On Translation

Yelena Kalinsky's picture

A guest post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

by Victoria Smolkin, associate professor of history, Wesleyan University

Victoria Smolkin’s first scholarly monograph, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism was published by Princeton University Press in 2018 and in Russian translation by the Russian publishing house New Literary Observer this year. We asked her to reflect on the process of writing with Anglophone and Russophone audiences in mind.

​​Perhaps because the research for this book developed in conversation with the story’s protagonists—through traditional sources like archival reports and meeting transcripts, as well as my own interviews, decades later, with some of the same actors that feature in these archives—I always hoped the book would find a Russophone readership. However, this was not the audience of the original publication, in which I was always mindful to contextualize and frame the story with an Anglophone reader in mind. To an Anglophone reader, the history of Soviet atheism might seem a niche topic, to say the least, and I felt it was important from the outset to highlight the historical stakes in a way that would be more readily accessible to this audience. This context informed a number of choices, especially in the introduction—for example, the decision to begin the story with a familiar figure, Mikhail Gorbachev, at a familiar moment, the end of the Cold War, as well as to rely on the Cold War more robustly in the introduction than the rest of the book. My point was to present the reader with the “godless communist,” a familiar propaganda trope of the Cold War, and then gradually peel back the layers of this stereotype over the course of the next seven chapters, so that this figure becomes more three-dimensional: complex, nuanced, ordinary, human.

I knew early in the process that I would eventually like to do a translation, but I did not think I would do one right away. In retrospect, I think it was my encounter with Anglophone readers, following the publication of the book in 2018, that pushed me to pursue the translation so quickly. Ironically, presenting the book to an Anglophone audience required its own laborious “translation” of the historical material, which to many readers was unfamiliar and even exotic. However, once it had been published in English, I wanted to see how the book read in its “native habitat,” where several generations of people actually encountered and experienced Soviet atheist work. I was thrilled when the Russian publishing house, New Literary Observer, took on the project and set to work on the translation not long after the book’s publication.

I saw my work for the Russian edition to be, in a sense, restoration rather than translation...

I saw my work for the Russian edition to be, in a sense, restoration rather than translation (since the book had a terrific translator, Olga Leontieva). Of course, I reviewed the translation, which involved restoring some aspects of the argument, as well as stylistic elements of my own voice. But more significantly, I had to restore the Russian original of all the archival sources that I had translated into English for the Princeton publication. This was a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process, since it required tracking down notes and copies and transcriptions of documents that I had collected over the course of ten years in at least fifteen archives in four countries. These materials were spread across a dozen hand-written notebooks; numerous laptops and external hard drives (some of which had naturally crashed along the way); and various digital “cloud” databases I had created to keep track of the source base as it expanded. 

This search took over a year, and—I’ll just put it this way—never have I ever wished that I were a more organized and fastidious researcher. If, for example, I had kept a database of the Russian original of all the passages and quotations that I translated into English, it would have been the greatest gift to my future self. But sometimes—and especially with a first book, which is often written against the clock—you have to charge ahead with the writing, rather than get caught in endless organization that can itself become a form of procrastination. At the end of the day, the greatest, most meticulous and expertly organized archive or database in the world is not a book and will not be read by anyone other than the historian. Ultimately, I see myself as a writer, and my work is to transform the sources into a story. That being said: lesson learned!

Dr. Victoria Smolkin is associate professor of history and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. A scholar of Russia and the former Soviet Union, her work focuses on Communism, the Cold War, and the intersections of politics with religion and ideology. Smolkin’s first book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton University Press, 2018; in paperback 2019), explores the meaning of atheism for religion, ideology, and politics in the USSR, and and was a finalist for the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences. A Russian translation came out in 2021 with the publisher New Literary Observer, and was long listed for the Alexander Piatigorsky Literary Prize in Russia. Her book has been widely reviewed in both academic and press publications, including American Historical Review, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Political Theology, Slavic Review, H-Diplo, Times Literary Supplement, Commentary, The Telegraph, Foreign Affairs, and Religion and Politics. She is currently at work on a number of projects: “The Crusade Against Godlessness: Religion, Communism, and the Cold War Order”; “The Wall of Memory: Life, Death, and the Impossibility of History”; and “The World of Tomorrow: Cosmism, Communism, and the Fate of Utopia.” 

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