From Russia with Marshak…

Posted on

This blog post on Russian translator Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak was written by Visitor Services Assistant Jim Andrews.

  Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak


I think it would be true to say that the majority of non-English-speakers who have delved into the works of Robert Burns will have done so through translations. Our Russian-speaking guests will be familiar with the work of Robert Burns through the translations of Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak. I have met Russian visitors who had come to us carrying a copy of Marshak’s translations. I first came across Marshak at secondary school: our Russian teacher, a Burns enthusiast, thought it might be fun to have us learn “Scots Wha Hae” in Russian. As I recall, we did not share his notion of fun.

Usually translators, however talented they may be at what they do, remain in the shadow of the original authors. Not so with Marshak. In Russia he is certainly more famous than our Robert Burns. He is an author in his own right, best known for his children’s literature. As a translator, he has provided Russian-speakers with access to a vast swathe of English literature, from Shakespeare’s sonnets, through the Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries (as well as Burns, he translated Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth among others), and on to the works of Rudyard Kipling and A. A. Milne. His translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets are widely considered to be virtual classics of Russian literature in their own right.

His life story is every bit as interesting as Burns’s, though very different. He lived through the Russian Revolution and the Stalin era. Being a Jew in Russia at that time could have been a problem for Marshak. However, his prodigious talent was recognised and he eventually became head of the children’s branch of the Soviet state publishing house. And, along with our Robert Burns, he shares the distinction of having had his face appear on Soviet postage stamps.

Unfortunately some things can get “lost in translation”. Inevitably the flavours of the Scottish dialect are lost, as Marshak quite understandably used standard literary Russian. However, there is another aspect of Marshak’s work which has to be taken into account. In the Soviet Union writers did not have the freedom to write whatever they wanted: the Soviet government imposed a doctrine of “socialist realism” for all forms of artistic endeavour. This also covered translations of foreign authors, whose works either had to conform to this doctrine or could be “adjusted” to conform. Burns fell into the latter category and it has to be admitted that Marshak did some adjusting. Soviet ideology did not tolerate religion of any kind and all references to religion were purged or altered, making Burns seem humanist, even anti-clerical. Burns’s Scottish patriotism was watered down and his egalitarian ideals were emphasised. Essentially the Soviet reader of Marshak’s translations had to see communist ideology reflected in Robert Burns’s work, whether Burns would have liked it or not. Nonetheless, his translations earned him recognition here in Scotland: in 1960 he was made an honorary president of the Robert Burns World Federation.

                  A translation by Marshak

Of course, the Soviet Union is no more. Although a translator working today would provide a quite different, perhaps more authentic interpretation of Burns, Marshak’s translations are actually of an extremely high literary quality and remain the definitive translations (though not the only ones – some earlier translations were done during the tsarist era and they also were adjusted to make them politically correct, though in rather different ways). Burns remains a popular literary figure in Russia, but today’s visitor from Russia still sees Burns through very different eyes.