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Vsevolod Bagno: “Translations cannot help but take popular demand into consideration …”
Director of the Institute of Russian Literature (IRLI) or Pushkin House at RAS, Vsevolod BAGNO, discusses the use of pulp fiction and revival of the Russian school of literary translation in his interview for the Russkiy Mir portal.
– Mr Vsevolod, our country was once famous for its strong translation school which now seems to be a thing of the past, why?
– This was a rare phenomenon indeed that largely arose for artificial reasons. Since there was no business in the country, the brightest minds flocked to sciences and humanities, including philology. In the West philology departments had the lowest ratings, but in this country they had the highest. The same concerns translations which were popular partly because of savagery of censorship. Such celebrities as Pasternak, Akhmatova and Mandelstam could not publish their poems – that was how a brilliant translation school came to be.
– Is it possible to reanimate philology and the art of translation?
– I don’t know but we should certainly try, given that highly skilled translations of world literature develop the stylistic and lexical richness of native speech. The outflow of good translators to other spheres of activity in two recent decades has opened the floodgates of hokey pokey to the translation market. To turn the negative tide, we founded the Institute of Translation in 2011, tailored for overseas publishers, translators, teachers of Russian and students of Slavic culture from foreign universities. As for professional translators, IRLI RAS offers them creative workshops as a platform of professional growth for those who face difficulties discussing the problems related to the understanding and rendering of literary texts in another language. We are also restoring a translation department for CIS countries at IRLI as the first step towards revival of the mutual translations’ institute. For the sake of supporting foreign translators we’ve instituted the annual Read Russia Awards for the best translations of works written in Russian. This triad of measures is aimed at revitalization of the translation culture.
– Does the Pushkin House keep track of contemporary literature?
– We did not deal with contemporary literature before, but the time compels us to readjust, I believe. I do not mind drawing the Pushkin House closer to the ongoing literary process. For example, we could hold literary nights, discussions, presentations of new books not necessarily written by Russian authors. But we should abstain from hasty moves. “It’s better to be the first in a village than the second in Rome.” We filled the niche of classics long ago and we are pioneers in studying ancient Russian literature – for example, the literary works of 17th century and interconnections between Russian and foreign classics. If we switch to 20th and 21st centuries we’ll have to face tough competition. These periods are ably and diversely studied at all universities. We’ll never be pioneers in this area but something can still be done. One example is academic collections after a classic pattern like the collected works of Turgenev or Dostoyevsky. I assume if the Pushkin House prepares several editions spanning the 20th century this would be our contribution to the contemporary literary process. Most likely we’ll try to prepare academic editions of one of mid-century writers, but not likely of one who is still active today.
– What do you think is the key principle of the publishers who are geared towards the wide audience?
– I don’t know this issue well enough, but I think there is no elaborate strategy. Some countries “open” new names; these are the UK, France, Germany and the US. Portugal and Holland will never open new names as they wait for France or Germany to open them. Russia does not seem to open anybody, but it senses the prevalent trends and readily accepts new ones. Some time ago various publishers quite often proposed us to prepare a collected works of great Latin American writers. I suggested other authors who are not inferior to Borges, Cortazar or Marquez, in my humble opinion, but they only smiled in return. And the works of the abovenamed authors were published in incredible quantities, since they knew that the market would absorb them, for those were “reliable” and proven names. That is the main principle.
– And what is your proposal?
– To hype up some little known names as it happens in pop music. This is the only way to kindle new stars and to find our niche on the market of contemporary literature. However this is not within my competence as I tackle general issues of the Russian literature in the context of the world literature and literary translation theory. I deal with the history of literature, rather than with its modern state.
– Literary studies are also getting quite popular with publishers. What’s the reason for this?
– I was privileged to communicate with Dmitry Likhachev. He was particularly interested in the so-called border zone. Mr. Likhachev believed that it is this frontier zone that spawns everything significant, for here you may feel and catch elusive things. One such border zone lies between literature and literary studies. The memoirs of Likhachev himself are genuine literature, to be sure. Both in his memoirs and his literary works he is revealed to be an interesting thinker, talented artist and outstanding scholar. This is the very frontier zone where art and science meet. This border zone will certainly be always in demand.
– But this is not the mass market with its pulp fiction. What’s the place of the latter in the process of translation?
– Frankly speaking, I don’t think trash literature shifts the reader’s focus. Nothing can distract from Dostoyevsky and if it does, and the reader prefers a second-rate detective story for reading, this is not a big deal. For when a person fond of junk reading occasionally opens a book by Dostoyevsky, this will be a different Dostoyevsky, not the one we are familiar with. There can be different versions of Leo Tolstoy depending on who reads his works and how. Unfortunately, we do not know what Tolstoy or Pushkin is read by classroom hooligans and I wish I could know.
– I don’t quite understand you. They read them at school just as a sort of duty.
– No, people read different books, even when they read the same classic work. Borges mentioned this phenomenon. There are many different personalities cohabiting within the same human mind and literature brilliantly proves this theory. Why crowding the mass-market segment? I’ve always supported losers out of aesthetic considerations. Educated people have the habit of scolding pop culture and I’d like to defend it. It seems to me that mass literature opens the eyes of many to the existence of literature as such, even as many people would never know about real music unless they attended operetta or sarsuella shows. This means that translations cannot help but take popular demand into consideration.