Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context.

A few years ago I mentioned that RusTRANS was “actively seeking essays for a new, Open Access volume which is aimed at stimulating and consolidating scholarship about the global imprint of Russian literature in translation”; now the volume has appeared, as editors Muireann Maguire and Cathy McAteer explain:

[…] Our edited volume, Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context, studies how literature itself acts as diaspora. In this collection of forty-one essays by three dozen international scholars, we trace how, since 1900, Russian literature has been disseminated beyond its political borders; how individual Russian and Russophone authors are translated and emulated abroad; and how cultures and individuals from the Republic of Ireland to South Vietnam have absorbed Russian cultural influence, from Pushkin to Sholokhov. Our methodology is informed by both sociology and Translation Studies, relying upon Pascale Casanova’s concept of central and peripheral languages, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital, Jeremy Munday’s microhistorical methodology, the focus on literary translators consolidated by Klaus Kaindl and colleagues, and David Damrosch’s erudite yet accessible comparatist analysis. National engagement with Russian literature varies with political as well as geographical climate; successful cultural integration is often pre-determined by the literacy of the target audience, and indeed by the nature of the transmission process – whether voluntary or compulsory, state-funded or profit-driven. Hence the definition of ‘Russian literature’ – and public attitudes towards it – alters sharply with time, place, and politics, as our contributors show.

Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context also explores an equally important issue, much harder to quantify: the influence of Russian literature on individual creative inspiration. This edited volume maps, for the first time, global connections between Russian authors (nineteenth-century classics, Socialist Realists, and even Soviet dissidents) and canon-shaping writers around the world, including Norway’s Knut Hamsun, Germany’s Thomas Mann, Greece’s Ares Alexandrou, the great Hindustani author Premchand and Japanese prose stylist Futubatei Shimei, through to modern-day award-winning authors like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk and South Korea’s Bora Chung. Where Lahiri’s novel [The Namesake] traces the progress of Gogol the reluctant reader, we follow the (global) progress of Gogol the reluctant writer. How did a neurotically anxious fabulist, an ex-pat twice over (he left Ukraine for St Petersburg and St Petersburg for Rome, returning to the Russian Empire only to die), leave such a powerful legacy across so many continents? How could writers like Pushkin and Dostoevsky, their horizons restricted by the rigid social hierarchy and narrow politics of the Russian Empire, reach so far and touch so many readers? There are as many answers to these questions as there are nations where Russian literature is read today. This volume speaks for most of them.

Ebbs and flows in translation in places as disparate as Brazil and Greece obeyed political trends: leftist governments promoted Russian literary authors, while far-right leaders discouraged them. Our essays on Latin America explore Cuba’s immersive Cold War reception of Russian language, literature and culture (including cinema); the contributions made by Brazil’s Russophone émigré diaspora to their native milieu; and Mexico’s uneven relationship with Russian culture (even now, no Mexican publishing house specialises in Russian literary translation into Spanish). Within the Soviet Union, soft-power infiltration gave way to forcible translation programmes: our contributors describe how target-language translators in Estonia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were often brutally co-opted into replacing their native literature with fiction translated from Russian. Our Ukrainian contributors strikingly liken the era of literary control by the Kremlin to “the slow but increasingly deadly compression of a rabbit by a boa constrictor”. Even Finland did not escape such tensions.

You can see the table of contents and download any or all of it here. Once again I have occasion to say: three cheers for Open Access!


  1. Professional Russian-to Uzbek translators were brutally co-opted into translating from Russian to Uzbek instead of what?

  2. I mean, I’m sorry, yes, Russia invaded Ukraine and yes I don’t like USSR.

    But is it possible to speak about Soviet republics differently?

  3. Bathrobe says

    Professional Russian-to Uzbek translators were brutally co-opted into replacing their native literature with fiction translated from Russian, is the obvious answer.

    I’m not totally clear on what kind of brutality this is referring to. Perhaps they were brutally forced to give up promising careers as cleaners and became Russian-Uzbek translators instead…. Or perhaps they preferred to translate technical articles and were brutally forced to translate Russian literature instead.

  4. Rodger C says

    Translating from Uzbek to Russian comes first to mind.

  5. And the Estonian chapter is about the period of independent Estonia (1918-1940).

    About the volume itself: it’s a bit disappointing that the region of my primary interest (MENA and moving south) is represented only by articles about Gorky – and a brief (6 pages) overview of works of 4 scholars (out of 5 mentioned) who write about Africa. I’m pleased to find someone Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky as one of the authors: he mut be related to the scandinavist (I’m also pleased to find that he has a Telegram channel about Ethiopia).

    Other sections terrify me with the thought that languages are many, Russian writers are many, translators are many, so with articles like Alastar Sergedhebhít Púiscín we can fill some 40 volumes:)

    Sigh. I remember in 90s I bought a large enough book (in English) about Russian literary influences in Ireland (as is usual for 90s, at the price of a bottle of beer). There was a Russian-Irish round table (where I got seriously drunk because my freind filled my pint glass with whiskey – from the only bottle of whiskey available for guests – instead of beer) and maybe some year of Ireland in Russia or soemthing like that.
    I thinkI would find it much more interesting today – but I’m not sure I still have it. (I do still have my teachers work about Russian-Breton translations, in Breton:).

  6. Bathrobe says

    Isn’t Breton a superior form of Welsh?

  7. Professional Russian-to Uzbek translators were brutally co-opted into replacing their native literature with fiction translated from Russian, is the obvious answer.

    Bathrobe, that’s bullshit. If you choose the career of a translator then you translate.

    If someone decides to print A and not B you can claim that this policy contributes in “replacing” B with A.

    But you can’t claim that the translator is co-opted into this “because if she did not translate A, no one would be able to publish it” if A is just “translated texts” (any of them). If she did not translate, she would not be a translator.

    Technial translation is an entirely different profession (and not as easy as it may seem).

    Yes, she could have chosen a different profession.

    She also can proudly refuse to translate good books (Tolstoy) and translate bad books (promoted Soviet writers) based on the realistic assumption that no one is going to read crap in any langauge and it won’t lead to “replacement”.

  8. P.S. and again – read for example the WP article about Yagnobi to see how USSR was not totally fun.

    I just don’t understand why serious problems should be discussed at this level.

  9. “Translating from Uzbek to Russian comes first to mind.”

    Rodger C, that was done – and usually such books were not very popular here.

    Most of Russian literature publiushed in USSR is one of two things: 1. Soviet crap 2. classics.

    Same with Uzbek literature.

    “Oriental” poetry (Uzbek or Persian) does not sound good in Russian when it is not Khayam and apparently requires good knowlege of its context if you want to enjoy it as a narrative. (When it is read – aloud – in Persian by my Persian-speaking friend it is very, very impressive, even though I don’t understand Persian:)).

    Oriental texts can be appealing to Western readers (cf. 1001 nights), but for this you need different slection and presentation – OR massive immersion of readers into the culture which is not exactly about translators.

    Soviet crap… Oh:(

    There also some good Soviet Russian writers – perhaps there are good Uzbek writers too.
    But USSR began massively publishing foreign literature and when I was a child most of what Soviet intelligentsia read (and almost all what I read) were translated books.
    As result “good Uzbek writers that were not translated to Russian” compete with… Ray Bradbury.

    Anyway: normally Uzbek-to Russian is the job of Russian native speakers who specialise in translation to Russian rather than Uzbek native speakers who specialise in translation to Uzbek

  10. Professional Russian-to Uzbek translators were brutally co-opted into translating from Russian to Uzbek instead of what?

    You know, you don’t have to speculate — there’s a chapter about it.

  11. LH, but I’m not discussing the chapter.

    I’m discussing what the editors wrote. Their words and not someone else’s different words. And what about Estonian?

    Should I also consult the chapter about translations from Russian in Estonia between 1918-1940 to see how Kremlin brutally co-opted translators into replacement?

  12. LH, but I’m not discussing the chapter.

    I’m discussing what the editors wrote.

    But that doesn’t make any sense; it’s like saying “I’m not discussing the story, I’m discussing the headline.” The headline is just a pointer to the story, and those (doubtless oversimplified) sentences in the part I quoted are just pointers to the chapters. It’s all clickbait, meant to get you interested in the meat of the book.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    The Uzbek chapter in particular, given its specified timeframe, doesn’t make any sense in the context of an anthology that purports to be about how “Russian literature has been disseminated beyond its political borders.” It’s the opposite of the timeline-limited Estonian chapter. Maybe that “disseminated beyond” was just a poorly phrased mission statement though.

  14. i’m interested to glance at the uzbek chapter (if time allows), because i’m fascinated by the ways that the soviet yiddish experience gets talked about (in yiddishist, and other jewish, circles) as if it were somehow unique, when it’s so clearly a fully interwoven part of the overall treatment of the cultures of inorodtsy and non-russian slavs (to the extent that they were admitted to meaningfully exist) in the u.s.s.r.

    i get the sense that yiddish writers who couldn’t publish their own work were still able to publish in yiddish if they translated clearly-approved work – classics were probably safer, but also more likely to already be available (there was a ton of translation into yiddish), so i imagine a lot of it was soviet literature (crap or not). so i’m wondering if that’s the pattern that’s being so badly described.

    and as someone who does similar kinds of writing for a living, and sees it as very much technical writing: how an editor glosses something tells you quite a lot about how they think, and the frameworks they think with. that these editors would use that capsule description to cover a set of contributions is, i think, something you can base some (quick, revisable) reasonable judgements about them on. (i write grants; my job is to guide exactly that kind of judgement in under 200 words, or these days under 1500 characters, or 750.) and i don’t love what it says about their sense of the terrain the collection addresses. i hope the person who wrote the uzbek translators piece is more reliable.

  15. Well, maybe not crap.

    Perhaps decent books which Soviet intelligentsia did not want to read. There were selected themes promoted by the Party, yet another novel exploring those themes was immediately identified as “boring Soviet read”.

  16. And I do see problems with cultures of USSR.

    The line I criticise expresses the editors’ attitude: they like Uzbek translators. They don’t like Kremlin. Attitudes are fine, but in terms of meaning it is horrible. “It is a politicised question, I must make my allegiance clear, but I should not care if what I’m writing is true or even makes sense”.

    This is what I don’t like: approaching serious issues in such an idiot way.

  17. PlasticPaddy says

    From the chapter:
    “In this loose institutional context, until the mid-1930s, Uzbek translators enjoyed great freedom in their choices. Cho‘lpon was even able to use the very act of translating as a subtle act of protest in Mushtum. In his translation of the short stories of Boris Cheprunov, a local Russian novelist, he emphasised the hidden meaning of his animal fable, Miyoviddin Mirzo (1935). Cheprunov discreetly criticised Soviet power: his fable was ostensibly set during the so-called ‘tyranny of the khans’ (the Uzbek khanate of Kokand). Indirectly, however, it attacked the excesses of Soviet power, and its anti-colonial sentiment echoed Cho‘lpon’s own sentiments. Cheprunov would later be critiqued for his anti-Soviet tendencies, denounced as an Uzbek nationalist—although he was Russian—and shot.”

    1. So not only “crap” was translated.
    2. The reality is weirder than the “headline” sentence.
    3. The victims of Stalin were random and did not correlate with ethnicity or any policy of brutal co-option.

  18. PlasticPaddy, but this has little to do with replacement of Uzbek literature with Russian literature.

    A translator can contribute in ‘replacement’ by translating something which is going to be popular. Party in turn systematically encouraged literature that could hardly be popular.

  19. 3. The victims of Stalin were random and did not correlate with ethnicity or any policy of brutal co-option.

    um, no. not by any stretch of the imagination. (especially taking “victims of stalin” at face value, rather than as a convenient way to contain critiques of policies that preceded and outlasted the moustache’s rule) you don’t have to be an X to be targeted in an anti-X campaign: cutting the targeted community off from solidarity by making it dangerous to be associated with them is a central part of any such campaign. there’s no randomness involved. there can be some fear-inducing unpredictability about specifically which (to give a non-soviet example) friends and associates of armenians are going to get rounded up; that unpredictability doesn’t apply to armenians themselves.

  20. While your point is valid, there was actually randomness involved: a local poohbah would get an order from the Kremlin to arrest and/or shoot 50,000 wreckers/deviationists/nationalists in some campaign, would double the number just to be safe, and send out his minions to do the arresting. Trust me, they cared even less about actual guilt than US cops, and plenty of people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time got sent to the Gulag for no apparent reason. To quote a poohbah from a different site of arbitrary terror: “Here there is no why.”

  21. LH +1. And to add to that, ordinary citizens participated in the selection process as well. You have an annoying neighbor? Report them to the authorities, Marx willing, they will get swept.

  22. Rodger C says

    As result “good Uzbek writers that were not translated to Russian” compete with… Ray Bradbury.

    I take your point, but Bradbury was a high-quality genre writer. He was certainly a superior (within his genre) stylist, which maybe doesn’t come across in translation.

  23. Rodger C, Ray Bradbury is the writer who influenced me the most (perhaps the only writer I can name who seriously affected my personality/world view). And it is obvious from Russian translations that he’s is a stylist (interested in both what and how to write).

    But back to the point, Russian intelligentsia was not interested in reading “low-quility” writers (I’m not sure that science-fiction was seen as “genre fiction”)… Expectations from Russian literature were not too high, much less so for Uzbek literature – and maybe not as much because there were not good writers (I mean, among those who were published), but just because of the Party’s intervention.
    If I feed you with science fiction and only science fiction, good and more commonly bad and often just horrible and usually on same topics/about same issues, some day you may feel you’re fed up.

  24. David Marjanović says

    and plenty of people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time got sent to the Gulag for no apparent reason.

    A new arrival in the Gulag is being processed.
    “How much did you get?”
    “Five years.”
    “For what?”
    “For nothing.”
    Sudden barely contained outburst of anger:
    “LIAR! The punishment for NOTHING is TEN years!”

    The randomness had the peculiar effect that, from what I’ve read, lots of people didn’t blame Stalin simply because it didn’t feel like there was anything to blame anyone for. The arrests and shootings seemed like a natural disaster, raining down on the righteous and the wicked alike. It didn’t feel like there were any decisions behind it all. You watched your friends & neighbors being accused of random shit and shot, you grieved for them, and you moved on.

  25. Yes, it took me a long time to get used to that.

  26. a lot of the function of “discretion” is to create through unpredictability a sense of randomness, while focusing violence legitimized by the state (whether carried out by that state’s own violence workers or not) in the directions the state prioritizes most in practice (regardless of rhetoric).

    that’s been visible in the u.s. with both police violence and the kinds of vigilante violence that are consistently legitimized after the fact by juries and judges. so-called “stochastic” attacks are not at all random: they focus specifically on people who the state has made it clear it will not defend – none have, for example, hit a beach in east hampton or a sidewalk brunch in murray hill. similarly, the entire history of canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is “discretion” in a form so condensed its pattern becomes blatant.

    in the context of structured state violence campaigns administered with local discretion, local officials and would-be-snitch neighbors know, from their experience of the state’s priorities, what kinds of people they can most easily finger with the least risk of being overruled or causing future problems for themselves. in the ussr, that’s wasn’t always along ethnic lines, clearly, but “nationalism” being provable simply by ethnicity or language (as the early purges of Old Bolshevik inorodtsy showed) made it safer to pick your targets that way if you could, whether or not the initial formal justification was on that basis.

    i’m not saying there was no randomness, or no score-settling counter to the overall lines of ethnicized power. just that wherever there are people who can be targeted that way, there are structural forces to keep correlation with state’s overall policies very strong – as you’d expect from “discretionary” actions that were an integral part of those policies.

  27. Seong of Baekje says

    so-called “stochastic” attacks are not at all random: they focus specifically on people who the state has made it clear it will not defend – none have, for example, hit a beach in east hampton or a sidewalk brunch in murray hill.

    So these “stochastic” attacks focus on… the 99% of the US population not living in neighborhoods teeming with VIPs…

  28. those are my self-consciously parochial exemplars of places that are far, far “softer” targets than most places where “stochastic” attacks happen, and yet are never chosen, even by attackers who claim to be hostile to the elite. i could as easily have said nahant and needham; they stand in similar, though less extreme, contrast to the kinds of places that are targeted. which are, completely uncoincidentally, places full of people who the state i live in has no interest in protecting – unlike the denizens of my counterexamples, who may even be able to call 911 without needing to calculate the odds of winding up dead on their own kitchen floor. that seems like it would be nice; i wouldn’t know.

    once more in case you genuinely missed it: so-called “stochastic” attacks are, from columbine to orlando to pittsburgh, very precisely aimed. the point of them, according to their theorists and publicists, is to combine that precision with unpredictabiliity, to maximize exactly the kind of impact that others have described as being so central to the bolshevik Terror. there’s no randomness in the mix, which is why i keep putting “stochastic” (their proponents’ term) in scare quotes.

  29. The thing that made the terror in the USSR (and similar episodes in other revolutionary dictatorships) different is that in Western democracies, there is a relatively broad part of the population (white / ethnically dominant middle class and above) that feels relatively safe and mostly trusts the authorities and the police, and in general, the trust is justified (they don’t get beaten up or killed in encounters with the police, they can get competent lawyers, they get a fair trial). In the Soviet Union of the terror years, no-one was safe, even if they belonged to the elites, even if they said and did all the right things. Everone was scared (even Stalin, who feared that he might be deposed and shot at any moment.) This is, BTW, an important difference between the USSR under Stalin and the one in later years; after Stalin, if you behaved and weren’t part of some disfavored group, you would be relatively safe (although even then, the justice system would be much more stacked against you when it got you in its claws than in most Western democracies). This normalization was one of the lessons the party elites drew from the Stalin years – it’s no fun to rule if even the rulers have to fear GULAG and firing squad all the time, and after terror and war, the people that had lived through all that were ready to silently work on their living standards and not rock the boat.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Everone was scared (even Stalin, who feared that he might be deposed and shot at any moment.)

    And while Stalin himself didn’t die that way, as soon as he had died, Beria “was hastily accused of being a British spy, arrested and executed, not necessarily in that order”.

  31. Beria was the most important, but the post-Stalinist leaders executed a bunch the top Chekists. Merkulov was shot at the same time as Beria. Abakumov lasted a little longer, possibly because was already rotting in jail, having been purged by Stalin and didn’t seem to be an active threat. Killing the leaders of the secret police agencies was partially out of perceived self protection. Malenkov, and Voroshilov, and Khrushchev, etc. didn’t want people around with a potentially dangerous power base in the organs. However, it was also partially personal; those guys were scary and intensely hated. Serov, who had not been at the core of the NKVD at the height of the purges and had been Khrushchev’s hatchet man in Ukraine, was considered a much safer choice to lead the toned down KGB, and he was eager to prove his loyalty to the new collective leadership by helping get rid of Beria.

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