Literary Translation

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Translation, Literary


a genre of literary creativity in which a work written in one language is re-created in another. Because literature is verbal, it is the only art that is subject to linguistic barriers. Unlike music, painting, sculpture, or dance, the literary work is accessible only to those who know the language in which it is written. The specific characteristics of literary translation are defined by its place among other types of translation and by its relationship to original literary creativity.

In literary translation, language has more than a communicative, or social and connective purpose. The word functions as the “primary element” of literature—that is, it has an aesthetic function. Between the inception and the completion of a creative work of translation, a complex process takes place—the “trans-expression” (A. S. Pushkin’s term) of the life captured in the fabric of imagery of the work being translated. Therefore, the problems of literary translation are within the sphere of art and are subject to its specific laws.

Literary translation differs from literary creativity in that its existence depends on the existence of an object of translation, a work to be translated. However, in the actual literary process, it is not always possible to draw a distinct boundary between translation and all creative literature. In quite a few instances, a work may not be a translation in the usual sense, but it may not be possible to describe it unreservedly as a work of literary creativity. (A number of labels are used to designate these works: “free translation,” “imitation,” “a work on the themes of,” and “based on.” The specific meanings of these designations differ, depending on the language and the period.)

History. Translation is a historical concept. Its content differs from era to era, each of which has a different understanding of the relationship between translations and the literature of a nation. In every country the history of literary translation is an organic part of the history of literature. As a rule, even the earliest written works give evidence of the existence of translations. Periods during which national literatures are established are also characterized by a rapid increase in the number of translations, which are considered to be on the same level as creative literary works. As the national literature matures, translations are increasingly viewed as the creations of writers belonging to other nationalities.

Views on literary translation from antiquity to the present reveal a conflict between two demands: to stay close to the text of the original and to approximate the perceptions of the reader. In different historical periods, the extreme expression of either demand may prevail. For example, in medieval Europe, when the Bible and other religious books accounted for most of the works translated into the new languages, literal translation prevailed. In the 16th through 18th centuries translation was ruled by a tendency to adapt to the neoclassical norms characteristic of French literature of the period. Later, an interest in the unique quality of national art was accompanied by a trend emphasizing a maximum approximation of the original. This was a reaction against leveling and reworking. The spread of multifaceted, comprehensive practice in translation and the development of linguistics are gradually leading to the recognition in theory that the centuries-old conflict between loyalty to the text and concern for the reader is not absolute and that a true understanding of literary translation lies at the intersection of the two demands.” “A translation should not simply serve in place of an original, but should replace it completely” (Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 5, Leipzig, p. 214). The determining factors in contemporary views of literary translation are the demand for the most careful attitude possible toward the object of translation and the demand for its re-creation as a work of art, with unity of content and form and with all its national and individual qualities.

Russia. Translation was highly developed even in Kievan Rus’. (Most of the translations were from Greek and Latin, but some were from Slavonic, German, and other languages.) The 18th century was a turning point for literary translation, as well as for all Russian literature. The regeneration of all aspects of public life after the reforms of Peter I and the expansion of ties with foreign countries gave rise to an intensified demand for translations. All the major writers of the period, including V. K. Trediakovskii, A. D. Kantemir, M. V. Lomonosov, and A. P. Sumarokov, also did translations. The work of V. A. Zhukovskii was of great importance for the history of literary translation in Russia.

The era of Pushkin and the Decembrists opened a brilliant period of translation in Russia. By the mid-19th century, Russian translations of European works were increasingly based on the originals, rather than on the French versions. Translations of Oriental poetry were published (usually based on European-language editions). The first Russian translations of the works of non-Russian peoples of the Russian Empire were published in the mid-19th century.

In the second half of the 19th century all of the major Russian writers were, to some degree, engaged in translation. The works of V. G. Belinskii, N. G. Chernyshevskii, and N. A. Dobro-liubov played an important role in the development of views on literary translation. Although the number of translations into Russian continued to increase, the general quality of the translators’ art declined noticeably, partly as a result of a commercial attitude toward translated literature.

Early in the 20th century there was a significant revival of poetry translation, even though the idea of “untranslatability,” which was typical in idealist aesthetics, had a negative effect on translating. The period was marked by great achievements, including translations by I. F. Annenskii and A. A. Blok. In the prerevolutionary period there was increasing interest in the creative legacy of Russia’s non-Russian peoples (for example, Armenian, Latvian, and Finnish literature).

The USSR. The history of Soviet literary translation begins in 1918, when Gorky established the Vsemirnaia Literatura Publishing House, which maintained a literary translation workshop. High standards for the quality of translation and scientific principles of editing were an inseparable part of the new approach to the publication of translated literature. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the number of Russian translations of works of the fraternal literatures of the USSR rose sharply. The upsurge in literary translation was promoted by the first translators’ collective, which was founded in the 1930’s by I. A. Kashkin. The multinational Soviet literature was joined by highly developed literatures with long-standing traditions of translation (for example, Armenian, Georgian, Tadzhik, and Ukrainian literature), as well as by the literatures of peoples who did not have written languages until after the Great October Socialist Revolution. For the young literatures, translations were a powerful stimulus to national cultural development. However, the creation of translations from and into the “new written” languages was an extraordinarily difficult task, owing to the lack of a tradition, the shortage of qualified translators, and other factors.

In the Soviet Union, translations are done in more than 100 languages. They account for more than half of all publications in creative literature. Translation into Russian is of particularly great importance for the intense interaction and mutual enrichment of fraternal literatures. As the creative intelligentsia in all the republics grows larger, literal translations are replaced by the writers’ own translations.

In all the republics many writers, including the most distinguished ones, do translations. Consequently, the Soviet school of literary translation is closely tied with the development of literature. Moreover, the involvement of writers in the work of translation accounts for the high aesthetic demands of the Soviet school of translation.

Literary translation theory is a young and rapidly growing branch of philological science in the USSR. In a number of republics, the Academy of Sciences has established sections on the theory and history of translation. The Council on Literary Translation of the Writers’ Union of the USSR has held a series of conferences and international meetings, including the symposium Current Problems in the Theory of Literary Translation (Moscow, 1966). The theoretical principles of the Soviet school of translation, which are guided by the idea of the equal rights of peoples and by respect for national traditions, enjoy authority abroad, where the creative orientation of the Soviet school is constantly emphasized.


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Cary, E. La Traduction dans le monde moderne. Geneva, 1956.
Savory, T. The Art of Translation. London, 1957.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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