The Poetry Canon and the Translator

Two days of discussion at a workshop at St Antony’s College, Oxford (15-16 June 2013), organised by Oliver Ready and Robert Chandler, offered a clear demonstration of two things. One of these, that the translation of Russian literary works into English is a difficult and demanding business, was something that project team members had already been confronted with when preparing a special issue of the journal Rossica, entitled A Journey in Five Postcards (2011). The second was that there are significant numbers of people, translators and publishers, who are actively engaged in bringing Russian literature of all historical periods to the English-language audience . The workshop programme can be found here.

Panel discussions covered topics such as ‘Translating the classics: poetry’, ‘What needs to be translated and why’, ‘Translating dialogue in drama’. Project contributors Alexandra Smith, Emily Lygo, and Katharine Hodgson participated in a roundtable discussion on censorship, intertextuality, and political context in the translation of twentieth-century poetry. If one of the main aims of a translator is to create a text which readers can experience in much the same way as a reader of the original text, then what does a translator do with texts that are densely allusive, packed with hints and gestures that are only accessible to a reader with extensive knowledge of a particular tradition at a particular time and place? While the broad outlines of the Stalin-era Terror are well known enough to enable readers outside Russia to appreciate the poetry of poets such as Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandel’shtam, who wrote as witnesses of state repression, there are other poetic testimonies that demonstrate the challenges of writing about the same period from a different stance: that of the idealist attempting to work inside the system, and to communicate in published poems, if only furtively, with readers able to read between the lines. While the meaning of the words can be conveyed by a translation, the significance of the translated text is hard to render without offering some further explanation in the form of notes or introductory comments.

This need for explanation, to bridge the gap between the contemporary reader and a world that is difficult to imagine, has shaped the existing canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry in English, leaving some figures who are not easily placed within the narrative of resistance , such as Aleksandr Tvardovskii and Ol’ga Berggol’ts, on the margins. One example of how this can be done is G. S. Smith’s collection of poems by Boris Slutskii, Things that Happened (1999), which places Slutskii’s poetry among excerpts from his prose, with the translator’s commentary to provide readers with essential contextual information. Without more collections of this kind, there is a risk that whole tracts of twentieth-century Russian poetry, much of which emerged in full only towards the end of that century, will be forgotten before they have the chance to  reach readers outside Russia.

PS for more on a similar topic, see a piece by Phoebe Taplin ‘Beyond Akhmatova and Pasternak: Discovering Soviet Poets’, on Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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