J. Brian Baer (ed.): Contexts, Subtexts, and Pretexts. Literary translation in Eastern Europe and Russia

brian baerBaer, Brian J., ed. 2011. Contexts, Subtexts, and Pretexts. Literary translation in Eastern Europe and Russia. Benjamins Translation Library 89. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. xvi + 227 pp. ISBN 978- 978-90-272-2437-8. €95 (HB).

The eighteen contributions that make up this volume provide the reader with a wide but insightful range of approaches to the role of translation in Eastern Europe, a topic that regrettably has received little attention in the Anglophone scholarly literature. Most of the contributors are Slavists affiliated with American universities.

The volume’s editor, Brian James Baer, has grouped the papers in three parts. Whereas the intention of the first part, entitled “Contexts,” is to shed light on the cultural and political contexts that shaped the way literary works were translated and received in Eastern Europe, “Subtexts,” the second part, is presented as a collection of thoughts on the influence of Eastern European politics on translation theory and practice. The contributions of the third part are supposed to challenge the secondary status of translations by engaging with various meanings of the word “pretext.” The division in these three parts surely is stylistically appealing, but on further consideration it turns out to be a rather artificial one – most articles could be moved to a different section without anyone really noticing. An attempt to order the articles along chronological lines might have helped the reader better to see the wood for the trees.

While Eastern Europe is usually thought of as one single translation zone, it is rightly presented here as a plural one. In his “Introduction: Cultures of Translation” (1-15), Baer admits to having neglected Ruthenians, Albanians, Belarusians, Moldovans and Slovaks, and especially regrets not having been able to find suitable contributions on the role of translation in the cultural life of Eastern European Jews, Roma and Muslims, but he has the merit of filling the stage with representative personalities and events from Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian and Latvian culture. It is, however, Russian culture that is given the most attention. Its privileged position in this book can be defended on several grounds. The first set of grounds is obvious: Russian is the biggest of all languages spoken in Eastern Europe, and Russia is its biggest country in terms of inhabitants. The impact of its foreign policy, especially under the Soviet rule, on the written culture of its neighboring countries can hardly be overestimated. More importantly, it is impossible to think of another country that historically has attributed so much weight to literature, both in the way its society is organized and in defining its cultural (self-)image.

Although Russia has a rich tradition of sacred writings, compared to Western European countries, its literature is what Even-Zohar would call “young.” Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many a Russian read literature in French and/or German, but the lack of an own national repertoire also favored a massive stream of translations, which obviously influenced the creation of a native literature. For instance, the translator Vasilii Zhukovskii played an important role in “helping Russian critics to define the Russian self and its mission in relation to the European other,” as David L. Cooper demonstrates in his article “Vasilii Zhukovskii as translator and the protean Russian nation” (55-77). About a century later translation still exerted great influence on the Russian literary debate. As Susmita Sundaram shows in her article “Translating India, constructing self: Konstantin Bal’mont’s India as image and ideal in Fin-de-siècle Russia” (97-115), the symbolist poet took inspiration from his translations of ancient Indian drama in an effort to envisage possible solutions for the crisis in contemporary Russian theater.

The contributions by Cooper and Sundaram are the only ones in this volume that concern the young but ambitious literature of pre-revolutionary Russia, where numerous writers searched to obtain, and were given, the status of prophets. In line with this tradition, in communist Russia every official writer was proclaimed an “engineer of the human soul” and every non-official writer risked prosecution for so-called “social parasitism.” It is obvious that in a society that perceives a poet as more than a poet, translation activities too take on quite a different aspect. Like non-translated literature, translated literature was used as an instrument by many to consolidate the Soviet system, and by others to fight it.

The present volume contains numerous interesting case studies which demonstrate that translation norms in Russia and the other republics of the Soviet Union were profoundly affected by communist ideology and by the central position of the Russian member state in general and the Russian Communist Party in particular. Obviously, translation policy was changed in the sense that translation from Russian was privileged in all non-Russian-speaking countries under Soviet rule. Even so, as regards preliminary norms, Susanna Witt shows in her multifaceted survey article “Between the lines. Totalitarianism and translation in the USSR” (149-170) that Soviet time Russian translators dealing with works from the national republics more often than not used interlinear trots. Needless to say, operational norms were also drastically affected as translators, keenly aware of the censor’s eye, were more concerned with ideological acceptability than with adequacy. In his article “Squandered opportunities. On the uniformity of literary translations in postwar Hungary” (205-217), which focuses on literary translations from Spanish, László Scholz suggests that virtually all translations in communist countries were marked by a striking uniformity, which left no space for innovation or experimentation, as a direct consequence of the requirement to pursue specific political objectives. Vitana Kostadinova, whose article “Meaningful absence: Byron in Bulgarian” (219-232) accounts for the non-translation of the English poet in the Bulgarian Romantic Age, gives another interesting example of how the reception of a work could be hindered by communist ideology: the suppression of Manfred in Socialist Bulgaria would be the result of a previously published review that compared Byron’s hero with a Bolshevik who undermined social order.

Confronted with such insights into the widespread manipulation of translation for political purposes in the Soviet Union, one would almost forget the other side of the coin. Actually, as is demonstrated by several articles in this volume, the practice of translation could also offer a way out for people suffering from the regime. First, quite a few Russian writers that would not comply with the dogmas of socialist realism were able to make a living by reinventing themselves as translators. In her beautifully illustrated contribution “The poetics and politics of Joseph Brodsky as a Russian poet-translator” (187-203), Yasha Klots shows that in the case of this Noble Prize winner the poetical and moral implications of this reinvention were particularly strong. Second, because of the fact that translators could hide themselves at least to some extent behind the presumed author, translation offered somewhat more space for deviation from the norms than original writing. It is in these circumstances that Evgenii Zamiatin’s dystopia We was published in 1927 in Prague as a Russian pseudo-translation from the Czech, as Natalia Olshanskaya mentions in “Russian dystopia in exile: Translating Zamiatin and Voinovich” (265-276). Third, translation was also a way out for many writers dealt with in this volume in the sense that being translated was the only effective way to reach a readership.

Prominent representatives of the Russian avant-garde Marina Tsvetaeva and Daniil Kharms were among the first victims of Russian censorship. However, as Sibelan Forrester argues in her article “The water of life: Resuscitating Russian avant-garde authors in Croatian and Serbian translations” (117-136), enforced Soviet adulation figuratively killed Mayakovsky even more effectively than it killed the other two writers. In a more literal sense, too, the three of them are believed to owe their deaths to the Soviets. Whereas Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva committed suicide, Kharms was allegedly executed in a prison. However, on the basis of recently discovered documents, it is now believed that he died of starvation in a psychiatric hospital in Leningrad during the German blockade. Forrester shows herself unaware of this version, but this is compensated by the brilliant way in which she elaborates on the popularization of Russian avant-garde authors by the Yugoslav authors Josip Sever, Danilo Kiš, Irena Vrkljan and Dubravka Ugrešić.

While some writers under the Soviet yoke had to content themselves with being read abroad in translation, others managed to go abroad themselves. Such was the enthralling case of Vladimir Nabokov, who after his flight from the Bolsheviks ended up with two oeuvres: one originally written in Russian, which he translated into English, and one originally written in English, which he translated into Russian. It is Brian James Baer who pays tribute to this unique writer in his article “Translation theory and cold war politics: Roman Jakobson and Vladimir Nabokov in 1950s America” (171-186), by playing him off in the context of the Cold War against Jakobson, the other influential agent of translation of Russian origin.

Theorists of translation originating from minor cultures are also abundantly represented in this volume. In his article “Romania as Europe’s translator: Translation in Constantin Noica’s national imagination” (79-95), Sean Cotter sheds light on the somewhat obscure thoughts on translation developed by this Romanian philosopher and poet during different periods of his life. Not surprisingly, the exiled writer Milan Kundera also receives a fair deal of attention. In “Shifting contexts: The boundaries of Milan Kundera’s Central Europe” (19-31), Charles Sabatos explores the Czech novelist’s claim to a transnational Central European identity, while Jan Rubeš in his article “Translation as condition and theme in Milan Kundera’s novels” (317-323) examines the paradox of why after being canonized in the West as the humoristic, libidinous champion of the Prague Spring thanks to French translations, the writer refused to authorize the Czech translation of his books written in French.

The implosion of the USSR, announced by a period of cultural liberty under Gorbachev, radically reshaped the literary polysystems of all the nations involved. The writer lost his prophetic status. Entertainment being the new stake of literature, Russian translation policy radically changed in less than a decade’s time, allowing now for massive importation of genres and works that previously had been banned as bourgeois. This page of Russian literary history is explored in a very original way by Vlad Strukov. His article “Translated by Goblin: Global challenge and local response in Post-Soviet translations of Hollywood films” (235-248) reveals the reasons why Dmitrii Puchkov’s witty voice-over is so appreciated by the Russian audience. But then, Aleksei Semenenko underlines the fact that the transition from communism into capitalism did not consign all literary traditions to oblivion; his article “No text is an island: Translating Hamlet in twenty-first-century Russia” (249-263) demonstrates that the Russian translations of Shakespeare’s tragedy published in the 1999-2008 period rely on previous interpretations rather than on the source text.

For the dominated literatures of Eastern Europe, the decline of the communist regimes brought new opportunities. It is logical that, especially for the former full members of the Soviet Union, the disappearance of the restrictions on the use of national languages resulted in a radical change in translation policies. The impact of the post-Soviet search for a national identity through translation activities is elaborated for Ukraine by Vitaly Chernetsky in his article “Nation and translation: Literary translation and the shaping of modern Ukrainian Culture” (33-53), and for Latvia by Gunta Ločmele and Andrejs Veisbergs in their article “The other polysystem: The impact of translation on language norms and conventions in Latvia” (295-316). The new cultural environment that countries like Poland and Slovenia find themselves in as new members of the European Union, is explored by Allen J. Kuharski and Suzana Tratnik. The former concentrates on Polish theater translations of classical tragedy in his article “Between cosmopolitanism and hermeticism” (277-294). The latter’s article “Translating trouble: Translating sexual identity into Slovenian” (137-146) – which is among the most readable ones in this volume, maybe because the author is a writer herself – shows that translating gay, transgendered and queer literature into Slovenian language is especially challenging, for it lacks the necessary vocabulary.

In his “Introduction” to Contexts, Subtexts and Pretexts. Literary Translation in Eastern Europe and Russia, Baer explains that the book’s aim is to contribute to the scholarly mapping of translation in a spirit of challenging both the hegemony of Western models and any simple notion of Western identity itself by exposing “Europe’s internal other” (1). After reading the more often than not compelling illustrations of the role translation played and keeps playing in Eastern Europe, one must conclude that this mission has been accomplished. The notion itself of Eastern Europe remains of course problematic, especially because a country like Poland perceives itself as Central European. In that sense, it is strange that this volume rather systematically differentiates between Eastern Europe and Russia, as if these were two different, non-overlapping entities. Also, the message of challenging Western models would have been even more convincing if more researchers affiliated with universities from Eastern Europe had been involved in this beautiful project.

[Review by Pieter Boulogne (University of Leuven, University of Antwerp, University of Ghent)]

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