Catherine Brown

Is there a distortion in the perception of Russian literature in the English-speaking cultures?

May 2017


This was written in response to the title question as posed by The Question, an online forum on which experts answer questions posed by the public. It may also be read on The Question website here.


Of course – distortion is involved in any change of time, place or language between a literature’s writers and its readers.


But a few things are specific to Anglophone readers of Russian literature. Translations vary in how modern, literal, or exoticising they are, but can never reproduce the absence of articles (especially important in titles; Lermontov’s Hero of our Time refuses to specify A or The), stress on discrete versus continuous verb forms, relative simplicity of tenses, and gender of objects. It is hard to reproduce the formal versus informal ‘you’, or the strength of Russian taboo words. English-speakers find the Christian name-patronymic system confusing, and don’t pick up on the fact, for example, that Anna Karenina is a non-Russian name form that emphasises Anna’s connection with a distrusted Europe and a betrayed husband. The single adjective ‘Russian’ doesn’t distinguish between the ethnically-Russian ‘Russkii’, and ‘Rossiiskii’ (of the Russian territories but not necessarily of Russian ethnicity, thus including for example the Volga Tatars).


Literature in Anglophone countries doesn’t have the political influence and moral authority that it still today has in Russia. Whitman doesn’t unify the Americans as Pushkin unites the Russians, who must learn his poetry by heart. Australian news commentators don’t make references to Patrick White’s characters, as Russian ones do to Dostoevsky’s. English-speakers may read classic Russian literature in relation to eternal truths, but not – or not very accurately – to contemporary politics. It is hard to know what is being satirised on each page of The Master and Margarita if one doesn’t live in 1930s Moscow, and little-known that the literary theorist Bakhtin had Stalin in mind when he praised heteroglossia over monologia.


The Anglophone Russian canon differs from Russians’ own: English-speakers hardly know Lermontov, Ostrovsky, Turgenev as a playwright, Chekhov as a story-writer, Simonov, or post-Soviet authors other than Pelevin. Because prose translates easier than poetry, they focus on prose, and think of Pasternak not, as Russians do, as a poet, but as a novelist.


Ever since the end of the Napoloeanic Wars, with the significant exceptions of two World Wars, Britain and Russia have been politically hostile. This has made the British, in particular, over-eager to perceive dissent, and reluctant to perceive conservatism, in Russian writers whom they admire. They interpret Anna Karenina as a romance, not also (as it was attacked by liberal Russians of its own time) as an expression of conservatism and chauvanism. Their film adaptations of War and Peace cut down on the philosophical-patriotic narrator more than Russian ones do. They read Dostoevsky as an underground man interested in psychology, not as a supporter of Tsarist autocracy above all interested in Orthodoxy. The British stages present Chekhov as a liberal, and overlook his misogyny, early conservatism, and late radicalism. Bulgakov is read as more purely anti-Communist than he was; similarly Doctor Zhivago, of which the CIA-backed Nobel award marked the beginning of the politicisation of the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Britain and Russia have striking similarities: former empires at opposite ends of Europe, half in and half out of it, with a reserved and (by West European standards) unequal people. Nonetheless, the British understand Russia less than both Europeans such as the Germans – who have far greater geographic, ethnic and cultural proximity to it than they do – and the Americans, who have far more in common with it as young, still-rival peoples occupying a continent, with ethnically-diverse native populations, and high rates of immigration. The British were late to start translating and reading Russian literature, and to establish chairs of it at their universities. Little wonder that, for all of the British love of certain parts of Russian literature – and I write this as a Briton – we are not its most intuitive interpreters.

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Catherine Brown