Poet-Translators in the Soviet & Post-Soviet Eras


A review of A Remedy For Solitude: Russian Poet-Translators in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras, by Maria Yevgenievna Khotimsky.

Maria Khotimsky’s dissertation makes an invaluable contribution to our growing understanding of the vital role of translation in the development of the Russian poetic tradition. In framing her analysis, Khotimsky engages with important contemporary works in the theory of translation as well as with the theories advanced by Russian translators and scholars of the Soviet period; she also builds on the relatively limited amount of historical scholarship dealing with translation in Russia and the Soviet Union, including important essays by Vsevolod Bagno, Efim Etkind, and Sergei Zav’ialov and book-length studies by Maurice Friedberg, Lauren Leighton, and Zara Torlone. Her case studies of prominent poet-translators of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras illustrate the impact of political forces and broad ideological trends on the practice of translation, but also reveal a certain cultural constant: In Russia, translation remains both a means of introducing new ideas and forms of expression from other literary traditions and a vehicle for self-expression. It is, to borrow the title of one of Khotimsky’s sub-headings, a way “To Break the Inertia” both without and within.

Khotimsky begins her first chapter by glossing a number of key theoretical statements on translation. She addresses Walter Benjamin’s influential metaphors for the act of translation, found in his seminal essay “The Task of the Translator,” as well as metaphors employed by contemporary theorists such as Barbara Johnson, André Lefevere, Lawrence Venuti, and Gayatri Spivak. Khotimsky’s perceptive analysis of these metaphors (e.g., “reconstructing a broken vessel,” “weaving and unweaving a tapestry pattern,” and “drawing together the banks of the sea”) and of their implications demonstrates her familiarity with the latest developments in translation theory, and serves to ground her subsequent discussions of Soviet and post-Soviet approaches to translation. The second part of the chapter is devoted to a concise but thorough overview of the role of translation in the development of the Russian poetic tradition from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Khotimsky relies on a number of classic and contemporary sources, offering the reader a nuanced glimpse of into the varied uses to which Neoclassical (Aleksandr Sumarokov, Mikhail Lomonosov, and Vasilii Trediakovskii), Romantic (Vasilii Zhukovskii and Aleksandr Pushkin), and Silver Age (Valerii Briusov and Innokentii Annenskii) poets put translation — uses which include “borrowing and imitation”; “refinement of poetic technique”; “transferring of aesthetic currents”; and appropriation for “highly individual poetic styles.” She rightly concludes that all these uses “point at the role of translation as an impetus for development, change, and response in the national poetic tradition” (pp. 45-46).

In the second chapter, Khotimsky provides an answer to one of the provocative questions she poses in the first: “What if the translator’s work is subject to external ideological, political, and aesthetic demands that dictate a specific understanding of the text?” (p. 23). The chapter traces the institutionalization of translation in the Soviet era and its subordination to the political goals of the state —  that is, the transformation of what had been primarily a literary concern into what the preeminent Soviet translator Kornei Chukovskii called “a matter of statewide importance” (p. 49).  It also demonstrates that this subordination was far from total; indeed, “several authors and writers were able to find an outlet for their artistic energy and a way to communicate with their readers through translations” when all other avenues for publication were closed to them (p. 49). Khotimsky begins with the promising beginning of institutionalized translation in the Soviet Union, chronicling the short history and long legacy of the World Literature publishing house, which sheltered many poets, authors, and scholars who could find no other means of support in the early 1920s and provided a training ground for younger “cadres” who would go on to shape the Soviet “school” of translation. She argues convincingly that the theory behind the Soviet World Literature enterprise in many ways anticipated the Western trend of “world literature studies.” Although World Literature “reflected a paradoxical juncture between an idealistic call for humanitarian values of equality and unity among nations, and the need to promote the ideological and political agenda of the Bolshevik state” (p. 63), it facilitated work of the highest quality and afforded relative freedom to its translators.

Unsurprisingly, the 1930s — which saw increasing Soviet isolationism, the establishment of the Soviet Writers’ Union, and the erection of the vague but all-powerful doctrine of Socialist Realism —  had serious consequences for the field of translation. More and more, translators were tasked with rendering work from the “minority languages” of the Soviet Union rather than from languages of their choice; since many of these translators did not speak the languages from which they were asked to translate, they worked with the help of interlinear cribs. Khotimsky astutely describes this method as “industrialized” (p. 75), very much in keeping with the tenor of the times. And yet,  translation continued to provide a safe haven for “unpublishable” poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Furthermore, although the scope of acceptable translations had shrunk from “World Literature” to a the literature of fraternal and friendly nations, translation retained what Khotimsky calls a “subversive power”: “A tool of propaganda and a convenient means of promoting the ‘brotherhood of the peoples,’ it also offered a fragile connection with world culture and a rare chance of experiencing cultural otherness” (p. 80).

Khotimsky provides excellent examples of translation’s dual function. In order to demonstrate the sanctioned, Socialist Realist approach to translation — which advanced the ambiguous goals of “faithfulness to the original” and “adequacy of translation,” but, in practice, looked more like a Soviet version of Sumarokov’s “bending toward our customs” (p. 29) — she analyzes Samuil Marshak’s much-lauded translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which tame the Bard’s syntactic innovations and sanitize and explicate his imagery, as well as Marshak’s poem to Shakespeare, which reflects the same tendencies toward simplicity and transparency as do his translations. To show that this sanctioned approach was not monolithic, she contrasts Marshak’s translation of this sonnet to Pasternak’s.

In his poem to Shakespeare, Marshak’s speaker proclaims that “the purpose of poetry and the ultimate goal of the translator [are to place] poetry at the service of ‘truth’ and ‘defense of freedom and order’” (p. 92).  He also employs the silly paronomastic metaphor of Shakespeare as a spear-shaking brother-in-arms. In the next section of her chapter, Khotimsky explores how the metaphors used by Soviet scholars and poet-translators like Levon Mkrtchian, Boris Slutskii, and Arsenii Tarkovskii in their original poems and essays on the topic of translation (e.g., the transparent but slightly silvered glass, the battlefield, a desert crossing, or a headache and heartache) reflect both sanctioned and subversive attitudes towards the translator’s task.

In the third chapter, Khotimsky offers three case studies which demonstrate that some Soviet poet-translators of the pre-Thaw era — namely, Boris Pasternak, Nikolai Zabolotskii, and Maria Petrovykh — were able to produce works that met the establishment’s rigorous ideological standards but also provided “an outlet for creative energy” (p. 114) that would otherwise have remained frustrated. Khotimsky first discusses Pasternak’s translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; her detailed analysis of key themes (Hamlet as actor) and lines (“time is out of joint”) from the rendition in the context of Pasternak’s own writings, particularly Doctor Zhivago, illustrate that translation was indeed a “transformative and liberating experience” for the poet. In analyzing a less well-known and well-studied case of transformative translation, Nikolai Zabolotskii’s adaptation of the medieval Russian epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign for a younger contemporary audience, Khotimsky demonstrates that what “started as a project within the boundaries of the Soviet ideology of literature” — that is, a simplified retelling of a Russian hero’s struggle against foreign invaders — “over the years became the poet’s ‘sacred’ text,” which lent him inspiration and spiritual affirmation throughout his own struggle for survival (p. 141). Khotimsky argues convincingly that Zaboltskii “covertly introduce[d] his own reflections on the experience of injustice and violence” (p. 152) into his formally conservative translation, and that his work on the translation influenced his later poems, especially the epic Rubruck in Mongolia.

Khotimsky’s discussion of Maria Petrovykh’s encounters with Armenian poetry sheds light on the a far more common experience of Soviet-era poet-translators, who often spent years working on translations from languages of the Soviet Union and the Easttsern Bloc that they themselves did not know. Petrovykh’s translations from Armenian woman poets, Khotimsky argues, contain many of the same themes and subtle stylistic signatures one finds in her original work, which was first published in book-form in Yerevan; these translations stand in contrast to Petrovykh’s renditions of Polish poems by male authors, like Bolesław Leśmian, which meticulously recreate the formal characteristics and sonic qualities of the originals without introducing her own voice.

In her fourth chapter, Khotimsky concentrates on poet-translators who emerged onto the literary scene during the Thaw, when the official doctrine of Socialist Realism and the strictures of the “Soviet school of translation” had lost their sway. She demonstrates how Joseph Brodsky’s and Natalia Gorbanevskaia’s encounters with Polish poetry, which not only “influenced [their] developing poetic styles, but also their emerging understanding of political and ideological systems that shaped Polish and Russian history in the twentieth century” (p. 202). As Khotimsky concludes, “The experience of translating Polish poetry introduced [Brodsky and Gorbanevskaia] to Poland’s rich and vibrant literary tradition, and also offered a chance to expand their own poetry and to express political dissent” (p. 211). Both poets continued to find varied inspiration in the poetry of Poland, which Brodsky called “a state of mind and a state of heart.”

In the chapter’s second section, Khotimsky tackles the encounters of four Russian poet-translators — Vera Markova, Arkadii Gavrilov, Aleksandr Velichanskii, and Olga Sedakova — with the work of Emily Dickinson. She argues that due to these poets’ personal receptions of Dickinson’s work and their identification with her persona, “translation was often turned into the act of mythologization of the translated poet, which, in turn, aided the Russian poet-translators in defining their own artistic personae” (p. 228). It is Velichanskii and Sedakova that push the boundaries of sanctioned Soviet translation practices and of Russian poetic speech the farthest in their renditions of Dickinson’s work, and it is their own original work that is most clearly marked by their encounters with Dickinson.  Khotimsky concludes this chapter with a closer examination of the role of translation in Sedakova’s career, and of its impact on her original work. Unlike many of the other poets named above, Sedakova’s choice of texts has been guided solely by what she calls an “inner imperative,” rather than by the need to earn money or the desire to stay in print. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Sedakova’s oeuvre exhibits a remarkable degree of interdependence and interpenetration between translation and original verse; both her translations and her poems reveal “a subtle combination of elements learned from foreign poetic traditions with references to Russian Orthodox ritual and the Church Slavonic linguistic heritage” (p. 264).

In the final chapter, Khotimsky turns her attention to post-Soviet trends and experiments in translation.  She begins by outlining the post-Soviet transformation of the literary marketplace, which has offered professional poet-translators more freedom, but has also put them in competition with a multitude of amateurs, whose shoddy work has damaged the reputation of translation itself as a literary endeavor.  Nevertheless, the opening of cultural borders has afforded poet-translators many opportunities to “catch up” with to the West and to appropriate new poetic forms and ideas. In a sense, the situation of the last twenty years is analogous to that of the eighteenth century, when a previous generation of Russian “post-horses” helped their domestic literature take a dramatic leap forward.

In the chapter’s second section, Khotimsky examines Aleksei Tsvetkov’s and Vladimir Gandelsman’s independent translations of Hamlet, which reflect their author’s individual poetic voices and a commitment to “breaking through” the Soviet literary canon. It is this impetus to “break the inertia” that unites the work of Tsvetkov and Gandelsman with even more experimental poet-translators, like Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Aleksei Parshchikov, and Aleksandr Skidan, who introduced the radically innovative poetics of Kathy Acker, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Charles Olson and others to Russian readers. More and more frequently, Russian-language poets find themselves working in multicultural environments, and Khotismky discusses the impact of these conditions on the work of Anna Glazova, whose translations of Paul Celan inform her own poetry and scholarship.

Khotimsky ends her dissertation with a perceptive analysis of the most complicated and fascinating of translational encounters — mutual translations between Dragomoshchenko and Hejinian and, in more detail, the Russian poets Ilya Kaminsky, who lives in the US and writes in English, and Polina Barskova, who also lives in the US but writes in Russian. These experiments, which place “Russian poetry in the international cultural context” (p. 350), testify to the fact that translation continues to replenish the sources and expand the boundaries of Russian poetry. Khotimsky’s pioneering work offers a coherent survey of the practice of translation in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, and is full of original, insightful observations. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in this topic, in translation theory at large, or in the work of the individual poets under discussion.

Boris Dralyuk
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
University of California, Los Angeles

Primary Sources

Joseph Brodsky Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Tsentral’nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva
[Central State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow] (TsGALI)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 390 pp. Primary Advisor: Stephanie Sandler.


Image: Poets of Silver Age, 1930s: Georgy Chulkov, Maria Petrovykh, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam. Wikimedia Commons.

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