Weekender: Foreign Misinterpretations, or We Invented the Katyusha

An Uyghur described on his blog early this month about how he was refused hotel accomodation and access to internet cafes by Han Chinese staff. Foreign bloggers picked up his story and translated it into English. Two days after posting his experience, he reacted to the international attention, criticized the translators as a “boring and silly crowd abroad” (那些国外的无聊人群) and played the events described in his earlier post down as funny (好玩) – as he had to some extent done in his initial post, too. In his latter post, he also emphasized that all ethnic groups in China will always be one family1). Black and White Cat translated both his initial post and his following reaction to foreign coverage.

My first thought after reading the Uyghur’s second post was that he had probably stated his opposition to the foreign translations clearly enough to avoid being considered a splittist element, a traitor, or whatever. My second thought was that if there wasn’t something wrong in China’s “family”, he wouldn’t have had to react to the foreign translations at all. It wouldn’t even matter how patriotic he really is.

The Uyghur blogger’s statement may reflect his true feelings – but I’m usually only sure that people in China state their true feelings when they are somehow critical of the status quo. Criticism may come at a price. Affirmation of the status quo doesn’t, and sometimes helps to avoid trouble. This is the usual relation between the oppressors and the oppressed.

In the 1950s, Vladimir Dudintsev wrote his novel Not by Bread Alone. It caught the attention of the press and the critics in Europe and North America, soon after the journal Novy Mir had published it in instalments in the USSR. The attention abroad worried Dudintsev. It was 1957, early after the beginning of the Khrushchev Thaw.

On February 19, 1957, he wrote a letter to a German publishing house2).

Dear Sirs,

I have learned that you intend to publish my novel “Not by Bread Alone” in German.
I regret to have to inform you that I have transferred the translation rights to the French agency “Agence Littéraire et Artistique Parisienne”, 23, rue Royale, Paris 8e, through the publishing house “Mezhdunarodnaja Kniga”.
When negotiating with this agency, I stipulated above all the high quality and absolute objectivity of the translation. I believe that I need to advise you of this point in particular because in an advertisement by your publishing house at hand here, my given name Vladimir has been altered into Vasilij. Also, in your brochure, angled comments from a variety of newspapers about my novel are published, and it is expressly stated that my book won’t be published in Moscow. This brochure is on my desk, next to the galley proofs of my novel, which will soon be published by “Soviet Writers’ Publishing House”. Therefore, you can see that I have reason to worry about the quality and objectivity of this German translation.
For the reasons mentioned above, and to avoid possible inconveniences, I ask you to shelve the publication of the book, until all questions have been clarified with the “Agence Littéraire et Artistique”.

Yours respectfully
V. Dudintsev

What follows is a capturing exchange of letters between Henri Nannen, the German publisher who, according to Wikipedia, had spoken the Olympic Oath at the Games in Berlin in 1936, who had reportedly been a member of a Wehrmacht propaganda unit in Italy during the war, and Dudintsev on the other hand, himself a Russian veteran in the same war only little more than a decade before their correspondence.

In his reply, Nannen bids for Dudintsev’s trust in his publishing house’s objectivity. He explains the flaws on some of the first book jackets, the way they came to assume that the book wouldn’t be published in Moscow, and he states clearly that he doesn’t think of Dudintsev as a Soviet oppositional in disguise.

[Lopatkin could have failed] in our country, too], because of the bureaucracy, a high-handed apparatus, the cohesive front of managers. […] It isn’t therefore just the story in itself which fascinates us, but rather the fact that in this “realistic” form, it could be written in the Soviet Union, but above all the human warmth coming from literary characters such as Lopatkin or Nadia Drozdova, or the strange professor Busjko, which captures readers in the Western world, too.

At the same time, Nannen tries to take the higher moral ground in some regards. He quotes the French agency as saying that a translation wasn’t on the cards, as the author wanted to rewrite his novel, and that the publishing house Kultur und Fortschritt in East Germany had also told him that a German translation wouldn’t be possible before summer 1958 at earliest, because it couldn’t be published as it had been by Novy Mir.

And he reminds Dudintsev that Soviet publishing houses published Western works without paying fees to the authors at all, because Moscow hadn’t joined international treaties for the protection of intellectual property. Because of the Soviet Union’s abstention, Western publishing houses were also free to publish translations of Russian works anytime.

But that isn’t meant to say that we would apply the practise of Soviet publishing houses and make use of your work without paying. We only want to offer West German readers the opportunity to read your novel unchanged.
Consequently, we acted along your requirement and made the highest demands to the quality and objectivity of the translation. If the initial book jackets carried the name Vasilij instead of your correct name Vladimir – the book itself carries the correct name – we ask you to excuse us for this mistake, which resulted from a communication error. But please do not infer from this on the quality of the translation, which has been carried out with all necessary care by a translator who has translated many classical and modern works from Russian before. You may really put your mind at rest concerning this, more so, than if we had accepted the offer of the “Agence Littéraire Parisienne” which all of a sudden, after our house had advertised the book, and English, French and American editions are to follow – offers us a license, if we verbally stick to the offered translation. As we know who runs this “French” agency in reality, we aren’t surprised either that they want to regain the initiative and offer to accelerate the matter, in that six different translators (and how many editors?) would tackle the task.

Dudintsev and Nannen agreed that the author should add a preface to his novel’s German translation. This is how it starts.

In all the years I worked on my novel, never came the disquieting thought to my mind that I might carry dirt to the front of my own door with my work. Whoever wants to clean his house, must throw the dirt out of the house – should one stop doing this because passersby might say: “Now look what a lot of dirt he stored at home”? The caution seemed unnecessary to me, and I was also way too captured by my material to have my hand disabled.
It is true, I had to reckon that in the West, phenomena of our Soviet daily grind may be viewed under different aspects than we would view them. But if one reads the book of a Soviet author anyway, why then would one read ones own intentions into it?
After all, I don’t turn everything into my own point of view, either. I read the books of many well-known West European authors, but I don’t sit down immediately to write political accusations against their regimes and governments.
[…]
We, the Soviet people, jealously guard the basic principles of our lives, the cleanness of the new situation, into which we have been put as busy members from the times of our youth, and we make sure that nobody will abuse the momentum and enthusiasm of our hearts. With all force man is capable of when people want to deny him the achievement of his aims in life, we decline those troublemakers who want to carry disappointment, sullenness, and selfish calculations into our ranks. We descend on them with all our wrath. And no matter how resilient one of these acquisitive egotists may be, we will force him to capitulate.
My Soviet readers saw these feelings in my novel. But these feelings have nothing to do with the small plumes of hope that may rise in the heart of a Russian landholder aged in emigration, who hopes to find a propagandistic note in my novel.

Dudintsev probably meant what he said. But the Soviet authorities had different ideas, and many of his peers joined the Soviet rulers’ attacks on him. In his self-defense to a plenary session of the Union of Writers, probably in March 19573), he said:

“How I was lying in a trench and above me flew 40 of our planes and two German planes, how the Germans, one after another, shot down our pilots, and how the question occured to me: how was such a slaughter possible given the great numerical superiority of Soviet planes? And I was always searching for an answer, collecting material for the novel.”

An angry and patriotic response by another author: “Dudintsev apparently forgot that we, not the Germans, invented the Katyusha!”4)

In a preface to a British edition of his novel, Dudintsev wrote that foreigners had misinterpreted it. Little else was seen or heard of him during the rest of the 1950s and most of the 1960s, according to the New York Times‘ obituary of July, 1998.

Ten years before his death, and three years before the Soviet Union’s, he was awarded the USSR State Prize.

________________

1) “We will be one family forever” (我们永远是一家人!)
2) Lizenzausgabe (Stern Verlag / Bertelsmann), Gütersloh 1958, p. 437
3) ibid, p. 447, Nannen quoting Literaturnaya Gazeta, March 19, 1957
4) ibid

____________

China – A Nation State, March 9, 2009

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