Empirical translation history: Tripping over Ukraine’s Executed
A paper written to be presented at the conference Translation Studies in Ukraine at
Univerzity Mateja Bela, Banská-Bystrica, Slovakia, on May 13, 2022. (But the actual talk
went hopelessly off-script.)
I write historiography as if it were a crime investigation: something is wrong; we seek clues
and fit them together. Such is an incremental approach to the rhizomatic, as opposed to facile
assumptions of systems, complexity, hegemony, languages, or nations, all of which certainly
exist but are to be encountered in the historiographical process.
The case of the stolen translation solution types
My initial mission was to discover how similar typologies of translation solutions were
produced in Montreal and Beijing at the same time and were published in the same year, in
1958. So I was tracing the history of limited-term typologies, a particular idea for a histoire
des idées or concept for Begriffsgeschichte. All of this in Pym (2016).
The Chinese led back to Russian, specifically to the Saint Petersburg Germanist Fedorov,
who had been translated into Chinese. Then I went back to Fedorov’s earlier works, in search
Something was wrong. A 1927 paper by Fedorov stood out like a sore thumb in its analysis of
how verse forms can be translated:
Translation is not the reproduction of a work but the creation of something
new – according to a model which gives rise to varying interpretation, a model
which is not uniform but multifaceted. It is impossible to equate the two
systems – translation and original – and not only because they are essentially
unequal but also because we do not know the most equatable quantities. (Fedorov
Where had that come from? The grand general claims are like fellow Formalists but some of
it also sounds like Benjamin (1923), but that possible history remains nebulous. And then,
where did it lead after publication?
Where to look?
The latter question is actually the more interesting, since this same Fedorov was (and still is)
regularly denounced by Russian translation scholars as a proffering a restrictive formalist-
linguistic approach to translation, to be opposed to the literary approach of Ivan Kashkin, an
opposition that might be dated from the 1954 Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers.
Thanks to that enormous bifurcation, tracing the ripples of that 1927 paper is not easy in
Russian. For some time, it remained a minor dead-end in my to-do list.
Then I came across Oleksandr Kal’nychenko’s 2011 article on “The Ukrainian History of
Translation in the 1920s”. There I found mention of a 1927 paper by Derzhavyn, who was in
part responding to Fedorov’s paper published in the same year, 1927. And some of that
discussion concerned the way that translation solution types can be categorized, which was
actually the problem that most excited me at the time (not that it provides much excitement to
anyone else these days):
A human language performs simultaneously (but in every particular case to various
extents) three functions: communicative, cognitive and artistic, which are not
predisposed to translation in the same degree. (Derzhavyn1927, 44)
Then around Derzhavyn, a short list of other names were involved in the same general
discussion. But those names, I discovered, were writing about translation into Ukrainian, and
were (sometimes?) writing in Ukrainian. “Nune,” I cried to my immediate guide to things
eastern, “please help me with this.” “I can’t,” she replied. “It’s not Russian.” Thus one runs
up against the unexpected; one can only apologize for former ignorance.
So I wrote to Oleksandr Kal’nychenko. He very generously sent me a multi-page letter full of
details and references, leading me in particular to the work of Oleksandr Finkel’, who worked
very directly on the problem of solution types. This was getting somewhere!
Soon I had a small, specific field of exchange and debate from 1927 to 1929, where
Tynyanov, Fedorov, Derzhavyn and Finkel’ were all publishing on translation, to some extent
bouncing not just off each other but also across two languages: Russian and Ukrainian.
Given the languages, much of that moment still remains obscure to me. That is why I am
extremely grateful that Oleksandr Kal’nychenko is with us here today, that he and other
experts have been able to present further details of that history, and that Brian Baer has talked
about the work of Oleksandr Finkel’. A hidden history is being made better known.
Tripping over what looked like a blank space
I gradually discovered what we now all know. Work on translation into Ukrainian was part
and parcel of the language asserting national status – the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
was founded in 1918; Ukrainian was taught in schools; it was the language of operas
performed in Kiev from 1926. Literary translation into that language assumed a social
mission, building up a national literature. A national movement can stimulate work on
I also discovered that the space of Ukrainian translation studies disappeared abruptly in
1932–3, when Stalinist ideology imposed Russian language and the proponents of Ukrainian
cultural independence were sent to gulags or were otherwise silenced: Ukrainians call this the
period of their ‘Executed Renaissance’, rozstriliane vidrodzhennia). Their place in the
development of translation studies more or less disappeared from the official accounts written
So must we be on one side only?
To revisit that history is not to denigrate Russian scholars at all. Just this January I was
working with the Russian Association of Translation Teachers, and I am always happy to
discuss translation with anyone who share that scholarly interest.
And to revisit that history does not, for me, involve axiomatic praise for any particular
national independence. What I want to retain is the international dimension of that discussion
from 1927, not only between Russian and Ukrainian but also with the sources that the
scholars were drawing on from other European languages, particularly French and German.
The Ukrainian moment was indeed part of a transnational dialogue.
Betting on hidden links
What most intrigues me, though, is a possibly secret history that I cannot prove – like the
lines between photographs that clever detectives put up on a big board. In some of their work,
Derzhavyn and Finkel’ cite the Swiss linguist Charles Bally, who did much to advance the
cause of European stylistics. Bally connects not only with them but also with the Russian
Viktor Vinogradov, with whom Fedorov had worked (he is named as one of Fedorov’s
professors) and who was sent into internal exile in 1934 and returned to academic (and
political) life after Stalin’s paper on linguistics in 1950. A certain line can thus be drawn from
Bally to people around Fedorov, and then, through translation of Fedorov, to Beijing in 1958.
And Bally, of course, was also the direct inspiration behind Vinay and Darbelnet, who wrote
in Canada in 1958. QED.
Why should anyone care about that? Stylistics does lend itself to exclusivity, to the illusion of
a national identity expressed in language: Bally and his followers do buy into ideologies of
the génie de la langue, which is part of exclusive nationalisms. That is its great risk. At the
same time, though, it is attached to the vitality of discourse, to involvement in dialogue, to
motivation and to behaviour change – which is why Stalin, in 1913, had argued for the
development of national cultures, including Ukrainian. A deep involvement in language
helps keep the earth beneath your feet.
Stylistics is correspondingly of an age where translation scholars, like those in Ukraine today,
still liked languages, indeed revelled in them, piling up example after example, pointing
translators to the adventures of a creative and engaged task.
Messages can pass from translator to translator, with cultures standing between them, such
that cultures transform messages, not translators. Resistance is one way in which cultures do
this, manifesting presence, not allowing simple passage across their territory.
Derzhavyn, V. (1927). Проблема віршованого перекладу [The problem of poetic
translation], Pluzhanyn 9/10, 44–51.
Fedorov, A. V. (1927/1974). Проблема стихотворного перевода [Problems in the
translation of poetry], Poetika 2: 104-18. Translated as The problem of verse translation.
Linguistics 12(137), 13-30.
Kal’nychenko, O. (2011). A sketch of the Ukrainian history of translation of the 1920s. In T.
Hermans, A. Chalvin, A. Lange and D. Monticelli (Eds), Between cultures and texts:
Itineraries in translation history, pp. 255-67. Peter Lang.
Pym, A. (2016). Translation solutions for many languages – histories of a flawed dream.