Nikolai Avksentiev
Nikolai Avksentiev

My project was translating several articles written by a Russian socialist, Nikolai Avksentiev, during the First World War. Starting the translation was a daunting experience. Initially, a desire for accuracy and a fear of changing the source text too much led to a translation that was at times clumsy, stiff, unclear, and not quite right. In some of the passages, the problem stemmed from the authorial style. More often, however, the problem arose because what the author wrote can only be perfectly expressed in Russian. I had to move away from treating translation as the mechanical process of moving from one language to another, as I’ve quickly learned that Russian and English have different sentence structures. If I truly wanted to translate Avksentiv into English, I would have to accept my role as an unintended co-creator. This is not to say that I did not have that role during the early phases of my translation, because I certainly did. I just did not accept it. I wanted to remain objective, distant from the text, even though the nature of Avksentiev’s writing and the act of translation made it impossible. Avksentiev was not neutral in his writing, so any translation I wrote would not be neutral either.

Avksentiev’s perspective and priorities affect the way he writes about the war. Avksentiev was not writing for a mainstream audience. His articles were written for Prizyv (Appeal), a Russian-language socialist magazine published in Paris. Avksentiev believed that the Allies had to win the war to preserve democracy in Europe against German imperialism, but his articles rarely focused on the specific occurrences on the battlefield. Instead, he was preoccupied with the disagreements within the socialist movement on what course it should take during the war. On both sides of the conflict, the majority of socialists supported the war effort of their home country and a minority promoted neutrality, arguing that any support for the war meant supporting imperialism. Avksentiev, however, considered the conflict between socialists from a different angle. All of his articles were a part of a larger effort to persuade his fellow socialists, especially those on the side of the Allies, of two things. The first is that an action cannot be judged without looking at the context around it. A socialist who supported the German war effort and one who supported the French war effort were not equivalent, since Germany was invading France, while France was defending its borders. Based on this foundation, Avksentiev then concluded that the socialists who supported the Allies were promoting the future of democracy and socialism, while those who supported neutrality or the Central Powers were aiding imperialism by not opposing the ongoing German military expansion. 

The experience of translating a series of articles written with a specific goal in mind has taught me a lot. Translation, especially one that deals with a historical source, assumes a greater responsibility than simply reflecting the meaning of what was written. It also has to address the context of the original text and thus help the reader understand the purpose of the writing. To achieve this, the translator may have to step out of the shadow of the original author. We might have to provide additional information to put our reader on equal footing as the target reader of the original text, a person who, by virtue of being a contemporary, could step into the mind of the author far more easily. Of course, we might decide that the reader will best find the purpose of the text without interference. We might decide to limit our footnotes, to step back, and give the reader more space to decide what the author was thinking. After all, not every reader of Avksentiev’s articles would have known every name and every conference he mentioned. At first glance, this laissez-faire approach appears to be more honest. After all, the more context the translator provides, the more they influence the way the reader understands the text and the author. For example, one of the people Avksentiev cites is Grigory Gershuni, a fellow leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Gershuni was also a terrorist who had planned assassinations of several Russian officials. Avksentiev did not mention the latter in his writings, but my short footnote does. Was including this in my footnote the right choice? How much information on Gershuni would be sufficient? Avksentiev knew him personally. I am sure that, if he had to describe Gershuni, he would go beyond what I’ve written. Perhaps Avksentiev would argue that both Gershuni in imperial Russia and the French soldiers on the battlefield were using violence for the sake of democracy and freedom. I do not know. Still, I am certain that giving the reader no information on Gershuni would not have been a neutral action either. 

Adding context to the translation means shaping the way the reader understands it and risks imposing your reading over the author’s intention. At the same time, I would argue that leaving translation without context can do something equally misleading: to take a historical text purely on its own often means losing a lot of the meaning behind it. As part of my research for Professor Brenneis, I read and analyzed articles from the Spanish newspaper Arriba. If I were to translate articles from Arriba, I would not consider leaving them without my commentary a neutral choice. Arriba was the Franco regime’s newspaper in Spain. Its role as a source of propaganda informed a lot of what appeared on its pages. Articles published in it were a part of a broad goal to legitimize Franco’s dictatorship and to condemn and marginalize its rivals. Its audience would have known that, although each reader would still have to make their own decisions on how much to trust what was written in the newspaper’s pages. I do not see providing that context to a modern reader as an imposition of my interpretation. Instead, I consider the context an additional tool to help the reader understand the source, exercise their agency, and come to their own conclusion about the text.

As translators, we have a duty not to distort the meaning of the original text for our own ends. A part of this duty is to acknowledge that translation has power and influence that cannot be removed by being faithful to the source. If we were completely faithful, we would not be translating it at all. My Avksentiev is not the original Avksentiev. A translation, especially a historical one, has to grapple with the distance it creates. That distance may paint the text in a new light. It may obscure its original intent. The art of translation is, in a sense, about grappling with that distance. It is up to each translator to decide when to stop filling in the blanks, and this decision is never truly objective. I have made my decision. My translation is imperfect, but it is mine. 

Image courtesy Nikolai Avksentiev Papers Archive, Amherst Center for Russian Culture

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