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Literary Translation in Russia: A Cultural History.

Literary Translation in Russia: A Cultural History. By MAURICE FRIEDBERG. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1997. viii + 224 pp. $42.50.

Translation, particularly literary translation, has since antiquity been the lifeblood of international intellectual and cultural development. By enabling barriers of language and culture to be overcome, even partially, literary translation broadens and deepens our awareness of others and ourselves, promoting interaction and change. It also promotes both conflict and understanding. As Maurice Friedberg demonstrates in this pioneering study, nowhere has the importance of literary translation been greater than in Russia, both for the country's writers and for its rulers. Many of Russia's major nineteenth-century writers, among them Lermontov, Pushkin, Zhukovskii, Fet, Dostoevskii, and Tolstoi also translated, and in the twentieth century so too did Pasternak, Akhmatova, Zoshchenko, Babel', and Tsvetaeva, with the difference that whereas in the nineteenth century writers translated voluntarily, often in order to improve their own literary style, in the Soviet period the great writers who translated did so frequently under duress, because they were unable to publish their own original work. In the 1970s more than seventy per cent of all titles published in the Soviet Union were translations. Particularly in the Soviet period, 'literary translations', Friedberg writes, 'served as bridges to the West that transcended political barriers' (p. 18).

These 'bridges to the West' have bound Russia culturally with Europe and the world. They have also acted as channels for new ideas and brought in new ways of thinking. They have reshaped Russia's indigenous culture and, as with all such intrusions from outside, have traditionally been perceived as a threat by the country's more isolationist rulers. Few would disagree with Friedberg's contention that the values represented in translations from Western writers 'contributed over the years to the erosion of Soviet pieties that ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991' (p. 18). Indeed, so important has translation's role been for Russia's overall intellectual development that any detailed history of literary translation in Russia has to be far more than a purely literary history. Appropriately structured, it also has the potential to provide a formal framework for a general history of Russian civilization and culture seen not as a self-contained entity, but rather as an integral part of the overall development of world culture, and particularly the European culture with which Russia has been so intimately connected over the past three centuries.

Friedberg's study is a long overdue first step in this direction. It certainly goes far beyond the author's original intention to write a history of literary translation in Russia during the Soviet period alone. A welcome complement to Lauren Leighton's Two Worlds, One Art: Literary Translation in Russia and America (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991), it draws together not only many of the standard English-language writings on the translator's art but also the seminal works in Russian written mainly during the second half of the Soviet period. Soviet translation theory and practice, moreover, are not considered in isolation as specific reactions to a unique set of post-revolutionary, peculiarly Soviet circumstances. They are seen instead as growing naturally out of their Russian nineteenth-century antecedents on the one hand and, on the other, mirroring, at a remove in time and space, previous Western European developments. Particularly perceptive are the parallels Friedberg draws between the respect shown by translators for source text and source culture in the Romantic period (undertranslation) and the way in which, in the neo-Classical and Socialist Realist periods, translators rewrote and re-formed, adapting the source text to the norms of the receiving culture (overtranslation).

As with so many ambitious and pioneering works (indeed, like the proverbial first pancake with which the author himself compares the finished volume), the undertaking has 'come out rather lumpy'. Passages in one chapter frequently overlap with passages in another, almost as if the individual chapters had originally been prepared as separate units. There is insufficient cross-referencing, and although the individual chapters are well annotated and there is a useful name and subject index, the book lacks a full bibliography. There is also an over-reliance on a limited number of Russian secondary texts. These are, however, minor imperfections. Friedberg's study will be welcomed not only by Slavists with a wider interest in matters of translation and cultural transfer but also by translation studies specialists who have an interest in the Russian phenomenon, but are denied access to it by their lack of Russian.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Holman, Michael
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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