Translation Matters

Brian James Baer, Kent State University

For scholars in the fields of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures working outside the regions we study, translation is a fact of our academic life. In our scholarship, quotations from literary, cinematic and academic works, as well as titles, are typically accompanied by translations, and when we teach courses on Slavic and East European literatures or film to meet general education requirements, we rely on the translations of others. And yet, with the exception of often lengthy discussions on SEELANGS revolving around the deciphering of specific words and phrases, and AATSEEL’s prizes for best scholarly and literary work in translation, the practice of translation is largely ignored in our teaching and scholarship and treated with polite disdain when awarding tenure, promotion and merit. As a result, we have unwittingly ceded the discursive field, allowing it to be populated by sensational “mistranslations,” such as the rendering of Nikita Khushchev’s “My vas pokhoronim” as “We will bury you,” interpreted as an imminent threat of nuclear war; or Hilary Clinton’s oddly prescient gift to Sergei Lavrov of a large red button bearing the Russian word peregruzka (overload) instead of perezagruzka (reboot); and of course, there was Putin’s early description of Trump as iarkii, which was rendered as “brilliant” (blestiashchii) rather than “vivid,” meaning: He’s a character. Trump made hay of the rendering, using it to support his self-presentation as a stable genius, while Rachel Maddow struggled valiantly with the Russian words in an effort to expose the compliment as a gross mistranslation.

This blog is meant to provide a forum for intellectual discussion of matters related to translation, not only because translation is a reality of our academic life, but because translation matters. Without the availability of high-quality translations, works of literature and scholarship remain the exclusive domain of a restricted group of scholars, leaving those works to circulate in larger academic circles in the form of reductive paraphrases that cannot be seriously challenged. Moreover, a delay in the translation of a work makes already risk-averse publishers especially leery, interpreting the delay as confirmation of a work’s irrelevance. This was the case with Andrei Fedorov’s 1953 Vvedenie v teoriiu perevoda (Introduction to Translation Theory), which was reviewed by the West German scholar Hans Joachim Störig, who basically dismissed Fedorov, noting: “Fedorov’s theoretical approach is fundamentally based in Stalin’s pronouncements on linguistics and should these days hardly be of any significance in the Soviet Union itself (1953: 384)” (qtd. in Pym and Ayvazyan 2015: 333). As a result, the work of Fedorov and other Soviet translation scholars were omitted from his 1953 anthology. In the rarefied atmosphere of the Cold War, the chapter on Stalin was enough to prevent the translation of Fedorov’s seminal work into any western European language until 2021. As a result, the history of translation studies presented in the many anglophone handbooks and anthologies that have come out over the past twenty years typically ignore the Soviet tradition.

Thanks to the archival research of Elizaveta Wasserman (2021), we now know that the Stalin chapter was not in the original version of Fedorov’s monograph; it was added at the suggestion of one of the reviewers, Lev Nikolaevich Sobolev. Moreover, the Stalin chapter is quite unlike the chapters on Marx, Engels and Lenin, which focus on their activity as translators and editors; it is devoted entirely to Stalin’s 1950 treatise on linguistics, which dismisses the theories of Nikolai Marr, a move Fedorov rightly saw as productive for the field of Soviet Translation Studies, enhancing the interpreting agency of the translator. (This lends support to Aleksei Yurchak’s claim that late Soviet society began not with the death of Stalin, in 1953, but with his treatise on linguistics.) Moreover, the implication that Fedorov was some Soviet ideologue is ridiculous. Fedorov studied under Iurii Tynianov at the Institute of the History of Arts, publishing his first article, “Problema poeticheskogo perevoda” (The Problem of Verse Translation) at the tender age of twenty-one in the journal Poetika. That article, which offers a sophisticated application of Formalist concepts to the theory and practice of translation, was published in English only in 1971, in the journal Linguistics. Fedorov’s ID card at the Institute listed him as bezpartiinyi (without party affiliation), and his portion of the 1930 volume Iskusstvo perevoda (Art of Translation), co-authored with Kornei Chukovsky, does not mention the word Soviet once; as a result, Fedorov was charged with “formalism,” and temporarily kicked out of the Leningrad section of the Translators’ Union. As a translator, Fedorov was part of the team that produced the first Russian translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, under the direction of Adrian Frankovskii, although the translation was not completed; the proofs for the translation of La Prisonière were destroyed in 1941, before publication. Fedorov also translated Heine and Flaubert and wrote scholarly essays on the poetry of Innokentii Annenskii. A Stalinist lackey he was not.

As this example indicates, the geo-politics of knowledge shapes and is shaped by what gets translation, which is arguably most evident in the realm of academic translation, a term that refers to the translation of scholarly texts in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Despite its importance, academic translation has long been overshadowed by literary translation, on the one hand, and scientific/technical translation, on the other. And so, the Guidelines for the Translation of Social Science Texts, written by Michael Henry Heim and Andrzej W. Tymowski and funded by a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, appeared in the late nineties like a voice in the desert, although with a justification that today sounds rather tentative: “Are social science texts sufficiently distinctive to warrant an approach to translation distinct from that used for natural science texts (texts in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and the like) and technical texts (instruction manuals and the like) on the one hand, and literary texts on the other? We believe they are” (2006: 3).

Efforts to define the specific challenges posed by academic translation have a much longer history in the Soviet Union, precipitated by, among other things, the need to translate the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin into the various languages of the Soviet peoples. An important milestone in that effort was Ukrainian scholar Oleksandr Finkel’s 1929 monograph Teoriia i praktika perekladu (Theory and Practice of Translation), which was arguably the first work to extend the reach of translation theory beyond literary and sacred texts by including the category of non-literary prose alongside poetry and literary prose. He then subdivided non-literary prose into scholarly, administrative and journalistic texts. Over the course of the thirties, Soviet translation scholars, such as Dmitrii Usov, Andrei Fedorov, and Iakov Retsker elaborated on the typology laid out by Finkel’, arguing that different text types required different translation approaches. As Usov put it in his 1934 Sbornik tekstov dlia perevod s nemetskogo na russkii iazyk (Collection of texts for translation from German into Russian): “The translator—as a worker in many fields of Soviet construction—deals with the most varied material, translating business letters, instructions, scientific works in various branches of technology, and political and military writing, as well as socio-economic texts (of various kinds), newspaper articles, and literary works. The orientation (ustanovka) of the translation cannot therefore be the same” (1934: 5). A similar argument would be put forward in western Translation Studies three decades later.

All this is to say that the translation of academic texts is not something that is ancillary to the production of knowledge in a given field; it shapes it in fundamental ways, underscoring the notion that the translation of scholarly writing is itself scholarship and should be valued and evaluated as such. Moreover, even a much-delayed translation can begin to right the historical record. In an article on translation theory in the 2022 Cambridge Handbook of Translation Studies, Fedorov makes at long last an appearance—through citations to the 2021 English translation of his Introduction. Which is to say, translation matters. 

Works Cited

Fedorov, Andrei. 1953. Vvedenie v teoriiu perevoda [Introduction to translation theory]. Moscow: Literatura na inostrannykh iazykakh.

Finkel’, O.1929. Teoriia i praktyka perekladu [Theory and practice of translation]. Kharkiv: Derzhavne Vydavnytstvo Ukrainy.

Heim, Michael Henry and Andrzej W. Tymowski. Guidelines for the Translation of Social Science Texts. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 2006.

Pym, Anthony, and Nune Ayvazyan. 2015. “The Case of the Missing Russian Translation Theories.” Translation Studies 8 (3): 321–341. doi:10.1080/14781700.2014.964300.

Usov, D., Tsil’, Z., Tuntser, A. 1934. Sbornik tekstov dlia perevodov s nemetskogo. S pril. statei po metodike i tekhnike perevoda. Posobie dlia vysshikh pedagogicheskikh uchebnykh zavedenii. M: Uchgiz.  

Vasserman, Elizaveta. 2021. Andrei Fedorov’s Theory of Translation and its Place in the History of Translation Studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Leeds.

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