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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The soft power of the Soviet Union

Here is an interesting article on translating childrens books from Soviet era and it's  effect on generation of peoples  in India.

This article is from http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/comments-analysis/the-soft-power-of-the-soviet-union/articleshow/7667872.cms
written by Amrith Lal

Translators live in the shadow of the authors they recreate in their chosen language. So, it's not a surprise that the death of 'Moscow' Gopalakrishnan in Thiruvananthapuram about a fortnight ago went almost unnoticed. In homage, the Kerala secretary of the CPI summed up the life of a dear comrade who was a fine communist intellectual. But for a generation that grew up reading the translations of Gopalakrishnan and his wife, Omana , he was much more than a partisan.

For children who started reading in the 1970s and thereafter, this husband-wife team of translators opened a window to an unfamiliar world. They translated not just the masters of Russian fiction, but also folk tales and fiction for young people. The cheap but beautifully illustrated and printed books that came from the stables of Progress and Raduga publishers were the finest specimen of children's literature we could get in Malayalam. The adventures of Ivan and others read well in Malayalam. The folk tales from the various nationalities that comprised the Soviet Union never sounded as if they belonged to a different culture or landscape. The magic of these translations - done directly from Russian into Malayalam - was such that young readers were effortlessly lifted to a new landscape and made to feel that the human drama unfolding in an unfamiliar geography happened in their own backyard.

In the hot south Indian summer, young readers felt the intense cold of the Siberian taiga and tundra. Birch and poplar became as familiar as coconut and mango trees. They identified with the adventure that Chukk and Gekk undertake across the immense Russian steppe in peak winter to spend Christmas and New Year with their father. The many folk tales that came from the Soviet land became a part of their collective memory. The USSR became a familiar place: a happy place where only the lucky ones went, as a Malayalam balladeer once sang. Gopalakrishnan, of course, didn't reveal if it was indeed a blessed place to be in. But thanks to his work, many young people developed special warmth for a distant land that promised to be the New World.

That, perhaps, was the aim the USSR had when it launched the Soviet Information Service and, in 1966, decided to publish translations of Russian writings in Malayalam. Kerala had, by then, voted the communist party to office and Malayalis had a yearning to read what the Russians did. For 25 years, Gopalakrishnan lived in Moscow and did just that; he translated vast amounts of Russian writing, from Dostoevsky and Chekhov to young fiction, communist classics and propaganda. These translations enriched the soft power of the Soviet Union. They were a bulwark against the critical works that sought to demystify the USSR myth. The influence of American popular culture in undermining the Soviet empire is much talked about. Russian translations played a similar role in enhancing the charm of Soviet communism in Kerala. The terror of Gulag was known to Malayalis, but was too unreal, perhaps, for a people who had been initiated into Russian affairs through folk tales and children's fiction.

It helped that the communist experience in Kerala was vastly different from that of Stalinist Russia. Most communist leaders here were schooled in the national movement and influenced by the Gandhian ethic of simple living and selfless public service. Even the mass struggles waged by the communist party took its cue from the national movement. It was a fertile soil for the Russian soft power to gain roots, and the skillful translators were up to the task with carefully-chosen stories. Histories of communism in India seldom acknowledge the role played by the likes of Gopalakrishnan in the spread of ideology. Public action and political literature, of course, led the way, but the soft power instruments are not to be underestimated.

The Soviet myth had been exposed by the 1960s, yet for the generation that grew up thereafter, the translations presented a different picture. The USSR could not have been anything but a benign and caring state for those who had the Soviet publications as primary reading material. Many of the boys had grown up by the time the Soviet empire collapsed and had developed a critical view of authoritarian regimes, but, surely, most of them felt a pang of sadness about the decline of a distant land that was an intrinsic part of their growing-up years.

Gopalakrishnan never wrote about his Russian years, never did he talk about the souring of a dream. He, perhaps, was living the dream in the literature he read and translated, oblivious to the winter that had set in.All rights belong to ostom, Use of this post is allowed provided this link is present at the end of the article http://getdirectclient.blogspot.com


Birgit said...

We are what we eat, I suppose--or what we read, in this case. Greetings from Berlin!