Elena Dolgopyat

I am actively seeking publishers for my English translations of Elena’s short stories, including her marvellous new collection ‘Someone else’s life’. Elena herself holds the relevant foreign rights.

ELENA DOLGOPYAT (born 1963) is from Murom, in the Vladimir region of Russia. She graduated from the Moscow Institute of Railway Engineering (now the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering) in 1986, and worked until 1989 as a programmer at a military facility in the Moscow region. In 1993 she graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, and has worked at the State Central Museum of Cinema in Moscow since 1995.

She was first published in 1993, and has published short stories, novella-length works, and several film screenplays. Her three short story collections are: ‘Rodina’ (‘Homeland’, 2016), published by Ripol Classic and shortlisted for the 2017 Russian National Bestseller prize; ‘Russkoye’ (‘Russianness’, 2018), published by Fluid FreeFly; and ‘Chuzhaya Zhizn’ (‘Someone else’s life’, 2019), published by AST and longlisted for the 2020 Yasnaya Polyana prize. The story ‘The Facility’ from ‘Someone else’s life’ was runner-up for the 2020 Babel Prize.

‘Science’, from ‘Russkoye’:

Read my translation of ‘Science’ in B O D Y magazine, here.

‘Someone else’s life’

‘Someone Else’s Life’ is a collection of 15 stories, ranging from a few hundred words to several thousand. Elena Dolgopyat has long writing experience (she was first published in 1993), her life has unusual textures (she was born and raised in the USSR, trained as a computer programmer in a Soviet military facility, retrained as a cinematographer post-perestroika), and to these she adds her own sensitivities and preoccupations to produce an unsettling group of stories all concerned in some way with the theme of estrangement. Elena herself, in an interview given at the time of the book’s launch, said, ‘Into each of these stories is woven the motif that one’s life is ‘alien’. It is as if you are separate from your own life and someone else is living it. You feel either that your own life is “other”, or you experience a yearning for a life you have not led, an envy for some other life.’

In his introduction to ‘Someone else’s life’, Leonid Yozefovich writes:

‘This is intelligent writing. Its simplicity is deceptive, and its apparent artlessness is the product of experience and skill. The author’s restraint resonates in us with an unexpected strength of feeling.

Each of Elena Dolgopyat’s stories is unique, and could only have been written by her. Each painfully stirs the soul with a sense of the fragility, the evanescence, even, of human existence, in a world that is far from illusory: it is our world, very real, recognisable. Even those stories which contain an element of phantasmagoria reach us not as

fantasy, but are somehow elevated to the level of our everyday lives. I cannot tell you about the techniques by which this effect is achieved; I do not know what they are. I suspect that the mystery of the impact of these texts on the reader is contained in something not taught on any writing course.

As someone with long years of schoolteaching experience, I know that if the children start to make a racket while you are talking in class, it is useless to force your voice. There is one of you and many of them; you will not out-shout them. The best way to make them listen to you is to lower your voice. In my view, something similar is happening today in literature. Desperate to be heard, we try to shout more loudly, to out-shout the noise of the world. For most of us, this simply does not work.

Elena Dolgopyat never tries to raise her voice. Her stories have long been appearing in literary journals and have come out as books, but only in the last few years, it seems, have we begun to understand that in her quiet voice, she is telling us of “the multicoloured underside of life”. She is telling us of things that matter to us all.’

On translating Elena

My favourites among Elena’s stories evidence a peculiar knack of showing us characters who seem to shift in and out of conventional reality and yet at the same time make us knock into our own very real hopes, fears, insecurities, peculiarities. It’s a good idea when considering her material to put aside the ‘either or’ questions we instinctively ask: Is this taking place in some interior world or the tangible exterior world? Are we dealing with real actions taking place within normal time or with a ‘timeless’, ‘symbolic’ piece happening in some place slightly shifted to one side? Are these two people two different characters or different aspects of just one? With Elena, there is no ‘either or’, nor will she offer you her own answers to your questions. You are delightfully on your own, feeling your way by a kind of echolocation, meeting strange people who, even when they are superficially unlike you, your loved ones, or your circle of acquaintances, nonetheless trigger strong feelings of recognition. All this she does with a beguiling naturalness, an apparent effortlessness and artlessness, a complete lack of apology, self-doubt, or explanation.

The joy of translating Elena is that of going for a ride and just hanging on in there wherever she takes you. And remaining faithful to prose that reflects in its lexis and syntax the combination of simplicity and unexpectedness that marks her characterisation.

Sample translations

Translations of four stories from ‘Someone Else’s Life’ are available on request.