At the Forefront of Baltic Studies: Interview with Toivo Raun
by Lina Meilus
Professor Toivo Raun attended the Summer Language Workshop in 1965. After graduating with a PhD from Princeton in 1969 he has had an extensive career as a historian and professor of Russian, Estonian, and Finnish history. For the past twenty-six years he has been an integral part of both the Department of Central Eurasian Studies and the Russian East European Institute at Indiana University. A specialist on Baltic, Russian, Finnish, and Estonian history, Professor Raun has recently taught classes such as “The Baltic States since 1918,” “Finland in the Twentieth Century,” “Empire and Ethnicity in Modern Russian History,” and “Uralic Peoples and Cultures.” Notable publications include his book Estonia and the Estonians 2nd edition (Hoover Institute Press, 2001), which has also been translated into Hungarian and Finnish, and he has served as an editor alongside Kristi Kukk for Soviet Deportations in Estonia: Impact and Legacy (Tartu University Press, 2007). Professor Raun continues to mentor IU graduate students interested in Eastern European history and nationalism.
As a student in one of Professor Raun's classes, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview him about his career at IU and his connection with SWSEEL and BALSSI. His responses demonstrate the important role Dr. Raun has played in the development of Baltic Studies at Indiana University and his contribution to area studies nationwide.
Lina Meilus: You have a long history of involvement with Baltic Studies at Indiana University. Could you provide a brief history of what brought you to Indiana University?
Toivo Raun :This is my 26th year at Indiana. I arrived in the fall of 1990 having spent the 1987-88 school year here as a visiting professor. The main reason I came is the Uralic and Altaic department, which changed its name to CEUS in the mid-1990s, hired me because of my expertise on Estonia, the other Baltic States, Finland, and Russia. I am also an adjunct professor of History and affiliated with REEI. Above all, Indiana University would allow me to really focus on my research specialty. I had been with Cal State Long Beach, but my teaching focus there was on Russian history and some aspects of European History. It’s not that my research focus changed, but IU offered opportunities to teach courses like Baltic history in the 20th century, Uralic Peoples and Cultures, and similar topics. Indiana has a very powerful and outstanding commitment to area studies and interdisciplinary studies. Indiana University also offered me the opportunity to work with graduate students; in 26 years I have been on 72 graduate committees, having chaired about a third of those.
LM: You are on my MA committee too.
TR:Yes, the largest connection I have here is actually with REEI; I have been on something like 32 MA committees for REEI students. I have served on committees in Folklore, Education, Journalism, and History I even chaired a EURO committee during the year when I was acting director of European Studies. My favorite thing is that I get to work with advanced, committed students and my expectations and hopes here have certainly borne fruit. I’ve also taught undergrads, of course, but the most satisfying aspect is working with students who are self-motivated, doing original research, and able to use foreign languages at the M.A. or Ph.D. level.
LM: I know that you and your family left Estonia as refugees, so you have a personal interest in the region, but how did you become interested in Estonia and the Baltic history as an academic?
TR: Yes, we fled like so many people in the latter part of WWII, particularly from Eastern Europe when it became clear that the USSR and Stalin was going to be able to take over and institute a Communist regime after the war. My family spent time in refugee camps in Germany, and I came to the USA at the age of six. I was lucky as an immigrant; I was able to start first grade along with children of the same age here. It was an adjustment, but already in the second grade I had a classmate ask me why I had a funny name but no accent.
As an undergraduate I majored in history, particularly in European and Russian history at Swarthmore, then at Princeton where I got my PhD. At the beginning I was not sure what I would focus on. Gradually and with encouragement from my advisor, Cyril Black (one of the leading Russian historians of his generation) since I had studied Russian before coming to Princeton and had a command of Estonian (although not yet completely fluent) that I should write on some aspect of Estonian history. This would allow me a chance to offer a distinctive contribution as a young scholar. It was the Cold War era, and there was no way to get into Estonia or any Baltic State to do any kind of research, much less access archives. In the case of Estonia I could at least rely on the closeness of Finland. The Finns had taken a strong interest in the history of a related people across the Baltic Sea, and I was able to do substantive, serious research on Estonia in Finland. Some materials were on microfilm and others were 19th and 20th century copies of Estonian documents available in Helsinki, and the rest is history. That’s how things developed.
LM: How has IU changed during your time here? Have you noticed any changes in your department, CEUS, as well as in REEI regarding the role of Baltic studies?
TR: At least from what I can see, there have not been any major breaks but a positive evolution in the sense that as I mentioned before, area studies programs at Indiana University have been increasingly regarded by the administration as a unique contribution. They have taken to announcing that IU offers 70 languages, the majority being less commonly taught languages, and that presumably is number one in the US. The strength of area studies programs is their ability to work together. I think REEI during my time here has always been open to students who want to focus on the Baltic States. I have averaged about one REEI committee per year, some years three or four, some years none at all. There are more students from REEI as opposed to CEUS in my committees. Generally, REEI and CEUS have been more open to students with a broader range of interest. CEUS has expanded into Iranian and Central Asian studies and languages. Our commitment to Finno-Ugric languages is also excellent. We have three years of Estonian and Finnish languages offered here at IU. As far as I can see, the trends have been very positive. IU increasingly welcomes students who want to work in the Russian and East European area and its various sub regions, such as the Baltic States.
LM: I recently learned that you are a SWSEEL alumnus, when did you attend the workshop and what was it like? What language did you study?
TR: Yes, this was back in prehistoric times, a time when the only language offered was Russian. There was no other choice. In 1965 I took third year Russian. It was a very, very good experience. I think maybe we didn’t have to sign on the dotted line, but we were told we should speak Russian as much as possible: between classes, at breaks, in the dorm. Most people stayed together at a dorm, it was a very conducive language setting and encouraged lots of interaction. I think there was a good, strong commitment amongst students. The faculty was excellent, very committed to foreign language studies. The thing is the Summer Workshop was very limited to what it is now, but it was easier to maintain a Russian language environment.
LM: This summer the Baltic Studies Summer Language Institute will be joining SWSEEL for the next two years, are there any Baltic events or programs you would like to see this summer or next summer? Should we spend this summer building a sauna?
TR: Yes, as you may know, BALSSI is the abbreviation for the Baltic Summer Studies Institute. It has been here twice before, at the end of 1990s and in 2005 and 2006. Hosting BALSSI is typically a two -year commitment, and it will be here for two years again 2016 and 2017. I think supplementary events are very important for any summer language institute. I would encourage film evenings, and they might be able to mobilize some folk singing, certainly some lectures or panels. These events could be part of a broader context, not just limited to the Baltic States but put into the bigger context of Eastern Europe. SWSEEL has built a major commitment to having many extracurricular events, and Baltic events should fit nicely into the overall picture.
LM: The Baltic States are three rather small countries on the periphery of Europe, and they are often overlooked. As a Lithuanian, I often come across people who have never heard of my country, or get being Lithuanian mixed up with being Lutheran. As much as we value the Baltics, why should others study the Baltics and learn their languages?
TR: This is an issue, unfortunately, that comes up all the time. There are people who feel if a state does not have a minimum population of, say, ten million or more, it can’t be a player on the world scene. But this is not seeing the bigger picture; the trend in recent decades is for there to be more and more independent states. There are now nearly 200 states in the United Nations. Estonia is the smallest of the Baltic States, but there are something like 50 even smaller states in the UN, including microstates. Complexity and fragmentation are becoming more common. The collapse of the USSR resulted in fifteen independent states, seven states emerged out of Yugoslavia, and even Czechoslovakia broke into two states. There are all sorts of possibilities: Catalonia in Spain could become independent, and the status of Scotland is still up in the air. Greenland and the Faroe Islands may separate completely from Denmark. I think this means that small states do need to be taken seriously, seen in a larger context. It is noteworthy that in relations between a resurgent Russia and the West, the Baltic States are on the front lines. They are very much part of international relations and need to be included in the discourse.
Their languages are part of the great mosaic of human languages. I am upset by the prediction that in 100 years most world languages will disappear. I hope that’s wrong, but the increasing role of English has become threatening to smaller languages. If students want to do some work on the Baltic States, they need to know at least one Baltic language. In the contemporary era they should also know Russian, and in historical time they should know German or Polish. But the disturbing trend of the increasing role of English will pose a challenge for the future of the Baltic languages.
LM: Yeah, I should learn German at some point.
TR: Polish would be a greater priority for studying Lithuania. German scholars have done so much in terms of historiography on the Baltics. There is much scholarly interest in Eastern Europe among German scholars, especially in Latvia and Estonia, given the historical role of the Baltic Germans.
LM: So what can SWSEEL, BALSSI, REEI, and Indiana University do to encourage interest in the Baltics and Baltic languages?
TR: There is a fierce and growing competition. As I’ve mentioned there is fragmentation but also multiplication, resulting in more and more opportunities for language study. Why pick one language over another? Certainly advertisement, not to say propaganda, plays a role, and the use of social media and an attractive website. Outreach to places that show any interest in the Baltic region should continue, and also to universities with Title VI centers and serious graduate programs. Indiana should contribute directly to the availability of Baltic languages. In today’s interconnected world student travel to the Baltic States should be encouraged, even for a short period or a semester abroad. Almost everywhere you can study now in English, but it’s a great opportunity to experience the local languages, and hopefully the experience will inspire students to continue further study.
LM: In my opinion the recent events in Ukraine and other events in Eastern Europe have resulted in an increased interest in the Baltic States, at least on a geopolitical level, and the Baltic States themselves have been vocal in their support of Ukraine and the ongoing sanctions against the Russian Federation. Do you think that the increasingly visible role of the Baltic States in international politics will result in more scholars taking an interest in the region?
TR: Yes, I think I mentioned that because of an increasingly confrontational relationship between the West and Putin, who has been there since 2000, the Baltic States are playing a larger role. It is not just the situation in Ukraine of course: involvement in Georgia, the so-called Bronze Soldier affair in Estonia in 2007, and the increasing assertiveness of Russia, arguing that it is not getting the respect that it deserves. In a recent news interview the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, essentially said that the west can’t tell us what to do, we’re going to call our own shots.
The Western relationship with Russia concerns all Eastern European States and the Baltic States, the only SSSRs which became part of EU and NATO, which particularly galled the Russians because their inclusion has raised the visibility of the Baltic States to the West. Obama visited in Estonia in September of 2014 and gave a public speech praising their commitment to NATO, especially Estonia in regards to military spending. Anyway, all three Baltic States take comfort from their membership in NATO with article five; an attack on one is an attack on all in the 28-member alliance. I think the current situation will contribute to more interest and scholarship on the region, not just a national focus but viewing the Baltic States in the larger context of East/West relations. There are many parallels that can be drawn with other Eastern European states such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Finland in terms of their relationships with Russia.
LM: Do you have any advice for students interested in learning a Baltic language or studying the Baltics?
TR: SWSEEL is an excellent way to enhance your study of Baltic languages. There are some places, not too many, where you can study Baltic languages during the academic year. Estonian at least is offered here at Indiana University, and the University of Washington offers all three Baltic languages. I think the Summer Language Workshop being eight weeks long, effectively a full year of language study, is a marvelous institution. I would encourage people to take advantage of BALSSI. Summer language study in the Baltics themselves is also a possibility. The Baltics, like the rest of Europe, value their summer vacation, and it is hard to find academics in the Baltics willing to commit themselves to an eight-week institute during the summer, and Baltic language programs are typically of shorter duration.
Spending time in the country, self-study, and keeping up on current events using Baltic media are all ways to immerse yourself in Baltic languages. For example, I watch a half hour of Estonian news every day. Its excellent practice and stimulation, and helps me keep up on current events. Listening to the news is also a great way to acquaint yourself with the standard language and how it is used in country in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
LM: Listening to the news is great advice; I should really start doing that for Lithuanian.
TR: Yes, listening to foreign news goes a long way towards demystifying the language for any student.
LM: Alright, to finish this off I have one last question; where do you see the future of Baltic Studies going?
TR: I remain optimistic, even though there is a pattern of increasing competition in area studies. On one level it is becoming more and more difficult to compete with the range of languages being offered, but I think the Baltic languages and Baltic States have held their own. The fact that they opened up in the last quarter century is a big step forward. It’s made it easier to view them in the larger context of a new Europe, not just one country or three countries. They should be seen as part of the Soviet experience, the Communist legacy, and as part of the EU and NATO. In this sense I think the Baltic States are making themselves known. They recognize that they need all the external support they can get; it was very necessary to join NATO and the EU. The Baltic States have survived the Soviet experience, and--remarkably--they did not fall behind their East European neighbors during Communist rule.
Lina Meilus (Russian, 2015) is a second year Masters student in REEI. She will return to the Summer Language Workshop this summer to take 5th year Russian. Lina is currently interested in nationalist movements in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe and is writing her Master’s Essay on how Lithuanian political elites use nationalist rhetoric. Her interest in Eastern Europe, and specifically the Baltic states, stems from Lithuanian heritage. Although born in Chicago, Lina is a Lithuanian heritage speaker and was brought up in the Chicago Lithuanian community.
A Life in Translation: Interview with John Woodsworth
by Olga Bueva
John Woodsworth’s career as Slavic scholar and literary translator started shortly after he completed the Summer Language Workshop in 1963. His dexterity and range as a translator is reflected in his impressive portfolio, ranging from classical poetry and song to historical documents and modern short stories. He has translated 24 books, including Vladimir Megré’s Ringing Cedars Series, novels by Faina Blagodarova and Mikhail Sadovsky, and, most recently Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya’s autobiography My Life (co-translated with Arkadi Klioutchanskij). He has also edited, co-edited, or compiled academic articles, archival correspondence, and poetry. Along with over two hundred published poem translations, Mr. Woodsworth’s portfolio features original Russian and English language poems, essays and songs.
In July 2014, John Woodsworth received the Tolstoy medal for his contribution to Russian literature from the Russian Interregional Union of Writers. In 2010 the Modern Language Association (MLA) awarded him and his co-translator Arkadi Klioutchanski the Lois Roth Award for their translation of Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya’s My Life memoirs. He has been a certified translator in Ontario since 2005 and a member of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada since 2008. In 2011 he was admitted to two Russian literary organizations: the Russian Interregional Union of Writers and the Derzhavin Academy of Russian Literature & Fine Arts.
Along with translating, Mr. Woodsworth has held various university appointments, including Russian language instructor at Brock University, University of Waterloo, Principia College, and University of Ottawa, translator, editor, and research associate and administrative assistant at the Slavic Research Group at Ottawa University. Currently, he lives with his family in Ottawa, where he participates in church activities as well as the Ottawa Piano Group.
Olga Bueva: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from originally?
John Woodsworth: I was born and raised by my mother in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. My mother spoke only English, but she had a significant interest in international affairs and often represented Canada at world conferences of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW). When I was about four years old, she enrolled me in a private French-immersion kindergarten. Even though French is one of the official languages of Canada, this was still quite unusual for Vancouver in the 1940s, long before French immersion became a widespread part of provincial public school systems right across the country.
OB: When did you become interested in foreign languages and cultures, and Russian, specifically?
JW:My interest in other languages having been piqued by my kindergarten experience, when I started Shawnigan Lake School — a private (then all-boys) secondary school on Vancouver Island — I relished the study of Latin and took advantage of the German evening classes being offered by the school gardener, Bernhard Dinter, originally from Germany. He supplemented his classes with informal conversational practice in the garden and facilitated the publication of an article I wrote in German about the school for a German-Canadian newspaper.
OB: In one of your interviews you mention that you had an opportunity to travel to Russia when you were fairly young. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?
JW: In 1959 my grandmother and I accompanied my mother on a brief visit to Leningrad — an opportunity afforded participants of the IFUW conference in Helskinki that year. It lasted only 5 days, but for me it was the first major turning point in my future career. I really don’t know specifically why, but the Russian language and culture made an impression on me like no other had done before. But I do know it was not just a temporary feeling (not merely ‘the latest is the best’ syndrome), for my study of Polish a few years later did not in the least diminish my fascination with Russian. Upon entering the The University of British Columbia in 1961, I enrolled directly in the popular Russian programme (more than 1,000 students taking Russian courses at the time) and graduated with an Honours B.A. in 1965. Still, after the first two years, despite taking private conversational lessons from a Russian-Canadian family, I had little in the way of communicative ability. And that is what prompted my application to the eight-week intensive Russian course offered by the Summer Language Workshop at Indiana University in the summer of 1963.
OB: Do you have any specific memories of the trip to Leningrad or was it just an overall impression of the country and culture that piqued your interest in Russian language and culture?
JW: On the whole, it was the overall impression that planted itself deeply in this 15-year-old lad’s mind, and sowed the seed for my future study and profession. But there were definitely specific memories that stayed with me. Bear in mind that in 1959 the Soviet Union had not yet opened itself to the broad influx of Western tourists it would soon come to know, but was just feeling its way in this direction, starting with small group tours. At the time there were only two hotels in Leningrad with provision for foreign tourists — the Evropa and the Astoria. But since both of these were filled at the time, our group was placed in the Oktjabr’skaja Hotel on Vosstanija Square, which had absolutely no English-speaking staff. That did not, however, prevent my 89-year old grandmother from flirting vigorously with the headwaiter, a gentleman of the old school who must have lived a good part of his life before the Revolution, who responded to my grandmother’s overtures with a huge smile. The first Russian words my mother and I learnt was our room number (chetyresta dvadtsat’ dva), just so we could be handed the right key by the 4th-floor dezhurnaja. By the way, the pictures on its website show quite a different impression from the one that greeted us 56 years ago! …One evening some of our group decided we would go out on the town on our own (we were not stopped) and explore the metro for ourselves. There was just one line at the time with six stations, so it wasn’t hard to navigate. We must have looked a pretty strange sight to the locals, who were quite unaccustomed to seeing Western tourists alone in public without an escort. A group of Russian women were sitting opposite us on the metro, staring at us and chattering away amongst themselves, their arms full of (what else?) flowers. As they rose to exit the train at their stop, they thrust their bouquets into our surprised hands and pleaded (in English): “Tell your people we want peace, not war!” ’Nuff said.
OB: Did you have an opportunity to return to Russia as an adult? If so, could you talk a little bit about those visits?
JW: Yes, I had the opportunity of making five subsequent visits to Russia. The first of these did not come until early 1980, when I was teaching Russian at Principia College in America and led a group of about twenty students on a study tour of five cities: Moscow, Smolensk, Minsk, (Upper) Novgorod and Leningrad. There was some debate about whether to cancel the trip as Soviet troops had just invaded Afghanistan, but, as a Christian group, we felt the opportunity to promote peaceful understanding outweighed the potential risks, and so we went ahead — ‘on a wing and a prayer’, so to speak. An initial mistrust between the students and our Intourist guide was gradually replaced by mutual friendship and affection. Our students gained a whole new appreciation of what had previously seemed a very foreign language and culture. …Two years later I had the occasion to spend three months in study and language-teaching research at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, which also informed my developing teaching career. Here I had the privilege of being mentored by the prominent Soviet psycholinguist Aleksej Alekseevich Leont’ev. …Then in 1990 I went on an informal cultural tour of Moscow and Leningrad, where I renewed old acquaintanceships and was duly awed by all the changes that had taken place over the past eight years. …Later I accepted two invitations to present papers at Tolstoy conferences at Yasnaya Polyana — first in 1998, and again in 2003 as a representative of the Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa (which I still have an affiliation with). …My involvement in research and translation regarding Tolstoy is the result of my working closely over many years with one of the world’s foremost experts on Tolstoy, Andrew Donskov, founding director of the Slavic Research Group. He is highly regarded both in Russian academic circles — for example, as the only scholar from outside Russia to sit on the editorial board of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ new 100-volume edition of Tolstoy’s works — and here at home as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, just about the highest honour any Canadian scholar can achieve.
OB: How would you describe your experience at the IU Summer Language Workshop?
JW: I would call it the second major turning point in my career, as it was only here that I began to get a firm grasp of Russian as a language of communication and not mere academic study. Yes, there were classroom hours spent in learning Russian grammar and literature, but there was so much more than that. For one thing, the rule against speaking anything but Russian for 8 weeks was a powerful incentive, along with the accessibility of native Russian speakers not just in the classroom, but all over the campus (it reminded me of my conversations with my German teacher in the school garden). The opportunity to use Russian in everyday conversation with professors and fellow-students in the dorm or the dining room (or at a nearby swimming-hole!) fostered a sense of ease in making the connection between language and situations. Watching Russian films twice every weekend (the first time with sub-titles, the second time without) was a valuable learning tool. And (what I thought was best of all) gathering on the grass every evening to sing and memorise Russian folk songs, led by the indefatigable Gene Adamczyk with his accordion, instilled in me a lifelong appreciation of Russian music and culture. It prompted me to learn to play the balalaika and eventually pass these same songs on to my own students at various universities and colleges where I later taught. See samples here.
OB: How did you decide to become a translator? What do you find most rewarding about your work as a literary translator?
JW: My second career (in translation) actually began back in the mid-1960s, when I was hired to serve two summers as a translator at a major religious publishing house in Boston, for which I have been working by correspondence ever since — initially with French and German, but most of the time with Polish and Russian documents and publications. …My involvement in literary translation began in 1993 when I was called upon by the director of the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, Vitalij Grigor’evich Kostomarov, to translate a book he had written entitled Moj genij, moj jazyk [My genius, my language]. It was published by Legas, an international publishing house based here in Ottawa, together with a French translation by Marie Lamothe. The author later told me it was evidently translated “with love”. This was the first of 24 books I’ve translated over the years, which have included novels, short-story collections, poetry and archival documents. Literary translation affords the opportunity of bringing artistic as well as academic skills into play and allows me to bring more of a creative (as opposed to a merely technical) contribution to the translation process. It might be compared to ‘translating’ a piece of music from the printed score into a live performance: it is still the original author’s work, but the contribution of the ‘performer’ (translator) cannot be underestimated. Since the ‘performance’ is the reading audience’s only point of contact with the original composition, it is imperative that the translator reflects, as closely as possible, not only the original author’s thoughts, but their manner of expression. And this applies especially to the genre of poetry, where the author’s creative expression is manifest just as much in their use of rhyme and metre as in the semantic content of the poem. This act of balancing art and science is what makes literary translation especially rewarding.
OB: You have an impressive translation portfolio, ranging from poetry and song to historical documents. Which genres do you find most interesting and engaging? Which do you find most challenging?
JW: Poetry is definitely the most interesting and engaging of all literary translation genres, for reasons alluded to above. For an outline of my approach to poetic translation, please see my paper “Meaning and musicality: striking a balance in poetry translation”. The most challenging genre to translate might well be archival documents, which include many obsolete words and usage no longer prevalent in modern Russian.
OB: Nabokov famously claimed the untranslatability of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Are there any pieces in Russian literature that you like and appreciate but think should or cannot be translated without the author’s intent, style, elegance, etc.?
JW: From what I understand, Nabokov held just about any classical poetry to be untranslatable, and in the strictest sense of the term, he was right. No translation can fully reproduce the deep emotional feeling a native Russian derives from listening to Evgenij Onegin spoken or sung in the original. The unique sounds of Russian vowels, the soft, luxuriant palatalised consonants, the particular phrasing of Russian syntax — none of these facets can be truly appreciated in any language except Russian. That’s why operas are most often sung in their original tongue, and rightly so. But there are aspects of poetry that are indeed translatable, and not just the semantic meaning, which in most Russian poetry goes hand in hand with suprasegmental features such as rhyme and metre, and the combination gives a far more meaningful impression of the significance of the poem than a prose translation of the text alone. One reader I know of had a great appreciation of the poetry of Mikhail Levitin (a Russian-Canadian poet) when she heard it in poetic translation — one of his poems in particular was a special favourite: she read it over and over again. But when she heard it one time in a prose translation it meant nothing to her. …Speaking of Evgenij Onegin (which happens to be my favourite opera), in 1980 I had the opportunity of hearing it sung in the Mariinskij Teatr in Leningrad, where I was delighted to discover my ticket took me (along with one of my students, who happened to be an opera lover) to a seat in the Imperial box! Later, during my three months in Moscow in 1982 I went to hear Onegin three times at the Muzykal’nyj Teatr. On one of these occasions it turned out to be the 60th anniversary of the first performance of this opera in the Muzykal’nyj following the Revolution (in 1922), and in the audience were several members of the original cast, who were invited to stand and take a bow. Quite a thrill!
OB: Could you speak a little bit about the translation of My Life?
JW: As an archival document, Sofia Tolstaya’s My Life was indeed a challenging translation, mainly for this very reason. There were many turns of phrase that could only be understood in terms of 19th-century Russian society, and a good part of these required not only a careful translation but also an annotation explaining the context of the sentence for the English-speaking reader. Fortunately, I had a good deal of support — first from my co-translator, Arkadi Klioutchanski, a native Russian speaker with a thorough knowledge of both Tolstoy and 19th-century Russian culture and language. Secondly, the editor in charge of the English edition was none other than the abovementioned Andrew Donskov, who was responsible for overseeing the whole project, including the annotations. Thirdly, additional support came from our colleagues at the State L.N. Tolstoy Museums in Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana, including the Tolstoys’ great-great-grandson Vladimir Il’ich Tolstoy. I was also afforded the opportunity to work with my favourite literary genre: for the many poems cited (at least in part) throughout the book, the publishers (University of Ottawa Press) decided to include all 39 in full in a Poetry Appendix with a proper English poetic translation. My life garnered a number of awards, including the 2010 Lois Roth Award for the best translation of a literary work into English, presented by the Modern Language Association of America. With the same team (Andrew Donskov as editor and Arkadi Klioutchanski as co-translator), I am now working on a companion volume to My life — comprising some 250 selected letters from the 48-year correspondence between Tolstoy and Tolstaya in English translation (a few of which have never been published before in any language) — to be released by the University of Ottawa Press in 2017. Both projects are the fruit of longstanding co-operation between the Slavic Research Group and the State L.N. Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, and were funded in good part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
OB: There has been some controversy around Sofiya Tolstaya and her role and influence on Lev Tolstoy’s life and work. Sofiya Andreevna’s memoires have played an important role in complicating and challenging the popular narratives about her and Tolstoy. Why do you think it is important to introduce this book to the public?
JW: Though the author died in 1919, the publication of her major autobiographical narrative was suppressed for almost a century — initially by Tolstoy’s own followers and later by Soviet literary critics; both these camps were anxious to preserve an unsullied image of the man who may justifiably be considered Russia’s greatest gift to world literature. But now it is high time to recognise Sofia Andreevna’s own substantial contribution to her husband’s well-deserved reputation — even at the cost of exposing aspects of his darker side as a human being (which many of his followers and literary ideologues, for various reasons, would rather have remained hidden). …Along with this, recognition is due Sofia Andreevna’s own multi-faceted contribution to Russian society on the whole. As described in some detail in editor Andrew Donksov’s critical introductory essay, not only did she serve her famous husband as a copyist, cultural advisor, editorial assistant, publisher, literary agent, distributor and personal representative to the Imperial Court, but she also made a name for herself independently as a translator, amateur artist, musician, photographer and businesswoman — truly a rarity in the male-dominated society of the period. As our new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently responded when asked why he was intent on having his cabinet comprise equal numbers of men and women, “This is 2015!” High time, indeed! Sofia Tolstaya certainly deserves to be known for pulling her fair share of weight as half of the Tolstoys’ creative husband-and-wife team.
OB: Can you tell us a little bit about your other favorite projects?
JW: One of the more interesting challenges of my career (2005–2008) was the translation of the 9-volume Ringing Cedars Series by Siberian author Vladimir Megré, as it deals in large part with esoteric concepts that relate only indirectly to our familiar, everyday human life. More than 11 millions of these volumes have been sold world-wide in 20 languages. The English editions alone have sold (collectively) more than 500,000 books. Again, I had the privilege of working with a knowledgeable native speaker of Russian, Leonid Sharashkin, who edited the volumes. …An early favourite project (1982) was my translation of the Canadian National Anthem into Russian, which you can find here. And in November 2000 I submitted a response to the call for new lyrics for the Russian National Anthem. It was accepted by the Russian Embassy here in Ottawa and forwarded to the contest judges in Moscow, later published in Kanadskij ezhegodnik — the journal of the Russian Association for Canadian Studies (Nº 6, 2001, p. 181). You can also find it on-line here. (The winning entry, it turned out, was understandably written by the prominent Russian poet Sergej Mikhalkov, who had penned the words to the previous two versions.) I might add that I have written my own poetry in Russian for many years and have had well over a hundred of these poem publications to date, either in print or on the Internet. …Perhaps it is not such a large leap from poetry to music — I am also an amateur musician, specialising in piano improvisations. A number of my offerings may be found on my “Ottaworth” channel on YouTube. On the relation of music to translation, see especially my talk on “The poetry of music and the music of the spoken word: a poet-translator’s view” and the latter part of an interview (in French translation) on the website Le mot juste en anglais.
OB: Can you name some of your favorite writers or translators who have influenced your development as a literary translator?
JW: Perhaps not surprisingly, many of my favourite writers are those whose works I have translated. Translating them has given me new insights into their genius and at the same time helped sharpen my translation skills, especially in poetry. Of the classics, I would mention Pushkin, Lermontov, Fet and Akhmatova off the top, Fet being the closest to my heart — I would call him the Chopin of poetry. Of modern authors I would have to give special place to at least five: two Russian-Canadians: Mikhail Levitin and Faina Blagodarova, two Russian-Americans: Mikhail Sadovsky and Felix Gurt and a Russian novelist from Moscow: Olga Borisova, who is currently seeking a publisher for my English translation of her novel Preferences: a story of Ancient Egypt [Preferans v Drevnem Egipte]. …I am not well acquainted with many literary translators, though I would mention three I do know and respect: Ivan Zhavoronkov of Toronto (translates from Russian to English), Michael Gourvits of Montréal (translates from English and French into Russian) and Luise von Flotow of Ottawa (Director of the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa; translates from German and French into English).
OB: What advice would you give to language students who wish to pursue a career in literary translation?
JW: Among many others, I would mention these four qualifications in particular: (a) a love of language in general — i.e., a love of the process by which sounds, words and sentences are put together (a sensitivity to music also helps); (b) a love of the literary and artistic culture associated with the source language; (c) teaming up with a native speaker of the source language for a joint translation into your own (especially if the author is no longer alive or is unprepared to give you specific assistance); (d) reading and looking up works in similar genres written by native speakers of the target language.
John Woodsworth participated in the Summer Language Workshop at IU in 1963.
The email interview was conducted by The Polyglot editor Olga Bueva on January 5, 2015.