Thursday, 10 March 2016

When Magarshack met Penguin: Guest Post with Cathy McAteer

In March 2015, Russian Dinosaur attended a one-day workshop on 'Translating and Publishing Russian Literature', held at the University of Bristol and organized by Cathy McAteer, a departmental research student and tutor on the University's MA in Translation programme. I was so intrigued 
by Cathy's research on the translator David Magarshack - like many other readers, I cut my Dostoevsky teeth on his prose - that I invited her to contribute this guest post about her PhD project.
Cathy McAteer (University of Bristol)

RD: RD: Welcome to the blog, Cathy. Tell us about your PhD research.
CM: Although I didn’t know it at the time, my project really goes right back to my teenage years when I started out on my journey into Russian language-learning. A keen interest in Russian literature emerged at the same time but it soon became apparent to me (and my purse, and my elementary language skills) that the best route into classic Russian novels would be to get hold of anything published in translation… which, at that time, meant the Penguin Russian Classics series. A reputable household name at reasonable, affordable prices and easily found (or ordered) via the local library or bookshop… Penguin provided a perfect solution. Starting with my very first purchase (thanks to a £3 birthday book voucher, yes, back then books really were that cheap) of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Russian Classics became my steadfast companions, throughout my GCSEs, A-Levels, and then as a Bristol University Russian undergraduate (when time wouldn’t allow for everything to be read in the original).

Nearly twenty years on, I went back to Bristol to study a Masters in Translation, and it was only then that I really started to scrutinise the journey which classic, nineteenth-century Russian literature has taken in order to find its way to our bookshelves. For the first time, I started to evaluate life before Penguin, the launch of Penguin Books and Penguin Classics, and the calibre of those much-loved Penguin translations. With a more critical eye, I began to question what it was that Penguin had set its stall out to achieve, who the individuals were behind that mission, and what had been their frustrations, surprises, obstacles, successes, sacrifices? Shortly after I completed my MA, I became the very grateful recipient of alumnus funding allowing me to focus more significant attention on these questions.

RD: So how has your research taken shape over the last two years or so?
CM: Well, in the early days, I compiled my own literary road map to take in the landscape of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature in translation and was struck by the chronological gap between Garnett’s translations of Russian classics and the next efforts in the UK, roughly fifty years on. After such a long period of dependency on Garnett’s translations, it was mainly Penguin that sprang into life, mobilising fresh (not revised) versions of the core classic Russian texts, starting with Chekhov’s plays (translated by Elizaveta Fen, 1949), Turgenev’s On the Eve (Gilbert Gardiner, 1950) and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (David Magarshack, 1951), before embarking on a steady programme of re-translation of many other Russian classics. With his own translation of Homer’s The Odyssey launching the Penguin Classics series in 1946, Classics scholar E.V. Rieu took the editorial helm, drawing on university and publishing contacts for Russian literary advice, gathering capable and skilful Russian translators (often linguists who had utilised their language skills during the war effort and were, by now, looking for peace-time employment), and acting as a vital bridge between Allen Lane (founder and MD of Penguin Books Ltd) and those successfully commissioned freelancing translators.

To gain a clearer picture, I’ve spent many visits trawling the Penguin archive ‒ the Penguin Russian Classics’ correspondence, contracts, and proofs ‒ and I’ve identified key figures and events behind Penguin’s twentieth-century re-launch of the Russian literary canon. One recurring theme has emerged through this analysis: the interconnectivity between translation and publishing agents operating within the literary field. Even with their different positions, needs, preoccupations, backgrounds, and aspirations, the polarised mix of agents at Penguin somehow succeeded in disseminating Russian literature to the Anglophone world, which just a century or so before had been politically opposed to Russia as foes during the Crimean War.

RD: Tell us more about this interconnectivity between different agents at Penguin.
CM: In neat terms, the interconnectivity at Penguin Russian Classics binds three forms of agency: the Publisher (Allen Lane), the Penguin Classics editorial team (initially Rieu and his rather unconventional co-editor A.S.B. Glover) and the Russian-English literary translators. I’ve specifically chosen to focus on the period 1949 to 1977, from the earliest Penguin Russian Classics titles, when commercial connections and networks were first being established, through to the death of David Magarshack, the most enduring and perhaps best-remembered translator of the Penguin Russian Classics series.
This focus on ‘agents’, whose combined literary efforts for Penguin gradually transformed a relatively hostile readership into a more Russophile one (luring young newbies like me to keep coming back for more), coincides with an interesting, relatively new phase in translation studies, the ‘sociological turn’, which has been harnessed by some translation theorists since 2005 and attempts to put people back in the translation process. For a long time, from St Jerome to Schleiermacher to Nabokov, translation studies concentrated on the text itself (is the translation faithful, domesticated, foreignised?); more recently, translation studies progressed to consider the ‘cultural turn’ (which seeks to reveal specific ideologies exhibited in translation: politics, feminism and gender, colonisation); and more recently still, the sociology of Bourdieu has been adopted by theorists. They have applied it in an attempt to gauge the parameters and nuances of agent interconnectivity: the personal, professional, commercial, literary successes and sacrifices, the social trajectory of agents connected with the field, and the operative nature of these different relationships, all of which aspects are relevant and revealing when applied to Penguin’s founder-editor-translator triumvirate.  
With the help of the Penguin archive and by transferring Bourdieu’s terms and interpretations to the Penguin publishing model, I have been able to examine how a network of agency operates within a structure, a Penguin microcosm, of institutionalised terms, conditions and work ethos, and explore the ways in which agency adapts both to externally imposed structures (market, and socio-political forces) and to internal, corporate structures (in-house style, deadlines, pay rates). There are fascinating notions of patronage, leverage, subservience and domination at play.

RD: Have you got a favourite agent?
CM: Yes, there have been many… Penguins for starters (I love that bird!), editors, advisors but, most of all, I’ve found the freelance translators fascinating. They all brought their own backgrounds, personalities, translating styles and cultural-linguistic capital to the Penguin Russian Classics series. Among the early corps, David Magarshack elicits particular interest.
Our guest blogger looking Chekhovian
Born in Riga in 1899, Magarshack spent his childhood and youth, essentially his formative years, in a Russia straddling two centuries, two political eras (Tsarism and Revolution), the first world war, and a temporal proximity to family and friends who remembered the era of nineteenth-century Russian literature which he would then go on to translate. Magarshack’s emigration to the UK at the age of 19 forced him to learn English, which he achieved through an evening university-degree course in English language and literature. 
Magarshack worked in journalism and also tried his hand at writing novels. He married his Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated wife, Elsie, and became naturalised as a British citizen (1931), never to return to Russia and forsaking all links with his parents. To his disappointment, he never received the authorial storm of success to which he aspired, which must have come as a blow given that his novels attempt to recreate a largely Dostoevskian style. With the war over, Magarshack turned his attention to writing biographies and translations with works published by Allen and Unwin in 1944, Hutchinson in 1945 and 1947, and then back to Allen and Unwin in 1949. In that same year, Magarshack also embarked on his first Penguin commission, a translation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. 

He is believed originally to have approached Rieu offering his services as a literary translator (perhaps in response to the 1946 announcement in Penguin’s Progress of the launch of Penguin Classics inviting translators to send in samples of work). This was to be the start of a fifteen-year relationship with Penguin and the first of seven major translations for the Penguin Russian Classics series (four key Dostoevsky works, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog). Magarshack became a recognisable and reliable name amongst readers of Russian literature – in homes, schools, theatres and universities – and is credited (anecdotally) with whetting the Russian literary appetites of many a Russian scholar (readers, if you are just such a person, please get in touch so that I can turn something anecdotal into something empirical).  

Having arrived with nothing, not even English, Magarshack was thrilled and proud to enjoy such a long career with Penguin. With a wife and children to support, translation was not something he could treat as a hobby; his correspondence reveals a man doggedly staying on top of his royalties, assertively negotiating favourable arrangements for the payment of advances. He regularly prompted Penguin to keep local bookshops stocked with his translations and, when necessary, he did not hesitate to remind his editors of the better rates he could earn elsewhere.  What's more, Magarshack's wife Elsie played a significant role in his translations. She is rather the unsung hero of his work, proofreading and correcting his commissions. According to family members, she never particularly sought the limelight and was more than happy to put her English degree to good use. So, in fact, these translations weren't just David Magarshack's, they were the result of a collaborating husband-and-wife team. Judging by some of Elsie's correspondence, I get the impression that she was, indeed, a formidable lady - she died in 1999 aged 100 - pretty good going!

Compared to other translators in the early Penguin Russian Classics cohort, Magarshack was clued-up and proactive commercially; he was also good at delivering readable manuscripts quickly and on time. Where other Penguin Russian translators, for whatever reason, fell by the wayside, Magarshack remained a devoted and active agent of Penguin (compare his tenure with that of Fen, Gilbert, Edmonds). Magarshack is, and has always been, a memorable translator for me, but through my research, I intend to resurrect his name, dust off his Penguin works and review his translation strategy for the benefit and interest of the broader fan base of Russian literature in English translation.        
RD: Many thanks for sharing your work with us, Cathy, and good luck with finishing your PhD. One last quick question (by special request): how would you actually pronounce Magarshack?  

CM: This is an interesting one. I only ever hear Brits referring to him as MAGarshack, but of the Russians I know who are familiar with Jewish surnames, they say MagarSHACK. Alas, I do not know how he talked about himself here in the UK, but I guess it's the same sort of conundrum facing anyone who says NabOkov/PasterNAK/RomAnov amongst British lay listeners.. 

Thanks again, Cathy. Next post: Revisiting Rosamund Bartlett's Tolstoy.    


  1. Empirical note: my first encounter with Russian literature was via Magarshack's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, at age c.12. I never looked back, and after a PhD on translation (including bits of Russian), I now run a publishing company in Spain concentrating on Spanish translations of Russian literature. If this helps.

    1. I think it was my second encounter with Russian literature (after an ancient copy of the Queen of Spades), and I was a little older. But yes, I'm sure a lot of Russianists/translators/readers look back on Magarshack as their first translator from Russian.

  2. Fascinating post. I too grew up with the Penguin Classics Russians, and I kind of use the Magarshack translations as a marker to measure other versions against. Certainly he made those wonderful Russian authors accessible to me, and started me off on a lifelong addiction to Russian writing....


    1. Thank you, Kaggsy. Glad you enjoyed this post!

  3. Very small nitpick: it's (Sir) Allen Lane, not "Alan Lane". Considering you got Rieu right, which not many people do, getting Lane wrong was a surprise!

    1. Thank you for pointing this out - I have now corrected the typo.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful article. Until I found it, I was coming to the conclusion that Magarshack had inexplicably vanished from the list of great translators of Russian literature. Thank you for restoring him!

  5. Thanks for the fruits of your research into David Magarshack. I too first read Dostoyevksky, Gogol and Goncharov in his translations for the Penguin Classics (and still have them)and have wondered about the man behind the name so your information is most fascinating, especially given the way, as the previous poster has commented, he really does seem to have vanished into thin air.

    Martin H