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Regular version of the site

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


See also:

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On September 23, the HSE School of Philological Studies launched the third season of its international academic workshop on ‘The 19th-Century Russian Novel: Corpus, Poetics, Social Imaginary’. We talked to Alexey Vdovin, Associate Professor at the School of Philological Studies, about the workshop’s plans and international cooperation, as well as to Ani Kokobobo, Chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, who opened this year’s workshop with her report ‘Strange Bedfellows – Leo Tolstoy and Andrea Dworkin’.

‘Mandelstam Street’ Exhibition Opens at the State Literature Museum with Support of HSE University

On March 16, the HSE Madelstam Centre together with Vladimir Dal State Literature Museum opened a museum dedicated to poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda. Below, HSE News Service talks about the exposition ‘Mandelstam Street: Osip and Nadezhda’.

‘Projects Will Bring Research Teams Together’

A number of new projects will form the basis of the educational and scholarly activity at HSE’s School of Philology. These projects will allow the School to expand its scholarly breadth, consolidate its active research teams, and engage new colleagues in collaboration. HSE News Service spoke with School Head Evgeny Kazartsev about the new projects, their anticipated outcomes, and what changes will need to be made in order to bring them to fruition.

Authorship Proven by Mathematics

Marking Mikhail Sholokhov's 115th anniversary (1905-1984), linguists Boris Orekhov of the HSE and Natalya Velikanova of the Moscow State University confirmed his authorship of the epic novel about the Don Cossacks. The researchers were able to attribute the novel using the text distance measure proposed by John Burrows. Termed Burrows' Delta, it provides a simple and reliable method of attributing or confirming the authorship of various texts. 

HSE University Joins Digital Archive Project of Silver Age Literature

Autograph is a digital archive that grants researchers access to digitized manuscripts of Russian writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Until now, the manuscripts were only available in archives that are closed to researchers and the public and located in different cities and countries around the world.

Library Night at HSE: Shakespeare, Museums and Quests

Almost 40 teams took part in the ‘Through the pages of Basmania’ quest, organized by the Higher School of Economics as part of an annual citywide event, Library Night. Event participants also staged passages from Romeo and Juliet and attended lectures about theatre at HSE library.

International Students Explore Russian Literature in HSE’s Preparatory Year Programme

HSE’s Preparatory Year Programme for international students includes not only intensive Russian language training but also subject specific courses. One such course is ‘Russian Literature’, which introduces international students to classic works by Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. In the course, students read and discuss select texts in the original Russian, which helps them gain a better understanding of the Russian culture and history.

Russian Language Festival to Take Place on Red Square

From May 31 to June 3, as part of the Red Square Book Fair, a Russian language festival will be held with the help of the HSE School of Philology.

Russian Sincerity Today – A Conversation with Professor Ellen Rutten

On May 23, Ellen Rutten, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Amsterdam, delivered a lecture at HSE on her new book, ‘Sincerity after Communism’. An expert on Slavonic literature and culture, Professor Rutten is involved in numerous projects, including the Digital Emotions group, Sublime Imperfections, and ‘Russian Literature’, a journal where she serves as editor-in-chief.

Bridging the Gap Between Slavic Studies and Translation Studies

From September 23 to October 2, the HSE School of Philology (Faculty of Humanities) will host Susanna Witt, Associate Professor, Senior Research Fellow, Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University (Sweden). During this time she will lecture at a conference on World Literature as a Soviet Project, as well as teach several lectures in the School of Philology.