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Simpson Center for the Humanities

#UWtranslators: Q&A with Professor José Alaniz

#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

José Alaniz is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Language and Literature and Comparative Literature (adjunct) at the University of Washington. He has published two books, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi, 2010) and Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond (UPM, 2014). He chaired the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), a leading US comics studies conference, from 2011 to 2017. He is also a founding board member of the Comics Studies Society and served as Director of the UW Disability Studies Program from 2014 to 2018. He is currently translating Lena Uzhinova’s 2014 graphic memoir My Sex.

Professor Alaniz will be presenting on Comic Narrative and Translation at the Translation Studies Hub colloquium on November 22.

Tell us about your research in the Slavic Department.

My current research project builds on my first book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), to examine the post-Soviet era, especially the Putin years, in Russian comic art. I am also working on a monograph devoted to the representation of twentieth century history in Czech graphic narrative. With Martha Kuhlman (Bryant University), I have co-edited a collection of essays titled Comics of the New Europe: Intersections and Reflections, which should see release in Spring 2020. Finally, I am slowly writing a book on the depiction of people with disabilities in Russo-Soviet cinema, from Eisenstein to the present. These projects reflect my interests in Slavic Studies, Comics Studies, and Disability Studies.

In addition, I am taking advantage of my sabbatical year to translate some major Russian comics works, including Lena Uzhinova’s My Sex (2014); Vladimir Rudak and Uzhinova’s I Am an Elephant (2017); and Olga Lavrenteva’s Survilo (2019). They all deserve a wider readership.

How do you use Translation Studies in your classes?

I have never taught a course on Translation Studies, but in teaching a lot of material in translation (mostly modern Russian literature), the question of choices in translation comes up all the time. Sometimes I will ask native or heritage speakers in class to chime in on what they think of a particular translation of a word or passage, other times I highlight alternative renderings by myself or others, to spark discussion of what the original Russian is doing (and how an English translation often cannot capture what’s “really” going on). A well-known example, a line of dialogue from a buffet manager in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita: “Осетрину прислали второй свежести” (“They sent a sturgeon of secondary freshness,” i.e. spoiled). With students I discuss how that line humorously evokes the food deficits and bureaucratic grading systems of the 1920s Soviet Union, and how the phrase itself has entered the Russian language, the way English speakers say, “Good riddance,” whether or not they know it comes from Shakespeare.

How did you become interested in the field of Translation Studies?

For me translation flows quite organically from my research. There are many great untranslated works which deserve more readers. I have been translating Russian literature since the 1990s, mostly short stories for the literary journal Glas. These included works by the contemporary St. Petersburg writer Valery Ronshin. In 2000, Natasha Perova, editor of Glas, published my book-length translation of Novel Without Lies, a 1927 memoir by Anatoly Mariengof, a writer and close friend of the famous poet Sergei Esenin. I have translated some Russian comics, including short stories by the master of horror Askold Akishin, which appeared in The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics (2008). In 2017, graduate student Veronica Muskheli and I translated Alexei Lukyanov’s 2014 short story “Entwives,” a sci-fi story about transgender people in Russia. I very much wish I could translate more often, but the day only lasts so long.  

How can Translation Studies be more engaging for students at a STEM campus like UW?

Apart from the engaging discussions and lectures on machine translation which the Translation Studies Hub has been advancing on campus, I think whatever one can do to make the material “come alive” usually pays dividends with students. In Winter 2019, I invited the translator of a contemporary novel we were reading in my Russian Crime Fiction class to come speak with students about her work and its challenges. She presented excerpts from her drafts, examples of negotiations with her editor, and lectured on the brute realities of contemporary publishing when it comes to translations. In the teaching evaluations, many of the students noted this guest talk as the highlight of the class. One doesn’t always have the possibility to do something like this (in the case of this particular translator, she happens to live in Seattle and she also happens to be a former student), but I would imagine many translators wouldn’t mind discussing their work over Skype with students, especially if it helps generate further interest in their work.   

Finally, tell us about your translation of Lena Uzhinova’s 2014 graphic memoir My Sex. Why did you decide to translate it?

In 2014, Lena Uzhinova, writing as Alena Kamyshevskaya, published My Sex, a graphic memoir which strips the veil off Soviet-era sexual mores in the author’s trademark tragicomic style. Uzhinova is a leading voice in Russian comics today; still, her publisher Boomkniga took a risk in releasing such material. Sure enough, it sparked a backlash from mostly male readers who denounced its “pornographic” depiction of late-Soviet sexual realia, such as inadequate sex education, the lack of women’s hygiene products and contraceptives, and rape culture. Nothing like it had ever appeared in Russian comics before, certainly not a longform work. My Sex did the Russian comics industry a tremendous service, by proving that comics don’t have to be funny (though parts of Uzhinova’s work are hilarious in a cringe-inducing way), and they don’t have to be for kids. When I was thinking about a work to translate, I immediately gravitated to Uzhinova’s memoir, not only for its quality and historic precedent, but also because I felt its subject matter would transfer well to the US comics scene (where frank sexual “confessions” of the sort in My Sex have appeared since the 1960s underground comix era).