Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Katja Petrowskaja’ category

Over at Necessary Fiction this week, I review Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja, translated by Shelley Frisch.

Maybe Esther takes on so much emotional and political territory that it can feel disorienting. I mean this is a compliment, because I believe the book’s offering of a slightly overwhelming reading experience is entirely intentional, and much to its point. Petrowskaja relates entire constellations of stories: the schools for deaf-mute children run by her maternal grandfather’s family; the political assassin, Judas Stern, who was tried and shot in Moscow in 1932; the great-great-grandmother and great-aunt who faithfully made their way through the streets to what would become the infamous Babi Yar massacre in Kiev; the long-lost American relative who made it through a ghetto, five concentration camps and a death march, and so many more family stories, as well as Petrowskaja’s own journeys around Europe. But it never feels as though Petrowskaja is sharing these stories and her questions about them in order to resolve their specific and personal mysteries. Instead, her persistent questioning and gentle paralleling to Greek tragedy and the Bible seems to suggest that the real mystery under investigation here is how did these events come to take place—historically, politically, humanly. How was all of this tragedy allowed to happen?

You can read the entire review here.

Also, if you missed it, you can also read my interview with _Maybe Esther’s_ translator, Shelley Frisch.

In May I spent a lot of my time sharing quotes from Katja Petrowskaja’s beautiful book, Maybe Esther. I was very taken with this book and it’s project of retracing 20th-century Europe through the stories of Petrowskaja’s family, but because of the nature of the book’s wordplay and linguistic focus (shifting constantly between Russian, Polish, and German), I was equally interested in the work that went into its translation into English. I had the opportunity to interview Shelley Frisch, who masterfully translated Maybe Esther and that interview is now published. Frisch answered my questions in great detail and it was a wonderful discussion of a unique book. Here is just a small taster:

In both form and content, Katja aimed at foregrounding the fragmentary nature of her quest to piece together her family history, and the jagged use of language that comes with foreign language proficiency acquired later in life is part and parcel of that fragmentation.

You can read the entire interview here at Necessary Fiction.

I’ve also written a review of Maybe Esther that will be published on Monday.

And just a quick word on the title of the interview and this blog post – Shelley mentioned the first two lines of an Emily Dickinson poem in the context of our discussion but I cannot stop thinking of this line as the best description of translation I’ve ever heard:

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”