Translators Reflect Europe in Transition: an Excerpt and a Cast of Characters from Cathy McAteer’s monograph Translating Great Russian Literature: The Penguin Russian Classics

We at Punctured Lines are delighted to bring to you an excerpt from Cathy McAteer’s monograph Translating Great Russian Literature: The Penguin Russian Classics (forthcoming from Routledge on January 4, 2021). As most academic publications, this book (available for pre-order here and here) is priced for university library purchases, but luckily for those of us without a university affiliation, this title will also be available as an Open Access publication. Please ask your libraries to order this title, and in the meantime, here’s a brief preview and a fascinating cast of characters whose work McAteer explores in her book.

Abstract: Launched in 1950, Penguin’s Russian Classics quickly progressed to include translations of many great works of Russian literature and the series came to be regarded by readers, both academic and general, as the de facto provider of classic Russian literature in English translation, the legacy of which reputation resonates right up to the present day. Through an analysis of the individuals involved, their agendas, and their socio-cultural context, this book, based on extensive original research, examines how Penguin’s decisions and practices when translating and publishing the series played a significant role in deciding how Russian literature would be produced and marketed in English translation. As such the book represents a major contribution to Translation Studies, to the study of Russian literature, to book history, and to the history of publishing.

The following extract has been selected from Chapter One: Creating Penguin’s Russian Classics, and is accompanied by abridged cameos of just some of the translators who feature in more detail during the course of the book.

[Excerpt begins]

[In 1946], British readers were still largely reliant on Constance Garnett’s renderings of the Russian literary canon. Hence while Rieu (Penguin Classics editor — PL) could easily make a case for re-translating the Russian classics, he did not have a wide choice of experienced Russian-English literary translators at his disposal. Since the era of vocational training in literary translation had not yet arrived, anyone with knowledge of translation theory would have been self-taught. Those commissioned by Rieu probably possessed intuitive translational talent and a feel for writing, or else aspired to develop both. Penguin’s early Russian classics translators might have acquired and used their language skills in different settings, both professional and personal, but without exception their backgrounds reflect the lived experience of a Europe in transition. Elisaveta Fen and David Magarshack immigrated to the United Kingdom from turbulent, post-revolutionary Russia; Rosemary Edmonds had worked as a senior wartime translator; Paul Foote studied Russian on the inter-service Joint Services School of Linguists (JSSL) course at Cambridge before working as an interpreter in Potsdam in 1946; and Richard Freeborn had worked in the Royal Air Force and post-war Potsdam, before finally moving to the British Embassy in Moscow. With background details such as these, it is not surprising that these individuals eventually found work which transposed their language skills to the field of translation in peace-time Britain. Where better to do this than Penguin Classics, the publisher of the moment?

Elisaveta Fen

Although Fen translated other Russian authors, Zoshchenko, Bondariev and Shvarts for other publishing houses, she translated only Chekhov’s plays for Penguin, adding four more plays (The Seagull, The Bear, The Proposal, A Jubilee) to a new 1954 edition, and a final edition in 1959. Correspondence reveals that Rieu declined Fen’s offer to translate Chekhov’s short stories for Penguin. Rieu informed her that ‘We are going slow on Russian works, apart from the 2 great works of Tolstoy and 4 of Dostoievsky’s’ (26 March 1957). Just six months later, however, Fen received confirmation of Penguin’s decision to commission a different Chekhov translator (Magarshack) instead:

I think it only fair to let you know now that we have just decided to place the work in the hands of another translator. I am afraid this news may be a disappointment to you, but you will remember that we and our advisors had something to say in criticism of the English style in which the samples were submitted. (Rieu, 1957)

Rosemary Edmonds

Rosemary Edmonds (1905-1998) worked as a translator to General de Gaulle at the Fighting France Headquarters in London, and on liberation in Paris. Having been funded by de Gaulle to study Russian at the Sorbonne after the war (Hahn, 2004), she was ‘recruited’ by Rieu (the details of their first meeting are not recorded) after submitting sample translations. She translated works by Tolstoi, starting with Anna Karenin (1954), the first re-translation in the UK since the Maudes’ version in the 1920s. Like Garnett before her, Edmonds embarked on a career in Russian literary translation without ever having been to Russia; in the same year that her translation of War and Peace was published, Edmonds informed Penguin (4 May 1957) that she had been invited to Russia for the first time.

Edmonds’s lack of direct experience of Russia might explain Rieu’s evaluation of her first typescript. In a letter to fellow editor A.S.B. Glover on the typescript of Anna Karenin, Rieu discussed the improvements she had made to the text at his suggestion (such as reading her ‘stuff aloud’ and consulting with native Russians). He remarks that, ‘I have examined the text carefully and found it good, though I do not think she is one of our A+ translators. I have also read the introduction which is, in my opinion, a bit feeble, but not altogether rotten’ (8 September 1952).

David Magarshack

David Magarshack

Whereas Edmonds exerted linguistic power over the Penguin editors, insisting that she knew best when it came to the text, there is no evidence to suggest that she ever called into question her terms and conditions. By contrast, Magarshack regularly challenged his editors Rieu and Glover over both payment and, to a lesser extent, textual matters. In Rieu’s introductory letter to Glover of 20 January 1949, he explains that Magarshack ‘lives by his translations’, adding, with a suggestion of caution, that he ‘has published translations from the Russian with other publishers and has several new ones in the hands of various firms (Faber’s, Lehman, etc [sic]). They deal generously with him’. We may presume from this that, in their initial meeting, Magarshack offered Rieu this information himself in a bid to increase his negotiating power, a position which is reiterated in Magarshack’s first letter to Glover. Dissatisfied that Glover appeared to be reneging on Rieu’s terms, Magarshack spelled out his views:

There is no question of approval at all. I am not an amateur, and my books have been published and are due to be published by well-known publishing houses […]. Mr Rieu was in complete agreement with me about this question of approval. (3 March 1949)

This cohort of fascinating characters had its day immediately after the war, but the next decades saw a shift to other, younger, differently trained translators such as Glenny whose Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov would change readers’ perceptions of what Russian literature meant. The second half of my book charts this change.

To keep on reading, please access the book through its publisher.

Dr. Cathy McAteer is Postdoctoral Fellow on the “Dark Side of Translation” project. She holds a PhD (2018) in Russian and Translation Studies from the University of Bristol, a Masters in Translation Studies (2011) and a first-class BA (Hons) in Russian (1996). Her main research interests lie in the field of classic Russian literature in English translation during the twentieth century, using archival material to shed new light on the people and processes behind historical commissions, specifically Penguin’s Russian Classics. Cathy taught Russian-English translation for the MA Translation Studies programme at the University of Bristol from 2013-2019. She has worked as a freelance commercial translator but has also translated the novella Timka’s Tale and a monograph on the Soviet sculptor David Yakerson. Cathy previously worked as an in-house translator in her role as Russia Coordinator at Nestle UK Ltd. Her academic monograph, Translating Great Russian Literature: The Penguin Russian Classics, is forthcoming from Routledge in 2021.

Note: “The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland and the USA” is an ERC-funded research project (Horizon 2020, Grant Agreement No.: 802437). To learn more, find it on twitter: @Rustransdark or use the project website: rustrans.exeter.ac.uk  

RusTrans Award Winners for Russian-to- English Translations of Contemporary Fiction, 2020

Exciting news from the exciting RusTrans project. As its website explains, “’The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland, and the USA’ (RusTrans for short) is a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 802437), and located at the University of Exeter. The project is led by Dr Muireann Maguire (Principal Investigator) and Dr Cathy McAteer (Post-doctoral Fellow).

What is the dark side of translation? Most of us think of translation as a universal good. Translation is valued, taught, and often funded as a deterrent to monolingual nationalism and cultural parochialism. Yet the praxis of translation – the actual processes of selecting and translating literary texts, and of publishing and publicizing translations – is highly politicized, often subverted by ideological prejudice or state interference. Translators necessarily have a personal agenda, as do editors, publishers, and other agents.  Every translation is an act of cultural appropriation, reinventing the thoughts of one language in the words of another.

[…] RusTrans investigates how individuals, and governments, exploit this ‘dark side’ of translation to reap cultural capital by translating lesser-known literature into global languages (and the reverse).

[…] The project’s main aim is to research why translators, publishers, and funding bodies support the translation of certain texts, and not others.” 

Ealier this year, RusTrans held a competition for funding English translations of contemporary literary fiction written in Russian and have just announced the twelve winning projects by fourteen translators (two are co-translations). The conditions for these awards, which will fund excerpts of larger works, are rather unique. RusTrans is asking the translators to keep them posted over the next two years about the process to secure publication for the works in their entirety: as they explain, “we plan to follow selected translators through the process of pitching and/or submitting a new translation to publishers in real time” to gain a fuller understanding of the “dark side” of translation, driven by politics, economics, and personal biases.

One of RusTrans’ stated criteria for picking the projects was diversity, and the final list has a number of women writers, a queer writer, writers from non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as those who now live outside of the post-Soviet space. Punctured Lines joins RusTrans in congratulating the winners below (as listed on the RusTrans website) and looks forward to following this fantastic endeavor:

  1. William Barclay, with Bulat Khanov’s novel about an angry academic, Gnev.
  2. Michele Berdy, with various stories and a novella by Tasha Karlyuka.
  3. Huw Davies, with Dmitry Bykov’s historical novel June.
  4. Shelley Fairweather-Vega, with short fiction  “Aslan’s Bride” by Nadezhda Chernova and “Black Snow of December” by Asel Omar.
  5. Annie Fisher and Alex Karsavin, co-translating Ilya Danishevsky’s queer modernist experimental novel Mannelig in Chains.
  6. Polly Gannon, with Sana Valiulina’s Soviet-Estonian historical novel, I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard.
  7. Lisa Hayden, with Alexei Salnikov’s debut novel The Department.
  8. Alex Shvartsman, with K.A. Teryna’s science fiction novella The Factory.
  9. Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik, co-translating Viktor Pelevin’s novel iPhuck 10.
  10. Sian Valvis, with Narine Abgaryan’s semi-autobiographical novel of an Armenian childhood, Manunia.
  11. Sarah Vitali, with Figgle-Miggle (Ekaterina Chebotaryova)’s novel You Love These Films So Much. 
  12. Lucy Webster, with Andrei Astvatsaturov’s satirical novel on Russian academia, People in Nude.