A Eurozine article by Mischa Gabowitsch examines the problems of Russian translation.
To the casual observer, almost fifteen years after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Communist regime, the Russian translation market may seem to be booming. Indeed, according to the statistics of the Association of German Booksellers, Russia has been among the top ten buyers of rights on translations of German books for most of the past decade; and the Russian State Statistics Committee tells us that in 2001, translations made up about a third of all fiction titles published in the Russian Federation (though, in 2002, they only accounted for just over 13 per cent of the total number of copies of fiction and non-fiction titles.)
Translation, however, is of course much more than a market. It is a skill, an organised activity, and ideally a process of cultural synthesis and creativity. Concerning all of these aspects, translation is in a wretched state in contemporary Russia. In order to understand why, we first need to consider the status and role of translation in the Soviet Union, all the more so since critics of the low level of most literary translations done nowadays sometimes look back to a reputed ‘golden era’ of translation…
The overwhelming majority of translations published in Russia today are of execrable quality. Words and whole sentences are routinely mistranslated, names are misspelled, and translators’ or editors’ notes on difficult passages, even when they exist, are often simply wrong. This state of affairs is due to a number of factors, some of which are rooted in the Soviet heritage. There are still very few people who have spent sufficient time abroad to have gained proper knowledge of a foreign language. While there is now a considerable Russian diaspora in countries such as Germany and the United States, few Russians manage to master their new language and not forget their mother tongue, let alone keep up with the break-neck speed of transformation of the Russian that is spoken, and written, in Russia. And even among the truly bilingual, only very few are prepared to work as translators into Russian for fees that are ridiculously low by Western standards.
There is an interesting analysis of finances, transportation problems, and “cultural accessibility.” I am bothered, though, by this attack on an author I’m very fond of:
This paves the way for those Russian authors who look to foreign countries mainly to enhance their prestige at home, or to gain symbolic capital abroad by acting as self-styled representatives of Russian culture where there is no-one to disclaim their simplistic and cliché-ridden generalisations. Tatyana Tolstaya, a well-known writer who spent many years in America, is an example of a ‘biased cultural translator’ who likes to write ironically and pejoratively about Russian exceptionalism while in the United States, but happily engages in West-bashing back in Russia and sees no harm in promoting extreme nationalist writers in a TV show she co-anchors.
Does anybody know how much truth there is in this?
(Via wood s lot.)