Translator, editor, and writer Sally Laird died last month in Denmark. NYRB publishes her translation of Vladimir Sorokin's The Queue, but Sally's contribution to the series (and to the dissemination of Central European) goes further, in the form of her participation in the Central European Classics series, without which the English-speaking world might never have had the chance to become acquainted with fine and fascinating writers like Gyula Krúdy, Dezso Kosztolányi, Jan Neruda, and Boleslaw Prus.
At The Index on Censorship (a journal she once edited) Robert Chandler writes:
Sally was unusually gifted in many ways, probably in more ways than I know. Whatever she set her mind to — a large portfolio of drawings of a family of bears produced at the age of thirteen, her work as chief editor of Index on Censorship in her late twenties and early thirties, the many reviews on Russia-related books that she wrote for Prospect, the TLS, the Guardian and the Observer — she carried out conscientiously and with imagination. Her translations of Petrushevaksaya and Sorokin are note perfect. And I know no book that presents a more nuanced picture of Soviet literary life in the post-Stalin years than Sally’s Voices of Russian Literature: Interviews with Ten Contemporary Writers.
And of her own work on The Queue, a highly idiomatic book she had the opportunity to revise (following Sorokin's own revisions to the text) twenty years after the initial translation, she wrote perceptively about the interplay between the form and content of a story that at first might appear as improvised and insubstantial as the human line it records:
A novel so firmly anchored in time and place, and which relies entirely on colloquial speech, poses certain problems to the translator....The people in Sorokin’s queue speak in laconic, ritualized utterances perfectly suited to their survival in the context, but not always easily transferable to English. Still, what one might call the “deep grammar” of the book—to want, to wait, to be thwarted, to get—is universal; it forms the basis for our compassion.
For more memories of Sally Laird, read the complete text of Robert Chandler's tribute and also the comments left below.