Nationalism in translation
Sarah J. Young’s top ten letters in Russian literature has four solid entries from the nineteenth century (Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevskii) and six from the twentieth, some of which were new to me. The letter from Babel’s Red Cavalry is really something – full of not only “mangled Bolshevik jargon” but a little of everything: formulas from fairy tales, general dry bureaucratese, Biblical language (if повернуть речку обратно counts), and vulgar soldierly expressions that belong anywhere but in a formal letter, but stand beside phrases that are there only because they sound like something that should be written down. Lines like “опишу вам только за то, что мои глаза собственноручно видели” (something like “I will only describe about what my eyes saw with their own hands”) would be funny, but the subject matter is so grim we can’t decide whether to smile. The story told in the letter is violent and, as SJY says, the narrator’s attitude toward the violence is casual; the fact that this isn’t a story around a campfire or a diary entry or a letter home, but instead a formal letter to an editor, adds a layer of horror. Well into the twenty-first century I’ve heard arguments that disclaim Russian responsibility for Soviet crimes by pointing out that early Bolsheviks were Jews or Georgians or otherwise not ethnic Russians. It’s not surprising to see that that line of thought goes all the way back: the woman in the story accuses the soldiers of not being for Russia, but of only “trying to save those kikes Lenin and Trotskii.”
If there’s one thing a top ten list does, it’s make people want to add to it. So here’s my candidate for an honorable mention among the memorable letters of Russian literature:
Nekrasov, “From the Poem Mother” (Из поэмы “Мать,” early 1850s-1877). The poet finds a letter written partly in Polish, partly in French, that turns out to have been sent from his grandmother in Warsaw to his mother in Russia in 1824. He hates the letter as a source of suffering for his late mother, but since the poet retrospectively and the poet’s grandmother prophetically mourn how much his mother suffers with her Russian husband, the reader is led to be sympathetic to the letter’s contents. On rereading, the individual lines are frankly not as striking as I remembered, but the entire piece is remarkable for having an anti-Russian and Polish nationalist position expressed in Russian:
В последний раз, как мать тебя целую —
Я поощрять беглянку не должна;
Решай сама, бери судьбу любую:
Вернись в семью, будь родине верна —
Или, отцом навеки проклятая
И навсегда потерянная мной,
Останься там отступницею края
И москаля презренною рабой.
(For the last time, I kiss you as a mother – I should not encourage a runaway; decide for yourself, choose any fate: come back to your family, be true to your homeland – or, cursed by your father and lost to me forever, stay there as an apostate to your country and the despicable slave of a moskal.)
That last word is one of those sociolinguistically hard-to-translate ones – any pejorative terms for Russians I know in English would have an out-of-place Cold War feel.