Russian Literature, Translation and Transculturality

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Today we continue our discussion of intellectual and cultural issues surrounding Russian literature in translation. Please don’t forget to explore our wonderful bilingual editions of Russian literature with parallel English text.


Bilingual publishers must confront the ideology of untranslatability

If the success of a book is to be measured by how critically acclaimed or popular it becomes, bilingual editions of Russian literature could arguably do better. The most widely translated languages in the U.S. are Spanish, French, and German. The overall demand for translations has been dropping. According to Publishers Weekly, “the number of new book titles in translation published in the U.S. declined for two years in a row in 2017-18. Although the total number of translated titles on the market increased from 369 in 2008 to a peak of 666 in 2016, 2017-18 saw an 8.5% drop in published book translations of all genres in the US.”[1]


Such a decline is certainly not glad tidings for independent bilingual publishers. Literary translation has a narrow audience as it is. Additionally, publishers of literature must confront the widespread ideology of untranslatability, with its mistrust of literary translation. That being so, has publishing Russian literary masterpieces bilingually become a sleeveless errand? But let us not jump to any such conclusion yet.

Untranslatability and Russian Literature

Unfortunately, partly under the influence of the fashionable doctrine of untranslatability, many readers and writers have a near-fatal expectation of literary translations. This snobbery has often resulted in a mistrust of translated books when it comes to high literature and especially to poetry. It is virtually impossible, the argument goes, to capture in translation the spirit of the original.


Russian and translation studies scholar Brian James Baer argues that the idea of untranslatability has a political dimension. Distinguishing between empires and nations in relation to translation, Baer observes that while empires thrive on translation, nations are threatened by it. As a result, “while many nations invest, often heavily, in the translation of their canonical literature, they have an enormous emotional investment in the ultimate untranslatability of that literature, which serves as proof of the national genius.”[2]


Vladimir Nabokov on his English translation of Alexander Pushkin Eugene Onegin

Baer points to Vladimir Nabokov’s insistence on the fundamental untranslatability of Alexander Pushkin’s (1799-1837) novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, and his subsequent decision to – in Nabokov’s own words – “sacrifice everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar) that the dainty mimic prizes higher than truth.” (It should be noted, though, that Nabokov’s general view of translation steers clear of the fatalism inherent in the cultural ideology that affirms literary untranslatability. Nabokov, after all, is a stickler for the highest standards of literary translation.)


When the original work exhibits high formal complexity and/or bears a particularly intimate relationship with its language, untranslatability or imperfect translatability is sometimes inevitable: no translator can do complete justice to all the important aspects of the original literary text. Some writers have generalized this predicament rather sweepingly into a blanket skepticism about literary translation. For the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), poetry “is what gets lost in translation.” Similarly, for the noted German cultural and literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), translation is effective only to the point of elementary communication; it is impossible for the translator to capture the essence of a literary text.[3] Equally, for the postmodern French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), translation is at once a necessity and an impossibility.[4]


Certain kinds of concerns about untranslatability are not unfounded. To some degree, untranslatability is innate to all languages. For example, the Sanskrit word go (गो) mostly means “cow,” its English cognate, but also has a range of other meanings by metaphorical extension, including “earth,” “sky,” “sun,” “moon,” “mother,” “speech,” “poem,” and in the plural form also “stars” (“the herds of the sky”) or “rays of light” collectively. Sanskrit poetry exploits this and other similar ambiguities as a poetic device, thereby raising its own linguistic and cultural untranslatability. Similarly, the Russian term poshlost (spelled poshlust by Nabokov, who defined it as “the falsely beautiful”) resists being adequately captured by the English “banality” and “vulgarity.” The same can be said of the Greek word sophrosyne, loosely translated as “temperance.”

Some of the sense is lost and/or changed when English translations are used in place of the original words. However, untranslatability, by the very morphological form of the noun, is too exclusive and too forbidding a doctrine. It exaggerates and absolutizes the milder and more specific problem of mere partial untranslatability, which, incidentally, logically implies partial translatability. No doubt, a fair measure of lexical and cultural nuance may be lost at times in the target language, but this is not enough to proclaim literary translation a priori impossible or untrue to the spirit of the original.

Literary translation is an essential part of literature

Moreover, translation is an essential and indispensable part of literature. It is also one of the oldest professions in the world. Literary translation has not only given the whole world access to its greatest literature, but has greatly expanded the imaginative space and stylistic assets of the target languages. One cannot overlook the fact that our knowledge of the greatest classics of Greek literature and philosophy is largely due to the translations of Arabic scholars. Latin literature began with a translation, the Latin version of a Greek play. Indeed, translating a complex literary text is a Herculean task. It is true that the exactitude of translation varies greatly, but it is specious to assert (or imply) that exactitude is an infallible criterion of a translation’s value and that the value of a literary work equals the degree to which it is untranslatable. Precision is undoubtedly important, but literalist quibbling only serves to obstruct the course of literature.


Translation has certainly been vital to Russian literature. In fact, translingualism has been intrinsic to it from the outset. “No comprehensive study of Russia can afford to ignore the contribution made by translators and translation in the development of its literature, and concomitantly in the evolution of its cultural and social identity,” assert Leo Burnett and Emily Lygo, students of translation and Russian literature.[5] Brian Baer observes that the Russian poet and theologian Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900) considered Vasilii Zhukovsky’s 1802 translation of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” the beginning of “truly human poetry in Russian.” It is perceptive of Baer to notice that Soloviev chose to base the origin of modern Russian poetry in a translation.[6]


Importantly, multilingualism was typical of the Russian nobility in the 18th–19thcenturies. In fact, French carried more prestige than Russian in Russia during that period and was the dominant language of the elite. Hence, Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) War and Peace and Anna Karenina have often been held up as celebrating the multilingual ethos of Russian culture. Both these masterpieces “reflected the multilingualism of the Russian gentry in the latter half of the nineteenth century through Germanicisms in the Russian, as well as entire passages in French,” maintains Julie Hansen (Uppsala University, Sweden).[7] Pushkin too has been seen as embodying the transcultural spirit of Russian literature. Nabokov claimed polemically that Pushkin’s masterpiece novel in verse Eugene Onegin “is not ‘a picture of Russian life’; it is at best the picture of a little group of Russians, in the second decade of the last century, crossed with all the more obvious characters of western European romance and placed in a stylized Russia, which would disintegrate at once if the French props were removed…”[8]


If, for Nabokov, transculturality is the quintessence of Onegin, for his predecessor Fyodor Dostoevsky (1820-1881), Pushkin “Pushkin, alone among all the world's poets, has the ability completely to assume and impersonate a foreign nationality” (my translation from the Russian – PN).[9] Similarly, for the influential Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975),“the most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries of its individual areas and not in places where these areas have become enclosed in their own specificity.”[10] Evidently, for Bakhtin, the transcultural ethos is important both in itself and in that it highlights the fundamental deficiencies of a culture that is shut off from the rest of the world.


In the context of bilingual literature, transculturality has acted as a seminal factor. The influx of Russian immigrants to the United States has given rise to a new generation of Russian-American literature, genetically related to the so-called “fourth wave” of Russian émigré literature. Today, a number of notable Russian-American authors, from novelists to poets, write in both tongues. Self-translation is more frequent among poets than among writers of prose. In point of fact, bilinguality has created new possibilities for literature and the multilingual identity of Russian-American authors and readers.


“Printing the Russian and English versions of the poem on facing pages becomes a spatial enactment of the poet’s own divided identity between competing linguistic and cultural codes,” reflects Russian and comparative literature specialist Adrian Wanner, Penn State University.[11] The “spatial enactment,” as Wanner calls it, triggers fascinating effects of transnational interpretability in the mind of the bilingual reader. As Wanner points out, “producing a bilingual corpus of parallel texts can be seen as a way of stitching together a frayed bicultural identity, a way of coping with the experience of transnational dislocation by creating a space where the two sides of the author’s linguistic self coexist and enter into dialogue.”

Poetry, Prose and Literary Translation Standards


Understandably, most prose is more translatable than most formally rigorous verse. Of course, such linguistically complex prose writers as Nikolai Gogol and James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett, will challenge the translator, especially where they use highly involved wordplay, multilingual puns, and intertextual and metalinguistic humor. But the epitome of untranslatability lies in poetry. To translate literary prose or free verse, it is desirable to remain semantically, syntactically, and stylistically accurate. That is largely possible. In translating verse, though, if the translator elects formal authenticity in addition to those other criteria, the game becomes difficult and quickly escalates to an art of the impossible.


Whatever the ultimate truth of the matter, it is not hard to see why many would see Dante, Ghalib, Pushkin, Baudelaire, and other great formal poets as untranslatable. It is because it takes enormous mastery to translate them well, such as is hardly ever seen among contemporary poets, who generally tend to lack virtuosity in versification. Those who deeply care about the originals often find poetry translations disappointing.


Except for certain kinds of music, virtuosity is no longer highly prized in the arts. Its lack in the domain of poetry translation has acted as a great equalizer and dumber-down, enabling just about anyone to be a poetry translator, within an omnivorous pluralism of public taste. The skepticism of Walter Benjamin and of postmodern theory has contributed to this state of affairs. (It may well be true in general that skepticism about an art form leads to its decay, which would entail that postmodern skepticism has brought about a postmodern cultural decay – a probability toward which contemporary academic culture has consistently turned a blind or otherwise unseeing eye.)


In today’s Western literary milieu widely believes it to be impossible to translate formal poetry accurately and authentically while at the same time preserving its original form. The mainstream approach to poetic translation consists in retelling the original either in prose or in free verse in ways that range from close fidelity to loose imaginative “transcreation.” (This last term originally made popular by Purushottama Lal, better known as P. Lal (1929–2010), a Bengali poet, publisher, and translator of classical Indian epic poetry into English.) Although few readers are aware of this, translating Russian poetry into free verse has massively distorted its spirit and sensibility for the Western reader.


Translating Russian poetry into free verse distorts it for the Western reader

Conjoined with the skepticism about the possibilities of poetic translation is a skepticism about poetic form. Mastery of the traditional English poetic forms gradually declined in the course of the 20th century. Even technically skilled translators, affected by cultural prejudices about translation, have often produced mediocre work. Reviewing the American poet Stanley Kunitz’s 1973 translation of Anna Akhmatova’s poems, Joseph Brodsky reminded us that “in order to translate, one must... have some conception of not only the [original] author’s complex of ideas, his education, and the details of his personal biography, but also his etiquette, or better the etiquette of the poetry in which the poet worked... Then there will be no temptation to omit some things, emphasize others, use free verse where the original is in sestets, etc.”[12]


As Brodsky also insisted elsewhere[13], a translation must strive to be an “equivalent”, not a “substitute” of the source text. Translation, after all, is not a peripheral endeavor, not a subsidiary art form, but a centrally important literary activity. A utilitarian grasp of a language never suffices. Translation develops its own strategies and methods for handling its own complexities. Following Brodsky’s observation, the translator must, through careful study, become steeped in the aesthetic and stylistic intricacies of the original work, to have any hope of doing it justice in translation.


Phil Nix, Ph.D.


Endnotes /Work Cited


[1] See Maria Diment, “Why Are So Few Translated Books Published in America?” on Alta’s website, June 30, 2019. Diment is Director of Translations at Alta, a leading translation and language training agency. See www.altalang.com/beyond-words/why-are-so-few-translated-books-published-in-america/.


[2] Brian James Baer, “Introduction Born in Translation,” Translation and the Making of Modern Russian Literature, ed. Brian James Baer, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.


[3] “Though one may glean as much of that subject matter as one can from a translation, and translate that, the element with which the efforts of the real translation were concerned remains at a quite inaccessible remove, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation.” – Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” (1923), translated by Harry Zohn, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913-1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1996.


[4] Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” translated by Joseph F. Graham, Difference in Translation, ed. Joseph F. Graham, Cornell University Press, 1985.


[5] Leo Burnett and Emily Lygo, Translation and the Making of Modern Russian Literature, ed. Brian James Baer, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, pp. 181–206.


[6] Brian James Baer, op. cit.


[7] Julie Hansen, “Introduction: Translingualism and Transculturality in Russian Contexts of Translation,” Translation Studies, Taylor & Francis, 2018.


[8] Vladimir Nabokov, “Translator’s Introduction,” Eugene Onegin, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1964.


[9] Ф.М. Достоевский, «Пушкин (Очерк). Произнесено 8 июня в заседании Общества любителей российской словесности» («Дневник писателя», гл. 2-я): ru.wikisource.org/wiki/Дневник_писателя._1880_год_(Достоевский)/ГЛАВА_ВТОРАЯ.


[10] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff,” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, translated by Vern W. McGee, eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, 1986.


[11] Adrian Wanner, The Bilingual Muse: Self-Translation among Russian Poets (2020), Studies in Russian Literature and Theory series, Northwestern University Press.


[12] Joseph Brodsky, “Translating Akhmatova,” The New York Review of Books, August 9, 1973: nybooks.com/articles/9770.


[13] Joseph Brodsky, “Beyond Consolation,” The New York Review of Books, February 7, 1974: nybooks.com/articles/9613.


[Additionally, see our related articles on literary bilingualism and bilingual text, self-translation, and bilingual readers and publishing. Last but not least, browse Tiptop Street’s own bilingual editions of Russian literature!]

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