Tatiana Kudriavtseva, Russian translator of contemporary American masters, dies at 93


Tatiana Kudriavtseva, one of the foremost Russian translators of American literature, in 2002. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
October 15, 2013

Tatiana Kudriavtseva, a pre­eminent Russian translator of English-language literature — who exposed Soviet-era bibliophiles to contemporary American masters such as William Styron and John Updike (minus the sex scenes) — and who waged a successful 18-year battle with the Communist Party’s cultural gatekeepers to publish Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” in Russian, died Sept. 29 in Moscow. She was 93.

The cause was a heart ailment, said her daughter, Nina Kudriavtseva-Loory.

Ms. Kudriavtseva (pronounced Kood-RIAV-seva) was often cited as one of the most prolific and prominent English-language translators in the Soviet Union. She translated more than 80 American volumes ranging from high-minded literature to paperback potboiler. Updike once praised her “high intelligence and aesthetic passion.”

“At a time when such a pursuit was not only technically difficult but politically dangerous,” he said in 2005, “she was the main bridge between American writing and the Russian language.”

Western books, especially those that were not technical manuals or derivative of the Kremlin political line, were hard to find in the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War. As an editor at Foreign Literature — a monthly magazine that serialized and reprinted American fiction — Ms. Kudriavtseva exerted great influence over what Russians learned of modern authors writing from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Those Ms. Kudriavtseva translated included Updike, Styron, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, Mario Puzo and Arthur Hailey.

Hailey’s 1968 disaster melodrama “Airport,” she once said, was well-received in Russia because “it showed examples of the American people at work, their attitude toward solving problems, or not being able to solve them.”

She declared Updike the “most popular writer in Russia” and said that his trilogy about the Pennsylvania salesman and faded high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a character of universal appeal because of his physical appetites. Updike, she said, could be “writing about the Russian man in the street.”

But while drink and sloth were acceptable vices to limn in literature, she said, the Communist Party’s central committee prohibited scenes of carnal pursuits.

“As soon as we publish something unusually explicit, we immediately get letters complaining, ‘Why do you use such filthy language?’ ” she told the Associated Press in 1982. “It is because we are still a peasant country. Most of our intellectuals are first-generation intellectuals. They come mostly from peasant backgrounds.”

At Foreign Literature, she said she managed to fine-tune an objectionable line in Styron’s 1979 novel“Sophie’s Choice” when the title character notices stained sheets in a hotel bed.

Working with a censor, Ms. Kudriavtseva made the linen “not clean.”

Styron once told The Washington Post that Ms. Kudriavtseva handled “the naughty aspects of my work” with deftness and delicacy. He once asked her what would have happened if the explicit scene from “Sophie’s Choice” had been published as written.

“I will be executed,” she quipped.

It was a joke. But the political purging of her many relatives, including her father and her first husband, left her with a grimly realistic sense of the possible. For that reason, she said she was constantly weighting literary merit against Soviet taboos.

Foreign Literature declined to print excepts from Cheever’s “Falconer” (1977) because “it involved too much homosexuality, which is illegal here,” she said. And Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” his 1967 Pulitzer-winning novel focused on a rebellious black slave, was not printed because it “sought to show that any type of rebellion is doomed.”

She said “Sophie’s Choice,” about a woman who made a desperate choice during the Holocaust, was a more logical selection because it condemned fascism.

Ms. Kudriavtseva began her lobbying for “Gone With the Wind” in the 1960s. Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel, set in the American South before, during and after the Civil War, was one of the best-selling books of all time. It featured as its memorable heroine the scheming Scarlett O’Hara. Yet it had been forbidden for decades in the Soviet Union ostensibly because of its historically dubious depiction of warm relations between masters and slaves.

Finally, a party official changed his mind after Ms. Kudriavtseva broke down crying in his office. “Gone With the Wind,” which she translated with another person, was printed in 1982 and had an immediate resonance with Russians who lived through the devastation of World War II.

“We were survivors of the war, like Scarlett, and this novel was ringing a lot of bells for us,” she told CNN. “We saw the ravages, we saw the fires, we saw the pilloried villages, we saw the poverty and the hunger. And that appealed greatly to us. And then ‘Gone With the Wind’ is considered in Russia as American ‘War and Peace.’”

The difficulty was translating idioms. Near the end of the book, O’Hara’s exasperated husband Rhett Butler walks out on her. She asks what will become of her. He responds, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The closest Ms. Kudriavtseva could get was a loose translation: “I spit on this.”

Tatiana Alexseyevna Kudriavtseva was born on March 5, 1920, in the Baltic port city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). She grew up in a bourgeois family that had prospered before the Soviet revolution.

In the mid-1920s, her father and uncles — all merchants — were arrested and sent to labor camps. Her mother became a cashier at an amusement park to care for her two daughters.

Tatiana attended Leningrad State University for two years before being chosen for an elite language school started by Stalin in the late 1930s. She learned Japanese and English. During World War II, she also served in the Red Army in a military-run language institute.

Ms. Kudriavtseva’s first marriage, to Yuri Semyonov, ended in divorce. In 1950, she married Nikolai Taube, a journalist and occasional screenwriter. He died in 1984.

Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Nina Kudriavtseva-Loory of Brooklyn, a former Bolshoi Ballet dancer who is artistic director of Prix Benois de la Danse, an international ballet award; a grandson; and two great-grandchildren.

Ms. Kudriavtseva toiled in the 1950s in the foreign literature department at a large publishing house in Moscow. Starting in 1962, Ms. Kudriavtseva spent 20 years as an editor at Foreign Literature, which had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands and drew an elite audience of intellectuals. She also was a translator for the Soviet Foreign Ministry and for her country’s delegation to UNESCO in Paris.

After her retirement from Foreign Literature, she continued a career as a translator. She told Mailer when they met in Moscow in 1984 that the Russian translation of his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” was “a disaster.” He subsequently asked her to translate his books “Marilyn,” “The Time of Our Time,” “The Deer Park” and “Harlot’s Ghost.”

“You always know where you stand with Tanya,” Mailer once told the journalist Marina Walker Guevara. “She is one of those women who is short in stature, and the rest of her is very big.”

Ms. Kudriavtseva said it was invaluable to know those she was translating, and it was even better when literary nemeses such as Mailer and Vidal drank vodka at her Moscow home and the discussion became peppery.

“That’s the secret to being a good translator,” she said. “I like to know the author. I hear his voice. I know the intonation. Then you can render the real style of the writer.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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