Sibelan Forrester is the Susan W. Lippincott Professor of Modern and Classical Languages and Russian at Swarthmore College. She specializes in twentieth-century Russian poetry and Russian women writers. An award-winning translator, Professor Forrester has published translations from Serbian, Croatian, and Russian. She recently translated “The Length of Days: An Urban Ballad” by Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Rafeyenko, published by Harvard University Press. This week, The Phoenix spoke with Professor Forrester about her publication and her experiences studying and teaching Eastern European literature and Russian at Swarthmore.
Yerin Chang: What is your academic background and some of your teaching and research interests?
Sibelan Forrester: I grew up in Colorado, wanted to get as far away as I could to go to college, and wound up at Bryn Mawr College, which I had not visited before going there. I was going to be a French major, but I got sucked into Russian and just really liked it. It was a course on Russian poetry that really pulled me in. I graduated in 1983, which was during the Cold War, and Russia was in a long phase known as the Era of Stagnation. But I got into graduate school and figured, let’s go check that out. And I actually was away for a year. I went to former Yugoslavia in 1986 and got my speaking skills and reading skills up to a better level because at the time when I started graduate school, they really weren’t emphasizing other Slavic languages and they always would say “other” or “second languages,” even though people might want to specialize in Polish or something. I mean, there were all these really interesting literatures from Eastern Europe. But anyway, I got back, got a job. My first teaching job was at Oberlin College, and then I came to Swarthmore, which I really, really liked because Swarthmore has topography, and I like topography a lot. I wrote my dissertation on a Russian poet named Marina Tsvetaeva, who also wrote wonderful essays. She was just talented all around. And one reason I picked her was that her archive was closed until the year 2000. Then I had a little baby, and it was a bad, bad moment in the late 80s, early 90s. In Russia you couldn’t get diapers, and people were standing in line for hours to get food. So it seemed better to stay here for the moment and work on somebody whose archive was closed.
YC: How did you get to Swarthmore?
SF: At that point, the MLA (Modern Language Association) job list was only on paper, and I picked up a copy in the main office of the Department of German and Russian at Oberlin. I was flipping through it and saw that Swathmore was looking for a professor who worked on women writers and poetry, because the person retiring hadn’t done those things. And Thompson Bradley, who was still here, was a nineteenth-century specialist who worked closely on prose. And I thought, women writers and poetry, that’s what I want to do. So I blew it up into a photocopy. It was sort of six inches tall, and a whole page wide. I put it in the desk drawer, and every day I would pull it out and look, and then I thought I would really like to apply for that job, and through many serendipities I actually got it, so it worked out nicely.
YC: When did you know you wanted to be a professor in Russian?
SF: I’m not sure I ever knew exactly. I just figured let’s try this and see what happens. And I was very lucky. I should say that I finished graduate school right in the balmy years of Glasnost and Perestroika, when many institutions were adding Russian programs that hadn’t had them before. And many students were interested in taking Russian. I would say in my graduate school teaching before that, we had three kinds of students taking Russian. There were the ones with wild eyes and crazy hair, who wanted to freak out their parents. There were the ones with very short hair and perpetually polished shoes, and you knew where they were going. And then there were ones in the middle who just thought it was cool, and I was from that group in the middle, obviously, but we’ve lost the crazy hair and we’ve lost the polished shoes. We only have the people in the middle now. I really don’t know what’s going to happen to the profession given current events. It’s a good question.
YC: What is your favorite part of Russian or Russian culture?
SF: The poetry, absolutely one hundred percent. Okay, the food is fine, too. But aside from the ways the poetry has been used to justify an imperial project, Russian poetry really has a Pavlovian effect on the reader. So if you read someone like Joseph Brodsky, you find yourself responding physiologically — there are things he does with enjambments that just take my breath away. And, you know, the beautiful use of words. Tsvetaeya is also fabulous — Brodsky learned a lot from her — and again, she’s my dissertation poet. Just the brilliant, brilliant things they do with the language.
YC: You teach a course in Russian fairy tales, which has been very popular among students. Who is your favorite character?
SF: Baba Yaga, of course! She’s so cool, she clearly was a goddess in some previous stage of the culture. And the stories are so various about her. There are plenty of characters I like, but she’s the one who’s unfailingly interesting and the one who recurs in so many stories. I translated a bunch of tales in a book about her, and the book has done very well. It continues to be in print, and I now and then get a little email from somebody who read it and liked it. And weirdly over the winter break this year, I was invited to do two online presentations about Baba Yaga, which I was very happy to do. And I even got a little bit of money for one of them, which is always fun.
YC: What is your favorite class to teach?
SF: Oh, that’s hard to say. One thing I want to say about teaching at Swarthmore is that everybody here winds up budding new specialties. If you have the luxury of staying in a tenure track position, everybody finds out some new thing they’re interested in, they get asked by students to teach a course on something, or they chat with a colleague and realize that they can come together and do something really interesting that brings their fields together. So since I came, I added translation theory and practice, which I did a little bit before, but I didn’t think about it very much and I certainly didn’t teach it. And then science fiction, which I read as a fan but didn’t teach or study, and I taught a course on the Muslim in Russia. I also taught a course on nature and industry in Russia. But my favorite course, it’s hard to say. I think maybe the best course I ever had here in terms of how well it went and how well the students were working was a first-year seminar on love and sex in Russian literature, of all things, because the students for some reason began reading the course blog. They wouldn’t just post their 500 words, they would read each other’s, and I would come into the classroom and they would already be discussing. It was just wonderful. I’m not sure how much of that had to do with me. I think it was just that they took a course they were really interested in, and a couple of them wound up majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I think it was still Women’s Studies at that moment.
YC: What is your favorite part of teaching?
SF: Oh, the students are so fun. Smart, interesting students with really good questions who will take an idea and run with it, find something they want to read, or ask for an independent study on Slavic linguistics or something like that. That’s the best part of teaching here. Although the campus is nice, and the colleagues are great. There’re a lot of good things, and I’ve been here for almost 30 years. So obviously, I like the way it is here.
YC: What is your least favorite part of teaching, if anything?
SF: Oh my God, grading grammar exams. I overheard a colleague at one of the faculty lunches who teaches in one of the natural sciences, and they said, “They pay me to make exams and grade them because I like all the other things I do.” And it’s true. Reading a paper by a student to grade it is interesting. You get pulled into that style, into thinking about the ideas. Grading a grammar exam, you know, it’s just not as fun. You just have to do it. They pay me to do it.
YC: What other languages do you know or would like to learn?
SF: Well, I took French in junior high school, French and German in high school. In college, I started Russian and then I took some Spanish, got to graduate school and took what they then called Serbo-Croatian. Then I took a year of Czech, but then I went to Zagreb and the Czech got munched by the Croatian. And then I wanted to learn Estonian, and I spent a summer not many years ago on one of those intensive programs, and it wasn’t dreadful. I wasn’t as bad as I thought I would be given my age, but it hasn’t stuck and I need to go back. So what I want to do really is to retrieve my little bit of Estonian and then possibly get better because there are 1.2 million speakers of Estonian in the world. They need a few more. I’m returning to a novel by an Estonian writer who inspired me to study Estonian, and I’m trying to write a paper about him for a conference this fall that will turn into an article in a collection that I’ve promised to contribute to. So that’s an ambitious summer project.
YC: What is the proudest achievement of your career?
SF: That’s a very good question. It may be when I won prizes for the best translation from various organizations. One prize was for a translation of a Croatian poet in a book called “The American Scream.” And then the other two prizes, for the same book, were for a translation of Vladimir Propp’s book “The Russian Folktale.”
YC: What inspired you to translate “The Length of Days”?
SF: I was invited by the publisher. They already had, I think, just published a book called “Mondegreen” by the same author I was invited to translate, Volodymyr Rafeyenko, who had a fascinating biography. It was his first novel in Ukrainian and apparently super interesting because the hero of that novel is trying to learn Ukrainian after moving from the eastern part after the infiltration by Russia that began in 2014. And so as he’s learning Ukrainian, all of this trauma from his family is resurfacing in his mind, and the novel makes a lot out of not doing it right saying, something wrong, mixing up the words between Ukrainian and Russian, whereas “The Length of Days” is written in Russian, but it was the author’s last novel written in Russian, and I agreed to do it in late 2021. I had the document digitally, but the novel itself was mailed to me in early February of 2022 and got here maybe a week before the invasion, Feb. 24 of 2022. So I had done just a few pages at that point, and it really lit a fire under me. I felt like this was my little way of doing something besides sending money to the aid organizations and inviting alumni to talk about what was going on in Ukraine. A little way that I could help elevate the culture and get the word out that there really is a culture there. It’s not the case that there isn’t.
YC: What was the most challenging part of translating “The Length of Days”?
SF: The most challenging part was not losing my place in the text. I have to be honest, there were like three places where I just skipped a sentence. And luckily, the editor was very sharp. You wouldn’t think that that is the problem. But actually, it was a real pleasure to translate. The hardest thing really about that novel was that I didn’t know all of the popular culture references, and it’s not just that I’m not a Ukrainian, although I’m not, but that the author is fifteen years younger than I am and, like anybody and their parents or anybody and their children, he just had different things he’d seen on television, different things that were advertisements when he was a kid. And so he refers to those, and I had no idea. So I would put a big question mark in the text and then later talk to the editor, who was a slightly younger Ukrainian at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute but nevertheless picked up the same popular culture.
YC: What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring translators?
SF: Start now, and translate a lot. It’s easier to publish something that’s out of copyright. But if you try translating somebody who’s young, especially if you’re lucky enough to be working from a language that’s not widely translated, chances are they’ll want to get into English and you can get a foot in that way. But the wonderful thing about translation is that nobody looks at you and asks, “How old are you?” when you’re proposing a translation. If you hand something in and it’s a great translation, you’re going to do okay. And don’t put it off and then regret it. Though, I think with translation, you don’t so much put it off and regret it because translation is a wonderfully flexible thing. You can do it for a day really intensely, and then leave it for a week and get back to it, and it all comes back pretty quickly. It’s not like scholarly writing, where you need to be immersed in your topic. And it’s not like creative writing where you need to be at the top of your game and full of inspiration. I mean, yes, it helps. Maybe you should be that way when you go back to revise your translation, but it’s flexible in a way that other modes of writing aren’t necessarily.
YC: What is your favorite memory from your time here at Swarthmore?
SF: I was lucky enough to be the Faculty Marshal for graduation for five years, although the middle year of that was the pandemic year 2020. It was a real pleasure, first of all rehearsing the students, so I got to practice shaking their hands and handing over the diploma so that everybody had the muscle memory of at least once shaking hands and grabbing the diploma. But watching the ceremony from up close was really very moving, and I always love graduation anyway. I love to see who’s wearing what color of rose and talking to the parents afterward, who are so proud of their kids, and the kids are now fully-fledged adults.
YC: What is one piece of advice you would give to graduating seniors?
SF: Sleep. Although, it’s worse before you graduate. I think people who are twenty years old don’t realize that if you don’t sleep, your memories aren’t forming properly. And it’s not so bad for the physics equation, you can look that up later. But what about the conversation you had with the person next door? Will you remember that later? Will you remember the things that are sort of looping through the canvas to try to get to the next thing and not absorb what’s going on around you? Well, people get too tired.
YC: What do you like to do in your spare time?
SF: I like cooking, although I don’t do it as much as I would like to. I like baking bread. I like knitting. I try to walk to campus as often as I can from where I live, which is a little more than a mile away from campus. I enjoy traveling a lot, although I don’t get to do it much. And reading, reading, reading. I’ve been reading a lot of loose poetry, loose meaning I’m finding it on the Internet, rather than having it bound in a book, and I’ve also been subscribed to Poetry Daily since they published one of my translations from Serbian. I need to get back to Michael Chabon’s book “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which I would recommend to anybody. I’ve read other things by him, but I think that this book is his best so far. I think one day people will be writing dissertations about it.
YC: What is one fun or surprising fact about yourself?
SF: I still have a baby tooth. It’s mostly filling — there’s no root because the root’s dissolved. Every time I go to the dentist they exclaim that they’ve never seen someone my age who still has a baby tooth, so there you go.