Anthropology in the Russian language

The latest CamCREES notes cover the panel session on 4 February at which four anthropologists discussed being published in different languages and countries – a fascinating insight into linguistic practicalities and also into something rather deeper: the different worlds that anthropology inhabits in different places.  The notes then consider acquisitions of translations and regional publications.

The CamCREES panel session ‘Anthropology in the Russian language’ started with Tatiana Safonova and Istvan Santha, Cambridge anthropologists from Russia and Hungary respectively, telling the story of the book they wrote about the Evenki people who live in the region of the great Siberian Lake Baikal. It was first drafted by Tania in English, but the opportunity to publish it first came up in Hungary, so Istvan translated it and it was published first there. A UK publisher then took an interest, but Tania’s English version was re-worked by a native speaker (the Haddon Library holds a copy; record here). Finally, a Russian publisher also took interest, and Tania produced a version in Russian. Among the examples Tania and Istvan gave of the differences in terms of approaches in anthropology in different countries, a simple one was the way in which the identity of the human subjects of their research was treated. While it is absolutely standard in the west to anonymise subjects by giving them false names, the Russian approach is that you MUST use real names in order to make your research real!

Mette High of the University of St Andrews spoke about the process and consequences of turning her Cambridge PhD on illegal gold-mining in Mongolia into a published book in that country. Since her PhD audience and her Mongolian audience would bring such different backgrounds to the reading of her book, Mette spent a year re-writing her dissertation to make it a book suitable to be translated for and read by Mongolian anthropology academics and students. Among the decisions she had to make was whether or not to keep subjects that are taboo topics there, such as the existence of domestic abuse, in the book. In the end, she did keep them in, since their removal would undermine the point of her work, but did edit heavily. A physical print run of 500 has been followed recently by the appearance of the book online through open access. There have been 280 downloads in the first two months alone – and the readership has also shifted; whereas the physical books have gone into academia, many of the downloads have been tracked to the private sector of gold-mining companies.

Finally, Olga Ulturgasheva of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute spoke about the experience she and a colleague had of trying to initiate the production of a special issue of a Siberian journal. Their idea had been to arrange a bilingual special issue dedicated to the GULag, but it met with vehement resistance, not only from potential authors (a call for articles in Russia and the west had seen responses only from academics based in the latter) but also from the editorial board. To the surprise and dismay of Olga (who comes from Siberia) and her colleague (based in Cambridge but also Russian), they were told that they were colonialists and the [“real”!] Russians were colonised aboriginals… Moreover, the editorial board rejected the idea of the special issue being available as open access or, even, online at all. The idea of the special issue eventually had to be dropped, but Olga had the good news that it had been instead picked up by a publisher in western Russia and will be brought out as a book in autumn 2014.

The panel discussion led to very lively questions from the audience, and the session as a whole left me with a great deal of food for thought. While the subject of the publications under discussion was anthropology, the issues which came up could presumably also be issues in other schools such as history and philology. I’ll talk a little about two issues in particular.

Firstly, the panellists were very clear about the differences publishing in another country and language could bring to the content of one’s work. If money and space were no option, then, it might make some sense to buy different versions of a book, so that the reader could see these differences, potentially of great interest in and of themselves. Even for the University Library, though, both money and space are issues. We have to take the most pragmatic decision, and would rarely buy a translation unless it were either [a] translated into English or [b] translated from a language unlikely to be read here (eg a language not taught in the University) into a language more likely to be read (eg German or French).

Secondly, there seemed to be consensus that academic publishing outside Moscow and St Petersburg was often disregarded in academia. Should that mean that libraries such as the UL shouldn’t collect books from regional presses? I feel not. Many suppliers of Russian-language material have started in recent years to try to represent the regions more strongly in their lists. While the initial emphasis of budgets would be books from the major publishers in the current and former capitals, and while we could never claim to take a completest approach to regional (or central) publications, I think it important that regional presses are represented in our collections. Among our most recent orders, for example, is a dozen or so books from the Caucasus, published by local academic presses and covering subjects such as local history and the Chechen language.

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

Mel Bach

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