Book Award Winners for 2015


Luba Golburt, The First Epoch: The Eighteenth Century and the Russian Cultural Imagination.

Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

This innovative and elegantly written book reveals the ambiguous status of the eighteenth century in the Russian cultural imagination from Catherine the Great's death to the early 20th century (and beyond).

The “first epoch” of modern Russian culture is interpreted by Golburt as both omnipresent and absent, finished and continuing, buried and alive. She argues that "the repeated symbolic endings" of this century paradoxically convey its "residual, shadowy persistence on the level of Russian culture’s deep structure.” Golburt suggests that we read this spectral epoch as a kind of vanishing point of Russian culture. It “structures a perspective governed canvas, allowing the eye, or mind in the case of our historical metaphor, to orient itself and be drawn into the imaging.”

In a series of excellent interpretations of the individual works, including Derzhavin’s odes, Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” and Captain's Daughter, Turgenev’s Fathers and Children and “Three Portraits,” Golburt literally captures the elusive spirit of the century and offers the reader a conceptual reevaluation of Russian literary history, which is based on haunting temporal myths (and mythic temporalities), rather than rigid linear periodization.


Masako Ueda Fidler, Onomatopoeia in Czech.

Bloomington, Indiana: Slavica Publishers, 2014.

This innovative and creative book presents an original look at the use of onomatopoetic expressions (OpEs) in Czech.  It is the first monograph on onomatopoeia in a Slavic language. Using extensive corpus sources, as well as careful study of artistic and children’s literature, this work brings the study of direct sound-meaning relations (phonosemantics) squarely into conversation with other areas of linguistic research. Framing her careful descriptive study of the phonotactics of Czech OpEs, Ueda Fidler expertly draws on existing work in structural linguistics, cognitive linguistics, conceptual semantics, typology, and theoretical linguistics, to demonstrate convincingly that sound symbolic expressions can no longer be considered outliers, or peripheral elements, outside the main focus of linguistic inquiry. 

After its captivating introduction, the book consist of two main components – an in-depth description of the technical nature of Czech OpEs (chapters 2-5) and an important discussion of the relation of these OpEs to other areas of the language (chapters 6-8), and to linguistic research in general.

The empirical core of the book expertly examines the multi-layered nature of Czech OpEs, from their consistent phonological tendencies (utilizing marked sounds), to their unique morphological properties (lack of inflection; susceptibility to suffix formation; and love of reduplication). Primary emphasis is given to the way in which certain aspects of Czech phonotactics, both in individual sounds and in syllable structure, lead to the emergence of Meaning Functions (MFs), through the use of “schemas” familiar from Cognitive Linguistics.  Ueda Fidler’s visually pleasing schemas each illustrate how a technical aspect of phonotactics correlates with meaning (such as demonstrating that sounds in which the tip of the tongue obstructs the airflow above the upper teeth and then releases it correlate in OpEs with meanings involving an object hitting on a solid surface or other object, Figure 5.2). 


Kaija Straumanis, High Tide. Inga Abele. (2008)

Rochester, New York: Open Letter, 2013.

This year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Translation into English goes to Kaija Straumanis for High Tide, her translation of Inga Abele’s Latvian novel Paisums. The judges—Ellen Elias-Bursac, Vitaly Chernetsky and Joanna Trzeciak Huss—read and reviewed 38 books published in 2013 and 2014. After careful deliberation High Tide rose to the top.

Spanning nearly four decades and told in reverse chronological order, Abele’s High Tide is a bracing, honest, existentialist exploration of the protagonist Ieva’s psyche and the constellation of emotional presences in her life. The novel takes us backward in time from post-Communist Latvia through the time of the Awakening and ultimately to the Communist period. What impressed the judges about Kaija Straumanis’s translation is the lyrical quality of the lines. This is a novel that reads like poetry. Logic is given a long leash in a prose that is evocative and electric. Abele’s is a performative prose in which words call for one another, and Straumanis succeeds in finding the words that both issue and answer that call. But just as resonant as the language of the novel, is the depth of the emotions it portrays and elicits. In one of High Tide’s most powerful and moving passages, we are given access to the thoughts of Ieva’s grandmother, deprived of her voice by Alzheimer’s. Her deepest desire is simply to feel the warmth of a human body.

In “The Attack”—the chronologically, thematically, and structurally central part of the book—a western journalist issues a verdict on Eastern and Central Europe, that when the Iron Curtain fell there was nothing behind it, no literary masterpieces hidden in drawers, no sacred resources. This novel is one long counter to this verdict. The sacred resources of Eastern Europe are lives deeply lived, felt, and shared, a set of which crisscross in these pages, and are brought to us through two women, the writer and the translator. Indeed, there are moments in this book when one feels completely connected, when it is as if “in a brief flash, you realize that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second all three of these persons unite in you.”


Brendan Kiernan, Moscow and Muscovites. Vladimir Giliarovsky (1926).

Montpelier, Vermont: Russian Information Services, 2013

This year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Scholarly Translation into English goes to Brendan Kiernan for Moscow and Muscovites, his translation of the classic book by Vladimir Giliarovskii. First published in 1926, and reissued in an expanded edition in 1935, shortly after the author’s death, Giliarovskii’s book, a hybrid work with elements of literary nonfiction, is one of the foundational texts of the Russian tradition of kraevedenie, an interdisciplinary study of local history, culture, ethnography, and geography, a branch of inquiry that blossomed in the 1920s but also experienced significant challenges and persecution during the Stalin era.

The focus of Giliarovskii’s book, which took over twenty years to complete, is on everyday life in the city of Moscow from the 1860s onward. It is an essential part of the “Moscow text” of Russian culture. Encyclopedic in scope, and divided into chapters mostly based on specific iconic locales within the city, the book is an indispensable source for understanding Russia’s changing urban landscapes of the late nineteenth—early twentieth century. In its attention to diverse aspects of everyday urban life it can be compared to Walter Benjamin’s celebrated Arcades project and is an important predecessor of microhistory as a branch of scholarship that developed in the 1970s.

Brendan Kiernan’s translation of Giliarovskii’s book is truly a labor of love, with painstaking attention to detail and lucid, lively, smoothly flowing style, expertly rendering Giliarovskii’s prose that has captivated generations of Russian-language readers. Admirably, Kiernan spares no effort in rendering the voices of ordinary Muscovites that appear in the pages of Giliarovskii’s book—a feature of the work that acquires particular relevance in the context of this year’s award of the Nobel Prize to Svetlana Alexievich. The project is enhanced by the translator’s extensive annotations, a rich selection of photographic illustrations and appendices, and, very importantly, maps—both within the published volume and as an online supplement. At last available in English translation, Moscow and Muscovites is an invaluable resource for a broad audience, from students to senior scholars. Kiernan’s deft translation fills an important lacuna in the sources on Russian cultural history.