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The second half of the 19th century saw a great increase in the volume of translated literature. During this period there was a gradual decline in poetry and a rise of prose. Beginning about 1860, Russian culture was dominated by a group known as the "intelligentsia," a word that the English borrowed from the Russian but which means something rather different in its original Russian usage (‘raznochintsy”).110 They did not speak or read foreign languages, which required a greater number of translations. The quantitative increase led to a qualitative decrease. Most translations of that period were very far from the original texts, as they rendered only the outline of the source text rather than its style.

This period witnessed a change of status for translated literature. In the early 19th century, translation was regarded as part and parcel of the author’s original creative work (it is not by chance that Gnedich, famous for his translations, was portrayed among great Russian authors in Novgorod’s monument to the thousandth anniversary of Russia.) While in the early 19th century foreign literary works were adopted by Russian literature, the situation changed drastically in the late 19th century: translated literature was shunned from the original fiction. Translated works began to be regarded as foreign literature related to Russian literature only by the new language expression they acquired. The second half of the 19th century separated the translator and the author, by subordinating the former to the latter.

One of the most outstanding poets and translators of the time was Afanasy Fet, who wrote delicate love lyrics and translated classics (Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Catullus) and German poets. According to K. Chukovsky, Fet the translator and Fet the poet are absolutely incomparable.111 Fet the poet is superb. He is superior to Fet the translator. As a translator, Fet took great care of the poetic form, nearly neglecting the sense, so that some of his poems could be understood only with reference to the source text. Fet himself did only word-for-word translations, justifying his position by comparing the translation with a picture: even the worst picture will better familiarize a person with Venus de Milo than can any verbal description. Such is the translation. It might sound clumsy in another language but it should cause the reader to feel the force and magnitude of the original.112

Why is it possible that Fet, such a splendid lyrical poet, could be so clumsy and tongue-tied in translation? Scholars explain this by Fet’s agnosticism, that is, his philosophical belief that nothing can be known in depth, that only perceptible phenomena are objects of exact knowledge.113 This attitude of the poet is reflected both in his impressionist poetry where he represented only his own impressions of the intangible world, and in his translations where he reproduced the unattainable content of the source text. Thus Fet, who literally showed in translation somebody else’s feelings, was opposed to Zhukovsky, who gave voice to his own, subjective feelings in translation.

In contrast to Fet’s were the translation principles of Irinarkh Vvedensky, known for his free translation of C. Dickens and W. Thackeray. Vvedensky called translators, first and foremost, to read the source text carefully, to associate themselves with the author and, then, to move the author to our community and answer the question: in what form would the author express his ideas if he lived with us, in this country?114 When translating, he would typically add pages which had nothing to do with the source text. While criticizing Vvedensky’s work, K. Chukovsky said that his translation was in fact a sneer at Dickens, uncontested by the Russian educated public.115

Another translation method was characteristic of Alexei K. Tolstoy, who introduced pragmatic requirements into translation. “We should not translate words, and sometimes not even sense; what is important is to convey the impression.”116 Translation should have the same impact upon the reader as has the original text.

Tolstoy’s principle was developed by a revolutionary democrat MMikhailov, who denied literal translation and even thought it possible to make form substitutions to produce the same effect upon the reader as does the source text. Similar ideas were shared by V. Kurochkin.


The 1880-90’s is considered to be “hard times” for translation.117 In this period, the culture of translation was in decline. Translators downplayed the specific features of source texts, lost their stylistic peculiarities and were often too wordy. For instance, according to translation practices of the time, even the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy did not strive for accurate translation. When translating a short novel by Maupassant, Le Port, he gave the story another title (Франсуаза) and noted that it was not his translation but rather a story after Maupassant. Many people considered translation to be an easy job, requiring only good knowledge of a foreign language. Therefore, translations were often mediocre and uncreative. Theoretical work suffered a decline. Critics gave very superficial reviews.

The best translator of the time was P. Veinberg, who translated Shakespeare and Heine. Later translation theorists and critics reproached him for his lack of artistic form, for simplifying works.118

In that period it was claimed that great authors cannot make good translations, as they cannot give up their own creative work and be subordinate to a translated author.

Nevetheless, the end of the century marked the development of the school of philological translation,119 carried out A. Veselovsky, F. Zelinsky, F. Batyushkov. They introduced into Russian translated literature editions in which a translated text was accompanied by substantial philological commentaries.

The end of the century also witnessed a rebirth of untranslatability theory, which was propounded by the Ukrainian linguist Alexandre Potebnya.120

The period from the 1890s to 1917 was one of intellectual ferment, in which mysticism, aestheticism, Neo-Kantianism, eroticism, Marxism, apocalypticism, Nietzscheanism, and other movements combined with each other in improbable ways.121 The Symbolists saw art as a way to approach a higher reality. The first wave of Symbolists included Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who translated a number of English poets and wrote verse that he left unrevised on principle (he believed in first inspiration), and Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), a poet and translator of French Symbolist verse and of Virgil's Aeneid, who for years was the leader of the movement.

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