Is it just a coincidence that three books by the major Russian writer Maria Stepanova have appeared in English in 2021? Why does Maria Stepanova deploy such a rich variety of voices and forms? What are the challenges of translating her poetry? Who are the pantheon of deceased writers who seem to haunt her every line?
In this conversation, the editor of The Voice Over: Poems and Essays (Columbia UP, 2021), Irina Shevelenko talks about Stepanova's poetry and prose with Duncan McCargo. Irina elaborates on her wonderful introduction to the collection and explains how she assembled an outstanding team of translators to help bring this work to an international audience. Both Duncan and Irina read extracts from Stepanova's work.
(Maria Stepanova is the author of over ten poetry collections as well as three books of essays and the documentary novel In Memory of Memory)
(US: New Directions, Canada: Book*hug Press, UK: Fitzcarraldo), which was shortlisted for the 2021 Man Booker International Prize.
Her poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals was published by Bloodaxe Books, also in 2021. She is the recipient of several Russian and international literary awards.
Irina Shevelenko is professor of Russian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Translations are by: Alexandra Berlina, Sasha Dugdale, Sibelan Forrester, Amelia Glaser, Zachary Murphy King, Dmitry Manin, Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, Andrew Reynolds, and Maria Vassileva.
For a video of the May 2021 launch event for The Voice Over, featuring Maria Stepanova and several of the translators, see
Maria Stepanova is one of the most powerful and distinctive voices of Russia’s first post-Soviet literary generation. An award-winning poet and prose writer, she has also founded a major platform for independent journalism. Her verse blends formal mastery with a keen ear for the evolution of spoken language. As Russia’s political climate has turned increasingly repressive, Stepanova has responded with engaged writing that grapples with the persistence of violence in her country’s past and present. Some of her most remarkable recent work as a poet and essayist considers the conflict in Ukraine and the debasement of language that has always accompanied war. The Voice Over brings together two decades of Stepanova’s work, showcasing her range, virtuosity, and creative evolution. Stepanova’s poetic voice constantly sets out in search of new bodies to inhabit, taking established forms and styles and rendering them into something unexpected and strange. Recognizable patterns of ballads, elegies, and war songs are transposed into a new key, infused with foreign strains, and juxtaposed with unlikely neighbors. As an essayist, Stepanova engages deeply with writers who bore witness to devastation and dramatic social change, as seen in searching pieces on W. G. Sebald, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Susan Sontag. Including contributions from ten translators, The Voice Over shows English-speaking readers why Stepanova is one of Russia’s most acclaimed contemporary writers.
Duncan McCargo is an eclectic, internationalist political scientist and literature buff: his day job is directing the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Learn more here, here, here, and here.