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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.

Manuscripts Burn at Pushkin House

American poet and Russian translator Katherine Young and I met for tea in Russell Square on Tuesday afternoon this week. I confessed during our conversation that, for me at least, poetry translation feels like the ultimate art form when it comes to crafting words. The pinnacle of the translation world. To hear Katherine present her poetry translations at Pushkin House later that evening – my thoughts were proved right. This week, Rustrans came to London for Manuscripts Burn, an evening listening to Katherine recite and talk about her translations of politically charged war poetry and literature.

Katherine split the evening in two parts: poetry and prose, with case studies concerning the literary usage of Russian as a source language in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Katherine first provided detailed background information to poets affected by the Russia-Ukraine conflict: Lyudmila Khersonska, Inna Kabysh, Xenia Emelyanova, and Iya Kiva. All the poems feature in the Words for War anthology (see below), edited by a Russian-Ukrainian couple now living in the US, Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, who wanted to document the collective experience of war, especially the impact of war on people away from the field of battle.


The poems which followed were acts of civic witness and demonstrated a moral clarity which, as Katherine pointed out, touches on politics. Lyudmila Khersonska, writing in Russian, lives in Odessa and has four collections of poetry. Her trademark style is one of beautiful, powerful but often tragic images created through meteorological and botanical references, a poetic-pathetic fallacy of thunder, lightning, snow, hurricane, hail. Nature responding to war with elemental force. When faced with poems rooted in culture- and event-specific references (little green men, Crimea’s annexation), Katherine identified as one of the translator’s key challenges the need to render a poem without voluminous footnotes. So, once again, I feel justified in putting poetry translation high on the wordsmithing pedestal.

Katherine introduced Inna Kabysh’s poetry, describing her style as deeply personal, anguished, movingly religious in its motifs. Her poetry tiptoes round politics and acts as testimony to the sorrow and dismay that many Russians feel about the conflict with Ukraine. Katherine recited from one of Kabysh’s long poems (Sevastopol Stories), painting a stark picture of ravaged Ukraine, one of graves, destroyed orchards, ‘If there’s no God, I’ll tell him – be’.

Xenia Emelyanova grew up in post-USSR. Her poetic discourse is described as ‘highly self-conscious and sceptical’ and she is tipped as one of the next big things in Russian poetry. Just after the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out in 2014, Emelyanova wrote a poem, recited it on camera, and released it on social media, not knowing how it would be received. With lines like ‘It’s time to shake off our impotence, Stop the slaughter, stop the war’, it’s easy to understand the trepidation over what responses her verse might prompt. Katherine consulted fellow poets to debate the moral quandary of whether to translate Emelyanova’s work, the concern being that Emelyanova might be exposed to danger. The consensus among poet-translators, though, was that poets write to have their voices heard, and so Katherine translated it. Poet-translators have since faced further moral dilemmas: whether to ‘like’ activist poetry on Facebook or not, for fear of upsetting personal and professional diplomatic relations (maybe even putting future visas at risk); and whether to accept invitations to judge a poetry prize in occupied Ukraine which, inevitably, would provoke moral and ethical judgments from expectant onlookers. At the same time, Katherine explained that US publishers tend not to know what is going on in places like Ukraine, so translator-activists face home-grown difficulties of their own when trying to get political poetry published in English.

My personal favourite was a poem by Russian-speaking, Jewish poet Iya Kiva, who used to live in Donetsk before the 2014 outbreak of war. Her father was killed while fighting in the conflict and she now lives as a refugee in Kiev. Her poetry mirrors the hand-to-mouth existence she now lives there; words and images pared down to absolute simplicity, the only appropriate way to express herself after all she has experienced. The poem I loved has no title, but starts:

is there hot war in the tap,

is there cold war in the tap,

how is it that there’s absolutely no war

it was promised for after lunch

we saw the announcement with our own eyes

‘war will arrive at fourteen hundred hours’

You can read the rest of Katherine’s translation here: and Katherine’s poems – each one greeted with reverence and artistic appreciation – can be found in Words for War

Katherine then moved to her second case study, that of the prominent Azeri-born, Russian writing novelist Akram Aylisli (born in 1937), who is now a de facto political prisoner and held effectively under house arrest. Aylisli’s act of civic witness transcends two generations, his own and his mother’s. His mother witnessed part of the Armenian genocide and, as the village storyteller, she voiced an account of the events she had seen (‘They drowned Armenians in their own blood’). Much later, Aylisli wrote an account of Azeri history, spanning his story of socio-political upheaval, ethnic cleansing, and corruption over three novellas under the overarching title Farewell, Aylis. The first novella was published without problem, but the remaining two are more graphic. Originally, Aylisli had no intention of publishing these two stories, but in 2004, a single event changed his mind. At the NATO Partnership for Peace Training Programme in Budapest, an Armenian army officer was hacked to death in his bed by his axe-wielding Azeri counterpart. Aylisli was moved to print his remaining novellas after the Azeri officer was given a hero’s welcome on returning home. Azeri outrage at Aylisli’s novellas manifested in a variety of ways: his books were burned in Baku in 2013 (manuscripts do burn, after all, Bulgakov); Aylisli’s wife and son were fired from their jobs; an empty coffin was paraded outside their house; and a reward was offered for cutting off Aylisli’s ear.


Aylisli wrote his books in Russian both during and after the Soviet Union. There is no authoritative version of his works in Azeri, but his works have been translated (one of his novellas was shortlisted for the German Booker prize) and are popular in Armenia. Aylisli relies on Russian support for his literary success and his work has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On 30 March 2016 (tomorrow marks the third anniversary), Aylisli was detained at the airport while on his way to a literary festival in Italy; after resisting the authorities with violence, he had his passport confiscated, which means he has not since been able to access the medication he needs. Katherine was made aware of Aylisli by Glas editor Natasha Perova. Perova wrote to her saying, ‘I understand you like to take on lost causes; I have one for you’. At first, Katherine thought that publicity would suffice, but soon realised that Aylisli’s case required more than that. Katherine has become Aylisli’s agent and translator – in itself, an arrangement of competing interests which, Katherine recognises, must be managed ethically – she raises awareness of his situation and, of course, translates his work, of which she is very proud.

Thank you, Katherine, for a most remarkable, thought-provoking evening.

Katherine Young

All the Fun of the Fair!

Yes, last week was the London Book Fair and @Rustransdark, aka @CathyMcAteer1, headed along on Thursday, the last day, to attend panels and meet friends old and new. To get to them, I first had to navigate my way from country to country, weaving my way past plenty of tempting stands – China Universal Press & Publications Co. Ltd, the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Publishers and their accompanying Publishers’ Associations, Turkey’s impressive and alluring Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Italian Trade Agency, the Swedish Literature Exchange, and naturally, the huge stand devoted to Indonesian literature (this year’s market focus, promoted under the superlative strap-line: 17,000 islands of imagination). A good, global effort all round.

ReadRussia stand

Tucked in the far corner, I finally found the Literary Translation Centre, the Institute for Literary Translation (Institut Perevoda), ReadRussia, and a most energetic buzz of networking translators, publishers and literary agents. There was just time for me to enjoy a quick catch up with English PEN award-winning literary translator Anna Gunin, before all eyes and ears (an eager and tightly packed audience) turned to the panel for ‘Women in Literature & Translation: Realities and Stereotypes’. This panel featured other award-winners, the literary translator, Lisa Hayden, Guzel Yakhina, the author of Zuleikha (Lisa’s latest translation), the Petersburg-based literary agent Julia Goumen, Ksenia Papazova Managing Editor from Glagoslav Publications, and panel chair, Daniel Hahn, writer, editor and translator.

Guzel Yakhina, Lisa Hayden, Julia Goumen, Daniel Hahn

The discussion started with Guzel, who introduced her latest novel in the context of the gender debate. Her protagonist Zuleikha goes on a journey of discovery, experiencing slave-like conditions as a young wife, but then metamorphoses into a stronger, more independent woman with every major life-change that comes her way. Her novel is, therefore, a triumph of women’s strength and adaptability. Guzel placed Russia in the vanguard of equal rights (women got the vote as early as 1917 in Russia, compared to as recent as 2015 in Saudi Arabia) and said that, as a female writer in Russia, she had never been discriminated against because of being a woman. Guzel’s view was endorsed by Julia, who added that the key question in Russian literary circles is not who wrote the novel, but whether the novel is a good one. Excellence will be awarded. She illustrated this view with the fact that the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award has historically been judged by a panel of 6 men who have, in the past, championed female talent, awarding the prize to Liudmila Saraskina in 2008, Elena Katishonok in 2011, and Guzel in 2015. This is indeed impressive and yes, suggests a gender-neutral approach to selection, although I find myself wondering at what point a female writer will be allowed to take a place on the actual judging panel?

Lisa Hayden extended the theme of women’s visibility to the translation industry, remarking that, according to the stats, translated literature is predominantly a male domain and, unless women establish themselves in translation, women won’t get translated (see The Guardian, which cites research by the University of Rochester reporting that only 33.8% of translated books were by female authors in 2016, as opposed to 63.8% by men: The panel unanimously agreed with Daniel Hahn that translators should be mindful always of what and whom we are translating, and why. The translator is vested with the power to shape literature by decisions such as these. This discussion prompted interesting responses from the audience. One respondent working in publishing asked Julia whether there is a deliberate correlation between books which get selected for publication and the author being beautiful, young, and female in Russia? Having had a discussion up to that point which seemed generally to be breaking the usual gender stereotypes, it was a bit of a bump back down to earth to hear that yes, definitely, young, beautiful female authors look good at book launches and interviews and, consequently, sell books well. That said, as Ksenia Papazova from Glagoslav Publications rightly pointed out, you don’t have to fit these criteria to be a success in Russia: Liudmila Petrushevskaya, Liudmila Ulitskaya, and Elena Chizhova are a powerful triumvirate of stylish 60+s.

Guzel drew attention to the fact that, in Russia, 45% of senior roles are held by women – they came out top of all individual countries in a Forbes 2016 global review of senior women in the workplace. And yet, another comment from the floor highlighted a Russian paradox: namely, that whilst there may be a semblance of gender equality and impressively early suffrage in Russia, society still seems trapped in a traditional patriarchy which has been shored up by stereotypes and does not appear to be changing radically any time soon – old-fashioned chivalry coupled with rigid views of what a woman’s role should be. This, it was remarked, is one of the stark socio-cultural differences which visiting Western females notice when they arrive in everyday Russian society.

But, it seems, we in Western publishing might fall into a similar trap ourselves when it comes to book covers. The books assembled on the panel table betrayed no visual sign of gender (author or translator) except for the Anglophone version of Zuleikha, which is the only one to have a picture of beautiful female eyes looking out, tempting the reader in. It was widely thought that a distinctly “female” cover would serve as a turn-off for male readers – the jury is still out, perhaps this line of enquiry can continue here? – but, the gender anonymity of the Russian texts was generally praised by the audience as a positive move in terms of gender-neutral book promotion. Similarly, recalling the #namethetranslator campaign, it was noted by members of the audience that Lisa Hayden’s name is (most disappointingly) absent from the cover of Zuleikha, only appearing on the cover page of the book. The campaign, therefore, continues!

The panel covered a satisfyingly broad number of topics in just an hour, all of them fascinating, and skilfully steered by Daniel Hahn. There was a palpable sense of audience disappointment when it all had to come to a close. For those wanting to continue some of these themes, many returned later for one last, translation-oriented treat to end not just the day, but the whole Fair, In Conversation: Jeremy Tiang. Jeremy had an even shorter allocation, just 30 mins, but they were his alone (well nearly, discussion being prompted by Chris Gribble, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Writing). The seemingly multi-talented Jeremy, who started out as an actor, then a playwright, then a translator ( proved himself a most entertaining raconteur too, describing all aspects of the translator’s lot – the highs and the lows, his in particular – with wit and irony. As the London Book Fair’s inaugural translator, Jeremy provided excellent advice, extolling the virtues of being part of a translators’ collective (his is the US-based Cedilla & Co., but there are others, such as the London-based Starling Bureau) in order to combat the loneliness and isolation that comes with a career in translation. Collectives not only foster solidarity, but help translators to group together to achieve maximum visibility. With visibility, comes translator validity, and with that, the hope of professionalization: translators aren’t ‘in it for scraps’, they are claiming validity as artists! The same rallying cry that translators have issued for decades and more, but Jeremy actually made it sound a plausible and attainable goal. A good message to take home at the end of a fabulous Book Fair!    

A Slavic Spring in my Step

So far, February has taken Rustrans to Bristol and London and it has brought yet more people to us: we’ve seen our network expand in all directions! If you’re not yet following us on Twitter, please do! You’ll find us here: @Rustransdark.

I (Cathy) have had two days deep in the Penguin archive at the University of Bristol researching more files on translators bright and beautiful! The list included names some of you may well recall: Ronald Wilks, Jane Kentish, Richard Freeborn, Michael Glenny, David McDuff. Fascinating and enlightening letters. Here I am, immersed, slightly dazed (book/paper spores!), but very happy:

I also took a trip to London last week, hotfooting it first of all from London St Pancras to the British Library to meet with Katya Rogachevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections. We caught up on our latest projects and talked about any future possibilities for pooling our  research, energy, and enthusiasm. Lots of exciting options (as you can tell from the photo below) which feed into our joint interests, women in translation being one of them (my research alone has six largely unsung heroines!). Thank you, Katya!

And that’s a theme which leads nicely to my next meeting in London with Becky Beasley, Matt Taunton and Claire Warden at this month’s Anglo-Russian Research Network’s reading group at Pushkin House.

Claire’s theme for the evening was ‘Re-discovering the Lost Women of Anglo-Russian Theatre’ which included, to my delight, discussion about Elisaveta Fen and her identity not just as a Russian living in the UK, but also as a translator, a medic, and an unfulfilled writer. Fen was always slightly disappointed never to have made it as a writer – her key purpose for leaving Russia, she said, was to fulfil her dream of becoming just that, a great writer – and there is a sense that translation was something of a consolation prize to her (perhaps, having studied Russian Language and Literature for her degree at Leningrad University, she associated translation with something that great Russian writers only fall back on in times of creative hardship). Certainly, she expressed surprise at being asked to translate plays into English (obviously not her mother tongue) but was encouraged to do so by an American theatre-goer, Frances Fineman, whom Fen accompanied and provided chuchotage for at stage performances in Moscow.

Fen’s Chekhov translations (commissioned by Penguin) gained a reputation among stage directors for being accessible (which is interesting for me, from a Penguin perspective, because Fen’s translations had to be rigorously edited several times, and checked by English scholars, before E.V. Rieu was satisfied with her rendering of ‘the English idiom’) and for being ‘authentically Russian’, although, as Claire was keen to point out, there is some tension here too, built into the notion of what ‘authentic’ really is, especially if it presents itself as a series of stage-bound Russian stereotypes.

Fen identified with Chekhov for two reasons. They were both products of pre-revolutionary Russia – which she ultimately preferred to the industrialised post-revolutionary Russia she encountered when she visited later – and they were both medical practitioners. Fen had a career in child psychology as well as literature; she was known as Lydia Jackson in her medical work, Elisaveta Fen for literary commissions. Our reading group concluded that, even though she failed to realise her dream of becoming a writer, she was able, through her translation work, to keep alive her nostalgia for a Russia which was changing dramatically (and, in her opinion, for the worse) under the Bolsheviks.

Aside from Fen, who took up perhaps more than her fair share of discussion time (a fact which would delight her, I’m sure), Claire also facilitated a fascinating discussion about Nikolai Evreinoff’s experimental Russian play The Theatre of the Soul, performed by the Pioneer Players in March 1915. According to the play’s translators Christopher St. John and Marie Potapenko, the play was received in March with ‘indisputable enthusiasm’. It failed, however, to get past the censor just a few months later, in October 1915, when it was scheduled to be performed at the Alhambra Theatre in honour of a fundraising event entitled ‘Russia’s Day’. (It was thought that showing a lady with a bald head might upset the usual Alhambra audience.) The play was performed instead at the subscription-based Shaftesbury Theatre, thereby circumventing the censor, but received a dismissive review in The Times, which describes it as deploying ‘a crude and easy method of characterisation’. The subtext here, according to Claire, is that being Russian and ‘avant-garde’ the play would have been regarded as scarily experimental, potentially even socially dangerous.

To the upset of archivists and archive researchers everywhere, the play’s translation drafts and correspondence were all destroyed, burnt (deliberately) in a fire. There are many unanswered questions, therefore, about how this play arrived in English. If anyone knows how it ended up here in the UK in the first place, Claire (below) will almost certainly want to hear from you. My thanks to Claire and ARRN for a fun- & fact-filled evening’s discussion!

Goodbye January, Hello Feb!

Translating Thought/Translating Literature!

Last week saw @Rustransdark heading to Sheffield University – dodging ice, snow, and points failures on the rails – for Translating Thought/Translating Literature, a two-day international colloquium dedicated to sharing research into cross-disciplinary perspectives on text, language and culture. Scholars assembled from as far afield as Australia, China, Israel, Spain, Romania, Estonia; some came from our own snowy corners of the UK; and some, alas, were beaten altogether: Manchester airport being firmly closed for business.

Highlights of panel one (Theory of Translation)… included Lorena Hurtado-Malillos from University of Valladoid, Spain, whose paper tackled multilingual entries in literature – instances where source text characters break into a foreign language which just so happens to be the translator’s target language – and used examples of French in Jane Eyre, German in Good Morning, Midnight, and Spanish in In the Time of Butterflies. Suggested strategies included: homogenising the source text with the rest of the target text and appealing to a reader’s ‘suspension of linguistic disbelief’; providing an initial explanatory note in a translator’s preface and adding some sort of distinction (asterisks, italics) in the body of the target text to show foreign language shifts in the original; providing a bilingual edition of the text. (Rustransdark found Lorena’s paper particularly interesting as it was a reminder of letters in the Penguin archive where readers express resentment at having to suspend their linguistic disbelief!)

Lorena Hurtado-Malillos





Bruno Poncharal from Sorbonne Nouvelle discussed the specifics of translating English-French social science texts providing clear examples from his own work and strategies for overcoming textual challenges. Katre Talviste from Tartu University presented on Estonia’s pedagogical canon of translated literature, explaining how Estonia’s literary field has reflected the political and cultural situation in the country during the 20th-21st centuries. Katre expressed a new pedagogical objective for Estonia: to raise awareness of translation’s essential role when defining Estonia’s literary canon. Marina Schirone from Bologna revealed how books are being translated into symbols under the new ‘IN-BOOK’ scheme in Italy. These intersemiotic translations are being used as a resource for refugees who have no local language knowledge (translations so far include Dracula, Frankenstein, Cinderella, Pinocchio).

Even though Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère’s (Lausanne) flight to Manchester was cancelled (snow!), she still managed to host the plenary session (hurrah for Skype!). Martine gave a fascinating paper about crime-writer Angela Carter and her lesser-known abilities as a translator (Carter was also a Japanese-language student and had a degree in Medieval English from Bristol University). Martine presented findings from her research at the Angela Carter archive, British Library, revealing that Carter used translation from French poetry as a vehicle for developing her own creative work.

Rustransdark chose History of Translation I for the first session of the afternoon. Elizaveta Vasserman (Leeds) presented ‘The History of Ideas: Translation Theory by Russian Scholar Andrei Fedorov’, focusing on Fedorov’s principle of translatability and how this pillar of Soviet translation theory has been achieved in practice. Delegate discussion extended the concept of translatability to film subtitles, with Rustransdark also wondering how often extreme challenges to translatability might have been resolved by the tool of omission (as occasionally seen in some of the early Penguin Russian Classics texts)?

Elizaveta’s paper on Fedorov





Elena Goodwin (Portsmouth) presented ‘Translating Yuri Tynianov’s 1928 historical novel Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar’, the Soviet-era novel which recounts Griboedov’s death in Persia. Elena gave us fascinating insight into the literary/historical challenges (metaphor, filmic lyricism, archaisms, colloquialisms, intertextual allusions, and rhythmic patterns) which faced the translator Susan Causey, who sadly died before she could see her book published. The novel will be released with comprehensive translator’s notes this Spring – one I will look out for!

Elena Goodwin and Cathy McAteer





Maria Pace Aquilina (Sheffield) presented on the amazing Margaret More Roper and other sixteenth-century English female translators whose activities in translation would have been a head-on challenge to the cultural and gendered beliefs of Early Modern England. Erudite, talented women who worked under anonymising initials alone. And last, but not least, Sheffield’s own Adam Piette, presented Samuel Beckett’s bi-texts within the framework of the ‘Terminating Spacetime of Self-Translation’, analysing source and target textual interrelations which ‘mirror, reaffirm, contradict, deny’ each other.

The final panel was dedicated to Translation and Historical Context with Christine Baycroft (Sheffield) providing her case study of Pierre Coste’s 1700 translation of Locke’s Essay Concering Human Understanding into French, explaining the impact this translation has had on any historical reading of Locke’s essay across Europe and in France even today. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan (Haifa) presented ‘Conrad’s Mystic Writing Pad: Translation and Mistranslation of Subjectivity’, in which she traced faux amis in Conrad’s translations. Daphna interpreted them as being symptomatic of the ‘textual unconscious’, indicative of the extreme sensitivity Conrad felt about being a writer in a foreign land. Karine Zbinden (Sheffield) concluded day one with a lively presentation about French translations of Bakhtin, where she brought together two contextual strands: Petrograd in the 1920s, and Paris/Lausanne in the 1970s, when Bakhtin was first translated into French. Karine outlined the difficulties translators have faced in trying to convey the Russian word slovo in French and also pointed out the translatorial irony surrounding the Russian word ideologia, a term undefined by Bakhtin but which features on every page of the French translation!

Day Two!

Friday, day two, brought another round of thought-provoking and stimulating papers (and more snow!). Iulia Cosma of West University of Timisoara started the first panel – History of Translation II – with the 16th-century Italian humanist Fausto da Longiano and his determination to translate Latin and Greek into vernacular Italian. Not only that, Longiano extended his practical interest to include theorising on the vernacular too. Juliette Loesch (Lausanne) followed with her fascinating account of Oscar Wilde’s determination to write Salome in French (albeit with some linguistic experimentation on his part, duly edited by three different editors), and then his displeasure at how Lord Douglas translated it into English and Aubrey Beardsley presented it intersemiotically. Loesch argued that the ‘open-ended’ re-workings of Wilde’s Salome anticipate the ‘creative turn’ in Translation Studies, with its dynamics of translation, adaptation and transcreation.

Juliette Loesch on Wildes Salome





The plenary session was hosted by guest speaker Didac Pujol (Barcelona) whose paper documented the (relatively late) arrival in Catalan of Romeo and Juliet. Didac focused on the serious efforts of Victor Balaguer to turn Romeo and Juliet into a tragedy Catalonia could call its own, and Josep Maria Codolosa’s more bathetic attempts, later in the nineteenth-century, to fashion a Shakespearean parody, also set in the Catalan context. As you’d expect, Didac’s paper was punctuated with suitably parodic mirth!

Didac Pujol Presents a Catalan Romeo and Juliet




Richard Mansell (Exeter) kick-started Rustransdark’s afternoon session with a long, hard look at the facts and figures of the UK market for translated literature. Books translated into English account for a disproportionately, and disappointingly, small percentage of all published literature in the UK – just 3% – but what Richard went on to do, was unpick what this figure means in reality. He highlighted what other European nations do to promote literature in translation, with more success than the UK, examined the genres which tap into global interests – the petrochemical novel, cli-fi – and applauded the work of the small, independent publishers (Charco Press, And Other Stories) in pioneering translated literature when large publishers remain risk averse.

Richard Mansell presents on the UK’s market for translated literature

And, on the same panel, Will Gatherer – all the way from Queensland – enlightened us about Chinese metafiction novels by authors Ma Yuan, Ge Fei, and Yu Hua, who rely heavily on the device of self-reflexivity (metalepsis). Will identified key challenges for the translator when handling this experimental genre and concluded that the novels which achieve a high level of self-reflexivity (Ma Yuan) prove narratologically complex to translate, while low-level self-reflexivity tends to point the translator towards a more complex transcultural process.

Will, all the way from Queensland!





The last port of call for Rustransdark was Patrick McGuiness’s (Oxford) witty paper on the poet he created so that he could then translate his own poet’s works! And Patrick’s not alone – others have created fake poets with the same aim in mind. Rustransdark loved the fact that Canadian poet David Solway created his own Greek fisherman-poet whom he translated so successfully that a high-society drinks reception was organised in honour of the local Greek hero-poet… Solway had to ask his Greek family dentist to dress up as said poet and stroll (silently but purposefully), in full fishing attire, through the drinks reception and out the other side, leaving before questions could be asked!

Patrick introduces multiple fake poets!

If traduttore is ever traditore, then it seems this was a truly fitting end to an excellent colloquium! Thank you @ShefLanguages


Bloggers Karamazov Interview

It’s been another busy week on our project! The Bloggers Karamazov hosted an interview with the Dark Side‘s Cathy McAteer. Here she talks a bit about her Magarshack case study, taking us on a virtual tour around some of the surprises she found in the Penguin archive and Magarshack papers. Consider it a little taster of more things to come as our project gathers momentum. Our thanks to the North American Dostoevsky Society for making us welcome.

We’re also looking forward to some events on the near horizon… Cathy will be at the Translating Thought/Translating Literature conference at Sheffield University next week, 31st January and 01 February – be sure to come and say hello if you’re planning on being there too – and excitement is growing in all literary circles for the London Book Fair in March. We plan to attend and look forward to meeting some of our new followers there!