From Russia with Marshak…

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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.



Burns in the USSR

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The third in our series of guest blog posts written by Glasgow University students examines Burns’s influence on the USSR.

The works of Robert Burns have been translated most frequently into Russian and Eastern European languages. In the era of the Soviet Union, Burns was promoted as the ‘people’s poet’ and was taught in USSR classrooms alongside their own national poets. Although the Soviet Regime was known to be slaughtering and silencing its own contemporary poets, Burns’s reputation endured. In fact, in 1965 the USSR was the first country in the world to honour Burns’s memory with a postage stamp, one of which is on display in the museum.

During 19th Century Imperial times when Russia was still ruled by the Tsar, intellectuals were so out-of-touch with the realities of peasant life that translations of Burns became representative of the common man. His empathy with the poor and oppressed, and his sympathies for revolutionary causes held mass appeal amongst middle-class circles, and his work also proved extremely popular amongst the ordinary Russian people.


To discover the reasons why, we must first look to Samuil Marshak’s translation of Burns which is housed in the museum. Marshak studied at the University of London but in 1914, just three years before the collapse of the Tsardom, he moved back to Russia and fully devoted himself to the art of translation. He began his translated version of the complete works of Robert Burns in the same year and published it by 1924. However, due to restrictions in the translation process in Imperial Russia, Burns’s poetic sensibilities have been vastly misinterpreted by the readers of Marshak’s translation, which not only sold 600,000 copies after its first publication, but was also a frequent bestseller throughout the 20th century. However, due to ideological restrictions within the arts during the tsarist regime, Marshak’s translations and adaptations do not bear much resemblance to Burns’s original poetry. An artist, or in Marshak’s case a translator, was not allowed to criticise the monarchy nor show any sympathy for revolutionary causes in their works. Marshak also tended to over-stress the ideas of religious resignation, duty, and dignity, and so due to the overwhelming popularity of his translations, aspects of Burns’s work alluding to any of the above themes have either been completely ignored or gravely misunderstood in Russia and beyond. That is not to say that Marshak’s translations do not hold any literary value, for in fact their quality is quite exceptional.


In the height of the Soviet Regime, Burns’s works were continually republished and new versions written – the USSR was very particular about which literature was appropriate. Soviet readers were living in a literary bubble, isolated from international readers. Translations of such poems as ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ and ‘Love and Liberty’ were hailed as examples of Burns’s empathy with the poor, his democratic spirit and his connection with the worker, peasant, and beggar – the USSR was keen to elevate his desire for equality and democracy for the people.

Many aspects of Burns’s biography which are common knowledge amongst the former USSR are quite simply not true and, like his poetry, have been intercepted by ideology. For example, when the USSR started to reject churches as independent organisations, Burns was presented to the public as being anti-Christian. Biographers put uncommon and often untrue emphasis on his role as a victim of the upper classes, as a suffering alcoholic brought on by the observation of the unjust treatment of the poor, and as a wholesome, smiley family man who married once and adored his wife. His biography was both made up and emphasised in equal measure in order to bring his image closer to that of the common man.

And so we can observe how ideology has intercepted and interfered with the memorialisation of Burns in Russia and in ex-Soviet states. Although his work is still extremely popular, more efforts need to be made to separate his work and biography from pre-Soviet and Soviet ideologies.

By Kirsty Macqueen

The Literary Landscape in Russian Art

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A portrait of Alexander Pushkin and Robert Burns side by side
Alexander Pushkin and Robert Burns

On the evening of Thursday 9th October, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum unveiled its latest temporary exhibition. Conceived jointly by RBBM’s former Director Nat Edwards and the State-Museum Reserve of A.S Pushkin, ‘The Literary Landscape in Russian Art’ is an exhibition of 38 landscape paintings and original fine art prints by Russian artists who drew on the same landscapes that inspired the writing of the famous Russian poet and author Alexander Pushkin. The works span the decades from the early 20th to the early 21st century, and are on loan to RBBM from the State Memorial Historical-Literary and Natural-Landscape Museum-Reserve of Alexander Pushkin in Mikhailovskoye (Mi-kale-ovshka) as part of the Cross-Cultural Year of Great Britain and Russia.

A picture of a windmill, one of the artworks in the exhibition.
One of the artworks on display in the exhibition

Many may wonder what connects these two historical figures beyond their shared literary prowess. Although Pushkin and Burns were not quite contemporaries, the Russian was born in 1799 just a few years after the death of our Bard. Both men wrote their first poem at the age of fifteen, both were Freemasons and both died at the tragically young age of 37. They are considered to be Romantic poets, with a strong focus on nature, as well as being humanitarians and believers in equality, and both sailed close to the wind with some of their political works, sparking governmental disapproval and even censorship in the case of Pushkin. Finally, both writers had a significant impact on the literary culture of their respective countries and beyond.

Just some of the people who helped put together the exhibition

Born in Moscow into nobility, Pushkin went on to produce many works, including his most famous play Boris Godunov and his novel in verse Eugene Onegin, later the inspiration for an opera by noted Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The unusual rhyme scheme used in this work has been termed the ‘Onegin Stanza’ or the ‘Pushkin Sonnet’, paralleling the Standard Habbie verse preferred by Robert Burns and often called the ‘Burns Stanza’, which showcases the respective literary influence of these two great writers.

There is also a long standing link between Robert Burns and Russia, and arguably Russian interest in our Bard was initiated by Pushkin, who was himself an admirer of Burns’s work. Translations of Burns’s works into Russian by a series of notable translators, particularly Samuil Marshak (1887-1964) also helped popularise his works in Russia, and in 1956 the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to feature Burns on a postage stamp.

Postage stamp featuring Robert Burns
Postage stamp featuring Robert Burns

The exhibition will be running at the museum until February and entry is free. We hope you will be able to pay us a visit, and take advantage of this rare opportunity to see these artworks outside of their native country. Why not let us know your favourite in the comments section?

Gifts were exchanged on both sides, including four homemade clootie scones from RBBM’s cafe!

With thanks to: Georgy Vasilevich (Director of the Pushkin Museum), Alyona Boitsova, Vyacheslav Kozmin, Darya Plotnikova, Olga Sandalyuk, Tatiana Morozova, Pavel Tereschenko, Nat Edwards, David Hopes, Chris Waddell, Sean McGlashan and Gavin Pettigrew for all their work in organizing this fantastic exhibition.