Reflections on Translation in Literary, Everyday, and Anthropological Practice

I put on academia-e-d-u my reflections on translation that I prepared for a seminar in linguistic anthropology. I might not be able to attend the seminar scheduled for October because of the delay of my student visa, but I figured, if I won’t record the thoughts that this invitation prompted in me, they will remain in the noosphere.

Thanks to Professors A.W. and C.H. for the opportunity to think about it.

Whenever we think about translation, it is about (mis)translation inasmuch. Vladimir Nabokov famously required another Vladimir Nabokov to translate his own work (the list of qualities of his ideal translator that he named narcissistically centered Nabokov himself, who, at least in his own assessment, of course, possessed all these qualities).  Some writers refused to translate themselves. Others, translating, transformed their own work to the degree it became an independent new work. The funny stories of mistranslations abound. In a sense, the situation when a speaker ventures into the unfamiliar territory of the new language brings risks. These risks are not unlike the risks that anthropologist experiences stepping onto the land where she did not live before—or even if she lived, in her new capacity of the researcher that defamiliarizes the familiar to her. The speaker of a language not mastered fully is in a similar situation. They are definitely outside of their comfort zone and up to surprises.

In my own practice, I used translation for the literary impossible purposes of recreating “the violet in the crucible,” by Percy Shelley’s expression, in my daily experience of living abroad from the country of my native language—Russia—for more than seven years, and in my anthropological practice. All these versions of translating things from one language into the other, from one culture into the other, were closely intertwined. I will begin with literary translation, talk about everyday translation, and finish with the translation in anthropological practice. The different ways to translate things lead to the Babylon point of bifurcation of the languages that might be not a curse but a blessing. All these instantiations are called into existence in order to be considered in the light of the main idea of this writing: there are no different languages; “language” is a social construct.

Before you frown at the triteness of the expression “social construct” or say “so, is everything social construct nowadays?”, allow me to elucidate my thesis. When I first heard myself to profess this conviction, which happened at a lecture of Expressive Culture at UT, Spring 2019, I was probably more surprised to hear it than anyone else in the audience. Yet,
Unfortunately, academia-e-d-u acting out and does not show the preview. I already wrote them about this and another piece that I uploaded and that I will introduce here soon, but it remains to be known how quickly they will fix it. But you can still download my talk (and write me a comment about it, too!)
Translation is a mystery that will never stop bothering me! I wish the same to you.

ASEEES 2018 (December, Boston) Abstracts

For the American Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies convention in 2018, I am planning to do two things:

Present the paper “Affective Infrastructures and Mobility: the Soviet Sublime, post-Soviet Concrete, and post-post-Soviet Recursion” at the panel Alexandra Simonova and I organized, Politics of Belonging for Hybrid Identities: in the Shadow of the Soviet Sublime.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

I examine the tensions in the everyday life of people who engage with the morally outdated and sometimes malfunctioning infrastructures in remote Siberian villages on the shore of the Angara River. These villages came to life in their current form as a consequence of the Bratsk dam construction in 1954-61. Although the villages emerged as the result of infrastructural development, the infrastructures locally have been lacking from the start. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, their existence has drastically changed. How do people make decisions regarding their mobility in a place where the infrastructure is failing? Making use of what I call “affective infrastructures,” I connect the theories of affect (Deleuze and Guattari, Stewart) and the theories of infrastructure (Larkin, Simone) through the analysis of the intersecting points such as network-like structures, flow, exchange, and connection. I show how infrastructure generates affects as well as affects partake in the construction or repurposing of infrastructure.

The panel’s framework is as follows (Magdalena Stawkowski took part in polishing it):

How do tensions between new and old infrastructures throughout post-Soviet space, affect the ways in which people build and perform their identities and make everyday decisions? This panel brings together scholars of anthropology and regional studies (working in Crimea, Kazakhstan, and Siberia) doing interdisciplinary research on infrastructures and material objects in their production of hybrid identities, politics of belonging, and citizenship in the context of disparate and conflicting allegiances. Considering the Soviet period as a “lingering reverberation” that creates identities, sameness, and differences, we examine how old Soviet and new post-Soviet categories of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, health, and class, as well as generational divide, express themselves in practices of working through and reconstructing the narratives of living.

Taking into account the spatio-temporal phenomenon of the Soviet collapse allows us to not only concentrate on the peculiarities of performing hybrid identities in contested socio-cultural contexts, but also to speak to broader concerns of infrastructural development, ideas of progress and modernity, mobility, and precarity. The USSR-related experiences acquire a new importance in the today’s volatile political climate worldwide. The construction of infrastructural and architectural projects brought to life the affect of the Soviet sublime connected to a grand Soviet narrative. Today’s infrastructures are in disarray. Still, they are a part of the material and environmental settings where hybrid identities emerge and are performed. How people are making the everyday decisions in these material settings are the focus of this panel’s inquiries.


For the roundtable on literature and gender, I put together the final version of this talk just now; the talk is titled “‘I am a Little Poetess with a Huge Bow:’ Female Poets in Contemporary Russia.”

In this talk, I am reciting the originals of the poems by contemporary Russian poets Dana Kurskaya, Inga Kuznetsova, Irina Ysn, Alina Vitukhnovskaya, Luba Makarevskaya, as well as by Irina Odoyevtseva (1895-1990), alongside translations of these works by me and others. It is done in order to open the space to think through emergent poetics and points of imaginary cross-references. Imaginary, because these poets are from different groups; they are not connected to one another. What connects them then? A translator and reader’s arbitrary will. But is it arbitrary? Irina Odoyevtseva is a poet who foreshadowed some of the creative practices of the contemporary Russian poets by and large, and she is not as often spoken or widely read as Tsvetaeva or Akhmatova. Other poets all present different ways and tactics of navigating the cultural and “real” world; they build different universes of meaning and affect. I will analyze their creative practices (which are very different and include, for Kurskaya, a publishing project; for Kuznetsova, prose; for Ysn, jewelry making; for Vitukhnovskaya, political self-representation, and for Makarevskaya, art) in connection to their poetry. I will look at whether they position themselves as feminists, and if not or yes, why, and what does it tell us about positionality of female writer and poet in Russia, and why this positionality matters in regard to feminism. I will use the answers by the poets to the questions that arise in connection to their creative practices. My talk will enable other participants of the roundtable and the public to talk about different ways of navigating, expressing, or denying gender-related ideologies in poetry, but that will not be the center of it. The center of my talk will be poetry itself. I will show that all these poets are working with the aesthetics positioned on the edges of the respectability; in their writings, they consistently push the boundaries and limits of acceptable.


In the photo: an interior of a house in the village of Atalanka, Siberia. The picture is taken by the author in 2013

Mirrors of Foucault, or A Little Bit of Bookworming

“The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.” (”Of Other Spaces” by Michel Foucault,diacritics / spring 1986. Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec)

“As is well known, the great and obsessive dread of the nineteenth century was history, with its themes of development and stagnation, crisis and cycle, the accumulation of the past, the surplus of the dead and the world threatened by cooling.” (“Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” by Michel Foucault. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Edited by Neil Leach.* NYC: Routledge. 1997. pp.330-336)

“As we know, the great obsession of the nineteenth century was history: themes of development and arrest, themes of crisis and cycle, themes of accumulation of the past, a great overload of dead people, the threat of global cooling.” (“Different Spaces” by Michel Foucault in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. 1998. The New Press New York. Edited by James D. Faubion. Translated by Robert Hurley.)

As Foucault in the first sentence of his lecture, delivered on the 14th of March, 1967, to the Architectural Studies Circle, which was later published under the title “Des Espaces Autres” in the issue 5 of the journal Architecture-Mouvement-Continuité (October, 1984; 46-49), later known broadly as the “Foucault’s Heterotopia Writing,” may or may not have said, the nineteenth century was occupied with:

– development and suspension
– crisis and cycle;
– ever-accumulating past (past) or the past’s ever-accumulation (accumulation);
– preponderance  of the dead,
– and the treat of the global cooling
[menacing glaciation}.

I wonder if surplus of the dead makes the Leach’s Foucault into a Marxist.

* the name of the translator of this piece in Leach’s volume is omitted. in the Acknowledgements section we read the editor’s gratitude for the permission to publish the piece expressed in the following expressions: “Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies: Theodor Adorno, ‘Functionalism Today’, trans. Jane Newman and John Smith; Ernst Bloch, ‘Formative Education, Engineering Form, Ornament’, trans. Jane Newman and John Smith; Michel Foucault, ‘Other Spaces: The Principles of Heterotopia’.” perhaps it is reasonable to suggest that Jane Newman and John Smith did the translation; the very title of the Foucault’s piece in the edited volume differs however from the title mentioned.

All Communication Is Simultaneously a Miscommunication: Is That True?

The Spanish conquest of Tagalog society posed the questions, in Rafael’s rendition, of history and translation, memory and circulation, conversion and confession.

He starts with a curious observation on the poeticizing of colonialism which was so deeply ingrained into the mind of colonizers they never relinquished it: "The Real Academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española defines conquista not only as the forcible occupation of a territory but also as the act of winning someone’s voluntary submission and consequently attaining his or her love and affection." (Rafael, ix)

In this context, translation is a means of colonization and of establishing the power narrative. Catholicism, with its "ideas of indebtedness and hierarchy" (Rafael, x), seemed to be a perfect instrument of colonization. For it to be successful, the new language had to be invented, namely "the institution of the new vocabulary for the social comprehension of death" (Rafael, xi).

The parallel to Benedict Anderson’s "fatality of linguistic diversity": "The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification." (Anderson, 1983, 56)

To juxtapose it with Rafael’s findings, one might paraphrase: "for whatever superhuman feats colonialism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries."

However, inasmuch as languages made it a struggle for colonizers, to subjugate people and therefore territories and resources, languages also presented a redeemable challenge. 

"Natives" employ linguistic means of resistance: "A distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontexualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself" (Rafael, 3). But their history, in turn, is written by the superseding power. And not only the history during the colonial rule, but also the history of colonialism, is written by the colonizers and their descendants, and not by the colonized.

The spirit of "natives" is unbroken, however, which is evident in the scene when the man recognizes the dead hero of resistance in a madman enclosed in the nearing cell.* 

What makes a translation successful? How spiritual texts of Catholicism could be translated? The tremendous difficulty of the Herculean task is afforded the glimpse if we recollect Laura Bohannan’s telling piece "Shakespear in the Bush" where she described the perils of explaining the vicissitudes of Hamlet to the Tiv people in West Africa (Bohannan, 1966). By any means, to explain the Bible to Tagalog, or any other people, was no easier, especially meaning that this explanation should ultimately lead to them fighting Spanish wars, paying tribute, building churches (some of the duties named by Rafael), and otherwise serving their overlords.

So how does translation emerges in this situation and how does it function? Not only its functions are to convert, but also to build the understanding. "Siegel claims that translation arises from the need to relate one’s interest to that of others and so to encode it appropriately. Translation in this case involves not simply the ability to speak in a language other than one’s own but the capacity to reshape one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with accepted forms." (Rafael, 210)

On this path, not so much translation as mistranslation is happening: "Christian conversion and colonial rule emerged through what appeared to be a series of mistranslations. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, such mistranslations were ways to render the other understandable. Each group read into the other’s language and behavior possibilities that the original speaker had not intended or foreseen." (Rafael, 211)

I think unintendedness, or unforeseenness is relative in the situation of successful colonial subjugation, and should not be overstated. The miscommunications happened, but as Wilhelm von Humboldt famously claimed, "All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding… and all agreement of feelings and thoughts is at the same time a means for growing apart." Similarly, all communication is at the same time simultaneously a miscommunication. But the Marxist thought requires to look closely at the practice, and ask, whether the translation/communication/understanding was practically effective, or not.  

*To digress, the trope of the undying hero, escaping either to lead a new, peaceful life, or impersonated by other people, is strangely evoking, given that we have many examples of its reenactment, such as a city legend of Michael Jackson, supposedly alive. Or, if we are seeking historic parallels, the figure of Yemelyan Pugachev in the Russian history and public imagination.


Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. 

Rafael, Vicente. (1988) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bohannan, Laura. (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Natural History. August–Semptember.

Distorted Translations

“Scholars in the philosophy of language have understood incommensurability to refer to a state in which an undistorted translation cannot be produced between two or more denotational texts.” (Povinelli, 2001, 320)

So the question would be, why do scholars think that any “undistorted translation” could be produced? It seems pretty clear that that’s beyond the realm of possibility. It is feasible that some translation have more distortions that others, and that in some cases translation is altogether inaccessible, but the translation as such is a process that consists of selections of admissible distortions in order to combine them into the unity that would still be identifiable as a source text but anyone familiar with the language in question.

“How could the Hawaiians have understood James Cook, or Cook the Hawaiians, without producing serious distortions (Sahlins 1995, Obeyesekere 1997)?” (Povinelli, 2001, 321)

The dispute on Cook’s regrettable end involved the conversation about colonial discourse, the Western inevitable enthnocentrism, the researcher’s positionality, and glocal ecologies of language and communication. Whereas translation is impossible without distortions, it functions as a distorted reflection quite effectively. And as Foucault remarked that starting from a certain point, the question of authorship is not about the author’s romantic subjectivities, but about the contexts, intentions, power dynamics, contested discourses and such, in the discussion of which the author is not a point of departure, similarly in the circulation of translated communication the question of “distortions” is not of fatal significance. Perhaps the essence of communication is happening on a less linguistic-heavy level as we came to suggest. Perhaps sub-, overly-, nearly- and paralinguistic means of communication are the gist of it, which if not nullifies the problem of distortion, then at least makes it far less ominous.

The interpretational endeavors in which we engage, is the series of “passing theories” (Davidson quoted by Povinelli), which are generated, come to appear veritable, fade out and die as communication unfolds.

The perfect illustration of the inevitable ethnocentrism is the famous Quine’s example illustrating the inaccessibility of the true meaning of the utterances based on the sounds and the connection of said sounds with the established by the anthropologist meaning. How do we know that gavagai is a rabbit and not the rabbit’s sudden appearance?

“A rabbit scurries by, the native says “Gavagai,” and our jungle linguist notes down the sentence “Rabbit” (or “Lo, a rabbit”) as tentative translation.” (Quine, 2000, 94)

Of course native people would say “lo, a rabbit.” That is just what should be expected. They might also say “lo and behold, the rabbit.” That would be more like it.

Not so much the impossibility to establish the correspondence between rabbit and the word supposedly meaning it, is the case of difficulty, as the fact that properly established rabbit is woven into the text written by the anthropologist, in all the poetics and politics of the text, reaffirming the politics of subjugation by means of studying, or enlightenment, or educating.

To return to Cook’s end conundrum, Marshall Sahlins’s piece (Sahlins, 1985) opens up not only the question “What really happened to Cook?” as the question, akin to Quine’s wonder, “How do we ever know what has ever really happened?” And although Sahlins is extremely persuasive given the intricacies of his writing style, he indulges into Roman-style mythologies only Western mind is capable of producing, and in this divide I am rather on the side of Gannanath Obeyeskere who stated: “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.” (Obeyeskere, 3). Not to suggest that something that might be described as “the natives creating the god” did not happen, but the way it was framed and became stitched into the political imaginary, was inescapably fraught with “distortions of translation.”



Marshall Sahlins. (1985) “Captain James Cook; or, The Dying God.” in Island of History. University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, Ganannath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook. Pp.3-22.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability” Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 319-334.

Quine, Willard V.O. (2000) “Meaning and Translation” in L. Venuti (editor) “The Translation Studies Reader”

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In order to see how bilingual and multilingual writers choose language of their primal writing, I concentrate on three prominent Russia-born writers who switched to English late in life. These writers are of dramatically different fate and level of literary prominence in their second language, but all are undeniably of a great standing in the national literature. Vladimir Nabokov is the most well-known in this respect, as well as the example of the most successful linguistic transition (I propose this term to describe the change of language). Other two writers are Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov.

My hypothesis is that all these three writers dressed Russian phrases in English attire. The structures of their English sentences are influenced by their primal language, Russian. For instance, you would not meet in Nabokov’s prose a phrase with a dangling participle. The classic in the Russian literature example of such phrase is Chekhov’s “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.” Chekhov specifically constructed this phrase in order to mock the absurd of such grammatical construction: the hat is admiring the scenery, the hat is approaching the station. The hat is the subject of the sentence. This is, arguably, an acceptable grammar form in contemporary English, albeit it has been argued that it is an example of bad writing (Pereltsvaig, 2011). In Russian the construction of this type is a rude stylistic mistake, and so there is no way Nabokov would commit it—in Russian, nor even in English. Same holds true in regard to Brodsky and Aksyonov.

I argue that for these writers the change of language was a politically motivated decision. It entailed a considerable change of identity, self-positionality, and cultural self-transmogrification.

In order to see how Nabokov’s English (not to mention his writing practices*) was influenced by T.S. Eliot, I compare the texts written on the pinnacles of the respective writing mastery of these authors, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on one hand, and “Pale Fire,” on the other. I show that Nabokov creatively expropriates turns of phrases “unlocked” by T.S. Eliot, somewhat contradictorily to Nabokov’s professed dislike of T.S. Eliot.


*Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and “Eugene Onegin,”** both, as is well-known, have (or partially consist of) the ample body of commentaries, incorporated into the novel and the translation, respectively. Commentary as a cultural form, circulating widely in, probably, the majority of known literatures, has a distinct source of inspiration in Nabokov’s case, namely T.S. Eliot’s multilingual commentaries to “The Waste Land.”


** I would argue that Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” should be seen as a single utterance, to use this term here in Bakhtian sense (1986). Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is only ostensibly a translation of the classical Russian literary masterpiece. It encloses “Eugene Onegin” like professor Shade’s poem is enclosed into the body of “Pale Fire.” The genre of Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is hard to define. It is a linguistic treatise, a literary last will, and, ultimately, what he believed is his most strong claim of immortality apart from “Lolita.”




Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Complaints Book” in The Comic Stories, translated by Harvey Pitcher.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style? 12/11/2011, Retrieved 2/1/2016.

Translation as an Art of Failure


“John Ciardi (1961: 17), in a piece for the Saturday Review, famously (if often misattributed) called translation “the art of failure.” Ciardi was the poetry editor for the Saturday Review and had been engaged for fifteen years in an effort to translate Dante’s Inferno. He argued, in the end, that the goal of the translator—and he is rightly uncomfortable with this term because it assumes an isomorphism, not just of denotation, but of register (my term), of history (his term), and of “muscularity” (his term), between languages—is to create “the best possible failure” (Ciardi 1961: 17).” (Webster, n.d., 1)


Ciardi is a poet and a great poetry theorist. The book “Ciardi Himself” (1986) contains fifteen essays on poetry, writing, and teaching. I read them all. The titles alone suffice for the assessment of the level of his praxis: “For the Love of Language,” “Serious Joy,” “The Act of Language.” I was delighted to see the reference on Ciardi in purely academic, non-literary, anthropological settings, in Professor Webster’s wonderful article.

The notion of the art of failure promises to be productive beyond the immediate context. We do encounter small and dramatic failures all the time. To treat “failure” as a modus operandi takes, however, I am sure, a certain strength.




Ciardi, John. 1989. Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville – London

Webster, Anthony. n.d. The Art of Failure in Translating a Navajo poem: Creative Transpositions, Thick Translations and the Phonosonic Nexus. MS, UT Austin

Notes to the Theory of Translation

Les belles infidèles — if they are beautiful, they are unfaithful.

Different worlds, between which you are doing translation, do not match up, they are incommensurable worlds.

That’s why the “skyscrapers of commentary” (Nabokov) are needed in order to make the translation accurate: if not precise, then at least approximating the meaning. Meaning ultimately can be translated, but the sheer joy of text is quite another matter. What kind of joy, beyond purely scholar enjoyment, is possible from reading the text that, as you know, is not going to be comprehensible unless you read “skyscrapers of commentaries”? Who is going to read commentaries and why?

Translation might be possible, or it might be impossible, but here is the situation when it has to be made, and the most amazing part is it is happening.

The point of the translation is that it is a repetition. The translated text should be seen as “the same thing,” or it’s not a translation. The idea of translation disturbs the idea of singularity of the text itself, because it says: The text can be repeated.

Cultures are “repeatable,” in a grand cultural trope of their difference. Cultures are different, but in a similar way: everyone has different food ways, and ways of organizing sleep. Radical forms of difference are universal: they are organized along the same scales — social life, political life, economic interactions, rituals, routines; these are totalizing entities. The translation of the text is happening between the two cultural universes.

Notes to the Theory of Translation

According to Durkheim (1995), cultural and linguistic translation is universally possible and evolutionary defined: everyone, through different stages, should arrive at science, because societies are rooted in the real. Translation is inevitable, in a sense, since the humanity moves in one direction, that of universal progress.

Durkheim, Emile. (1995). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Fields, trans. Free Press.