It’s hard to write fiction when you don’t really enjoy creating characters or plotting out a story.

That’s what Lisa Hayden discovered a little more than a decade ago. She thought she wanted to be a writer, but the stories just didn’t come. While struggling to create fiction, she realized the only part of the process she really loved was choosing and ordering words. So she searched for a job where she could do just that, and found it – translating contemporary Russian novels into English. Luckily, she was already fluent in Russian, having lived in Russia for six years.

“Klotsvog,” the latest contemporary Russian novel translated by Lisa Hayden of Scarborough. Photo courtesy of Columbia University Press

Working from her home in Scarborough, she’s translated eight Russian novels, as well as stories and other pieces, and writes a blog on Russian literature.

Her latest translation, the novel “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, was published by Columbia University Press and goes on sale Tuesday.

The novel is an exploration of the Soviet Jewish experience after World War II, told through the life of the selfish and garrulous Maya Klotsvog. Not only did Hayden have to find just the right words to convey the meaning of specific Russian phrases or sentiments, but she also had to consider how language was used under the oppressive rule of the Soviets. Hayden called it a painstaking process that involves several drafts and reviews by other Russian speakers.

“Even the tiniest thing can ruin the tone of a voice and, along with it, break the book’s spell for the reader,” said Hayden, 56. “Which is why I fuss over everything.”

ONCE UPON A TIME

Hayden grew up mostly in Norway, in Oxford County, where her family moved from New Hampshire when she was about 9. She first became interested in Russia and Russian history as a child because of stories published in Jack and Jill magazine based on the Russian fairy tale Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is a Slavic folklore tale about a “grandmother witch” who lives deep in the forest and is not very good, but is not entirely evil.

When she was in the sixth grade, Hayden read her first English translation of Russian literature, a short story called “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. In high school, she read the 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which she realizes was a pretty “rough” novel for high school students, with descriptions of brutal murders. But she didn’t start thinking about studying Russian literature, or language, until she got to the University of Pennsylvania, where she first focused on biochemistry, then calculus. But she also took a course in Russian history and literature, where she read Leo Tolstoy’s classic “War and Peace,” among other things. The course helped ignite a curiosity of all things Russian that had been in her for most of her life.

“As a child of the Cold War, I was always fascinated with the Soviet Union, especially during the Olympics,” Hayden said. “I’d look at how big the maps are, and how many different republics there were, and wonder who all these people were.”

She got a bachelor’s degree in Slavic studies and then a master’s in Russian literature. After working for Hannaford supermarkets back in Maine for a while, she moved to Russia and became director of a program for non-Russian students there. She also worked for the United Way in Russia and spent six years living there, mostly around Moscow, putting her Russian language skills to use. Eventually, she wanted to come home and returned to Maine where she did some corporate writing and interpreting for Russian speakers, and also taught Russian.

About 12 years ago, while working other jobs, she began a blog about Russian literature. She’d often translate passages of books she was writing about and thought maybe she could translate whole books. With help from the American Literary Translators Association, she began pitching books to translate to publishers. Over the years, she’s been sought by publishers as well, and she’s been translating books ever since.

AN ACT OF COLLABORATION

Hayden went to conferences and book fairs to learn about Russian writers and began reviewing translations of books online. She quickly became known as the “go-to person” in literary circles for anyone wanting to know what’s happening in Russian literature, said Ellen Elias-Bursac, vice president of the American Literary Translators Association and a translator of Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian literature.

Near the beginning of “Klotsvog” is a five-page “translators note” from Hayden. It explains her relationship to the late author, who she met in Russia and for whom she translated other works. She talked about how the main character’s language in the novel mimics oral speech and is very specific to the Soviet era. She wrote that it was crucial for her translation to “capture a narrative voice that’s unlikely to sound literarily smooth.” She explains historic references in the book and acknowledges all the help she got while working on the translation, including from her editor at Columbia University Press, Christine Dunbar, as well as the author’s twin sister and husband.

Lisa Hayden in her Scarborough home office, where she translates contemporary Russian novels into English. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dunbar said that part of Hayden’s strength in translating novels is that she combines “a researcher’s curiosity with a writer’s commitment to sound and vision and character fidelity.”

“She’ll spend I don’t even want to know how long figuring out specialized vocabulary, and she’ll abandon it in a heartbeat if the result isn’t true to the book,” Dunbar said.

Another thing that makes Hayden stand out among literary translators is her willingness to collaborate, Dunbar said. Many translators get questions from their editors, then make revisions based on those questions. But Hayden is more open to discussing changes and possibilities “even though in the end, she’s the one who comes up with the magic solution, somehow totally invisible until that eureka moment.”

In “Klotsvog,” Maya is telling her life story but often struggles to express the most important parts of her life, Dunbar said, whether it’s the trauma of the Holocaust or strained family relationships. So, several times in the novel, as she struggles to make herself clear, she uses a phrase that Hayden and Dunbar finally decided should be “but that’s not my point.” They talked about using “but that’s not the issue,” “but that’s not what matters” and others, but felt they needed a phrase that was colloquial and a little sharp.

“What’s tricky about this book is that some of Maya’s expressions should sound a little forced, but they have to sound forced in just the right way,” Hayden said. “Figuring out what would work is always difficult. Reading aloud was important, and Christine’s astute editing was very important.”

Khemlin died in 2015, so Hayden was not able to consult with her while translating “Klotsvog.” But she has consulted other authors she’s translated, including Eugene Vodolazkin, for whom she’s translated two novels. For one of his books, Vodolazkin told Hayden to take out his footnotes, which were funny but probably wouldn’t translate well. But she wanted to save the material, so she worked it into the novel in other places, with Vodolazkin’s blessing.

“When you’re translating humor, you have to find a way to convey the mood and atmosphere of that humor,” Hayden said. “A lot of the work (translating a novel) is very intuitive.”


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