Matvei Yankelevich

13483952The Blue Notebook (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004)

translations of poems by Daniil Kharms

In several online interviews, you mention that you pick young or inexperienced authors’ work to publish. How well do you know these authors, and what is your selection process like?

There’s lots of ways that UDP finds manuscripts. I wouldn’t say our focus is authors with a lack of experience. Some of the authors we publish in chapbooks or in our magazine indeed have not published before, but it’s not their inexperience that draws us in, but an interest in their poems. Some of our books are the result of a solicitation on our part — one of us might be excited by a poet’s work (heard at a reading, read in magazines) and then we ask them to submit work or suggest that we publish a project they are still working on. We also have several forms of open reading periods, and often the authors are unknown to us until we read their submissions.

See the submissions page on our site for more info.

And there’s more info about the way the Presse works on our FAQ page.

How well do you research the authors you think about translating or publishing?

Depends if you’re asking me about my work as a translator…. Well, as a translator, I do a lot of research if the poet I’m translating is not contemporary. I mostly translate work from the early 20th century. And I have to read a lot about the author, sometimes looking into particular references to historical events or cultural milieus. You can take a look at my introduction to the Daniil Kharms book Today I Wrote Nothing, which I edited and translated, and see the research I did for that book. That book, incidentally, contains the text of The Blue Notebook, which I had previously published with UDP.

As for Ugly Duckling Presse, when publishing translations, we mostly rely on the translators who submit work to us to tell us about the authors.  The editor of the book might do additional research, but mostly we help the translator do the best they can by asking questions.  Sometimes, though more rarely, one of our editors does a bunch of research on an author that has not been published in English, or not widely known, and we try to consult specialists in this or that field to help us find out more. One doesn’t have to reinvent the bicycle if there’s someone out there that’s already done the work and can help us figure out the best way to go about thinking of a book of that author’s work.

Why did The Blue Notebook catch your attention?

I’ve been translating Kharms since college (the early 1990s), so I’ve known about it a long time. I wanted to put something out by Kharms when I started the Eastern European Poets Series for UDP. The Blue Notebook seemed perfect, because – as it says in the afterword – it’s one of Kharms’s few groupings of work that he collected himself. Much of the rest of his work was not finalized in the same way. It seems he was interested in making a serial work made up of fragments. I find it to be a very interesting work, a notebook that might feel spontaneous (like a diary) but actually assembled from texts written in other notebooks or on scraps of paper over a period of several years. It’s composed in a mysterious way.

From what perspective is The Blue Notebook written?  Are there multiple perspectives?

I can’t answer this question. I think it’s worth interpreting The Blue Notebook as a collection of writings such that I’ve described above. It’s kind of up to the reader to think about perspectives. I don’t find that to be a useful term when talking about Kharms’s work, as he’s not a traditional fiction writer, so he doesn’t really write from his characters’ perspectives. He seems more interested in what it means to write, to play the role of an author. He is using a mask of a kind – Daniil Kharms isn’t his given name. I think The Blue Notebook shows a variety of approaches and styles, but not necessarily perspectives; that is, I think, Kharms’s aesthetics are made clear in the compositional strategy of the Notebook, it shows how he’s interested in placing unrelated materials in various formal juxtapositions.

What do you know about the inspiration behind The Blue Notebook?

I can’t surmise the inspiration. I think that for Kharms it had more to do with an interest in employing different strategies and seeing what happened if he placed these disparate parts together.

Is it often challenging to find the best words to convey what the author wrote?

Translation isn’t really about finding the best word, or the “equivalent” word in the “target” language. Languages are infinitely different (there are no real equivalents) and two words might mean the same thing but not have the same connotations, not to mention sound-values. A good translation finds a tone, a rhythm, and an understanding of something that couldn’t have been written in our language. That’s what I hope to achieve. But yes, indeed, translation is hard work. It’s more fun if you can collaborate, otherwise it’s kind of lonely.

How much do you interact with authors before publishing their work?

Depends if they are dead or alive (!).  As a publisher, and particularly as an editor at UDP, I work with authors and translators closely. We want the book to be the best it can be before it goes to print. Not just copy-editing and proofreading, but actually editing the book, asking questions, clarifying, suggesting moving a poem or taking one out, etc.

You are a published author yourself. Which of your published works are you most proud of?

I am proud of my translation of Kharms, and the book Today I Wrote Nothing. But also of my books and chapbooks, in a different way – they are a bit more embarrassing than the translations.

Have you written any work that you did not publish?  If so, why didn’t you?

I’ve written a lot of things.  Publication isn’t for everything.  Some things are better left unpublished, and some things just can’t find a publisher.  I have a long poem that I haven’t found a publisher for, but I hope to someday.  I also have a lot of things that are unfinished, or just aren’t that great. I have to feel that something hangs together, that it makes the impact and statement that I want to make before I want to send it around to potential publishers.

What is your linguistic background? What drew you to translation, and why Russian?

I was born in Moscow, I moved to the states at a very young age. I grew up with the Russian and English languages from the age of 4 or 5. Russian was primarily spoken at home. I went back to Russia frequently after high school, when it was possible to travel. I kept up the language by traveling there by making friends among Russian poets, and by translating and writing about Russian literature.

Do you design the covers and interiors of the work that you publish?

We edit, design, and publish our books. Sometimes, but rarely, we work with an outside designer. We might use artwork by artists whom the authors recommend to us. But the design is mostly our own. I do a lot of design for UDP.

I’ve also helped design some of my own books published with other presses. For example, I did the typesetting for Alpha Donut (2012), and worked with an artist friend to design the cover. On my most recent book, Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, I made a lot of suggestions to the designer. I also asked an artist I know for the cover image. So I had something to do with it, but I didn’t actually make the digital files for the book in that case.

What are your other translating experiences? Have you translated for other publishers or presses?

Most of my translations and my own original work is published by other presses. You’ll see some examples in my bio. I did translate two chapbooks for Ugly Duckling (Kharms’s The Blue Notebook and Vvedensky’s The Gray Notebook), and I felt okay about that because it was not my original work, and it was important to me to include these authors in our Eastern European Poets Series… They are foundational authors for me, and they were not so well known at the time outside of Russia, and even in Russia, Vvedensky is still mostly unknown.  I don’t like the idea of publishing myself.  It’s a lot of work to publish books by others – I’ve worked on dozens and dozens of books with many authors, so I’d like someone to work on my books. If someone other than myself thinks that my work is worth publishing, I hope that they will take on the project, and it makes me feel good to know that I’m not the only one that thinks my work is worth reading.

Do you search for things you would like to translate, or do the authors come to you? How do you decide what to translate?

This varies. Some small projects are commissioned or requested by others – like translating a few poems for an anthology, or for a visiting Russian poet, or something like that. But my bigger translation projects have been, up to now, based on my own interests, research, and reading. I get interested in a writer (just by reading around, following intuition, or stumbling upon someone’s work by accident) and I think, wow, this writer has barely been translated, or, this writer has been very poorly translated and misrepresented; I should give it a try. There’s a lot I’d like to translate, but it’s very time-consuming, so I can’t get to all of it. Some of my translator friends get hired to do translations of stuff that they like to a greater or lesser degree, and they do whatever the publisher wants them to do, but I’m not fast enough to make that kind of work worthwhile for me.

What advice would you give new writers who are trying to get published?

First, I would ask myself, “Why do I want to publish this or that particular piece?” Then, if it’s not just about self-esteem, I would go ahead and look for the right place to publish. I would start by reading a bunch of little magazines, ones I’ve never read, not just The New Yorker and The Paris Review and Poetry. I would look for what magazines are being published in the town I live in, or the closest city, search at the library, ask the librarians, and search online listings of little magazines and small presses. (It’s so much easier now with the internet than it was when I was starting to write.) Go to some readings or launches that your local magazines put on, see what the local scenes are doing. Look for the work you enjoy by your peers, or people who aren’t yet Nobel Prize winners or best-sellers. Find out where these peers of yours publish, then you can find the magazines online and in print that you would feel proud to be published in, where you think your work would fit well, where you have a sense of the editors’ tastes. Only then should you start to send your work out. Otherwise, the odds are against you; you might as well be throwing your poems and stories into the wind and hoping one of them lands on your reader’s desk. You can also start your own magazine, band together with writer-friends that feel like making a contribution, and publish yourselves and find other people you think are worth publishing that aren’t having an easy time finding a venue. Make your own scene. Then you’ll find it easy to connect with other writers and scenes and trade magazines, trade poems and stories, and slowly build the writing world that you want to live in.


Matvei Yankelevich is the author of the poetry collection Alpha Donut (United Artists, 2012), and a novella in fragments, Boris by the Sea (Octopus, 2009). A long poem, Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, from Black Square Editions, will be released in November 2015. He is the translator of Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, and co-translator of the National Translation Award-winning An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky. He has contributed translations to several anthologies and many magazines (including Harper’s, The New Yorker, Poetry, New American Writing, and Circumference). He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He edits the Eastern European Poets Series for Ugly Duckling Presse and teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, the Queens College MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation, and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


Six Poems from From a Winter Notebook


One thought on “Matvei Yankelevich

  1. Pingback: Looking Back at 2015 | Speaking of Marvels

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