“When I was a student in the 1970s writing was a coveted profession – but at the same time there was something shameful in it. In Moscow and in Leningrad there were quite a number of informal literary clubs and groups whose members actually took pride in the fact that they didn’t want to be published. Those people would ask about a new name: “Is she a poet or a published poet? Is he a writer or a Writers’ Union member?”
That’s why my mother didn’t want me to become a writer. For her and her milieu it definitely wasn’t aclean profession.
But literary translation was.
Stalin’s directorship of the writing world was awful for Russian literature, which quickly lost all of its previous greatness, but it proved to be a blessing for literary translation.
When authors of talent, even of genius, were not allowed to publish their works or were afraid to write the way they wanted – they turned to translation. Boris Pasternak was secretly writing his “Doctor Zhivago” while surviving on translations of Shakespeare, Keats or Schiller; Anna Akhmatova, banned from publishing her own poems, earned her living by translating Chinese and Korean classics; Mikhail Zoschenko had to translate Finnish prose and he did it brilliantly. That’s what almost all the big guns did – they translated other authors’ works. As a result the school of Soviet translation rose to an incredible height. It had its own stars, even cult figures. A literary translator, even if he was a member of the despised Writers’ Union, was welcome in any underground literary club, even the most snobbish of them.
And still it was less clean than medicine. Here my mother was right again. The rose of literary translation was not without its thorns.”