Image: Ecem Lawton

The translator bringing Vladimir Sorokin to English readers

Max Lawton on dragging the most complex and esoteric foreign texts into the English language
April 15, 2024

With long, dark-brown hair and a trimmed moustache, Max Lawton looks a bit like a cowboy. In fact, he’s a translator. Well, maybe he’s a cowboy-translator. Riding out into the ruggedest terrains of foreign literature, he tracks down the unruliest texts, then drags them, snorting and kicking, into the English language.

Lawton, 30, has become the definitive English voice of Vladimir Sorokin, possibly the most eminent and almost certainly the most notorious living Russian writer. An example: Sorokin’s near-unsummarisable novel Blue Lard, published in 1999, includes a time-travelling religious sect known as the “Earth Fuckers”, and an intense, explicit sex scene between Khrushchev and Stalin. Shredded copies were ceremonially thrown into a giant papier-mâché toilet by a pro-Kremlin youth group outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre.

“I owe everything to this book,” Lawton writes in the “Extroduction” to his translation of Blue Lard, the first in English, which was published in February. He first encountered it in French as a high-schooler in Wisconsin. (Lawton is American, but lived in Brussels with a French nanny for the first three years of his life.) After studying Russian at Columbia University, he was pondering what to do with his life, and thought: “Well, no one’s translated Blue Lard. I’ll give that a shot.” He got hold of Sorokin’s email and sent him a 100-page sample translation, and their relationship grew from there. Lawton is now in the middle of translating more than a dozen of Sorokin’s books.

This is no small task. Blue Lard features a futuristic Russo-Chinese dialect, and clones of Russian writers—Tolstoy and so on—who churn out unsettling pastiches of the original. Lawton referenced old, stale English translations of Russian classics to get across the off-ness of these clone texts to an anglophone reader. “People misunderstand translation as being about understanding obscure words or something,” he says, when it’s actually “about being able to render a style”. With English, there are a lot of styles to work with. The last section of Blue Lard includes a particularly Russian kind of dialogue with “a lot of declarative sentences”. A literal English rendering would appear “flat”, so Lawton gave it a “mid-Atlantic key, because the dialogue in old Hollywood movies is very stilted as well.”

As well as being Sorokin’s translator, Lawton was his chaperone during an American book tour in October 2022, during which they “got into all sorts of funny jams.” Sorokin, who has lived in Berlin since being caught there when Russia invaded Ukraine, couldn’t figure out how to get service on his German phone. One day, Lawton was at the dentist in New Jersey, and had to remotely call Sorokin an Uber in New York, getting the driver—“this enormous dude” with jewellery-encrusted teeth—to walk around the block calling out, “Vladiiimir, Vladiiimir”. Vladimir’s own appraisal of the situation? “Pure cinema, Max. American cinematic country.” The pair also went out to dinner with Bret Easton Ellis in LA, where Sorokin—who speaks English “pretty well”, but very slowly—would occasionally pipe up with obscure details from Ellis’s novel Glamorama: “Bret, you remember, by the Time Warner building, three Maseratis, four Aston Martins, and two G-Wagons?” “Ooh, you’re right. Yes I do, Vladimir.”

Lawton lives in LA himself, where he writes his own fiction—a few short stories have been published; novels are in the pipeline—and plays in heavy metal bands. (He’s starting one with Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, who Sorokin introduced him to.) As well as Russian and French, he knows Turkish, German, Spanish and Italian, and is working on a couple of translations so complex and esoteric that Blue Lard will look like “a walk in the park”. He is not unduly worried about competition from machine learning. “My work is untouchable to AI,” he says.