Teaching Russian literature

One of the big dilemmas in teaching Russian literature at undergraduate level is the translation vs. original question. Clearly, most of us would like to see our students reading texts in the original, because there are always losses in translation, and because reading in the original helps develop language skills, but it presents various problems. Chief among these is the simple fact that even for final year undergraduates, reading texts in the original is difficult and time-consuming (not least because of the length of many of the great works of Russian literature — see my previous post on The Brothers Karamazov for the effect of this).  Often translations are used because courses are open to non-Russian department or non-Russian language students, and while one makes efforts to persuade the students who are learning Russian that they should read the original, it’s easy to see it from their point of view: why should they make that extra effort when they’re not going to get any extra credit for it? The result seems to be two sorts of compromise: either a shared pretence that the students are reading the works in Russian, when in fact we all know they’re using translations, or abandoning the great works altogether in favour of short and/or obscure works which we can expect them to read in Russian, or which don’t have translations at all, and thereby forcing the issue.

Which route you take largely depends on what you think a degree in Russian language and literature is for. Personally I believe that there are certain works of Russian literature which all students should read, and without which their education is incomplete. Some of these are really short (Pushkin’s and Gogol’s short stories, for instance, although they both present their own brand of linguistic difficulty), but some of them are pretty long (Tolstoi is relatively easy to read, but that doesn’t make tackling War and Peace any less daunting, but then that’s probably true of translations as well). So I tend to go for a halfway house: a mixture of short things the students are expected to read in Russian, and longer things where they will generally use translations, but we usually work with extracts in the original in class, so that they at least get a flavour. It’s still a compromise, and maybe I’m deluding myself and the students still in fact read everything in translation, but it’s the best solution I’ve got at the moment.

It is important, however, to do what one can to encourage reading in the original. Parallel text reading is a tried and tested method, and even forcing students to quote in Russian in essays can help, as they will have to do some reading in order to locate the quotations they’ve found in translations. Another good resource is Conradish.org, a website of Russian literature with reading aids: you click on words you don’t know in the text, and translations appear at the bottom (and there’s a new interface where you just hover your cursor over words and the translation pops up). The contents of the site are slightly patchy — there’s not a great deal of Pushkin or Lermontov, for example — but most of the ‘big’ works one would expect are there, and there’s an interesting section on collaborative translation, using Babel and Chekhov texts. I have a few minor gripes, such as the absence of any of Dostoevsky’s short stories (I would still maintain that a site like this is likelier to get students reading, say, ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ or ‘A Meek Girl’ than The Idiot), but on the whole the selection available so far is pretty good. And it’s all downloadable and in the public domain, which is great. I hope it is still a work in progress and that it develops further. I’ll certainly be encouraging my students to use for my Russian Literature in Revolution course this year — Babel’s Red Cavalry, Olesha’s Envy, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and Platonov’s The Foundation Pit are all on there — and I’ll see how useful they find it.

Update (19/06/2013): some time ago, Conradish.net disappeared, and the link now leads to something else entirely. As far as I know, the website has ceased to existed altogether, although if anybody knows differently, I’d really appreciate it if you let me know. It was a great site into which a great deal of work had gone, and it’s a real loss.

Update (13/09/2015): Conradish.org is now back up on a new site. Many thanks to Johannes for alerting me to this.

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6 Comments

  1. Jane

     /  November 30, 2010

    Have just come across this post, and wanted to thank you for pointing me in the direction of Conradish.net – it might actually get me reading some Dostoevsky in Russian again. Thinking back to my own undergraduate days (enthusiastic but lazy) I was interested too to see what you had to say about the great reading-in-the-original debate. From my own experience, being required to quote in Russian was a good compromise for the big heavy works. Doing lots of poetry is good too, because one feels that it absolutely has to be read in the original.

    (And thank you too for posting the link to that wonderful Onion article – I love it).

  2. Many thanks for this, and I hope Conradish.net does indeed get you back into reading Dostoevsky. The length is a big problem. When I’ve got too much to do to read long works in Russian, I also read poetry – usually 19th century.

  3. Verity

     /  June 13, 2013

    I know things change quickly in the cyber world so I should not be too surprised when links no longer work but the Conradish.net link now leads to a Japanese website about royal jelly. Would you happen to know where the website mentioned in the post went, if it is still around?

    Thank you.

  4. Yes, I discovered it had unfortunately disappeared some months back and meant to put a note on this post, so thanks for reminding me. As far as I know (and it was discussed on one of the mailing lists I belong to) it no longer exists, which is a huge pity as it was a great site.

  5. Johannes B

     /  September 11, 2015

    It looks like Conradish is now hosted here: http://www.qrytogram.com/

  6. Excellent – thank you!

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