I Was Almost Svetlana Alexievich’s Translator

Laura Esther Wolfson Falling Short of Literary Fame

The years were whipping past; now I was in my late forties. At the job, the pay mounted and the miseries diminished, though at first these shifts were slow, verging on imperceptible. Financial security took hold. The lung disease, degenerative, slowed its advance, thanks to a wildly expensive little pill now covered by insurance. This pill, yellow, triangular, and puffy, like a tiny, magical sofa cushion, kept me off the transplant list, and maybe even—for who can say what might have been? —off the obituary page.

This newfound stability enabled me to spend hours each week putting my own words to paper and to send out my work (first-person stories, taken more or less directly from life) for publication. My own work—not translations, but originals—began appearing regularly in respected literary magazines. Although I expected every publication to be my last and was certain that my success as a writer would always be exceedingly modest, setting aside literary translation for writing seemed to me the only possible choice.

From time to time, my thoughts turned to Svetlana and to that opportunity I’d passed up. I imagined that the publisher must eventually have found someone else to translate the books. No doubt they were out there somewhere, in English, seeking their readers.

And then, nearly a decade after I had declined to translate them, I discovered that those books of Svetlana’s, which I’d come to think of in some way as mine, were still unavailable in English, and that despite that fact, the London bookmakers had for several years been placing odds on her for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

A Nobel for oral history? It seemed unlikely.


According to the press reports, when Stockholm called, Alexievich was in the kitchen, doing her ironing. She said she’d use the prize money to buy her freedom. She had two more books in the works, one about aging and the other about love, both of which needed her sustained attention.

Ironing. Laundry. Could it be true? If so, that utter simplicity I remembered from a decade ago was unchanged. I imagined the small puffs of steam belching upward, the mounting piles of warm, smooth linen on the kitchen table. Did she use a modern iron with an electric cord, I wondered, or one of those cast iron ones that you heat on the stove, the kind that has no cord, yet is not cordless in the way we use that term now?

I am familiar with those irons that you heat over the gas. My ex-husband’s grandmother, who witnessed at close hand many of the depredations of the 20th century, who took in her younger brother, his health broken after ten years in the gulag for stealing a bottle of vodka on a dare, and nursed him until he died—my ex-grandmother-in-law, her nostalgia for the Stalin years palpable and intact, held on, God knows why, to several of those early 20th-century, sharp-edged, pointed, heavy hunks of black metal.

They came in handy on the occasions, increasingly frequent around the time of Communism’s collapse, when the power would go out in the capital of Soviet Georgia, leaving us in the dark sometimes for nights on end. We never knew exactly why the power failed, only that it added to the general sense of apocalypse. The night before we married, she brought out those irons, heating them on the gas, and we pressed our wedding clothes by candlelight.

I can no longer ask Alexandra Pavlovna, whom I knew as “Bobbo” (Russian for “Granny”), why she saved them. I suspect she knew their time would come around again. Or perhaps, because she’d known deprivation—she’d lost a sister to starvation in the Siege of Leningrad, then taken in the tiny, motherless girl left behind—she was incapable of throwing away a stale crust of bread, let alone perfectly serviceable household implements.

Svetlana is of course far younger than Bobbo, but she’s seen plenty too. She too might have such irons stored on a high shelf, handed down, perhaps, from her mother. Her mother, who, according to the press, had been a country schoolteacher.


I lose myself in these musings so as not to batter myself with recriminations over the Nobel. My approach, honed over years (more than a decade now) of chronic illness, is my own blend of acceptance and denial. It is not good to dwell on what might have been: the participation in something meaningful, the inherent satisfaction, and yes, the honor and prestige, and perhaps a modest financial windfall—these could-have-beens, catalogued here from most important down to least.

Who in our culture, where celebrity equals godhood, would not want to be this close to glory? To deny this would be disingenuous. For there must be few things more miraculous to witness at close range or to live through than that instant when the light falls on something long swathed in shadow, washing it golden and bestowing worldly sense upon years of toil and obscurity. Walking backward as we do into whatever awaits, we never know whether or when this will happen. Or how. Or why.


All the reasons I declined: I remember them well. They were valid back then, every single one, and none of them had gone away in the meantime. Yet trying now to turn back the clock, I chased the assignment, worked my old contacts, sent off translation samples to agents and publishers once again. This was shameless, I knew, and I also knew that jumping on the bandwagon now, even if I was successful in doing so, would afford nothing like the delight that would have been mine had I simply accepted the translations when they were offered and awakened years later to the fruity, rounded tones of National Public Radio announcing Svetlana’s triumph.

I barrel through Alexievich’s books now, one after the other, all five, without surfacing in between. In all my life, I’ve never read so many Russian books at one go, and the more I read, the more I crave. I cling to these books; they keep me afloat through days of office work and shortness of breath. Over solitary meals and on the subway I imbibe them, in the bathroom, and in bed. Her ability to bring readers into proximity with people and situations utterly removed from their day-to-day lives—this is the real thing. For the weeks it takes me to read them, they become the point of my existence, though, objectively, what they offer has little to do with me.

For what have I in common with the mother of a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan whose son returns from the war so traumatized that she procures prostitutes for him and even becomes, as she delicately puts it, his mistress for a night? Later, he does a Raskolnikov, committing a random murder with a meat cleaver borrowed from her kitchen, and where once she waited years for him to come home from war, she now travels long distances to visit him behind bars.

“For there must be few things more miraculous to witness at close range or to live through than that instant when the light falls on something long swathed in shadow, washing it golden and bestowing worldly sense upon years of toil and obscurity.”

And what have I in common with the Soviet patriots in Alexievich’s books, admirers of Stalin who, speaking into her omnipresent tape recorder, rue the passing of Communism, report that they continue each year to celebrate with gusto the anniversary of the October Revolution, then segue into tales of the beatings they endured in KGB cellars; the weeks or months they spent en route to remote prison camps, upright in jammed cattle cars with no facilities but an overflowing bucket in the corner; the loss of a wife or a father or ten to twenty years of their own life to the gulag; or, perhaps worst of all, a coerced promotion from tortured to torturer?

One man she interviews, beaten, imprisoned, and widowed by the state (which would later rehabilitate him and, posthumously, his wife), loyally bequeaths his apartment to the atrophied Communist Party twenty years after the Soviet Union is dust.


Alexievich exercises her gifts invisibly; this is what the genre imposes. The sentences are not hers, the style and the characters—not hers. Her talent lies in the way people open up to her, but there is almost nothing in the books themselves to indicate how she achieves that. What makes people spill what they spill, things they’ve never spilled before? Her skill at extracting truths is so tremendous that the tellers themselves become ill at ease with what they turn out to know. Some of them sue her for defamation, even as they affirm that she quoted them accurately.

There are other aspects to her artistry, secrets buried in the outtakes. How does she decide what to keep and what to omit; what makes the final cut and what ends up on the cutting room floor; how to sequence sections and speakers, how to choreograph a book? The answers to these questions also lie outside the covers of her works.

Some ask whether what Svetlana Alexievich does is art. I know only that it is almost unbearably gripping and that the true stories she draws forth and presents have far more urgency than most of the fables or fictions now being written. Each time I close one of her books, I think: yes, her critics may well be right when they say that the Nobel Prize for Literature should not have been hers. Perhaps she should have gotten the Peace Prize.


In a remark that I came across long ago and cannot source, some literary critic, Edmund Wilson, let’s say (I choose him because he taught himself to read in Russian), gave three reasons why every intermediate-level Russian language student should plow through War and Peace in the original, start to finish. It is a valuable exercise, this critic said, because Tolstoy’s style, simple and clear, is accessible to someone who’s been working at Russian for just a few years; because the novel’s frequent interludes in “that refined French in which our grandfathers not only spoke but thought,” as Tolstoy has it very early in the book, provide the weary reader with a rest from the Russian parts; and because the book is so long that by the time the reader arrives at the end, her knowledge of Russian will be greatly improved. (Protracted stretches of Russian intercut with briefer ones of French, all of this going on for a long, long time, culminating at last in a greatly improved grasp of Russian. Why, it sounds like a highly compressed account of my own life.)

Perhaps the five volumes of Alexievich are my War and Peace, though some say they are not Russian (because she is Belarusian) and others that they are not literature. My Alexievich marathon is the latest stage in my trek toward the mysterious heart of Russian literature, a trip I embarked on some three decades ago, boundless optimism and persistence my only cargo. Russian literature hovers forever before me, a mirage on the horizon. For years on end, it seems to get no closer, and then from time to time it expands to fill half the sky.

My Alexievich marathon signals as well one phase in my twisting writing path. I chose my writing over hers—isn’t this what creative people are supposed to do, sacrificing whatever they must so as to clear space for their work? If there exists a map guiding this writing journey of mine—I imagine one of those antique charts fading out at the unexplored margins of the world, where, wreathed in flame and emitting puffs of smoke, dragons lounge and flick their tails—then here is a section of it, reader, unfolded before you now.

As the decades pass, the losses mount. No surprise there. Some version of this happens—doesn’t it?—to all of us who make it to midlife.

What has taken me by surprise is that in struggling to minimize the very heaviest losses—to save myself from going under, to swim ashore—I unwittingly called down further ones. To survive, or else to slow my decline—I’ll never know which—I chose the nine-to-five job and the little yellow pill, and in doing so, I sacrificed a treasure.

I had to live another ten years to find out exactly what I’d passed up. And if I’d said yes to the Midwestern publisher, agreed to translate the books, turned my back on the job, with its irresistible, indispensible remunerations and unavoidable humiliations? I would not have gotten the yellow pill, might not have been able to finish translating those books, not have lived to see where my labors led or to watch on YouTube as Svetlana delivered her acceptance speech.

This does little to assuage my regrets.


From For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Used with the permission of University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2018 by Laura Esther Wolfson.

Laura Esther Wolfson
Laura Esther Wolfson
Laura Esther Wolfson’s writings have appeared in leading literary venues and garnered awards on both sides of the Atlantic. She holds an MFA from the New School and lives in New York City.

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