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Of Translation and Politics in Russian Literature

by Ian Singleton

“A ubiquitous metaphor of the translator is the asymptote, the curve which approaches infinity at the same time it approaches zero. It never quite makes it. This is apt, considering that translators must match, as closely as possible, not only parts of speech but also idiom, something which requires knowledge of both languages’ cultures. The more distant those cultures in common values, such as politics, the more difficult the translator’s task, even before focusing on more individual aspects of a given work.

In Russian literature, this problem has haunted translation at least since the beginning of the Soviet era. During the Cold War, the values of official Soviet culture (atheism, Communism) were often diametrically juxtaposed with those of American culture. This meant that what might be censored in the Soviet Union would not only be permitted but celebrated in the United States (and this phenomenon was likely often reversed in the Soviet Union).

This is one reason why it’s not difficult to find a work of Russian literature with gaps between its original and a later edition. This doesn’t only occur with translation. Even in a contemporary Russian-language edition of the 1928 novel The Twelve Chairs, by Soviet writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (Moscow, Act Izdatelstvo, 2008), there are expansive exclusions from the original manuscript. True, some of these exclusions may have been ultimately for the benefit of a more concise novel. However, some depictions—such as sycophantic Soviet citizens and corrupt institutions within the Soviet Union—might have been potentially embarrassing to Soviet society. All of this raises the question of whether these exclusions were the results of artistic editing or political censorship, perhaps even self-censorship.

Twelve ChairsBut often such gaps appear only when they are filled in for an English translation. In the case of The Twelve Chairs, the missing pieces came to light in the 2011 English translation of the novel by Anne O. Fisher (Northwestern University Press). In this translation’s foreword, Alexandra Ilf, the co-author’s daughter, explains that these erstwhile exclusions are now “offered to the American reader,” even before a reader of the original Russian can see them (at least in that 2008 Russian-language edition).

An even more demonstrative example of an intersection of politics and translation comes from an even more politically controversial work of Russian literature, Doctor Zhivago, the historical novel about the Russian Revolution,by Boris Pasternak. Documents declassified in 2014 reveal that, in 1958, the CIA secretly arranged Western publication of the Russian original of Pasternak’s novel. They also arranged for the novel’s translation into various foreign languages. One reason for this was so that the work, critical of the Soviet regime, could become available to the committee responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature. The CIA’s secret publication, translation, and distribution of Doctor Zhivago worked. Later that same year, Pasternak won the Prize, a huge victory for the West in the Cold War.”

Read the full essay at the Fiction Writers Review

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