Award-winning translator Nora Seligman Favorov has just completed a translation of Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya’s brilliant 1858 novella The Brother. As she works on pitching the translation to publishers, I had a conversation with her about Khvoshchinskaya, the novella, and the challenges of popularizing forgotten Russian women writers, particularly at this moment in history when Russia is in the middle of a war of aggression in Ukraine.
Anna Berman: First of all, who is Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya?
Nora Seligman Favorov: Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya is the greatest Russian writer fans of nineteenth-century literature have never heard of. Most educated Anglophone readers today know Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Gogol, and the more sophisticated might know Pushkin, Lermontov, Goncharov, Leskov, and a few others. These names represent a tiny fraction of what educated nineteenth-century Russians were reading. Nadezhda was the most prolific and popular of a trio of writing sisters who were known as the “Russian Brontës.”
Like the Brontës, the Khvoshchinskaya sisters all wrote under pseudonyms. What considerations come into the decision of which name to use for the English translations? Nadezhda was quite attached to the pseudonym she used when publishing her novels, and I imagine she would wish it to be used. But using the sisters’ pseudonyms masks their sororal link. Nadezhda is particularly tricky, since she used multiple pseudonyms. She published all her novels under the male pseudonym “V. Krestovsky (pseudonym)” (she added “(pseudonym)” to distinguish herself from Vsevolod Krestovsky, who began writing novels in his own name). But she wrote literary criticism under a different male pseudonym and published her poetry under her own name or initials. What do you call her and why?
This is not an easy question. Scholars are still exploring the many aspects of Nadezhda’s relationship to her pseudonyms. First, they were a way of protecting her privacy at a time when writing was not a respectable occupation for a noblewoman (or any woman, for that matter), especially in the provincial environment where she spent most of her life. This at least partly explains why she and her sister Sofia were so fiercely private and seemed to have absolutely no desire for literary renown. For them, literature was one of the few available ways to support their family, and thankfully, they had more than enough talent to do so. Nadezhda famously wrote to a would-be biographer: “Pseudonyms have no biographies whatsoever. What is a pseudonym? No one. So what is there to say about him. Nothing.” Second, a male pseudonym lent authority to her work, given the pervasive sexism of her era. And third, there is evidence that she enjoyed the opportunity to take on a masculine persona (contemporaries refer obliquely to her “masculine habits,” which included cigar smoking).
So if she were miraculously here today to participate in contract negotiations with publishers, she would probably insist on using her pseudonym. But she is not, and we translators are faced with the practicalities involved in introducing her to today’s readers. Nadezhda’s only novel published in English translation so far, The Boarding-School Girl, translated by Karen Rosneck, uses her birth name, Khvoshchinskaya. I also used Khvoshchinskaya when I published a translation of her sister Sofia’s City Folk and Country Folk, rather than Sofia’s pseudonym, Iv. Vesenev. So if part of the plan is to promote not just Nadezhda but all three “Russian Brontës,” we need to use Khvoshchinskaya. The Brontës at least used a common surname for their pseudonyms. Publishing the Khvoshchinskaya sisters’ works under entirely different names seems counterproductive if we want to help our project along by promoting not only their works but their compelling life stories.
You probably wish it weren’t such a difficult name for Anglophone readers to parse! If we were to break it down, it sounds like HvOshinskaya with the stress on the O.
Those of us working on raising the sisters’ visibility do worry a bit that the long and difficult surname might complicate our task. There have been half-joking conversations about branding Nadezhda, Sofia, and their younger sister Praskovya (also an interesting writer) as “The Sisters K” (a playful nod at the shorthand used for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in academic circles). The best we can do for now is ensure that readers are aware of Nadezhda’s dual identity—as V. Krestovsky in the journals being read across the Russian Empire and as Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya for family, friends and, now, twenty-first-century readers.
Tell me about Nadezhda’s upbringing.
Nadezhda was born into an ancient noble family. When she was about ten years old, her father was unjustly accused of embezzlement. The family was plunged into poverty, and from an early age Nadezhda served as her father’s assistant in his efforts to support the family. This work experience, unusual for a young noblewoman, gave her a front-row seat to the financial and political workings of Russia’s provincial economy, the perversions of serfdom, bureaucratic corruption, and the petty injustices pervading the system. Later, after their father’s death, the sisters’ Ryazan home became a gathering place for provincial intellectuals and reformers centrally involved in the economic transformations following the liberation of the serfs. In other words, Nadezhda had practical experience navigating economic challenges of a sort writers like Tolstoy and Turgenev were sheltered from, and this was coupled with involvement in some of the most brilliant intellectual circles of her time. Although contemporary radical male critics criticized Nadezhda for focusing too much of her work on domestic themes, what strikes me is the amount of detail she weaves into her fiction about bureaucratic corruption and the financial mechanisms at work in mid-century provincial Russia.
How did you first discover Khvoshchinskaya’s writing?
I actually came to Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya through her sister, Sofia, who died relatively young and was less well known. When I was looking for a topic for my master’s thesis back in the mid-1990s, my advisor, Beth Holmgren, wisely encouraged me to explore the works of nineteenth-century women writers. Since very few of them had been republished in Russia (the Soviet authorities rather perversely selected fifty-seven pre-revolutionary Russian writers—all men—and published them in quantities greater than Soviet authors), this was not a matter of just checking books out of the library. I spent dozens of hours laboring over a microfilm unit, threading reels of grainy film into a machine able to print the pages of nineteenth-century journals onto paper.
That story points to the dedication it required—and to some extent still requires—to study these women writers. I know things have gotten a bit easier, but their works are still not widely available in Russian. And for Anglophone readers, we desperately need more translations (!). So let’s talk about what readers will find in Khvoshchinskaya’s novels when translations like yours are published. What makes her special as a writer and what are the main themes she addresses?
Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya was extremely prolific, with over a dozen novels and two dozen tales. At this point I’ve read less than a quarter of what she published, but there are two particularly prominent themes that I see her bring forward in subtle yet powerful ways. One is the harm caused by the social constraints placed on noblewomen—and yes, both her readers and protagonists were largely members of the nobility—and the other is the mechanisms by which money served as both a symptom and cause of many of the social maladies afflicting Russian society in her day. In the first case, she brilliantly constructs plots and fills them with small details that make clear in a way I’ve never seen before how nineteenth-century Russian noblewomen tended to be trapped by a combination of provincial prejudices and social constraints coupled with a lack of education and access to knowledge and power. Her female protagonists span the spectrum from intelligent and well-meaning to manipulative and heartless, but in every case the reader gets a sense of how little agency they have in their lives. Both The Boarding-School Girl and her magnum opus, Ursa Major, feature heroines who exercise what freedom is available to them, but in many of her works, including The Brother, there seems to be no freedom to exercise. As for the money theme, her plots illustrate how it is stolen with impunity by people in power, how it traps the weak-willed in unhappy marriages, and how the lack of ways to earn it constrained women’s freedom. Clearly, Khvoshchinskaya’s intimate involvement in her family’s efforts to survive after her father was wrongly accused of embezzlement play a role here.
The Brother is a short, devastating, but also darkly humorous novella. What’s the basic story?
The Brother is a deliciously infuriating story with a villain you love to hate. The setting is a deteriorating family estate deep in the provinces. The eponymous brother has been sent off to be educated in St. Petersburg, where he goes on to climb through the ranks of government officialdom and live a lavish life. His three sisters are kept at home, totally cut-off from the world. Their parents briefly hire a governess to teach the eldest daughter, but then dismiss her so they can send more money to their son. By the time the story starts, the brother has managed to sell off his sisters’ portions of the estate, leaving the elder two dowerless and doomed to become old maids. The eldest, Praskovya, has inherited five thousand rubles from her godmother and is guarding this as a dowry for the youngest, Katya, who has managed to fall in love with a handsome young civil servant working in the nearby provincial seat. The plot takes off when the brother suddenly returns home unexpectedly under mysterious circumstances and decides to use any means in his power to get his hands on Praskovya’s five thousand rubles. Khvoshchinskaya does a brilliant job—through dialogue and the skillful selection of details—of conveying the force and perversity of the brother’s objections to Katya’s marriage, a complex layering of snobbery, financial calculation, and pure maliciousness. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s stunningly dark.
What were the challenges of translating this novella? Were there particular aspects you attempted to highlight?
Perhaps the challenge that generated the most thought and discussion with colleagues was the novella’s title. In Russian, it is Bratets. Russian is greatly enriched by the array of suffixes it uses to add shades of emotion to words. There’s Mama and the more affectionate Mamochka, or, for names, a beloved Masha and Sasha become Mashenka and Sashenka. The basic word for brother is brat. But the -ets ending does not necessarily denote affection, although it does suggest familiarity. It’s not necessarily negative, but bratets is often used by children, or when a scolding is involved. While the novella has not been previously translated, it has been discussed in articles and book chapters, and in the past it was usually referred to as Brother Dear. I understand the decision to add “dear,” since it’s desirable to somehow distinguish Bratets from Brat, but I felt Brother Dear added a coloration not necessarily conveyed by the way bratets is used in the novella.
Then there was the challenge posed by historically specific terminology. My goal in translating the Khvoshchinskaya sisters is to convey as much historical context as possible without distracting from the narrative flow with footnotes, unless they’re absolutely necessary. As a translator, I felt compelled to do extensive research to figure out exactly what rank the fiancé Alexander must have been and to understand the details of various financial machinations mentioned throughout the novella. Once you do all that research, there’s an urge to explain your findings in footnotes. But really, none of that information is terribly important for the general reader, and I now believe that sort of background should be left to an introduction.
Can you give us an example?
Sure. The five thousand-ruble inheritance is in the form of a bilet prikaza. Bilet is normally the word for “ticket” and prikaz was the term used for government ministries in medieval Russia. At first this phrase, bilet prikaza had me puzzled, because the only institution still referred to using the term prikaz was a provincial-level institution in charge of charitable institutions such as schools, orphanages, and hospitals. It turns out, these institutions supplemented their meager budgets by acting as savings and loans, which is why the inheritance was deposited with a prikaz. This bit of historical realia might be interesting to serious students of Russian history, but I doubt most readers want the story to be interrupted by a lengthy footnote (although I definitely think the information should be provided somewhere—in an introduction or translator note for those interested). Interestingly, this same prikaz is mentioned in passing in Gogol’s Inspector General. I notice that translators of that work have just used the term “bank,” which is not technically accurate, but avoids confusion.
So what did you do in that case? Did you just call the institution a bank?
To avoid an outright inaccuracy, I translated the term prikaz as “a government institution” and added a lengthy footnote. This footnote has since been banished, and I will have an introductory translator note explaining these sorts of details for readers like me who love learning intricate bits of historical realia.
A bilet prikaza is rather esoteric, but I imagine there are much more common words that could cause problems.
Yes, virtually every translation runs up against everyday words that lack an equivalent in the target language. One such work is glush’, which is used three times in The Brother to describe the rural isolation of the family estate. The most authoritative Russian dictionaries define glush’ as “A remote and overgrown part of a forest or garden; a thicket. A place or inhabited area distant from centers of culture of social life.” In Russian culture the word is fraught with associations of ignorance and social backwardness. Backwoods and boondocks are too strongly marked by their North American origin, and wilderness isn’t quite right either (glush’ is settled by humans, but isolated). I wound up using “rusticity” in the first instance, “remote countryside” in the second, and “remote corner” in the third. There are times it’s important to translate a key term consistently and times when, I believe, translators should take advantage of repetitions of a key term to vary the translation to better convey a term’s full freight.
So now that the translation is finished, tell me about the process of finding a publisher.
Academic presses have been receptive to publishing the Khvoshchinskaya sisters, but they deserve a broader audience than smaller, non-commercial publishers tend to reach, since those publishers lack the commercial presses’ marketing capabilities. While academic presses can be persuaded to take on unfamiliar authors with arguments about historical significance, commercial presses want to know that their authors will sell. Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya writes brilliantly and gives us entertaining plots and a new and vivid view of nineteenth-century Russia, but she has a difficult name and no biography in English.
So how do you pitch her works to the wider public?
There’s a team of scholars and translators working on gaining her a broader audience right now, and we’re being forced to think about the ways in which top publishers could “market” her. The sisters’ lives certainly contain the stuff of myth-making. We need to get more information about them “out there”—on social media and in high-circulation magazines.
You’ve mentioned the problem of the “difficult name” (way too many consonants in a row!). What are the other challenges?
There are two main ones. First, we need graphics. There are photographs and artwork (both Nadezhda and Sofia were artists), but under current circumstances, given the war, it’s obviously difficult to obtain archival materials from Russia and also complicated to pay for image rights with the banking systems cut off from each other.
Thinking about images, it probably does not help that Nadezhda was not attractive (I’ve come across some quite harsh assessments from her contemporaries!). I know when we were trying to publicize the translation event you participated in at Pushkin House in London back in April, the staff there told us the image we sent—a photograph of Nadezhda—did not seem to be helping our cause. What else would help?
More biographical material. As I mentioned before, there is no English language biography, and what material exists in Russian is scattered across old journal articles and memoirs. People are drawn to authors whose lives they can know. What we do have (and are gathering more of) is quotes from well-known admirers of the Khvoshchinskaya sisters’ works.
I know those admirers included Dostoevsky and Chekhov. And Pavel Tretyakov commissioned a portrait of Khvoshchinskaya for his series of Russia’s greatest cultural figures. In fact, the portrait was painted by Ivan Kramskoi, the same artist who painted Tolstoy for the series. There are so many things one can point to that indicate her importance. But this still doesn’t solve the problem of getting people to take note. How is the war in Ukraine affecting the Khvoshchinskaya rehabilitation project?
One recent phenomenon arising from the war may actually be working in our favor. A January New Yorker article by Elif Batuman, “Rereading Russian Classics in the Shadow of the Ukraine War,” discusses new attitudes toward nineteenth-century Russian literature. On a (prewar) visit to Ukraine, Batuman heard accusations that Dostoevsky had trumpeted the same “expansionist rhetoric” used over the centuries—and today—to justify Russian military aggression. By the time the full-scale invasion came, even Pushkin was being accused of jingoism. Some former fans are now looking askance at the Big Names of nineteenth-century Russian literature, and an effort is underway to “decolonize” it—to exile or at least put into temporary detention the serf-owners whose works echoed the sort of aggressive nationalism that has made—now more than ever—Russia so problematic. Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, in addition to being a brilliant writer, is an excellent candidate for inclusion in a “decolonized” Russian literature; her family was poor and owned no serfs and she parodied and castigated reflexive rah-rah patriotism (in the novels I’ve read, this was in the context of the Crimean War of 1853–1856).
So you’re saying that adding Khvoshchinskaya back into the picture gives us a more balanced view of what Russian literature was and what it stood for? This really could be her moment to regain her lost fame.
It is! The efforts to compile archival materials, give Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya a social-media presence, and publish more information about her and her sisters in non-scholarly publications are currently underway, and we very much hope the difficult Khvoshchinskaya name will soon be rolling off English-speakers’ tongues.
Thank you so much for this interview, Nora. I hope that The Brother finds the excellent publisher it deserves!
Anna A. Berman is Assistant Professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of The Family Novel in Russia and England, 1800–1880 (Oxford UP, 2022), Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood (Northwestern UP, 2015), and the editor of Tolstoy in Context (Cambridge UP, 2022).
This post may contain affiliate links.