NEA Literature Fellowships

Deborah Hoffman

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(2011 - Translation)

from Auditory Hallucinations by Eufrosinia Kersnovskaia 

[translated from Russian]

The investigation into Lida's case was over, and she could be summoned to court any day now. She was sure she'd get the death penalty, since she'd been sentenced to a bullet the last time and it had been only conditionally commuted to what was called a "dime" (a ten-year sentence), and that was before she'd taken up painting posters maligning Stalin himself -- of all things!

Lida was a proud girl. She knew the administration, including her father's comrade Major Kalyuta, would be at the trial. Whatever could be done so nobody would think the pallor she'd developed from living beneath the ground for three months on a strict starvation ration was due to agitation or, even worse, to fear?

Poor girl! She had more than a legal reason for lacking color; tuberculosis had already set its pallid seal on her.

When a case of typhus was discovered in men's cell No. 1, across from us, we were taken one night for our single trip to the bath. Lida must have been able to toss a note over the fence and obtain a shard of mirror and some lipstick, hidden in a scrap of soap. She was so happy! Now she was sure:  No one would think Lida Arnautova was afraid to die.

Her happiness didn't last long. It didn't matter how well she'd hidden her treasure in a crevice on the underside of the bunk. On May Day Eve Dunayev conducted such a fierce shakedown that he found his way even into that little nook. Lida had been disarmed, and practically on the eve of the trial where she'd been given her last chance to play a trump card in the game called life, where no matter what her hand was beaten.

In a dark dungeon it's easy to vividly envision your own helplessness against the heartless cruelty of those who could crush you like a bug without even noticing your pain. You'd think this type of thinking would have completely consumed our attention. Not at all. All our thoughts were concentrated on one thing: getting revenge on Dunayev.

The idea first occurred to Mashka Bratishcheva.

"I'll tell you what, girls. All right, so they wouldn't stake a penny on us. Thousands of us could drop dead of hunger and for them it's a just an Oh darn. But they're terrified of suicide. That's one thing I know for sure. Like if a wall collapses on top of a whole brigade they could care less -– they'll fill out a form and take the names off a list. But let somebody throw himself in front of a car or hang himself and the party is over for them. They'll get sent to the front and then it's goodbye to their snug little home!"

We worked out our "suicide plan" down to the tiniest details and practiced so it would go off without a hitch.

There was a ventilation pipe on the ceiling. It was covered by a sort of cap that blocked any light from coming through. I reinforced it with a piece of wood I'd picked up outside; one of the turnkeys must have been chopping firewood. This piece of kindling was where we planned to hang our suicide, a dummy made out of Lida's pillow, my quilted jacket and hat, and Mashka's padded trousers.
With its stretched out neck, head hanging to the side, and its legs stuffed into my shoes and socks, the dummy cut a convincing figure. It was fastened together with stockings so it could be taken apart in thirty seconds and its components returned to their places on the headboards.

A wild, inhuman howl shook the dungeon. Mashka hadn't exaggerated; her scream could scare off a banshee. Even my veins turned to ice.

The sound of footsteps. Dunayev jumped off his stool and flew down the corridor.

About Eufrosinia Kersnovskaia

Eufrosinia Kersnovskaia (1907-1994) was an author and visual artist who spent twelve years in the Gulag, a network of labor camps throughout the former Soviet Union. From a gentry family, Kersnovskaia adapted to work as a logger, a swineherd, a medical assistant, a morgue attendant, and eventually a miner in the Arctic city of Norilsk. In her journey she both witnessed and experienced many atrocities and degradations, but nevertheless retained a sense of hope, decency, community, and vision. Her memoirs vividly record not only the extremes of human cruelty she witnessed, but the ability of a human being to remain a human being in the most extreme of circumstances.

Deborah Hoffman is a freelance translator from Ohio. She was the recipient of a 2005 PEN Translation Fund Grant for her translations from Deti Gulaga, published by Slavica under the title The Littlest Enemies. In 2008 she was chosen as a Fellow for the American Literary Translators Association Conference. Her translations have appeared in the Toronto Slavic Quarterly, The Literary Review, Words Without Borders, Russian Life, and Chtenia. Most recently she translated two short stories by the contemporary Russian authors Vladimir Sorokin and Zahar Prilepin for the anthology Life Stories, a joint Russian-American project whose proceeds will support a fund dedicated to hospice care.

Photo by Barry Hoffman

Translator's Statement

I could not have been more surprised and delighted to receive the phone call notifying me of the award. I was first captivated by Kersnovskaia's work nearly five years ago. I'm sure all translators will recognize the feeling of being profoundly moved by a work and simultaneously frustrated at the inability to share it with others due to the limitations of language. Though I desired to devote substantial time to creating an English version of the project, the practicalities of earning a living at literary translation, particularly in these economic times, made this nearly impossible, although I was able to get some excerpts translated and published here and there. The generous gift from the NEA means not only that I will be able to free myself for a time from the messy business of earning a living and devote a significant amount of time to making this work available to a wider audience, but that I will be able to engage in work I find personally fulfilling, an opportunity given to few, particularly in the arts realm. Words cannot express what this award means to me and to my family.