In conversation with... Delija Valiukenas

Hi Delija! Thank you for joining me today. I have just finished reading Shadows on the Tundra, which you translated from the Lithuanian to English, and I’d like to ask you a few questions both on this specific book and more generally on translation. So let’s begin…

How did you get started in literary translation?

A:  You could say it began nearly fifty years ago with my doctoral dissertation, in which I examined the Lithuanian translations of Shakespeare's plays. But I've never actually made a career of translation. Shadows on the Tundra is the only book I've translated. Yes, I have translated academic articles, some plays for the National Drama Theater in Lithuania, and other genres, but it was always the result of a specific request.

What did you think when you were first approached to work on Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s outstanding memoir? Were you already aware of it or was it a new discovery for you?

A: When Meike Ziervogel, the publisher, “found” me in 2017 through various contacts, I had already translated Dalia Grinkeviciute's memoir—twice. I'd been working on the translation off and on and submitting it to publishers for nearly a decade. My first version was done without any feedback from anyone. The second was in response to a particular literary agent, who didn't think this type of “stream of consciousness style” (his words) would sell in the U.S. Or to quote him again—American readers would not be able to “connect” with it. So, in the interest of enhancing its “marketability,” I did some editing—divided it into chapters, added headings, eliminated repetitions, emphasized the time line, added explanatory footnotes, several appendices. In the end, it seemed more geared to an academic rather than popular audience with all that ancillary material, so I concentrated, primarily, on academic publishers, especially since commercial ones did not accept unsolicited submissions. In the end, at Meike Ziervogel's urging--bless her--I returned the translation to where I should have kept it in the first place—as close to the original as possible without sacrificing the English. And that is what Peirene published.

As for the second half of your question, Dalia's memoir was not a new discovery for me. A friend in Lithuania sent it to me in 1997, as soon as it hit the bookstores. It was a bombshell of a discovery to Lithuanians in the homeland (though not to emigre Lithuanians abroad, who were obviously not afraid of talking about it, unlike their countrymen in Lithuania), who had known nothing of Siberia and the fate of the deportees. Any references to Siberian deportations was officially classified material, never discussed in public and often not even in private during the fifty years of Soviet occupation, which ended in 1991.

Can you describe the process of translating this intense piece of survival literature?

A: For me, translation is always a two-fold process. Although some sentences do pop out onto the page fully formed in impeccable English, most of the time, I can't distance myself sufficiently from the original Lithuanian to produce a translation I can be happy with. The rhythm, the syntax, the word choices of the original impose themselves and distort the English. So, especially when I'm having a problem with some translated sentence, I'll make it a literal translation, so that when I go back to “polish” it, I don't have to look at the original again (not immediately anyway) but can work the English language unimpeded. The literal translation in front of me prevents me from straying.

In the case of this particular work of survival literature, the goal was to keep in mind that the memoir was experienced by a 14-15 year old adolescent, but written by a 22-23 year old adult. Initially, I found myself wondering whether a 15-year old would use a particular word or expression, but a close reading of the memoir revealed that, whether consciously  or not, the author did make a rather nuanced distinction between two types of events in the book. The author's relationships and responses to people seem to  reflect the thinking and the wording of an adolescent girl; everything else the deportees experienced as a group is observed with an obviously reflective eye—and thus a more sophisticated point of view. And, of course, I did want to maintain the immediacy and the energy of the writing by retaining the present tense, the very emphatic interpolation of short, explosive, abrupt sentences for emphasis. And I especially liked the ironic juxtapositions-- Dalia doing her algebra homework, for instance, by the light of a stolen candle that had been placed at the side of a  corpse. I made sure to  keep the irony intact.

Within the text there are some sentences appearing in their original language, followed by their translation in English. I am completely ignorant of any of these languages but I am assuming that they are not in Lithuanian as they are mostly spoken by the people in charge. Is that the reason why they are left to stand out? Would Dalia have understood them without any issues?

A: The sentences you refer to are in Russian. And, yes, Dalia would have understood them. By the time she writes the book, she's been speaking the Russian language in Trofimovsk and other settlements for eight years, so I'm assuming that when she quoted a Russian speaker she quoted him in Russian. Admittedly, I don't know what changes the editors of Dalia's manuscript might have made, but the conversations I've had over the years with Lithuanians in the home country suggest a conservative attitude to translation, especially if the original is in Lithuanian—an attitude, I assume, that would prevent an editor from “tinkering” with the author's words. So the Russian was probably Dalia's choice; it seemed reasonable to keep it that way.

As a reader, this book was a harrowing experience when it comes to the events it describes but I couldn’t help noticing how well it is written. Some passages are extremely poetic and I find it extraordinary how Dalia, despite her living circumstances, was still able to see beauty. One of my favourite passages is the following:

Yet what splendour above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea; the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis. Against a backdrop of such majesty, we are the pitiful things here – starved and infested like dogs, and nearly done in, rotting in our befouled and stinking ice caves.

For your own peace of mind, were you able to distance yourself somewhat from the cruel world this book describes? And how much this poetic quality and flowing narrative is down to your translation skills?

A: Bear in mind that I first read it twenty years ago, and I remember just how overwhelmed I was at the time. As I lay stretched out on the couch with the book in my lap and a coffee on the side table, I remember thinking that I ought to be on my knees as I read this—so much suffering! But the activity of translation replaces the emotional response with an intellectual one. In fact, by the time I read and and re-read the translation dozens of times, I'd drained it of emotion. It was no longer an event I was dealing with but a material object. Or to use a different analogy, the effect that translating it had on me could not have been very different from the one that writing it had on Dalia herself. While her intention in writing it was probably the need to bear witness, the actual writing had to have been liberating.

If you find the writing to be good, that's because I had a well-written text to work with. Yes, an astonishing accomplishment, considering the circumstances under which Dalia had to write. No time to revise, discovery by the NKVD was imminent, and yet the work as a whole does not lose track of itself, the detail is astoundingly specific, the singular voice is maintained through to the end.

The poetic passage you cite was, in fact, particularly easy to translate because its poetic and rhythmic structures were already in place. I just needed to follow them. My translation is nearly literal. I follow the rhetorical choices she made, which highlight her skill as a writer. The type of change that I did introduce into the translation is not to repeat any word, like the word “grandeur,” for example,  but make use of some of the other words the English language has for conveying the same idea. Thus my use, for instance, of words like “majesty,” “splendor,” “magnificence, does, I think, ramp the “poetry” up a notch. But just a notch and due only to the fact that English has a larger palette in this instance than does Lithuanian. 

What are you working on at the moment?

A: I'm editing an Albanian translation. I don' know a word of Albanian, but have been asked to “spruce up” an English translation done by a non-native speaker. What I'm learning about Albania's rich and at times traumatic history, so reminiscent of Lithuania's own, makes this project wonderfully rewarding.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, which happens to be a translation; Julie Schumacher's The Shakespeare Requirement, a satire about academia, especially the English Department; Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island (I love travel literature and I love hiking and I love England); and waiting for me, the icing on all this cake, is Witch Elm, the latest mystery by Tana French, one of my all-time favorite writers. I particularly love detective stories, but she transcends the genre, as everyone has already observed.

Is there one type of fiction that you prefer translating? Does this reflect your preference as a reader?

A: No, not any particular genre, but there is a type and to some extent, it does reflect my preference as a reader. If it's a long work, it must be something I am truly impressed with and would enjoy living with for a good while. But also a work that would afford me an opportunity to participate in “re-creating” something I might find especially wonderful, like its lyrical quality perhaps or its unusual but powerfully effective approach to a subject.

Many thanks for your time!


  1. Fascinating interview! It was good to hear about the process of translation. I was astonished by the American literary agent's comments. How could he say people wouldn't connect with this? I was enthralled by it. I'm so glad that it got published eventually without the "marketability" changes.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this interview, Andrew. I totally agree, this is a book for people not for a select group of academics.

  2. "the activity of translation replaces the emotional response with an intellectual one". Loved this line! Translating as a way of coping with grief and trauma. I never thought about it that way. Thanks for this interview!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Blog tour: Forgotten Women

Book review: She’s Never Coming Back

“Italy in books” - reading challenge 2011