Tag Archives: Russian

Collaboration and ownership in cross-cultural creativity

This post originally featured on the Creative Multilingualism blog. It was written by Julie Curtis, Professor of Russian Literature at Oxford and Fellow of Wolfson College. Prof. Curtis is also the Director of Outreach for Medieval and Modern Languages. Here, she reflects on the transformation of a Russian ‘New Drama’ play, Oxygen, by Ivan Vyrypaev, into a UK hip hop version, provoking questions about translation, transformation, and creative ownership.

2002-2018: Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Oxygen, and its 16-year journey between a basement theatre studio in Moscow and a basement rehearsal room at the Birmingham Rep Theatre.

When Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Oxygen was first performed in 2002 at Moscow’s edgiest theatre, Teatr.doc, it caused a sensation. On the one hand it depicted an act of extreme violence – a young man battering his wife to death with a shovel in order to start a new relationship with a woman he believes will offer him more ‘oxygen’ – and it also used aggressively obscene language, transgressing against one of the strongest taboos of Soviet-era theatre. On the other hand, the play had a haunting beauty, deriving from the poetic inventiveness of its use of Biblical motifs, specifically the Ten Commandments, and the musical structuring of the language around refrains, patterning and other compositional devices deriving from both classical and contemporary musical traditions, such as rap.

The play became known as the flagship play of the ‘New Drama’ movement which has arisen in the era of President Putin, and which remains one of the few spheres in which challenges are still offered to official state narratives about society, politics, gender and sexuality, national identity and international relations. It was seen at the theatre by a narrow range of Moscow intellectuals, but gained wider impact within Russia when it was turned by Vyrypaev into a film in 2009; and it also attracted attention internationally – it has been staged in many countries of the world, including a brilliant production (featuring world-champion break-dancers from Russia) staged by the RSC at Stratford in 2009.

Dr Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director and Russian scholar who has for many years been exploring contemporary Russian drama and staging it at his London-base Sputnik Theatre. When he joined the Creative Multilingualism team, he attended an event organised by Professor Rajinder Dudrah which brought the grime artists RTKAL, Ky’orion and Royalty from Birmingham to perform on the stage of the Taylor Institution. Their verbal ingenuity, the Rastafarian frame of reference they deployed in their performance, and above all the powerful and infectious rhythms of their art provided a lightbulb moment for me and Noah – we looked at each other, and wondered aloud what would happen if we introduced them to Vyrypaev’s work….

A couple of years later, and that thought has translated into reality, with a performance based on extracts from Vyrypaev’s work being rehearsed in the Birmingham Rep by the brilliant UK rap, hiphop and grime artists Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan, directed by Noah. On Thursday I went along to watch the final research and development session, before the performance later that day curated by Rajinder at Birmingham City University. It prompted all sorts of thoughts in my mind about how issues of ownership and collaboration came together to produce this spectacular meeting of minds across two very different cultures:

  • Vyrypaev owns his text, and is very protective about performances of it across the world;
  • But Noah is one of the most admired directors of contemporary Russian drama in Britain, so Vyrypaev willingly licensed the text for Noah’s project in Sasha Dugdale’s translation, trusting to both Noah’s knowledge of Russian culture and his artistic gifts to create something which would be both new and true to the original;
  • Rajinder knows the rap and hiphop scene in Birmingham via our project partners Punch Records also from the city, and together they recruited artists who would bring their talents to bear on very unfamiliar material, originating from an entirely alien society;
  • Once Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan got to know the text, they worked with Noah on how to make it their own, retaining the skeleton of the piece and certain elements of the refrains, playing with the ideas of the male and female characters with the same name – the two Sashas became the two Jordans…
  • Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan have focused less on the violence and the obscenity, but have translated the relationship between the two to fit into the witty ‘clashing’ routines typical of rap/hiphop/grime performances; this allows them to develop a gendered rivalry which is absent from the original, with Stanza Divan using sarcasm (‘Calm down!..’ – to use a phrase typical of some male politicians…) to scorn and disparage the sharp-tongued teasing of Lady Sanity;
  • But they retain the relative social positions of the two Russian protagonists; she more educated, and from a more comfortable, secure background, he instead from a disadvantaged, broken family and dropping out of secondary education;
  • And above all they retain the message of the final section of Vyrypaev’s original, concerning the difficulties faced by the young in today’s world, where so many threats loom;
  • Did their UK hiphop theatre work absorb Vyrypaev into their British world? Or did Vyrypaev lead Birmingham’s hiphop performers into new areas? Above all, they said, they recognised that elements in the text of the original were primarily about the freedom of self-expression, and that chimed in with the same preoccupation in British hip-hop and grime art.
  • The generosity of very many different people’s collaborations brought this work of art into being: but who ‘owns’ the creative result? Is cultural transposition different from translation?

Watch the below film to find out more about the hip hop theatre version of the Russian play Oxygen.

career profile: working in the arts

This week we continue our series on career profiles. We hear from Daniel Milnes, who studied German and Russian at Somerville College and graduated in 2011. Orginally from Leeds, Daniel now works as a Curator for modern and contemporary art at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin. Daniel tells us how his languages have fed into his career path…

After graduating from Oxford in 2011 I completed a Master’s degree in Art History at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg with a research period at the European University at Saint Petersburg (2011-2013). This proved to be the first step toward my current career as a curator for contemporary art. After graduation I completed a two-year traineeship in curatorial practice at the Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart where I served as assistant curator on two large-scale exhibition projects as well as curating my own exhibition with the artist Raphael Sbrzesny. This led to my next position as Assistant Curator at Haus der Kunst, Munich, a leading international institution for the display and discussion of contemporary art and culture.

Photo by M(e)ister Eiskalt, used under Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/) via Wikimedia.org

At Haus der Kunst I served as assistant curator for the project “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965” which redefined the art historical canon of the postwar period from a multifocal and global perspective, deconstructing the traditional narrative that has until recently been dominated by the work of white male artists from the West. For this project I was responsible for the selection of art from the Soviet Union, liaising with artists, curators, theoreticians, and museum workers in Russia. My contact to the contemporary Russian art world was further strengthened through the development of a solo exhibition with media artist Polina Kanis, who works between Moscow and Amsterdam. In addition, I curated two further exhibition projects which analysed how models of identity have changed since digital forms of mediation have come to dominate daily life.

Since 2018 I am working as Assistant Curator at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin, where I am currently organizing the exhibition of the winner of the National Gallery Prize, Agnieszka Polska.

In my day-to-day working life I am constantly travelling and shifting between languages in order to coordinate exhibitions, write academic articles, proofread catalogues, give tours through exhibitions, deliver presentations and speeches, and liaise with artists. This would all be unthinkable without my training in Modern Languages and the sensibility for the nuances of language and culture that it fostered.

More open days – come and try us out

A couple of weeks ago, we posted about our upcoming German open day, a chance for you to learn about the German course at Oxford. This week, we continue the theme by bringing you news of our open days in Spanish and Portuguese (Thursday 28 February at The Queen’s College), and Russian and other Slavonic Languages (Saturday 2 March at Wadham College).

As with the German open day, these events are a fantastic opportunity for you to explore what an Oxford degree in those languages looks like. They offer a mixture of academic tasters so you can get a feel for the content of the degree, information about applying to Oxford, and interactions with tutors and current students, who will be happy to answer any questions you have about languages at Oxford.

Highlights of the Spanish and Portuguese open day include: an introduction to Portuguese in 15 minutes, an introduction to other peninsular languages (Catalan and Galician – for more on Galician, see our post here); a spotlight on Portuguese-speaking Africa; and a Spanish Translation workshop.

Highlights of the open day in Russian and other Slavonic Languages include: a mini lecture on ‘Home from home: Russian writers in interwar Paris’; a mini lecture on ‘Russian Grammar in Time and Space’; and a parallel discussion for parents and teachers.

The open days are open to anyone in Year 12 who is interested in studying those languages at Oxford, including if you are interested in picking up the language from scratch (with the exception of Spanish, which we do not offer from scratch). Sessions will be suitable for learners who have no prior knowledge of the language, as well as those hoping to apply post-A Level. There are a limited number of places for accompanying parents and teachers. The events are free of charge but a place must be booked through the faculty’s website.

The full programmes are below, or available to view at https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/schools/meet-us

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: my unexpectedly fun and rewarding discovery of Russia.

In this post, current undergraduate Joseph Rattue, who studys at Somerville College, offers a candid and entertaining reflection on his year abroad while studying Russian from scratch.

Four years ago, I sat looking through some testimonials in Oxford Modern Languages leaflets at an open day, in awe of the list of amazing places students had been on their years abroad. With law internships in Berlin, banking placements in Zürich, and events management in various châteaux in the picturesque French countryside, it was a list of great promise. A list that would convince anyone of the excitement and glamour of a degree in French, Spanish, German or Italian at Oxford. A list from which the location of the year abroad for Beginners’ Russian was markedly and suspiciously absent. After some digging around on the internet through the Russian sub-faculty’s web page, I found the city where second-year Russian Ab Initio (from scratch) students go for their year abroad, and didn’t think much of it in the face of the cosmopolitan metropoles I’d read about earlier that day. Today I have a photo plate of it on the wall above my bed.

Yaroslavl. Probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of a place to spend your year abroad. Unknown to most people outside Russia, it sits modestly 272.3 km north-east of Moscow, and a trying 13-hour overnight train ride south-east of St. Petersburg. If I thought the scale of these distances was daunting before I arrived at the airport “in” (45.8 km south of) Moscow, it got even more extreme when I asked the minibus driver when we would reach the train station to go to Yaroslavl, only to discover that Yaroslavl was considered “next to Moscow,” as the 6-hour bus ride ensued. After the 5am start in the UK, it would be fair to say we all slept pretty well that night once we’d arrived at our home stay hosts’ flats.

Yaroslavl, photo by Joseph Rattue

For anyone wondering why I haven’t mentioned what we were actually doing there, fear not. All in good time. First, though, there are some things to do with the structure of the Russian Ab Initio Course which need some explaining. If you read the opening of this post and were a bit puzzled about why I talked about second-years going abroad, you were right to pick up on this. Nearly all Modern Languages degrees at Oxford are arranged for students to go abroad in their third year, unless the degree includes Beginners’ Arabic or Beginners’ Russian, in which case the second year is the year abroad. If you do Beginners’ Russian, you spend the whole of the first year doing almost exclusively language work, with a 1-hour poetry reading class every week in the second term designed mainly to help with the resonance of words, and to give the basic outline of some literary movements in Russia. In their second year, all the Oxford Russian Ab Initio students go to Yaroslavl and do a language development programme designed specifically for them by Yaroslavl State University, making it easier to tackle Final Honours texts in Russian in the third and fourth years. Yes, this can have its downsides; you are away when your friends are back home in Oxford, and your linguist friends are away in third year when you come back. But this does not exactly spell the end for your social life. Without sounding too cheesy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my social experiences on my year abroad were some of the best I’ve ever had. I went to a new place, discovered a new culture, and made new friends, many of whom will be in Oxford with me this coming year and mean a lot to me.

It’s not often that you go to a monastery with a bear called Masha inside it, or a café where tens of cats live, or a museum with a whole room dedicated to different kinds of traditional irons which can also be musical instruments. Nor is it every day that you sing traditional Russian folk songs and drink mulled wine with your teachers to celebrate “Old New Year” in mid-January because Russia used the old Julian calendar until February 1918. It is these sorts of things that have made my year abroad not only so much fun, but so meaningful and fulfilling. Being in a class with the other Oxford students gave me an immediate group of close friends, and together we discovered Russia. Whether it was watching Yaroslavl Lokomotiv play ice hockey with our Russian friends, staying up to see the sun rise over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, or belting out Russian pop songs about new year at 1am, the year could hardly have been more full of shared, new experiences that brought us closer to each other and to Russian culture. The other people who made all this possible were our hosts, or “babs” (short for “babushka,” the Russian for “grandma”), who lived with us, fed us, and shared their stories, ideas and lives with us. When I met my bab, Emma, at the start of the year, I could hardly understand a sentence she said. By the end, I was interpreting for her as she told my parents all about her family, past and present, and which English writers she liked reading. I visited Yaroslavl again this summer, 4 months after the end of my year abroad in March, and left a box of chocolates for my friend to give to Emma when she got back from her holiday. Two days ago Emma got those chocolates, and said hi.

All in all, it has been an unforgettable year, one full of discovery, new people, and both academic and personal growth. What felt like a very foreign country now feels like a second home to me. To that end, the Yaroslavl year abroad is the epitome of what a year abroad should be.

Lessons in Translation: The War Hasn’t Started Yet

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Here, professional translator Noah Birksted-Breen talks about translating the same play three times, taking into consideration different audiences and cultural reference points. You can also read an interview with Noah about Russian theatre here.

I have just finished translating Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Hasn’t Yet Started for the third time in as many years. I’m in an unusual situation – one translator creating three different versions of the same play. As far as I know, that doesn’t normally happen. I have tried to take advantage of each opportunity to re-translate the play, adapting it significantly to the specific target audience.

In 2015, I translated The War for the first time, for my Ph.D. at Queen Mary University of London. Subsequently, this translation was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Frontline Club in London. I knew that the Frontline Club attracts a specialist audience, already familiar with Russian culture. I left the play in quite a ‘raw’ state. For example, I could indulge my audience with references to ‘dachas’ rather than ‘country houses’. I left the language sounding rather ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. To English ears, it was somewhat stilted – although it worked for people who already know about Russian culture.

In 2016, Theatre Royal Plymouth produced The War in the Drum Theatre in Plymouth (their studio space with approx. 200 seats). I developed my translation further with the director Michael Fentiman, who directed the production in Plymouth. Fentiman had a good eye for clarifying cultural references which would not be clear to audiences in the UK. So, ‘dacha’ would become ‘country house’. But there were more difficult decisions to be taken as well about ‘hidden’ references.

For example, one scene in The War refers to ‘another country’, without specifying which one. Russian audiences would know from the scene that it refers to Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert – and later more overt – war against Ukraine since 2014. It felt wrong to name Ukraine in the scene, since the drama works on a metaphorical level, as well as commenting obliquely on real-world geopolitics. Fentiman encouraged me to develop the references in a certain way. For example, the Russian TV journalist who willingly broadcasts a ‘fake news’ story about Ukraine refers to ‘them’ and ‘they’.

Image by Dragonfly Design © created for Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production (2016) of The War Hasn’t Yet Started by Mikhail Durnenkov, translated by Noah Birksted-Breen.

In my second translation, working with Fentiman, I ended up going for ‘those other people’ – which is tacitly xenophobic or at least judgemental. This less literal approach to the original text helped to create the sense of two hostile, warring neighbouring countries without needing to specify Russia and the Ukraine. It even added to the drama of the scene, I think, by highlighting the mentality of ‘us versus them’, which motivated the scene and the play as a whole. (The playwright is looking critically at the ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than endorsing it!).

In January 2018, a new production of The War opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse. It is produced by the same company, Theatre Royal Plymouth, but there is a new director and therefore the translation will also be different. This has been my favourite experience of translation to date. Working with the director Gordon Anderson, I altered my translation even more than in 2016.

I moved yet further away from translation as a technical process which is ‘faithful’ to the original. Anderson’s TV experience gave him a keen eye for opportunities to edit and shape the dialogue – a step closer to adaptation. In the past, I might have objected. Scholars often feel that retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the play’s language is the highest priority of translation. Yet, my approach to translation has changed over many years – and Anderson pushed me to develop my approach still further. At times, I added to the dialogue and at times, I cut dialogue from the scenes, where I felt that the spirit of the original was getting ‘lost in translation’.

This way of working sees the translator as essentially creating a ‘new play’. Obviously, this ‘new play’ has to embody the spirit of the original, but it needn’t be overly faithful to the original. Translating The War for the third time, I wanted the London audience to experience the drama (the story and structure) of this play, without getting bogged down in the ‘strangeness’ of the language itself. This method captures a more nuanced view of Russian culture. It aims to create a natural-sounding text in English which retains difference, or even ‘strangeness’, in the plotting or characters.

That makes sense when you think about it. After all, Russian culture is not ‘isolated’ in its own bubble. I regularly speak to Russian playwrights who tell me that they are equally inspired by Russian culture as by British playwriting. Any translation must find a nuanced balance between being ‘strange’ (or ‘foreign) and ‘natural’. The language should not be an obstacle for the audience. Otherwise, Russian plays are being translated solely to be watched by audiences who are already familiar with Russian culture.

I have come to believe that translation is more about capturing ‘unfamiliar ways of thinking’. In The War, there are a series of competing realities. Different characters see the world in contradictory ways. The play suggests that ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ cannot both be true. In other words, The War offers an experience of living in a post-truth era – just as relevant to British audiences as Russian ones. I have come to feel that translation is like telling somebody about a dream you had the previous night. You have to explain what you saw as clearly as possible, in a language which they will understand. The meaning of the dream is elusive…. What matters is how it felt when you were asleep, and finding a natural-sounding way to explain the odd experiences in the dream to your listener. I hope that my least ‘faithful’ translation of The War captures the dream-like but arresting quality of the original play in a clear and lucid language.

Is Donald Trump bright? It’s a translation issue

This post by Professor Julie Curtis originally appeared on the Oxford Creative Multilingualism website.

Strolling past a Paris café recently I was amused by a disarming mistranslation on their menu – ‘Velouté de potimarron du chef’ rendered not as ‘The chef’s cream of pumpkin soup’, but instead by the somewhat bizarre ‘Softness of pumpkin of the leader’. There is always room for approximate translations in the world, and nobody will ever suffer any significant consequences from this particular error, even if the dish is unlikely to find much favour with foreign customers.

However, some mistranslations can have wider repercussions. Donald Trump, in several boastful speeches in the run-up to the election, claimed that Vladimir Putin had described him either as ‘a genius’, or as ‘brilliant’. This claim, which significantly increased perceptions across the world that the Russian government was supporting his campaign, turned out to be based on a simple mistranslation. Putin had described him as a talented man, certainly, but he also added that he was ‘yarkiy’ – a word which can reasonably be translated as ‘bright’ (as in ‘a bright colour’). But when applied to someone’s personality, there is no doubt that what Putin intended was an ironic comment on Trump as a ‘very colourful’ personality. Trump had no justification, therefore, to cite it as a compliment to himself from the leader of a world superpower. What he needed was a better translator.

This reminder that mistranslations can have important repercussions on the international stage is why we need to have lots of well-qualified linguists in Britain. It takes several years of study to achieve the level of knowledge and understanding to translate accurately, and that means that foreign languages are a great subject to study over a four-year course at university. And whether you opt for Portuguese or Japanese, Czech, Arabic, or German, your course will also provide an adventure: the compulsory third year abroad will take you away from your British university routine to live, work or study in one or even two foreign countries. That experience of independent living abroad at the age of 20 or so proves formative in many people’s lives – young people get to discover new landscapes, beautiful cities, or foreign rock music or cinema; they come to appreciate alternative ways of organizing society and family life; they acquire new friends, and even fall in love. All this undoubtedly impresses future employers too: many qualified linguists go on to acquire further postgraduate qualifications in a huge range of subjects, or else vocational qualifications – and then find themselves very much in demand for the most exciting jobs in international law firms, businesses, the world of finance, international organisations and journalism, as well as the more obvious careers of translating and interpreting. Employment rates for modern linguists are excellent.

The decline in numbers studying foreign languages in British state schools over the last twenty years is therefore deeply unfortunate. Differences in languages bring home to us just how different societies have evolved over time, how different peoples develop different priorities in matters as specific as how you should address a stranger, or as broad as how nations view matters such as land-ownership, gender, environmental issues or public transport. Discovering that other people live – and thrive – in differently-organised societies teaches us that we have much to learn and much to share with foreigners. It encourages openness to difference, and promotes tolerance. An increasingly monoglot Britain is likely to become more inward-looking. If modern languages had been truly celebrated and widely taught in the British education system, would British people really have voted for Brexit?

In September 2015 Donald Trump reproached former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – one of his political rivals who speaks Spanish fluently – saying that he should “set an example and speak English while in the United States.” Trump is also currently obsessed with building an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. If you are a linguist, you learn to listen as well as to hear, to interpret as well as to understand: the trouble with walls is that you can hear nothing coming through from the other side.

Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Creative Economy: Languages in the Creative Economy.