Russian Realia in Iosif Brodskij’s Self Translations (Sedov vs. Scott)

“English Brodskij” (translator, self-translator, as well as writer of both prose and poetry) has not been studied to any great extent. We are interested in examining Brodskij’s self-translations as we believe that the writer-self translator is a unique phenomenon with the ultimate license most translators do not have. This kind of analysis will not only give a better understanding of Brodskij’s psychological and cultural consciousness but will also contribute to the theory of translation and literature in general. It is not fortuitous that in recent years bilingual writing and self-translation have been attracting increasing interest.

The paper studies the way Brodskij treats Russian realia in his self translations. By Russian realia we understand geographic names, proper names, objects of byt (such as samovar, orenburgskij platok). These words are usually charged with the connotational meaning as they evoke a whole set of associations (historical, literary, ethnic) and in the poetic texts these words acquire even more importance. Direct rendition of these words might be lost on a foreign reader who would not know the implications they arouse.

A few observations should be made in this connection. Brodskij’s use of typically Russian realia is not excessive. On the other hand the words he uses are recurrent in many of his poems and serve as a special code in his poetry.

The picture we get is not consistent. Along with direct renderings without giving footnotes (Terek is translated as Terek), Russian realia undergo dramatic changes—from paraphrasing (Terek was translated as a boisterous mountain stream in another case) to complete changing of Russian realia to English realia (pestruxa becomes Holstein and the Russian Arctic explorer Sedov becomes Scott). We try to determine the guiding principle in each case: addressee factor—bringing the poem closer to a foreign reader, or distancing from a reader—intentional hiding of the locality of the poem, rhyme and rhythm restrictions, knowledge of English, the time of the translation, etc.

By the nature of his talent and the turn of his life Brodskij was not restricted to one country. In his Italian, British, Mexican, American poems we come across the names of mythological heroes, historical names and events, geographical names. It is interesting to note how he treats this kind of realia in his self-translations. We also compare the way Brodskij translates foreign realia to make them accessible to the Russian reader when he acts as a translator of somebody else’s work.