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26 July 2015

Letter from Donbass miners

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“Dear Comrades,” the letter began, “On the 18th anniversary of the October revolution, we send you our greetings.” Dated 10 October 1935 and signed by Soviet Esperantists working in the Donbass region of the Soviet Union, the letter endeavored, via the formulaic ardour of Stalinist homage, to “tell how the miners used to live before the revolution, and how they live now freed from the capitalists, thanks to the Communist party and the genius of the revolutionary leader Lenin, and the wise leadership of our beloved comrade, friend and leader Stalin.”

Translated from Esperanto into English and entitled “From a Russian Miner” (although it was in fact sent not from Russia but from Postyshevo, now Krasnoarmiisk, in Ukraine), this hearty missive appeared in the pages of a 1936 issue of La Laborista Esperantisto (The Worker Esperantist; British Library P.P.3558.ibl.) – the periodical of the British Section of the global Esperantist organization known as Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (S.A.T.) [World Anational Association]. As the standard inside cover of La Laborista Esperantisto reliably explained, S.A.T.’s primary aim was “to utilize in practical ways the international language, ESPERANTO, for the class aims of the working class throughout the world.”  S.A.T. insisted that Esperanto allowed workers to share ideas and educate one another; to collaborate in pursuit of the revolutionary aims of the worldwide proletariat; and to foster “a strengthened feeling of human solidarity” among Esperantist workers otherwise separated not merely by spatial distance, but also by national borders, languages, and citizenship regimes.

For its own part, “From a Russian Miner” carried the imprimatur of a regional outpost of the Union of Soviet Esperantists. When in 1921 the Union of Soviet Esperantists was established in Petrograd, its founding members devoted themselves to the popularization and deployment of Esperanto as a means of fostering cultural exchange, revolutionary networks, and friendly relations between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. The global solidarity of proletarian Esperantists would thus advance the global solidarity of the proletariat as a whole.

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet Esperantists sought to realize this broad internationalist goal largely through the increasingly regulated practice of what the Soviets called “workers’ correspondence.” Soviet Esperantists adapted this method of propaganda, committing themselves to flooding foreign news outlets and workers’ associations with carefully crafted missives like the one that appeared in La Laborista Esperantisto in 1936. The point was to extol Soviet achievements and squash anti-Soviet “rumours” propagated by deceitful capitalists – and to do so via the international auxiliary language of Esperanto. Esperantist leaders abroad could then, in the hoped-for scenario, translate and reprint the Soviet Esperantists’ letters in the foreign press, thereby transmitting official Soviet ideology to workers abroad.

EsperantpForWorrkers           An Esperanto class for workers, From Esperanto dlia rabochikh:  uchebnik dlia kruzhkov i samoobrazovaniia (Moscow, 1930), p. 56.

By the time “From a Russian Miner” appeared, the Union of Soviet Esperantists was in crisis. On the eve of the Stalinist terror that would devour many of the organization’s members, the problems that bedevilled it  ranged widely. While an analysis of these problems goes beyond the scope of this blog entry, “From a Russian Miner” highlights certain flaws in the Union’s  approach to fostering global proletarian solidarity under the conjoined red star of the Soviet Union and green star of Esperanto.

“From a Russian Miner” adopted the format of a letter, but reads like a singsong recitation of talking points issued from a bureaucratic office. As promised in its opening paragraph, it first enumerates the horrors and indignities of miners’ pre-revolutionary life in tsarist Russia, and then celebrates their  joyful new Soviet life. Living and working conditions prior to the revolution, the letter explains, were miserably inhumane as workers inescapably sacrificed themselves to “create riches for an army of parasites.” Production was not only punishing and humiliating, but also shamefully primitive “as nothing was known of machinery.” Clean drinking water was denied the sickened workers, as was even a rudimentary education.

Soviet poster "Work conditions of miners and workers in the Don Basin" (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The narrative arc marches stalwartly onward in such fashion to the revolutionary climax: the dawning of the “bright and sunny day” that is the contemporary Soviet Union. The life of the Soviet miner, the letter explains, is one of fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. Electricity illuminates the workplace and modern machinery powers industrial production. First-aid stations, bathhouses, classrooms, and a Palace of Culture ensure good health and enlightenment. “In comparison with our past life, our present life is scarcely credible,” the letter explains.  “Every miner has his little house surrounded with greenery. He has a vegetable garden, pigs, birds, and perhaps a cow.” All of this is owed, the letter concludes, to the wise revolutionary leadership of Lenin and Stalin.

No doubt the so-called “workers’ correspondence” that Soviet Esperantists transmitted abroad in the 1920s and 1930s did energize and inspire foreign workers, igniting their imagination of everyday Soviet life as a model to be emulated globally. In this way, Esperanto did serve the Soviet Union in pursuit of its internationalist aims. Yet the formulaic missives authorized by the Union of Soviet Esperantists for foreign consumption also obstructed the organization’s stated effort to facilitate relationships between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. Taking “From a Russian Miner” as a representative example of permissible Soviet Esperantist correspondence in the Stalinist 1930s, it is impossible to overlook not only its unnuanced presentation of an entirely unblemished Soviet life, but also its unrelenting monologic approach. The letter’s gaze focuses resolutely inward while its tone is conspicuously incurious about life abroad. “From a Russian Miner” poses no questions to foreign Esperantists, nor does it invite questions from them. The letter’s portrait of Soviet working life is numbingly generic and depersonalized; the collective workers’ “we” is narratively flattened into the faceless beneficiary of the October Revolution. The letter thumps with triumphal celebration of Soviet achievements, but palpably lacks the human touch of the Soviet citizens who wrote it.

“From a Russian Miner” concludes with a plea for a reply from fellow Esperantists abroad – “a letter by which we can feel the brotherhood and solidarity of the world’s workers.” It asks, in other words, for something that “From a Russian Miner” itself failed to deliver.

Brigid O’Keeffe

Brigid O’Keeffe is an Assistant Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.  In June 2015, she joined The Reluctant Internationalists project at Birkbeck College as a Visiting Fellow. During this time, she conducted research at the British Library, using its extensive collection of materials that document the global history of Esperanto and Esperantism.

24 July 2015

What European Studies owe to J. M. Cohen (1903-1989)

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We’re always hearing how the UK publishes a shamefully small number of  translations compared with other nations: 3 per cent?

This is probably true of new bestsellers, but is it true of long-sellers? In my formative years, and possibly yours, the sole locus of European literature on the high street was the Penguin Classics, much more visible than the World’s Classics or Everyman.  There’s a good history of the collection in the 1987 festschrift for Betty Radice. Founded in 1946, its first authors included Homer, Voltaire and Maupassant. The introductions were non-academic – Aubrey De Sélincourt’s  prologue to Herodotus is four pages – and the translations middle-brow (W.C. Atkinson translating Camões: “Venus is now Cytherea, now Erycina, now Dione, now the Cyprian goddess, now the Paphian.  It is in short a mark of erudition [...].  For such learning the modern term is pedantry, and it becomes a service to the reader of today [...] to call things by their names and ask of each divinity that he or she be content with one.”)  The translators were rarely university lecturers (unlike today): in fact they seemed to me mostly to be schoolteachers.

The series was edited by people with names whose pronunciation a London teenager could only guess at: Betty Radice I now assume is pronounced like Giles Radice MP; but what of E. V. Rieu:  ‘REE-oo’ or ‘ ree-YERR’?

Penguin Quixote 2

One of my school-leaving prizes was J. M. Cohen’s translation of Don Quixote (in print 1950-1999, my well-read copy shown above).  The biographical (as opposed to bibliographical) information on the half-title was meager: ‘J. M. Cohen was born in 1903 and has been writing and translating since 1946.’  As I read more Romance literature, again and again these works were translated by Cohen: Rousseau (in print 1953-), Rabelais (1955-1987),  Montaigne (1958-1993), Teresa of Avila, The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, Bernal Diaz’s Conquest of New Spain, Columbus, Rojas.

These were reprinted again and again.

Whenever I was faced with the question from the man in the street, “Oh, is there any Spanish literature?”, my rock and refuge were the Penguin Classics, and Cohen the prophet.

But of Cohen’s translations, only Rousseau, St Teresa and Columbus, I believe are in print any more.  It’s a maxim of the translation industry that each generation needs its own Cervantes et al.  This may or not be true (it isn’t true, but I want to appear broad-minded) but that’s no reason to consign earlier translators of the callibre of Cohen to a damnatio memoriae: M.A. Screech never refers to Cohen in his Rabelais or Montaigne.

A project is now underway to catalogue Cohen’s  papers, which are in Queens’ College Cambridge.  But his true legacy is in the minds of people like you and me.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

Penguin classics editions translated by J.M. Cohen:

Miguel de Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote (1950) W.P.513/10a.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (1953) W.P.513/33.

François Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1955) W.P.513/47.

St Teresa of Ávila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1957) W.P.513/73.

Michel de Montaigne, Essays (1958) W.P.513/83.

Blaise Pascal, The Pensées (1961) W.P.513/110.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain (1963) W.P.513/123.

Fernando de Rojas, The Spanish Bawd. La Celestina (1964) W.P.513/142.

Benito Pérez Galdós, Miau (1966) W.P.513/181.

Agustín de Zárate, Discovery and Conquest of Peru (1968) X.708/3888.

The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1969) X.808/6013.


‘J. M. Cohen, Gifted translator of foreign prose classics’ (Obituary), The Times (London), 22 July 1989

‘Obituary of JM Cohen: An opener of closed books’, Guardian, 20 July 1989

The Translator’s Art : Essays in Honour of Betty Radice, edited by William Radice and Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth, 1987).  YC.1988.a.329

Vladimir Alexander Smith-Mesa, ‘Making Our America Visible.  J. M. Cohen (1903-1989): El Transculturador’, Aclaiir Newsletter, 23 (2014), 14-17.  P.525/398; a version of the article as a blog post can be read here

22 July 2015

A stitch in time: embroidery as a force for social change

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With just a few days left to catch Cornelia Parker’s magnificent reinterpretation of the Magna Carta through embroidery, it is time to reflect on the curious paradox which it illustrates. Although embroidery may conventionally be regarded as a cosy domestic pastime with little relevance to issues of social or political importance, it has in fact served throughout the centuries to express, covertly or openly, messages about national identity, economic and gender issues, and human rights in their broadest sense. Rozsika Parker’s study The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine  (London, 1983; British Library X.520/36489) ensured that it could no longer be belittled or dismissed as beneath the interest of serious historians.

Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta (An Embroidery) on display at the British Library. Photograph © Tony Antoniou

The materials and threads in which embroidery is worked reflect the climate and culture of its origin, as until the 19th century dyes were derived from plants which grew locally; rare or imported substances such as madder and indigo retailed for considerable sums. It was not until the industrial production of aniline dyes  that a wider (and gaudier) palette became available to the needlewoman as  ‘Berlin woolwork’  (see Jane Alford, Beginner’s guide to Berlin woolwork, Tunbridge Wells, 2003; YK.2004.b.2338)  was exported worldwide and with it commercial patterns facilitating the widespread transmission of designs conceived for the mass market.

This reversed the tradition by which distinctive forms of embroidery had evolved in rural communities, such as Hardanger  in Norway (Sue Whiting (comp.), The Anchor book of Hardanger embroidery; Newton Abbot, 1997; YK.2001.a.17530), Hedebo in Denmark (Hanne Frøsig Dalgaard, Hedebo; København: [1979]; X.419/4281)  and Mountmellick  in Ireland (Pat Trott, Beginner’s guide to Mountmellick embroidery;  Tunbridge Wells, 2002; YK.2003.b.7757 ). These were worked exclusively in white thread on linen with a variety of intricate cutwork and drawn-thread techniques which often produce a lace-like effect and, as in the case of Hardanger aprons, still worn as part of Norwegian folk costume, identify the wearer’s place of origin, like the Aran knitting patterns which had the slightly macabre property of enabling the identification of drowned fishermen.  

Emrboidery Books 2Books about embroidery from our collections

In other areas, such as Ukraine (Olena Kulynych-Stakhursʹka, Mystetstvo ukraïnsʹkoï vyshyvky: tekhnika i tekhnolohiia = The art of Ukrainian embroidery: techniques and technology; L'viv, 1996; YA.2001.b.341), whitework existed alongside other types of embroidery executed in cross stitch, predominantly in red and black, which, as in Hungary where the same colours frequently appeared, featured stylized motifs from nature such as birds, animals and the eight-pointed star which is found as far away as Iceland.

UKRAINIANFINALDSC_5870Traditional Ukrainian embroidery patterns, from A. and N. Makhno, Sbornik" malorossiiskikh" uzorov" (Kiev, 1885) J/7743.i.5.

The samplers worked by young girls often included edifying sentiments or Bible verses, and were not merely fancy-work but served the dual purpose of imparting moral virtues and the skills needed to mark and repair household linens. A particularly practical example of this is the samplers, which command high prices nowadays, made by the children taken into the care of George Müller’s orphanages in Bristol. Stitched in red, these provided evidence of the makers’ abilities, so that when they left the orphanage the girls would be well equipped for posts in domestic service as well as the running of their own homes one day.

While the Industrial Revolution made the large-scale production of textiles possible, handmade items retained a certain status because of the hours of intense labour and dexterity which they required. The comparative crudity of colour, texture and design already noted in mass-produced embroidery materials did nothing to raise the prestige of the medium, and it fell to William Morris to reverse this trend. His wife Jane and daughters Jenny and May were all gifted embroiderers and executed many of the designs which he created. In keeping with his belief in the importance of arts and crafts as a means of social reform, the Ladies Work Society was established in 1875 as part of the wider Arts and Crafts movement which  aimed to foster the applied arts, including textiles,  as worthy artistic disciplines. The Society provided a respectable means of employment for gentlewomen who had needlework skills and education but no other means of making a living and were commissioned to produce decoratively embroidered clothing and textiles through the Society or for sale at its premises in Sloane Street, London. By ensuring fair payment, the Society replaced the exploitation of female textile workers by recognizing and rewarding their talents and helping them to achieve autonomy and economic independence.     

Fittingly, in view of this vision of needlework as a means of stitching one’s way to dignity and self-respect and of the message conveyed by Magna Carta itself, much of the embroidery in Cornelia Parker’s project was carried out by members of Fine Cell Work, an organization set up in 1997 to send volunteers into prisons to teach the inmates, both male and female, needlepoint as a way of enabling them not only to pass the long hours in their cells profitably but to earn an income while in custody. Lady Anne Tree, its founder, also believed strongly in the therapeutic and meditative quality of needlework, and after many years of lobbying the Home Office changed the law to allow prisoners to earn money during their sentences. While the discovery that such activities have physiological benefits, lowering the blood pressure and heart rate, is comparatively recent, the ethical and social values which Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery transmits are timeless, and it continues the message of those who throughout history have understood that craft and creativity serve a purpose far beyond the mundane and material.

Chris-parsons-embroidery-magna-carta-cornelia-parkerChris, a member of Fine Cell Work, at work on Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. Photograph by Joseph Turp

 Susan Halstead, Content Specialist Humanities & Social Sciences