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Reuben Woolley

Congratulations, Reuben: we are all very impressed by your longlisting.

Thank you! It’s been an amazing experience, I was very surprised to see the news come in.

When did you first start learning Russian?

I was lucky enough for my school to teach it on the curriculum, so I’ve been learning since I was in year 8 – twelve years now.

Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your year abroad?

My year abroad was unfortunately the dreaded year cut short by Covid, so I probably have fewer anecdotes than most. That said, I had an amazing time, and among other things I met the author Sergey Khazov-Cassia, who took a chance and gave me permission to translate his novel, which really set me on the path to becoming a translator in the first place.

How did you first discover Kurkov’s novel?

I knew some of Andrey’s work already (Grey Bees should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand post-2014 Ukraine), and I heard through the grapevine that the publisher was looking for someone to translate another novel of his. It wasn’t for another several months (and an entirely different Kurkov book being discussed first) that they offered me Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv.

What were the greatest challenges you faced when translating Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv?

Having enough time! On the whole I found the novel a real pleasure to translate, which is lucky because I had about five months to complete a full draft from scratch before my current MSt course started. My summer was largely spent in my room or a local café, hammering away at my laptop.

Regarding the actual matter of translating, perhaps the most time-consuming element was keeping track of places in the book – it’s a real love letter to the city of Lviv, and there are dozens upon dozens of road names, buildings, squares and other landmarks that I needed to make sure made sense spatially and visually in the English text when I was translating.

What were your interactions with Kurkov whilst translating his book?

Only limited, I’m afraid – I’ve met Andrey twice, both fairly briefly, and we exchanged emails on a couple of specific matters (I suggested the book’s dedication, for example, which does not appear in the original but he agreed was fitting). As Ukraine’s most prominent writer on the international stage, I’m sure you can imagine what the man’s schedule looks like at the moment! For most of the translation process he was touring his book Diary of an Invasion, flying from one city to the next constantly, so I felt a certain sense of responsibility for taking care of the text. I would be more likely to ask Russian and Ukrainian speaking friends, fellow translators, or anyone who was around me what they thought on a particular issue – though I should point out that this is not uncommon practice for many translators; it’s our job to resolve those thorny questions!

Do you have any tips for budding translators?

My first tip is that if you think translation might be something you’d like to do, don’t wait for someone to give you the go-ahead, just start. Find things that haven’t been translated yet, or perhaps things that have but to which your voice would add something new. Most importantly, it should be something that you want the English-speaking world to read. Perhaps hold off on the 400-page novel if you don’t have anyone to pay you for it yet, but I started my translation career by picking up poems, articles and short stories that seemed cool, translating them, sometimes sticking them on a Wordpress blog, and then going and finding the author to let them know I’d done it. Occasionally that leads to something – I had one of my favourite poets share my version of a poem he’d written on his Facebook page, which felt like a real ‘I’ve made it!’ moment – but don’t expect to get anywhere at first. The practice of doing regular translations and facing the same little questions and problems again and again is fundamentally important to getting proficient at solving them, and if you want to be a translator, you’re going to have to start up awkward conversations with a lot of writers and publishers, and send a lot – a LOT – of cold-call emails.

My second tip is to show your work to anyone who will bother reading it. More often than not, this will be other translators, either ones you know or meet in person, or through social media, too. We’re a friendly bunch, and literary translators all know that at some point they started out in the same place you did, so they’re often willing to chat. But don’t just have conversations, get down to the nitty gritty. Find a group translation workshop, or if you’re the industrious type, set one up of your own; get people to give you constructive criticism and learn not to take it personally (another fundamentally important skill!). Read each other’s work, and try to build up at least a little group of people you can go to if you need advice or encouragement. It’s very easy to see translation as a very solitary practice; it gets a lot easier if you make sure it isn’t one.

Apart from Kurkov’s Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, do you have any reading recommendations for recent fiction?

Doing a one-year MSt. in literary studies is not particularly conducive to keeping up with the latest releases; that said, I did manage to squeeze in Georgi Gospodinov’s novel Time Shelter and it’s a truly phenomenal book (translated absolutely brilliantly by Angela Rodel, I might add). Everyone should read it, and then they should all go and find someone else and make them read it, too.

What are your plans for the future?

The book that first got me into translating, Sergey Khazov-Cassia’s The Gospel According To, is due out with Polari Press in late 2023. Besides that, I’m looking forward to finishing my course and spending some time at home in London. I’m hoping to start learning Ukrainian, as there’s clearly a wealth of exciting and fascinating literature there waiting to be translated, but that might take a little while yet.