Book Award Winners for 2016


Ann Komaromi, Uncensored: Samizdat Novels and the Quest for Autonomy in Soviet Dissidence.

This book brings the study of Slavic languages and literatures into a new era. Komaromi’s analyses of uncensored prose by major dissidents (Sinyavsky, Aksyonov, Erofeev, and Bitov) take into account the circumstances and materials of these texts’ construction and powerfully figure them both as specific material objects and as unstable items that changed from one instantiation to another. Komaromi uses Bourdieu judiciously to examine the writers’ often canny negotiation of the rules of the various cultural games they played, whether Soviet or foreign, underground or official. She succeeds simultaneously in making her characters come alive on the page and in constructing a conceptually elegant account of their experimentation with an autonomous writerly subjectivity. Komaromi provides a model for scholarship both on the recent past and on the materiality of the text in an era of new media that open up new artistic and social possibilities.


Angela Rodel, The Physics of Sorrow.

This year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Translation into English goes to Angela Rodel for The Physics of Sorrow, her translation from the Bulgarian of Georgi Gospodinov’s novel, Физика на тъгата (Fizika na tagata). Both experimental and engrossing, The Physics of Sorrow is a memoiristic novel with a labyrinthine structure. The title alludes to an article in The Economist ranking Bulgaria the “saddest place in the world.” A central conceit of the novel is that its protagonist is afflicted by “obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome” whereby he inhabits the experiences of those around him, reliving their memories. When in middle age this capacity leaves him, he becomes an obsessive collector—and curator—of other people’s stories. In fits and starts, moving backward and forward in time, Gospodinov takes the reader on a tour of a labyrinth of Bulgarian memories—replete with its own Minotaur, a mute child locked up in a basement. Sympathetic reflection on the plight of the Minotaur is one of the novel’s leitmotifs. Angela Rodel’s translation reads fluidly and naturally—in many places one forgets one is reading a translation. Yet where the translation truly shines are in those moments where one senses the translator’s inventiveness at work. In one memorable passage, a teacher asks young Georgi for a word that comes to mind when he hears the letter “G.” When Georgi answers “God,” the teacher responds that “government” would be better, and there is “no place for God in our government.” It is clear that Gospodinov’s acrobatic and alphabetic humor required sensitivity and ingenuity to translate. In certain passages the novel spills over into other genres, including popular science and classical verse, which Rodel deftly handles, such as a paean to the Minotaur rendered in her “heroic hexameter.”

In bringing Gospodinov’s Physics of Sorrow to the English-speaking world with great literary sensitivity, Angela Rodel has enriched world literature.


Rawley Grau, A Science Not for the Earth.

This year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Scholarly Translation into English goes to Rawley Grau for A Science Not for the Earth, his translation from the Russian of a selection of poems and letters of Yevgeny Baratynsky. In A Science Not for the Earth, Rawley Grau has done the great service of resurrecting for English-language readers a prominent yet often overlooked Russian poet and philosopher of the first half of the 19th century, Yevgeny Baratynsky. This hefty tome, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, is an impressive feat, and includes translations of over 90 poems, 166 letters, and a hundred pages of annotations. In his introduction Grau makes the case for reading Baratynsky's opus as that of a poet engaged with thought and knowledge, someone who cannot be readily categorized in any one school of poetry. Described by Pushkin as "original in our country because he thinks," Baratynsky understands poetry to be an "intellectual medium that is obliged to investigate all facets of experience, from the sublime to the abject", who says that if "poetry cannot provide an escape from consciousness or access to transcendent truth, then it can at least be an instrument to uncover the truth of this present life."

Through Grau's well-wrought translations, each of which is given alongside the original Russian poem, along with the extensive collection of letters, we are offered rare and precious glimpses into nineteenth-century Russian thought and society. The notes, rigorously documented and engaging, offer biographical detail, invaluable historical context, and insight into the poetic and linguistic debates of the period. Of his approach to translating Baratynsky's verse, Grau says: "I had no desire to turn Baratynsky into a modern American poet, but neither did I wish to embalm him in a pseudo-nineteenth-century style. I sought to produce something that offers present-day readers unhindered access to the poet's thought without disguising his roots in early-nineteenth-century poetry... If I have succeeded, they are living poems that, to some degree at least, can convey the poet's lived existence and find him readers not only in posterity but in a new language."Rawley Grau has indeed succeeded. The lucid, engaging translations in this masterly edition give readers much to mull over and explore.

No award was given this year in the Best Book in Language Pedagogy and the Best Book in Slavic Linguistics categories.