Katja Petrowskaja and Shelley Frisch

London, 30 May 2019

Author and translator come together in this Encounter to discuss Shelley Frisch's translation of Katja Petrowskaja's bestseller Vielleicht Esther (2014), a singular, haunting, unforgettable work of literature. Maybe Esther tells the moving story of a family's entanglement with 20th-century history, one with which Petrowskaja's own family is inextricably involved. Her great-uncle, who in 1932 shot a German diplomat in Moscow, was sentenced to death; her Ukrainian grandfather disappeared during World War II only to reappear 40 years later; her great-grandmother, who may have been the 'Esther' of the title, was too old and frail to leave Kiev when the Jews there were rounded up. Petrowskaja takes the reader from Berlin to Warsaw, Moscow and Kiev, from Google searches, strange encounters and coincidences to archives, anecdotes and jokes, in a journey in search of her own place in the past and present, in memory and history, languages and countries. 

Katja Petrowskaja was born in 1970 in Kiev. She studied at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and was also awarded research fellowships for Columbia University (New York) and Stanford (California). She received her PhD in Moscow. Since 1999, she has lived and worked in Berlin. Vielleicht Esther is her first book, and has been translated into 20 languages. Among the prizes and awards she has received are the Premio Strega Europeo (2015), the Ernst-Toller-Preis (2014), the »aspekte«-Literaturpreis (2014), and the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis (2013).

Born in 1952, Shelley Frisch was awarded a PhD from Princeton University. She has taught at the Universities of Bucknell and Columbia, and Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges where she was Chair of the German Department. She turned to full-time translating in the 1990s and is now best known for her translations of biographies, most notably of Kafka (2016), Nietzsche (2002), Einstein (2005), Leonardo da Vinci (2010), and Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl (2015). She has won the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize (2014), the Aldo and Jeanne Scalgione Prize (2005-6), and was long-listed for the PEN Translation Prize, the National Book Critics Circles Awards, and the National Translation Award.

Shelley Frisch, Katja Petrowskaja, Godela Weiss-Sussex
From left: Shelley Frisch, Katja Petrowskaja, and Godela Weiss-Sussex
(Photograph: Deirdre Byrnes)

The event is sponsored by the Keith Spalding Trust