Category: Collaborative work

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.

Questions of canonicity spark lively debate


The first in a series of three collaborative workshops took place at the beginning of December 2011. The aim of the workshops is to bring together specialists in twentieth-century Russian culture to discuss the process of canon formation. The purpose of the first workshop was to introduce areas of study and raise questions about the way in which canon formation takes place, particularly in the post-Soviet context.

Katharine Hodgson opened proceedings with a discussion of the poet Boris Slutskii, an ‘approved’ Soviet poet and Communist Party member. The question of émigré poetry and its place in the post-Soviet canon was posed by Maria Rubins, and led to an interesting debate on whether poetry written by poets in emigration should be considered part of the wider Russian canon. The ways in which Vladimir Maiakovskii’s poetry is taught in school was the subject of Natalia Karakulina’s paper.

Osip Mandel’shtam’s late poetry formed the basis of Andrew Kahn’s contribution, while the polar opposites, Aleksandr Kushner and Viktor Sosnora were the starting point for Emily Lygo’s consideration of the post-Soviet canon. Robin Aizlewood offered a different method for exploring the process of canon formation, using metrics and the work of Mikhail Gasparov.

The second day of the workshop began with Stephanie Sandler’s consideration of contemporary poetry’s paradoxical work of canon formation, which looked at the impulse to have canon formation versus resistance to such a process. Alexandra Harrington discussed Anna Akhmatova as a canonical author responsible for the creation of her own biography. Joseph Brodsky’s transition from the margins to the mainstream was considered by Aaron Hodgson, who suggested using obituaries to chart this change.

Josephine von Zitzewitz and Alexandra Smith each looked at three poets: Viktor Krivulin, Aleksandr Mironov, and Elena Shvarts were evaluated by Josephine, while Alexandra discussed Maria Tsvetaeva, Vladimir Nabokov, and Vladislav Khodasevich. The workshop was concluded by Joanne Shelton’s paper on Ivan Bunin.

Each of these papers will be developed further for the second workshop in June 2012.

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