Translator Spotlight: Carol Apollonio on Dostoevsky, Satoko Kizaki, and Translation

What does it take to be a successful and accomplished literary translator? First and foremost, love for languages, both the source language as well as the target language. From Underpass’ interview with Carol Apollonio, Japanese and Russian literary translator, it’s clear she has this love in spades. Apollonio has turned her skills with Russian and Japanese into a way of life, not just a career. Alongside her literary translations and her day job as a Russian literature professor at Duke University, she teaches Russian language in the Summer Intensive Language Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. As if her schedule wasn’t busy enough, Apollonio has taken her passion for Russian one step further, helming the North American Dostoevsky Society (NADS). We were lucky enough to ask her a few questions about her thoughts on translation, political interpreting, and the continuing dynamism of Dostoevsky.

Keely Burkey: How did you acquire the Russian and Japanese languages and how did you become a literary translator?

Carol Apollonio: My story is pretty boring. Russian I began studying at age 18 as a regular white-bread American college student. An intensive summer course at Middlebury College made a huge difference in how I approach learning languages generally. It's lots of work and very rewarding. Japanese I studied also in an intensive course, first at NC State University in Raleigh, and then at International Christian University outside of Tokyo. After those courses, I worked on my Japanese reading skills, with tutors, read some books, and just plunged into translation. Fortunately I found a beautiful book to work on, by writer Kizaki Satoko. Russian translation was always my goal, but interestingly it came later.

KB: How do you pick what literary works to translate? Do authors and/or publishers approach you, or do you typically seek out works yourself?

CA: You have to love it. I have felt a deep kinship with some of the works I've translated--Kizaki's writing, which I found and translated myself, and that of Alisa Ganieva, whose novels Will Evans of Deep Vellum asked me to translate. I have felt these projects to be a great honor and responsibility. I also felt very strongly about my book of Russian Dostoevsky criticism. That was not literary translation per se, but it served literature by making the best Russian scholarship available to English-speaking readers who otherwise would not have been able to read it. Whether or not I choose the work to translate, I find each new project to be a rewarding (though always very challenging) new adventure.



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KB: It seems as though, while you are well-versed in all of the Golden Age Russian authors, you take a particular liking to Dostoevsky. Why did you first decide to focus on Dostoevsky more than other Russian authors? What characteristics in him and his writer are you fascinated by/drawn to?

CA: He grabs you by the neck and draws you in. You can't escape. Dostoevsky goes deeper into the human psyche than any other writer has ever dared to do.  It's scary stuff --do we really want Raskolnikov to succeed in murdering the pawnbroker? Yet when we read the book that's what we want. We are rooting for the murderer! So somehow Dostoevsky makes YOU feel guilty for the crime. You are like the Karamazov brother Dmitry, who realizes he's innocent--he did not commit murder--but realizes he must take on the guilt of all humanity. With luck you read the book and then talk about it with someone; that will tell you that you are not alone and that, though you too are a sinner, there is still hope for you. This stuff never gets old.

KB: Many consider Dostoevsky a hard author to translate, due to complex sentence structure and word choices. Have you translated any of Dostoevsky’s works, and if so, which ones? Would you agree that Dostoevsky’s writing style is a difficult one for translators to tackle?

CA: I have not translated Dostoevsky, but I have read lots of translations of his novels. I think Dostoevsky comes through well in English--maybe because the ideas and moral problems he addresses are universally compelling. So oddly enough, his style may be less unforgiving that that of writers like Chekhov or Pushkin, who seem simple, but when translated often give a superficial impression. A musician once told me that orchestral performances of Mozart are incredibly difficult to get right--because of the clarity of the work--the slightest infelicity throws the whole thing off. This can happen with Chekhov and Pushkin. When I teach Dostoevsky (in English), I usually ask my students to obtain any unabridged, non-electronic edition with a credited translator. Then when we discuss particular passages, different versions of the same passage can deepen our understanding. Actual mistakes are not all that common in reputable translations, and the different translation styles represent valid interpretations. That said, I do have translators I like: Boris Jakim, for example, because of his very deep knowledge of religion and philosophy and perfect pitch. And the newest English Russian novel, Oliver Ready’s Crime and Punishment, is superb.

KB: Tell me about the North America Dostoevsky Society. How and when did it come into being? What do you do as President of NADS?

CA: Our society has been in existence since 1971 and represents Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Along with regional organizations in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and our latest member, Argentina, we are affiliated with the International Dostoevsky Society (IDS), which facilitates international communication and collaboration among Dostoevsky scholars worldwide.

We are a scholarly organization; the IDS sponsors Symposia and publishes the major international journal for Dostoevsky Studies. Over the past few years we have begun efforts to appeal to general readers and artistic professionals in addition to scholars. There are a lot of incredibly intelligent and perceptive readers out there (including, of course, yours)! Our Readers Advisory Board has been very active on social media, posting regularly on Facebook (, Twitter (@DostoevskySoc), and our blog, “The Bloggers Karamazov”. We are very excited about our new website in development (, which will be up and running this month. Check it out!

Outreach has been a major focus for me as President--to maintain the highest standards for Dostoevsky scholarship, while at the same time serving as a resource to anyone who is interested in the works of this amazing writer.

KB: What sorts of issues do you discuss in NADS? It seems as though many of the members are professors—do issues tend to revolve around educating students about Dostoevsky, or do you and your members also discuss matters of translation?

CA: Thank you for asking! Teaching and scholarship are central to our mission, but we care a lot about outreach, as our activities over the past couple of years show. I think that within a couple of years we will have a broader and more diverse membership. We are introducing a new membership category for general readers. And the wealth of resources on the Internet makes it possible to build a rich community for conversations about Dostoevsky. Just over the past couple of years our events have included virtual film festivals, with “live tweets” across several time zones (e.g. #cp150filmfest); a friendly competition with the Tolstoy Society; and an event this summer celebrating the 150th anniversary of the novel Crime and Punishment, in which @RodionTweets posted the hero’s thoughts in real time to match the time of the novel; competitions and online book clubs. This celebration culminates in a major conference in Vancouver, October 20-22, Crime and Punishment at 150. It’s all very exciting.

Translation is central to our very identity as an international organization. It is wonderful to note the increasing attention that has been paid to literary translation in recent years. Though publishers often reissue old translations whose copyright has expired, the Russian classics are being retranslated, and very well so, at an impressive rate. The Russian Institute of Translation and the Prokhorov Foundation have been funding many of these translations, as well as translations of new works. Along with this wave of literary translation comes, I think, a more sophisticated approach to translation criticism that finally is moving beyond the usual shout-out in a review to the effect that the new version is, say, “elegant,” or “fluent.” Some major publications commission reviews by people who know the original language and can comment authoritatively on translation method and approach. We in the Dostoevsky Society have been drawing attention to new translations on our social media, and our scholarly activities include reviews and papers addressing issues of translations of his works.

KB: What are the goals of NADS in the future?

CA: We live in a time of challenge to traditional ways of reading. Though it would seem that literacy is under threat, the fact is, people still turn to the big books and their engagement with the great unanswerable questions. Book clubs are more active than ever before; I have particularly enjoyed participating in discussions of Russian literature in a retirement community book club. Russian literature is often read and discussed in educational programs for incarcerated people. Artists are rewriting and restaging Dostoevsky’s work in new films, graphic novels, and multimedia projects; scholars continue to discover materials relevant to an understanding of Dostoevsky’s writing and to offer new critical approaches to reading; and teachers of literature are taking full advantage of multimedia in introducing the classics to the next generation of readers. At NADS we will continue to support scholars and teachers of Dostoevsky, and to reach out energetically to the broadest possible community of readers.