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.)


  1. Michael Farris says

    Without looking at the linked article, a lot of it sounds familiar in Poland.
    One big problem is that in Poland (I don’t know if this is true of Russia as well, but I suspect it is). There’s no real process of translator certification.
    There’s something like a translation certification but only for English/German (both, you can’t just do one or the other) translators who work both ways (the idea of translating written work into a foreign language is considered completely appropriate here).
    There’s also something called a ‘sworn translator’, but this is a financial rather than a competence certification.
    In other words, there’s no where to go for anything like guaranteed quality or any real interest in creating such an animal (and to be fair, knowing how some of these things work here, I wouldn’t especially trust such a certificate).
    Also, the traditional discouragement given non-Poles in learning Polish and the non-attention paid to expressive features of language in language teaching add up to a not-so-great translation scene.
    As for commentators, whenever I listen to Polish “American experts” on Polish TV my usual reaction is “how very interesting, what country could they possibly be talking about?”

  2. Having some experience with Russian translators, I can confirm there is a shortage of qualified people, and there are wildly varying approaches to translation that can cause problems.
    However, their rates are off. Anyone who pays $5 a page for a Moscow translator gets what he deserves. I’m paying something on the order of 10 euros a word (my translators are in Siberia somewhere, and it’s easy to find qualified people who successfully charge more than double that).
    I’m not sure a certification process would do much to help: I don’t see a significant difference between my certified and non-certified translators in other languages.

  3. Correction…that should be 0.01 euros per word…

  4. 0.10 (or about $30 a page). Clearly I’m having problems with numbers today.

  5. LH: I suppose Eurozine is heavily liberal (in the American sense) in spirit, so to them, “nationalism” must be an unconditionally dirty word which they both misunderstand and make unduly inclusive. Even so, I can’t think of even a mildly nationalistic Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya and Avdot’ya Smirnova could have invited to their talk show, The School of Scandal. Except Eduard Limonov, of course, who hardly needs Tolstaya’s promotion these days. In general, Tolstaya is not the kind who would bash anyone or anything; she’s too bland for my taste.
    On the language of social studies — economics, sociology and political science — I have to agree with Mischa: I find it hard to talk economics in Russian.
    The young man who falsified translations from Turkish must have been Alexandr Yanov.
    boo: That’s quite a handsome rate. Either the texts are impenetrable, or I’d gladly take the job myself. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the reassurance about Tolstaya!

  7. Mischa Gabowitsch
    was born in 1977 in Moscow. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy & Politics from the University of Oxford and a D.E.A. from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, where he is currently finishing a doctoral thesis on post-Soviet Russian nationalism. He has published academic and journalistic articles in Russian, German, French, and English, and works as a translator between those four languages. He lives in Moscow, where, since 2002, he has been editor-in-chief of the journal Neprikosnovennij Zapas.

  8. I must confess I harbor a bias against any Russian-born who insists on using a diminutive form of their name. I am not familiar with Mischa’s thesis but I am ready to bet that most of the “nationalisms” it deals with are varieties of imperialism or ethnic exclusivism. When Misha calls someone an extreme nationalist, chances are this person is nothing but an anti-Semitic chauvinist who cares not a bit for the Russian political nation, or lack of it.
    Back onto the topic. I actually enjoyed this: “…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.” I’d say Victor Yerofeyev fits this description far better than Tolstaya.

  9. Theloniouszen says

    Finally a good forum to ask a translation question that has been bothering me for a while.
    In a region with a standalone first language and a heavily imposed 2nd langauage (like many of the former SSRs), when they do the news in the first language, do they translate quotations that were given in the 2nd language into the first language to match that of the reporters?
    For example, if I am in Ukraine, and the news in Ukrainian features a sound bite of Vladimir Putin, do they bother translating it into Ukrainian?
    Maybe my question would apply better in a region like Quebec or Alsace where the imposed 2nd language is even more well known.

  10. Michael Farris says

    I think it varies from place to place. Newspapers (at least online) in Filipino seem to never translate quotes from English. I’ve heared of both cases happening in Catalan, translating Spanish quotes and leaving them in the original.
    Script might play a role, the news sites in Indian languages either don’t include or translate quotes in English (I’m assuming they don’t transliterate English quotes into Devanegari or Tamil script).

  11. In Québec, newspapers definitely do translate quotations. Outside of the Montréal area, many if not most francophones are functionally unilingual, and most older anglophone Quebecers (who I assume are disproportionately represented among newspaper subscribers) are also unilingual, so quotations from one language are almost always translated. On TV, one often hears a soundbite in the speaker’s langauge, while the reporter paraphrases it in the languge of the broadcast, without providing a literal translation. Official government speeches and press conferences are often done bilingually, so in soundbites from those sources one often hears the voice of the official government translator.
    In Indian newspapers, I know that English language publications will often transliterate quotations in Indian languages into Roman script, but whether or not a translation is provided depends on where the newspaper is published and the original source language of a quotation. For example, a Delhi based English paper will often not translate Hindi quotations, but will provide a translation for Tamil quotations, and a Madras (…er…Chennai) based paper will do the opposite.
    I don’t often read Hindi language papers, but I have never noticed English language quotations in Roman script, and I would find a transliteration into Devanagari very odd to say the least.
    On Indian TV, sound bites are often left in the original language, unless it is in another Indian language the audience is not expected to know. (Ie, a Chennai based broadcast would not translate English soundbites, but would dub over Marathi or Bengali ones)

  12. Fascinating — I’m glad you asked the question, Theloniouszen!

  13. I don’t know about Tolstaya’s TV show, but the essays about the West and the US that she’s penned are very shallow and cliche-ridden. A typical diatribe includes attacks on “political correctness”, complete with the usual urban legends on how someone sued someone else and got millions and how this shows the moral decay of the Western society; or how the language is being tortured by the politically correct movements/activists (the anecdotes relayed being usually credible, but their importance in the culture at large grossly exaggerated), and so on and so forth. It’s hard to believe, reading those essays, that she’s lived in the US.

  14. Well, that’s unfortunate, but since plenty of native-born Americans perpetrate the same sort of simple-minded urban-legendry (in fact, she presumably gets it from them), I can live with it. I love her essays about Russia in the NYRB and her stories in Russian, so I didn’t want to have to deal with her being an “extreme nationalist.”

  15. “Go’s to credibility”, as they say in court.
    Don’t you think if there is evidence of her essays about US being cliche-ridden and pushing certain “West is dead” agenda, so are her essays about Russia, taylored for West consumption as she sees it?
    I have always found her boring and predictably politicised, FWIW.

  16. If we can agree that Tolstaya writes equally “ironically and pejoratively” about both America and Russia (and just about everything else), I hope it makes everybody happy.
    Here’s what the ever-entertaining Boris Paramonov has to say about T.T.

  17. Alexei,
    Thanks for the interesting link. I would expect better of T.T. than that silly chush’ about Mickey Mouse, as Disney has been a target of satire and disdain for the American intelligentsia since the Beatniks, if not long before that.

  18. Slightly OT:
    In the article MG, among others, touches upon the topic of publishing and publishers/authors relationships.
    Here’s slightly more emotional view, by one of Russia’s current best (in my opinion) authors.

  19. Yelena Norton says

    My name is Yelena Layenko-Norton. I was born in Russia and grew up in Ukraine. I am now married to an American and live in Wisconsin. I have skills in translation … English, German and Russian. I have a US equivelent Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in German and minors in English as a Foreign Language and Secondary Education.

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