Translating Urbanism into Russian

22.06.2012, 16:23
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Some hasty notes from a conversation between Sergei Sitar, Kirill Asse, Anastassia Smirnova, and Kuba Snopek at the Moscow International Open Book Fair, inside Alexander Brodsky’s pavilion for Strelka. The topic was the challenge of translating ideas and terms conceived in an English-speaking context into Russian.

Sergei: The cultural context is very important. You have to transplant a text into a new culture and fertilize it. And though architectural discourse in Russia is almost in its childhood, it isn’t fair to consider the situation a one-way importation of Western ideas. We don’t know our history very well, like there’s a tendency to historical amnesia. For example, you can often find “new” terms in historical Russian sources.

Anastassia: But there are many important books that are known internationally only in their English version, regardless of the quality of the translation.

Which makes me wonder how much we might have misunderstood. Then Kuba Snopek makes a fascinating point, but one that seems worrisome the more I consider it…

Kuba: Also interesting is what happens in offices like OMA where everybody seems to speak English as a second language. They are very free to intuitively choose the word that seems the best.

The freedom of this approach is interesting and definitely a source for new formulations, but isn’t there also an enormous potential for confusion, or a kind of blundering through context?

Kirill: There are something like keywords sprinkled around texts that help you to understand the gist without necessarily knowing all the other terms.

Sergei: As a practicing architect, I think of paragraphs, maybe even phrases, like buildings with entry points and comfortable places to go.

Anastassia: More translations can only help to better understand a text. And some texts have a kind of impulse, a feedback into the original language where they can have a second effect. We need more translations, better ones, and various ones.

This began a discussion on the feeling of being overwhelmed by foreign production, and the role of the translator as curator.

Kuba: I wonder who chooses the texts to translate—how do we choose what should be translated? There is so much published.

Anastassia: An endless catching up…

Sergei: Some of it is an artificial gap created by years of censorship and official attitudes, due to the close relationship between urbanism and politics. As a private company we choose our texts ourselves.

Anastassia: Schools also have a role in choosing, based on which texts they can use as tools. If there are gaps, hopefully another institution with a different outlook will fill them… and students tell us that they feel they enter the field in a deeper way once they’ve internalized a certain terminology.

Sergei: An international infection!

Anastassia: And when they think in these terms it can make translation an opportunity to sustain a high level of discourse, without shortcuts.

Sergei: Back to Kuba’s question, I think it’s not the translators but the readiness of a culture that encourages a book to be published. The new translation of Jane Jacobs, for example, reveals that Russians experienced a parallel loss of community; only it was justified by a different ideology.

Unfortunately, Richard Florida was also recently translated into Russian.