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Links between Russian and Italian Literature

Dante, poised between the mountain of purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita in a detail of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence, 1465

Dante, poised between the mountain of purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita in a detail of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence, 1465
© Wikimedia Commons

The international conference ‘Fear and the Muse: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Their Time’ (the Akhmatova-Mandelstam readings) took place in Russia from January 17–21. Readings were held in Moscow, Tver, and St Petersburg. We talked to Kristina Landa (the University of Bologna), who presented her paper ‘Around Conversation about Dante’ at the conference.

The conference was organized by the Mandelstam Society/Mandelstam Centre of the HSE School of Philological Studies, the Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House, and the Vladimir Dal State Museum of Russian Literature.

Kristina Landa, a junior assistant professor at the Department of Interpreting and Translation at the University of Bologna campus in Forlì, carries out research in translation and perceptions of Italian literature in Russia.

Kristina Landa

The conference turned out to be extremely interesting and valuable to me, since I had a chance to listen to the world’s leading experts on Mandelstam, the authors of fundamental works on his works and biography. The presentations by such masters as Irina Surat, Oleg Lekmanov, and Pavel Nerler were particularly significant, and the roundtable discussions were excellent.

The topics ranged from methods of philological analysis and textual problems of new publications of Mandelstam’s texts to biographical studies. I regret that I was unable to attend every section due to my work responsibilities, but I hope to listen to recordings of what I missed. I am extremely thankful to the organizers for allowing me to offer my perspective on the interpretation of Conversation about Dante to such an audience.

Why People in Italy Read Russian Literature

In Italy, Russian literature has always been considered the most appealing aspect of Russian culture. Sometimes, students choose to study Russian language because they love Russian literature and Russian writers known in the West (such as Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov); they read Italian translations of their works at school.

Poetry is much more complicated for foreigners to take in, even those who study Russian

It is widely known that Pushkin is much less popular abroad than someone like Tolstoy. However, I once talked to a reader who was excited about the Italian translation of Pushkin’s prose, particularly his ability to combine a simplistic style with depth and complexity of content.

As one of my philologist colleagues said, what attracts Italian readers to Russian literature is the opportunity to experience the suffering on the page, to feel human pain. This is particularly true of Dostoevsky, but also of poets. For example, Akhmatova’s and Tsvetaeva’s poems provide quite an opportunity to experience tragedy.

Italian Translations of Russian Classics and Contemporary Literature

Quite a lot of Russian literature (including contemporary literature) is translated in Italy today, and new publications keep coming. Last year, Alessandro Cifariello’s new translation of Evgeny Zamyatin’s We was published, as were three new translations of Conversation about Dante done by Serena Vitale, Vanessa Filippovna, and Daniela Rizzi. The latter is a serious academic publication with a rich commentary based on that of Georgy Levinton and Larisa Stepanova for Alexander Mets’s publication.

Poetry (including contemporary poetry) is also translated: poems by Olga Sedakova, Viktor Krivulin and others are particularly popular among lovers of Russian poetry.

Dante and Russian Poetry

Dante’s influence has been present in Russian culture since the 19th century: the romantics’ imaginations were charmed by the bleak imagery of sinners and demons from Inferno and the story of Paolo and Francesca’s love, while the Decemberists related to the civil message of The Divine Comedy—many of them directly associated themselves with the main character.

But it was during the Silver Age of Russian poetry that Dante’s popularity peaked. The factors behind this included a general interest in Italy among Russian writers, ‘Italomania’, the Symbolists’ interest in mysticism, esotericism, and the Middle Ages, their willingness to see poetry as a mediator between the spiritual and the earthly worlds, and their view of poets as spiritual teachers—which fits very well with Dante’s image. Conversely, almost immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, Dante was presented as a fighter against the religious institutions of his time, a heretic and almost a revolutionary. Mikhail Lozinsky’s translation of his poem was covered in media as an event of national importance.

At the same time, there was also a ‘marginal’ reception of Dante on the sidelines of the official culture, which, as time passed, turned out to be more important for readers: the use of Dante’s imagery and motifs in the works of Anna Akhmatova, Varlam Shalamov and, of course, Osip Mandelstam

Authors who stood apart from the official glorification and Marxist analysis saw Dante both as an exile misunderstood by his people and the father of the European poetry of the modern age. To Mandelstam, Dante was not a venerable literary monument, but an author looking into the future: his poetry is dynamic and he is in continuous dialogue with the reader, helping them to experience past events and cultural and academic achievements in a way that is relevant today.

Poet and translator Olga Sedakova is continuing the tradition of Mandelstam’s understanding of The Divine Comedy. Unlike Mandelstam, she admits that it is a work full of symbolic and allegorical meaning, but in her works, particularly translations of the Comedy and a recent book of papers and essays, she tries to bring these meanings closer to readers. She believes we need a live dialogue with the author unobscured by archaic style or ambiguous allusions to esoteric ideas (a common feature of the Symbolists’ understanding of Dante). Such a dialogue helps contemporary readers hear the poet’s real intonation and, wherever possible, understand even his most complex imagery.