THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

Introduction

Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

23 June 2016

Literary Translation: Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Speaking about the translator who introduced Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov to the English reading audience, Joseph Brodsky, once wrote: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.” On the other hand, there have been instances where a translation is said to be better than the original.

Kadare

    Front cover of Ismail Kadare, The Wedding. Rendered into English by Ali Cungu. (Tirana, 1968). X.908/16616.

So, whose voice is the reader hearing when reading a novel, or a poem, in translation – the author’s or the translator’s? How faithful to the original should a translation be? To what degree should the translation be “adjusted” or “improved” to facilitate its reading by the target audience?

Ghost

 Typescript. Front cover of  William B. Bland, The ghost at the wedding. Based on the novel “The wedding” by Ismail Kadare. (Ilford, 1969). X.950/13209.

These are questions that apply to literary translation from any language, of course, but they are especially relevant when translating from so-called smaller languages, where the context, references, and even style and rhythm may be alien to the foreign reading public.

Arghezi

Frontispiece. Arghezi’s self-portrait. From Tudor Arghezi, Flori de Mucigai. Cu un autoportret inedit. (Bucharest, 1931). RB.23.a.20598.

On 24 June, Balkan Day at the British Library, I will be chairing a panel of literary translators who have introduced the English-speaking world to some of the best writing that Southeastern Europe has to offer. We will be discussing their approaches to literary translation and whether they think of literary translation as craft or creation. And who better to tell us than Christopher Buxton, author of two novels and translator of numerous contemporary and classical Bulgarian novelists and poets; the Turkish poet Melvut Ceylan, who lives in London and has translated both Turkish poetry into English and English poetry into Turkish; John Hodgson, who has brought us, among others, the work of Ismail Kadare and is one of only a few translators to be working directly from Albanian into English; and the poet Stephen Watts, whose many translations of poetry include the work of the surrealist Romanian poet Gellu Naum and Tudor Arghezi.

Naum

 Frontispiece. Naum’s portrait by Victor Brauner. From Gellu Naum, Culoarul somnului. Cu un desen de Victor Brauner. (Bucharest, 1944). YA.2000.a.8782.

I know this is going to be a very lively discussion. How do I know? I’m a literary translator myself.

Christina Pribichevich Zorić, Former Chief of Conference and Language Services at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

 

21 June 2016

An Unparalleled Authority on the History of Belarusian Literature

On 21 June Prof Arnold McMillin will celebrate his 75th birthday. Until he retired in 2006, he was a Chair of Russian Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is particularly well known and loved for researching Belarusian literature. Prof McMillin is the author of the first English-language history of Belarusian literature, published in 1977. Since then, he has remained an unrivalled authority on the subject in the English-speaking world. His academic achievements are also a great witness to the work of small community-run libraries in Britain.

McMillin 4

Prof. Arnold McMillin by Alexandra Belookaya.  With a kind permission of the photographer. 

Prof McMillin’s contacts with the Belarusian community in London started soon after he began his doctoral dissertation in 1964. The topic was suggested by a slavist, Robert Auty: the vocabulary of the Belarusian literary language in the 19th century – a completely neglected field of Slavonic studies at that time.

The Belarusian community in Britain was not large, but active and intellectually strong. Many cultural activities then took place at the Belarusian Catholic Mission and its Marian House in north London, which are still in existence and maintaining their central role in the community. Marian House accommodated a rapidly-growing book collection started by few Belarusian priests who were passionate to preserve the Belarusian heritage which found its way to the west during and after the Second World War.

Here is how Prof McMillin describes his experience:

The librarian was Fr Haroška, a rather fierce man, but he truly helped me a lot – I needed texts of the 19th century for my research. The priests who lived in Marian House were very kind and learned. They were very helpful too, while I was quite ignorant of the subject. Some of the texts I needed were in the British Library, e.g. Czeczot, Rypiński, but by no means all. And Fr Haroška was very keen to help me. So between the two of them, the British Library and the Skaryna Library, I wrote my thesis. That was the beginning

By 1970, the book collection on the first floor of Marian House had grown to almost 7,000 volumes, among them many valuable and rare editions. On one occasion the floor of the room the library was housed in collapsed under the weight of books into the church directly underneath it. Soon after, a building across the road was purchased to house the newly established Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum; it incorporated the book collection from Marian House. Skarynaŭka was oficially opened in 1971 and it played a central role in supporting Belarusian studies in the west, as well as helping to re-publish authors and works forbidden under Soviet rule in newly-independent Belarus. Prof McMillin was not only the most committed user of the Library, but also its passionate advocate and supporter. When the Library became a registered charity, he joined its Board of Trustees and remains a member.

Soon after Prof McMillin’s dissertation appeared as a book, he was invited by a German academic publisher to write a history of Belarusian literature. A History of Byelorussian Literature: From Its Origins to The Present Day (Giessen, 1977; British Library X:0900/189(6)) provoked a lot of interest on its publication: it was the first academic work of such scale in). Initially, the publication was met with silence in Soviet Belarus: someone had to work out how to react to writings from the west. Prof McMillin’s evaluation of some untouchable Soviet writers was damning while he praised others who didn’t make into the official literary pantheon. Eventually, a nine-page review appeared in the leading literary journal Polymia (PP.4842.dcs.) in 1980. It was written by Prof Adam Maldzis of the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences of BSSR. He was allowed to publish that review on two conditions: to accept the collaboration of two state-approved scholars and to include serious criticism of McMillin’s work. Eventually the review appeared under the names Ivan Navumienka, Michaś Mušynski and Adam Maldzis. McMillin’s approach was characterised as “bourgeois objectivist” – a made-up description to calm the editors’ fears.

McMillin 2

Despite this meaningless characterisation, the two scholars developed a cordial and productive friendship. Prof Maldzis was the first Soviet scholar to visit the Belarusian Library in London in 1982. His travel diary published in Minsk five years later contained extensive excerpts from publications and manuscripts he could not access often – on account of censorship – in the BSSR.

Meantime, for Prof McMillin A History of Byelorussian Literature was only the beginning. In the following years he published another four outstanding books surveying the Belarusian literary landscape. Belarusian Literature in the 1950s and 1960s (1999; ZA.9.a.4768(28)), Belarusian Literature of the Diaspora (2002; YC.2003.a.5621), Writing in a Cold Climate (2010; YC.2011.a.1614) and Spring Shoots (2015) continued his first monograph with newly emerging materials. All four books were translated into Belarusian soon after appearing in English: no other scholar, even in Belarus, had attempted such monumental and ground-breaking publications before. Only collective works from academic institutions covered some of those periods and authors.

McMillin 1

In addition to books, Prof McMillin authored dozens, if not hundreds, of articles, conference papers and book reviews. He brought to the light many names forgotten or intentionally ignored in Soviet Belarus. He has been passionate about discovering talented young authors and has pioneered many themes in the Belarusian literary studies; to take one example, he was the first to talk about the phenomenon of Belarusian prison literature.

For decades, Prof McMillin supported the Belarusian community and academic Belarusian studies in Britain. He edited the Journal of Belarusian Studies (ZC.9.a.9127), published by the Anglo-Belarusian Society since 1965, and delivered many talks organised by the Society.

Finally, any serious biographical article about Prof McMillin must mention his ingenious humour. Amusing and even shocking in his interviews, Prof McMillin is a curious example of a profound scholar never failing to captivate the hoi polloi with his broad knowledge and wisdom.

 Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London 

A symposium to mark Prof. Arnold McMillin's 75th birthday will be held at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies on June 24-25.  The full programme is available here

McMillin 3#

 

20 June 2016

An Introduction to Bulgarian Literature

In advance of this year’s Balkan Day at the British Library on 24 June 2016, Christopher Buxton offers an overview of Bulgarian literature past and present.

Bulgaria lies at the south-eastern tip of Europe, and Bulgarians are painfully conscious of this, particularly in the context of their 500 year subjugation by the Ottoman Empire. Their history, before and after this subjugation, has its glorious and inglorious aspects, typical of every country’s history. It is a story of resilience, bravery and faith alongside darker themes of betrayal and massacre. The dualism of the Bogomil heresy, arguably one of Bulgaria’s significant contributions to Medieval European ideas, permeates Bulgarian writing to this day. While 19th-century novelists and poets stoked the fires of revolution, they also never stopped lamenting the perceived passivity, hypocrisy and backwardness of their compatriots. Hristo Botev, famous for his stirring nationalist call to arms, would rhyme patriots with idiots. Petko Slaveikov would declare: we are not a nation, we are carrion.

Hristo Botev in his poem dedicated to the freedom fighter Hadzhi Dimitur, and Ivan Vazov in his great novel Under the Yoke helped create the binary opposites of Bulgarians struggling against the intolerably cruel Turkish subjugation. During communism, these stereotypes were reinforced by writers like Haitov and Donchev. These binary opposites extended to Partisans combating the dastardly reactionary forces.

Every country’s literature has its more uncomfortable stereotypes: Spain – Don Quixote, the Czech Republic  – Švejk . The satirical writer Aleko Konstantinov created Bai Ganyo, the Bulgarian travelling salesman, let loose on the capital cities of civilized Europe. Ignorant and cunning in equal measure, a source of embarrassment and hilarity for his better educated compatriots, Bai Ganyo casts a long shadow over Bulgarian consciousness..

After liberation in 1878 Bulgaria saw a succession of wars, a heartbreaking diminution of homeland, the rise of a terrorist organization which would play a profound political role, a series of coups, a bomb outrage, a white terror from 1924 and an even more savage red terror from 1944, and a second “liberating” invasion by the Soviet Union which led to 45 years of Communist rule.

Geo Milev

Front cover of Geo Milev, Septemvri. (Sofia, 1948). YA.2001.a.38809.

These years saw the emergence of strong poetic voices. They include Bulgaria’s Great War poet, Dimcho Debelyanov, who was killed in action in 1916. His poem One Dead bears comparison with Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting. A veteran who barely survived the Great War, Geo Milev, was murdered by Macedonian vigilantes, after his radical poetry upset the authorities. Two other poets, Hristo Smirnenski and Nikola Vaptsarov, reflected the political turbulence of the times. This same turbulence was to fatally affect Bulgaria’s greatest poet, Peyo Yavorov, on both a personal and political level. His poem, Refugees, on the victims of Balkan ethnic cleansing, is sadly relevant today. His love poetry, for which he is justly revered in Bulgaria, poses quite a challenge for the translator with its hypnotic rhythms and internal rhymes. In the area of personal relationships, there are three strong female voices – Mara Belcheva, Dora Gabe and Elisaveta Bagryana – I would dare to suggest singing over the heads of their male competitors. The spirit of pre-war modernism is reflected in the dark symbolic poetry of Atanas Dalchev.

Bagryana

Elissaveta Bagranya. Portrait from Elissaveta Bagryana Ten poems, in the original and in an English translation. (Sofia, 1970). X.989/8515.

Alongside the poets, three masters of the short story deserve attention – Yordan Yovkov, Elin Pelin and Chudomir. These writers convey the comedy and tragedy of close community, in eloquent economy. They have their present day counterparts – notably Deyan Enev, whose short stories have been translated by Kapka Kasabova and published by Portobello Books.

There has been a tendency to ignore the writers who were active during the Communist period. Working within the tight censorship of the USSR’s most faithful satellite, some writers produced works of outstanding genius. I would point to Ivailo Petrov’s novel, Wolf Hunt, a tragic comic village blood-letting reminiscent of Faulkner. I should also mention the brave Stanislav Stratiev, whose plays highlighting the absurdities of Communist bureaucracy have been performed on the London stage.

Post-communism, there is now a flowering of Bulgarian writing, much of which waits to be translated and published. Two books by Alec Popov  Mission London and The Black Box have been published by Istros Books and Peter Owen  respectively. Each portrays the pathos of Bulgarian existence in the west with sympathetic black humour. The Physics of Sorrow, Georgi Gospodinov’s poetic disquisition on existence published in English by Open Letter, offers a unique insight into Bulgarian self deprecation, playful humour and otherness..

Still awaiting a publisher, is Milen Ruskoff’s masterpiece, The Heights, which won its author the European Prize for Literature in 2014. A truly significant re-examination of Bulgaria’s revolutionary brigand past, it eschews patriotic clichés, and provides world literature with two new heroes, comparable to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Bulgarian writers have begun the important task of re-examining their country’s turbulent past, so long misrepresented by ultra patriots and the Communist regime. Alec Popov has written a poignant and hilarious novel about the partisan movement, The Palaveevi Sisters. Hristo Karastoyanov’s One and the Same Night is a painstakingly researched recasting of the state-sponsored murder of Geo Milev. Vladimir Zarev, who began his career in the dusk of communism has written a series of powerful sagas reflecting on the drastic political changes Bulgaria has endured. These changes are also eloquently described by Teodora Dimova, Eli Aleksieva, Emil Andreev, Mikhail Veshim and Kristin Dimitrova.

I am currently working on a translation of Kerana Angelova’s wonderful work of magic realism, Inside Room, a timely cry for the preservation of nature from human depradation.

Younger writers, Yordan Svezhenov, Vasil Georgiev, Peter Dushkov and Radoslav Parushev look to the dystopian present and immediate future for their inspiration in writing well-plotted, arresting satire. The crime genre (with a unique Bulgarian conspiratorial twist) is well served by Lora Lazar and Dimana Trankova.

Finally one should not overlook the growing numbers of Diaspora writers, who capture the comic discomfort and wonder of the Bulgarian abroad:  Kapka Kasabova, Zack Karabashliev, Miroslav Peikov, Isabella Shopova, Victor Tzvetanov and Nevena Mitropolitska.

Bagryana's autograph

Elissaveta Bagryana's autograph, from Elissaveta Bagryana, Ten poems ... 

Christopher Buxton, Author and translator of Bulgarian literature 

Selected references:

New Testament. Новый Завѣтъ на Господа нашего Іисуса Христа, вѣрно и точно прѣведенъ отъ пьрвообразното. Transposed to the Eastern dialect by Petko R. Slaveikov and N. Mikhailovski. Revised by E. Riggs and A. L. Long.] (Constantinople, 1866). 3061.a.7.(1.).  (Digitised at http://books.google.com/books?vid=BL:A0017100786)

Petko Slaveikov, Габровско-то училище и неговы-тѣ пьрвы попечители. (Constantinople, 1866-67). 8357.cc.64. (Digitised at: http://books.google.co.uk/books?vid=BL:A0018535651)

Ivan Vazov, Under the Yoke. With an introduction by Edmund Gosse ... A new and revised edition. (London, 1912). 12590.e.33.

Mara Belcheva, На прага стъпки.. (Sofia, 1918). 11303.d.40.

Dora Gabe, Нѣкога. (Sofia, 1924). 012590.b.89.

Peio Iavorov, P. K. I︠A︡vorov. Jubilee collection. (Sofia, 1938). YA.2002.a.20998.

Chudomir. Alaminut: veseli razkazi. (Sofia, 1940). YA.2001.a.20227.

Iordan Iovkov, Short Stories. Translated by Marco Mincoff and Marguerite Alexieva. (Sofia, 1965). X.909/5413.

Elin Pelin, Short Stories. Translated by Marguerite Alexieva. (Sofia, 1965). X.909/8913.

Hristo Botev, Poems. Translated from the Bulgarian by Kevin Ireland. (Sofia, 1974). YA.1992.b.4827

Aleko Konstantinov, To Chicago and back. Translated from the Bulgarian by Robert Sturm. (Sofia, 2004). YD.2005.a.4865.

Dimcho Debelianov, Svetla viara. Jubilee edition. (Sofia, 2012). YF.2013.a.7791.