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Difficult, Yet Possible. Russian to English Literary Translation
For the first time in the 23 years that the Moscow International Book Fair has been running, literary translators were not left alone with their problems and aspirations. International publishers and contemporary Russian writers joined over 150 translators from 25 countries, and even government officials, in searching for new ways to promote Russian literature. One of the panel discussions, chaired by Ekaterina Genieva, the Director of the Russian State Library of Foreign Literature for 17 years, focused specifically on the English-language market for Russian literature in translation.
Elena Rubinova

How far does the English-language market for Russian literature in translation reach beyond the great masters of the past? You do not have to have a PhD to answer that question. Not very far. True, classical Russian fiction and drama have long ago been adopted by the western world and adopted as part of the cultural canons of their own literature, through translation, by all reading nations across the globe. Russian literature of the 20th century for the majority of English-speaking audience is reduced to the names of Bulgakov, Pasternak (primarily due to Doctor Zhivago) and Solzhenitsyn, though classical Russian authors continue to be published.

This causes debates whether it’s worth retranslating classics, but publishers go for it: new translations are often published in cheaper formats and are most popular among younger audiences. Only last year, two new English translations of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Gogol’s Dead Souls translated by Donald Rayfield with original drawings by Mark Shagal, came out in the UK. New translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace have been published in the past few years in Great Britain and the United States (one translated by a duet of Richard Pevear /Larissa Volokhonsky and Andrew Bromfield). Robert Chandler released his translation of Andrei Platonov, a Russian writer of the 20th century who is traditionally considered “untranslatable”.

Modern Russian authors are not too popular abroad. Why? The reasons are complex. Books written in English dominate world literature. Between 50% and 60% of all translations of books originate from English. However there is no major conspiracy in the publishing industry.

“The English-speaking book market is self-sufficient and ‘hermetic’ for literatures in other languages,” says Alexander Livergant, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Literature magazine and Chairman of the Masters of Literary Translation Union. “While for the Russian market, the tendency is just the opposite — only last year out of 15 thousand translated books, 12 thousand were translated from English.”

Translated literature makes up only 1.8% of the UK book market, while in France this figure is 30%, and in Germany 35%. It goes without saying that the percentage of modern Russian literature in this 1.8% is minimal. There are other factors which prevent modern Russian literature, no matter how good or bad, from emerging into the literary arena.

“Modern Russian literature in the West is perceived in the light of stereotypes that have been piling up for decades,” says Professor Oliver Ready, an Oxford scholar and translator of modern Russian authors. “Because of the great literature of the past anything coming from Russia is expected to be prophetic and somewhat world-scale.”

Professor Ready adds that British publishers often complain that reality depicted in modern Russian prose is too specific and insular; Russian authors prefer novel-size books that are hard to digest for an average English speaking reader and need to be shortened in translation. Only few Russian authors, like Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin, fit into existing niches without much adaptation.

Until recently, poor state support for any cultural expansion deeply affected all spheres of intercultural dialogue. Only in the past few years has Russian offi cialdom started making use of Russian literature as a tool of cultural influence and reading as a means of national self-identifi cation. Several years ago Academia Rossica, a UK-based foundation that pioneered cultural projects between Russia and the English-speaking world, and the Yeltsin Foundation set themselves the goal of raising a new generation of Russian-English translators. Their efforts are already yielding their first crop. Last year’s translations brought Vladimir Sorokin, Viktor Pelevin, Alexander Terekhov and Maria Galina, among others, to English-speaking audiences.

“We often hear from publishers here that they are searching for new Russian authors, but until recently, a lack of information and lack of good translations hindered even existing possibilities,” says Svetlana Adjoubei, Director of Academia Rossica. In the near future, the Institute of Translation will become state-supported, and will start awarding translation grants, as Vladimir Grigoriev, Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications assured the audience of the First Congress of Translators.

This all becomes crucially important given the fact that Russia will be a special guest market focus at the London Book Fair in 2011 and later in BookExpo America. It is clear to everybody that it will take years if not decades until Russian literature revives in the English-speaking world. But now the initial, yet necessary, steps are being taken.

“It is high time for Russian publishers to get off their rostrums and start speaking to English-language publishers, while Western publishers need to loosen up a bit towards Russian literature. We need to bridge this gap, and the London Book Fair will be a breakthrough in this direction”, says Amy Webster, London Book Fair representative.

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