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.

My research trip to Moscow (the people and Vladimir Maiakovskii)

Written by Natalia Karakulina.

Studying the ‘best, most talented’ poet of the Soviet nation unavoidably meant that sooner or later I had to go to Moscow. This was a daunting prospect as I had no idea what to expect. Now I am back and in one piece and can recap on my experience:

The city

Everybody knows that Moscow is big. I knew that too. What I didn’t realise is that everything in Moscow is big: the buildings…

The Kremlin

…the roads…

The Ring Road

…the monuments:

The Space Museum











For some reason (and having never been in Russia before) I was under the impression that Russians dislike Leninmonuments of the Soviet era and have removed most of them. However, this was not the case and dedushka Lenin was the first historic figure to greet me, as I emerged out of the Metro.

A few more words about the roads

I lived on a street which led to the famous Sadovoe Kol’tso. It had ten lanes. I have never before even seen a street with ten lanes, now I had to navigate it. I realised that when checking the address, it was not only important to establish how to find the right street, but also what side of the street the building you are looking for was.

Crossing the street in Moscow was not a mere fact of walking to the other side of the road. With five or more lanes on average to traverse, crossing the road became a quest, a search for the underpass. I have spent many moments standing on the edge of the road, trying to judge from the posture of the pedestrians, the direction of the traffic, the position of the sun and the shape of the clouds, whether the nearest underpass was to the left or to the right of me.

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

I happen to suffer from the very stereotypical disease commonly attributed to women – complete inability to orientate in space. I still get lost in a small town I lived in for almost 3 years. Naturally I spent a considerable amount of the time dedicated to my research trip being utterly lost. One of Stalin's Seven Sisters

In the city centre I spotted a tall gothic structure and thought: ‘great, I can use that to orientate myself and get myself back to the Metro’. Somehow, it never seemed to work though. I would walk back to the building, and then past it, and still there would be no sign of the metro station. At the end of the second week of the trip me and my colleague Jo, a frequent traveller to Russia who had just arrived in Moscow, went for a walk and I, having spotted the building I’d tried to use for directions, vented my frustration at my complete inability to determine locations. Turns out, there are seven buildings like that in Moscow, all nearly identical, six of them being right in the city centre.


The Metro

The Moscow metro is very deep. As you stand on the escalator weighing up your life you can almost feel your hair becoming greyer. Russian people don’t like the metro. We were going down as the lady I met told me a story: ‘every person has a guardian angel, who always follows us around. But the guardian angel can’t go under the ground, so when we use the metro and start descending down the guardian angel loses us, and dashes around in the crowd desperately trying to find us’.

Maiakovskii metro station

Maiakovskii station, opened 1938.

The story finished, yet we were still continuing to go down the escalator. I presume the moral of the story is that nothing good comes from the metro, and that it’s generally a place where bad things are likely to happen to you (since there is no guardian angel to look over your shoulder).

And yet, Moscow metro is beautiful, clean, easy to navigate and exceptionally efficient. Fair enough, it becomes very crowded during peak times, but you expect it from any underground; and yes, it does take a while to go up and down the escalator. On the plus side, the metro is cleaned every day with sawdust. Every station is a piece of art and every station is different, and in my three and a half weeks of being in Moscow I have witnessed only one disturbance on one of Moscow’s twelve metro lines. This was a very pleasant surprise after the London Underground where it’s more unlikely to see all lines working normally, than to find disturbances. The disturbance I witnessed in Moscow resulted in trains running slow. ‘Slow’ meant every two and a half minutes… There is a watch on every station which tells you how much time has passed since the last train. Normally the trains run every one and a half minutes. To me this level of efficiency is worth spending a few extra minutes going down the escalator.

As you go down the escalator you are presented with the only advertisement in the metro: posters of cleaning products and convenience stores pass you as the voice from the loudspeakers tells you about the proper behaviour on the escalator and on the roads: ‘only cross the street in the designated areas and always wait for the green light. Think about the children: you are an example for them’. This touched my heart: a nation, where at least there is an effort to make child education a mission for the whole society.

Moscow’s inhabitants

Pigeons and Dostoevskii

One of the largest pigeon gangs in Moscow: together with Fedor Dostoevskii overlooking their domain at the entrance to the National Library (above). More pigeons (below).Pigeons

You can easily find out that eleven and a half million people live in Moscow.

However, far fewer statistics exist on the city’s other inhabitants – the pigeons. The pigeons of Moscow live in gangs and consider that the city is built to suit their needs: the monuments and roofs are good vantage points, the metro is there for them to huddle in the warmth when days are cold, and the roads are made uneven on purpose, so that water can be gathered for pigeons to drink. When I visited Moscow in April the pigeons were a happy breed. They were basking in the spring sun, bathing in Moscow many puddles and, of course, courting.

The libraries

During my time in Russia I visited two libraries: the National Library and the much smaller Pedagogical Library. First of all I went to the National Library, as I was warned that it was a long winded process. I wasn’t warned however about the general indifference of the library staff, whose job title, according to the plank on the desk, was ‘Consultant’. By the end of my first day in the library I was feeling worthless, close to tears and desperately lost (though determined to rather spend the night in the library than ask one more time for help).

The next day, still shaken from the experience, I went to a conference, where people I have never met before treated me like a VIP guest. During a tea break (which involved a table filled with various foods and treats) I was asked how I was finding Russia and I answered that it’s still all very new to me but that I found the general apathetic relationships between the people upsetting. I was quick to add that this did not apply to the welcome I received at the conference. They were first disappointed with my response but when they learned that I was basing my answer on my experiences in the National Library, they laughed and said that the library was ‘a special case’ and I shouldn’t base my judgement on it.

True enough the smaller Pedagogical Library had a completely different feel about it. And while nobody asked me how I was, or attempted to make small talk, people there were ready to answer my enquiries and help me out.

The Maiakovskii museum

The Maiakovskii Museum

                                              в комнатёнке-лодочке
                                      три тыщи дней
Maiakovskii Khorosho!

Visiting the Maiakovskii museum was on my agenda for the trip. Yet, between meeting people and working in libraries, it was quite late when I finally managed to visit the museum. I came on a Sunday, as the entrance was free, and was quickly completely mesmerised by what artists have managed to achieve there. ‘Maiakovskii museum’ is just a name, a label, in reality it’s an art gallery: an artistic representation of the poet’s life and time.

Almanacs of the Futurists (above) and Letters to Lili Brik (below).

Some don’t understand it: a middle-aged gentleman who walked into the museum with his wife shortly after me, looked around half disgusted and said that he could not understand how any of it had anything to do with Maiakovskii. I felt like turning to him and answering that if he wanted to see Maiakovskii, he needed to read his works. I didn’t, of course. To me though, the museum was a great success. It’s situated in a building which held communal flats; the room belonging to the poet, and his work cabinet for a large part of his life, is still there. The rest is demolished, made into uneven halls where rambling decorations are somehow just about pulled together, to celebrate the different periods of Maiakovskii’s life.

Letter to Maiakovskii.

A particularly interesting letter to Maiakovskii from one of his public readings: ‘Comrade Maiakovskii, how would you rate Esenin’s poetry if his ideological position was admissible to our modern times?’

In our modern times it would appear that it is Maiakovskii’s poetry which is often rated on its ‘ideological position’. This letter could have been written today, despite the fact that we have witnessed ideologies rise and fall, and the great poetry didn’t get any worse for it. And yet, ideological position seems to remain a factor in ‘rating’ poets.

Maiakovskii museum.

Maiakovskii Museum (above). From the museum self-guided tour (below).


The people

True I have had some bad experiences, I mentioned the National Library before, which was still an example of good manners compared to the treatment I got in the post office, when I tried to register my visa. However, the comment from a conference was true – these places are bad example of getting to know Russian people.

Before my trip I compiled a list of Moscow-based literature experts who might be able to help me with my research. I had never met these people, and, due to the last-minute nature of my funding, did not, perhaps, give them enough warning of my arrival. And yet, all of them were exceptionally welcoming. A lady who invited me to a conference gave me several books as a gift. Members of Maiakovskii study group in the Institute of World Literature invited me for tea and cakes. I was taken out for coffee, and shown around the city. All this despite the incredible amount of work that these people were doing: many suggested to call them after 11pm, as they didn’t get home earlier than that.

In my hostel I have met people who raised an eyebrow when I told them what I was studying and thought that I was out of my mind. To them my work seemed as irrelevant and pointless as counting pebbles on a beach. Equally, people I didn’t know came to me when they saw me working with photocopies on Maiakovskii, and when they learned what I did, said that it had made their day to know that young people were still interested in poetry and in Vladimir Maiakovskii.

Would I go there again

I realise that if I stay in my current line of work I will unavoidably go there again. However, when I go there next time I’ll know that it is not only a huge, noisy, confusing place where it is inadvisable to ask for help, but also an old beautiful city, with people who will be glad to see me again and care about my work.

Discussing the canon in Edinburgh

How far can it be said that the literary canon is shaped by the books and authors studied at school? To what extent does a poet’s canonical status rely on readers engaging with her/his works rather than on statues, museums, documentary films dedicated to the poet? How might poets’ work reflect their own concern with establishing a place for themselves in the canon? These were some of the questions to which participants in the second project workshop found themselves returning over two days of discussion.

Natalia Karakulina discovered that while texts by Vladimir Maiakovskii studied in post-Soviet Russian schools have changed, and interpretations of the poet’s life and work have shifted, his personality and life story remain central. Aaron Hodgson considered how others have contributed to Joseph Brodsky’s inscription into the canon, in the US, Britain, and particularly in Russia, where there has been a proliferation of commemorative internet sites, a focus on personal recollections of the poet by his contemporaries, and engagement with his poetry. Denis Akhapkin looked both at how Joseph Brodsky’s work has been presented in schools, before turning to ways in which it shows the poet at work on his own canonisation.

Emily Lygo, contrasting the cult that has built up around the controversial poet Viktor Sosnora with recent criticism of Aleksandr Kushner for not having lived ‘the life of a poet’, asked how far canonisation relies on conformity to the model of the Romantic poet’s life. Alexandra Smith discussed the ways in which perceptions of Marina Tsvetaeva have been transformed since the early 1990s, with the poet attaining cult status as a symbol of Russian identity that reaches beyond geographical boundaries.

Alexandra Harrington showed how Anna Akhmatova’s poetry demonstrates the poet’s concern with her own canonisation as a survivor from the Silver Age of early twentieth-century Russian culture. Maria Rubins addressed the question of how the canon could be reconfigured to encompass poetry written in emigration in the interwar years, given that its reception by readers in Russia had been delayed for decades.

Katharine Hodgson explored how perceptions of the work of Boris Slutskii may change when it is no longer viewed against the background of ‘official’ Soviet poetry, but in the context of Futurist and later experimental writing. Ol′ga Sobolev examined the way in which scholars’ perceptions of Aleksandr Blok’s poetry changed during the Soviet period and afterwards, in relation to ideological and cultural shifts of emphasis.

Josephine von Zitzewitz considered how Elena Shvarts, a poet who began writing in the literary underground of the 1960s and 1970s, came to be recognised as a major late twentieth-century poet, rather than solely as an underground poet, as has been the case with many of her contemporaries. Joanne Shelton examined ways in which Ivan Bunin’s poetry has come to feature in the school curriculum, exploring possible reasons for his inclusion, and then comparing the extent of his canonisation as a poet, rather than a prose writer, in other publications.

The creation of a canon in the present, and what it means to study the canon as it is in the process of emerging, was the question addressed by Stephanie Sandler, who considered the effects of people and texts moving across geographic borders, the blending of different art forms, and the fact that poetry no longer occupies a place at the top of the cultural hierarchy.

The third project workshop will take place in January 2013 in Exeter, and a volume of articles based on contributions will be prepared for publication in 2014.

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