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When is Russian literature not Russian literature? A post by translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“When is Russian literature not Russian literature?” is the latest post in our blog series from translators currently commissioned by RusTrans. In this series, translators reflect on current issues in translation practice and/or the translations they work on. Here, Shelley Fairweather-Vega discusses her practice of translating Central Asian women’s writing.

“The Russian kids in their neighborhood didn’t want to let her into their games. Kalbitka, kalbitka! they screamed at her. She didn’t take offense because she didn’t understand.

-from “Black Snow of December,” by Asel Omar

As a translator of both Russian and Uzbek, I often find myself stuck between two worlds, eerily similar but also irreconcilably different. Throughout my career so far, only half of the fiction I’ve translated has actually been Russian, in the sense of having being written by people who identify as ethnic Russians and live in Russia itself. Only perhaps 75% of it is even in the Russian language before I get to it. My project for RusTRANS is two stories from a future anthology of short stories by Kazakh women. One of the authors I’ve translated for this project has the quite Russian-sounding name Nadezhda Chernova, while the other, Asel Omar, sounds not at all Russian.  To remove all doubt about her national origins, Omar no longer uses the -ova ending that was tacked on to virtually all Central Asian surnames (-ov for men) during Soviet times to make citizens there sound more Russian. Half the stories in the anthology, including these two, were originally written in Russian. The other half were written in Kazakh. So are they Russian literature?

My first instinct is always to say “no.” The Central Asian writers I work with don’t see themselves as the heirs of Pushkin and Tolstoy, though many have studied their work thoroughly. They’re more likely to actually be descended from people cruelly persecuted by the devoted fans of Russian literature’s biggest stars. They may share a language, but that language was thrust upon them by colonial powers; thematically, they have a different cultural heritage to hearken back to, different epic heroes, different myths, religions, values, and histories. And as a translator of Central Asian literature, I take offense on behalf of the whole huge, diverse region when readers see Uzbek or Kazakh literature as a special, minor, exotic branch of Russian literature.  Sadly, that happens surprisingly often – more than is seemly for people educated in a Western tradition, supposedly forewarned against the temptations of Orientalism and hip to post-colonial thinking.

The Uzbek writer in exile Hamid Ismailov has gone so far as to posit that everyone is looking at the issue the wrong way round: it’s not that Uzbek literature is a wild backwater of Russian literature; rather, Russian literature owes its whole existence to Central Asian literature. Ismailov’s alter-ego protagonist in Of Strangers and Bees comes up with this theory on the fly, when he’s asked to give a lecture on Russian literature to a European audience and finds himself completely unprepared, improvising as follows:

“Russian literature is a vast ocean. But even an ocean is measured by its shorelines. It starts from its shorelines. If it has no shorelines, it does not exist itself. What gives an ocean its shape is its shorelines. […] Take Dostoyevsky’s five novels. They are essentially nothing other than the Hamsa written over again. But all that is another story,” I declared […] By the time I was done, things had developed in such a direction that I was not, in fact, the student of Bunin and Akhmatova; no, historically speaking, they were students of my national literature.

I’m not sure I would go that far in describing the two Kazakh stories I translated for RusTRANS. Both were written originally and solely in Russian, for one thing (even the word “kalbitka,” in the citation above, was an insult of vague and undocumented origins used by Russians to belittle the locals, so it’s a Russian word, too). Every Central Asian writer my age or older was raised and educated mostly in the Soviet system, with its strictly uniform curriculum across republics and institutions. That means fiction from the region can bear a strong resemblance to fiction from Russia proper (as does Russophone writing from places as diverse as Ukraine, Latvia, Brooklyn and Israel). But the more Uzbek and Kazakh and Tajik writing I translate, the more ideas and viewpoints I discover that are not Russian at all.

Chernova’s story, “Aslan’s Bride,” is a story about a girl with a Russian nickname, Milochka, who yearns for love. After a short and ugly relationship with a Russian drunk, she decides to leave town. Milochka travels to the ends of the earth and finds herself in a village by the sea, full of women dressed in black who do not speak her language. Though we are never told where she is or what language people speak there, we understand that the place she left behind is a standard-issue mid-1970s Soviet city, and this new place is very different. Milochka is taken in by an old woman who wants to betroth her to her handsome son ­– who left for the war thirty years ago and still has not returned. Our heroine agrees, and finally finds her place in the world. So here we have a protagonist leaving Russia, or a place standing in for Russia; learning a new language; and becoming family with a people still devastated, thirty years later, by Soviet involvement in World War II. This is completely unlike any Russian story I’ve read about the Great Patriotic War.

Omar’s story, “Black Snow of December,” centers on a young man named Rustem, a journalist who is an ethnic Kazakh, remembering a neglected moment in Kazakhstan’s history: three days of protests, violence and arrests precipitated by personnel changes in the Communist Party in December 1986, known to people who remember it simply as Jeltoqsan, “December.” Rustem recalls the fear and anxiety his Kazakh family suffered during those events and the varying reactions of their Russian, Jewish, and Korean friends and neighbors. He also ponders his own family’s history: his “pre-revolutionary” grandfather was made an orphan by the Bolsheviks, and went on to work as a Soviet spy, while secretly memorizing the work of dissident Russian and Kazakh poets. Russian writers also portray the ambiguities of the Soviet system and ordinary people’s ways of coping with it ­– though they usually make those ordinary people Russian, sometimes Jewish for a twist. But would a typical Russian writer have Rustem fired from his newspaper job, years later in independent Kazakhstan, for writing about this sensitive period in the country’s history – and walk away happily through a numbingly cold night, focused on the future? I’m not sure.

One thing these very different stories have in common is that they center the experiences of people that “real” Russian literature keeps on the periphery, on Ismailov’s “shorelines.” They allow Central Asian characters to be genuine, ordinary people, not merely exotic foreign types. The somber women in black, not the flighty Milochka, are the characters who are most at home in “Aslan’s Bride.” The Kazakh population of Almaty are the ones being asked not to speak their own language to avoid offending anyone in “Black Snow.” When I read and translate these stories, I see decolonization at work. Russian and Russianness is a fact of life and ever-present, but it’s not the crux of the story. In this literature, the Russians don’t have to be the storytellers. The Russians don’t have to be the ones teaching us what Russian literature can be, even when their language is wielded to write it.

If these Russian-language stories are so non-Russian, then where do I get off applying for a program like RusTRANS? Why do I lurk on Russian translation listservs and Facebook groups? The purely practical answer is that there is no KazTRANS or UzbTRANS program, no Kazakh or Uzbek translation listservs. There are simply not enough of us translators from Central Asian languages (yet), and not enough interest (yet) in this new type of Central Asian literature, and without my Russian translation comrades, I’d be very lonely at conferences. For this type of literature, there are no awards to follow. There are no fellowships to fight over and almost no institutional support, and what does exist comes from a source that makes me squeamish: the Kazakh and Uzbek political machines. So as long as I’m translating from Russian, I plan to keep boldly trying to have it both ways, and doing everything I can to attract the attention of Russian literature lovers to non-Russian Russian literature.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega

Subliminal Translation: Huw Davies on Translating Dmitry Bykov’s “June”

In the first instalment of our new blog series by translators working on texts for the Publish project, Huw Davies tells us about the strangest aspect of translating Dmitry Bykov’s latest novel – how to translate coded, subliminal messages!

Translating Dmitry Bykov’s novel June

I have been enjoying the challenge of creating a sample translation of the novel June by the acclaimed Russian poet, journalist and novelist Dmitry Bykov, published in Russian in 2017. The novel is set shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It is divided into three parts, each telling a different story set in the same period, and each shorter than the one before – conveying a sense of hastening towards the impending disaster of war. In the final part, we meet a professor of linguistics named Ignaty Krastyshevsky, who believes he can avert this looming catastrophe, if only he can influence a certain key decision-maker by smuggling something he dubs a ‘controlling text’ into one of the reports on Soviet cinema that he writes for a living. Below is an excerpt from my translation:

Outwardly there appeared to be nothing unusual about the text, and only the most experienced linguist – the aforementioned Strelnikov, for instance – could have suspected that there was something ever so slightly amiss about the synonyms used. The Controlling Text (or CT) was always designed like a mosaic, whose pieces were too vibrant to form a homogeneous surface; and indeed, there were times when Krastyshevsky required substitutes for the words one might ordinarily choose. They were not highlighted in the text in any way, of course, but we shall highlight them here, so that the nuts and bolts of his method might become clearer. “As a BLACK cloud makes its way MORE OR LESS RAPIDLY over Europe, the WORLDWIDE interest in oUr cinemAtography is becOming clearer than DAY. The humanity and the NECESSARY orientation of Soviet cinema has covERED the Western viewer, lISTener, reaDER, again and again, TIME AFTER TIME, with that indubitable, OBVIOUS truth, that man is a broTHER to his fellow man. BLUE, YELLOW, GREEN – all of these colours are having to make way for red, which, with time, will take up a leading position on the map.” Anyone with the slightest ability to read between the lines and at least a basic grasp of the rudiments of linguistic influence will be able to read, in this passage, the phrase Aravi tari omi, or “No war” in the native language of the intended recipient.

Krastyshevsky’s reports are read by none other than “the only real decision-maker in the country since 1929”, the “intended recipient” whose native language is Georgian (Bykov deliberately refrains from naming him in the novel, but for those slow on the uptake, the man in question is of course Stalin). Thanks to his incredible ability to harness the power of what he calls “linguistic influence” by putting the vowels and consonants of his written reports in exactly the right order, Krastyshevsky will be able to plant the phrase “No war” in his recipient’s mind and make him act accordingly.

We never find out what becomes of Krastyshevsky; he is last seen shouting coded messages to some mysterious ‘emissaries of the gods’ from atop a Moscow apartment building, while a policeman hurries up to get him. Besides his unresolved fate, this part of the novel raises many other questions: is Krastyshevsky really a linguistic genius, or is he insane (we are told that “he was good at recognizing madness in others, because…because…”)? Does Bykov want us to think that the novel itself is intended as a ‘controlling text’ (even though it appears not to meet Krastyshevsky’s own specifications for this) – and if so, who is its one and only “intended recipient”, the one who will unconsciously grasp its true meaning and act accordingly? Does the translator of the novel need to concern himself or herself with the answers to these questions? How can the translator accurately render the texts and incantations that Krastyshevsky crafts with such care (though they sound like gobbledegook) in a way that suggests he might well be a madman, while still leaving open the possibility that he is the greatest linguistic genius the world has seen? At one point, while listening to a radio broadcast of Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Krastyshevsky hears a secret message encoded within The Dance of the Knights, one “so distinct that it could be written down in words – and he hastened to do so, helped by the fact that he could now hear this music within him night and day. At first, the words were not the right ones, they were random, but it was not through random happenstance that they came to him: they lent the whole experience a coloration akin to that of a Gothic forest. Night – yes – night – yes – night – pine aspen palm fir pine aaaaaspen!” It is not often that translators get the chance to translate the ramblings of a madman, or, for that matter, the secret verbal message encoded in a piece of classical music (let’s keep an open mind about which description is accurate), and it is an enjoyable experience, particularly when the source ‘ramblings’ contain made-up or incomplete words that nonetheless rhyme with other words in the sentence: take for instance my rendering of one such line, “set sail on the ocean blue, the trotian true, the clotian clue.”

Krastyshevsky’s story prompts us to think about the reality of living in Stalin’s totalitarian rule during ‘The Terror’, when anyone inclined to question foreign policy decisions openly by, say, writing a letter to a newspaper, or going on a ‘Not In My Name’-style protest march, would have had to have been… insane, surely? The first two parts of the novel portray  other frightening aspects of life in this period. Part one tells the story of Misha Gvirtsman, a young student and poet, who is denounced by his classmates (apparently due to a false allegation of harassment against a female student, but in fact, Misha suspects, because of a deeper, underlying resentment that has to do with his high-brow intellectual tastes and Jewishness). When the student body is convened to discuss the matter, hardly anyone is prepared to stand up for him, despite his ability as a poet, which everyone seems to acknowledge. Even people he thought were friends jump on the bandwagon and call for him to be expelled from the prestigious Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. 

In part two, Boris Gordon, a journalist, has the love of his life, Ariadna, taken away from him by the secret police (she is an émigré who has returned to the Soviet Union after several years in Germany and, as such, a subject of suspicion). Until she was taken, Boris failed to recognise just how precarious and dangerous the situation had become, for he was not particularly “fond” of any of the other people within his orbit who were arrested and never heard from again. His father fears that a war with the Germans may be around the corner, and believes “that Germany is surrounding him with spies, that Tukhachevsky was a spy, that the plumber’s a spy” – but Boris dismisses these notions, assuming his father is losing his marbles (madness is one of the novel’s recurring themes). Just as hardly any of Misha’s classmates stuck up for him when he was denounced at university, almost none of the people whom Ariadna had helped in the editorial offices where she worked (where she first met Boris) seem to have any sympathy for her plight.

The novel contains some wonderful twists and turns. As we have seen, there are quite a lot of different characters involved, including interlocutors who almost seem to spring from nowhere to badger our protagonists; they appear to work for the intelligence services. The voice of the narrator remains constant throughout, though, and acts as a unifying thread, as demonstrated by the seamless manner in which the opening lines of each part can be joined together.

Part 1:

When Misha Gvirtsman was expelled from university in October 1940, he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands.

Part 2:

Boris Gordon, by contrast, hardly ever had any free time, because he had a job in journalism that brought with it considerable responsibility; a wife; and a mistress.

Part 3:

And as for Ignaty Krastyshevsky, all his time was free time, and yet he did not really have any time at all.

The most important voice for the translator to get right, then, is surely that of the narrator – so that the overall tone of the novel remains the same in English. June is full of literary allusions to the works of Joyce, Shakespeare and others, and seems to have multiple layers of meaning. Given how vividly it conveys what it might have felt like to suffer at the hands of a brutal totalitarian regime, I think it is important to bring this period of Soviet history to life in the imaginations of English-speaking readers.

I have cerTAINly enJOYed the work I have done ON THIS novel so far, and I would love to secure a COMmission to translate the REST of the book. 

Publishers take note: the sentence above was a carefully crafted ‘controlling text’ that has planted an unshakeable desire to publish this book in English deep within your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Huw Davies

www.huwdaviestranslation.com

 

 

Translators on Lockdown: The Coronavirus Crisis Blog (X)

In our absolutely final post of this mini-series about the effect of the current pandemic on the translation and publishing industries, we invited translators to speak to us about how the situation has affected them professionally and personally. We hear about the real problems of working with children and spouses at home, loss of income and unrelenting deadline pressures – but we also hear about new discoveries, re-evaluations, and hope for the future.

Here are some of their stories.

🐱‍🏍”For a translator already working full time from home, you’d think times of quarantine would be business as usual. But of course, it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, my family is now permanently installed in my home office (they think of it as their house). While other translators in my professional network, in fields like marketing and law, have seen a huge drop in business as their clients closed up shop, my clients – the authors, artists, screenwriters – seem to be working overtime, passing plenty of translation work on to me. They all have more time to write, and a new topic to address: the virus. The news articles I translate every week are full of pandemic politics. The animated creatures in the children’s TV show hassle each other about wearing masks. The artist in New York gives interview after interview about his creative take on social distancing and the metaphorical meaning of contagion. Yevgeny Vodolazkin’s coronavirus play had to be translated fairly quickly (two weeks). Hamid Ismailov’s coronavirus story had to be translated almost immediately (five days, during the same two weeks I was translating Vodolazkin) [you’ll find it in this anthology of international coronavirus fiction from Restless Books, published August 2020: And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again]. My translations of quarantine poetry from Kazakhstan were accepted in record time, by two journals in the space of a weekend. So along with the general distress of knowing the world is falling apart around us, there has been this sense of urgency, that this is a time to work faster, more seriously – at least on topics related to the plague. Is it due to the fear that the virus could wipe us all out any day now, the sense that we have to get done as much as possible before we’re inevitably debilitated by illness or, for instance, the people who keep the internet running stop showing up for work? Or is it the perverse fear that the virus could disappear, cease being an issue, that readers could lose interest in everything being written (and translated) about it? How strange it feels to take advantage of a global calamity this way, to translate straight through the crisis, about the crisis, hoping desperately to finish your work and get it out in the world before it’s no longer relevant – while all the while also wishing desperately for the opposite, for the whole mess to disappear and for life to get back to normal, so that nobody will ever need to think, write, or translate about COVID-19 ever again. As far as I remember, there are plenty of other things to write about. Aren’t there?” – Shelley Fairweather-Vega (translator from Russian and Uzbek)

🐱‍🚀”While I’m lucky enough to have had a few of my translations published in journals and other websites, I’m still very much an early career translator, so I don’t earn any money from literary translation. I spend the majority of my working day on different forms of commercial translation, mostly from Spanish, since I live in Madrid. For me, then, despite all the problems it brought, being confined to my small flat for several months at least opened up new stretches of time I could devote to Russian literature and literary translation. One of the most positive aspects of this was being able to spend more time reading speculatively, allowing myself to stumble across new, interesting, unexpected writing. This, in turn, led to one of my most rewarding lockdown experiences.

         Ekaterina Simonova

Whilst reading the latest issue of the journal Interpoezia, I came across a couple of poems by Ekaterina Simonova, a poet based in Ekaterinburg, collectively titled ‘Я думаю только по-русски’ [I only think in Russian]. I loved these poems and knew immediately that I wanted to translate them. Fortunately, another author I’ve worked with was able to put us in touch. Over the course of lockdown, I translated a number of her poems, mostly from her latest collection ‘Два ее единственных платья’ [Her only two dresses], and I greatly enjoyed our correspondence. She was always very happy to help clear up anything I wasn’t sure of, and she was very supportive. I’ve sent some of the translations to journals, and I’m planning to submit the poem ‘Помнить снег’ [Remembering Snow] for the Stephen Spender prize this month. Who knows what will happen or when they’ll see the light of day, but I’m delighted to have got to know her and her poetry. She’s even promised to post me a copy of her previous collection once things in Russia have calmed down a bit. I think I’ve had it pretty easy during lockdown, but whatever difficulties I have had, reading and translating Russian has been a constant source of joy.” Robin Munby (translator from Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese)                                           

🐱‍👓 “There are a few challenges as I see it.

One of Julia’s recent translations

One, the low-grade anxiety — this country [the US] is so much better than what we are seeing. Two, I am extremely sensitive to word choices, more than ever before, seeing the linguistics effects of the current environment. And finally, writing may be a solitary occupation, but translation is nearly always a team effort (writer/translator/editor), and this process is evolving — something that I am trying to adjust to. My writers are in LA, my editor and agent are in NYC, and I am in Boston — the epicenters of both COVID-19 and civil unrest. This makes our priorities shift almost daily, pushing forward deadlines and defining creative choices. We need good literature now, we need different voices, and that’s where translators come in. Oh, one more thing of a more practical nature. The novel I am working on is aptly named Pandem and remarkably timely, although written circa 2003) was commissioned by a Russian businessman.”  – Julia Meitov Hersey (translator from Russian)

 

Stephen Dalziel’s translation of this book has been shortlisted for the 2020 Pushkin House Book Prize

 

🐱‍🐉”Translation has played a huge role in helping me through lockdown. I received a new commission to translate a book from Russian in February, so this has given me a focus for virtually every day. Being in regular e-mail contact with the author has helped enormously, too. As long as works are required to be translated and we receive the commissions, I believe we are in a very fortunate place, and will continue to be in ‘the new normal’”Stephen Dalziel (translator from Russian and former Russian affairs analyst for the BBC).

 

🐱‍👤”I’ve been very fortunate in that I’m working on a long-term project that was commissioned before the pandemic, so I haven’t found my work drying up. I am working on a Russian historical crime thriller by Yulia Yakovleva, which is a dream come true, but the circumstances in which I’m working are far from what I imagined when we signed the contract! My sons haven’t been to school since 16 March and won’t go back until September, so my working hours were reduced straight away to around 3 hours a day. In the first few weeks of lockdown I started my work day at 4pm when my husband finished his full-time hours, but as I was so tired after a full day with the kids I started trying to get up early (for me!) and work 7-9am before he starts. We’re lucky to have an office and we take it in turns: we have two desks, each with our own computer and screen, but only one chair between us (otherwise I think we would both go and hide from the children at the same time!) Happily my publisher was able to extend the deadline for this book as there was no way I could have finished by the end of July as planned. I’ll be working on it until mid-September now, when I’m due to be starting a German nonfiction book. Every day that I’ve struggled to meet my daily translation target I have wondered whether I shouldn’t have asked for a longer extension, but I wanted to avoid further delay on the German book.   I lost around £2000 worth of adjunct projects including teaching on the Warwick Translates literary translation summer school, a talk about children’s literature in translation scheduled for the ITI & Friends festival, and a translation slam at London Book Fair. I also had to cancel a weekly part-time teaching commitment because I didn’t think I could cope with teaching online alongside my ongoing translation work. But part of me was relieved when the events were cancelled as it was around March that I realised how much I had over-committed this year. I was eligible for a grant via the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and by coincidence it was very close to the amount I had lost due to cancelled projects. This has been a testing time but in many ways it has felt like going back a few years to when I was translating challenging books in challenging circumstances with toddlers and babies and not enough sleep. At least during the lockdown I’ve mostly had better sleep, although strangely since the lockdown has partially lifted I have struggled more with anxiety and insomnia. I think the initial weeks of lockdown were such a retreat from the normal rush that I was finally able to shut off the world and recuperate after a stressful winter. Now I have just as little time to work but need to translate five pages a day compared to the three a day I was managing at the start of lockdown; unsurprisingly, anxiety about the approaching deadline is starting to creep in. But as with every project I have found that I’ve sped up as I’ve got into the book, so fingers crossed I’ll get there in time for about a week off in between the first draft and the edits.” – Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (translator from Russian, German, and Arabic and co-founder of World Kid Lit )

🐱‍💻”The biggest blow for me – Azerbaijan’s literary translation centre postponed a commission to translate a novel and collection of reviews, because the fall in the oil price means they’re short of money. Luckily I had only just started the project. On the plus side, it has given me time to start work on a pitch for a different Azerbaijani novel, which I’m passionate about. I’m anxious, though, that it will be even harder to find a publisher in these challenging times. As ever in my professional life, I’m juggling other writing work with literary translation to earn a living. I was sorry to miss the London Book Fair, as it was to  have been a treat after completing translation of a history book, this one from Russian. I was even sorrier not to have a party in April to celebrate the publication of the paperback version of an extraordinary memoir, Days in the Caucasus, by Baku-born author Banine. A plus side of the pandemic has been some excellent online webinars and workshops from the Society of Authors and Federation of Entertainment Unions (I can access the latter as a member of the NUJ). No more excuses – I’ve had all the training and must make time to finish my website and boost my social media activity!”  –Anne Thompson-Ahmadova (translator from French, Russian and Azerbaijani)

A sincere thank you to everyone who has participated in this ten-part mini-series on Russian-English translation and the coronavirus crisis!  We wish you the best of luck in meeting your goals, staying healthy, active and sane, and we hope you continue to find both inspiration – and readers!

New Russias in Manchester: A Festival of Diversity

New Russias

As a PhD researcher, it’s easy to focus solely on my own interests in Russian culture and neglect the bigger picture. That’s why heading to Manchester on the weekend of 7th-9th February for the New Russias Festival was so rewarding. Organised by PhD students from Leeds and Manchester Universities, the weekend began with a symposium studying Russian culture since 2010, of which more below. This was followed by a plethora of cultural events, including gigs from Motorama and Pompeya, readings and talks from writers Elena Chizhova, and Anatoly Kudryavitsky, and screenings and discussions with director Sergei Kachkin, not to mention an art walk following Russian artists’ impressions of Manchester, where, thankfully, it was still sunny.

The beginning of the art walk led by artist Alisa Oleva

Friday’s symposium offered panels on the music, cinema,  arts, and literature (respectively) of contemporary Russia, with many areas of crossover and consensus. The music panel, with presentations from Alexei Semenenko, Caroline Ridler and Ilya Yablokov, explored how the music industry wields power, with artists joining forces with politicians for their mutual benefit  (Тимати and his Black Star empire are a good example of this) but also joining in protesting against the status quo. They discussed rap as protest art, mentioning rap by Хаски, Дельфин and Oxxxymiron, as well as the endurance of Viktor Tsoi’s protest song Я Хочу Перемен. Tsoi’s cult of personality has been politicised and used by activists on both sides of the political divide. My favourite takeaway from the conference was Russian TV presenter Kiselyov’s insistence that rap was a Russian invention; he proceeded to rap Mayakovsky to prove his point. You can draw your own conclusions…

Sergei Kachkin talks to Adelaide McGinity-Peebles about his film On the Way Home

Jade McGlynn, Irina Schulzki, Åsne Høgetveit, and Natalija Majsova discussed their areas of research and expertise in the next panel on contemporary cinema. Here also we heard how developments in technology are making it easier for directors to produce their own films, leading to a move away from Moscow, with filmmakers such as Kantemir Balagov making films that celebrate victims and outsiders in a break from traditional cinema. This increasingly independent cinema appears to challenge Ministry of Culture-funded films, which tend towards a genre of  ‘happy war films’ (as Jade McGlynn put it). 2018’s Танки is an excellent, if terribly scripted and historically inaccurate, example of the latter genre.

Vlad Strukov talks about contemporary art in Russia

Talk of non-Moscow-centric culture continued with Vlad Strukov’s paper about the art scene in the Caucasus, including the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, and its importance to the art scene in general, both inside Russia and beyond. Turning back to Moscow, Fabienne Rachmadiev talked about the recent Pavel Pepperstein exhibition in Гараж, and Margarita Kuleva spoke, among many things, of the tradition of тусовка in art establishments, describing the communal, and in many ways still Soviet, lifestyle of workers in establishments such as Гараж, Strelka and Winzavod.

The end of the day saw the panel on contemporary literature, with contributions from Sarah Hudspith, Anna Ponomareva and myself. Here the discussion was based on the future of Russian literature in translation, and how it should be promoted in the West. Sarah Hudspith asked why literature is taught in traditional language degrees, and why we teach certain texts – usually just the classics – and not others. Anna Ponomareva talked about her comparative literature course at UCL and why it is so important to read across cultures, regardless of whether we read these texts in English or the original. I then voiced the idea that politics might often be involved in the selection of texts for translation. It is important to remember that if we only read what the Big Five publishers translate, then we are only seeing part of the picture – we are reading a version of Russia that is in effect curated for us.

What we clarified this weekend is that contemporary Russia offers huge cultural diversity: to reduce our conception of Russian culture to a tiny canon of “classics” in any genre, from art to cinema, would be a tragic mistake. The New Russias Festival has done an excellent job in highlighting what is happening in Russia right now. Please do it again next year!

Many thanks to Marco Biasioli for providing photographs.

Sarah Gear, University of Exeter

(Blog)Post-horses of Enlightenment: RusTrans Goes to Glasgow!

Sarah Gear, RusTrans PhD Student

This December, RusTrans took a momentary break from the madness of advent to attend a lively conference at the University of Glasgow.  I (Sarah) spent my weekend at ‘Translation as an Act of Cultural Dialogue’, a conference held in honour of Pushkin’s 220th anniversary, organised by Drs Jamie Rann and Andrea Gullotta (Glasgow) in partnership with Institut Perevoda and the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature. We spent the conference listening to and taking part in discussions about Russia-Scotland literary relations, poetry, drama, and the importance and enduring relevance of Pushkin.

 Irina Kirillova

This is the first year the conference has been held in Glasgow – up until now it has taken place in the small Scottish border town of Moffat – a theme taken up by the first speaker, Professor Irina Kirillova, who answered the first question of Why Moffat? (it is indeed a very small town!) and went on to talk about the genesis of this conference and its importance in helping maintain cultural relations between Russia and Scotland. Professor Kirillova then gave the floor to Scottish poet and translator Dr Tom Hubbard, an attendee of the preceding Moffat conferences, who gave a fascinating paper on translating Pushkin’s poem Autumn into both English and Scots, focusing on Edwin Morgan’s English translation, along with Alistair Mackie’s Scots version. It is interesting to note that both of these poets decided to add a little embellishment of their own at the end of each of their translations. Tom talked about the similarities in sound between the two languages – the Scottish ‘ch’, for example, being the same as the ‘х’ in Russian – and also reminded us about the Edwin Morgan conference to be held next year in Glasgow, celebrating this prolific Scottish poet and his translations into Scots and English from many languages, Russian included.

Tom’s Russian counterpart, poet and translator Grigory Kruzhkov (whom Tom later delighted in teaching some Scots words) spoke next, about Yeats and the poet Nikolai Gumilev. He took us on a journey through Gumilev’s time in London in 1917, and talked about his meeting with W.B. Yeats – it appears he was the only Russian to meet the Irish poet. Gumilev went on to translate Yeats’ nationalist play Countess Cathleen.

Aleksandr Livergant (l) and Grigory Kruzhkov (r)

Matters came right up to date with the next talk by translator Christine Bird, who discussed her translation of Andrey Ivanov’s play, С училища, which is set in Minsk, and the challenges of bringing Belarusian dialect and swear words into English while maintaining the necessary tone – a topic that provoked lively debate about the (il)legality of putting such words on a PowerPoint presentation in Russia – and a discussion about how to carry over the shocking nature of such words, when in Scotland they have rather less power, perhaps due to their wonderfully expressive overuse…

In keeping with the theme of theatre, translator, art manager and curator Maria Kroupnik talked about the good work carried out by Class Act, a Scottish theatre initiative (transported from Scotland to Russia) that works with young children in both Scotland and Russia, with the aim of demystifying the theatre and showing kids that it is open to all, and not just a select few.

Just before the lunch break, Aleksandr Livergant, translator and long-time editor of Innostrannaya Literatura, presented on the British edition of his magazine that came out in October 2018. This came with a large feature on Scottish poets, tracking their history from the 17th century to the present day, and taking in the most famous Scottish Makars, or national poets with a varied collection of translations from Walter Scott, Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Alistair Reid and Edwin Morgan, who, it was good to learn, has had his own poems translated also.

Following this, we braved the pouring rain (as a one-time resident of Glasgow I can say that Glasgow certainly lived up to its rainy reputation this weekend) and made our way to a street-food market nestling under the Gothic arches of Glasgow University. Taking shelter from the wet, we safely installed ourselves in a snug canteen in the vaults where we enjoyed lunch (while listening to carols from the university choir) and discussed the morning’s events.

Aleksandr Livergant

The afternoon session was chaired by poet and children’s’ writer Marina Boroditskaya along with Glasgow’s own Andrea Gullotta, and focused on the importance of interpretation. Aleksandr Livergant resumed the floor to talk about Nabokov’s translation of Evgenii Onegin, and the role that writer and critic Edmund Wilson played in this – trying to persuade Nabokov to work on something shorter! Indeed – the project took Nabokov 20 years to complete, and resulted in non-favourable reviews from Wilson himself.

(l-r) Irina Kirillova, Marina Boroditskaya, Grigory Kruzhkov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Jamie Rann then took the conference in a deliberately surreal direction, with a discussion of Zaum poetry and Pushkin’s treatment by the Soviet avant-garde. He talked about Aleksei Kruchenykh and his experiments with sound, and Dmitrii Prigov, who rewrote all of Onegin by hand, substituting either the word безумный (mad or insane) or неземно (unearthly) for each adjective in the poem. He also talked about the Transfurists (also known as Neo-futurists, poets like Sigei, Aksel’rod, Nikonova-Tarshis) who wanted to create an international language that wouldn’t require translation – an interesting idea in a room full of translators! In essence, this discussion of Zaum brought a fourth language to the room – English, Russian and Scots being already represented.

Andrea Gullotta (l) and Jamie Rann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The University of Edinburgh’s Dr Alexandra Smith considered more canonical translations of Onegin. She discussed Nabokov and the fact that he felt that he had to translate Onegin in order to be seen as legitimate in America, and discussed his sometimes fraught relationship with Wilson. She talked about Stanley Mitchell’s 2008 translation for Penguin Classics, and also covered Charles Johnston’s 1970s translation, which it was felt provided the most natural (if not the most accurate, if we were to ask Nabokov) translation. Johnston claimed that its aim was simply to recreate the same magical feeling that he had experienced when reading Onegin for the first time in Russian. Dr Smith demonstrated that, in accordance with Lawrence Venuti’s theories on invisibility, each translator brings their own background and cultural knowledge to a translation.

Dasha Kuzina from Institut Perevoda then discussed the importance of Pushkin, and the fact that his revered status can really daunt Russian school children (who are often drilled in his verse and personal mythology from a young age) and deter them from engaging with and enjoying his work. Her solution to this is to introduce Pushkin as a real person to them – as someone who made mistakes and who lived a real life, and describe him as someone they can relate to, rather than a revered, unassailable museum piece.

After a quick coffee break, the talk left Pushkin in peace for a while to consider some other intriguing aspects and questions around Russian literary translation with a presentation from Dr Olga Allison of the University of Glasgow. Olga considered whether differences could be seen between translation choices made by male and female translators, which she did by examining different translation solutions offered for some of Lewis Carroll’s puns.

Svetlana Gorokhova, Library for Foreign Literature

 

 

 

After that it was my turn, and here I moved even further away from Pushkin to consider contemporary Russian literature. I looked briefly at current translation trends, and talked about the fact that it is the smaller presses who are taking all the risks when it comes to publishing contemporary writers. I then went on to consider whether a writer’s politics affects if they are translated or not, by whom, and how their politics influences their reception in the US and the UK. To do this, I compared the reception of Day of the Oprichnik by liberal writer Vladimir Sorokin with Sankya by nationalist Zakhar Prilepin.  Day of the Oprichnik has been much better received in the UK and US than Sankya, even to the point that it has entered into the literary canon via Penguin Classics, and this difference comes despite the success of both novels in Russia (in fact – Sankya could in many ways be seen as more successful). It seems that liberal authors are deemed safer to publish and promote by the big five publishing houses than nationalist writers. I ended by asking the question which will feature throughout my PhD research, namely whether we are prepared to read nationalist writers in the West, and indeed, whether we should.

Liudmila Tomanek, an independent scholar, then talked about the importance of preserving polyphonies with relation to Svetlana Alexievich’s war time accounts (many of which have, as a point of interest, been published by Penguin Classics) and Dr John Bates of Glasgow University brought us back to Pushkin when he considered the relevance of Pushkin scholarship in Poland in the 1950s, and asked to what extent academics at that time towed the party line.

The day was rounded off with a documentary by Michael Beckelhimer, Pushkin is Our Everything, that took us from Pushkin as he really was (and as described by Dasha Kuzina earlier in the day) to how he has been used by successive political regimes to represent Russia and what it means to be Russian – all themes that RusTrans can relate to! He concluded that Pushkin’s importance in Russia is vast, and he envied the fact that Russia, unlike his native America, possesses such an important poet.

Stop anyone on the street, Beckelhimer says, and they will be able to recite you a bit of Pushkin.

A huge thank you to Polina Avtonomova from the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature, and Dasha Kuzina from Institut Perevoda for providing me with photos of the event. You can read more about the conference on the Library for Foreign Literature website here.

Penguins Progress!

I have purloined a Penguin title for this blog post (and no, there isn’t an apostrophe missing, it really is Penguins Progress) because it best reflects the full immersion in all things Penguin experienced at the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Penguin Archive at the end of June. Wednesday 26 June saw the inaugural gathering of researchers and enthusiasts, all sporting a variety of Penguin research backgrounds and interests, and representing a number of institutions. This was the first Penguin huddle to be held at Bristol University since the AHRC Penguin Conference in 2010 which celebrated 75 years of Penguin. Nearly a decade has passed, therefore, and we all felt it was time, once again, to share our collective knowledge about the labyrinthine ways of the archive and to discuss any new discoveries about Penguin’s place in commercial, publishing, literary, artistic, and socio-political history based on our research.

Our host from Special Collections for the day was the ever efficient and knowledgeable Hannah Lowery (seen below) the oracle when it comes to what is in the archive.

Our event organiser was University of Bristol English department’s Bex Lyons, scholar of Penguin’s medieval classics, accompanied by fellow departmental medievalist Leah Tether, classicist Robert Crowe (UoB) and art historian David Trigg (UoB). Arthurian scholar Sam Rayner joined us from UCL, where she also heads up UCL Publishing, and so too did Bath Spa’s Katharine Reeve (Publishing Subject Leader) and Laura Little (Course Director for MA Children’s Publishing). Joining me in representing the University of Exeter was Vike Plock, from the English department, and we were very fortunate indeed to be joined by James Mackay and Tim Graham, trustees from the Penguin Collector’s Society, whose knowledge of all things Penguin never ceases but to stagger!

Even Penguin researchers have to acclimatise to the climate-controlled atmosphere of Special Collections (do take extra layers if you’re thinking of going some time), but having done so, we established our common (and divergent areas) of research interest. Tackling an archive the size of Penguin’s can be difficult. It helps, therefore, to meet other researchers who might have happened upon snippets of useful information on their archival travels, files and letters which have long been filed away in an unrelated or incongruous area. For my part, for example, it’s helpful to know now – thanks to Dave Trigg – that Allen Lane popped up all over the place, wherever the topical fancy took him (not just Russia, but Europe, the Middle East, India, North and South America). On the subject of America, I now also know that Lane produced one other short-lived periodical – Transtlantic  (1943-1946) – similar in concept to the Russian Review (1945-1948), but this time celebrating the US’s involvement in the Second World War and designed ‘to assist the British and American peoples to walk together in majesty and peace’ (Yates, 2006, p. 149). (Against a backdrop of paper rationing, though, this periodical was eventually sold for the nominal sum of 5 shillings, whereas the Russian Review was simply discontinued for having sold poorly from the outset. My thanks to Tim Graham for confirming the existence of this US-oriented periodical.)

We exchanged up-to-date information about permissions, archive use, online archive cataloguing (immensely useful when trying to find a needle in a haystack), and newly donated Penguin material. (Thank you, Hannah, for your overview!) We also turned our thoughts to Penguin’s next anniversary milestone, 90 years, and how we might be able to mark the occasion with a suitable celebration. (Given that my own area of research is Penguin’s Russian Classics, I can’t help but be tempted to combinesomehow Penguin’s 90th celebration in 2025 with the 100th anniversary of Elisaveta Fen’s emigration to the UK!)

The afternoon session consisted of presentations showcasing discrete aspects of the Penguin archive. Vike Plock presented her research on Penguin’s publication in 1944 of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, aptly titled given Penguin’s commitment to serve exactly that ‘the common reader’ and of particular interest to me, the only Russianist in the room, because it includes Woolf’s essay ‘The Russian Point of View’ (‘we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style’, an ideal prompt, if ever Penguin needed one, for restoring some of this stripped style in a new series of re-translations, aka Penguin’s Russian Classics).

Vike Plock introduces Penguin and Virginia Woolf

My paper was perfectly timed to follow, therefore, with a presentation on the Penguin Russian Review, Penguin’s subsequent shift to commissioning Russian Classics translations, their impact on audience reception and canon formation, and less obviously, the ongoing question for me of whether any overt link actually existed between Penguin/Lane and sympathy towards Russia and the USSR. (Articles included in the Russian Review were noticeably pro-Russia, and Russian literature was robustly represented in the Penguin Classics series, but in each case, market forces ultimately appear to trump idealism: the Review folded, and ‘non-sellers’ in the Russian titles were shelved (Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, for a time, and Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family), regardless of their perceived standing in the Russian literary canon.)

For panel two, Sam Rayner revealed the twists and turns of archival research in her pursuit of information regarding Penguin’s commissions of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. She described similar red herrings, dead ends and disappointments to those I have also experienced in my hunt for archival confirmation. Our mutual conclusion is: never make assumptions about commissions (they might not proceed according to plan, they can be messy and inconclusive), and never expect the last conclusive letter to be there, very often, it is not!

Penguin and Malory

Bex Lyons concluded the panel, and the workshop, with her paper on Women and Penguin in the Twentieth Century, a wonderful look at the women who played a role in Penguin’s success and who left their mark, be they Eunice ‘Frostie’ Frost (Lane’s ‘literary midwife’) or nearly forgotten wives of translators who also made their contributions, behind the scenes, to their husband’s timely submissions.

A very productive workshop. Once more, Penguins do, indeed, progress!

Dublin Rules

A thoughtful sphinx from the National Library of Ireland

“We must get into touch also with our contemporaries, – in France, in Russia, in Norway, in Finland, in Bohemia, in Hungary, wherever, in short, vital literature is being produced on the face of the globe,” wrote Padraig Pearse, Irish writer, schoolteacher, poet, revolutionary martyr and legend – here, campaigning against what he perceived as the parochialism of the Irish literary revival up to 1906, the time of writing. Ever since the foundation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893, the movement to create a vibrant and original Irish-language literature had been gathering impetus. Over the next four decades, major Irish writers would choose Russian literary models – principally Turgenev and Gorky, but also Tolstoy and Chekhov – to inspire new literary styles that were both realist and experimental.

My first RusTrans-related research project, with the working title “Pushkin on Grafton Street” is a study of the influence of Russian realist literature, in translation, on the formation of Irish literary consciousness in the first half of the twentieth century. To this end, I am reading  fiction, memoirs, and critical essays by Padraig Pearse, Daniel Corkery, Padraig Colum, Padraig O Conaire, Seamus and Seosamh O Grianna, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and a few others, to map the reception of Russian themes and styles by these major early (and mostly Irish-language) writers.  This was a very self-aware process; Máirtín Ó Cadhain in particular was very conscious of the danger of sovietizing Irish letters by over-encouraging writers to adhere to set aesthetic standards, which could prove as sterile as the excesses of Socialist Realism; as he put it, the worst new Irish writing was “as harmless as cement or tractor novels”.

A secondary research direction  is translation itself: a major early achievement of the young Irish Free State (it became independent of Britain in 1922) was the foundation of An Gúm (“The Project”), which commissioned both new Irish-language fiction and translations into Irish from English and other languages. There was surprising enthusiasm for translating from Russian into Irish, as various versions of Tolstoy short stories on the pages of Irish-language newspapers attest. Not all these versions were translated from Russian, however; most appeared

Chekhov, Short Stories (translated by Daisy Mackin, 1939)

in Irish via an English-language crib. One of the only translators to work exclusively from Russian to Irish was the uniquely experienced Maighréad Nic Mhaicín, known as Daisy Mackin, a young woman originally from Donegal, who had studied at the Sorbonne, worked as a translator in Moscow, and later taught Russian at Trinity College Dublin for three decades. An Gúm paid Daisy Mackin to translate Turgenev and Chekhov into Irish, but funding dried up after the Second World War. One of the most exciting discoveries of my research trip to Dublin was a complete handwritten, final-draft manuscript of Daisy’s Irish translation of Konstantin Simonov’s wartime play Russian People. Never performed or published, it sits in the archives of Ireland’s National Library inviting some ambitious director to take it on. I am very grateful to Daisy’s daughter Mairead Breslin Kelly for allowing me to interview her about her fascinating parents and to reproduce images like the picture of a formal visit to Moscow in the 1960s by academics from Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast, including both Daisy (front) and Máirtín Ó Cadhain (far right), who became Professor of Irish at Trinity towards the end of his life.

 Irish visitors in Pushkin Square, Moscow

Which brings me to the personal element of this post: the joy of working in one of Dublin’s most beautiful buildings, the National Library of Ireland. Every library and archive has its own rules, which take time to learn (hence the title of this blog; perhaps also, given the subject, a nod to the espionage tradition of playing by “Berlin Rules”, etc.). The library boasts marble floors, a sweeping staircase that rises in a double curve to the reading room, and an overabundance of carved griffons, lions, and other mythological creatures. It took me a while to get used to the automated system (especially to access manuscripts), but the staff were friendly and helpful. The Early Printed Books reading room in Trinity College library, where I accessed volumes of Sean O’Faolain’s Herzen-inspired journal The Bell, was another treat: you reach it via a lengthy tunnel and a narrow, concrete spiral staircase which comes out in the same building where the Book of Kells is kept. Next time I return to this research, I may well be learning Galway Rules as I follow up the archives of the O Grianna brothers in NUI Galway.

A carving from the National Library of Ireland

The Merry Month of May…

Well, it is now that I have my rare, 1948 copy of this lovely Penguin Russian Review! But more on that later.

After April’s heady BASEES whirlwind (see last month’s conference blog post), May has been a month for a bit less gallivanting and a lot more researching. Whilst travel has been involved, it’s been for the sake of more solitary pursuits, i.e. archive trawling. I have been back to the Penguin archive at University of Bristol’s Special Collections, working through folders which relate to the Penguin Classics Black Cover series (post-Medallion, post-1962). And, more precisely, I have reacquainted myself with a translator whom I’d always admired, but had no idea he had been such an active Penguin translator: Ronald Wilks. This is the book – bought c. 1985, with a £3 book token – which made me realise for the first time that Ronald Wilks had arrived on the Penguin scene. (And, incidentally, it’s the book that got me hooked on Russian literature.)

What I didn’t realise was that Wilks would go on to enjoy an incredibly long tenure as one of the Penguin freelancers, far longer than the more readily known names at Penguin’s Russian Classics like David Magarshack and Rosemary Edmonds. Wilks’s first Penguin translation (Gorkii’s My Childhood) was published in 1966, and his last (Dostoevskii’s Notes from Underground and The Double) in 2009. In the interim, Wilks also translated: Gogol, Chekhov, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Tolstoi, and Pushkin. Some titles sold better than others. In a letter from 1972, Wilks expresses astonishment at how well his translation of Gorkii’s My Childhood is selling (nearly 100,000 copies sold in the space of 6 years), but this is matched by equal dismay in 1989 at the poor sales figures for his translation of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (out of an intended print run of 6,000 copies in 1987, only 5 copies – yes, single figures, 5! – had been sold by September 1989). Ah, the high and lows of translation!

On the whole, sales figures are not easily located in the Penguin archive (there does not appear to have been any orderly system in place for recording and filing such statistics), but from these two examples, it might be possible to deduce some tentative conclusions about the reading habits of the mid- to late-twentieth-century Penguin Russian reader. Whilst the greats (Dostoevskii, Tolstoi) continued to sell as before, there is new interest in and a move towards the modern Russian classic (Gorkii). Wilks’s translations of Gorkii’s trilogy (published between 1966-1979) could be regarded as a pivotal point in the Penguin list, a gateway to the Soviet literature which would soon be commissioned for translation. Having previously doubted that Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would amount to anything more than a ‘dead duck’ (Lane, 1963) in terms of its lasting literary merit, by 1971 Penguin was energetically pursuing publishing rights for the subsequent Solzhenitsyn novels. In addition to Gorkii and Solzhenitsyn, the 1970s saw authors like Bulgakov, Nabokov, Brodskii and Voinovich arriving on the Penguin list, but as vintage or modern classics, rather than Penguin Classics (traditionally the domain of pre-20th century works). Having trained its Anglophone readers to cope with consonant clusters, Russian names, the table of ranks, provincial regions indicated by the capital letter only (N.—), and Russian realia (samovar, verst, kopeck, smetana), Penguin introduced a new optional genre alongside its classic canonical offerings: Soviet literature.

This decisive move tempts a natural question: whether or not Penguin was (and always had been) politically motivated or – considering Cold War events like the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, high-profile defections, Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the USSR in 1974 – was Penguin simply good at opportunistically tapping into what its readership would be curious to read next? After years of scouring archived correspondence, I have yet to find incontrovertible evidence of Allen Lane’s political views on Russia and the Cold War. He was certainly left-leaning and he visited Moscow in 1957, but this alone is not enough to support a notion that political motivations might be behind the Penguin Russian Classics venture. It has been necessary, therefore, to resort to the more complex process (the archival researcher’s well-trodden path) of piecing together isolated fragments of evidence (or even just hints) extracted from letters, memos, reviews, press articles which are stored in the archive (but again, there is no single folder conveniently titled ‘Allen Lane’s political preferences vis-à-vis Russia’). I’m now in the process of interpreting these hints and fragments, and fashioning them into a more informed, meaningful conclusion. One such fragment, for example, is the aforementioned Penguin Russian Review (this copy – the only one they had – was purchased at the excellent Marijana Dworski Books, and the beautiful postcard came with the book).

Not many people know or recall that Penguin published The Penguin Russian Review between 1944-1948. More often than not, people assume I’m referring to its namesake, the American Russian Review, which was founded slightly earlier in 1941. (This point is, in itself, of interest – was Penguin aware, for example, that this older journal already existed, and if so, was it hoping to gain some mileage by adopting the same name for its UK version? A question I hope to investigate during my forthcoming archive trip.) As publications go, the Russian Review series was a relatively short-lived affair, but for the purposes of this enquiry, it holds valuable insight into Penguin’s approach to Russia and the Soviet Union. Each issue (mine has 138 pages) contains contributions by Russophiles and/or Russian specialists on subjects ranging from economics, Russian literature, and geography to art, history and politics. It is perhaps particularly noteworthy that no other post-war nation qualified for a Penguin review in which to celebrate their ethnography and attempt to re-build post-war European relations.

In this particular issue (no. 4 and the last one in the series, dated January 1948, five months before the Berlin Airlift), the opening editorial commentary offers a concise summary of the near deadlocked state of post-war Anglo-Russian relations. Having painted a picture of British political intransigence towards the Russians, the anonymous editor provides a Penguin appeal for understanding: ‘People are finding it harder than they expected to make head or tail of the Russians, so hard that many have decided it is useless to go on trying. We have to go on trying all the same’ (1948, p. 7). The editor does not apportion blame for the impasse, nor is there an effort to applaud Soviet foreign policy, however the aspiration for future, bilateral harmony is clearly conveyed and Penguin volunteers itself as a vehicle for fostering just such a hope: ‘What we are trying to do is to present Russians in the round – to provide, as it were, the raw material for a practical political understanding at some future date, to remind our readers perpetually that the Russians are people with lives, traditions and outlooks of their own’ (1948, p. 8).

This same aspiration came to be shared by subsequent translators from the first cohort of Penguin’s Russian Classics, Elisaveta Fen and David Magarshack, both of whom had emigrated to the UK from post-revolutionary Russia and expressed their own concerns (independently of each other) that a bad translation could do untold damage to international perceptions of Russia and the Russians.

I will be using the rest of May to investigate more fully Penguin’s relationship with Russia through the medium of translation and ethnographic articles, and in June, I’ll be able to take my unanswered questions to a mini-conference (aka a Penguin huddle, as I like to call it) in Bristol, where Penguin specialists and scholars from all over the country will be sharing their inside knowledge of that ultimate (Emperor) Penguin – the Penguin archive. Watch this space!

Penguin archive, Special Collections, Bristol

Touching Base(es)

So, April’s big event for RusTrans was BASEES! Muireann and I were out in full force, along with about 500 other Slavonic and East European scholars, for the annual BASEES conference (12-14 April) in sunny, spring-like Cambridge. This year saw a break from Fitzwilliam College; the conference took place at Robinson College for the first time. Delegates arrived from universities representing all parts of the UK, from further flung institutions (Russia, US, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Baltics, Serbia, Croatia), and from further still, India, Pakistan and China! Areas of specialism this year covered literatures and cultures (into which category came our own RusTrans interests: Russian literary translation and translators), sociology and geography, history, politics, film/media, languages and linguistics, and economics – in other words, a dazzling pick-and-mix of panels, something for everyone. This was not only an incredible feat of organisation (hearty thanks and post-conference congratulations to Matthias Neumann, Chris Jones and any other organisers) but, for one weekend only, Robinson College was a veritable one-stop-shop for all things Slavic.

Over the course of the conference, there were nine sessions, each one consisting of up to 15-18 panels, plus: three keynote roundtables, the BASEES AGM (see below), the BASEES women’s forum (which saw the launch of Eurasian, East & Central European Studies Women Academic Forum), the Routledge drinks reception, the BASEES conference dinner and passing the baton of BASEES presidency from Judith Pallot (University of Oxford/University of Helsinki) to Matthias Neumann (University of East Anglia), awards for academic achievement (congratulations to Steve Smith for winning the Alexander Nove Prize, Melissa Feinberg for the George Blazyca Prize, Catherine Gibson for the BASEES Postgraduate Prize, and from the BASEES Women’s Forum, Claire Shaw for the Book Prize, Sarah Marks for the Article Prize, and Sasha Rasmussen for the Postgraduate Paper Prize) and even a film screening! All this to a background noise of scholars energetically networking with friends old and new and in an array of languages, buying books and/or negotiating book deals, discussing the finer points of panel presentations, sharing research, making plans for possible research opportunities, and hatching future conferences (incidentally, BASEES will be in Cambridge again next year, but Glasgow in 2021). The all-round sound of information exchange… amazing!

Muireann and I launched into the conference on Friday afternoon chairing our own separate literature panels; an entrée of Demons, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov for Muireann, and for me, a panel on literary and cultural reception in Eastern Europe with Krystyna Wieszczek’s (University of Southampton) opening paper ‘Censorship, Book-Smuggling and Clandestine Prints: George Orwell’s Polish Reception’, followed by Susan Reynolds’s (British Library) paper ‘Three Poets, Two Centuries, One Literature: Vrchlicky and Capek’s Anthologies of Modern French Poetry’. Both papers prompted detailed discussion on archives, translators, translation strategy – a perfect start, therefore, to my conference.

Friday evening saw a packed auditorium for the keynote roundtable (below) on ‘The Criminal Justice System in post-Soviet Russia’ with Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Open Russia), Mark Galeotti (European University Institute), chaired by Judith Pallot and interpreted by Josie von Zitzewitz (University of Cambridge). The hour-long discussion about Russia’s past, present and future – as seen through the eyes and experiences of Khodorkovsky and as researched by Galeotti – attracted a swathe of questions from a fascinated audience, in both Russian and English.

Muireann and I started out on Saturday with another dose of Dostoevsky at the panel entitled ‘Virtual Sequels, Subtexts, and Unreliable Narrators’ convened for the BASEES 19th-Century Study Group. This panel featured: Inna Tigountsova from QMUL presenting ‘Birds in Fedor Dostoevsky’s “Poor Folk” and J.W. von Goethe’s “The Sufferings of Poor Werther”,

Sarah Hudspith (above middle) from University of Leeds with ‘Ippolit’s “Necessary Explanation”: Success or Failure’, Alexander Burry (below) from Ohio State University with ‘”The Stone Guest” as Subtext in “The Brothers Karamazov”’,

and Rolf Hellebust from Dalhousie University speaking on ‘Dostoevsky’s Virtual Sequels’. A series of lively and thought-provoking papers, chaired by Olga Ushakova from Tiumen University and with Muireann as discussant. The panel prompted much discussion and audience engagement.

And then RusTrans had its first, official conference panel ‘Answers in the Archives: Translators and their Microhistories’, made up of Dr Natalia Rulyova’s (University of Birmingham) fascinating paper on Brodsky’s interlinear translators, my paper on the Penguin Russian Classics translators (see below), and Muireann’s paper on Daisy Mackin, the Irish translator of Russian literature for An Gum. Three papers which all drew on original archival research and interviews in order to construct translator microhistories, and which resulted – pleasingly – in much interest and animated discussion from the audience.

And so, we had our fair share of information exchange, hearing and discussing the latest views on Russian literary translation but also introducing the RusTrans project to scholars who have been following our recent RusTrans tweets and social media updates and were keen to know more. Time well spent.

The finale for day two (and the last port of call for me before dashing for the last train home) was another keynote roundtable (below) ‘Witnessing the Collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union’ with former diplomatic correspondent for the BBC Bridget Kendall (University of Cambridge), the historian Timothy Garton Ash (University of Oxford), and civil rights campaigner and politician, Jens Reich. Prompted by chair Matthias Neumann, all three interviewees offered their very personal reminiscences of a key moment in European history, and in their careers, to a packed and evidently appreciative auditorium.