Sally Laird 1956 – 2010

Former Index on Censorship editor Sally Laird died recently after a long battle with cancer. Here, Robert Chandler appreciates an extraordinary translator and journalist

On 15 July I received this message from Mark Lefanu, the husband of Sally Laird: “This is to convey the sad news that Sally died early this morning after a long and gallant battle against cancer. The last days, in hospital, were peaceful and even beautiful, surrounded as she was by the love and care of doctors and nurses, along with the support of beloved daughter and sweet friends.”

Since 1993 Sally and her family had been living in Denmark. I went there to say goodbye to her just two weeks ago. Sally knew she was dying, and she approached death as she approached life — with courage and humour. Towards the end of May, when I was arranging a date for my visit, she wrote, “We have various guests coming off and on through June, but with little gaps in between — and after that — total emptiness from July onwards when I am supposed to be dead but any brave soul is very wecome to plant a flag in my diary.” I replied that, in that case, I would book my train tickets for early July.

Sally was unusually gifted in many ways, probably in more ways than I know. Whatever she set her mind to — a large portfolio of drawings of a family of bears produced at the age of thirteen, her work as chief editor of Index on Censorship in her late twenties and early thirties, the many reviews on Russia-related books that she wrote for Prospect, the TLS, the Guardian and the Observer — she carried out conscientiously and with imagination. Her translations of Petrushevaksaya and Sorokin are note perfect. And I know no book that presents a more nuanced picture of Soviet literary life in the post-Stalin years than Sally’s Voices of Russian Literature: Interviews with Ten Contemporary Writers (OUP, 1999).

The death of a friend always makes one regret lost opportunities. I regret that we never realized our project of collaborating on translating a selection of Ivan Bunin’s short stories — though it is some consolation that I did, at least, have the opportunity to tell her of my regret. I regret that I did not see Sally more often. I do, however, remember all our meetings clearly, and with joy.

Read Sally Laird’s Index on Censorship article “Hope For Dissenters” from 1987 here