September 30, 2015

Translator's Note: Bulat Okudzhava

Translator's Note: Bulat Okudzhava

Today, September 30, is the International Day of the Translator. To honor translators and the various ways they give us access to other cultures, we present the beginning of and editor’s foreword to a 2002 volume on translating Bulat Okudzhava, a beloved songwriter of the Soviet period.

Okudzhava is mostly remembered for his simple, melodic songs – his own poetry set to music – but he thought of himself primarily as a poet and writer. His poetry was consistently apolitical and spoke to general human themes, which was construed as an implicit challenge to the aggressive politicization of life under Soviet rule. However, in the view of this editor, Okudzhava’s penchant for writing on themes that were common to all people, regardless of their politics, guaranteed him a place of esteem in world literature.


Bulat Okudzhava and the World


The fate of works by Russian writers, once published abroad, has been varied. While Dostoyevsky’s novels have become guides to the mysteries of the human soul for readers around the world, Pushkin’s poetry was and is translated primarily as a result of his status as national classic. A writer’s standing in national and translated literature does not always match. This fact does not negatively reflect on any given author in the literature of their people. It merely characterizes the uniqueness of their talent, in one way or another, and bears witness to a greater or lesser orientation of the works toward national or international, human themes. Translations into other languages are a litmus test to establish the author’s place not so much in national literature, as much as in world literature.


In Russian literature, Bulat Okudzhava’s place has already been defined. His poetry is a classic of the second half of the twentieth century. His novels and short stories are examples of excellent prose, worthy of carrying on the rich traditions of classic Russian literature.


Bulat Okudzhava’s fame in world literature has also been established. The translated literature of the world is incomplete without the prose and poetry of Okudzhava. His poems and works of prose have been translated into dozens of languages, and are known and loved all over the world. Researchers and translators of Okuzhava’s poetry and prose have gathered twice for international scientific conferences in Peredelkino (1999 and 2001), during which speakers particularly stressed the demand for Okudzhava’s works abroad. As pointed out by Marburg professor Barbara Karhoff at the conference in 1999, “Russians could not have wished for a better intermediary between Russian and other cultures than Bulat Okudzhava.” An emphatic affirmation of the worldwide spread of Bulat Okudzhava’s poetry was the First International Festival “Everyone Sings Bulat’s Verses…” held in Moscow in 2001, where his songs were performed in more than ten languages.

Want to dig into some Okudzhava? Check out issue 31 of Chtenia, Okudzhava Bilingual, presenting some of the poet's finest prose and verse, side by side in English and Russian.

Read also: last year’s post in honor of the International Day of the Translator, featuring Boris Pasternak’s reflections on translation! Also, read about St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators.

Source: Чайковский, Р.Р. «Булат Окуджава и мир: предисловие редактора» Булат Окуджава. Перевод и переводчики. Вып. 3. Магадан: «Кордис», 2002. 3-4.

Translation by Eugenia Sokolskaya

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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