Doctoral studies

Doctoral thesis: USSR self-publishing form 'samizdat' helped intellectuals to overcome censorship and isolation

In our contemporary world, where various cultures are deeply interconnected, the role of translation is more and more under scrutiny, especially in terms of (mis)representing the Other. Tallinn University School of Humanities new doctor Miriam Rossi studied the translation and publishing of foreign poems in the former USSR countries in a self-publishing form known as 'samizdat'.

Miriam Rossi

Literary translation during the Soviet period has been especially analysed in terms of conforming to or resisting the dominant ideology. However, in the Soviet Union there were spaces where translation practices were to a certain extent free from this dichotomy, though excluded from the official literary field. The focus of Miriam Rossi’s thesis was the phenomenon of poetry translation in the clandestine circulation of texts known as samizdat, that existed in many countries of the USSR or linked to it. Rossi analysed the Russian samizdat, especially what occurred in former Leningrad (St Petersburg), exploring a point of view that had been previously neglected, that is, the clandestine diffusion of translated foreign poems.
An especially relevant part of the research is the analysis of the translators, who were poets themselves therefore referred to as poet-translators, and how their personal biography, preferences and tastes influenced their translation selection and the way they were translating. What emerged from the investigation is that the community of poet-translators who were active in the Leningrad samizdat adopted the translation process and the engagement with foreign poetry as a coping mechanism to go through their condition. Because of censorship and isolation, many unaligned intellectuals found in samizdat a community of likeminded people with whom they could share their passion for foreign literature, and engage in translating it for the samizdat readership. The analysis of the selection of foreign texts and the choices related to the translation process reveals that poet-translators’ individuality influenced the framework of their translation practice. Despite the limitation of the underground circulation compared to the official ones, translations in samizdat represented a literary activity that even if not directly opposing the Soviet power was challenging it, offering an alternative canon of foreign literature on poet-translators’ own terms. 

Translating in samizdat was a reading and interpreting practice that also aimed to a renewal of Russian, to overcome the fixed language of the Soviet propaganda. Today other language distortions are happening, and according to Miriam Rossi, it is not rhetoric to say that some of the poet-translators she analysed still recur to foreign languages and to poetry. These are contemporary practices which deeply connects with the samizdat ones. This is also one of the many reasons why samizdat as a response to censorship is worth to study, as it offers models of interpretation of past, current, and future strategies of self-expressions in culturally controlled spaces.

Miriam Rossi from the School of Humanities defended her doctoral thesis "Les traducteurs sont die post pferde of the enlightenment: poet-translators in the Leningrad samizdat of 1980s" on February 22. Thesis supervisor was Professor at Tallinn University Daniel Monticelli and opponents Professor at Kent University Brian James Baer and Lecturer at Cambridge University Josephine Von Zitzewitz.