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Editing the Work of Absent Translator

Vazir-Mukhtar editions

In July 2018 Look Multimedia (London) published the first ever translation of Yury Tynianov’s Death of The Vazir Mukhtar into English. (Translated by Susan Causey. Translation editor: Vera Tsareva-Brauner).

The story behind this translation is quite tragic: Susan Causey, the original translator of this complex, multi-layered novel set in post-Decembrist Russia and Persia written by one of the leaders of Soviet Formalist school in 1928, was killed shortly before she could complete her work. This enormous task took her over 5 years. The publishers approached Vera Tsareva-Brauner of the Slavonic Department of Cambridge University to take on the task of translation editor. In many ways, it became a story of adopting an orphan: while respecting the translator’s original choices, Vera had to prepare this novel for publication.

Yuri Tynianov (1894-1943) was one of the brave and talented young people of the Russian Revolution, a trailblazer of innovation in literary theory, and also an author, screenwriter, poet and translator.  The son of a Jewish doctor, he went up to Saint Petersburg in 1912 and married while still a student, scrambling between jobs to support his family. A hugely popular scholar, lecturer and thinker, he taught at several institutions, did a variety of publishing work and wrote screenplays. His literary criticism as a member of the Formalist group is still highly regarded, but Tynianov’s greatest legacy is his meticulously researched fiction. Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar has been described as “the most extraordinary historical novel one could read.” Lieutenant Kizhé inspired a film and one of Prokovief’s most-loved scores.

Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar tells the story of the last year in the life of Alexander Griboyedov, a diplomat and playwright in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I. The novel takes him from being feted in St Petersburg in March 1828, as the successful negotiator of a peace treaty with Persia, through his return to Persia as the “Vazir-Mukhtar” (Minister Plenipotentiary) and his death at the hands of a Tehran mob in January 1829. On this simple arc Yuri Tynianov hangs a rich, multilayered exploration of Griboyedov’s interior life and Russian society. Allusions, metaphors and meditations mix with dreams, dinner parties, affairs and negotiations to create a whirling, immersive experience. Tynianov uses the techniques he developed as a leader of the Formalist school of criticism to make his story vivid, unexpected and forward driving.

The most challenging aspects of this preparation led to a commission for Vera Tsareva-Brauner to edit a book on the difficulties of translating from and into Slavic languages for Academic Studies Press scheduled for publication in 2020.

For more information, including the video telling the story behind this unusual project, as well as abstracts from the book’s Launch in Pushkin House in June 2018, please see the Vazir Mukhtar Facebook page

An extended academic edition with commentary and notes (edited by Vera Tsareva-Brauner) is to be published by Look Multimedia in 2019.

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Slavonic News

Cambridge University article features research of Dr Rebecca Reich

29 April 2019

Fantastic piece showcasing Dr Rebecca Reich's recent publication, 'State of Madness: Psychiatry, Literature and Dissent after Stalin'.