Translation Studies Expert Speaks at School of Philology
On September 26 and 27, the HSE School of Philology hosted Professor Brian Baer of Kent University (Ohio, USA) for a lecture entitled ‘The Translator’s Biography in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Art, Politics, Identity’, followed by a workshop on ‘Teaching Translation Studies’. A leading specialist in Translation Studies, Professor Baer also works as a professional translator (e.g., Not Just Brodsky by Sergei Dovlatov) and is a founding editor of the journal Translation and Interpreting Studies. Following his lecture and workshop, Professor Baer spoke with the HSE News Service about his career as a translator, the role of the translator in society and his recommendations for international readers looking for exposure to Russian literature.
— How did your career as a Russian language translator begin? Where did you learn Russian? What is so attracting and appealing in the modern Russian literature?
— I was majoring in Comparative Literature at Columbia University and had to take a second foreign language—my first foreign language was French, which I began studying in high school. I somewhat randomly chose Russian—as I wanted to study a language that was more different from English than French. And, of course, I’d read some of the great works of Russian literature—in translation—and was anxious to have access to these works in the original. There is an intensity in Russian literature that is very appealing.
I remember receiving a bilingual edition of Akhmatova poems as a gift from my mother early in my study of Russia. I found Akhmatova’s poetry to be very powerful, marked by a tension between emotional intensity and form—especially in the Requiem cycle. This volume also inspired my first serious thinking about translation; while I felt that the translators had captured the essence of Akhmatova’s work, I disagreed with some of their decisions. This inspired my first attempts at translation.
— You have translated both classical and modern Russian literature, such as Sergei Dovlatov and Mikhail Zhvanetsky. This seems awfully difficult given that this literature is full of irony, double meaning and Soviet and post-Soviet detail. How did you cope? What was the most difficult for you? How has it been received by non-Russian readers?
— Zhvanetsky was, of course, the most difficult to translate since satire—especially in the Soviet period—was characterized by ellipses, made possible by a shared storehouse of background knowledge. I’m not sure the bilingual edition was circulated widely outside the Russian émigré community, but when Zhvanetsky came to New York for the first time, in the 1990s, to perform at Carnegie Hall, I was invited by a reporter from The New York Times to interpret at the interview, which took place at the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. I remember that Zhvanetsky was hilarious—but that the reporter didn’t always seem to get his humour. Humour is certainly the most difficult thing to translate.
— You recently gave a lecture entitled ‘The Translator’s Biography in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Art, Politics, Identity’ in Moscow. What were some of the highlights?
— I began my lecture with a reference to a short essay by Juri Lotman on writers’ biographies, where he notes that not everyone in society has ‘the right to a biography’. This intrigued me, and I started to think about when it happened that translators finally earned the right to a biography. I argued that the foundation was laid in Soviet Russia, where the creative talent of the translator was emphasized — that is central to Chukovsky’s 1919 Principles of Literary Translation. From there, I traced the emergence of the translator’s biography in post-Stalinist Russia and traced the shifting valence of the translator’s biography in late Soviet and early post-Soviet society, showing how the translator’s biography served as a vehicle through which to address a variety of social concerns.
— Who are the primary audience and contributors of the journal Translation and Interpreting Studies? Have you had any authors from Russia?
— Translation and Interpreting Studies casts a very wide net in terms of methodologies and approaches, unlike some of the more specialized journals in the field. I think it is important for there to be venues where people working on all aspects of translation and interpreting can publish their work, creating often provocative juxtapositions.
In 2016, we published a special issue on translation in Russian contexts, guest-edited by Julie Hanson of Uppsala University and Susanna Witt of the University of Stockholm. Just this year, Susanna and I published a collected volume under the title Translation in Russian Contexts (Routledge); almost half of the chapters were by authors living and working in Russia. In that sense, I feel that the volume represents a high point in collaboration between scholars inside and outside Russia, which I hope will continue.
— What are you reading and translating now?
— I am currently translating a collection of essays on cultural memory by Juri Lotman. I had the honour of translating Lotman’s final book-length work, The Unpredictable Workings of Culture (2013), so I am happy to have another opportunity to translate the work of this brilliant and original scholar. I’m also struck by how relevant his work is to scholars of translation. I am also working on a translation of Andrei Fedorov’s 1953 Introduction to Translation Theory, for which I received the EST Translation Prize in 2014.
— What would be some of your recommendations for international students looking to gain insight into Russian culture, traditions and mentality from Russian and Soviet literature?
— I recently published with Penguin Publishers a bilingual collection of Russian short stories by mostly contemporary Russian authors. The volume, I feel, gives a wonderful sampling of contemporary Russian literature, featuring both well-established authors, such as Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Vladimir Sorokin, and less well-known authors, such as Iulia Kissina and Aleksandr Ilichevskii. I tried to capture the vibrancy, diversity, and originality of Russian literature today, and so that might be a good place for international students to get acquainted with Russian literature.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
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