Soviet Union Posts

“The East Was Read: Socialist Culture in the Third World”

The East Was Read is an anthology of essays on the impacts of socialist culture in various parts of the Third World. Wang Chaohua and Pankaj Mishra recall with fondness the meaning of these books for their very different lives in China and in India respectively. Deepa Bhasthi goes on an emotional journey into the library of her grandfather, a communist intellectual. Rossen Djagalov writes a short history of Progress Publishers. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o talks about how he wrote Petals Of Blood in Yalta on the sidelines of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association in 1973. Sumayya Kassamali writes about Faiz in Beirut, giving us a sense of the cultural worlds that drew in both the Soviet Union and the Third World Project. Across the Third World, people grew up reading inexpensive beautifully-produced books from the Soviet Union — children’s books, classics of world literature, books on science and mathematics, works of Marxist theory. One such prominent publisher responsible for producing beautiful books, many in translation, was Progress Publishers. The following extracts from the essay have been reproduced with the permission of the publisher.

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(p. 78)

As an heir to the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia’s literature-centrism, the Soviet state, down to its very bureaucracy, believed in literature’s capacity to change society and made an enormous investment in literacy campaigns and the wide accessibility of literature through publishing houses, bookstores, libraries, and public readings. As a testimony to that belief, by the time the USSR ceased to exist, its Writers’ Union had approximately 10,000 members, that is, 10,000 professional writers who could live off their literary work—a number probably never matched in history, before or after. It was not only a matter of financing: through street names and monuments, school curricula and press reports about writers, the state helped to institutionalize the idea of the intelligentsia as the spokesperson of the people. It also helped to cement the idea that literature is an authoritative source of values. And yet from the second half of the 1920s onward, Stalinism also did much to compromise that ideal by increasingly using literature instrumentally, censoring it to better reflect its talking points, and otherwise controlling it.

(p. 81 – 83)

Progress’s origins could be found in the utopian visions of the immediate post-Revolutionary period. In the realm of literature, one of the main generators of these was Maxim Gorky, who proposed a World Literature publishing house that would translate all foreign literatures into Russian, Russian literature into all the major languages of the world, and finally, all of the above in to the languages of the Soviet Union. An economically devastated and politically isolated Civil War era Russia, however, was not a place where such visions could be realized. A World Literature publishing house did appear between 1919 and 1924, focused only on one part of Gorky’s vision: the translation of world classics into Russian. While it offered much-needed employment to Petersburg writers as translators and editors, paper shortages, organizational difficulties, and lack of funding ultimately meant that most of their translations remained unpublished.[1]

With time, however, the resources at the disposal of the Soviet state grew and elements of these early visions began to be realized even if compromised to one degree or another by the growing Stalinist stratification. Founded in 1931, a Moscow-based literary magazine with issues in several languages, Literature of the World Revolution (renamed in the beginning of the Popular Front period to International Literature) may have been the most visible structure of Soviet literary internationalism. Yet more significant, especially as far as non-Soviet readers were concerned, was the establishment that same year in Moscow of the Publishing Cooperative of Foreign Workers (ITIR), Progress’s predecessor, which translated books into foreign languages.[2]By that time, there were already several other foreign-language newspapers in the city: the Polish Tribuna Radzecka, the French Journal de Moscou, the English Moscow News as well as The Communist International, which was publishing issues in German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. Besides, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCE) was already translating and printing the works of Lenin and other political literature in different languages.[3]

ITIR drew its translators and editors from both polyglot Soviet citizens with foreign experience and political refugees, often with Comintern connections. Indeed, its staff reflected the composition of Moscow’s foreign community and its shifts: from the influx of Spanish refugees in the late 1930s to their retirement or departures for Mexico, Cuba, or Spain in the 1960s and ’70s, from the return of the Moscow-based East European exiles to their countries in themid-1940s to the increasing numbers of non-Western subjects in post-Stalin-era Moscow such as the main translator of nineteenth-century Russian literature in Hindi—Madan Lal Madhu (1925–2014).

(p. 83 – 84)

In the history of publishing, there has probably never been a press so linguistically ambitious. In its first year (1931), it published in 10 West European (English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish, and Portuguese), seven East European (Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian), and five Asian languages(Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Persian, and Turkish). And while the first post-Second World War decade saw the emergence of an Afro-Arab (Arabic, Amhara, Yoruba, Hausa, Swahili) and Indian (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu) sections, it was in the post-Stalin era that non-Western languages came to dominate the overall publishing plans. Over the course of the1960s alone, the number of ‘Eastern’ languages doubled, from15 to 28. By 1980, the Indian section was producing more titles than the English one, which had led the publishing house since its foundation. (Throughout this period, books in the colonial languages—English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese—were also being sent to Africa, Asia, and Latin America by ITIR’s distributor, Mezhkniga.) By the time it came to an end in 1991, Progress was a behemoth publishing yearly close to 2,000 new titles with a print run approaching 30 million copies.[4]

(p. 85-86)

It was publishing in foreign languages, however, that accounted for the vast majority of Progress’s output. Many around the world fondly remember Progress’s cheap, high quality editions of otherwise unavailable Marxist literature. In addition to the classics of Marxism and Leninism, the other three areas Progress published in were politics, textbooks & illustrated materials, and fiction. Fiction emerged as a distinct field of the publishing house only gradually, as the classics of Marxism-Leninism and contemporary political studies had initially been the main focus of ITIR’s work. Over the course of the 1930s, however, some of the publishing house’s more distinguished translators such as Alice Oran, George Rui, Maximilian Schick, Hilda Angarova, Jose Vento, Angel Errais, Margaret Amrome, Ivy Litvinova (Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov’s wife) began to translate the classics of Russian and early Soviet literature into foreign languages. Slowly, over the post-war era, the literature section became the largest of Progress’s four thematic sections, reaching in 1981 a volume of 404 titles. The following year, 1982, it evolved into an independent publishing house, Raduga (Rainbow). By that point, the editorial choices for texts to be translated could easily veer away from the safe classics to include more debatable contemporary Soviet literature such as Valentin Rasputin and Chinghiz Aitmatov’s novels. There has never been another publishing house worldwide that could compete with its ability to popularize Russian and Soviet literature abroad, or more generally, any publishing attempt of such scale to create a direct translation link between two non-Western literatures, bypassing the monopolies of London, Paris and New York. And yet, together with all other Soviet projects for world literature, this one has been largely forgotten, except maybe for the occasional volume in public libraries and private collections.


[1]Maria Khotimsky, ‘World Literature, Soviet Style: A Forgotten Episode in the History of the Idea’, Ab Imperio, vol. 2013, no. 3, 2013, pp. 119–154.

[2]Petr Petrov, Kistoriiizdatel’stva ‘Progress’, Moscow: Progress Publishers,1987.

[3]For more on Moscow’s cosmopolitanism of the 1930s, see Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[4]Ibid., pp. 67, 108.

28 May 2019

M. A. Orthofer’s “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction”

My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below. 

The Complete Review website was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”

The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:

Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.

Literature nations

Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.

American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.

Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.

What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.

Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.

Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.

The view from America

Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.

So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.

This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.

What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.

Interesting insights

Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.

Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.

The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.

M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486  $27.95

26 June 2016

Translations, children’s literature, Jumpstart 2013

Translations, children’s literature, Jumpstart 2013

Vasilisa the Beautiful

 

 

During my childhood I was fortunate to have read many stories published in the former Soviet Union. Some of my favourites were and continue to be  the folk tale Vasilisa the Beautiful  collected by Alexander Afanasyev (1930s); Alexander Pushkin’s verse fairy tale  The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan (1831) and Nikolay Nosov’s The Adventures of Dunno and his Friends (1954). These were written in Russian and the English translations were made available by People’s Publishing House (PPH). The translations were a delight to read, all the books were richly illustrated, the printing was done on very good quality paper, usually the books were hardbacks and the price points were incredibly low. These books establish for me a high benchmark in terms of what can be achieved in children’s literature. Years later I still possess my copies of these books and now my daughter is beginning to enjoy flipping through the books. (The other day she very grandly announced to me that these are my books. Not yours!) Alexander Pushkin, 1831

The translations were usually done by a wide variety of people around the globe. Inevitably the language used is perfect in the destination language without carrying over any awkward phrases or sentence structures from the source language. ( “Awkward” only if it is impossible to translate a phrase or a sentence accurately in to destination language.) But by focusing on the perfect use of English without compromising on its quality did not take away anything from the original story. There is no doubt that the stories originated in the former Soviet Union as all the details remain the same. Even the illustrations are not adapted, reduced or modified for publication in the destination language. They were reproduced as is. Even if they were unfamiliar and at times challenging for children since they were so far removed from their own culture, it really did not matter. The illustrations accompanying the story were sumptuous and complemented the story well. Even their placement on the page was always done correctly. The text matched the illustration laid on the page. So a young reader would not get unduly perturbed.

Logo At the annual JumpStart event  ( 29-30 Aug 2013) translating children’s literature or “Speaking in Tongues” is going to be the theme. The speakers are a wide variety of publishing professionals from India and abroad. They consist of publishers, designers, translators, educators, authors and illustrators. They will be sharing their experiences and discussing the significance of words, illustrations, languages and cultures and how they help shape/influence young minds. Also addressing issues such as “building a healthy and sustainable ‘bibliodiversity’ for the next generation? Or are we creating a whole generation of linguistic exiles, neither ‘at home’ in their mother tongue nor in English?” These are sessions I would like to attend. Hear what are the challenges of producing children’s literature across cultures, the successful experiments/collaborations that have happened recently etc. For more details http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home gbo-white

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an International Publishing Consultant and columnist.

Twitter: @JBhattacharji

20 Aug 2013