Translating Russophone poetry of resistance into English

A poetry translation symposium organized by Kevin M.F. Platt of the School of Arts & Sciences and colleagues, in partnership with PEN America, brought a group of Russian-language poets and American translators and scholars together in Armenia last fall.

People sit around a table looking at laptops.
A group of Russophone poets and translators collaborate to translate poems from Russian into English in Yerevan, Armenia, last fall. (Image: Courtesy of Narek Dallakyan and PEN America)

Gathering in an Armenian hotel perched on the edge of a ravine overlooking a Soviet-era football stadium, a group of Russian-language poets and American translators and scholars came together last fall to participate in a poetry translation symposium.

In the wake of the pandemic and in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the workshop in Yerevan functioned as more than a way to share Russian-language—or Russophone—poetry with English readers, as well as with Armenian audiences. The goal was to build bridges, to make Russophone voices opposed to war and oppression heard in English and other languages in order to create solidarity among those who speak out and struggle for peace, freedom, and justice.

Kevin M.F. Platt, a professor of Russian and East European studies at Penn, has directed the Russian-American poetry translation symposium “Your Language, My Ear” periodically since 2009, including three times on Penn’s campus.

This year’s translation event was split into two parts. The first, held last fall, was a symposium with Russian language poetry being translated into English and Armenian. 

The second part will take place in June, again in Armenia, with a group of English-language poets and Russian and Armenian translators.

Penn partnered with PEN America, PEN Armenia, and Columbia University to bring seven poets and 10 translators—which included Platt, assistant professor D. Brian Kim and two Penn graduate students—to the event, with the goal to engage in collective creative work, to educate each other about the power of language to resist injustice, and to bring people together to work for a better future. Students and faculty of the Yerevan State University translated the work of the participating Russophone poets into Armenian. Platt’s main partners in bringing the event to life included Polina Sadovskaya of PEN America and Armen Ohanyan, the president of PEN Armenia. 

Some of the translations into English resulting from the symposium have been published in World Literature Today this month in a special issue that Platt co-edited with Mark Lipovetsky from Columbia.

“Freedom of expression is one of the most important fronts in connection with this war,” Platt says. “The Putin regime is predicated on feeding lies and misinformation to its population and limiting the access of the Russian population to other voices and to oppositional views.”

The war in Ukraine was launched on nationalist pretensions, and the rhetoric around the war from the Kremlin denies the existence of an independent Ukraine. The reaction that that has provoked across the world is one of disgust and rejection of Russia, which Platt notes often reduces to a disgust and rejection of Russian speakers and anything associated with the word Russian or with Russian culture. 

But, he says, “Russian language and expression in the Russian language is not the equivalent of support for this war or identification with the Russian Federation. In fact, there are very many people throughout the Russophone world, inside and out of Russia, who are opposed to this war and are making their voices heard.” 

Translating texts and transforming thoughts

D. Brian Kim, assistant professor in the department of Russian and East European studies, specializes in 19th century Russian literature and culture and came to the event having attended one on Penn’s campus in 2019.

People sit around a table with a bowl of fresh fruit in front of a sign reading Your language my ear.
Working on translations are (left to right) poet Igor Gulin, Penn Professor Kevin M.F. Platt (obscured), doctoral student in Penn’s Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Program Hilah Kohen, poet Ruthie Jenrbekova and Veniamin Gushchin of Columbia University. (Image: Courtesy of Narek Dallakyan and PEN America)

After arriving in Yerevan, Kim says the translators and poets divided into small groups and had several work sessions each day, having signed up in advance to do initial translations on a number of poems. They would choose a poem to work on collaboratively and the original translator would be part of the group, as well as the poet who wrote the piece. Translators went line by line, word by word through each poem, reading parts out loud, comparing the Russian to the English, and taking feedback. 

“It was very direct and in-the-moment, talking about one word versus another synonym, not just the meanings of the words themselves but also what sort of nuances they bring in the context of the line and in the context of the whole poem,” Kim says. “If we ever got stuck on anything, which did happen quite often, it was very lucky that we had the original poets right there with us. So, we could just ask them, ‘What exactly did you mean by this phrase?’”

For Kim, one of the most memorable parts of the event were the readings of the work that they translated together, he says.

“These were really magical because we got to see the poets in their element, presenting and declaiming their own poetry,” he says. “It was also very cool to read our translations of that poem, and everyone would be able to see in the moment how the poem traveled from one language to the other.”

The work that they do as poets and translators has always had value, but it attains a different sort of value in the current geopolitical climate, he says.

“Events like this can remind us that there are people on both sides—humans, artists, writers, scholars, translators—who are caught in between the geopolitical mess,” Kim says. “This work highlights the connections that can exist between our communities in a time when the divisions between them are very stark and very ominous.”

Timmy Straw, a doctoral student in Penn’s Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Program with particular interest in questions of translation and poetics, says they found the experience in Yerevan “sort of dreamlike.” 

The group convened in Yerevan a few weeks after the mobilization in Russia, that sent Russians streaming into the country to try to avoid being called up. 

“That atmosphere was very much present on the street, literally. Then the poets who had come in from not only Russia but Austria, Germany, and other places, were themselves reverberating with all of the events of the last eight months. The conversations were often quite intense and very particular to that time,” Straw says. “Being privy to that was powerful.” 

Having worked on rough translations in advance gave them blueprints to work with and they could hone those poems in conversation with the poet in a rewarding back-and-forth exchange, Straw says.

“I used to be primarily a musician, and this reminded me more than anything of being in a band, where there’s a kind of improvisatory responsiveness to the thinking of other translators and to the poet,” Straw says. “You might come in with this rigid idea about the poem, and there’s this kind of playfulness and reciprocity that was an incredible experience.” 

Some of the more memorable moments for Straw where during the final days.

“There were a few moments of breakthroughs with specific poems that felt like the words fell into such a place that you could feel the poem becoming a poem in English and not just in translation,” they say. 

Poets’ expectations and revelations

Igor Gulin is a poet, writer, critic, and essayist based in Moscow. He works as a cultural reviewer for Kommersant-Weekend. He is also the editor and cofounder of the Nosorog literary magazine and is an independent researcher working in the field of late Soviet culture.

Kevin Platt holds a laptop on a staircase, reading something from it, while poet Dinara Rasuleva stands higher up on the staircase behind him.
Kevin M. F. Platt, a professor of Russian and East European studies at Penn, reads the translation of a poem by Dinara Rasuleva (left) at a group poetry reading at the Sergei Paradjanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia. (Image: Courtesy of Narek Dallakyan and PEN America)

“I thought it would be a conference, but it was much closer to a workshop,” says Gulin. He says he found it interesting to work on his own texts and the feeling that the translators were reinventing them. He submitted poems that were several years old, so he says he felt like he was being reintroduced to them and seeing them in a new light.

Watching the translation process and making new American friends was a particular benefit, he says. It also created a sense of purpose and that his work was important and had meaning, something the war had taken away. 

Although the topic of the war was present, it didn’t overtake the event Gulin says. “It was a nice way to bridge these two cultures and languages and to make a connection in this time when things are politically so tense,” he says.

Poet Ruthie Jenrbekova was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at the time when it was a Soviet republic. She now splits her time between Vienna and Almaty. She graduated from Kazakh State University as an ecologist. Since 1997, she has been involved in various literary, artistic, and curatorial activities.

Jenrbekova says she found it valuable working with professional translators, seeing how the work is done. She also says connecting in person with other poets and scholars is inspiring, and not just because of the pandemic. Because the Russophone world is so spread out, many discussions happen over Zoom, she says.

“We rarely get to actually see people from other countries, from other continents,” she says. “That’s why this experience was important and was especially valuable.” Growing up in Kazakhstan, she says, she always felt lumped into the category of being Russian due to the language she spoke.

“After 2014, when Crimea was annexed, that’s when something changed, and people started to separate Russian speaking from Russian,” says Jenrbekova. She says at the time she remembers a discussion about the word Russophone and how it was crucial to begin separating Russian as an identity for those who speak the language. 

Berlin-based poet Dinara Rasuleva was born in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia, in the late 1980s. For the first six years of their life, Rasuleva spoke only in their native Tatar language and now they write predominantly in Russian, mixing it with Tatar, English, and German, languages Rasuleva uses every day in Berlin. They now organize poetry slams and festivals in Berlin and travel around the world performing mostly for Russian-speaking immigrants. 

During the symposium Rasuleva also worked as a translator and says they were fascinated by that process. “It was like sitting inside of these poems, inside of this art, when you were discussing it.”

Rasuleva says they found the experience very emotional. “On my way home to Berlin in the airport, I was so inspired I was crying but not a sad cry, just overwhelmed with inspiration.” 

Poetry as power

Platt says that within Russophone culture poetry has an extraordinarily high level of authority. It is a more important medium of expression, and much more central to cultural life, than it is in the English language and culture.

“Poetry is, in some sense, the freest medium of expression,” he says, especially in Russian language and cultural space. “It’s the place where the heavy hand of the state, which is often wrapped in the heavy hand of money in Russia, is least powerful.” 

Poetry is also easy to disseminate says Platt. “It's compact,” he says. “It takes time to write a novel, and we’re going to see anti-war novels appearing probably in the course of this year in Russian, and they will need to be translated. That also takes time. But poetry is quick.” 

“Poetry’s hand may be light,” says Platt, “but it wields power of a different sort.”