Marian Schwartz on the Translator’s Vocation and Bringing the Work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to an English-Speaking Audience

Since June 20, 2016, when Steve Wrinn, director of the University of Notre Dame Press, received an email from his friend the agent Jeremy Beer about publishing Nobel prize–winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s English translations, a partnership has grown that stretches from Notre Dame, IN, to Moscow, New York City, Washington, DC, and Austin, TX, where the award-winning translator Marian Schwartz lives. The first book published in The Center for Ethics and Culture Solzhenitsyn Series was March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 1, translated by Marian Schwartz. The Red Wheel is one of the masterpieces of world literature, Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume epic work about the Russian Revolution told in the form of a historical novel.

Now, five years later, Notre Dame Press will publish March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 3.

Marian Schwartz

Schwartz describes her commitment to translating Russian writers and the importance of their publication in the United States: “I came of age during the Cold War gripped by the injustice and brutality of the Soviet Union. In the dark 1970s, no author had a bigger impact on the West’s perception of that reality than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, beginning with his soul-shattering novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and culminating in 1974 with the publication in English of his monumental The Gulag Archipelago. Both those books hit me hard just as I was learning Russian and falling in love with one of the world’s great literatures, many of whose writers had suffered and were then suffering a hideous fate. In graduate school, I began thinking about translation. I felt a natural impulse to share this important and beautiful writing with my fellow English speakers.”

But there was another piece to this equation.

By the early 1970s, it had been decades since Russian writers in the Soviet Union had had normal access to audiences outside their country. Readers in the West were operating in an odd state of arrested development. Our notion of Russian literature had essentially frozen with the entrenchment of the Soviet regime. The educated Western reader who could easily reel off dozens of postwar European writers’ names could cite only a few Russians, most of them emigrés. The isolated novels and poetry that did find their way out of the Soviet Union and into English translation did not have a complex contemporary literary culture to fit into such as, say, French or German literature did. For Russian writers, the main points of comparison were, persistently, prerevolutionary writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov.

Schwartz explains, “In short, there was little context and a limited readership for publishing Russian writers in English, and if there was no political angle to a writer’s work or situation, English-language publishers showed equally little enthusiasm.”

Schwartz began her career in literary translation in 1978 with her translation of Landmarks, a 1909 collection of essays on the Russian intelligentsia written by some of Russia’s most eminent philosophers of the day. In the four decades since then she has published dozens of volumes of fiction and nonfiction, including biography, criticism, fine arts, and history.

She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation awards, as well as the 2018 Linda Gaboriau Award for Translation from the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, the 2014 Read Russia Prize for Best Translation of Contemporary Russian Literature, the 2002 and 2011 Heldt Translation Prize from the Association of Women in Slavic Studies, the 2009 AATSEEL Award for Best Translation into English, and others.

Schwartz continues, “Translation became a calling to bring forgotten and suppressed writers into English not only for the English reader’s sake—they were missing out on so much!—but also for the sake of individual writers and Russian literature in general. This vocation inspires me to this day. And because so many superb writers and books have been so thoroughly neglected for so long, there has been a lot of great writing for me to choose from—or be chosen for, since so many of the books I’ve translated did not originate with me but were proposed by either the author or the publisher, as in the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s March 1917.”

Solzhenitsyn’s complicated political profile created a reputation in the United States, which led to a lack of funding for modern translations of his important works. However, renewed interest in Solzhenitsyn’s intellectual legacy has allowed his work to receive revived attention at Notre Dame, including the request for an English translation of The Red Wheel.

Schwartz recalls first hearing about the momentous project, “In early 2014, an unexpected and fateful phone call came from the Nobel laureate’s son, Stephan Aleksandrovich Solzhenitsyn inquiring as to my interest in working on the Red Wheel project. I hadn’t read any of the Red Wheel, not even the first two books, which had come out in English decades before in translations by H. D. Willetts, but that didn’t matter to me. In addition to Gulag Archipelago, I had read all of Solzhenitsyn’s fiction and so was well aware of the high quality of his writing about the crucial topics of twentieth-century Russian life and history. And Solzhenitsyn stood at the head of my life in Russian literature, an emblem of what translation has meant to me for so long.

“Initially, I was asked to translate the first two books of the third Red Wheel node, March 1917, but that became four, two of which have already been published. I’m looking forward to the third’s publication this fall.”

March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 3 will be available from University of Notre Dame Press on October 15, 2021. You can pre-order the book now. A virtual book launch, hosted by the Kennan Institute, Wilson Center, will take place on Thursday, October 7, 2:00pm –3:30pm EST, and will feature Stephan Solzhenitsyn, Marian Schwartz, and Daniel Mahoney, Vice-President & Chief Academic Officer of The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center.

You can watch the book video for March 1917, Book 3here. For more information, or for a review copy, contact: Kathryn Pitts, pitts.5@nd.edu, 574.631.3267.

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