Category: Canon formation

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.

Presenting: ‘The Changing Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry Canon after 1991’

Presenting together in a panel entitled ‘The Changing Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry Canon after 1991’, Katharine Hodgson, Alexandra Smith, and Joanne Shelton discussed various aspects of the research carried out across the project ‘Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry’ in the course of the last twelve months.

Using the poet and journal editor Aleksandr Tvardovskii as a case-study, Katharine explored whether the poet, who had been accepted into the canon of Soviet poetry, had retained his canonical status in the post-Soviet era. In her discussion, Katharine examined what aspects of Tvardovskii’s work are now seen as most important, and by whom, and whether his apparent appeal to a broad readership has made him a figure capable of uniting opinion rather than dividing it.

Alexandra’s paper addressed the recovery of the legacy of the first wave of Russian émigré poets (1917-1939), whose writings were taboo during the Soviet era. In her discussion of the ways in which these émigré poets are being canonised in the post-Soviet period, Alexandra touched upon recent portrayals of Marina Tsvetaeva, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Vladimir Nabokov, which demonstrate Russia’s attempt to overcome the trauma of the division between the two cultures.

The content of the post-Soviet school curriculum and its interpretation in the approved textbooks for pupils in classes 5-9 was the focus of Joanne’s paper. Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Maiakovskii, and Aleksandr Tvardovskii emerged as the poets who should be studied by all school children. Others, such as Nikolai Rubtsov and Nikolai Zabolotskii, appeared to become more canonical between the curriculum of the late-1990s and mid-2000s, while Viktor Bokov and Pavel Antokol’skii disappeared from the post-Soviet syllabus entirely.

The panel would like to thank Professor Rosalind Marsh for chairing the panel; the BASEES conference organisers for allowing us the opportunity to present the work of the project at the 2012 conference; and the audience for their helpful comments and questions.

Constructing Putin’s 100-book canon

In his recent article for Nezavisimaia gazeta, Vladimir Putin proposed the creation of a 100-book canon of Russian literature, which every school leaver will be expected to read and will, in Putin’s opinion, help to establish some sense of civilisational identity in Russia. Given the history of the relationship between Russian writers and the state, it is perhaps unsurprising that his suggestion elicited a lively online response, with many commentators, tweeters and bloggers proposing texts for inclusion, as well as registering concerns that such a scheme might be reminiscent of unpalatable political policies from the past.

Leaving aside the various reactions to Putin’s plan and which texts might be included or omitted, there seems an obvious question to ask: how will Putin approach the process of forming his 100-book canon? He simply suggests a survey of the ‘most influential cultural figures’, with no elaboration on who these people may be, or what qualifies them to contribute answers to such a survey.

These questions of canon formation and the processes that are involved are central to our project on Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Poetry. While educational institutions and publishing houses may perpetuate a particular canon, the texts which are studied and published are likely to be decided upon by others. The significance of one poet promoting another cannot be overlooked. Neither can critical assessment. However, depending upon the motivations of the group putting forward a text for inclusion, the resources available to them, or the influence that they are able to exert on the process, a different canon will emerge. In addition, some works might make ‘the list’ because of whom they were written by, not because of the quality of the writing, and some writers who have already managed to achieve a place in the canon might manage to retain this spot. As Golding points out in his text From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry, ‘once in, a poet tends to stay in’ (1995, p.8), not necessarily through merit, but because they are already in there. Furthermore, these factors affecting canon formation must be weighed against others that are specific to the Russian literary context, most notably the publication status of a book during the Soviet era.

In the light of the factors influencing the canon-forming process, it will be interesting to see which books make Putin’s list. Will poetry be included? If it is, which poets will meet with approval, and will those selected be those who emerge as the ‘most canonical’ in the Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry project?

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