In her day, Teffi was a literary superstar, writes Anne-Marie Jackson in her introduction to Subtly Worded, a beautiful collection of short stories, published last year by Pushkin Press. It’s easy to see why, because these are witty, yet thought-provoking tales; she is inevitably called the “female Chekov”, although some have a bite that reminds me more of Saki or Dorothy Parker. Others, are deeply moving, particularly the last one in the collection, And Time Was No More, a reflection on memory, mortality, pain and hope. Some are based on her own life (going to meet Tolstoy “to plead for the life of War and Peace’s Prince Bolkonsky”, for example, and a series of bizarre meetings with Rasputin). After the Bolsheviks came to power, Teffi moved to Paris and wrote stories of émigré society, where “lesrusses” refer to each other as “that crook” as a new grammatical particle before their names.
This particle lost its original meaning long ago and now equates to something between the French le, indicating the gender of the person named, and the Spanish honorific don … (p. 140)
There are doomed relationships and true friendships alike. Teffi skewers hypocrisy and a lack of self-awareness, and shows real warmth too. Yet, after her death, Teffi sank from view in Russia, let alone the English-speaking world.
There are several possible explanations, she was a woman; she had been typecast as a lightweight humorist; she was an émigréé. But beginning in the 1990s, nearly half a century after Teffi’s death, a new generation of Russian readers began to discover and appreciate Teffi’s special genius. (pp. 17-18)
Having been rediscovered in Russia, her stories are now coming into English, translated mostly by Anne-Marie Jackson, with contributions from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. I asked Anne-Marie how it came about:
It really began when Robert Chandler started compiling an anthology of Russian short stories for Penguin, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. At the time he had never even heard of Teffi, but a number of his friends and colleagues recommended her. Robert went on to include further work by Teffi in a subsequent anthology for Penguin, Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov.
Then in the summer of 2011, I enrolled in the first Use Your Language, Use Your English summer school. Robert was leading the Russian course and had our group working on Teffi’s memoirs (this too has now been translated and will be published next year as Memories). Later that summer, the full BCLT mentorship programme was being launched, and as I was Robert’s mentee during 2011/12, we worked mostly on Teffi. Robert sent a few stories over to Adam Freudenheim, who had worked with him on the anthologies for Penguin and was already familiar with Teffi. Adam, who had recently moved over to Pushkin Press, attended an evening of readings that we gave at Pushkin House in May 2012, and that same evening he said that they would like to discuss a book.
Robert made it clear that this was going to be my project, as he had a full load for a few years to come, which meant that I had a real opportunity. Clare and Natalia, who had also participated in the summer school, each contributed stories. Robert had already translated a few of the stories, and he translated a couple more for the collection. Then as we began approaching the submission date (the whole thing took more than a year, so I’m talking about two months or so before submission), I began working in earnest on the intro. At about the same time, Robert began sending the translated stories around to his network, so there were many readers of all kinds who were reviewing and commenting on the translations as we neared the end of the project; earlier on there had also been a great deal of reviewing of one another’s translations. It was all very collaborative
There’s so much wordplay and creative use of language it must have been a real challenge to translate. Were the stories as much fun to work on as they are to read?