Noontime Scholar Lecture: Elaine MacKinnon, “‘Found in Translation’: Exploring Soviet History, Memory, and Identity Through Lyudmila Miklashevskaya’s Memoir, Povtorenie proidennego”


Dr. Elaine MacKinnon recounts her experiences translating the memoir of Lyudmila Miklashevskaya

On Tuesday, June 21, Elaine MacKinnon, a Professor of Russian and Soviet History at the University of West Georgia gave a presentation titled: “Found in Translation”: Exploring Soviet History, Memory and Identity Through Lyudmila Miklashevskaya’s Memoir, Povtorenie proidennogo. Currently, her research interests encompass Stalinism, Soviet historians and reinterpretation of Stalin, and the study of forced labor in the former Soviet Union.

Lyudmila Miklashevskaya, was, as MacKinnon described her, “an ordinary woman with an extraordinary life.” Miklashevskaya played the role of an ordinary woman in the midst of extraordinary people and events, and as MacKinnon suggested, this role is what makes Miklashevskaya so enticing as a research subject. MacKinnon’s analysis of Miklashevskaya’s memoir takes two tracks: translation and historical research. In translation, the textual detail brings MacKinnon closer to the subject, as she spends significant time and focus on every little detail of the material that is being translated. Thus, she begins to slowly understand the subject more intimately through this greatly detailed account of her life, creating, as MacKinnon described, an environment where she felt connected to Miklashevskaya through the act of translation. And then as a historian, the translation project allowed her to understand and analyze Miklashevskaya’s life in relation to the world and time period in which she lived, as a separate subjective viewpoint into an objective history of the times.

Lyudmila Miklashevskaya was a Jewish woman and for a time the wife of Konstantin Miklashevskii, a man from an aristocratic background, who was a playwright, theatrical historian, and an actor. He wished to be part of the avant-garde movement, yet was eventually exiled from the Soviet Union. MacKinnon suggested that a major theme of memoir was her relationship with her own daughter, of whom she spoke frequently. Having been separated from her daughter through her stint in the Gulag, she lost that which she had held as her most important identifier, her motherhood. When she was released from the Gulag, her daughter rejected Miklashevskaya’s embraces and efforts to become a family again in favor of her aunt, who to that point had raised her in her mother’s absence.

The translation project derived from a request from K. Miklashevskii’s descendants to have the portions of her memoir translated that pertained to him. MacKinnon developed an interest in the process in the life of Miklashevskaya herself and began to translate the entire 400-page memoir. This everyday woman, someone who was an ordinary citizen, was exiled as the wife of the enemy to the Soviet Union. She was caught up in an assassination conspiracy, and she spent substantial time in the Gulag. Although she had no formal training or education, Miklashevskaya began to write and publish newspaper articles, children’s books and brochures thanks to connections she had made through her first husband, Konstantin Miklashevskii.


Dr. Elaine MacKinnon presenting the Memoir of Lyudmila Miklashevskaya, Povtorenie proidennogo

MacKinnon also discussed the challenges the translation of the project created. The first challenge was the cataloging of the numerous people and the references within the memoir. This was important to keep track of these people and references to create a mental map of the contents of the memoir.

The second challenge was with the translation of words and terms not of Russian origin. Miklashevskii came from a wealthy aristocratic family that struggled, in exile, to inventory family possessions in an attempt to recover them and smuggle them out of the Soviet Union. Miklashevskaya records this in her memoir. The issue here is that many of these words were of French origin, and then translated into Russian. According to Dr. MacKinnon, it was difficult to determine whether or not the word was originally in Russian or if the word was French translated into Russian, particularly as these terms dealt with a specific inventory of aristocratic goods.

The third challenge was encountered in the translation of literary aspects such as mood and emotion. Here MacKinnon also noted the difference that would have occurred had this project been a strict historical project rather than a translation project. If it had been purely historical, she believes that she would have missed the situational indicators denoting mood and emotional shifts. Translation thus enabled her to understand the memoir in a more nuanced way. Ultimately, through this combined process of translation and historical analysis, MacKinnon found Miklashevskii’s memoir to have no overriding agenda; it was not political in any way, nor was it purely historical. Rather, the memoir was an exercise in memory – of “an ordinary woman with an extraordinary life.”

Nicholas Higgins is a Masters student in the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include the development of identity separate from the Soviet identity during Glasnost’ and Perestroika, the current relations between Russia and its neighbors, especially Russia’s relations with Ukraine. He received his B.A in Philosophy and Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies from Miami University of Ohio in 2015. He is currently working on his Masters thesis, which is attempting to translate Søren Kierkegaard‘s model of faith into a political and social model that could represent the political and social nature of the late Soviet era.

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