The poetics of the Russian translations

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Rait’s version of translation

One might expect censorship and modification of the original text would not benefit the quality of the novel. Still, enough of Holden’s thoughts and behaviour remained shocking the Soviet reader. Furthermore, many Russians seem to favour Rait’s translation over new ones, although that is according to scholar Aleksandra Borisenko probably motivated by the fact they are simply used to Rait’s version. In any case, by putting much effort into creating a translation that would be suitable for Soviet readers, Rait played a major part in getting this work approved by the Head Department for Literature and Publishing (Glavit), the organ of censorship supervising writers and translators.

The whole process up until printing of foreign literature always took quite some time. Since a story had to be read and approved by the editorial board and Glavit, it happened from time to time that a translation was finished and paid for but would not end up being published.

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Before a translation was sent to Glavit, editors tended to proofread works and were so cautious about the content that they often censored quite a lot themselves and not much was left to censor by Glavit.

Censored passage

Editors mainly censored passages that contained too much detail about sex or violence, disrespectful references to Russians or the Soviet Union, unrealistic or fantastic events, and pacifist statements. For example in Catch 22 of American writer Joseph Heller, the statement that World War II was not worth fighting was censored.

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Although under Khrushchev, due to the relaxation in censorship, the role of editors in choosing what was published increased, Glavit still played an important role in the final approval of translations.

Reasons for rejection by Glavit were the featuring of anti-Marxist, anti-Soviet, religious, or foreign ideological content.From the choice of American works translated into Russian we can see that in general realistic critical literature was preferred, such as the works of Hemmingway, Vonnegut and Faulkner.

Although it may seem that The Catcher in the Rye with Holden’s negative portrayal of American society fits this preference well, we will see that its printing was almost cancelled as a result of internal disagreement. One may presume that not all members of the editorial board took the time to read the whole translation of The Catcher in the Rye, since it was given to them with an in-house review. Although on the one hand this document, written by a vneshtatnyi (external reviewer), praises the novel for being written so well, on the other hand the author was not convinced that it was suitable for printing:

‘Although this unusual book seems appealing, the decision of publication raises some doubts. (…) The problems discussed (in the story) are of a narrow-minded and inconvenient nature. It is confusing that the book is written in jargon, which is from time to time very immoral, and even in the most tactical translation the jargon will be still apparent. (…) All these positive and negative considerations need to be taken into account when deciding whether or not Salinger’s story is
desirable for publication in the journal Inostrannaya Literatura.’

The Catcher in the Rye publication

Even though the author of the in-house review was not that enthusiastic about The Catcher in the Rye, preparations for its publication in the November issue continued. To make sure the novel would be presented to the reader in the right way, Dangulov asked Vera Panova to write an article about The Catcher in the Rye, which would be published alongside the novel. She was a well-known Soviet writer, who specialized in writing about children’s and family problems. In his letter he mentioned to Panova that the novel was of a free-spirited character and motivated the choice for this novel. Here is a fragment of the letter:

‘Dear Vera Fedorovna!

Thank you for your kind agreement to publish in our journal a writer’s response (I do not wish to use the standard word ‘article’ at any given moment) regarding the novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by the American writer Salinger. We turn to you, of course, not out of nowhere, but quite deliberately, convinced that you will fully understand the theme of this work, as well as the thoughts and style of its writer. Salinger is one of the most well-known contemporary American writers and an idol for today’s youth (mainly those who enjoyed higher education). In my opinion, this novel (one of his best books) gives us not only an accurate portrait of American youth from halfway through our century, but is furthermore in no lesser extent an indictment of all who are to blame for the mental disorder of today’s Western youth.

Therefore, we chose to make Salinger’s work one of the main pieces of the special issue we are currently preparing about the situation of youth abroad. What do we expect of you? Of course, not a critical analysis of the novel, but specific comments from a writer, in which you, a person who writes and thinks about today’s youth, express your thoughts on this work. And these thoughts will appear, out of agreement, but of course too because of disagreement with Salinger. We are certain that this book leaves nobody indifferent.’

In his research Proffer found that it is much harder to determine the degree of editorial change in critical reviews, than in literature. However, the world changed since in 1972, the year in which Proffer published his research. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it has been much easier to visit Russia and get access to Russian archives.

“On Salinger’s Novel”

In her article On Salinger’s Novel Panova discusses the story of The Catcher in the Rye and Holden’s behaviour. She explains why Holden is an unusual protagonist and The Catcher in the Rye a great piece of literature. The emphasis lies on Holden’s sincerity and pureness of soul. Interestingly, in earlier versions of her article Panova paid almost no attention to the despicable aspects of Holden’s world and she shows much sympathy for the protagonist. The changes were made after the board meeting concerning the final content of the November issue later that year on September 9, 1960. Together with the content of the novel, Panova’s article is discussed during this meeting. The main bottlenecks in this discussion were the novel’s possible temptations of capitalism, Holden’s sincere character, and the homosexual passage about Mister Antolini.

The opportunity to translate adequately the addresses and greeting is based on the similarity of their stylistic functions of both languages. The address may express tenderness, reproach, contempt, create the certain shades of solemnity, intimacy and fondness. The ‘odd’ address may complement the utterance with a colloquial and vernacular shade and emotional vigor. The translators often complain that the English language does not have a distinct opposition between the politeness and familiar forms of the address. The mistakes in the translations are, to some extent, predetermined by them. The full equivalents in the vernacular vocabulary are a rare phenomenon.

Furthermore, it is essential to note that despite being ideologically manipulated over the course of Soviet Union the translation of The Catcher in the Rye continued to arise interest towards its content which led to retranslation of in late 1990s and 2000s by Russian translators.

The Catcher in the Rye is a “whole text” skaz, identify the recurring specific language means and devices used by Salinger to produce the effect of skaz, and then apply a comparative translation discourse analysis to establish to what extent the skaz like poetics of the Salinger text is replicated in the three existing translations of the short novel in Russian. One may argue that, whereas in the first, canonical translation of the novel (1960), its translator, Rita Rait?

Kovaleva, was “smuggling in” a vision of an “unattainable,” democratic world for the Russian reader to take perverse pleasure in and to contrast with the drab Soviet realities of life, the second and the third translations by Maksim Nemtsov (2008) and Iakov Lotovskii (2010) respectively obfuscate any ideological implications of the Salinger text and replace the somewhat artificial “Amerikanskii” style of narration in Rait?Kovaleva’s Russian translation with the harsh Russian youth vernacular of the late 1990s and the 2000s—the kind teenage “rebels without a cause” tend to speak in present-day Russia.

The poetics of the Russian translations

The poetics of the Russian translations has thus transmogrified from the starting point of American?style skaz in English through a subtly ideologized “Amerikanskii Russian” of Rait?Kovaleva’s translation to the non-ideological swagger and pizzazz of Nemtsov’s and Lotovskii’s translations.

First introduced to readers during Khrushchev’s thaw, Salinger’s novel became an instant sensation among Soviet readers in the nineteen-sixties, and it has remained a classic. The Party authorized the novel’s translation believing that it exposed the rotting core of American capitalism, but Soviet readers were more likely to see the novel in broader terms, as a psychologically nuanced and universally appealing portrait of a misfit who rebels against the pieties of a conformist society.

For a postwar intelligentsia chafing under repressive Communist rule, Holden Caulfield’s voice was electrifying—who knew phony better than these daily consumers of official Soviet language? Teen-agers adopted their hero’s speech patterns—or their Russian equivalents—even though the world of “The Catcher in the Rye,” with its private schools, hotel trysts, and jazz clubs, existed across a great abyss.

Salinger’s translator was the renowned Rita Rait-Kovaleva, whose renditions of Kurt Vonnegut were better than Vonnegut’s originals, the émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov is said to have claimed. Rait-Kovaleva’s work is representative of the “Soviet school” of literary translation, which attracted many gifted writers who were prevented by censorship from publishing their own work. Perhaps as a consequence, their translations are full of flair and tend to play fast and loose with the originals. “Over the Abyss in Rye” is restrained in this regard, with only superficial adaptations made for the sake of its Soviet readership. Instead of hamburgers, for instance, Holden and a buddy ride up to Agerstown to snack on kotlety, oversized Russian meatballs (this was still some three decades before McDonald’s served up its first gamburgery in Moscow).

Rait-Kovaleva’s translation

But Rait-Kovaleva’s translation smoothed over Caulfield’s rougher language, excising obscenities from the Russian text; the scholar Aleksandra Borisenko writes that Rait-Kovaleva resisted the changes, imploring her editor to leave in just one govnyuk, or “shithead,” but to no avail. Occasionally, “Over the Abyss in Rye” betrays the translator’s second- or third-hand grasp of American idioms; Rait-Kovaleva had never set foot in America. Here, in Salinger’s original, is Caulfield on a book he’s read:

It was a lousy book, but this Blanchard guy was pretty good. He had this big chateau and all in the Riviera, in Europe, and all he did in his spare time was beat women off with a club. He was a real rake and all, but he knocked women out.

In Rait-Kovaleva’s translation, Caulfield expresses his admiration for a different type of person, more of a modern-day Marquis de Sade (and perhaps incidentally confirming ideas about the moral decline of the West):

He had a massive castle in the Riviera, in Europe, and in his free time for the most part he flogged some dames with a stick. Over all he was courageous and all that, but he’d beat women until they lost consciousness.

Given such inaccuracies and the enormous shifts in Russian language and culture that have taken place since the publication of “Over the Abyss in Rye,” you might expect that a new translation of Salinger’s novel would be greeted with enthusiasm. But in 2008, when a new edition was released—it was translated by the talented Max Nemtsov and called “Catcher on a Grain Field”—it sparked outrage in Russia’s literary-minded blogosphere.

In an article on the outcry, Borisenko relates how one aggrieved reader castigated Nemtsov for mistranslating the original’s title—which, as the reader goes on to inform the translator, was “Over the Abyss in Rye.” Borisenko points out that much of the resistance to the new translation has been purely reflexive, the legacy of a literary culture that invests canonical translations with an “infallible, almost sacred authority” and sees any retranslation as a form of aggression. Other critics were more inclined to fault Nemtsov for the furor.

English-language novel “Ground Up”

The Russian GQ editor Michael Idov—author of the English-language novel “Ground Up” and coauthor of its best-selling Russian translation—wrote a lucid and funny takedown of the work, speculating that if Salinger’s original had inspired Mark Chapman to shoot John Lennon, the most that Nemtsov’s translation could hope for was “to incite an unbalanced person to stick up a beer kiosk.” His chief complaint—one echoed by many of the work’s detractors—was that Nemtsov had gotten Holden Caulfield’s voice all wrong. His “Kholden Kolfeeld” reads like some thick-necked Russian hoodlum instead of the smart and articulate adolescent of Salinger’s original.

Here is how the protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye” sounds in the original and the two translations—back-translated, of course, into English, which inevitably introduces its own distortions. I’ve tried to preserve the differences in tone, which are apparent from the very opening sentences of each of these works:

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye”)”

If you truly would like to hear this story, first of all you will probably want to find out where I was born, how I spent my stupid childhood, what my parents did before my birth—in a word, all that David Copperfield rot. But truthfully speaking, I don’t have any urge to delve into that. (Rait-Kovaleva, “Over the Abyss in Rye”)’

‘If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ‘rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth. (Nemtsov, “Catcher on a Grain Field”)’

It’s clear that Rait-Kovaleva has subtly shifted Caulfield’s speech into closer accord with good Russian literary norms, while Nemtsov’s Caulfield is both brassier and crasser, exaggerating his supposed iconoclasm. As Idov points out, it’s as if the translation has incorporated the book’s subsequent reputation, transforming it into a sort of self-parody.

It’s an odd question to consider: If Holden Caulfield spoke Russian, what would he sound like? But the answers are central to the debate over translating “The Catcher in the Rye.” More important, such a question touches on the nature of translation as a practice and as a product, one we consume daily without much consideration of its intricacies.

The differences between versions of “Catcher”

The differences between these versions of “Catcher” seem to be the result of divergent approaches to the craft of translation itself. Rait-Kovaleva’s translation is a domesticating translation—one that “smooths out” the original to make it conform to linguistic and cultural norms of the target audience—while Nemtsov takes a foreignizing approach, which upends literary and speech conventions in the receiving culture.

To do this, Nemtsov employs a mélange of English-language calques, Russian provincial speech, neologisms, slang originating in Soviet prison camps, and contemporary hipsterish lingo. The mixture of unconventional speech is deliberate: advocates of foreignizing like to claim that such “marginalized” language, through a bizarre sort of syllogism, best represents the absolute difference of the foreign original. In other words, the Soviet prison slang in Nemtsov’s translation is actually meant to stand in for the original’s foreignness—its Americanness—for the Russian reader.

But the strange mixing of registers and dialects in Nemtsov’s translation also manages to disrupt the stylistic and tonal unity of Salinger’s work. In such verbal potpourri, Holden Caulfield himself is lost. It seems to be a paradox of foreignizing translations: in striving to convey the absolute difference between languages, the meaningful shades of difference within a language and literary work can easily be trampled. Holden Caulfield’s astringent, sorrowing voice becomes, in Nemtsov’s translation, artificially enhanced, amped up: a portrait in false color. Or as Caulfield might call his Russian alter ego—phony.

Apparently, Russian critics and readers felt the same way: after the brouhaha subsided, Nemtsov’s translation was pulled from print, leaving only Rait-Kovaleva’s—a net loss, perhaps, for Russian literature. Read side by side, these two translations almost seem to cancel out each other’s deficiencies—through a sort of triangulation, the contours of Salinger’s original begin to emerge. What’s needed, then, is yet another Russian “Catcher,” perhaps one freed from any program. Conveying the layers of meaning and emotional tenor of a work of literature means using all the tools at hand, often in ad hoc ways: a good translation is driven not by theory but by exigency, by the particular pattern of gap and overlap in the pairing of two cultures.

The benefit of translations

Such retranslations have an additional benefit: because the original always remains the same as a sort of experimental control, the variation in these renditions reveals a good deal about Russia itself. Rait-Kovaleva’s text bears an indelible watermark of the Soviet literary establishment, but her domestication of Salinger’s language also played a valuable function, insuring that “The Catcher in the Rye” would be printed and widely read, even as it touched on subjects like prostitution and homosexuality that were largely off limits to the country’s own writers.

Such topics today no longer have any power to shock Russia’s reading public (notwithstanding the country’s recent enshrinement of homophobia into law, Russia is in many ways less socially conservative than America), but Nemtsov, by taking on a canonical translation as well as Russia’s literary language, has managed to rekindle controversy around the novel.

The result may bear only a passing resemblance to Salinger’s “Catcher,” but it does recreate one important aspect of the book: its often scandalous reception in the America of the nineteen-fifties. In the wake of countless imitations, Caulfield’s voice today seems, to most American readers, more familiar than shocking. But his voice continues to hold us, because of how expressive it is—in any language—of the need to understand and be understood, to love and be loved in return. It’s a book that speaks powerfully to all our Caulfields, even across an abyss of time and language.
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The poetics of the Russian translations. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The poetics of the Russian translations

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