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Robert Burns Lives!
Ideological Adaption of Robert Burns in the Soviet Union By Dr. Natalia Kaloh Vid (Slovenia, University of Maribor, Faculty of Arts)

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Attending any conference on Robert Burns has always been a treat for me. Attending an international conference in Scotland is indeed a rare treat. Susan and I were able to do just that on January 15th when we visited the University of Glasgow to participate in a one-day conference hosted by The Centre for Robert Burns Studies entitled Burns and Beyond. There were only six speakers and yours truly was lucky enough to be invited as one of them. We heard some great presentations with outstanding messages about Burns. One of the best, if not, in my opinion, the best, was Dr. Natalia Kaloh Vid, who has a PhD from the University of Maribor, Slovenia. Her speech on Robert Burns and Russia was mesmerizing.

I like to observe audiences for their interest or lack thereof when others speak. It helps me be a better speaker. Suffice it to say that there was no apparent disinterest in Dr. Vid’s talk! No one went to sleep. Everyone was captivated, and more than one person put down their pens, as I did, to enjoy her very informative and interesting presentation. Dr. Vid is an authority on Burns and the Russian people, and she has a particular message on Burns that needs to be heard by Burnsians around the globe.

During a break in the program, I congratulated her on her speech and asked if she would submit an article for the pages of Robert Burns Lives! for our readers to enjoy. She readily agreed and responded, “I will be glad to help you with your work on Burns.” In reply to an email regarding her article for these pages, Natalia mentioned she was “very glad that you and Susan enjoyed my talk and I am honored to receive such a response from you. I enjoy doing my research very much and I also enjoy speaking about it. It is very important for me to hear from other people that it was clear and interesting.” She went on to say she was “attaching one of my Burns articles. It has not been published in this form yet, even though some of the examples appeared in earlier articles.” In my last communication with her just yesterday, Natalia wrote, “It’s a great pleasure and honor for me to contribute to Robert Burns Lives!” but I must say to her that the honor and pleasure is mine!

With this essay on Robert Burns and the Soviet Union, our website takes an exciting and different turn by going more international in scope. But Burns does that to people. Personally, I have always been mystified by the relationship of Russia and the Bard, a love affair that has continued for decades. Thirty years ago we had an opportunity to go to the Soviet Union to attend the Olympic Games, but then President Jimmy Carter, in his infinite wisdom, crushed that dream when he cancelled America’s participation in the events. Our trip to Russia vanished as did the dreams of hundreds of our nation’s youth who had trained for a lifetime to be Olympic participants that year. Ah, politics, don’t you love those who pontificate on our behalf! It is a distinct privilege to welcome Dr. Natalia Kaloh Vid to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! (FRS: 2.9.11)

By Dr. Natalia Kaloh Vid (Slovenia, University of Maribor, Faculty of Arts)

Natalia Vid

This paper focuses on ideological adaptation of Robert Burns’s translations in the Soviet Union which underwent numerous adaptations and changes caused by editorial politics and the overwhelming influence of ideology on literary production.

Ideological influence does not contradict the essence of literature until the moment it starts to dominate literary context or to intentionally direct a reader to ideological doctrines. Unfortunately, ideological dominance was one of the main criteria that defined translation process in the former Soviet Union where the totalitarian regime was established shortly after the October Revolution of 1917. Literary production, including translations, was subordinated to the state, occupying a formal place in the official culture of the Soviet era. Its propagandistic role was to educate people in the goals and meaning of communism. Generally speaking, everything that did not fall under the officially accepted program of socialist realism, a style of realistic art adapted by the Soviet state in 1934 as a standard, was forbidden. Among others, one of the most important aims of this program was to introduce the foreign authors to Soviet people as exponents of the communist regime and offer them newly adapted interpretations of famous literary works1. Writers’ biographies and their literary works were adapted and even changed according to this new scheme. Those works which could not be properly adapted were put on a black list and forbidden.

Henceforth, literature and the arts lost some of their public identification with civil society and gained a formal place in the official culture of the Soviet era. As a result, the whole translation process in the Soviet Union differed greatly from that in democratic societies. It was inevitably influenced by an institution of censorship and strict centralization. Writers and translators had to accept the metamorphosis of public discourse itself and were forced to work under strong pressure from the soviet communist regime. There was no longer any way within the public discourse to represent (or even imagine) a writer who was not an enthusiastic supporter of the system.

Robert Burns was no exception. His poetry was also changed and adapted according to the newly established ideological demands. Translations of Robert Burns perfectly exemplify how ideology is compromised in literary translation for several reasons:

- Burns’s poems were translated by one of the best known and most talented translators in the Soviet Union, Samuel Marshak;

- Marshak’s translations of Burns have remained popular for more than sixty years. They are still considered to be the best translations of Robert Burns’s poetry into Russian;

- Marshak’s translations offer a clear picture of ideological deformation of literary texts.

Samuil Marshak (1887-1964), a famous dramatist, a successful poet, political satirist and state propagandist, magazine editor, author of children's books and a close friend of Gorky became the only official translator of Burns’s poetry in the Soviet Union. He was one of the few Soviet translators educated abroad, at the University of London. In England Marshak studied not only philosophy and English language but also Scottish dialects, traveling around the country and collecting Scottish folk ballads and songs. He returned to Russia two years later, in 1914, and devoted himself to translations. Besides Burns, he translated William Blake, Rudyard Kipling and William Shakespeare.

Marshak2 started his work on Robert Burns’s poetry in 1930, and his first book was published shortly after the end of the Second World War, in 1947. Burns’s poetry, as well as Shakespeare’s sonnets3, became his life task, to which he devoted twenty years of hard work. In fact, Marshak continued to translate Burns’ poetry until his death in 1964. The last book of Burns’ translations, published after Marshak’s death, contained 215 poems4 and has remained the most extensive summary made in the Russian language until the present time.

The most important features of Marshak’s translations are the following:

  • Absence of dialect;

  • Omission of mentioning God and, in general, any religious context including the names from the Bible, as Soviet ideology did not accept any kind of religion;

  • Idealization of the images of beggars and robbers;

  • Criticism of monarchy and omitting the word “king;

  • Ignoring of the poems addressed to the poet’s friends if they belonged to the aristocratic circle because a “Soviet” Burns could not retain any connections with the upper classes;

  • Omission of mentioning Scotland. Marshak rarely mentioned Scottish geographical names, cultural item and historical personalities. It is difficult to find possible reasons for this decision. Probably, as Scotland was a capitalist country, the fact that Robert Burns, a progressive proletarian poet, was “unlucky” enough to be born in the capitalist country had to be carefully omitted;

  • Softening of erotic context

In what follows I will present the most interesting examples of ideological adaptations in Marshak’s translations. In order to make the translations comprehensible for English-speaking readers, I translated chosen lines from Russian into English.

Ideological adaptation occurs in the poem “For A’ That and A’ That”, where the philosophical conclusion of the original about the fact that man’s dignities do not depend on his position and fortune was transformed into a typical communist slogan: “The poor are those who possess all moral priorities”. The last line in the poem, “The rank is but the guinea-stamp / The man’s the gowd for a’ that!” (Burns 1996: 7-8), was translated, “Богатство штамп на золотом, но золото мы сами” / The fortune is just a stamp on the gold, but we are the gold ourselves (Marshak 1976: 8). This nuance in the translation is not easy to see: “the man” and “we ourselves” means almost the same but the full context created by Marshak stresses the main idea that “we, the poor, resist the rich”. The original title of the poem “For A’ That and A’ That” was translated, “Честная бедность” /An Honest Poverty.

Another example from the same poem shows how carefully it was adapted to a new ideological scheme. The last line, “A prince can mak a belted knight / A marquis, duke, and a’ that” (B ll.17-18), was translated, “Король лакея своего назначил генералом” / a king made his servant (lakei) a general (M ll. 32-33). Instead of “a belted knight” the word “servant” was used. Following the direction of antimonarchist propaganda, Marshak stressed that a prince could not have knights around him but just servants. The original Russian word “lakei” used in the translation describes a man employed as a servant to wait at table, attend the door, and run various errands, as in a palace. However, in the new, post-revolutionary context, it acquired a more humiliating meaning, a “lick-spittle”, a man who served aristocrats before the revolution. With reference to “lakei”, Marshak tends to use a more insulting equivalent than in the original, and so his translation seems more negative in its attitude towards the monarchy.

The same strategy was used in the translation of the lines “The honest man, though e’er sae poor,/ Is king o’ men for a’ that” (B ll.15-16). Drawing a comparison with the “main enemy”, the king, could have been insulting for Soviet readers. The enemy had to be introduced as stupid, selfish, deceitful, aggressive, hostile, or even evil. Thus, Marshak substituted “king” with “знать” /znat' (nobility) and modified the definition of “the honest man” by specifying that an honest man is a man who earns his living with honest work.

Кто честным кормится трудом Those who earn a living with honest work

Tого зову я знатью (M ll. 21-22) I call nobles.

The strategy of deletion was used in the last stanza, in which the phrase “Then let us pray that come it may” (B l. 33) was cut out. Common workers, glorified in the poem, could not pray for their freedom, which would come sooner or later.

The best example of the canonization and making heroes out of beggars and swindlers is the poem “Macpherson’s Farewell”, in which a highway-robber is transformed into a national hero and a revolutionary. In Marshak’s translation, the poem was changed almost completely. The first two lines, “Farewell, Ye dungeons dark and strong / The wretch’s destinie!” (B ll. 1-2), were translated, “Привет, вам тюрьму короля, где жизнь влачат рабы” / Hello, the prisons of the king, where slaves suffer (M ll. 1-2). Not only is “king” added but also the word “wretch” is replaced by “slave”, thus focusing primarily on negative attributes of monarchy that are not present in the original. We cannot talk about a strategy of substitution in this case, as Marshak did not substitute but completely changed these lines, promoting a negative image of monarchy.

The translation omits such adjectives as “wantonly”, “dauntingly”, “rantingly”. The main occupation of the hero, a robber, has been changed into “war”. The line “Oh! What is death but parting breath?” (B l.9) was translated “В полях войны среди мечей встречал я смерть не раз” / In the fields of war, among swords, I meet death many times (M ll.16-17). The translation of the line “I've liv'd a life of sturt and strife” (B l.17) again indicates a pathetic tone, “Я жизнь свою провел в бою”/ I spent my life in the fields of fight. Naturally, the inflection of the “fields of fight” indicates the primary occupation mentioned in the original, yet the fact remains that MacPherson’s heroism is overstressed in the translation. It was also explained that MacPherson was not simply betrayed but that a traitor gave his life to the executioner's rope.

I die by treachery (B l. 20)

Изменник предал жизнь мою The traitor gave my life

Веревке палача (M ll. 21-22) To the executioner's rope

Farewell from the light and sunshine in the line “Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright” (B l.24) was substituted with the farewell from MacPherson’s “край” (native place in the meaning of homeland). Thus, in Marshak’s translation the poem gives a completely different impression than the original because “Soviet” Robert Burns could not glorify robbers and beggars. The strategy of deletion of Scotland is obvious in the translation. The seventeenth line “And there's no man in all Scotland” was cut out.

An appeal to liberty and freedom in Britain in the poem “The Tree of Liberty”, inspired by the French Revolution, in Marshak’s translation takes on the quality of an appeal to world revolution, leaving very little of the “auld England” spirit, so essential to the original poem. In point of fact, Britain is mentioned in only one line. On the basis of Marshak’s translation, one might conclude that Burns was concerned about revolution all over the world. The primary translation strategies are those of substitution and deletion, as well as generalizing. Thus, references to England in the first two lines were replaced with more unifying expression, “nations and places”, “Забудут рабство и нужду народы и края, брат”/ The nations and places will forget about poverty and slavery, brother. This substitution serves to stress Burns’s concern about revolutionary progress in the whole world and not just in capitalist England. There is no need to mention that the phrase “syne let us pray” was cut out.

Syne let us pray, auld England may

Sure plant this far-famed tree, man,

And blithe we’ll sing, and hail the day

That gave us liberty, man. (B ll. 85-88)

Забудут рабство и нужду The nations and places

Народы и края, брат Will forget about poverty and slavery, brother

И будут люди жить в ладу And the people will live peacefully

Как дружная семья, брат. (M ll. 85-88) As a family, brother.

The word “man” at the end of each stanza was replaced by “брат” (brother), since the word ‘brothers’ had more positive connotations in the eyes of the soviet censors than mere “men”. In lines 14-15 “He’s greater that a lord, man,/an’ wi’ the beggar shares a mite”, Marshak translates the word “beggar” as “товарищ” (comrade), which sounded much more ‘in the communist spirit’. In fact, there could be no beggars in a happy communist society. The word “peasant” (B l.13) was replaced by “холоп” (kholop) (an old-fashioned Russian word meaning “a designated slave”, or in modern Russian a “subordinated, humiliated man”) and the comparison with the Lord was deleted in the lines “Gif ance the peasant taste a bit, / He's greater than a Lord, man,” (B ll.13-14). Raising the peasant to God’s level appeared to be offensive. It is interesting that in Marshak’s translation there appears more or less only one lexical items referring to the word “peasant”, which is “kholop”, the apparently more abusive term. For the translator, the context in which the word is used is important as guiding the choice of the potential equivalent. Because Soviet literature glorified collective labour as ennobling man and exemplified peasants and workers as new men of Soviet society possessing superior moral and social consciousness, the word “peasant” couldn’t be used in its original sense to describe the lowest societal level.

It is interesting that in the case of this poem, Marshak decided to mention Britain in the lines,

Let Britain boast her hardy oak,
Her poplar and her pine, man,
Auld Britain ance could crack her joke
And o'er her neighbours shine, man (B ll. 57-60)

In other translations, Marshak deliberately omitted any mention of Scotland or Britain. However, in these lines Burns criticizes the absence of liberty in Britain, an issue often exposed in soviet political propaganda. Marshak also cut the original poem by eight lines, as he didn’t translate the lines from 72-80.

A further significant characteristic of Marshak’s translations is the omission of any mention of Scotland. It can be understood from the translator’s point of view because sometimes mentioning foreign names makes the comprehension of a poem more difficult for the reader and demands additional comments. But the omission of Scotland became a characteristic feature of Marshak’s translations. The events mentioned in the poems happen “nowhere”, so that the reader could easier identify with them. The poet of Scotland became an international poet who struggled for human rights all over the word, not just in Scotland. This misrepresentation destroys the main idea of Burns as a national Scottish (specifically only Scottish) poet. Love and care for the motherland, images which were very important for the proper comprehension of Burns’s poetry, were missed. Burns was no more a Scottish but a “world” poet.

Thus, in the translation of the poem “Scots Wha Hae” which has the subtitle “Robert Bruce’s address to His Army, Before the Battle of Bannockburn”, it is impossible to understand that the main idea of the poem is an appeal to the Scottish king. He is not even mentioned in Marshak’s version, and the title is simply translated “Bruce - to Scots”. The very first line “Scots, Wha hae” was not translated at all. In the 13-14 lines “Wha for Scotland’s king and law/Freedom’s sword will strongly draw” the word “Scotland” was replaced with “родина”/ rodina (homeland) and “king” was deleted. This deletion obscured the main point of the historical events echoed in the poem. Not to mention that the structure of the first two lines suggests that Wallace and Bruce were the same person. The same confusion appears in the translation of the poem “Farewell to our Scottish Fame”.

In the poem “Lines written on a Bank-note”, “For lake o’ thee I leave this much-loved shore / Never perhaps to greet old Scotland more!” (B ll. 35-36), Marshak used the word “родина” /motherland instead of “Scotland”.

In the poem “Contented Wi’ Little, and Carttie Wi’ Mair” in the line “Wi’ a cog o’ guade swats and an auld Scotish sang” (B l.4) the word Scottish was cut out.

The translation of the poem “Elegy on Peg Nicholson” contains the lines, “But now she’s floating down the Nith / And past the Mouth o’ Carin” (B ll. 56-58). In Marshak’s translation the name Carin is cut out and only the river is mentioned.

In the poem “The Twa Dogs” in the line “For Britain's guid his saul indention” (B l.148), the word Britain was replaced with “country”. In the same poem the very first line, “T’ was in that place o’ Scotland’s isle” (B l.1), was deleted.

In the poem “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in which Burns expressed his deep nostalgic feelings, the line “The hills of the Highlands for ever I love” (B l. 8) was translated “навеки останусь я сыном твои”/ I will remain your son forever (M l. 8). The idea of the Highlands as a particular place is missing in Marshak’s translations. Marshak also changes the title into “My Heart is in the Mountains”.

In the poem “Go fetch me a pint o’ wine”, the name “Leith” is not mentioned in the translation.

Something similar happened with the poem “To the Guidwife of Wauchope House”, in which the lines “That I for poor auld Scotland sake/ Some useful plan, or book could make,/ Or sing a sang at least” (B ll. 18-20) are translated, “Одной мечтой с тех пор я жил, служить стране по мере сил (Пуская они и слабы) Народу пользу принести”/ The only dream of my life is to serve the country as much as I could, (Even though my forces are weak), And to bring something good to people (M ll. 54-57). The word “country” is used instead of Scotland

In the same poem Burns says that he is proud because he is Scottish Marshak chose to translate this as if the words “Scot” and “peasant” were synonyms.

A Scot still, but blot still
I knew no higher place. (B ll. 63-64)

Шотландской, крестьянской I was proud because of my

Породой был я горд (M ll. 63-64). Scottish, peasant background.

Marshak was also confronted with hard task of softening Burns’ eroticism as much as possible. Thus, in the poem “I’ am o’er Young to Marry Yet”, a young girl is complaining that she is too young to be married, hinting at sexual relationships with the future husband. Her main concern, expressed in the lines “lying in a man’s bed” (B l. 3) and “And you an’ I in ae bed” (B l.17), was replaced with more innocent expression “остаться наедине” / to stay with you alone (Marshak l.3, l.17).

In the poem “The Ploughman”, the ploughman’s girlfriend says: “I will mak my Ploughman’s bed, /And chear him late and early” (B ll.16-17). Such an immoral statement was carefully replaced, and in the Russian translation she just admires “her dear friend” (M l.16) and does not mention bed at all. In the previous stanza the girlfriend also dares to say “Cast off the wat, put on the dry,/And gae to bed, my Dearie” (B ll. 11-12). In order to avoid any misunderstandings about the relationship between the ploughman and his girlfriend, Marshak replaced her invitation to bed by an invitation to dinner.

Marshak faced the same problem in the poem “My Collier Laddie” in which a young woman tells how happy she is with her collier. The lines “And make my bed in the Collier’s neuk,/And lie down wi’my Collier laddie” (B ll. 24-25) could not be translated literally, so Marshak softened them, replacing “bed” with “my little corner” (M l.25) and erasing the words “lie down with wi’ my”. In his translation, the collier’s girlfriend simply sits with her beloved every night in her little corner.

In “Jolly Beggars” the word “doxy” “drab” and “chock” were replaced by “mistress” or not translated at all.

In spite of all ideological changes, Marshak’s translations remained the best translations of Robert Burns for almost half a century. The image of Burns is almost inseparable from the name Samuil Marshak who was also called Soviet father of Robert Burns. Marshak created an adequate, and for Russian culture, an acceptable image of Robert Burns. However, unintentionally, Marshak caused a serious problem for further generations of Russian translators of Robert Burns. Attempting to avoid comparison with Marshak’s translations, which were called “a second original”, and wishing to reach Marshak’s level, a new generation of translators was induced to use different techniques and to search for alternative possibilities. This was a difficult task because to learn from a master means to compete with him. These words were prophetic for those translators who wanted to beat Marshak.

Works cited

Burns, R. Selected poems. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1996

Burns, R. [trans. Marshak, S]. Robert Burns. Stihi [Robert Burns. Poems]. Hudozhestvenaia literature: Moskva, 1976

Below is a brief curriculum vitae about Dr. Natalia Kaloh Vid.

Natalia Kaloh Vid is a teaching assistant of English literature at the Faculty of Arts, University of Maribor in Slovenia. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature and translation studies from the University of Maribor, Slovenia. Her thesis focuses on ideological influence on literary translations of Robert Burns in the Soviet Union. She also holds an M.A. in Modern Russian Literature from the University in Ljubljana (Slovenia) and is currently finishing her second Ph.D. on Apocalypses in Modern Russian Literature. Kaloh Vid presented the results of her research on twenty-three international conferences in Scotland, England, Austria, Germany, Croatia, Hungary, Chile, Montenegro and Canada. List of her publications includes articles on translations of Burns into Russian, as well as on different aspects of Russian and Canadian literature. Her research fields include ideological influence on literary translations, literature in the Soviet Union, translation of Robert Burns into Russian and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Most important publications

Censorship and ideology in literary translations: the case of Robert Burns' poetry in the Soviet Union. V: POPESCU, Floriana (ur.). Perspectives in translation studies. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, cop. 2009, str. 77-94.

Use of domesticated and foreignized methods in the Soviet school of translation. ELOPE (Ljubl.), 2007, vol. 4, [no.] 1/2, str. 151-159.

Ideological Translations of Robert Burns' poetry by Tat´iana Shchepkina-Kupernik in the Soviet Union. Maribor international review, 2008, vol. 1, no. 1, str. 1-10.

"Soviet" Robert Burns - ideological adaptation of Burns' poetry in the Soviet Union. The round table, 2008, vol. 1, no. 1, [6] str.

Political - ideological translations of Robert Burns' poetry in the Soviet Union. Br. Am. Stud., 2008, vol. 14, str. [343]-351

Ideological translations of Robert Burns's poetry. Vestn. - Druš. tuje jez. književ., 2006, letn. 40, št. 1/2, str. 175-184

Domesticated translation : the case of Nabokov's translation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Nabokov online journal, 2008, vol. 2, str. [1-24].

Bulgakov's Satan : Master and Margarita's minister of justice. V: BURNS, Charlene P. E. (ur.). Mis/representing evil : evil in an interdisciplinary key. Oxford [i. e. Freeland]: Inter-Disciplinary, cop. 2009, str. [19]-31.

The symbol of the city in Morley Callaghan's Strange Fugitive : adaptation of American urban discourse or reinforcement of Canadian multicultural identity?. V: ERTLER, Klaus-Dieter (ur.), LÖSCHNIGG, Martin (ur.). Inventing Canada, (Canadiana, Bd. 6). Frankfurt am Main [etc.]: P. Lang, 2008, str. [177]-183.

Language and ethnicity : the way to silence in John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death. V: LÖSCHNIGG, Maria (ur.), LÖSCHNIGG, Martin (ur.). Migration and fiction : narratives of migration in contemporary Canadian literature. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2009, str. [171]-179.

1 Each literary work written by a foreign author and published in the Soviet Union had to contain a special preface which explained the “correct” meaning of the work to Soviet readers. This should be considered as a part of ideological pressure.

2 The fact that Marshak’s translations of Burns’ poetry became an outstanding literary sensation supported his election as honorary president of the Burns Federation in Scotland.

3 Shakespeare’s sonnets were translated by Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zivago, but because of his enormous success in the West, Pasternak was suppressed and hunted in Russia. His translations were forbidden and he remained in the shadow of Marshak until the end of Perestrojka.

4 R. Burns. Izbrannoe v perevodakh Marshaka. Moskva, 1964.

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