Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the Michigan-based owners of Ardis Press, have been refused visas to Russia to attend the Moscow Book Fair. Several other American publishing figures and, at latest count, 44 American books, also were kept out.
It's getting to be a habit with the Proffers. They were rejected just this spring, his visa being refused outright, hers being promised until four hours before plane time. Even their year-old daughter Arabella was rejected.
"Arabella is the world's youngest refusednik," her mother quipped at the time.
The couple received the bad news this time in Paris on the morning of their flight. They'll stay on until the 10th -- Arabella is with grandparents in Michigan -- and then come home. They have never been given an explanation.
But they think they know. Ardis specializes in Russian literature and is far and away the best-known foreign press in Russia. They publish all of Nabokov's works there, for instance. The Proffers have been visiting Russia every year for a decade and once lived there for six months. Recently, however, they agreed to translate the new anthology "Metropol," put together by 23 fiction writers and poets in Russia.
As Ellendea Proffer explained during a recent visit to Washington with her husband:
"It wasn't that the people were dissidents. We publish hardly any stuff from dissidents, by the way. It wasn't even that the work was political. Maybe a satire here and there and some mild sex, but not anti-Soviet at all.
"But the KGB was furious. To them it was worse than Solzhenitsyn, because he's a known dissident and they can understand that. I think it was just the idea that these good Soviet artists got this 700-page book together in secret, by themselves, on state time. It really bugged them."
The Proffers are somewhat bemused with the whole business. Their firm, founded as a hobby seven years ago, now publishes 244 books, making it bigger than most university presses. They publish as many as 40 new titles every year now, most of them translations from Russian along with the occasional Faulkner bibliography or volume of Chinese poetry.
"I'd say 220 of our titles are Russian fiction and poetry," remarked Proffer, a full professor at the University of Michigan. "Of those, about 20 have some political content, and of those, only five or six are what you'd call hostile to the Soviets."
The Proffers both hold Ph.Ds in Russian. She has given up teaching, but writes paperback romances in her spare time ("They're too well-written to be really huge successes," her husband said).
There is also the Russian Literature Triquarterly, 500 pages of novellas, stories and poems translated from Russian, with some scholarly commentary. At $15 a year it's not a money-maker, and though it was the original Ardis project, it's no longer a major part of the business.
A pity. The paperback giant-sized volumes are vibrant with energy. In one typical issue:
Translated poetry by Pushkin, Lermontov and others; articles on Nabokov ("Pnin, the Biographer as Meddler," "A Chronology of 'Pale Fire'"); a fine photo of Nabokov; a manuscript page from "Eugene Onegin"; contemporary Soviet woodcuts and paintings, modern Soviet fiction; contemporary humor; a review of a Soviet literary journal; a bibliography of early 19th-century periodicals in Russia.
For all its international influence, Ardis is still a cottage industry. Books are typed up on an IBM Composer at the former Ann Arbor golf club, where the Proffers live with their four children, a full-time Russian emigre editor, two part-time editors, and various visitors.
"We didn't know anything," said Ellendea Proffer, 34. "I was a French major; he was going to be a basketball coach. He's several years older, and one day we thought we'd buy a hand printing press and turn out a little journal of translations."
A friend suggested renting the IBM machine, which they viewed as just a delightful toy until they discovered that Ann Arbor is a bustling printing center. Soon they were publishing great chunks of Russian literature of the 19th and 20th century, as well as some earlier works.
"What really started us," said Proffer, "was our first trip to Russia in '69. I'd been there earlier as an exchange student, but this time we were on Fulbright fellowships. To us, Russian literature was the classics, and when we met Osip Mandelstam's widow it was almost as if we were meeting Pushkins' widow. I mean, we'd heard of the poet in grad school, fleetingly, and he was completely remote to us. But here was his widow Nadezhda about to publish her memoir of him. And Russian literature became something alive for us."
Once under way, they grew more ambitious. They wanted to translate as many Russian writers as they could, and refused to get bogged down in an arcane search for the ultimate scholarly translation. There are many living Soviet authors, the Updikes and Vonneguts of their country who, though virtually unknown in the United States and other western nations, are preoccupied with dissident literature.
There are also unknown works by older writers, a Pushkin, a Tolstoy, passages from great classics that for some reason had been left out of earlier translations.
"You'd be amazed at how many people send us translations free, just to see them published. We're getting a lot of eastern European stuff now -- Romanian love lyrics, things like that."
The Proffers no longer do all their own translating, but they remain close to the scene. Russian is almost impossible to translate in a way that pleases everyone, because the frame of reference is so different from ours, Mrs. Proffer explained.
"If something reads really well when it's put into English, then the translator is probably betraying the reader. Sometimes you find a word has been changed into a simile to make it more understandable in English. And a lot of writers have people taking in accents. How are you going to translate a Ukranian accent? Like a Texas drawl?"
There is so much to do, so many major works still waiting to be rendered into English. Proffer himself edited the three volumes of Dostoevski's notebooks for Ardis. Now he is busy translating a modern Soviet novel.
Meanwhile, she is under contract for another Regency romance, and taking care of the children. And running the household, which includes their offices on the rolling green links.
"Luckily, we're night people," she remarked. "If you wanted a picture of us as we really work, you'd have to come late at night and you'd find us with our feet up on the desk and he'd be smoking a cigar."
Oh yes, one other thing: They're both great typists.