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Analysis & Opinion
07.09.10 Gained In Translation
By Elena Rubinova

An international congress held in Moscow last week drew over 150 participants from 25 countries, but offered no translation services. Why? Everybody present at this rare gathering had at least two things in common – perfect knowledge of Russian and a genuine love for literature. Literary translators, scholars and Slavists from Italy, France, China, the UK, Portugal, Brazil, the United States, Japan, and other countries convened for two days at the First International Congress of Translators on September 2, to discuss the problems translators face when rendering Russian books into other languages.

This time the literary translators were not left to their own devices: the congress was timed to coincide with the annual 23rd Moscow International Book Fair and backed by the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications. Thus international publishers, contemporary Russian writers and even government officials could join their efforts in finding new ways of promoting Russian literature in the modern world. “Translators don’t get attention from the government. This functional vacuum has to be filled,” said Vladimir Grigoryev, the deputy head of the Agency for Press and Mass Communications, at the opening ceremony.

The slogan of the congress was a quote from Alexander Pushkin, the nation’s most revered poet and a national institution. He once called translators “the post horses of enlightenment.” And although this metaphor may seem a bit out of date, since post horses have long ago been replaced by cars and planes, and ideas of enlightenment have given way to the information boom and globalization, even new communication technologies have not undermined the role of the translator. Literary translators are still the messengers of culture.

Yekaterina Genieva, who has served as the director of the Russian State Library of Foreign Literature for 17 years and is one of the main organizers of the congress, emphasized that “The humanitarian mission of translation is not to be underestimated in the 21 century, and our translators are doing their best to offer the Russian reading public translations from 147 languages.”

Another goal the congress organizers have is to think of ways to reestablish the status of this once highly-regarded profession, famous for its traditions and an established school of literary translation. Alexander Livergant, the editor in chief of the Foreign Literature magazine and the Chairman of the Masters of Literary Translation Union, gave a quick overview of the current realities behind literary translation: “The translator is, on the one hand, theoretically esteemed, but, on the other hand, very low-paid and living in the shadow. The congress strives to get the translator out of that shadow.”

Literary translation is notorious for being among the most underpaid areas of academic work in Russia and elsewhere. The organizers’ plan is to set up a Translation Institute, which would not be an educational institution but a state-supported organization securing grants, especially for long-term projects. Here, not everything has to be done from scratch. “We at Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, already run the International Center for Translators for those who translate Russian literature into foreign languages,” said Vsevolod Bagno, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We have a yearly contest for the best translations of Russian literature in four nominations and a database of published translations from Russian, but we’d like the new institution to reinforce our efforts.”

As well as other aspects, the congress focused on its primary goal – sharing professional experience in such issues as the translatable and the untranslatable in fiction, teaching the art of literary translation and poetic translation in light of linguistic differences. British translator Stanley Mitchell, the author of an acclaimed translation of “Eugene Onegin,” shared his unique experience in translating Pushkin’s verses. Tian Dawei from China presented a panoramic view of the latest translations of modern Russian literature and gave practical examples of how he managed to recreate in Chinese the complex reality depicted in “Underground” – a novel by Vladimir Makanin. The enormous appetite for Russian literature in Asian countries was confirmed by Mitsuyoshi Numano, a professor of literature at Tokyo University and a prominent translator of books by Vladimir Sorokin, Andrei Bitov, Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin. He said that “recently, Japan has seen a new wave of translations of popular Russian classics aimed at the younger generation.”

Classic Russian fiction and drama have long ago been adopted by the Western cultural canon, but enthusiasm for modern Russian authors is not so great in the English-speaking world. Other international schools of literature have a higher standing in the West. One of the panel discussions, chaired by Yekaterina Genieva, focused specifically on the English-language market for Russian literature in translation. “Modern Russian literature in the West is perceived in light of stereotypes that have been piling up for decades. Against the backdrop of the great literature of the past, anything coming from Russia is expected to be prophetic and somewhat world-scale,” said Professor Oliver Ready, an Oxford scholar and translator of modern Russian authors, adding that UK publishers often complain that the reality depicted in modern Russian prose is too specific and insular.

Russian authors also tend to write long, complex books, which can be hard to adapt for an English-speaking audience. “I was extremely lucky to translate books by Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin, the most published modern Russian authors, because they fit into existing niches without much adaptation. They have become really popular in the West,” said Andrew Bromfield, a prominent UK translator famous for his translations of Leo Tolstoy. Several years ago Academia Rossica, a UK-based foundation that pioneered cultural projects between Russia and the English-speaking world, together with the Yeltsin Foundation set the goal of bringing up a new generation of Russian-English translators. Last year’s translations introduced Vladimir Sorokin, Viktor Pelevin, Alexander Terekhov and Maria Galina, among others, to the English-speaking audience. This is crucially important given the fact that Russia will be the Guest of Honor and the “market focus” at the London Book Fair in 2011, and will later participate in BookExpo America.

The congress also pioneered a technique that is widely popular among writers in other countries: a number of eminent international translators of the works of Lyudmila Ulitskaya met in Moscow to discuss their work with the author herself. In matters of translation, understanding the author’s intention is crucial – as Anthony Burgess, author of the famous novel “A Clockwork Orange” and a distinguished linguist wrote, “Translation is not a matter of words only. It is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” Even in our contemporary culture, with all of its communication devices and technological opportunities, the greatest challenge of literary translation remains unchanged: crossing the borders of time and space, translators keep drawing up an equivalent reality for a reader in another language.
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