On 'Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context'

our authors Apr 3, 2024

By Muireann Maguire and Cathy McAteer

Recently, a graduate student spoke about a favourite book, one which crystallizes many of the conflicting qualities of Russian literature today: post-colonial angst, fading relevance, moral authority, and sheer ubiquity. Early in this novel, the hero’s father falls in love with Russian fiction (in Bengali translation). He is reading one of Gogol’s short stories at the very moment when his train, speeding across northern India, derails. Seriously injured, he spends two years almost immobile, regaining his strength while gorging on Russian novels. Years later, as a engineering professor at an American university, he names his son “Gogol” after his favourite writer. The strange syllables bewilder other Bengalis as they do most Americans, and young Gogol legally changes his name as soon as he’s old enough. Resenting his intercultural, untranslatable moniker, he never opens the volume of Nikolai Gogol’s stories his father gives him. Only after decades of negotiating cultural difference, and only after his father’s death breaks the direct family connection with Russian literature, can he read those tales and become Gogol again: the Bengali-American namesake of a Ukrainian-Russian writer.

This novel is of course Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), a key text of contemporary diasporic fiction. Our edited volume, Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context, studies how literature itself acts as diaspora. In this collection of forty-one essays by three dozen international scholars, we trace how, since 1900, Russian literature has been disseminated beyond its political borders; how individual Russian and Russophone authors are translated and emulated abroad; and how cultures and individuals from the Republic of Ireland to South Vietnam have absorbed Russian cultural influence, from Pushkin to Sholokhov. Our methodology is informed by both sociology and Translation Studies, relying upon Pascale Casanova’s concept of central and peripheral languages, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital, Jeremy Munday’s microhistorical methodology, the focus on literary translators consolidated by Klaus Kaindl and colleagues, and David Damrosch’s erudite yet accessible comparatist analysis. National engagement with Russian literature varies with political as well as geographical climate; successful cultural integration is often pre-determined by the literacy of the target audience, and indeed by the nature of the transmission process – whether voluntary or compulsory, state-funded or profit-driven. Hence the definition of ‘Russian literature’ – and public attitudes towards it – alters sharply with time, place, and politics, as our contributors show.

Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context also explores an equally important issue, much harder to quantify: the influence of Russian literature on individual creative inspiration. This edited volume maps, for the first time, global connections between Russian authors (nineteenth-century classics, Socialist Realists, and even Soviet dissidents) and canon-shaping writers around the world, including Norway’s Knut Hamsun, Germany’s Thomas Mann, Greece’s Ares Alexandrou, the great Hindustani author Premchand and Japanese prose stylist Futubatei Shimei, through to modern-day award-winning authors like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk and South Korea’s Bora Chung. Where Lahiri’s novel traces the progress of Gogol the reluctant reader, we follow the (global) progress of Gogol the reluctant writer. How did a neurotically anxious fabulist, an ex-pat twice over (he left Ukraine for St Petersburg and St Petersburg for Rome, returning to the Russian Empire only to die), leave such a powerful legacy across so many continents? How could writers like Pushkin and Dostoevsky, their horizons restricted by the rigid social hierarchy and narrow politics of the Russian Empire, reach so far and touch so many readers? There are as many answers to these questions as there are nations where Russian literature is read today. This volume speaks for most of them.

Thus, in the mid-to-late twentieth century, Progress and Raduga (Rainbow), the USSR’s gigantic, multilingual, state-subsidized literary translation presses, developed book distribution networks to extend soft power across the Global South. In the process, they introduced Indian readers like Lahiri’s characters to Russian and Soviet literature (morally engaged writers like Tolstoy and Gorky were already popular on the Indian subcontinent even prior to Soviet power). Moscow’s quest for hearts and minds brought Russian literary fiction in translation to readers in South and Central America, Africa and the Arabian nations, Central and South-East Asia, China and to both Vietnams. In Europe and the Anglophone world, where academics, freelance translators and commercial publishers determined the reception of Russophone literature, the nineteenth-century classics and twentieth-century dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak have always dominated both sales and literary culture. Across much of the Global South, however, political pragmatism and effective Soviet cultural propaganda ensured the popularity of twentieth-century pro-Communist authors, starting with the so-called father of Socialist Realism, Maksim Gorky, whose name reverberates throughout this volume.

Ebbs and flows in translation in places as disparate as Brazil and Greece obeyed political trends: leftist governments promoted Russian literary authors, while far-right leaders discouraged them. Our essays on Latin America explore Cuba’s immersive Cold War reception of Russian language, literature and culture (including cinema); the contributions made by Brazil’s Russophone émigré diaspora to their native milieu; and Mexico’s uneven relationship with Russian culture (even now, no Mexican publishing house specialises in Russian literary translation into Spanish). Within the Soviet Union, soft-power infiltration gave way to forcible translation programmes: our contributors describe how target-language translators in Estonia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were often brutally co-opted into replacing their native literature with fiction translated from Russian. Our Ukrainian contributors strikingly liken the era of literary control by the Kremlin to “the slow but increasingly deadly compression of a rabbit by a boa constrictor”.  Even Finland did not escape such tensions. But pro-Soviet authors’ value as Communist propaganda does not negate their genuinely inspirational value; Gorky’s Mother (1906) remained an ideological beacon for the poor and oppressed globally, as many essays show. Today, for reasons that are all too obvious on the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine and in the ruined homes of bombed-out cities, Russian influence has become toxic: a legacy to reject, an identity to disavow. Translation, of course, never has been separate from politics; and Russian is not the only literature to be implicated, if not actively complicit, in imperialist expansionism and aggressive cultural policies. In The Namesake, Lahiri’s hero “Gogol”, struggling with his complex, unwelcome name and mixed-up identity, eventually accepts the impossibility of rejecting a gift woven into the fabric of one’s character. Today, Russian authors are indelibly inscribed in the library of world culture: this volume introduces the translators, publishers, politicians, editors and readers who made Russian literature a global phenomenon.

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Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context
Translating Russian Literature in the Global Context examines the translation and reception of Russian literature as a world-wide process. This volume aims to provoke new debate about the continued currency of Russian literature as symbolic capital for international readers, in particular for nation…

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