TRANSLATION PROJECT Translation Project and intellectual climate in Russia

Irina Savelieva
Professor of History
Coordinator of the Programs "Translation Project" and "University Library"
by The Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) in 1996-2001


The text was published in the booklet prepared by The Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) in 2001 on the Fifth anniversary of the Translation Project.


A program of such a scope as Translation Project is not only an enormous educational undertaking. Given the present-day disorientation in the humanities and social sciences, the institutional collapse and the decline of professional standards, the Translation Project has become a focus for the unification of the scholarly community and for the formation of a creative intellectual environment. It brings together eminent Russian scholars and schools of thought, publishers of new scholarly journals and the representatives of academic publishing houses. Seminars for participating translators have been held in the framework of the Translation Project. Project participants have already gone beyond the scope of the project's publishing and translation initiatives and have held inter-disciplinary seminars at their own faculties and institutes.

With the help of the intellectual and organizational resources of the Translation Project, the Open Society Institute has implemented the University Library National Project since 1998. Its goal is to create collections of works for libraries of higher educational establishments in order to provide Russian university lecturers and students with translations of the most important works of classical and contemporary foreign specialized literature, necessary for teaching courses in the base disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. University Library Project combines in an organic fashion the support of translation, publishing and higher education (especially in regional higher educational establishments).

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Reading through the list of published works, several aspects of the project become evident. Works in fourteen disciplines are translated ? economics, sociology, history, cultural anthropology, political science, international relations, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, theology, psychology, history of literature, history of art, and law. These are mostly classical or contemporary fundamental works written by well-known authors.

At the same time, certain questions arise when we look at the list. Why were these authors selected and not others? Why are there three works by Heidegger and four by Deleuze? Why are there so many books on philosophy and so few on law? The answers to these (and other) questions become clear when we consider the intellectual environment and the current situation in research and education, which are at the root of both the original project conception and its factual implementation.

Let us begin with the conception. The project idea was born at the Central European University in Budapest. Lists of literature recommended for translation in seven disciplines were compiled there with the help of European specialists; these lists were identical for all post-socialist countries, from Albania to Kyrgyzstan. The lists in each discipline included the most representative works of leading Western authors which had not been translated earlier. Naturally, the Translation Project was adapted in each country depending on the translations already available and the preferences of academics.

Nevertheless, the project remains limited by its original idea and cannot include applied scholarly literature or authors of secondary importance. It does not allow for the publication of anthologies or readers consisting of excerpts of well-known works. Under no circumstances does it permit the support of commercial publications. However, given the fact that OSI subsidies cover the publishing costs only in part and that publishers can choose books freely from the proposed lists and also make their own proposals, the concrete way in which the project is implemented is determined by readers' demand and, correspondingly, by publisher preference.

Considering the traditionally high prestige of scholarly and philosophical knowledge in Russia and considerable achievements in the domain of specialized translations, the project strategy aims at filling various gaps in translated specialized literature. These gaps bear witness in themselves to the almost century-long autarky of Soviet social sciences as well as their ideological nature. Their origin can most easily be described by giving an overview of available translated literature in the humanities and social sciences up to 1996, when the Translation Project was launched. This literature can be divided, roughly speaking, into three parts: the first part, which is very extensive, consists of literature that was translated before the Revolution; the second part of literature translated during the Soviet era; and the third of literature translated during the perestroika.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, not only fundamental specialized works were translated, but also works of secondary importance; moreover, these translations appeared soon after the publication of the original works. Thanks to them, the Soviet reader had at his disposal translated works from antiquity to the early twentieth century. It should be said, however, that these translations were, for the most part, accessible only in libraries and many of them (including Nietzsche and Freud) were kept on special storage.

Translations of the Soviet period were characterized by ideological censorship. Literature predating Marx was the most fortunate. Antique literature was widely translated. For some reason, few works from the Renaissance were translated, in contrast to the Early Modern Period.

Those who were considered part of the "three sources of Marxism" were lucky. These included English economists (along with those who held similar views ? Quesnay, Turgot), German idealist philosophers and French social utopians and philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. However, medieval literature was virtually not translated.

Books that were far removed from ideology (philosophy of science, systemic analysis) had fair chances of being translated, as did "scientific Marxists". However, neo-Marxists were under the ban.

Such an odd picture of translations of literature in the humanities and social sciences was complemented by the inaccessibility of original works, which were kept almost exclusively on special storage in Moscow libraries. The majority of social scientists did not even read the works available on special storage, as life behind the iron curtain did not stimulate the study of foreign languages.

The perestroika made available to the Russian reader a large number of works by Freud, Fromm, Jung and Nietzsche, as well as Braudel, Huizinga, Toynbee, Weber, Mannheim, etc. Western neo-Marxists also began to be translated for the first time. Publishing, including translations of specialized literature, became a lucrative business, at least initially. However, the principal consumers of these works ? intellectuals ? soon found themselves below the poverty line. Libraries and educational establishments also experienced a serious shortage of funds. As a result, the publication of books intended for readers interested in the humanities also became problematic.

Under these circumstances, the idea of a project devoted to publishing foreign literature in the humanities and social sciences was very timely.

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Russian publishers of the intellectual literature were enthusiastic about this idea. However, the first competition in 1996 already made apparent a system of preferences that has virtually remained unchanged to this day. To all intents and purposes, the publishers said "no" to literature on law and international relations. Their reaction made apparent an unmistakable decline of interest in political science, and a new list including works on political theory and political philosophy was needed in order to rekindle their interest somewhat. On the other hand, publishers insisted on the "traditional Russian interest" in linguistics and semiotics, to which the high standing of Russian linguists among their European colleagues bears witness. They also drew attention to theology. Above all, the history of the project shows that Russia is a land of philosophers. More precisely, a land of postmodernists, phenomenologists and specialists of analytic philosophy. This circumstance can most likely be explained by a "national interest" as well as the social background of project participants.

As far as the publication of translations of works in the humanities and social sciences in Russia is concerned, the domain of applied knowledge (textbooks and manuals) is governed by the market and does not call for substantial aid. A lot of textbooks have been translated, especially in the early nineties when lecturers of social science faculties were being retrained.

Fundamental specialized knowledge is another matter. As the list shows, the need for professional knowledge (social science theory) is considerable, which bears witness to a significant professional core in Russian social science, yet it is greatly surpassed by the interest in philosophy of various types (philosophy of man, philosophy of art, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, etc.), which appeals not only to a small class of professionals but also to the layman interested in the humanities and social sciences. This interest is traditionally great in Russia.

The shape which the project has taken was also determined by the fact that when publishers selected books for translation, they took not only the reader into account but also the translator. It would not have been possible to translate so many books were it not for the difficult situation in which Russian specialists in the humanities and social sciences, and, in particular, historians and philosophers, have found themselves. It is their professional interests which determine in large measure the "market of translations".

To a great extent, this also applies to publishers participating in the project. Publishers of literature in the humanities and social sciences in present-day Russia are, for the most part, specialists in these fields (most frequently, philosophers) who earn their living through this type of work and do it in order to be able to pursue their own scientific interests (phenomenology, for example).

In conclusion, let us return to the reader, who is, after all, the protagonist of the story. In Russia, there are more than 60,000 lecturers alone in the humanities and social sciences in higher educational establishments. According to surveys, less than ten percent of them know a foreign language, and only very few of them are able to purchase books of Western authors in the original. The goal of the Translation Project is to create an up-to-date collection of literature in the humanities and social sciences which would be accessible to the widest scholarly, political and social circles of Russian society.