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Jamey Gambrell. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan for PEN America.
Jamey Gambrell. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan for PEN America.

Jamey Gambrell (1954–2020)

Writer, critic, translator, and former Artforum editor Jamey Gambrell, who introduced contemporary Russian writers Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Sorokin, and Tatyana Tolstaya to English-speaking audiences, died on February 15 in Manhattan. The cause was cancer; she was sixty-five years old.

Born and raised in New York, Gambrell earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, studied French and Russian at the Sorbonne in Paris, and completed her master’s degree in Slavic languages at Columbia University in Manhattan before traveling to Moscow in the 1980s. She worked as an editor, and as a frequent translator and contributor, for Artforum under Ingrid Sischy’s tenure and went on to serve as a writer and editor at Art in America for fifteen years. She was also a long-time contributor to the New York Review of Books.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Gambrell coproduced and wrote the script for USSaRt, a documentary on Soviet art and the impact of the 1988 Sotheby’s sale in Moscow, the first international art auction to be held in the city since the Bolshevik Revolution; worked on other film projects; and translated a volume of writings by Rodchenko for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in conjunction with his 1998 retrospective. Gambrell translated her first book, a collection of short stories titled Sleepwalker in a Fog by Tolstaya, in 1991. Over the course of her career, she would also translate writings by the Russian-born American conceptualist artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, poets Marina Tsvetaeva and Joseph Brodsky, and Anton Chekhov. 

In 2016, Gambrell was awarded the $20,000 Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for her contributions to the field. The prize jury praised her translations of the “wizardly” Vladimir Sorokin and noted that her works were “wizardly in their own right.” In an interview with the LA Review of Books she gave later that year, Gambrell discussed the process of translating: “I think the translation is to the original like reality is to a dream, because there’s a dream state you get into when you’re translating, when things have extreme clarity but don’t necessarily make sense when you look at them logically.” She added that by engaging with and reading foreign literature “we become citizens of the world.”