Novelist Yuri Rytkheu said his first surprise after leaving his village of hide-covered tents in Siberia was seeing fruit for the first time.
He said that the wonder he experienced then was akin to how he felt about his work finally being translated to English, and being invited to speak to an audience at UNLV about it on Thursday.
“In Sin City we actually found people who would come to hear this book being read about the corner of Siberia,” Rytkheu, 75, said through translation.
“This is really quite impressive.”
Rytkheu is the debut writer in the International Institute of Modern Letters Rainmaker Translation series. He spoke to an audience of about 50 people at the university.
Rytkheu’s novel A Dream in Polar Fog was published this month by Archipelago Books under the Rainmaker Translation seal.
Institute Associate Director Amber Withycombe said the publication is a significant event for the institute.
“We’ve been planning this series for a very long time. I guess, in a sense, the baby’s been born,” she said.
The institute was founded in 2000 by literary philanthropist and Mandalay Resort Group President and Chief Financial Officer Glenn Schaeffer. It funds international literary projects and has one of its locations at UNLV. The other is at a university in New Zealand.
Withycombe described the institute’s mission as both saving oppressed writers and making international writing accessible.
“It’s important to us to make American readers aware of these writings,” she said. “In an increasingly globalized world it seems like a very direct way to understand another culture. It’s unmediated, in a way.”
Douglas Unger directs grants and acquisitions at the institute and is director of the UNLV creative writing program. He said the institute’s mission is a response to the decreasing number of translated works published in America.
The institute cites a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts that found less than 2 percent of the books published in the United States were translations.
“Intelligent readers and literary people were shocked by the study,” Unger said.
The institute, through the help of grants, funds the translation and marketing of selected works. The books are published by one of four partner firms.
Unger said it is important that American readers not be isolated from international writings.
“It shows us a completely different world and it makes us think about the values of other people,” he said. “When we consider their values it makes us take a look again at our own.”
The publication of the first Rainmaker Translation book, he said, also shows that Las Vegas is coming of age in a cultural sense.
“It’s helping the city assert a new kind of cultural identity, which is really great,” Unger said.
“It’s helping all us concerned thinkers and readers and people who care about the arts.”
He said the translation series fits the city well too, as it is an international destination and the nation’s first City of Asylum for oppressed writers, which the institute also supports.
The institute plans to eventually publish eight books a year under the Rainmaker Translation seal. Rytkheu’s is the first and will be followed next month by a collection of essays from Chinese writer Bei Dao.
Rytkheu spoke Thursday of his work and his native Chukotka region of Siberia.
The son of a reindeer herder, he has written more than 30 books in Russian, and many of them have been translated into Scandanavian languages, German and Japanese.
He said it is an honor to be the debut author in the series and that his novel is well suited to be his first in English for a Western audience.
A Dream in Polar Fog is a novel that is part historical, part adventure and part ethnographic study. It is the story of a Canadian sailor who becomes stranded with the Chukchi people.
Rytkheu’s novel is of a meeting of cultures and he spoke to the value of reading foreign works.
“It’s as important as people speaking to one another. If people didn’t talk to people who weren’t like them then the whole point of human interaction would come to nothing,” he said.
Rytkheu wore a digital camera around his neck and mentioned his cross-cultural impression of Las Vegas.
“It’s an incredible place unlike anywhere else,” he said.
Rytkheu, with his translator Ilona Chavasse, was to speak again at 2 p.m. today at the Borders bookstore on Stephanie Street at Sunset Road.