I think that with that comes a certain set of understandings about how you see yourself engaging with it. If I told myself that the people of Ukraine had been materially helped by me translating Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, I think I would be largely lying to myself.

SG: How do you see translation from Russian going forward in the future? Of course, that applies do novels written both in Ukraine and Russia.

RW: Four years ago at the LBF you would have had a fairly large Russian stall, with authors, literary agents, and publishers selling rights. In 2023, there’s nothing, whereas Ukraine, which a couple of years ago would have been considerably smaller, was Guest of Honour. Ukrainian literary agents were doing loads and loads of business. There were probably about ten different talks in three days on Ukraine’s culture, history, literature, people.

The question is how long is that going to last? I would be surprised to see Ukrainian literature completely shrink back to pre-2014 figures, because there has been this influx of money and attention. Structures and institutions have been set up that will continue to function. But there are too many complete uncertainties at the moment. That’s why I spend a lot more of my time trying to practically support Ukraine to get the best outcome they can in the current war than prognosticating on the future of its literary market.

SG: In the climate of the war, and Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation, Jimi and Gospel are ‘political’ books. What is your opinion about the role of the translator working from Russian today?

RW: All translators are also people, and all people should in some way be involved in working practically to help in a way that they see fit. If you care about Ukraine, and I think the vast majority of Russophone translators do, you should look at the ways your skills should be applied to help that cause, and your skills are more than just literary translation.

Specifically within the realm of translation, which still has its importance, I think there are considerations, complicated ones, about which work you translate, and when, and how. I think it would be wrong to say that you should turn your back on Russian as a language. I think there are incredibly brave people both within and outside Russia, both Russian and not Russian who have been working for many, many years against Putin’s idea of Russia.

I was born and raised a citizen of the United Kingdom, a country that has done and continues to do unspeakably horrible things to many parts of the world and people within its own borders. I have spent my life working in various ways to push back against a certain notion of Englishness or Britishness and the violence it has caused.

When I learned another language and came to know another culture, I looked for people within it who had a similar relationship to their own government and nation as I did to mine. As I speak this particular language, and as I have the ability to engage with and help these people working against the horrors that the Putin government is unleashing on the world, I feel a certain responsibility to do so.

SG: Reuben Woolley, thank you for speaking to The Glasgow Review of Books.

About our contributor

Sarah Gear is a PhD student on a European Research Council-funded research project: ‘The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland and the USA’ (Horizon 2020, Grant Agreement No.: 802437). Find more @Rustransdark (Twitter) or on the project website (rustrans.exeter.ac.uk).

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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