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Researching Soviet-Jewish Translation Theorists

Published May 11, 2021 by Suzanne Eade Roberts

Through the long history of Jewish migration and multilingualism, many Jews have become formal or informal translators, using their skills and experience to facilitate communication between different languages and cultures. We might think, for example, of the Jewish translators at the medieval Toledo School in what is now Spain, or of writings on translation by authors such as Emmanuel Levinas or Walter Benjamin. A lesser-known group of Jewish translators were those in the Soviet Union. I am researching the history of Soviet translation theory – that is, the various ways of conceptualising the nature and purpose of translation that were proposed in the Soviet Union. One unusual way of looking at this topic turns out to be examining the Soviet-Jewish contribution to the development of Soviet translation theories and treating the translation theorists themselves as a case study for the experience of Soviet-Jewish intellectuals.

While I am using the term 'Soviet-Jewish' here, there is also a strong argument for saying 'Jewish-Soviet' instead, since ethnicity was marked in all Soviet internal passports, which worked like identity cards. In practice, being marked as Jewish could make it harder to get into university – due to the quotas imposed on Jews in higher education – or to find a new job or gain promotion. Despite claims to equality and increased rights in the immediate post-revolutionary years, the Soviet period as a whole was characterised by widespread anti-Semitism, including the 'anti-cosmopolitan' (i.e., anti-Jewish) campaign which began in 1948, prompted by the supposed 'Doctors’ Plot' against Stalin.

Efim Etkind

Some Jewish scholars were scapegoated during this campaign against so-called 'rootless cosmopolitans'. A notable example is Efim Etkind (1918-1999), who – despite his service as an interpreter in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War (World War 2) – was exiled to the provinces in 1949. After he was permitted to return to Leningrad in 1952, it took time for him to resume his academic career. His focus on the translation of poetry brought him into contact with the young (Soviet-Jewish) poet Joseph Brodsky through the informal translation workshops in Leningrad. At the same time, his involvement with the fledgling international translators' organisation, FIT, enabled him to have contacts abroad, especially with Slavists in France. Ultimately, his openness and genuine cosmopolitanism – a global, rather than a Soviet, outlook – led him into conflict with the authorities when he supported Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Etkind was labelled as a dissident and expelled from the Writers' Union, effectively ending his career. In 1974 he was pressured to emigrate, going via Israel to France, where his career blossomed, and later Germany. Etkind's exile meant that Soviet scholars were banned from mentioning his work. As a result, his field of translation theory, comparative stylistics, came to a halt in his home country.

An important early theorist of machine translation, Igor Mel'chuk (1932-), suffered similarly from the crackdown on dissidence and the anti-Semitism of the 1970s. He wrote an article in support of dissidents Andrei Siniavsky and Iulii Daniel, who were sentenced in a show trial in 1966 for publishing satirical works abroad. (Daniel was himself a Soviet-Jewish translator; Siniavsky, who was not Jewish, had evaded the KGB for some years by using a Jewish-sounding pseudonym, Abram Tertz.) Provocatively, Mel'chuk chose to publish his article in the New York Times. For this he was sacked by the university management from the machine translation (MT) laboratory run by Viktor Rozentsveig, of whom more below. Since he ran the risk of not finding a new job and thus being punished (as Brodsky was) for being a 'social parasite' Mel'chuk opted to emigrate, settling in Canada. Shortly after Mel'chuk's dismissal, six colleagues with Jewish surnames (including one woman who was not Jewish herself but married to a Jew) lost their jobs at the MT lab, presumably for applying for exit visas to Israel and being refused them. Indeed, otkazniki, 'refuseniks', were often made to suffer for what the authorities viewed as treason, losing their jobs and livelihood.

Rozentsveig (photo taken and permission to reproduce image by Igor Mel'chuk)

A few Jewish translation theorists were able to thrive, thanks to being protected by friends in high places. This was the case above all for Rozentsveig (1911-1998), who became head of the translation department at the major Moscow university for languages despite having grown up in Romania and France, where he seems to have had a minor role for the Soviet spy agency (not yet named the KGB). Rozentsveig went on to gain funding for a major MT lab in Moscow and academic journals in the new fields of mathematical linguistics; he ran a network of MT training institutions. For years, he was untouchable since his sister, Elizaveta Zarubina, was an important Soviet spy in the United States: she was involved with transmitting American atomic bomb secrets from Los Alamos to Moscow. The ambition of Soviet MT was to translate technical material obtained by espionage as rapidly as possible; in this way, the siblings' work had a shared ideological motivation. However, when Rozentsveig tried to prevent the dismissal of his six colleagues in the MT lab, the university hierarchy closed the lab down. Rozentsveig's luck had run out. Until then, he had both benefited from the Soviet system of patronage himself and bestowed patronage on many colleagues. Rozentsveig was almost universally liked; only the co-author of his textbook on MT – another Soviet-Jewish theorist, Isaak Revzin – fell out with him and left his orbit. Without Rozentsveig's connections and organisational ability, MT and structural linguistics more broadly would certainly not have had as much of an impact on Soviet translation studies.

Iakov Retsker

Another Soviet-Jewish translation theorist, Iakov Retsker (1897-1984), also began his career with influential protection. He was acquainted with a prominent female Bolshevik revolutionary, Rosalia Zemliachka, who, like him, had had a privileged upbringing in a Jewish family in Ukraine. Their families' property and belongings were confiscated – 'nationalised' – after the revolution, along with all other 'bourgeois' property. However, the job Zemliachka found for Retsker with high-ranking Party official Nikolai Bukharin turned into a poisoned chalice once Bukharin fell out of favour. Retsker's career never really recovered: despite his ground-breaking work on terminology translation, he was slow to gain his doctorate and was never promoted to a professorship. A more established – and ethnically Russian – theorist, Andrei Fedorov, repackaged Retsker's work and took much of the credit. A contrasting case to Retsker's is that of another Soviet-Jewish theorist, Vladimir Gak (1924-2004), whose work was not as innovative as Retsker's, but whose father was an esteemed lecturer in the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism. We can suspect that it was this ideologically sound background which turbo-charged Gak's academic progress to becoming a professor.

Kornei Chukovskii (painting by Ilya Repin)

At least one translation theorist endeavoured to keep his Jewish origins secret in order to assimilate. Kornei Chukovskii (1882-1969), seen here in a painting by Ilya Repin, was a famous writer of children's books and also a populariser of translation theory. He tried to avoid his children knowing that his father was Jewish or about his illegitimacy. He was never persecuted, although many of his friends were, such as Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. Chukovskii survived by being a something of a chameleon. He managed to publish under Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, which was no mean feat, and survived repeated criticism, including by Lenin's wife.

In conclusion, the lives of Soviet-Jewish translation theorists show us that some Soviet-Jewish intellectuals were able to thrive – albeit precariously, as was the case for many intellectuals. Others, meanwhile, were affected by the waves of Soviet anti-Semitism and/or became dissidents due to their ability to think past their state's borders. Soviet-Jewish theorists contributed to the development of Soviet translation theory in a wide variety of ways: comparative stylistics, machine translation, terminology translation, and indeed popularising thinking about translation. It is impossible to imagine how Soviet translation theory might have evolved without them.

Suzanne Eade Roberts is a PhD student in Translation / Russian Studies at the Universities of Bristol and Exeter, sponsored by the AHRC (SWW DTP). She is currently participating in the Woolf Institute's Gender and Religion Today course, having taken other online Woolf courses previously.

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