Nabokov and Brodsky, key figures in Russian translation and cultural exchange.

Conference reports in the russian translation zone COMPREHENSIBILITY COEXISTS WITH FOREIGNIZATION

“Translation in Russian Contexts: Transcultural, Translingual and Transdisciplinary Points of Departure”, hosted June 3–7 by the Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies (UCRS), brought together scholars and practitioners of translation from Europe, Russia, and North America to Sweden, a central point between Western Europe and Russia.

Published on on October 20, 2014

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Olaus Rudbeck’s theory that Swedish was the original language of Adam from which other languages are derived may have been off the mark. However, in the wake of an international conference held in Uppsala, Sweden is now the origin of new, international collaborations in the study of translation between languages and cultures. “Translation in Russian Contexts: Transcultural, Translingual and Transdisciplinary Points of Departure”, hosted June 3–7 by the Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies (UCRS), was roundly appreciated as a watershed event for the field. The conference brought together scholars and practitioners of translation from Europe, Russia, and North America to Sweden, a central point between Western Europe and Russia. Organized by Julie Hansen and Susanna Witt, the five days of the conference ran on a tight schedule with six keynote speakers (Brian James Baer, Katerina Clark, Maria Tymoszko, Adrian Wanner, Harsha Ram, and Alexandra Borisenko) and fourteen diverse panels with papers covering literature, theater, interpreting, popular culture, and theory. More importantly, several lines of thinking stretched across the panels and the five days of the conference, such as intersections with gender and sexuality, the difficulty presented by translingual texts, and innovative methodology.

As was apparent from Birgit Menzel’s presentation on grassroots movements to end the Cold War in part by facilitating communication between Soviet and American citizen-diplomats, the Russian translation zone has its own urgency and particularities. For centuries, Russia has been a major imperial power whose vast size, location between Europe and Asia, and political history have shaped the meaning of translation for Russian society. The need for mutual comprehensibility between the United States and the Soviet Union was understood, in an age of nuclear weapons, as a matter of life, death, and justice.

Because of the importance of literature in Russian culture, as well as the Cold War’s isolation of Russia, literary translation has played a crucial role in cultural exchange between Russia and other societies. Those Russian writers and (self-)translators who have operated between cultures are inevitably the subject of a great deal of analysis in a discussion of Russian translation, especially the key figures of Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. For example, Nabokov’s English translation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin is famous — or infamous — for its extreme foreignization (including dropping the novel’s unique stanza form, employing strange English vocabulary, and supplying several essays and hundreds of pages of footnotes). D. Brian Kim noted that Nabokov had, before taking his controversial stance on translation, written the very kind of translation that he would later denounce. Marijeta Bozovic described Nabokov’s Onegin translation as an act of canon-formation which was accomplished by using explanatory footnotes to highlight Pushkin’s references to other poets.

Speakers on different panels brought other, newer translingual writers into the discursive space traditionally occupied by those figures. Julie Hansen’s paper, for example, addressed the problems of translating translingual literature by the Russian émigré Olga Grushin. The original English text already contains foreignizing Russian material, so when it is translated back into Russian, the translation becomes “domesticated by default” — thereby losing the Russian foreignness so central to the original text. As Per Ambrosiani demonstrated, the same problems arose in the translations of A Clockwork Orange into Russian, due to Anthony Burgess’s invention of a Russian-based youth vocabulary (including words such as in droog, derived from the Russian drug, meaning “friend”) for the characters in his novel.

Several papers pushed methodological boundaries or addressed topics which are less commonly discussed. Eugenia Kelbert and Saša Mile Rudan used quantitative methods and custom-written language processing software to assess works by Nabokov and other bilingual writers. Their research is an exciting example of how the field of translation studies can benefit from digital humanities techniques. While translation studies is understood as part of the humanities, language itself is studied by the science of linguistics, where quantitative methods have long been accepted. Other disciplinary boundary-crossers included Daria Shirokova, who explored the role and practices of Russian-language interpreters at the Nuremberg trials, and Alexander Burak, who examined translations of film titles, bumper stickers, and voiceovers.

Maria Tymoczko’s keynote address emphasized the limits of translation theory, challenging scholars to consider whether or not their theories are applicable and to revise them if they do not work. One of the reasons for the limitations of translation theory is that it is dominated by Western conceptualizations of translation, which are not universally applicable to all languages and cultures. Indeed, several presentations — including those by the keynote speaker Alexandra Borisenko as well as by Sibelan Forrester, Maria Khotimsky, Susanna Witt, Kåre Johan Mjør, and Irina Pohlan — addressed different approaches to translation. The translation of Western material into Russian was a part of the formation of modern Russian culture. In the Soviet period, translations were subject to peculiar kinds of censorship. They simplified complex stories to make good, evil, and human relationships more clearly defined — though not always to the same extent.

Translation between Russian and English has also been a significant cultural encounter between world powers, especially during the Cold War. An emerging field, that of translations from Russian into other national languages of the Russian sphere of influence, began to show itself at this conference. Translations from foreign languages, especially Western ones, have facilitated the development of Russian forms of both literature and science. In addition, translation from Russian has played a similar role in other cultures. In his keynote address, Harsha Ram explored the intertextual dialogue between Russian and Georgian Romanticism. Peter Karavlah introduced the audience to Russian literature’s indirect translation into Croatian via English and the author of this article addressed Russo-Judaic translations of Pushkin into Hebrew and Yiddish. Katharine Holt discussed the Soviet-era Russian performances of translated Central Asian poets who served to “embody” their literatures as part of a Stalinist cultural project. Daniele Monticelli argued that the Estonian-born Russian-language writer Andrei Ivanov challenged the very concept of national identity. Another important subfield is translation from Polish into Russian. Even before the period addressed by Lars Kleberg in his presentation about Russian translations of Pan Tadeusz (by Adam Mickiewicz), Polish was an important cultural resource for Russian. Brigitte Schultze’s analysis of recent Polish plays performed in Russian demonstrates that this connection still exists.

Among the many peculiar features of a society, gender and sexuality are significant for translators and translations. Vitaly Chernetsky addressed the ways in which Yaroslav (Slava) Mogutin translates gay literature into Russian, which does not share an easily translatable gay vocabulary or cultural language with English. In Olga Demidova’s discussion of eighteenth century women translators and translation as a way for women to participate in the male-dominated sphere of Russian letters, men often served as sponsors for women translators. This intersection speaks not only to the history of gender roles in Russia, but also more generally to the common perception of translators as being of secondary importance relative to writers of “original” texts.

This international gathering of scholars was well designed to produce an intensive environment of discussion and to lay the foundation for future collaborations. The tight schedule, including coffee breaks and shared meals, provided an exceptional opportunity for cross-cultural and interdisciplinary conversations (generally conducted in English, Russian, and a bit of Italian). This more than made up for the limited time for question-and-answer sessions after each panel, allowing for more thoughtful one-on-one and small-group exchanges about individual papers.

By the final day of the conference, organizers and attendees had laid the groundwork to coordinate future scholarly activity — conference panels and publications — around themes that arose from the conference. The Atlantic Ocean and world politics will continue to present obstacles to international scholarly collaboration on the Russian translation zone. ≈

  • by Sara Feldman

    PhD, currently holds a post-doctoral position at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Michigan.

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