Paying Tribute to an English-to-Russian Book Translator

Many say translators, especially those working with literature, should always remain invisible. However, there are exceptions to the rule when social and political elements influence a translator's work and life and, consequently, these translators have the ability to play such an important role in the future of their nation.

Tatiana Kudriavtseva, one of the most prolific English-to-Russian translators with more than 80 books on her resume, died at the age of 93 in Moscow last month.

Her relevance goes beyond her body of work, which includes books by American authors William Styron, John Updike, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, and Mario Puzo, as well as former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Jack MatlockShe was active during the Cold War, at a time when the Kremlin controlled what could be or could not be published in the Soviet Union. Anything outside the technical genre or that deviated from Communist political views could be considered propaganda and unacceptable vices, including what she referred to "scenes of carnal pursuits."

“As soon as we publish something unusually explicit, we immediately get letters complaining, ‘Why do you use such filthy language?’” she told the Associated Press in 1982. “It is because we are still a peasant country. Most of our intellectuals are first-generation intellectuals. They come mostly from peasant backgrounds,” she offered her opinion. And she tried to change that mentality as the editor at Foreign Literature, a monthly magazine that published American fiction. She was able to influence what Russians learned of modern authors from the other side of the Iron Curtain. 

When she was the Vice President of the Board of Literary Translation of the Soviet Writers Union, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stanley Kunitz had plans for a collection of prose and poetry by major U.S. and Soviet authors. "We are aware that even when we have had difficult relations at the political level, the cultural level was always open,Kudriavtseva weighed in about the relationship between the two countries back in 1987. "Through this channel, we feel the pulse of important cultural life in each other's country."

Perhaps her most influential work was the Russian translation of Styron's "Sophie's Choice." Unable to point out in her native language that the character noticed stained sheets in a hotel bed, she had to translate it as "the linen was not clean." In an interview to The Washington Post, the author once said that his translator handled “the naughty aspects of my work” with deftness and delicacy.

When he asked her what would have happened if the explicit scene from his book had been published as written, she replied, “I would be executed!”

Joke's aside, many of her relatives were indeed persecuted and executed, such as her father and her first husband, so she knew such reaction from the government wasn't far from the truth. She said that, for that very same reason, she constantly weighed literary merit against Soviet taboos.

 Click here for Ms. Kudriavtseva's own account of their conversation during a speech in Russia.