Oleksandr Finkel’ on the Problem of Self-Translation

By Oleksandr Kalnychenko & Natalia Kamovnikova (Karazin National University of Kharkiv, Ukraine; St. Petersburg University of Management Technologies and Economics, Russia)


The aim of this study is to draw attention to the almost forgotten pioneer works on self-translation by Ukrainian scholar Oleksandr Finkel’. The case-study proves the importance of the spread of knowledge and construction of a unified translation history in order to ensure objectivity of research and fair judgement. The development of a unified translation reflection history can become an important contribution to the field of translation studies and create a common ground for the joint effort of researchers in the development of the discipline.

Keywords: self-translation, literary translation, translation theory, Oleksandr Finkel’, Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko

©inTRAlinea & Oleksandr Kalnychenko & Natalia Kamovnikova (2019).
"Oleksandr Finkel’ on the Problem of Self-Translation", inTRAlinea Vol. 21.

This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/2349

1. Introduction

Recent scholarship in Translation Studies has challenged the traditional Eurocentric focus of the field with wider research into alternative translation traditions in Asia and Africa, whereas the countries of Eastern Europe, which have much to offer in this respect, have remained largely ignored in the scholarly literature (see Baer 2011:1; Baer and Olshanskaya 2013a: iii), with numerous key texts in translation studies from that region remaining untranslated into Western European languages. This is the more surprising given the repeated calls by James Holmes, one of the founders of Translation Studies in the West, that scholarship on translation from Eastern Europe should be made more widely available to an international readership. Thus, in his paper “The Future of Translation Theory: A Handful of Theses” presented at the International Symposium on Achievements in the Theory of Translation held in Moscow and Yerevan, 23-30 October 1978, Holmes stated:

Since I do not know Russian, I have read only that small tip of the vast Soviet translation-theory iceberg that juts above the surface of Western thinking by having been translated. Far too little has been translated, far too much has not, and hence the work of a great many theorists, from Čukovskij via Revzin and Rozencveig to Koptilov and Kommisarov (to mention but a few), remains for me little more than hearsay. (1988:99)

At the Tenth FIT Congress in 1984 in his paper “The State of Two Arts: Literary Translation and Translation Studies in the West Today” in memory of Slovak scholar Anton Popovič, Holmes (1988) expressed the regret that so much Eastern European scholarship remained untranslated and so inaccessible. As recently as 2015 Anthony Pym, a major figure in Translation Studies in the West, wrote of his discovery of the work of Russian translation theorists of the 1950s, exclaiming,’could we really have ignored the Russians so completely?’ (Pym & Ayvazyan 2015: 322). ‘[A]nd what applied to Russian, went for other Slavonic languages too’, Mary Snell-Hornby added in 2006 in the hope that with the fall of the Iron Curtain there would be no more barriers to communication with Eastern Europe (2006: 45). Italian scholar Lorenzo Costantino made a similar point:

Ignoring translation theory as it developed in these countries[of Central and Eastern Europe] is also difficult to reconcile with the fact that interest in the field actually arose earlier there than in the West. If an early attempt to address key issues in literary translation could be considered Korney Chukovsky’s Printsipy khudozhestvennogo perevoda (Principles of Artistic Translation, 1919), the first, usually forgotten, book-length study in which the expression “translation theory” appeared in the title was published in Ukrainian as early as 1929 by Oleksandr Finkel’ (also the author of one of the earliest studies of self-translation, in 1962). (2015: 245).

All the above mentioned remains true today, despite the fact that recently we have observed a certain growth in international interest in the legacy of Eastern European translation studies and thefresh look it offers at the prevailing theoretical approaches and translation traditions overlooked in “Western” TIS discourse.We are finally seeing some recognition of the extensive research in the field of translation theories in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from the first half of the 20th century,which were more than those in the West well into the 1950s. This growth can be attested by a series of large-scale conferences (Itineraries in Translation History (Tallinn 2010, 2011; Tartu 2014, 2018); Transferring Translation Studies (Antwerp 2013); Czech, Slovak and Polish Structuralist Traditions in the Translation Studies Paradigm Today (Prague 2013); Translation Theories in the Slavic Countries (Bologna 2014); Going East: Discovering New and Alternative Traditions in Translation (Studies) (Vienna 2014); Some Holmes and Popovič in all of us? ( Nitra 2015)), some collective monographs (Ceccherelli, Costantino and Diddi 2015; Schippel and Zwischenberger 2017), thematic issues in journals of TIS (e.g., Mutatis Mutandis:Revista Latinoamericana de Traducción, 2016/2), and one anthology in English (Baer and Olshanskaya 2013).

Eastern European traditions in translation scholarship and research are not well-known because they have not been translated into the dominant language(s) of international scholarship. To fill this gap we need to make the seminal texts of Central and Eastern European thought on translation available to today’s international readership. Some of the key translation theorists from Eastern Europe have begun, in the last decade, to draw the attention of scholars from across Europe and beyond, as evidenced by a very welcome, though belated, publication of a full-length English translation of Jiří Levy’s Art of Translation (2011), Italian translations of Anton Popovič’s Teória umeleckého prekladu [Theory of Translation] (La scienza della traduzione, 2006), and of  Peeter Torop’s Total’nyi perevod [Total Translation](La traduzione totale),published in 2000 (1st edition) and 2010 (2nd edition).

Meanwhile the scholars of Eastern and Central Europe have produced extensive archival work. Detailed anthologies have been published on the history of translation theory in Czechia (Levý 1957),Russia (Levin, Fedorov and Kuzmichov 1960), Poland (Bukowski and Heydel 2013),Ukraine of the 1920s-1930s (Kalnychenko and Poliakova 2011), and Slovenia (writings on translation from 1550 to 1945) (Stanovnik 2013).Works of Czech and Slovak translation scholars have also become part of anthologies on literary translation (Hrdlička and Gromová 2004) and professional translation (Hrdlička, Gromová and Vilímek 2007).The list is far from being complete. There have also been published collected works of individual translation theorists, such as the Slovak František Miko (2011), Ukrainians Oleksandr Finkel (Chernovatyi et al 2007), Hryhoriy Kochur (2008, in 2 volumes),and Hryhoriy Maifet (2015; 2017).Then there are the monographs on translation studies history in Hungary (Klaudy, Lambert and Sohar1996), in Ukraine (Shmiher 2009), and in Slovakia (Vajdová et al. 2014), as well as bibliographies, such as the on-line Czech and Slovak bibliography of writings on translation and interpreting, a separate Slovak bibliography (Cejkova & Kusa 2010), a printed bibliography of Ukrainian translation studies of the twentieth century (Shmiher 2013), and the online bibliography of Ukrainian translation studies focusing on literary translation between 1877 and2012 (Poliakova 2013) (to mention just few). One of the first bibliographies of translation studies compiled by E. Khaitina and B. Khaves was printed in the first volume of an influential Soviet series dedicated to the theory and practice of translation Masterstvo perevoda [The Craft of Translation] as early as 1959. The bibliography contained both writings on translation from the Soviet republics and those from abroad. Kyiv-based bibliographer Mykola Nazarevskyi (Nazarevskiy 1963) supplemented that list and added references to current publications to the second volume. Since then, he has updated the bibliography annually, which is now up to its eighth edition.

Moreover, knowledge of Eastern and Central European translation theories in the West is incomplete, being mostly limited to the “Russian” and/or “Czechoslovakian Schools,” thus excluding, for instance, the existence of “local” traditions, e.g., within the Soviet Union, such as those to be found, for example, in Ukraine (promoted by scholars like Derzhavyn, Finkel’, Ryl’sky, and Koptilov, whose works were published mostly in Ukrainian), or Estonia, or Georgia.In his essay Sostoyanie teoreticheskoy mysli v oblasti perevoda [The State of Theoretical Thought in the Sphere of Translation], Jiří Levý (1970) rightly stated that ‘Soviet translation theory may have a unitary prism of outlook but it has different research directions coexisting within its frame’.The Ukrainian tradition of Translation Studies is still unknown to the majority in the West; however, there is a swing towards re-discovering its theoretical achievements, as we can see from recent publications about Ukrainian thinking on translation in English (Chernetsky 2011; Kal’nychenko 2011; Šmiger 2015; Kalnychenko 2015; Kalnychenko 2017; Odrekhivska 2017).

2. Oleksandr Finkel’s works on self-translation

2.1 Oleksandr Finkel’: Memories Recaptured

The history of translation thought is a good example of the general validity of Goethe’s often-cited dictum from Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre that all intelligent thoughts have already been thought and what is necessary is only try to think them again (Goethe 1829). In other words, the main facts about the nature of translation have long been recognized by many of our predecessors; our task is to rediscover them in the light of our own understanding of things and our present-day challenges and commitments. In this way, translation studies history is able to cast a new light onto the field and safeguard it from exaggerated claims of novelty, originality, breakthrough, and revolution in our (re)discoveries and, thus, lead to a less polemic discourse, a moderation in translation theory.

In his cursory review of the ‘several large uncultivated fields we can expect to plough in the near future’, a decade ago Julio-César Santoyo (2006: 13) wrote that there still remain ‘vast unknown territories’ in translation history, ‘territories which concern not only places and times but also whole fields of inquiry and research’. One of those “blank spots” is ‘an area of translation studies almost forgotten’(Santoyo 2006: 22), ‘defined thirty years ago by Anton Popovič as “the translation of an original work into another language by the author himself”‘ (Popovič 1976: 19).Santoyo argues vigorously that self-translation is a much more widespread phenomenon than one might think; it has a very long history and is today one of the most frequent and significant cultural, linguistic and literary phenomena in our global village and as such deserves much greater attention. ‘Once thought to be a marginal phenomenon [as documented in Santoyo 2005], it has of late received considerable attention in the more culturally inclined provinces of translation studies’, states Rainier Grutman in his entry “Self-translation” in the second edition of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (Grutman 2008: 257). This indication of the interest of Translation Studies towards the phenomenon of self-translation is a fairly recent development and was not noted in Grutman’s entry on this practice (“Auto-translation”) in the first edition of the Encyclopedia dated 1998 (Grutman 1998: 17). Like Santoyo and many other researchers of self-translation, Chiara Montini, the author of the entry “Self-translation in the Benjamins Handbook of Translation Studies, starts it with the words ‘Popovič gives a basic definition of self-translation as …’ (Montini 2010: 306) and quotes part of the definition by Anton Popovič from his Dictionary for the Analysis of Literary Translation mimeographed and published by the University of Alberta Department of Comparative Literature in 1976. The Dictionary (translated into English by Uri Margolin) is a synopsis of the most important terms coined by Anton Popovič himself and some other scholars (J. Lotman, E. Balcerzan, E. Etkind, F. Miko, A. Ljudskanov, S. Sabouk, J. Holmes, J. Čermák etc.) ( Špirk, 2009). The term auto-translation and its definition in this dictionary belongs to Oleksandr Finkel’ whose 1962 paper Popovič knew and referred to.

Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek in his 1995 article which presents revisions of the taxonomical work of Popovič offers the definition of self-translation from that taxonomy as

[t]he translation of an original work into another language by the producer of the text to be translated (by the author himself). Due to its modelling relation to the text to be translated, auto-translation cannot be regarded as a variant of the text to be translated, but as a true translation. This follows from a change of the axiological as well as stylistic and linguistic field into which the text to be translated enters (Finkel). (Tötösy de Zepetnek 1995: 438)

In fact, this reference to Finkel’ was actually the last mention of his name in English translation studies literature in connection with the problem of self-translation (in later publications of his taxonomy, Tötösy de Zepetnek omitted the reference).

 This is a reference to the name of Oleksandr Moiseyovych Finkel’ (3.10.1899 – 8.10.1968), a professor of Kharkiv University, a Ukrainian linguist and translation studies scholar and the author of the first book-length study in translation theory in the then Soviet Union (published in Ukrainian in 1929); the first scholar who directed attention to the problem of self-translation as early as 1929 (not 1962 as Costantino writes in the citation in the Introduction). Incidentally, Popovič shares the thoughts of Oleksandr Finkel (whose works the Slovak scholar also refers to in Teória umeleckého prekladu [19, 59 – reference in accordance with the Russian translation]) about the specific character of auto-translation. The close interest shown by Popovič in Finkel’s findings is also testified by the marks he made in his personal copy of Finkel’s article (see Figure 1).[1]

Figure 1

The theory and practice of translation are conditioned by the tasks to be resolved, i.e., various assignments give rise to various theoretical constructions. When we come across the theories from the past we are bound to ask ourselves which particular problems these theories were intended to solve. The first post-revolutionary years in Ukraine (1917–1932) saw immense enthusiasm and a surge in translation activities (in spite of the severe political censorship that was in force), the publication of multivolume collected works of translated authors, and a boost in the development of translation theory (Kal’nychenko 2011; Kolomiiets 2013). Mykola Zerov, Hryhoriy Maifet, Ivan Kulyk, Volodymyr Derzhavyn, and Oleksandr Finkel’, the pioneers of translation studies in Ukraine, sought to elaborate a coherent and systematic approach to translation, taking into consideration the reviews by numerous critics who in the mid-1920’s were making the effort to give some rational direction to the translational boom caused by the expansion of the spectrum of published books. As a consequence, the theoretical principles of translation methods and criticism were the topic of the day. Moreover, the new era brought about a revision of the Ukrainian literary heritage and the rewriting of the history of literature. Of vital significance for the emergence of the theory of translation were the works on literature history that viewed translation as an important and formative part of the literary system.

Ukrainian literature of the 1800’s and early 1900’s includes plentiful cases of self-translation. Among the translators of their own works were prominent Ukrainian writers, namely, Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko (Ukrainian – Russian), Panteleimon Kulish (Ukrainian – Russian), Marko Vovchok (Ukrainian, Russian, French), Ivan Franko (Ukrainian, German, Polish), Olha Kobylianska (Ukrainian, German), Lesia Ukrainka (Ukrainian, Russian, German), Marko Vorony (Ukrainian – Russsian)(the list is far from complete). It is not surprising, then, that Finkel’ addressed the issue of auto-translation placing the self-translator in his specific historical milieu, bringing social and political contexts to Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s bilingual text. Moreover, the choice of the topic is partly explained by the fact that Taras Shevchenko Institute (a literary research institution) in Kharkiv was preparing a scholarly collection to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko and young Finkel’ was invited to contribute.

2.2 Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko as a Self-Translator

Hence, for practical study and analysis of self-translation, Finkel’ selected the novellas and short stories by Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko (1778–1843), a Ukrainian writer, journalist, and playwright, a classic of Ukrainian literature, and one of the earliest proponents of vernacular Ukrainian as a literary language.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Ukrainian lands had been transformed into Russian provinces. Under these circumstances, Ukrainian national identity came to mean devotedness to the land and its people, which led Ukrainian letterati to place a special emphasis on linguistic, cultural, and ethnographic characteristics.

The local written standard, the so-called knyzhna mova (book language) consistently grew farther away from the spoken vernacular. It also suffered a decline due to the Russification of the Ukrainian nobility and higher clergy; this decline was enhanced by the Russufication of education and tsarist bans on printing books in the Ukrainian literary language. According to Mykola Zerov (1924), this situation, on the one hand, left ample room for the Russian language to establish itself, and, on the other, prompted the desire to use a phonetically purified and stylistically improved vernacular. But the prescriptive classicist doctrine of the Russian Empire of the second half of the eighteenth century demanded the vernacular to be used only in satirical, humorous, or lyrical writings.

Therefore, the history of the modern standard Ukrainian language and modern vernacular Ukrainian literature began with a travesty: a high styled heroic epic written in the rural language of the peasant. Such was the travestied translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (first edition, St. Petersburg, 1798) by Ivan Kotliarevs’kyi (1769 – 1838) with the title Malorossiiskaia Eneida (Little Russian Aeneid) “dressed” in the Ukrainian language (Eneida na malorossiiskii iazykperelitsiovannaia). Immensely popular, Eneida ushered in the vernacular style, the so-called “kotliarevshchyna,” and, according to Vitaly Chernetsky (2011: 37),

[s]ome unintended consequences, as many educated readers, both in Ukraine and abroad, came to believe that while Ukrainian vernacular literature was well suited to comedic narratives, it lacked the means to address lofty and serious topics.

Hryhoriy Kvitka Osnovyanenko, the initiator of the Ukrainian short story, sought to dispute this common assumption by extending the use of vernacular to ‘serious’ prose. Like most of his contemporaries in the Ukrainian literary scene, he also wrote in Russian. His Ukrainian language works were mostly burlesque-realistic and satirical in nature, however, he also wrote serious prose, such as the sentimental novella Marusia, which he did, in his own words, to prove to a disbeliever that something sentimental and moving could be written in Ukrainian. This was a well-considered, responsible and, in a way, daring decision, as Kvitka-Osnovyanenko became a Ukrainian writer precisely at a time when anything Ukrainian was either the object of mockery or, at best, a condescending ethnographic vogue.

H.F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself translated eight of his Ukrainian novellas into Russian. These were Marusia, Mertvetskyy Velikden (Dead Man’s Easter), Dobre roby, dobre y bude (Do Well and Be Well), Konotops’ka vidma (The Witch of Konotop ), Serdeshna Oksana (Hapless Oksana), Shchyra liubov (True Love), Bozhi dity (God’s Children), and Saldats’kyi patret (A Soldier’s Portrait) (Finkel’ 2006: 402-4). For the sake of comparison, Finkel’ also addressed the Russian translation of Saldatskyi patret made by the renowned Russian language lexicographer Vladimir Dahl (alternatively transliterated as Dal) (1801 –1872), published in 1837 (Finkel’ 1929: 108 [2006: 402]). It is also important to note that Finkel’ and Popovic applied the term “auto-translation” (“avtopereklad” in Ukrainian and “avtoperevod” – in Russian).

2.3 Oleksandr Finkel’ on Auto-Translation

What follows is an analysis of the ideas of Oleksandr Finkel’ on self-translation. In his 1929 seminal article “H.F. Kvitka as the translator of his own works”, written in August,1928, in Ukrainian, Finkel argues that the topic has been unjustifiably neglected and that it is a ‘simplification of the matter’ to suggest that ‘there is no difference between the author-translator and the ordinary translator at all’ (Finkel’ 1929: 107). He explains that

[t]here is no uniform compulsory translation norm [notably, this precise term was used as far back as 1929] (as far as literary translation is concerned) and attentive observation proves that norms fluctuate depending on the general literary views of a certain period. Moreover, within the same period and, more often than not, within the same literary school, one can find varying approaches towards the theory of translation. There is no objective criterion for differentiating between a translation and an artistic adaptation […], there is no objective criterion for determining quality […], and what is sometimes claimed to be this very criterion is a mere declaration of the theorizer’s subjective preference, which cannot be considered to have either an objective or categorizing value. What echoes the many theoretical positions is the diversity of translators’ practical solutions. Does this not account for numerous translators who translate the same works? Owing to all these circumstances […] the solutions an author finds for translation problems unexpectedly acquire a particularly acute interest and significance. (Finkel’ 1929: 107-8 [2006: 400-1])[2]

Oleksandr Finkel’ turned his attention to the problem of self-translation from time to time throughout his life. In 1939, he wrote his thesis entitled “H. F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko as the translator of his own works” (Finkel’ 1939), the complete version of which ironically only survives in Finkel’s self-translation into Russian. In it, Finkel’ explores the features of H.F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s translation method, his perception of the task, and the importance of self-translation for translation theory.

In his 1962 Russian article “Ob avtoperevode: Znacheniye avtoperevoda dlia teorii perevoda” [On Autotranslation: The Importance of Auto-translation for the Theory of Translation], Finkel’ writes:

It may seem that there is no significant difference between the author-translator and a regular translator and that, regardless of their personal relation to the translated work, it is only the result that matters, i.e., the degree of perfection and the means by which the problems presented by the translation have been solved. In fact, this is not true, and such reasoning simplifies the matter. While a regular translator and the author-translator are seemingly faced with the same problems and difficulties, with auto-translation, unlike the translation proper, their resolution acquires a somewhat different character, a different direction, and a different sense. First of all, it is the nature of conceptualization of a literary work which is strongly deformed. If the translator is not the author then she/he conceptualises the work in translation by emphasizing some elements and “muffling” others: firstly, because in ideological, aesthetic, ethical, and suchlike terms he/she will differ from  the author, and secondly, because the literary work will be transferred into new conditions (and presented to a different readership);but with an author-translator, then the first set of considerations obviously don’t apply. (Finkel’ 2007b: 300)

However, the second set of considerations does still apply, so reconceptualization does occur, but in a slightly different way: becoming reconsideration, so to speak, not for oneself, but for the others.

As a result, there appear more or less significant changes which the author-translator introduces, perhaps, as if committing an act of violence over his authorial intention: for a different language and cultural milieu may compel him to make such changes which he would not have allowed in the original, forcing him to re-make his work to some extent, thus splitting his/her personality. This “re-make” cannot but affect the language and style of the translation. (Finkel’ 2007b: 300-1)

As is known, a number of theorists and practitioners of translation have repeatedly claimed that the translator should write in the same way as the original author would have written has she/he been writing in the target language (Finkel’ mentions in his 1929 article such names as Vasily Zhukovsky, Aleksey K. Tolstoy, Innokentiy Annensky, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff) (Finkel 1929: 116 [2006: 407])). In self-translation, this requirement is fully met:

Hence, auto-translation would seem to provide for the optimum results, because who else can know better what the author considers to be the most significant features in the structure of the work, what should prevail what, or what should be emphasized? But does this personality split enable the author-translator to exercise his right? And does the amalgamation of the author and the translator in one person make that ideal which any translator should see his mind’s eye? The study of self-translation can shed light upon this matter as well. (Finkel’ 2007b: 301)

On the other hand, the changes that the author-translator forcibly introduces into his/her translation can lead to significant discrepancies with the original. In a regular translation, this can be considered a drawback, because it risks turning the translation into more of an adaptation or imitation. ‘But are the very same correlations between a translation and an adaptation operative for the author-translator?’ – asks Finkel’. (Finkel’ 2007b: 301) According to him, these are the key questions that self-translation raises in addition to general translation issues.

Apart from these, Finkel’ tackles the concept of self-translation in two other works (in which self-translation is not the subject of the study but a mere example to prove other ideas). He does so in his book Teoriya i praktyka perekladu[The Theory and Practice of Translation] (Finkel [1929] 2007c) published in 1929, and, later, in his 1939 Russian-language article “O nekotorykh voprpsakh teorii perevoda” [“Some Problems in the Theory of Translation”] (Finkel [1939] 2007a), the latter dealing with the fundamental problem of translatability and where, in Andrey Fedorov’s opinion, ‘the methodological failure of the idea of untranslatability is proven thoroughly and convincingly’. (Fedorov 1982: 9)

Finkel’ realizes that he is the first researcher to take an interest in the problem of self-translation: ‘Among the problems associated with the issues of translation, the problem of auto-translation [...] has never been addressed’ (Finkel’ 1929: 108 [2006: 401]).Although he claims (erroneously in our opinion) that ‘a bilingual writer who is the translator of his own works is a phenomenon so rare, if not exceptional, that it cannot have much significance in the formation of translational skills and principles’, nevertheless, ‘the temptation to ignore them completely is easy to fall into but hardly justifiable’. (Finkel’ 1929: 108 [2006: 401]) In his later article, Finkel’ insists that ‘auto-translation provides a very interesting and instructive material for the theory (and history) of translation’. (Finkel 2007b: 299)

While realizing that the analysis of a single author’s translations can hardly give a convincing answer to all the issues in question, Finkel’ still believed that the study of H.F. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translations could help ‘reveal many interesting facts and chart the course for the further study of translation theory’. (Finkel’ 2007b: 301)

Finkel’s ideas changed with the social and political changes which took place in the Soviet Union. When comparing the Ukrainian article of 1929 and the Russian article of 1962, one can notice that the earlier one provides more detail on Kvitka’s biography, his publishers, and his translator; it also pays closer attention to theoretical issues, including references to Wilhelm von Humboldt, Oscar Weise, and Andrey Fedorov. While attempting to systematize the material collected in his Russian article in 1962, Finkel’ quite clearly avoids discussion of any socially provocative issues, such as questions of ethnic bilingualism, which he addresses in part V of the 1929 version, and avoids in 1962, problems of language disparity (part IX and X in 1929), or issues of censorship (part IX in 1929). The political situation in the country made Finkel’ exercise caution in order to eliminate the possibility of conflict. Therefore, the better known and wider cited article of 1962, despite its clear structure, is devoid of Finkel’s social and philosophical observations. This considerable loss makes the 1962 article more descriptive and its conclusions less significant.

2.4 Finkel’ on the Reasons for Self-Translating

In his 1962 article, Finkel’ lists the reasons that induced Kvitka-Osnovyanenko to translate his own works. He finds that the motivation of a regular translator is different from that of a self-translator.

[T]here must be some very important reasons and considerations for the writer to resort to translating his own works, and these reasons and considerations can be so varied and so personal that their convergence with different authors is a matter of pure coincidence. To some extent, they always include an aesthetic component, which may result from dissatisfaction with the translations by others, but this is certainly not the main, sole, or decisive reason. Nor was it the main reason for Kvitka, though other people’s translations did not always satisfy him. (Finkel 2007b: 302)

Finkel’ cites Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s letters to Pyotr Pletnyov, who, after Pushkin’s death in 1837, edited the literary journal Sovremennik: ‘Praising my writings, the locals got round to translating them into Russian, but everything was a failure [...]’. (26.04.1839) (Finkel 2007b: 302). In another letter to Pletnyov, Kvitka writes:

Soldier’s portrait [...] is splendidly rendered by the respected V.I. Dahl, but, if I may say so, there are phrases that interpret the idea wrongly and change the very notion of what was intended. All these stem from an ignorance of the locality and local customs. (Finkel 1929: 110 [2006: 404]).

Evidently, every author wants to see his works in perfect translation, so Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s complaints are quite natural. However, it was not personal motivation that made Kvitka turn to self-translating. There were reasons that were much more important to him than perfection or Dahl’s clumsiness in the translation of Soldier’s portrait.

These were the topical issue of whether it was possible to create worthy literary works in Ukrainian, part of the dispute over the potency of the Ukrainian language and the right to exist of “provincial” literature (Finkel 2007b: 302). For, there was a wide-spread opinion among the Russian literati of the early XIX century that Ukrainian literature was something unheard of and that the Ukrainian language was simply not suitable for refined belles-lettres. To illustrate this point, Oleksandr Finkel’ cites, for instance, the newspaper Severnaya pchela, which was notorious for its reactionary views, and which claimed: ‘Why should one bother with creating literature in a nation which has lost its national identity, and a face of its own?’ (Severnaya pchela, 1 November 1834) (Finkel 2007b: 302). Similarly, Nikolai Polevoy, a controversial Russian editor, writer, translator, and historian, wrote:

…we find it a completely useless whim to write something in the format of a full-size book in Malorossian [Little Russian][...] Why and for what? And [...] is not it better for the highly-respected Grytsko [i.e., Kvitka-Osnovyanenko] and his other gifted compatriots to write in the rich, beautiful, and melodious Russian language, rather than in a marred and ugly vernacular? (Finkel’ 2007b: 303).

Not many disagreed with this position, and only a few writers recognized the right of Ukrainian literature to independent existence (Dahl, Shevyrev). It was against the background of these prejudices that Kvitka-Osnovyanenko began translating his own works, particularly, Marusia, for reasons outlined very clearly in his letter to Pyotr Pletnyov (15 March 1839):

 I once had a dispute with a writer in the Malorossian idiom. I asked him to write something serious and touching. He tried to persuade me that the language was clumsy and utterly unfit for such a task. Yet, knowing its characteristics, I wrote Marusia and proved that the Malorossian language can move you to tears…The success of my tales encouraged locals to translate some into Russian, entirely into Russian, just as you would like. Now, we were listening to [the translation]: and what? We, Little Russians, do not recognize our own countrymen, and Russians [...] they yawn and find it a masquerade; the expressions do not tally with the customs, the exposition does not tally with the nationality, the action does not tally with the characters, who have their own way of thinking; and so it [the reading] was stopped, although, to tell the truth, the translation was polished and well-done. I offered my translation [...] and it was found to be satisfactory, yet – alas! – failing to convey the beauty of Malorossian turns of speech [...]
[...] And besides, dear Pyotr Aleksandrovich, will you be so kind as to take a closer look at the noticeable differences between our languages, well, that is, the Russian and the Malorossian languages; what in one language will be vigorous, melodious, and eloquent, in the other will not produce any effect at all; it will be bleary and dull [...] Here is an example for you: Feast of the Dead.[3] It is a legend, a local tale. [...] Told in our idiom, the way it is traditionally related, it is enjoyable, and is read and reread, and quoted by readers. Once rendered into Russian, it has proved a half-and-halfer; a butt for ridicule by a journalist, which was exactly what I expected upon reading it in your journal. (Finkel 2006: 405)

Pyotr Pletnyov himself highly appreciated the novella Marusia, the Russian self-translation of which was published in his journal Sovremennik (1838): ‘We would wish not only all Russia but also Europe to relish this treasure’ (Siundiukov 2003). Incidentally, the French translation of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s Hapless Oksana, made from the Russian self-translation, came out in Paris in 1854.

Thus, according to Finkel’, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, pursued a dual purpose. Firstly, he wanted to prove the authority and viability of the Ukrainian language, and show that is was fully suitable for belles-lettres. Secondly, Kvitka wanted to create the best possible translations of his works to prove that even the most exact and meticulous translation could not replace the original. He also meant to present his works in the most favourable light not only as his personal writings but also as achievements of Ukrainian literature. This intent shaped Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s attitude not only to other’s translations, but also the requirements he set himself as a translator (Finkel’ 2006: 406).

2.5 Finkel’ on the Prerequisites of Self-Translation

Far from being aware of all the controversial problems of translation, Kvitka groped for the solutions relying on his experience as a writer. According to Finkel’, the affinity of the Ukrainian and Russian languages became the essential background for Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s work, leaving an impact on all his self-translations (Finkel 2007b: 305). The greatest challenge here was bilingual homonymy and polysemy, which greatly affected Kvitka’s translations, in particular due to his bilingual environment: Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself did not always distinguish Russian phrases from Ukrainian (Finkel’ 2007b: 305).

This bilingualism of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s is clearly discernible in his self-translations. Besides, his chosen translation method pushed him towards inaccuracies in his self-translations. ‘I offered my translation, a literal one, not allowing myself to shift a word’, he wrote in his letters to Pletnyov (Finkel’ 2007a: 231). These words unequivocally account for Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s intentions: he believed that literal translation secured the best results. Thus, Kvitka’s practice as a self-translator was conditioned by the relations between the Russian and Ukrainian languages as an external factor; by his bilingualism as a subjective factor (and of which he was insufficiently aware); and by the word-for-word principle which he considered (at least in theory) the most appropriate for proving the wealth of the Ukrainian language (Finkel’ 2007b: 305-6).

2.6 Finkel’ on the Reproduction of Local Colour in Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s Self-translations

The self-translations by Kvitka are notable for their ethnographic colouring. Being aware of the similarity of the Ukrainian and Russian languages, Kvitka, at times, preferred transcription to Russian equivalents. However common these words might have seemed in the originals, they looked strikingly foreign in the Russian translations and required a lot of effort to understand. Transcriptions were widely employed in a range of contexts. Firstly, they were used in rendering words and expressions denoting realia of Ukrainian culture which did not have equivalents in the Russian language, and, therefore, had to be introduced in the translations in their original forms. This preservation of local Ukrainian colour was a natural strategy for Kvitka who repeatedly criticized his Russian translators for their ignorance of Ukrainian culture. His self-translations emphasize the originality of Ukrainian culture by preserving the names of Ukrainian holidays, types of activities, and garments.

Secondly – and most unexpectedly – Kvitka transcribe many words and expressions other than cultural realia, which had equivalents in the Russian language. Finkel’ argues that it is hard to find any consistency in Kvitka’s choices: ‘It is impossible to explain why Kvitka chose to transcribe these particular words without even trying to translate them’ (Finkel’ 2007b: 311). So Finkel’ makes the assumption that Kvitka was pursuing a stylistic purpose:

Apparently, the choice between translation and transcription was of little, if any, importance to Kvitka. But even though there are no linguistic, cultural, or historic grounds, the stylistic function of such transcriptions is very expressive: they are intended to create a particular Ukrainian atmosphere for the Russian reader, and they do so, however purposely mocking […] this way of rendering might seem. (Finkel’ 2007b: 311)

Whatever the case, Kvitka seeks to introduce ethnographic elements to render the particular national style of his works that he found unjustly ignored by the Russian translators. Kvitka is adamant in observing this principle, even though the use of transcriptions does not always achieve the intended effect and is, at times, misleading for the reader.

2.7 Kvitka’s Translations of Idioms

Finkel’ provides a careful analysis of Kvitka’s translations of idiomatic expressions to find out that Kvitka’s desire to render the original expressivity of the Ukrainian language made him experiment with idioms and apply varying strategies. Finkel’ states that the idiomatic diversity of Kvitka’s style posed particular difficulties in translation and he provides a list of such difficulties. Firstly, he notes, idioms reveal a particular semantics of their own, as the meaning of an idiomatic expression is not equal to the sum of the meanings of its constituents. Secondly, idioms present a lexical problem, as their wording can differ from a non-idiomatic use. Thirdly, the composition of an idiom has to be paid a particular attention to as idioms can have a distinct syntactic structure or phonetic features difficult to render in translation. Yet, the biggest difficulty, insists Finkel’, is rooted in the cultural specifics of the given idiom and its marked cultural slant. The translation of idioms may distort the bonds between an idiom and its original culture; the necessity to convey the implied meanings and associations limits the translator’s choices. This is why what may sound clear and natural in the original can look exotic or artificial in the translation (Finkel’ 2007b: 312-3).

Kvitka applies several techniques in rendering idioms in his self-translations, and, as in the case of rendering local colour he is able to relate the reader to the Ukrainian language and culture, but fails to achieve consistency in his translation methodology. He uses literal translations and idiomatic loan translations to render the same idiom in different contexts, at times introducing Ukrainian words.

Therefore, idiomatic equivalents in his translations prove incomprehensible in some cases, and literal translations are sometimes misleading or far from being expressive, which contradicts the purpose of Kvitka’s self-translations which was to introduce the reader to the unique Ukrainian language and style. (Finkel’ 2007b: 314)

Finkel’ makes an assumption that Kvitka intentionally avoided Russian idiomatic equivalents when translating Ukrainian idioms in order to counter the stereotypical idea that the Ukrainian and Russian languages are equivalent. In a way, experimenting with idioms was a method to demonstrate the originality of Ukrainian phraseology (Finkel 2007b: 315).

The same approach permeated Kvitka’s syntax as he introduced Ukrainian elements into his Russian self-translation. The Ukrainian grammatical elements brought into the Russian translations repeatedly produce a different and unpredictable effect which is quite different to the original, since, in the two languages, these elements can belong to different functional styles, social dialects, or historical periods. ‘In this regard, Kvitka’s self-translations appear to intentionally avoid complete conformity to the Russian grammatical rules’. (Finkel’ 2007b: 316-9)

2.8 Finkel’ on Changes and Additions in Kvitka’s Self-Translations

Towards the end of his article, Finkel’ discusses melioration – the improvement of content and style – as a tendency manifested by Kvitka in his self-translations. Despite his claims of having made a word-for-word translation of his works, Kvitka, in fact, rewrites long passages of the texts introducing substantial changes and additions. According to Finkel’s observations, a comparison of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translations with VladimirDahl’s translation shows that Dahl deviates from the original extremely rarely whereas Kvitka-Osnovyanenko resorts to considerable alterations. Finkel shows that all deviations from the original in Dahl’s translation of Soldier’s Portrait do not exceed ten explanatory words and an insignificant number of omissions; which means that Dahl can hardly be accused of rewriting the original. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translation of the same novella contains about a hundred explanations and omissions. And this is quite natural, since Kvitka-Osnovyanenko could afford any deviation from the original without any fear of criticism, while even the smallest variation by Dahl provoked criticism (mainly by Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself).

Importantly, Finkel’ concludes that a greater independence from the original constitutes the main difference between the author-translator and the regular translator. In a way, the authorial translation can be viewed as not a translation, but rather an independent work (Finkel’ 2006: 436). All in all, in the eight stories self-translated by Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, one can find over 200 rewritings, which is proof enough that the author specifically made the effort to edit his works and modulate their tone (Finkel’ 2007b: 322).

An important factor in Kvitka’s alterations in his self-translations was his self-censorship; and changes for aesthetic reasons are also important. Aware of the social situation in Russia and the specifics of the Russian readership, Kvitka resorts to omissions and reductions, insertions and additions, alterations and rehashes. There are hundreds of such cases (Finkel’ 2007b: 322). Finkel’ explains that

[A]ll these changes […] are of the same nature: Kvitka systematically moderates his Russian translations on the grounds of the stylistic dissimilarity between the Russian and Ukrainian languages and socially different readerships. (Finkel 2007a: 232)

Indeed, Ukrainian and Russian readers in those days belonged to different social strata: whereas the average Russian reader of his novellas came from gentry, his Ukrainian readers, in his own words, were ‘their servants’ (2007b: 214). Kvitka was well aware that preservation of some features of the original could distort the perception of the translation by the Russian readers, which might result in their misjudging Ukrainian literature and culture, in general (Finkel 2007b: 320).

2.9 Finkel’’s Conclusions

The close study of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko’s self-translations enables Finkel to describe the process of self-translation as “amalgamation of the author and translator in one person” (Finkel’ 2007b: 324). This combination is not, in Finkel’s view, an advantage in terms of ensuring translation adequacy. Being of a different nature from a regular translation, the reconceptualisation of one’s own work can lead to substantial discrepancies with the original, either enhancing the quality of the work, or lowering it. However undesirable the discrepancies with the original might be, argues Finkel, reconceptualisation in translation is unavoidable, as the translator of the literary piece is also the author who addresses his work to a new readership. The split identity of the author therefore “prevents the author from becoming the best translator of his works” (Finkel 2007b: 324).  Indeed, authorial translation blurs the boundary between translation and adaptation, the latter, in Finkel’s opinion, much more typical for self-translation, if not inherent. The degree of liberty the author is able to take with his own work is incomparably higher than that of a regular translator (Finkel’ 2007b: 325). With these considerations in mind, Finkel’ was confident that the further research on self-translation would make a substantial contribution into the translation theory.

3. In conclusion

Whereas Finkel’s 1929 Ukrainian article did not attract any attention, his 1962 Russian article (which was, to a large extent, his self-translated 1929 article) did. In the 1960-80s, the phenomenon of self-translation was repeatedly discussed by translation scholars in Central and Eastern Europe, namely, Viktor Koptilov of Ukraine, Viačasłaŭ Rahojša of Belarus, Rurik Minyar-Beloruchev of Russia, Sider Florin and Sergeĭ Vlakhov of Bulgaria, Çingiz Hüseynov of Azerbaijan, Anton Popovič of Slovakia and others. It was Anton Popovič who linked Eastern European traditions in translation research with the Translation Studies emerging in the West. Specifically, by means of his Dictionary for the Analysis of Literary Translation, containing the entry on auto-translation, he introduced the concept in English-speaking countries. Unfortunately, these pioneer works on the study of self-translation as well as a wealth of other works published in Eastern Europe are largely unknown in the West. Moreover, they are not included in the Bibliography on self-translation edited recently by Eva Gentes (Gentes 2018).

As self-translation has become an increasingly common practice in our globalized world, more research is carried out in this area. Nevertheless, there are two areas adjacent to the issue of self-translation, which are still not clearly understood. One of them is the case where a self-translation is carried out from a “non-recorded” mother tongue source text. For instance, in his analysis of Gogol’s style against the background of the contemporary Russian language Professor Iosif Mandelstam (1902) of Helsingfors arrives at the conclusion that Gogol’s ‘idiom of the soul’ was in fact Ukrainian and that Gogol translated collocations and concepts to himself trying to adapt to the then Russian language. Another area is represented by translations made by the author in collaboration with the translator.

The History of Science, as Volodymyr Vernadsky maintained, is bound to be critically rewritten according to the imperatives of the present by each generation of investigators, and not only because our store of knowledge of the past has changed, or some new documents have been found, or some new methods of reinterpreting the past have been worked out.

It is necessary to approach the history of science anew, to immerse oneself in the past time and again, considering that due to the development of contemporary knowledge one thing in the past has become important and something else has lost its importance. Each generation of researchers seeks and finds in the history of their science the reflections of recent scientific trends. By making progress science does more than merely create something new; it also inevitably reappraises its past, its previous experience. (Vernadsky, 1912: 126–127)

In this light, the internationalization of the discipline seeks to rediscover new types of primary sources, new regions as well as additional languages and cultural traditions, which require the writing of new histories (Fernandez Sanchez2015, 104).

Mainstream Translation Studies (which often means English language Translation Studies) are currently facing a situation which calls for a new balance and moderation in the claims of novelty and originality. The knowledge of other translation traditions, practices, and contexts is able to shed a new light onto the discipline and make researchers in the field aware of the achievements of their predecessors in different countries across the world. Engagement with the literature on translation in the “peripheral” cultures that have centuries of experience in translation, as well as sound and solid reflections on its practice, ‘could be much more rewarding for translation studies than the assumption that the most recent debates and developments in the field are revolutionary, original and uniquely innovative’ (Nasi 2014: 138). Moreover, a greater familiarity with the contribution that “peripheral” cultures have made to translation studies could save time and effort in the common enterprise of trying to define translation. The development of unified translation studies history can become an important contribution to the field of Translation Studies and create a common ground for a joint effort development of the discipline.


We are indebted to Edita Gromová (Constantine the Philosopher University, Nitra) for sharing her private archive with us and to Luc van Doorslaer (KU Leuven/University of Tartu), Ton Naaijkens (University of Utrecht), and Christopher Rundle (University of Bologna) for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


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[1]The photo of Finkel’s article was kindly shared with us by Professor Edita Gromová from Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra.Gromová’s father, Professor Ján Kopál, a close co-worker of Popovič, received the volume with Finkel’s article from Popovič himself. This volume with Popovič’s marks in Finkel’s article is now a part of Gromová’s private library.

[2]All translations from Ukranian and Russian are by the authors unless otherwise indicated.

[3]In Finkel’s Russian self-translation the title was changed from Mertvetskyy Velikden (Dead Man’s Easter) into Prazdnik mertvetsov (Feast of the Dead)

About the author(s)

Oleksandr Kalnychenko is Associate Professor of Mykola Lukash Translation Studies Department at V.N. Karazin National University of Kharkiv. He lectures in Translation Studies and Translation History and is Editor-in-Chief of Protey annual translators’ miscellany and Khyst i Hluzd translators’ miscellany, author of 40 books of literary translations from English into Ukrainian and Russian, and over 130 scholarly publications.

Natalia Kamovnikova is Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology, Pedagogy, and Translation Studies of St. Petersburg University of Management Technologies and Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia. She lectures in Translation Studies and Linguistics and teaches practical courses of interpreting, English, and German. She is also a practicing conference interpreter.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Oleksandr Kalnychenko & Natalia Kamovnikova (2019).
"Oleksandr Finkel’ on the Problem of Self-Translation", inTRAlinea Vol. 21.

This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/2349

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