Grand plans to translate series of Russian literature

The project to translate Russian literature selected by Columbia University Press with support from a committee of Russian and American academics is highly ambitious, says Mr Vladimir Tolstoy (above), a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy.
The project to translate Russian literature selected by Columbia University Press with support from a committee of Russian and American academics is highly ambitious, says Mr Vladimir Tolstoy (above), a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Moscow - Russian and American academics, publishers and Russian government officials announced last Saturday that they would collaborate on an ambitious new series of Russian literature in translation to be published by Columbia University Press.

The idea, tentatively named the Russian Library, envisions dozens, and perhaps more than 100, new translations of Russian modern literature and classics, selected by the publisher with support from a committee of Russian and American academics.

Academics at a conference said that the collaboration presented a chance, at least informally, to build the relationship between the two countries, at a time of heightened tensions.

Professor Stephanie Sandler of the Slavic Department at Harvard University, who was one of several American professors to travel to Moscow for the conference, said: "Think about the good work that can be done by making available a wide variety of perspectives on Russia both from the past and the present.

"For many of us, the reason to be involved in the project and have it happen precisely at what would seem this inauspicious, high-tension political moment, is that we can start to find bridges between the two cultures and ways to talk to one another."

But the project also ignited a bit of scholarly debate. In sometimes raised voices, the academics at the conference tried to tackle a set of thorny questions: Which books will go on the list? Should it include relatively new post-Soviet literature? Will this be perceived as a new canon and how can that be avoided?

Ms Jennifer Crewe, director of Columbia University Press, said the book list should include a "smattering of classics" that needed new translations, as well as post-Soviet and current Russian literature. With time still needed to select the first series of titles and translate them, the soonest they would be published is 2017.

The conference was organised by Read Russia, an American non-governmental organisation partly sponsored by the Russian government that promotes Russian literature in translation.

Mr Peter Kaufman, head of Read Russia, said the project would help Russia "make up for lost time" in promoting its culture, noting similar initiatives such as Spain's Cervantes Institute.

The Russian government is also supporting the project through grants from the Institute for Literary Translation, an institute based in Moscow that promotes Russian literature.

Translated works are a niche market in the United States and the appearance of 10 new literary translations each year for the next decade would signify an important development, especially if the authors are not named Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

Mr Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great- grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an adviser on cultural affairs to President Vladimir Putin, called it the "most ambitious project he could imagine under the current circumstances".

Mr Tolstoy said after the conference: "If Russian literature appears and is read, then maybe it will help people understand the way we think. Literature is the best bridge to understanding peoples, what they've lived through and what sort of values they have."

He added that if the project was successful, he hoped to see new anthologies of American and European literature in Russian.

Russian Library is the brainchild of Mr Kaufman, who is also an associate director at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, and Mr Vladimir Grigoriev, a former publisher and the deputy head for Russia's Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication.

The two met in the early 1990s at a conference for publishers in Russia grappling with the new institution of copyright law.

Mr Grigoriev led last Saturday's conference and suggested the academics try to choose the first 12 books to be published, an initiative that was postponed after an hour of discussion.

Mr Grigoriev noted wryly that the number of opinions matched the number of Slavists in the room.

"Part of the problem is the delicacy of trying to define a future canon," said Professor Caryl Emerson of Princeton University, who attended the conference.

"The past is established. The Russians take their identity from what they read. What happens when you have a traumatic regime shift? People want things out there that are not known in the West, but at what point are they worthy of being known?"

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe