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Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

From the Editor

More than a few words have been written about the role of literary translation in the shaping and development of Russian literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. About how “European models” gave writers a conception of form in both poetry and prose and stimulated the development of genres. About Russian prosody, that began as a kind of symbiosis of French and Russian syllabic models, on the one hand, and on German syllabo-tonic models on the other. About the influence of French writers on Pushkin, German “Gothic” prose on Gogol's “Petersburg tales”, European romantics on Turgenev, and so on.

Things are different, though, when we look at Russian literature of the twentieth century, particularly during the Soviet period. At first glance everything seems coherent, logical, almost conclusive. In times of unreserved ideological pressure, the struggle with formalism and other state campaigns that were-to put it as delicately as possible-not without some risk for the artist, translation became a “niche” where one could hide, in other words, a place where gifted and educated people who had been forced onto the periphery or even outside the boundaries of official literature, could survive-meaning that they could live by literary work. But every cloud has a silver lining: thanks to the fact that many more poets and prose writers than ever before were compelled to take up translation in a serious way, there developed a remarkable school of translation that bestowed on the Soviet reader excellent renderings of European, Asian and American classics; foreign authors began speaking Russian naturally, expressively and vividly.

It's also important to remember that translation at that time was something of a zone of resistance to the efforts of the regime to take total control over culture. It was a kind of internal emigration, if you like. However, translation continued to exist in the actual emigration, not “because of the situation,” as happened in the USSR, but despite it. One could not earn a living by translations-there simply wasn't sufficient demand for them from readers and, consequently, from publishers. Nevertheless, Vladislav Khodasevich translated Baudelaire, Ivan Tkhorzhevsky translated Omar Khayyam, Valery Pereleshin translated Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and English writers, Viacheslav Ivanov translated Dante. And so on. Scarcely anyone has studied this phenomenon, partly because the majority of the translations themselves have languished in archives or have been scattered in slender volumes that have slowly gathered dust in the library basements...

As far as Soviet literary translation is concerned, its era ended fifteen years ago. And there has even been a kind of summing up of that era, in the form of the gigantic anthology Verse of the Century — 2, compiled by Evgeny Vitkovsky and published in 2000. In my view, this is an example of the forest being lost behind the trees. One reason I say that is because the most interesting and important things, perhaps, have been left unexamined: the fact is that translation was not an “autonomous region” but a fully fledged component of Soviet literature. Within the realm of translation there was the shuffling of ranks, along with the other processes characteristic of normal life in original literature.

The formal experimentation that was systematically eradicated from poetry remained untouchable in translation: neither the editor nor the censor could interfere-after all, that's how the author wrote it. Translated books became literary events, at times having far-reaching consequences. One needs only to mention Lorca in Anatoly Geleskul's translations and then consider the subsequent burst of activity in Russian free verse, the stubborn struggle for the poet's right not to use rhyme. It's scarcely an accident that the most prominent practitioners of Russian free verse from the sixties through the eighties first made their reputations through their translations from Polish, German, French, Estonian...

Or take the translations of Japanese classical poetry done by Vera Markova. Their influence on Russian “haiku”-unrhymed, mainly-can be felt even now.

Or the novels of Hemingway and Salinger-real sensations, without which, probably, there would not have been the so called “young prose” of the sixties (or at least it would have been totally different without them).

Or the plays of Duremnatt, Anouilh, Tennessee Williams and the lessons learned from them by the dramatists who were then just beginning their careers.

In translation things were “allowed” that were “forbidden” in the rest of literature. Plotlessness, fragmented prose, stream of consciousness, psycholanalysis —and the list goes on...

Literary translation had its own inner life, hidden for the most part from the gaze of outsiders. It was usually screened behind the issue of “professional practice.” But there were times when it suddenly found itself the center of attention. For instance, in the late forties and early fifties when the “struggle with cosmopolitanism” was at its height, it was from the debates over translation that there burst forth and took on a life of its own the anti-Semitic term-one very much alive today-”Russian-language writers” (in other words, ones having “dubious” last names-and hiding behind pseudonyms won't protect you because exposing your real name would be child's play)...

In my view, without an understanding of these things our conception of the history of Russian literature in the twentieth century can't be fully complete-to be completely accurate, in other words.

It's just these sorts of fundamental explorations and studies-along with the publication of contemporary and archive translations-that we hope will make up the section of our journal that begins in this issue.

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