Every Tuesday, get to know a bit about the stories behind the books you love, and discover your next favourite novel.
Sabitha: Vita Nostra is a book that the three of us list as one of our all-time favourites —a story about magic, language, the darkness of academia and the hope of growing into yourself. We’ve been desperate to read the sequel, but unfortunately none of us read Russian. Luckily, Julia Meitov Hersey (winner of the 2021 Science Fiction and Fantasy Rosetta Awards) translated Assassin of Reality, and it’s coming out in March (in e-book and hardcover). Rachel A. Rosen got a review copy and can’t wait to tell you about it in an upcoming issue. While Zilla and I wait for it to be released, Julia’s agreed to do an interview telling us about fantasy, culture, and the process of translation.
Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s books defy easy characterization. Julia, how would you summarize Assassin of Reality?
Julia: As the sequel to the critically acclaimed Vita Nostra, Assassin of Reality follows the next stage of Sasha Samokhina’s journey.
Sabitha: The wording in Vita Nostra felt incredibly deliberate, as if every word was carefully selected to convey not only a meaning but a sense of the story, the world, and the characters. It worked especially well for a book where the use of language was a part of the story. When you’re translating a book like Vita Nostra or Assassin of Reality, how do you balance direct, literal translation with translating the vibe of the story?
Julia: I think the secret is to look at the sentence, better yet the paragraph, rather than individual words. You must see the picture in your mind and retell it in the target language. The danger there is to insert too much of yourself and walk too far from the original. At the end of the day, it’s a question of tasteful balance, especially in the case of a meta-novel such as Vita Nostra, where words matter more than anything.
Rachel: Vita Nostra is grounded in an Eastern European tradition of fantasy, which has significant differences from the Anglosphere’s tradition of fantasy. Did these different cultures of literature pose any difficulty when translating?
Julia: Those marvelous differences are the main reason we read translated literature, isn’t it? It’s not just about an unexpected plotline or unfamiliar characters; it is also about a fresh perspective, a novel view, a deeper insight into a different mentality. These cultural differences are what makes the translation process so challenging and so rewarding.
It never ceases to amaze me how easily Eastern European fantasy authors operate with open epilogues and unhappy endings. They absolutely refuse to coddle their audience, so there is nearly always an element of surprise. If you’re craving a Hollywood ending, you should probably walk away from Eastern European fantasy. I love anticipating that gasp of surprise that is sure to accompany that last page. It’s a lot of fun to translate with that gasp in mind.
It’s worth mentioning that, since I translate from my native language into my second language, the challenge lies less in researching and understanding the culture of the source material and more in localizing and adapting it for the Anglosphere (without losing its flavor and style). I tend to make a lot of unpopular choices, such as standardizing the first names (because the emotional impact of name variations — Sasha vs Sashka vs Sashenka — is pretty much lost on the English-language readers) or loosely translating traditional Eastern European academic terms (finals vs sessions, etc.). Not everyone agrees with that, but I stick with what feels right to me. I am not alone in this effort —the editorial team at Harper Voyager are beyond wonderful, and I am forever grateful for their impeccable taste and eternal patience.
Zilla: When I’m an author, I pour my identity into the story. When I’m an editor, I try to step back and let the story tell itself, but I can’t avoid editing with my point of view. How personal is the translation process?
Julia: Traduttore, Tradittore. Translating a book is akin to fostering a child. The child’s not yours; there is no DNA of yours on those pages. And yet, you take care of the manuscript, you teach it to speak, you make sure it can walk… It’s very hard not to give it some of your identity, and I believe most of us translators fail at that in the most spectacular fashion.
Rachel: We all loved Vita Nostra and hoped to one day read the sequel. We had two problems. First, we only read English, so thank you for translating it! Second, we couldn’t imagine how a sequel could exist, given that Vita Nostra felt like a seamless, complete story. Can you tell us where the sequel fits in, or would that be giving away spoilers?
Julia: Trust me, I was afraid of reading the sequel, even though I was one of the people who tried their best to influence the Dyachenkos to write it. While the open ending allowed for the continuation of the story, I just couldn’t imagine where it would go. I was certainly surprised and decidedly not disappointed. Conceptually, Vita Nostra is a book about youth — radical, cruel, selfish, idealistic youth. In Assassin of Reality, rather than entering the next stage, most logically the world Sasha had created, we return to the familiar world. The difference is that Sasha is now an adult, and the challenges she faces are different — they are less about pushing herself beyond the limits and more about considering the needs of others. The Russian original novel is called Correcting Errors. Think of this telling title and of the fact that Assassin of Reality is heavily influenced by the authors’ immigration experience — and pick up this novel thinking of second chances, the ungrateful task of proving oneself again and again, of the mythical nature of a perfect world — and of the terrible beauty of adulthood.
Sabitha: We’re so glad that we can finally read this book—and to have someone who really gets the heart of the story translating it. How can our community connect with you and how can they buy the book?