“The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland, and the USA” (RusTrans for short) is a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 802437), and located at the University of Exeter. The project is led by Dr Muireann Maguire (Principal Investigator) and Dr Cathy McAteer (Post-doctoral Fellow).

What is the dark side of translation? Most of us think of translation as a universal good. Translation is valued, taught, and often funded as a deterrent to monolingual nationalism and cultural parochialism. Yet the praxis of translation – the actual processes of selecting and translating literary texts, and of publishing and publicizing translations – is highly politicized, often subverted by ideological prejudice or state interference. Translators necessarily have a personal agenda, as do editors, publishers, and other agents.  Every translation is an act of cultural appropriation, reinventing the thoughts of one language in the words of another. As George Steiner wrote in After Babel, “there is in every act of translation – and specially where it succeeds – a touch of treason.” This may not be detrimental to the culture of origin; even inaccurate translations can confer prestige on the language of the original text, by making the author – and their culture – better known in the wider world. This is called the conferral of cultural capital. Similarly, by translating texts that are already globally canonical into a minority language, the nation of the minority language is spoken asserts cultural parity with larger neighbours in a process that the late Pascale Casanova colourfully, but accurately, termed the “hijacking” of cultural capital..

RusTrans investigates how individuals, and governments, exploit this “dark side” of translation to reap cultural capital by translating lesser-known literature into global languages (and the reverse). The PI and Postdoctoral Fellow will research four case studies about translators of Russian literature, and their networks, in Anglophone contexts (Ireland, the UK, and the USA). Three doctoral students, recruited during 2019 to start from September 2019, will study the transmission of Russian literature in other European cultures. We have also commissioned new translations of contemporary Russian writing in order to observe the dynamics of translator (and publisher) networks today, and organize an international academic conference on the theme of literary translation from Russian.

Our project offers two key innovations. First, we explore an obscure, paradoxical, yet crucial function of translation: as a means of self-promotion and cultural consolidation for emergent nation-states. By focussing on literary translation, and on the transmission of a single language (Russian), we create a coherent paradigm for historians of the cultural reception of national literatures in translation. Second, our diachronic approach to translation praxis allows us to contrast past translation networks and strategies with cultural agents in the ever-more volatile context of modern Russia, as we document the political pressures placed on contemporary authors, translators, and publishers.The project’s main aim is to research why translators, publishers, and funding bodies support the translation of certain texts, and not others. Our focus is translation from Russian into the English and Irish languages during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To build a diachronic picture of the complex networks underlying the translation process, we will carry out four key case studies of individual translators, as well as other research into the wider translation context. The four case studies are:

More information about our project as it develops will be posted  on our blog and in our Current Project section. We can be contacted at rustrans@exeter.ac.uk. Follow us on Twitter @rustransdark to stay up to date with our research.