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MANUSCRIPTS BURN: ON TRANSLATING CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN-LANGUAGE WORKS OF WITNESS WITH KATHERINE E. YOUNG

Farewell, Aylis.jpg

Although the Soviet Union is long gone, many writers and intellectuals in its successor states continue to work in Russian. Some, such as prominent Azerbaijani writer and de facto political prisoner Akram Aylisli (b. 1937), who studied at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute and began writing in the 1950s, have sold millions of books in Russian. Others, including poets Xenia Emelyanova (Russia) and Iya Kiva (Ukraine), barely remember the USSR, but remain steeped in its literary and cultural legacy. 

For the translator from Russian, this presumably transitional period of Russian linguistic hegemony brings specific challenges. The literary language may be Russian, but its context and usage can be distinctly Azerbaijani, Russian, or Ukrainian. And while all literature is the product of a particular time and place, literature that seeks to explicitly engage with contemporary sociopolitical conditions – literature that critiques, say, local political leadership or that testifies to injustice – offers special challenges to the translator. 

What are a translator’s responsibilities to a writer working under these conditions, particularly a politically repressed writer? On the practical side, repressed writers rarely have agents – what are the ethical implications of representing that author as both translator and agent? How can a translator best promote a repressed writer in English without endangering that writer in his or her homeland, especially in the internet age? Should a translator advocate politically for a writer (or is that simply an extension of “good business practice”)? If so, what should that advocacy look like? What challenges arise – ethical, political, and sometimes personal – when a translator works simultaneously with writers whose countries happen to be at war with one another?

Photography: Christopher Shane

Photography: Christopher Shane

American poet and translator Katherine E. Young discusses the ethical and practical challenges translators face when working with contemporary Russian-language literature that involves protest, dissent, and/or witness in its home culture. The talk will include readings from Young’s recent translations of Akram Aylisli’s Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Works (a book that was burned in Azerbaijan in 2013) and Xenia Emelyanova, Inna Kabysh, Lyudmyla Khersonska, and Iya Kiva, poets writing on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

This event is organised by Pushkin Club and all are welcome.