Jamey Gambrell Dies at 65; Made Russian Writing Sing, in English


Jamey Gambrell, an award-winning translator who conveyed the intricacies of work by contemporary Russian authors like Tatyana Tolstaya and Vladimir Sorokin to English-language readers, died on Feb. 15 in Manhattan. She was 65.

Her mother, Helen Gambrell, said the cause was cancer, which had only recently been diagnosed.

Ms. Gambrell, a native New Yorker, steeped herself in Russian culture and literature, spending time in Moscow in the 1980s and ’90s and becoming involved in its art scene as artists there who had once been underground rose to international prominence.

She was a critic, writer and editor for Art in America magazine for about 15 years, covering the careers of artists like Alexander Melamid, Vitaly Komar and Ilya Kabakov, and providing insights into modern art, made near the end of the Soviet era, that was unfamiliar to many in the West.

Ms. Gambrell told the critic Liesl Schillinger in an interview in The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016 that translation felt like a natural extension of her work as a writer and editor, calling it “the most intimate and intensive form of reading there is.”

“You almost get to the point where you see things or make connections that the author isn’t even aware of,” she said.

Ms. Gambrell’s process often involved translating a quick draft, then revising it 10 or more times until she captured the nuances of the text. The first book she translated was “Sleepwalker in a Fog” (1992), a short-story collection by Ms. Tolstaya, a great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy; her stories have been compared to Chekhov’s.

Ms. Tolstaya’s sentences could be complex. One of them, as translated by Ms. Gambrell, read: “Over the exit, rising like a plague cemetery up in arms, the black skulls of electric meters huddled together; as night fell the white stripes of their teeth, each row marked by a single bloody tooth, began madly spinning to the right.”

Ms. Gambrell went on to translate Ms. Tolstaya’s post-apocalyptic satire “The Slynx” (2003) and her nonfiction essays and reviews collected in “Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians” (2003).

She also translated several notable books by Mr. Sorokin, including his “Ice Trilogy,” about a cult of people with hearts that can speak, and his “Day of the Oprichnik” (2011), a scathing fairy tale about life in modern Russia.

More recently Ms. Gambrell translated Mr. Sorokin’s “The Blizzard” (released in English in 2015), about a Russian doctor who ventures into a snowstorm to deliver a vaccine to a village battling a zombie plague. The novel is a postmodern take on braving wintry weather, a staple of Russian literature.

The writer and critic Masha Gessen praised “The Blizzard” in The New York Times Book Review in 2016, noting that aspects of it posed “formidable challenges for the translator” — for example, early in the novel Mr. Sorokin uses several nouns in a sentence that Russian readers would instantly recognize as sentimental signifiers of rural life.

“The translator, Jamey Gambrell, has no such words at her disposal and so translates the sentence straightforwardly,” the review continued. “Knowing when to pick one’s battles is the mark of a great translator, and Gambrell is one. Her translation is as elegant, playful and layered as the original — and never appears labored.”

Ms. Gambrell also translated and edited “Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922” (2002), a collection of essays and diaries by the influential poet Marina Tsvetaeva about life during the Russian Revolution; and poetry by the Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky for “Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” a one-man Off Broadway show that featured Mikhail Baryshnikov reciting Mr. Brodsky’s poetry in Russian. Ms. Gambrell’s translations appeared as English supertitles above the set.

In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters gave her the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation, which includes an award of $20,000. The citation noted that she had “translated the works of the wizardly Russian, Vladimir Sorokin, and her translations are wizardly in their own right.”

Jamey Gambrell was born on April 10, 1954, in Manhattan to James Gambrell III, an intellectual property lawyer and law professor, and Helen (Roddy) Gambrell, a teacher and paralegal.

Ms. Gambrell graduated from Elisabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin; she also studied French and Russian in Paris for a time at the Sorbonne. She completed a master’s degree in Russian studies at Columbia University before she began traveling to Russia in the 1980s.

She also worked for George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, translated and wrote for The New York Review of Books and Artforum, and worked on documentary films, notably “USSaRt,” about the groundbreaking Sotheby’s art auction in Moscow in 1988.

In addition to her mother, she is survived by a daughter, Calla Helen Gambrell, whom she adopted in Russia; a sister, Gretchen Gambrell Asbury; and a brother, James IV.

In the 2016 interview in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms. Gambrell observed that absorbing another country’s literature helped us “become citizens of the world.”

“There’s a body of literature out there, very good, very interesting literature,” she said, “and if you’re not trying to know the literature of other countries, you’re impoverishing your understanding of the world.”


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