what we do

The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland, and the USA (or RusTrans for short) is an ERC-funded project based at the University of Exeter, led by Dr Muireann Maguire (Principal Investigator) and Dr Cathy McAteer (Post-doctoral Fellow).

What is the dark side of translation? Translation is valued, taught, and often funded as a deterrent to monolingual nationalism and cultural parochialism. Yet the praxis of translation is highly politicized, often subverted by ideological prejudice or state interference. Translators have a personal agenda, as do editors, publishers, and other agents. Every translation is an act of cultural appropriation. This may not be detrimental to the culture of origin; even inaccurate translations can confer prestige on the former. The ‘dark side’ of translation – its immanent politics – often allows subaltern nations to assert cultural parity with larger neighbours.
RusTRANS investigates how individuals, and governments, exploit this ‘dark side’ to reap cultural capital by translating their own literature into global languages (and the reverse). Dr Muireann Maguire and Dr Cathy McAteer are researching four case studies about translators of Russian literature and their networks, in Anglophone contexts (Ireland, the UK, and the USA). Three doctoral students, recruited in 2019, will study the transmission of Russian literature in other European cultures. We are also commissioning new translations of contemporary Russian writing in order to observe the dynamics of translator (and publisher) networks today.

The RusTrans project explores how national politics interacts with processes of translation (such as selection of texts, the institutionalization of translation as a profession, critical reception, and audience reactions) in the context of the reception of Russian translation in (primarily) English-speaking countries, during a discrete time period. We do not neglect traditional questions of textual fidelity, such as the impact of domesticating or foreignizing strategies, but we prioritise our analysis of how translation has been utilized to connect governments with audiences. The idea that translation confers cultural capital and that it may be consciously utilized (however paradoxically) as a means of reinforcing or even re-inventing national culture is not new; it dates back at least to Friedrich Schleiermacher, as many contemporary scholars have argued. Schleiermacher acknowledged that translation from Greek into German would help to establish German as a global language, by strengthening nascent German culture and even positioning the latter as a guardian of world culture. And yet, no single school or group of scholars has previously isolated the phenomenon of translation as a factor in the formation of national identity as a topic for analysis; nor has this factor been studied in the overseas reception of a single culture over an extended period of time. Our project will remedy this gap in translation scholarship.

RusTRANS aims to intensively research specific moments in its reception history in the Anglophone world, which we believe are key for understanding how the translation process can be manipulated for political or cultural gain. These moments inform the project’s four case studies:
1. How translated Russian literature informed the Irish nationalist movement and Irish-language prose realism (Pushkin in Grafton Street)
2. How translated Russian classics enhanced the UK public’s receptivity to non-canonical, heavily politicized Russian fictions (David Magarshack and Penguin Books)
3. How translators’ and editors’ selections signalled American patriotism within the USA’s Russian émigré communities in the mid-twentieth century (The Unmaking of Russians)
4. Ideological conflicts in contemporary literary translation from Russian in the UK (Publishing Translations from Russian Today). In turn, these case studies help us to identify three political uses of translation
1. Translation as a stimulus for political change
2. Translation as a conduit for global cultural capital
3. Translation as a symbol of political conformity
Excitingly, as part of the fourth case study on contemporary publishing, we have recruited a network of translators and authors in order to carry out fieldwork into the contemporary politics of translation from Russian. This is good news for translators and readers alike, as we have commissioned up to 12 new translations of Russian literary prose into English.Ultimately, RusTrans aims to demonstrate how the process of translation, co-opted for political purposes, plays a key role in the formation of national identity in different contexts: in the emergent Irish Free State; in the formation of British perceptions of Russian culture in the twentieth century; in Russian émigré communities in the United States during the Cold War; and in the spread and representation of contemporary Russian culture and literature in the UK today. By focussing on a single language and culture of origin (Russian) and, for the most part, a single language of reception, we will create a coherent, diachronic portrait of the processes of cultural transmission.