November 01, 2017

The Translator

The Translator

An elderly woman with a cane slowly stoops to place her bag on the wall by a metro station exit. Bending over, she takes out a pair of paperback books and, holding them up, stands to the side of the exit. She does not have a sign or a table, and she does not call out to passersby, so it is a bit difficult to immediately gather what it is the woman is selling.

“Within 15 minutes of standing here, almost all of them are sold,” she says, looking out from beneath the hood of her shabby black coat. “Today I unexpectedly found a copy of another book – poems of the English romantics: Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Blake. It got snapped up too.”

Galina Sergeyevna Usova is a poet and translator of English prose and poetry. For a few years now, she has been standing outside St. Petersburg’s Polytechnic Institute metro station selling her books. She says that the station is both literally and figuratively close to home: she lives nearby and her father and brother both worked in the institute.

At 86, Usova self-publishes all her books, which include a collection of her own poems as well as translations of English poets.

“Do you know what Kellomyaki is?” she suddenly asks, showing me a thin book with an orange cover.

“Not entirely.”

“That means no. But Komarovo you definitely know. You see, they are one and the same. From 1945 to 1948 we lived there in a dacha. The forest was littered with shells. Let me show you...”

On the cover of the book is an ancient family photo taken in Kellomyaki (what Komarovo was called until 1948), the site of a dacha that Usova’s father was given after the war. Later, she went there to vacation at the Writers Retreat. “Many of my poems are about that place,” she says in a hoarse voice, from time to time glancing at the people exiting the metro.

Galina Usova’s family lived in Leningrad. She began studying English very young. Her father was an engineer who “played the piano very well and knew the three main European languages.” He particularly loved English and studied it alongside his daughter.

“It is my language. It is my literature, my poetry, my sense of humor,” the translator says, as if a bit surprised that this could be in any way subject to doubt. “At the Writers Union we had a very good seminar on French poetry. I went a few times and then stopped, because it was not my poetry.”

Usova graduated from the philology department at Leningrad State University, after which she was sent to teach English for two years in Karelia. Then she worked for 20 years as a teacher in Leningrad schools. “I loved to teach,” she said. “I got used to speaking, to the sound of my own voice. I learned to captivate an audience.” She speaks loudly, as her hearing is not very good, yet she selects every word carefully.

Despite the fact that she loved teaching, Usova gradually reduced her teaching schedule so that she could have more time for her main work: translations and poetry, which she has been writing since she was 16. Among her published works are translations of many English poets, including Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Rudyard Kipling.

When asked who she did the translations for, Usova indignantly raises her eyebrows. “This is not the sort of thing someone asks for. Who asked the young Pushkin to write poetry? It is the same thing!”

Nonetheless, she was hired to translate for publishers, for example Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky and Citizen of the Galaxy. Furthermore, Usova translated a good portion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems in the book The Hobbit, which several publishing houses picked up, and for which she has been paid “about 20 times,” she says. But the translator speaks of these works reluctantly. Everything that is written to order, she says, “doesn’t count.”

Swiftly cutting off our conversation on Tolkien, Usova pulls out a collection of poems by the Australian poet Henry Lawson (1867-1922, called that country’s greatest short story writer). “This one I did entirely on my own initiative,” she says. Usova found an original copy of his work in the library in 1959 and since then has called him her literary discovery.

“This is my darling. Look at the fellow’s eyes!” she says admiringly, opening the book to the page with the author’s photo. “I was immediately captivated. And no one asked me to do this, nor could they. And when Moscow translators translated him, I had never seen anything worse, because they did not do it out of love, but because they were paid.”

Once she becomes chilled on the street, Galina Sergeyevna goes into the station’s vestibule to warm up. She does not stand outside the metro every day. Sometimes the weather is too bad; sometimes she simply does not feel up to it.

“There are some folks who just want to upset you, to point out that I am some kind of poor, unfortunate pauper,” she says through clenched teeth. “Sometimes they stop and say, ‘I’ve seen you here for three years. Haven’t you sold off everything yet?’ What does that mean? I can sell it all, but now I’m ordering new books.”

A woman passing by in a fur coat and white fur hat stops near Usova and nods at one of her books. “I already bought that one. I simply wanted to say that I read it and really enjoyed it. There were many new names in there for me.” She quickly thanks Usova, gives a friendly smile, and walks away.

“There, you see? That happens rather often,” Usova says, raising her head triumphantly.

She started publishing and selling books after she wrote one about the poet and translator Tatyana Gnedich,* whose seminars for translators of English poetry Usova had attended in the late 1950s. Gnedich died in 1976.

“I realized that I had a duty to write a book about her, because I was the only one who knew much about her. No one else knew these things,” Usova says.

When the book was ready, Usova counted on interesting a publishing house in the book, because at that time works written by rehabilitated authors like Gnedich were very popular. Yet all the publishing houses turned her down, saying “it’s interesting, but no one will buy it.”

So Usova decided to publish the book herself, using a municipal grant that she received, as well as monies she got in compensation for losses in the 1998 ruble devaluation. The book was published in 2003.

“First, they sold out. Next came a second printing. That also sold out; nothing was left, only my personal copy,” Usova says, noting that to this day people frequently ask her for a copy of the book.

Usova sells all of her books for 150-200 rubles apiece ($3-4), cheaper than any publishing house. And from the proceeds she orders new print runs. “That’s how it has to be,” she says, “because there is no other way. Publishing houses don’t take them. They all say they don’t have any money. I have it, but they don’t!” She smiles.

The translator publishes two or three books per year. She says a single print run will cost her about 72,000 rubles (about $1200). “But it pays for itself,” she adds. Judging by figures from the publishing house Dean, which helps her, she orders about 500 copies of each book.

Usova has to date published some 25 books, 20 of them at her own expense. For the publication of a novel on Byron (another favorite poet), she received money from a Moscow academician who has taken an interest in her work. Aside from that, she is helped by volunteers who created a group on the VKontakte social network, as well as a website, in order to sell her books via the internet.

Given the condition of Galina Sergeyevna’s diseased eyes, however, it is not likely she will be completing any new translations. Hearing my question about this only after I repeat it to her, the translator sharply cuts me off: “Of course I will translate! Why do you say ‘not any more’? Why should I stop?” But in answer to the question of what she is working on right now, she prefers not to reply.

Usova does regularly revise her earlier translations and re-publishes them. “If I read it and see that it is still worthy, then it is not an old translation, even though it may have been done 30 years ago. Yet if you take any book: it was written at such and such time, edited at such and such time... A whole story can be told about any translation,” she thoughtfully summarizes. 

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