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The Translator Relay: Laura Esther Wolfson

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

September’s featured translator is Laura Esther Wolfson, whose recently published essay collection, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, explores in part her lifelong relationship with language and translation.


What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

My languages were all acquired through a mix of study, reading, time spent in places where they are spoken, and, most important, wide-ranging conversations with native speakers from many walks of life. Some of these cross-language encounters (with both books and people) made it into my new essay collection, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors.

I’ve done literary translation from Russian and worked also for many years as a Russian-English diplomatic, conference, and court interpreter. While employed at the United Nations in various capacities, I worked from French and Spanish as well.

Every language I learn comes to feel as if I spoke it natively in a previous life.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

During an early stay in the USSR (in 1987–88), I spent time in the Republic of Georgia, where traditional hospitality can at times feel like an onslaught—meals lasting hours, lengthy speeches of welcome, and injunctions to ingest and imbibe that stop somewhat short of force-feeding.

It was in this teeth-rattling context that I encountered the Russian word zastoliye. (Although Georgian is an ancient language with a unique alphabet and no Slavic connection, Russian has been widely spoken there since tsarist and Soviet times.) Zastoliye is always the first word that comes to my mind when the conversation turns to untranslatability.

The root of zastoliye is stol’, or “table.” Za means “around.” The iye suffix signals an abstract noun. So zastoliye literally means “around-the-table-ness,” or “that which happens at the table.” Food and drink are just the beginning. The concept of zastoliye encompasses conversation, toasts, speechmaking, songs, jokes, and stories, extending also to the people present and the sense of bonding that arises as this provisional mini-community coalesces. In addition, the word zastoliye is inseparable from notions of abundance and celebration and can also suggest either merriment or solemnity. Often translated as “feast,” zastoliye means much more than that. “Banquet” doesn’t do it either, as zastoliye is often an intimate, multigenerational family affair. “Revelry” captures some part of it but is a loftier register. “Spread” is an important part of the concept—as in “What a spread you’ve prepared!”—and so is “conviviality.” Fortunately, I don’t recall how I coped with the word as a translator.

Zastoliye is one of those words that got me started writing about translation and untranslatability, which led eventually to my spending more time writing than translating—in part because while writing is difficult, translation is impossible. Writing is not exactly easier than translating, but failure is an unavoidable part of the final product for translators in a way that it is not for writers. When I write, I feel as if I’m failing throughout the process—until I finish. When I translate, I feel as if things are going swimmingly—until I finish. (Although, to paraphrase Valéry on writing poems—note that I first read his remark in translation, before I knew French—no work is finished, just abandoned.) These intertwining themes—translating writing, writing translation, failing at both in different ways—also emerge in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors.


Do you have any translating rituals?

Before attempting writing of any kind, I descend into wordlessness. I lie on the carpet and take deep breaths. Next, I look at pictures of lakes and forests. Seated at my desk, I silently thank my literary forebears and my teachers.

Before translating, I thank the college instructors who taught me Russian: a married couple who came to the United States from the city formerly known as Leningrad. The wife—the daughter of two noted authors whose works suffered at the hands of Stalin’s censors—worked in an antiquarian bookstore there; the husband was a noted literary translator who put George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and others into Russian. For his translations of more recent works, he would leaf through a Sears catalogue (brought over by an American friend) to better understand the referents of various mysterious English nouns he was called upon to render in Russian.

Eyes still closed, I also thank two lexicographers I used to know (both now dead). First, Kenneth Katzner, of the English-Russian, Russian-English Dictionary (John A. Wiley), which I used to carry on interpreting jobs back in the nineties. It came in handy once at a secret military outpost in Siberia, where a soldier presented me with a small bouquet of purplish-blue flowers from the field outside the meeting room. “Eto—vasilyok,” he said. I knew by sight what the flowers were called in English, and when my battered copy of Katzner’s dictionary confirmed that they were cornflowers, I did a mental fist-pump and thought, “Way to go, Ken!” The soldier looked surprised at my outsized (and somewhat delayed) response to his ephemeral offering.

Next, I thank Sophia Lubensky, author of the Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, for which she and her graduate students trawled through Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and many of their collinguals, collecting expressions for inclusion as entries and noting them on index cards. As a result, her dictionary is a kind of tasting menu of Russian literature.

 I clean my glasses. Finally, I return to the word.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

A translation is a pane that gives onto something that would otherwise not be visible. Ideally, no cracks, smears, cloudiness, or streaks come between the reader and the work on the other side. The reader gets closer and closer to the original, but the pane is always there, so transparent that a bird might fly into it. And the translator? She is glassmaker, glazier, and window washer.


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

I believe it was Ursula LeGuin who said that writing translates the world into language. I will do more of that kind of translation, which of course includes continuing to write about language work; I will continue translating translation, as well as other things.

I hope also to find a Russian work from the mid-twentieth century or later, hitherto untranslated into English, of mixed or unclassifiable genre and containing elements of bibliomemoir and history. It should be written in a voice that is intimate, even vulnerable, and its style (language) should be equal in importance to the narrative. I would like the author of this work to be a woman. When I find it, I will fall in love (because literary translation is a labor of love) and translation will be the consummation of that love.


(WWB’s question for you:) One of the central thematic strands in your recently published essay collection, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, is your relationship to language(s)—language emerges as a connector, a barrier, a balm. You delve into the ways in which language has shaped your life and your relationships. Could you speak a bit about how living and working in multiple languages has shaped your own writing and/or the way that you think about words when you sit down to compose an original work?

To quote a Russian friend—who, back in the Soviet era, received a letter written in Hungarian, obtained a Hungarian textbook and replied in two weeks, subsequently met and married the letter-writer and moved to Budapest, where she became a successful entrepreneur and raised a family—“Every language you learn gives you a new life.”

Knowledge of languages gives you more of everything: more worldviews, histories, literatures, personal narratives, and current events to write about; more folkways, folktales, jokes, and proverbs to incorporate; and more grammars, syntaxes, etymologies, and words to use as building blocks. Most of all, access to a variety of languages means more meanings, and more meaning.

I am always seeking the right word, the particular meaning-sliver or hue. I do not fear the obscure or old-fashioned, if that is what the writing needs. Words exist to be used. Avoiding a word because someone may have to look it up contributes to language impoverishment.

I reflect deeply on grammar, and on what it means to be a subject or object of a sentence, to act or be acted on. I import Russian or French syntax into my English at times, for emphasis and voice. I occasionally bury bilingual puns or foreign allusions in my work, for my own pleasure.

Interpreters (who transfer the spoken word across languages in real time) must compress without loss of meaning, so as not to fall behind the original speaker. Working as an interpreter for years shaped my thought patterns; concision is a reflex.


Laura Esther Wolfson is the author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, 2017), a collection of linked essays that discusses untranslatability and other matters. She has done translations from Russian, French, and Spanish. Find her at and @EstherLaura.

Published Sep 21, 2018   Copyright 2018 Jessie Chaffee

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