Russian Translation and the Controversies of Cultural Diplomacy

In News by Dennis Abrams

The Third International Congress of Translators in Moscow last week, where the theme was “cultural diplomacy” but was not without controversy.

By Dennis Abrams

Russian FlagAt Russia Behind the Headlines, they reported on the Third International Congress of Translators held in Moscow last week. More than 250 participants from 55 countries were in attendance, along with linguists, translators, and academics from around the world.

The theme of this year’s congress was “Translation as a Form of Cultural Diplomacy,” which “reflects both the current turbulent geopolitical environment and the principles that inspired the foundation of the Institute of Translation itself.”

Among the highlights:

“We wanted to create a forum where translators from all over the world could exchange bits of wisdom and professional experience on their art form,” said Vladimir Grigoriev, the Deputy Head of the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications and one of the Institute’s key founders. “But we also had in mind the higher, more philosophical purpose of translation, which is a means of uniting people from different countries. Although it is highly technical in nature, translation is after all not a science but an art, and there’s a certain degree of cultural alchemy that takes place when you translate, because you’re not just replacing one word with another, you’re creating a palpable bridge between the cultural mentalities of two countries.”

Topics under discussion included practical ones such as “How do you avoid unintentional plagiarism in classic works that have been translated numerous times” and “How does one translate cultural context?” There were lectures on language-specific problems such as “The difficulties of translating Nabokov and Chekhov into Japanese,” or “The problems posed by trying to translate the musicality of Russian poetry into American idiomatic speech.” There were lectures on cross-cultural topics such as “What contemporary Russia literature is popular in China and why?” and, it should be noted, “The history of translating Russian literature in Iran” seemed particularly popular.

And of course politics could not be avoided. Among those “hot button” discussions were “Translating Russian literature into Ukrainian in the wake of the current crisis” and “The situation with translating Russian authors into Estonian.” There were also discussions on such “pedagogical subjects” as “What is the role of the university in molding young translators? And “How to teach students to preserve the ‘soul’ of a text,” along with more big picture questions such as “Does the translator need to know everything?” and “Is translation more or a science or a labor of love?”

But given the headlines of the day, the politics of translation was the topic always in the back of the mind of most attendees. As the article reported:

“The Institute of Translation chose to confront the matter head on by including a discussion on the topic from international expert and editor-in-chief of Russian Global Affairs, Fedor Lukyanov. Many translators present at the congress thought that this was unnecessary, suggesting that culture should not be affected by politics. The concept of the translator as cultural ambassador and peace envoy was further emphasized in the introduction printed on the first page of the congress’s itinerary: “The world is living in difficult times right now, when professional diplomacy is not always capable of quelling hostile conflicts, when mutual misunderstanding and mistrust break apart peace-loving people. In these situations, one must not undervalue the role of the literary translator, who fulfills the high humanitarian mission of bringing together the people and culture of different countries.” However, without any initiative from the organizers, the participants of the congress had issued an anti-war petition of their own. The translators expressed their “terror and pain at the sight of the events in Ukraine” and conveyed their collective protest against “the propaganda of hate, which distorts reality and calls people to violence.” According to the petition, “The duty of a translator as a cultural mediator is to promote and assist peace and freedom of speech, to openly stand out against violence and lies. Translation is possible only as free transfer of languages, ideas, cultures and worldviews.” This was made public on September 4, the congress’s first day, and was signed by more than 300 Russian and foreign translators, writers, scholars and others.”

To read the rest of the report, including the list of prize-winning translators, click here.

And in a related story, The Moscow Times reports that:

Citing his lack of regard for President Vladimir Putin, a Dutch translator known for bringing some of Russia’s greatest literary works to Dutch bookshelves has refused to accept the coveted Medal of Pushkin, Dutch NRC news website reported on Saturday.

“I would with great gratitude accept this honor if it wasn’t for [President Vladimir Putin], whose behavior and way of thinking I despise. He represents a big threat to freedom and peace on our planet,” translator Hans Bolland wrote in response to an invitation to the Kremlin to receive the award from Putin himself in November.

“Every connection between him [Putin] and me, his name and the name of [Alexander] Pushkin, is disgusting and intolerable for me,” Bolland wrote in his letter.

Bolland sent his strongly worded rejection letter to the Russian Embassy in The Hague.

Bolland would have been the first Dutch national to receive the Medal of Pushkin, which was established by the Russian government in 1999 to commemorate extraordinary individual achievements in arts and culture.
Bolland is Holland’s foremost translator of Russian literature, having brought Dutch readers the works of such literary greats as Pushkin and Lermontov, as well as contemporary authors. Between 1992 and 1996, he taught Dutch language and literature at St. Petersburg State University.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.