I recently spent Hogmanay back in Scotland, and being there in January meant I witnessed the preparations for Burns’ Night. One thing that you can’t escape in the UK is the ruling class’s sycophantic fawning towards the USA. We’re led to believe that anything we produce only has value if the Americans approve. Robert Burns is no different, and so the BBC have commissioned a documentary about how much Americans love Burns. The subliminal message being that the Yanks like him so we can too, no Scottish cringe required.
Burns, however, had a massive impact all over the world. Its undoubtedly true that Burns did have a huge impact in the States – but he was also hugely influential in that other 20th Century superpower; the Soviet Union. Did you know that Burns was on the school curriculum in the USSR? I’ll admit that I didn’t know this until my Ukrainian mother-in-law told me. I’ll also admit to being quite annoyed – the BBC will spend a fortune to inform us of a tenuous link between Burns and Elvis Presley, but nobody thought it worthwhile to mention a very unambiguous fact about our national bard’s legacy? The political bigotry of the British ruling class becomes only too apparent under the microscope of facts.
It’s not only a question of the classrooms of the old Soviet Union. Right across the region Burns’ influence is undeniable. Many of the soundtracks to iconic Soviet and post-Soviet movies use translations of his poems as lyrics, and many artists have had chart successes using his songs – from this punky effort in Moldova to this more folky sounding Russian artist.
Burns popularity in the region predates the Soviet Union of course. We know that the great Russian poet Pushkin admired Burns, but had found his poems extremely difficult to read because of the Scottish dialect. Other great Russians also professed their admiration for Burns, including celebrated novelists Lermontov and Turgenev. Why was Burns so popular among these pre-Soviet people? That is perhaps best answered by another poet, this time the Ukrainian Taras Shevchenko who when explaining Burns popularity remarked that, “to know people, you have to live with them – and to know their life, you need to be them.” What Shevchenko had realized in Burns was of the utmost importance – proximity to the people. That was the appeal of Burns, he spoke to the common man about the concerns of the common man. And in pre-Soviet Russia those concerns were revolutionary.
In the same period we find the first serious attempts to translate Burns into Russian, by the revolutionary critic and publicist Michael Mikhailov. Mikhailov was someone who translated many poems from English into Russian. He selected poems that were close to himself in spirit, and the revolutionary Russian saw in Burns the same rebel. In his translations Mikhailov gave Burns’ freedom-loving poetry a life affirming humanism and the spirit of struggle and action which is characteristic of his best works. Unfortunately Mikhailov only translated about a dozen of Burns poems: imprisonment and exile soon put an end to his translating and political activities.
As things moved towards the end of the 19th Century, and the 100th anniversary of Burns’ death, a new upsurge of interest in the poet was observed in Russia. In the pages of Russian magazines such as “Russian Wealth“, “Russian Thought“, “Education” and “Herald of Europe” there was a steady stream of articles about Burns and translations of his work. In one such article, from the journal “Idea”, the writer says of Burns: “The people will repeat his songs because in them they find the expression of their feelings, their thoughts, their life.” The article emphasizes that Burns, in his poems, expresses all the grief that has accumulated over the centuries in the hearts of people who exclaim, “We have a right to a better life!“
However, at this time translations of Burns were known to be of poor quality – Burns was actually considered by many to be untranslatable, primarily because of his use of Scottish dialect. In the first half of the 20th Century the work of one man would change all of this and elevate Burns to new heights of popularity within the Russian speaking world – which by now was the Soviet Union.
Samuil Marshak was a successful poet in his own right, and was one of the few translators in the Soviet Union who had actually studied abroad. In the UK Marshak studied not only philosophy and English Language but also Scottish dialects. He actually travelled around the country collecting Scottish folk ballads and songs. This was key to the success of his translations – he understood Scots in way that all those who came before him, including the great Pushkin, could not. Marshak was to become a prolific translator on his return to the USSR, going on to translate not only Burns but also William Blake, Rudyard Kipling and William Shakespeare – but it was for his translations of Burns that he was to win most recognition with Soviet readers. “Marshak made Burns a Russian, leaving himself a Scot!”, wrote the poet Alexander Twardowski.
Beginning in 1930, Marshak would translate some 216 of Burns’ poems and songs, although lamented that his translation work remained unfinished. Marshak delivered Burns poetry in a foreign language with the same amazing freedom and engaging simplicity as the original. He smashed the myth of the supposedly untranslatable Burns. He expressed, with unusual strength for translations, all the features of Burns’ poetry. He managed to capture accurately the thought, the musicality of the verse and the combination of natural conversational speech with melodic power. He captured the satire and the jokes, as well as the deep intimacy of the works. The result is an illusion that Burns wrote in Russian.
Marshak thought that what was most important was to convey the true image of the translated poet, to faithfully reflect his era and the national identity of his works. Marshak believed that the poet translator should be like the reincarnation of the author – he should fall in love with him, with his manner and with his language. It is heartbreaking, therefore, to see Marshak so maligned by the liberal intelligentsia as they attempt to remove from Burns any notion of his revolutionary character in order to “sanitise” him and make him safe for their own consumption.
Anti-Soviet scholars, such as Natalia Vid, have deliberately misinterpreted Marshak and his work in order to reject the notion of a “Soviet Burns”. Vid ties herself up in knots trying to slander Marshak through a combination of lies and her own obvious ignorance of the subject. She actually accuses Marshak of changing the title of “A man’s a man for a’ that” to “An Honest poverty” – allegedly Marshak did this for sinister ideological reasons as part of the Soviet dictatorship of the arts! Clearly Vid is unaware that the original title of the poem, as given to it by Burns himself, was “Is There an Honest Poverty”. In other words, Marshak’s translation of the title is actually closer to the intentions of Burns than the more common title that most of us use and are familiar with. Similarly, she claims that the Soviets banned all translations of Burns other than Marshak’s, which ignores basic checkable facts such as the 1963 publication of Burns poetry by the publishing house “Soviet Russia”, in which all the poems were translated by Fedotov.
Burns, through the great work of Marshak, became the people’s poet of Russia. As they did with McLean, the Soviets honoured Burns with a commemorative stamp. It is believed that there are more celebrations of Burns night in Russia than any other country outside Scotland – with evenings from 22nd to 25th January being taken up with music, dancing, poetry, whisky tasting and traditional Scottish meals. But to really grasp the importance of Burns in Russia I would like to leave you with the words of Marshak, who could answer that question better than anyone:
“The poetry of Robert Burns is part of [Russian] daily life. Our young people quote him in their love letters. Our best composers have set his lyrics to music and these songs come over the radio intermingling with the hum of our work-days and the merry-making of our holidays. Volumes of his poetry are found in the studies of our intellectuals, the cottages of our farmers, the apartments of our workers and the tables of our students. Burns creates links between people in defiance of all who would keep our nations apart. And it must not be forgotten that it is in human hearts, not museums or monuments, that his poems will be preserved.”