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.

Creators of 19th century Czech literary hoaxes deserve credit, says academic David Cooper

Radio Prague interviewed Prof. David Cooper, Director of REEEC,  about his research into and translation of the Green Mountain Manuscript (Rukopis zelenohorský) and the Queen’s Court Manuscript (Rukopis královédvorský) from the 19th century. The following is a re-posting of the original interview, published on June 8, 2015. The complete article, including an audio recording of the interview, can be found here.


08-06-2015 15:18 | Ian Willoughby

The Green Mountain Manuscript (Rukopis zelenohorský) and the Queen’s Court Manuscript (Rukopis královédvorský) were important texts in the Czech National Revival of the 19th century, helping to underpin burgeoning national consciousness and becoming part of the broader culture. However, the compendia of Czech legends and folklore turned out to be forgeries. David Cooper of the University of Illinois is currently in Prague doing research into and translating the manuscripts. He discussed them on a visit to our studios last week.

David Cooper, photo: Ian Willoughby

David Cooper, photo: Ian Willoughby

“The Queen’s Court Manuscript and the Green Mountain Manuscript are made to look like medieval manuscripts and they contain poetic texts.

“The biggest one is the Queen’s Court Manuscript. It has six epic poems that relate historical battles – some of which are historical, some of which are not.

“The Green Mountain Manuscript was just a single poetic text. The first manuscript by its appearance looks like it comes from the 13th century.

“The Green Mountain Manuscript by its appearance looks like it came from around the 9th century, so really quite early.

“It contains an account of the legendary Libuše holding court for a dispute between two brothers over their father’s inheritance. This is a story that is also known from Czech chronicles, but this is sort of a unique account of it.”

What was the purpose of these texts?

“This was a moment in European literature when everyone was rediscovering the medieval roots of their literature.

“As they were breaking away from classical models they were looking to their own native traditions for new models, for new ways of advancing their own literature going forward. And to go forward they often looked to the past.

“This is a period when the French rediscovered The Song of Roland, when some years later Beowulf was discovered again, The Song of Cid for Spain, and the Germans had of course discovered the Nibelungen song.

“The Czechs were looking in their manuscript traditions for similar kinds of material and they weren’t finding it.

Green Mountain Manuscript

Green Mountain Manuscript

“The feeling was that it certainly had to exist, because every other European nation that had a literature… And the Czechs had a literature already from the 14th century that had begun in this epic tradition, singing historical heroic songs.

“When they didn’t find it, they figured either it was burnt during the Hussite Wars, when a lot of Czech manuscripts were burnt, or during the Counter-Reformation in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Czech manuscripts took heavy losses.

“The idea was that they had had it but it was lost. This was an attempt to recreate it. It also has to do with the cultural competition with the German speakers in Bohemia.”

This was during the Czech Nation Revival?

“Yes, this was the second decade of the 19th century [when the texts were produced]. The Czech national movement is just starting to develop some momentum. People are signing on to it. They want to do work to develop Czech nationality and they really need this.

“The feeling is, and the understanding of national literature is at this point, that they need something like this as a base, as a ground in order to go forward.”

When these texts were discovered or disseminated what impact did they have?

“The two manuscripts really had quite different fates. The first one that was discovered was the Queen’s Court Manuscript and it was never in question. People accepted it as authentic and it wasn’t really until the 1870s that you started to get serious questions about its authenticity.

“The reason you started to get those questions was because of the second manuscript, which was in doubt really right from the very beginning. Ninth century, Czech writing, Czech poetic traditions – this was at least three centuries earlier than anything they’d seen before. So it was immediately suspicious.

“Josef Dobrovský, who was one of the spiritual founders of the Czech National Revival, said immediately, It’s a fake, it comes from my students – they’re the only ones who know Old Czech well enough to fake it…”

So the counterfeiters went too far? 

Josef Dobrovsky

Josef Dobrovsky

“Yes, essentially they went too far. The thing is that the Czech patriots embraced the second manuscript as well. They defended it against Dobrovský and other sceptics and they held the two manuscripts together as almost kind of sacred texts for the Czech National Revival.

“One of the things I’m interested in is and that I’m looking at is a sort of quasi-religious faith in the manuscripts. To be a Czech patriot in some sense meant to believe in the authenticity of both of the manuscripts.”

And the Green Mountain Manuscript entered the broader culture?

“Yes, it did. For example if you go to the National Theatre, on the ceiling of the lobby on the second floor there’s a painting of Libuše sitting in court on a golden throne, her father’s golden throne.

“This is a phrase which is repeated – it’s sort of a mantra – in the Green Mountain Manuscript. The depiction of Libuše in the National Theatre, which was of course constructed in the late 19th century… this is a moment when the controversy was already starting about the authenticity of the manuscripts.”

How was the falsification discovered?

“It happens at a moment when Prague University is undergoing a kind of crisis. It splits into a German faculty and a Czech faculty. The young scholars in the Czech faculty need to establish themselves, need to establish their legitimacy.

“One of them, Jan Gebauer, who’s a historical linguist, has been working on the manuscripts for some time, has been a defender of their authenticity, but he’s starting to have doubts.

“There are starting to be too many exceptions they have to make in terms of the nature of Old Czech for these manuscripts. It’s starting to become clear to him that they don’t fit in, that their language doesn’t fit into the historical development of Czech.

“It’s really Gebauer in the lead, although the organiser of the campaign against the authenticity of the manuscripts was led by the future first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk.”

And Masaryk got a lot of abuse for his stance on the issue.

Jan Gebauer

Jan Gebauer

“Yes, he did. He and Gebauer and the other scholars who were involved in writing these articles, laying out the evidence for the falsification of the manuscripts, were called national traitors.

“These manuscripts had so become part of what it meant to be a Czech patriot and so much a part of Czech national mythology that to call them false was a serious betrayal.

“Gebauer, for example, for at least 10 years had terrible problems getting any of his scholarly work published.

“The journal that had originally published the articles had to step away from it. Masaryk had to find financial support in order to get it published. They were really personae non grata for a while in Czech patriotic circles.”

If I understand it right, you believe that these texts, although false, benefited the Czech nation?

“I do, yes. And I think that’s the direction that the research is going in on these manuscripts these days.

“It’s really since a couple of decades after they were shown to be false that the manuscripts sort of came back into the study of Czech literature, as examples of poetry from the early 19th century. So if you do a study of how Czech poetry developed, the manuscripts are included.

“What weren’t included were the people suspected of being their authors. The usual suspects – Vaclav Hanka, Josef Linda – you don’t find books written about them. You don’t find studies of their other writing, because they’ve been pushed out.

“So one of the things that’s happening is a recognition that this is some of the most influential poetry of the first half of the 19th century.

“It was the most translated work of Czech literature for most of the 19th century into English. The authors deserve some credit for that, rather than exile, essentially.”

And you are translating again now?

“I am, yes. The first translation was done… There were some interesting contacts in the first half of the 19th century between England and Bohemia.

“There was a Slavist, John Bowring, who published the very first ever anthology of Czech literature in English. He included in that several of the songs from these manuscripts, as well as some other mystifications, literature that pretended to be something that it wasn’t.

Green Mountain Manuscript

Green Mountain Manuscript

“There was another translator, and I’ve never gotten the first name, it’s A. Vratislav. He was a second generation immigrant to England who had studied at Cambridge. He also produced a translation of the entire manuscripts.

“But both of these translations were done in the 1840s and they’ve aged a little bit. Vratislav was fond of rhyme and used rhyme in the epic poems, which really doesn’t belong in epic poems.

“The poems from the manuscripts were sort of programmatically unrhymed. The idea was that rhyme came to Czech culture from German culture, which isn’t true – it came along with Christian culture.

“So the idea was that if you want to get back to authentic, original, Slavic Czech poetry, it’s certainly unrhymed.”

As well as doing these translations, you’re also writing a book about unresolved issues surrounding the manuscripts. What are those unresolved issues?

“One of the main issues still remains authorship. They’ve never found any direct evidence of participation in the creation of the manuscripts.

“There’s primarily indirect evidence. They’ve never found drafts or correspondence. The conspirators were apparently quite careful.”

There’s no smoking gun?

“There’s no smoking gun. But there is a lot of evidence in terms of the types of things that the people who were probably involved wrote elsewhere that connect pretty clearly to the way that the manuscripts were composed.

“Also thinking about the idea of authorship in the Romantic period and the role that forgery plays in that, newer perspectives on this that have also been worked out in the study of English literature in connection with the forgeries of Macpherson, the Ossian poems – this needs to be thought through again in Czech literature.

“Also if we’re going to rehabilitate the authors of these poems [we need] to see forgery as a Romantic form of creativity, rather than a trespass against creativity.”

My impression is that the word mystification [mystifikace] is much more common in Czech than in English. Czechs, it seems to me, have a kind of sympathy with mystification. Would you agree?

“I would agree. There’s even a kind of national pride, that we’re a nation of mystifiers or mystificators. They’ve done an amazing job of cataloguing the kinds of mystifications that are very much a part of Czech literary practice in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I think the fact is that it’s not a more prominent a practice in Czech literature. The Czechs are, I think, more aware of it. I think part of the reason they are more aware of it this whole episode with the forged manuscripts in the 19th century.

Queen's Court Manuscript

Queen’s Court Manuscript

“And a lot of Czechs embrace this playful aspect of Czech culture and this idea that we can have fun making things up and not have that be damaging.”

You’re a specialist in literary forgeries. What’s the attraction of that area?

“Partly the taboo of it. And the opportunity to overturn and open up that taboo, to look at why forgery was for so long considered to be a kind of literary crime.

“If you go back and look at the medieval period, forgery has a different feel and a different morality about it. Forgery has always been a very common practice and there are periods in which forgery was a celebrated method.

“It was often a necessary method, in order for culture to be able to sort of replicate itself and to advance itself.

“The paradox is that the Romantic period, the early 19th century, both sort of invites forgery, demands forgery, forgeries are prevalent in the period.

“At the same time, it’s this period which creates the idea of the original work and the original authorial genius creating out of nothing.

“That’s not really how creativity works, so forgery is one of the supplements that’s necessary in the period. But when people start to worry about authenticity – which is also a big Romantic value – and originality, forgeries look like the biggest transgression against that.

“One of the paradoxes that I’m exploring is the fact that this Romantic period sort of pushes forward the method of forgery and makes it quite common, but also creates the values that make it illicit.”

Interview with 2013 SRL Participant and Published Translator Ross Ufberg

Nellie Manis, a 2013 graduate of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois, and a current Fulbright grantee, sat down with 2013 Workshop in Scholarly and Literary Translations from Slavic Languages participant Ross Ufberg to learn more about his recent publications. Ufberg is a current graduate student at Columbia University and co-founder of the publishing house “New Vessel Press.” His translation of Moldovan author Vladimir Lorchenkov’s book The Good Life Elsewhere was just published in February 2014.

Ross Ufberg

Ross Ufberg

Nellie Manis: Your translation of Vladimir Lorchenkov’s book The Good Life Elsewhere was published in February. Can you tell me a little about this project?

Ross Ufberg: The Good Life Elsewhere is a really funny, satirical, and fast-moving novel. One of the reasons I was so attracted to it is because it’s very different from what we in the West, or in the United States, think of as “Russian” literature. I know Russian literature is every bit as quirky and fun and whacky, and oftentimes even as concise as American literature. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aren’t the whole picture. I wanted to share that unexpected aspect of Russian literature with people.

NM: Your translation of Lorchenkov’s article “Is Moldova the 51st State?” appeared in The New York Times on December 26, 2013. Can you tell us more about how this came to be?

RU: “Eastern Europe” is a massive place. “The Former Soviet Union” is, in fact, one-sixth the entire world. But often the media speaks in broad terms about changes that occur in various places around the world. Kiev is a very different place from Chisinau, and Lviv is different from Tiraspol. Part of why Lorchenkov wanted to write an op-ed in the Times is, I believe, he wanted to say, “Hey, things are complex here. It’s not as easy as it seems. And no, the answer to all of our problems is not always to just join with Europe. We are part of a very distinct geographical region with its own histories and motivations. That must be considered. Also, don’t blame Russia. At least not ALL the time.

NM: How did you get involved with Vladimir Lorchenkov? Can you describe your relationship with him?

RU: I have never met Vladimir in person. But we have emailed quite often. Even his emails are full of snares and traps, a joke or a pun or a witty remark lurking around every comma, period, parentheses. He was quite helpful when I was working on the translation. Up to now, I’ve translated dead prose authors (with the exception of Anna Frajlich, a Polish poet, who is very much alive!), so when you’re stuck, you’re stuck. You can’t ask the author what he meant. But with Lorchenkov, I asked a million questions and got a million answers, and ultimately, I believe it made the translation better. Not only more accurate, but more full of life, because when you enjoy working on something, and when the author is a personality you connect with, it shows.

NM: This past summer, you participated in the Workshop in Scholarly and Literary Translation from Slavic Languages at the University of Illinois. Tell us about the pieces you were working on during the workshop. Have you been able to publish any of them?

RU: This summer, I worked on the poetry of the Polish poet Anna Frajlich. I have had some luck placing Anna’s poetry, and I’m still waiting to hear back from a few places. My translations of her work have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Habitus, and other places. She’s a poet of rare beauty. Her work is concise, unadorned, yet still lustrous and pitch-perfect. It’s an honor to work with her.

NM: What were the most useful experiences to you during the workshop?

RU: Being able to work one-on-one with the wonderful translator Joanna Trzeciak. To sit with her and watch her take apart one of my translations – it was like handling an old clunky thing to a master watchmaker and watching as the expert made the timepiece run so much more smoothly.

NM: You are one of the founders of a new publishing venture, “New Vessel Press.” What made you want to start your own publishing house?

RU: I have always loved translation, and then, a few years back, a friend, Michael Wise, and I got to talking seriously about starting a publishing house. We had spent so much time with each other talking about the works of literature we’d read from around the world, which we loved, and many of which were mutually unavailable to us. Michael reads French and German. I read Polish and Russian, but the only common language we have is English. And literature is something we’re both passionate about. Plus, it’s an incredibly interesting time to be in the book industry. So much is changing. Nobody knows what might be around the corner. But one thing is clear: there is more being published in the U.S. today from around the world than there ever was before. And I think that trend is going to continue. America is slowly opening up to the world. It’s nice to think New Vessel could have a part – even if only a very small one – in that.

NM: What kind of works is New Vessel interested in publishing? Is it specifically a publication outlet for works in translation? Can translators submit materials to the house directly?

RU: We are always looking for good literary fiction and nonfiction. More broadly speaking, I’d say we like books with a healthy sense of humor, books that have real literary merit yet don’t take themselves too seriously. We accept submissions at

NM: How do you balance the academic demands of your program at Columbia, your professional obligations, and your translation work?

RU: Hmmm. I try to sleep less. And it also helps that I really love what I do. I love teaching, writing, translating, bringing books to press. So it’s work, yes, but it’s all love.

NM: Are you currently working on any translations?

RU: The short answer is, yes. The long answer is, I am not sure which of the fifteen projects floating around in my mind I’ll end up sticking with. One thing, though, is that I’m going to continue working on Anna Frajlich’s poetry. It’s good for my blood pressure.

NM: When considering whether or not to translate a work into English, what kinds of characteristics do you look for?

RU: I don’t know that there are any specific characteristics. A good story is a good story is a good story. Beyond that, why make rules? Who would put parameters on grand entertainment?

NM: What are your plans for the future as concerns your career and, more specifically, translating?

RU: Well, there is one Polish writer I’m NOT working on but dream of it – Edward Stachura. But I admit it, I’m afraid. Stachura’s language is so incredibly difficult, so beautiful, I don’t know that I’d be able to tackle it. Translating Stachura is like trying to climb a craggy mountain made of cotton balls.

NM: Is there anything else you’d like to add or comment on?

RU: I am so grateful to REEEC for the time I spent in Urbana. To be so far away from home, without any of the worries of the everyday, and to be able to really dig into a project – that was a gift of incredible value. What I did in a week at REEEC would have taken me a month at home, simply because I had so many experts so close at hand and such concentrated periods of time to do real work.

Ross Ufberg’s translation of Vladimir Lorchenkov’s article “Is Moldova the 51st State?” can be found at Information about New Vessel Press can be accessed at

To learn more about the Workshop in Scholarly and Literary Translation from Slavic Languages, to be held June 16-20, 2014, at the University of Illinois, please see



(Focus on the European Union)

Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish

and campus event

in Urbana-Champaign on November 9, 2012

Register before September 3, 2012

Competition flyer:

For details and registration: 

Contact: Adam Heinz,

Travel grants, teacher substitute grants and CPDUs are available!