Literary Translation in Russia: A Cultural History

By May, Rachel | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 1996 | Go to article overview
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Literary Translation in Russia: A Cultural History


May, Rachel, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Maurice Friedberg. Literary Translation in Russia: A Cultural History. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. vii, 224 pp. Index. $42.50, cloth.

Open this book to virtually any page and you will find a marvelous anecdote about some egotistical translator, or a startling example of the ironies that arise at the boundaries between translation, adaptation, and plagiarism, or a trenchant quotation from an opinionated critic. In the course of his "voluminous reading and many hours of conversations with scores of translators" (pp. 194-95), Professor Friedberg has compiled a treasure-trove of evidence about the vitality and ambiguity of their trade, focusing primarily on translation of poetry from various languages into Russian. Here we see Tat'iana Gnedich translating Byron in prison and committing 2000 lines of her translation to memory before writing them on the backs of prisoners' interrogations forms. We meet Uluro Ado, a pseudonymous "poet" who never wrote any poetry in his native Yukagir language, but only produced Russian interlinear trots for the benefit of his "translators." And we read Vissarion Belinsky's advice to translators of Shakespeare, to feel free to "mutilate" the text, as long as your translation succeeds in "instill[ing] in the public respect for Shakespeare." Although ostensibly a monograph on Russian translating practices, the writing here ranges, often within a single irrepressible paragraph, over famous episodes in the history of translation in Europe and America, from Classical times to the present day.

The first three chapters address, in somewhat haphazard fashion, the "pendulum-like swing" between "free" or adaptive translation, on the one hand, and the literalist approach on the other. The second chapter, entitled "Theoretical Controversies," deals with the abstract implications of this choice, while chapters one and three focus more on actual translators and where they fall within the spectrum. Professor Friedberg does not advocate one choice or the other. To the extent that he stakes out his own theoretical stance, it is in favour of the pragmatic and dynamic yardstick advocated by M.P. Alekseev: "a good translation is one that accomplishes what it sets out to do" (p. 108). This allows Professor Friedberg to discuss translators and translations-including translations for the stage, operatic librettos, and film subtitling-within their historical and cultural context. He shows, for example, how Zhukovsky moved from free translation in the Sentimentalist period to greater literalism under the influence of Romanticism, and how Stalinist dogma militated against "formalist" literalism and in favour of more adaptive strategies.

In the fourth chapter, the author draws together some of the disparate threads of his earlier exposition to make two persuasive arguments. First, he demonstrates that translation into Russian had its greatest cultural impact in the eighteenth century and the Stalin era, the periods when "free" translation was in the ascendancy. In the former period, translations introduced European culture to an isolated Russia and provided Russian literature with a host of new aesthetic forms and themes.

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