Associate 1990-91

Maurice Friedberg

Slavic Languages & Literature

A History of Literary Translation in Russia

No serious, systematic history of literary translation in Russia exists in any language. An examination of the fortunes of this endeavor is not only of intrinsic interest. It also reflects the tensions that have existed since the dawn of modern Russian history, i.e., the eighteenth century, between an intense curiosity about Western culture and the simultaneous fear that this culture would expose the country to alien, subversive ideas. Hence, translations were opposed in Imperial Russia by the conservatives and the Church, and in Soviet Russia by the guardians of Communist ideological purity. In the USSR, however, misgivings about translation have often been dealt with by means of political and "moral" censorship of the original text. Censorship also appears to be the central reason for the Soviet preference for "free" translations and steadfast opposition to "literalism," even though proponents of literal translation include such leading figures in Russian literature as the poet Afanasi Fet in the nineteenth century and Vladimir Nabokov in the twentieth century. Curiously, political preference for "free," i.e. censored, translations found unexpected allies in several of Soviet Russia's great poets who were barred by the authorities from publication of original verse. Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, both victims of political witch hunts, who for decades earned their living as translators, preferred free translations. They used such translations as sublimation of their original verse.

The projected book will examine separately the development of the theory and of the practice of literary translation in Russia against the background of analogous developments in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Professor Friedberg regards this study as the third and concluding volume in his long-term examination of the larger subject of non-Soviet literature in Soviet society. The first volume, Russian Classics in Soviet Jackets (1962), examined the problem of the legacy of prerevolutionary Russian literature. The second, A Decade of Euphoria: Western Literature in Post-Stalin Russia (1977), dealt with the problem of publication and dissemination of Western writing in the USSR. Professor Friedberg now proposes to examine the problem of translation of these books from West European languages into Russian.