The Ideology of Russian Translation: From Poetic to National Competition

David L. Cooper, Columbia University

Žukovskij, in his article on translation, “O perevodax voobšče i v osobennosti o perevodax stixov” (1810), itself a translation from the French, allows that a translation can be better than the original work. Classicist thought on translation recognized that competition among poets could express itself in the making of translations as well, and the possibility that Žukovskij asserts seems to derive from such a perspective. However, Žukovskij’s own translations would soon come to be seen from another perspective. The debate over the merits of Žukovskij’s translation of Bürger’s Lenore in the mid 1810s marks an important advance in the development of a Russian critical discourse on the national aspect of literature and in the development of Žukovskij’s reputation as a translator whose translations are better than the originals. The competitive aspect of translation thus develops potential national ideological overtones that threaten to overshadow the personal competition among poets. This happens definitively in Gogol’’s writing on Žukovskij. The other debate in the teens that contributes significantly to Russian discourse on the national literature concerns the development of Russian hexameter. While no one would assert that Trediakovskij’s Telemaxida was better than Fénelon’s novel, Trediakovskij’s competitive gesture (translating prose into hexameter) and the hexameter form were appropriated for the attempt of Russian literature to assert itself against a dominant French culture. My paper analyses this shift in the competitive aspect of translation, focusing on a handful of translations with marked competitive intentions: Trediakovskij’s Telemaxida, Žukovskij’s Undina (prose to verse), Puškin’s Pesni zapadnyx slavjan (prose to verse), and his fragmentary “Slepec” (alexandrines to hexameter).