Edinburgh Book Festival: Celebrating Lermontov: New Translations of an Old Master

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Alexander Hutchison, Peter France, Rose France, Robyn Marsack (chair)
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Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) was remarkably proud of his Scottish ancestry, traceable to the Learmonths of Crail in Fife, although Lermontov himself believed he descended from Thomas the Rhymer.

Whatever the truth of that, his poetical work is considerable, although until now little known outside Russia, where he is regarded as second only to Pushkin in developing a genuinely Russian literature for the Romantic era, and in making the Russian language the vehicle for this.

It’s very appropriate, given Lermontov’s Scottish connections, that a new volume of translations should emanate largely from Scotland; Professor Peter France and Robyn Marsack have facilitated a number of poets in re-considering and working with the poetry of Lermontov, the final result being ‘After Lermontov; Translations for the Bi-Centenary’

Best known to the English-speaking world as the author of “A Hero of Our Time’, this volume presents Lermontov as he was best known in Russia during his short lifespan.

Robyn Marasak introduced her co-editor Professor Peter France, his daughter Rose France and Alexander (Sandy) Hutchison, all of whom had contributed to ‘After Lermontov’, and spoke of their experiences of translating Lermontov’s verse.

Their discussions proved a stimulating insight into the process of translation in general and from Russian into English and Scots in particular.

Hutchison discussed his interpretation of ‘Borodino’ – a battle that was part of a fighting retreat, but with an equivalent significance to Russians of the nineteenth century as Waterloo had for the British.

Hutchison’s laconic Scots seemed as appropriate to that particular poem as both the France’s English versions of another Lermontov poem that seemed, in its sense of despairing ennui, to presage the Nihilist movement of a slightly later generation of Russians.

The lively discussion of their differing versions helped illuminate the difficulties and (sometimes literal) contradictions inherent in the process of translation, and was perhaps the most stimulating element of the event.

For this reviewer, the event proved among the most genuinely convivial and informative hours spent at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival so far.

After Lermontov: Translations for the Bi-Centenary, Peter France and Robyn Marsack (eds) Carcanet £12.95 isbn: 978 847772 75 6