Translators’ Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian and into Russian

July 13, 2013
Translators’ Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian and into Russian In mid June 2013 professional Russian / English translators came together at St Antony’s College, Oxford to discuss the delights and challenges of their craft.

Oliver Ready, Director of Russkiy Mir Programme, and Robert Chandler, a British poet and translator, named the two-day workshop as a “Translator's Coven”, which they considered to be an informal and relatively humble gathering of working translators.

Neither could have predicted the interest and enthusiasm this event would inspire; the venue had to be moved from a seminar room to a conference hall in order to accommodate the 125 delegates, yet the collaborative spirit and the emphasis on practical concerns remained steadfast.

Addressing the state of the profession, Ready alluded to a recent piece by Donald Rayfield in the Literary Review, in which Professor Rayfield wrote: ‘For the first time in Great Britain there are at least half a dozen brilliant translators from Russian who also have the linguistic sensitivities of natural-born English writers.’ This represents a high-water mark in the history of Russian-English translation, and yet, the world of translation remains somewhat fragmented. One of the organizers’ primary missions was to build bridges between translators working to introduce Russian literature to Anglophone readers across the globe; another was to bring translators, literary scholars and theoreticians of translation into productive dialogue.

Professor Andrew Kahn (Oxford) noted that Donald Rayfield’s estimate (‘half a dozen’) not only excluded Russian-English translators working outside the UK, but also probably referred only to
translators of prose, and that there are at least as many first-rate Anglophone translators working on Russian poetry (for texts of the poem and translation, see   

From Alexander Pushkin to Alexander Griboedov through to Debut Prize-winning young Russian authors, and from poems to drama – variety of genres and names provided a background for professional discussion.

During the Coven, the delegates experienced various topics including translation of classical and modern literature, censorship and intertextuality in translation and practical aspects of translating.

As an example of the level of discussion you can watch the uploaded video: ‘On Parrots and Translations: Translating “Flaubert's Parrot” by Julian Barnes’, a translation from English into Russian by Alexandra Borisenko and Victor Sonkin.
In discussing their retranslations of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and other British fiction, Borisenko and Sonkin took the much-lauded ‘Soviet school of translation’ – which advanced the dubious goal of ‘good Russian at any cost’ – to task. They handily and wittily illustrated the prudishness of the Soviet approach by analyzing a bowdlerized passage from a Russian translation of Dorothy L. Sayers. The excerpts they shared from an earlier translation of Barnes’s novel provided more than enough evidence to justify their own effort.

The conferences ended with an immensely useful collective discussion of Translation and technology. Oliver Ready, who led the discussion, asked the attendees what internet tools they use most frequently. Among the sources praised most highly, were, for language usage, the Russian National Corpus (, where one can quickly see how and if a particular word or phrase has been used in Russian literature; the translation memory programs Wordfast ( and OmegaT (; and Oxford Language Dictionaries online ( Other attendees spoke up for valuable printed dictionaries that are unavailable online, notably Sophia Lubensky’s Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms and D. I. Yermolovich and T. M Krasavina’s Novyi bol’shoi russko-angliiskii slovar’ (New Comprehensive Russian-English Dictionary).

The workshop was supported by CEELBAS, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, and the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation.

Reported by Boris Dralyuk (abbr)