In the era of total globalization, people of different cultures and religions, living in different countries and speaking different languages will always seek for the means of preservation of their national identities. The feeling of belonging, being part of a particular community is, according to Maslow (Maslow 1943), one of the basic human needs. Driven by this need of socialization, a human being is prone to look for the sense of security among the people who speak the same language and who share the same values which are usually embedded in particular social regulations and cultural artifacts, sometimes reinforced by different systems of beliefs. In the contemporary world of globalization and multiculturalism, with the traditional ethnic states becoming more and more obsolete, with the boundaries between different nations and cultures becoming more and more transparent, and with national languages eventually surrendering to “Globish,” people still struggle to preserve what makes them stand out as a nation and what constitutes the core of their national identities: their native language, their national historical and cultural heritage.
When it comes to preservation of national identities, cultures and languages, it seems obvious that the leading role here belongs to national literatures which can be seen as tribunes of “national spirit,” metaphoric sanctuaries of what any particular community considers valuable. For the sake of preservation and promotion, the values get embedded into comprehensive literary forms and then passed from one generation to another. However, given that “communities are to be distinguished…by the style in which they are imagined” (Anderson 1991: 6), it becomes obvious that national identities can only be seen in contrast of translation as it exposes what can and what cannot be “carried over.” An example of such investigation, situating the origins of the Russian national identity in translation and imitation which played a crucial role in the making of the Russian national literature throughout the 19th-20th centuries, may be seen in the recent monograph of Brian James Baer Translation and the Making of Modern Russian Literature.
Speaking about the necessity to examine the Russian national literature and, by extension, its national identity, through the lens of translation, Baer explains his choice of research methodology by the fact that translation, being “hybrid in its core” (Hermans 2010: 210) fully corresponds to the intrinsic hybridity of Russian culture. The “belatedness” Russian nation-building project led by the non-Russian cosmopolitan elite as well as the internal otherness of different nations constituting multiethnic Russian Empire (p. 6) – those are the main characteristics of Russian dual identity which can be reduced to the oxymoronic combination of phrases “imperial nation” (Clowes 2011: 70) within the “empire of nations” (Hirsch 2005). Ironically, the intrinsic ability of Russian culture to absorb alien elements and to transform them into domestic artifacts (Wachtel 1999: 57) has made it possible to build up a unique Russian nationhood and make it the core of the multiethnic but monolingualized empire (p. 13-14). Here Baer makes a remarkable observation that it was translation that has become the main tool for building and sustaining the hybridity of Russian national identity. A playground of imitation of French and German romanticists, translation rapidly developed into a workshop where Russian national literature, and by extension, its national culture and identity were called to existence. Comparatively weak in its “belatedness,” Russian literature reevaluated imitation as “following the steps of genius” (Pushkin 1836/1986: 401) and evolved towards the rejection of the Western cult of original authorship which resulted in the appropriation, adaptation and integration of translated texts into the monolingualized Russian culture if they had been originally created by Russian authors. As Belinsky puts it, “translations into Russian belong to Russian literature” (Belinsky 1838/2013: 31).
Having set the research objectives in revisiting “a transnational history of Russian literature by rereading Russia’s rich literary culture through the lens of translation,” Baer seeks to prove his hypotheses that “translation has always been in the center of Russian thinking about literary production and national identity” (p. 16). To do so, the author adopts the methodology of mixed analysis of literary representations of translators and their works, whether translated or genuine, together with the critical overview of actual translational tendencies at various historical moments throughout the 19th-20th centuries. Thus, besides presenting his vision of the making of Russian literature and, by extension, Russian national identity, Baer also presents his reader with an interesting and prospective methodology which implies full integration of the problematics of translation into the study of literature and culture (p. 16). As a method, these commented “micro-histories,” rather than simple retraction of the history of translation, in the author’s own opinion, is quite close to that adopted by Naomi Seidman and referred to as “translation stories” which embed translation as “the material, political, cultural, or historical circumstances of its production, that it in fact represents an unfolding of these conditions” (Seidman 2006: 9).
In terms of content, the book contains seven “micro-histories” which altogether cover almost two centuries of literary production in Russia, namely the most productive and controversial periods in the history of Russian national literature – the 19th and the 20th centuries. Although, placed in a rough chronological order, the essays do not pretend to be either a history of literary production, or a history of translation in Russia. Instead, the book delivers the author’s thoughts on how the actual tendencies in translation were carried over and adapted to the needs of the Russian imperial and nation-building project as well as to its intrinsic duality. All this together with the hybrid research methodology makes the book, which was initially meant for Slavists and Translation Studies scholars (p. 20), also appealing to those interested in Literary and Cultural Studies.
Starting with the analysis of translation as “a highly-politicized practice that was “safer” than original writing” (p. 17) in the context of propagation of revolutionary thoughts in the early 19th century (Chapter 1), the author presents his reader with the examples of mistranslation (Chapter 2) and language slips (Chapter 3) while pondering their roles in imperial and national discourse and presenting both as a result of split identity of the Russian cosmopolitan elite. Further discussion about the role of translation in the making of Russian literature reveals “a complex cultural positioning in regard to foreign cultural values” (p. 19) such as gender (Chapter 4), subjectivity (Chapter 5) and general acceptance of gay (Chapter 6) and post-modern (Chapter 7) culture. Gradual appropriation of liberal Western values by the cosmopolitan Russian culture in fact continues the Petrine tradition of Westernization of Russia. However, in the case of literary production, this Westernization took the form of progressive liberalization rather than forced cultural conversion. The hybridity of translation as a practice of “safe” engaged writing, as remarkably depicted by Baer in his “micro-stories,” made it possible to establish certain continuities of the discourse on the role of translator in the making of a national literature as well as on the constructive role of translation in different national and imperial projects.
- Anderson, Benedict (1991): Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
- Belinsky, Vissarion (1838/2013): Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848). In: Brian James Baer and Natalia Olshanskaya, eds. Russian Writers on Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome: 31-39.
- Clowes, Edith W. (2011): Russia on the Edge. Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.
- Hermans, Theo (2010): The Translator’s voice in Translated Narrative. In: Mona Baker, ed. Critical Readings in Translation Studies. London/New York: Routledge: 193-212.
- Hirsch, Francine (2005): Empire of Nations. Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- Maslow, Abraham H. (1943): A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50(4):370-396.
- Pushkin, Alexander (1836/1986): In: Tatiana Wolff, ed. Pushkin on Litterature. (translated from the Russian by Tatiana Wolff). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
- Seidman, Naomi (2006): Faithful Renderings. Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
- Wachtel, Andrew (1999): Translation, Imperialism and National Self-definition in Russia. Public Culture. 11(1):49-73.