Translation Studies and Its Turns

Translation Studies and Its Turns

Research, Ideas, Issues

In my blog, I am going to publish fragments of my current research, or share my ideas about what I come across in the publications I read or in the materials I study, or discuss issues in Translation Studies which, I think, call for a discussion. My posts do not claim to be anything more than work in progress and are inevitably of fragmentary nature. I count on my readers and their expertise to fill in the blanks and to contextualize discussions, whenever necessary. All borrowings must be acknowledged.
NB: The posts are published so that the newest one comes first and shown on the main page, therefore the older ones are to be found the section "Previous Posts." The New Testament principle is at work: the first will become the last.

I can be contacted at

Elementary, Dr So-and-so!

TranslationPosted by Sergey Tyulenev Sun, October 12, 2014 11:54:23

There have been countless remakes of Sherlock Holmes, serious adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories and funny parodies.

Now we can pride ourselves on our own TS version of Sherlock. In the fresh October issue of Translation Studies this year, an interesting investigation has seen the light of day. A missing Russian theory was finally discovered and extracted from its time capsule. The investigation was led by [Dr] “Anthony” assisted by his aides, notably “Nune.” I mean Anthony Pym’s and Nune Ayvazyan’s co-authored (to a degree) article “The case of the missing Russian Translation Theories.”

This was a really investigation with all the excitement, little chuckles and satisfied hand-rubbings (“This sentence is secretly exciting for those of us who went through debates about Vermeer’s Skopos theory in the 1980s”), eurekas and failures, bursts of enthusiasm and setbacks. – And a lot of sniffing around of course (“…this is what threw us off the scent the first time around”).

The investigation is meticulously dated (for determining the winner, little doubt); details are given as to what evidence was found, where and when, and who helped or (NB) failed (everything should be noted!) to locate it, to deliver it to Dr Anthony who, equipped with his expertise [=stereotypes + intuition; does he need more?] in the Stalinist period of the Soviet history, as if through a magic magnifying glass, studied the captured capsule. And of course he could not fail. The article is the declaration of yet another glorious victory: another problem has been resolved.

The reader’s impression is carefully guided into the appreciation of how arduous and tortuous the way to the success was – yes, something was miraculously available online, but how many things, books, articles, minutes of meetings and political congresses had to be obtained from, literally, all over the globe. Israel, Switzerland, France, the USA, Canada figure in this investigation! A Ken-Follett or Michael-Crichton scale, indeed! One, however, cannot help noticing one missing source – Russia… Ah well, they tried to purchase a book from an online Russia-based shop, but failed. Was it their fault?

But why not contact colleagues from the St Petersburg University, some of whom knew Fedorov personally (Viktor Shadrin whose article is cited could have been of help), who would definitely have explained what puzzled Dr Anthony. But no! Then it would have been their investigation! Instead Dr Anthony relied entirely on Nune who came from Armenia, although Russian was her first language, but who obviously did not go a translation programme in any Russian university where any university library would have Fedorov’s publications, where Fedorov’s translation theory is taught and therefore known by any translation programme graduate. (One might think that he himself is for a purely linguistic approach, rather than taking account of a socio-cultural context with the help of those initiated, but that is not so, of course.)

Otherwise, this is a stunning piece of the deductive method: a scrap here, a stain there, a bit of guesswork – and here we are: now we’ve got an authorized biography of Andrei Fedorov large as life and an interpretation of a little extract translated impromptu by “Nune,” into the bargain.

My skepticism butts in again, though. Why all that fuss about reconstructing Fedorov’s biography and feats (“So who was Fedorov, when all is said and done? Here is what we are able to piece together from various sources.”), if his daughter is perhaps still alive (I took part in one of the first annual conferences Federovskie chteniia, Fedorov’s Readings, which are still alive and kicking (, in which Fedorov’s daughter was present) and his students, so why not interview her and those students? There are also plenty of materials about Fedorov published in Russian, why not ask somebody to translate them for you, if you are keen to learn about him and his academic career!

The goal of this exercise is none other than – so we are assured at the end of the investigation – to let “historical justice” prevail! Although from time to time, the principal investigator’s style smacks of slightly vainglorious ‘You-did-not-know-it-but-here-I-am-discovering-it-for-you’, even when you are uncooperative: “Anthony remembers that Brian Mossop had urged Brian Baer to do this, but the latter Brian had been less than enthusiastic, hadn’t he?”

It’s been said above that Dr Anthony was guided by his excellent knowledge of Stalinism smelling its influence on Soviet scholarship. Well… anybody who is familiar with that bit of Soviet history, nevertheless, would not help noticing several serious flaws in the otherwise impressive (as usual) deduction.

Dr Anthony does not seem to understand (and his assistant is probably not too knowledgeable, either) what philology means in the Russian education system, otherwise he would not write the following: “Looking at the biography, some things do not make sense; they do not fit in. Most obviously, if Fedorov was a linguist, where did he receive training in linguistics? And in what kind of linguistics.”

One can open any biography, however sketchy, of Andrei Fedorov, and everything adds up elementarily (provided you know what things mean). For instance, in 1929, Fedorov graduated from the slovesnoe (=philological) department of the Fine Art School, Institute of the History of Arts (in today’s St Petersburg) where he was a student of Lev Shcherba (Щерба), Iurii Tynianov, Viktor Vinogradov, Viktor Zhirmunskii, among others. All of his teachers were specialists in both linguistics and literature studies – they were philologists. Lev Shcherba, for instance, is known as an outstanding linguist, yet he wrote brilliant analyses of Lermontov’s translations of Heine. These analyses combined both literature studies and linguistics and what we would call today translation studies.

Philology, rather than separate linguistics and literature studies, was inherited by Russian academic institutions from the German educational system in the eighteenth century; philology is still taught today in the oldest universities in Russia (Moscow State, St Petersburg). So there is no mystery about how, where and from whom Fedorov learned linguistics and what kind of linguistics it was; and how he managed to combine linguistic with literary features in his translation theory. Nothing miraculous or mysterious for anybody knowing the Russian system of education.

Most surely, and here Dr Anthony is perhaps right, Stalin did play a role in the evolution of perevodovedenie [translation studies] in the USSR (as in many other spheres of the Soviet life of the period – sometimes intentionally and knowingly, sometimes unintentionally or unawares) but this hardly was the triggering mechanism for the emancipation of the linguistic branch in translation theory.

Once again, Dr Anthony and his assistant seem to be ignorant of the project initiated by Maxim Gor’kii dating as back as 1918 – Vsemirnaia Literatura (World Literature). This was an ambitious project to translate or re-translate all what was found to be the best in the world literature for the new Soviet readership. Soon after the launching the project, it was realized that certain common principles of translating had to be formulated and a new generation of translators needed to be trained. In Kornei Chukovskii’s diaries we find the following record (dated November 12, 1918): “На заседании была у меня жаркая схватка с Гумилевым. Этот даровитый ремесленник — вздумал составлять Правила для переводчиков. По-моему, таких правил нет. Какие в литературе правила — один переводчик сочиняет, и выходит отлично, а другой и ритм дает и все,— а нет, не шевелит. Какие же правила?” (In the meeting [of the Vsemirnaia Literatura editorial board], I had a heated dispute with Gumilev [Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and a translator, Anna Akhmatova’s first husband]. This gifted craftsman suggested drawing up rules for translators. In my opinion, no such rules exist. What rules are there for literature! One translator creates and the result is perfect; another observes the rhythm and everything, yet [the result] does not move you at all. – My translation, S.T.)

Note here the opposition: craftsmanship with rules vs. creation highlighted by Chukovskii himself. This opposition fuelled many a debate how to translate and the linguistic rules of translation had nothing to do the academic specialisation of its author (there was the common philological background), rather it was a dispute whether translation is an art or a skill (искусство или ремесло). The linguistic rules for translators started from Gumilev’s rules for translators, his attempt to harness artistry.

Eventually, Chukovskii gave in and in the later editions of his A High Art he presented the case registered in an entry of his 1918 diary differently: as if he had always realized the necessity to formulate some principles to be observed while doing literary translation.

Fedorov joined the team later and worked not so much in the linguistic direction pure and simple, rather he continued the line of harnessing artistry and approached this as a scholar and philologist (hence, a combination of linguistic and literary features in the extract analysed by Dr Anthony).

There are many more things to say about Dr Anthony & daughters’ investigation… Perhaps, just one thing: instead of re-inventing the wheel, they could have turned to the existing translations of Russian translatologists. There are Palma Zlateva’s 1993 book with extracts from Bulgarian and Russian translation scholars, there is Peter Fawcett’s 1997 book on linguistic theories of translation with a handful of Russian theorists, published in the series edited by whom? Bingo! Dr Anthony himself. (Of course it was published by the publisher who does not include Pym in her collections of critical TS publications, as if Pym has not written a piece of that class in his entire career, hence, perhaps, – eye for eye and tooth for tooth – Dr Anthony avoids mentioning anything positive about that publisher.)

Another glaring omission is of course Vilen Komissarov whose Slovo o perevode [A Word on Translation] was published before Barkhudarov (1975) and has been considerably more influential and systematic in presenting translation theory (with the five levels of equivalence).

But let us be thankful: Dr Anthony & Co. have noticed that far corner of Europe and, sort of, promote research into what’s been done there. Flattering!

But let us not be too difficult: It all started as “[a] quiet day at the office – time to dig out some unsolved cases.” For would-be Sherlocks, it is as dangerous a time, when their mind is idle and uninspired, as it was with their model: “My mind,” [Holmes] said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, – or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

Unfortunately, not all Sherlocks among those mounting investigations: to some of them the real Sherlock would have said: Elementary, Dr so-and-so.

  • Comments(0)//
Next »