English pudding for Russian festival

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Vavra) - It's good there is a world that ignores the Litvinenko tragedy, the Lugovoi extradition controversy, recommendations to Russian VIPs not to appear at the London Economic Forum, and even exploits of the Chelsea football club.

Culture and literature is what matters most in that world, which saw, a few days ago, an event I describe below - a second Academia Rossica Translation Prize ceremony for the best translators of Russian books into English.

Translations of Russian literature from the late 19th century until the early 21st are a British cultural landmark comparable to the impact of the Italian Renaissance on Elizabethan England, the Rossica Magazine says in an article on the Moscow award ceremony, which was timed to Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day in remembrance of the illuminators of the Slavs and inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet.

The 29 books published in 2005-2006 that were competing belonged to all genres from travelogue to lyrics and to all ages from the classical 19th century to the past few years. Six won their way to the shortlist, among them Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, our contemporary Lyudmila Ulitskaya's Sonechka: A Novella and Stories, and Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers.

Joanne Turnbull won the award with Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Seven Stories, published by GLAS/New Russian Writing. The publishers shared with the translator the honor of discovering an outstanding Russian writer for British readers. The jury awarded a special prize to Robert Chandler and Harvill Secker Publishers for Hamid Ismailov's The Railway, which experts find an excellent novel.

The London-based Academia Rossica arts foundation, a staunch promoter of Russian culture, established its prize in 2004 to be awarded biennially to translators and publishers for books that came out within the preceding two years. The Boris Yeltsin Foundation, its partner, does similar work. Co-founder of Le Prix Russophonie, awarded for the best literary translations from Russian into French, it intends soon to launch a similar award for translations into Spanish.

The Rossica Prize ceremony gathered 200 people in a uniquely quiet spot amid the noisy metropolis - a private art gallery patio, amid 17th and 18th century European paintings, statues, furnishings and china. The celebration breathed reverence for culture, the closest link between Russia and Britain. Russians felt comfortable and reassured - not just because their country satisfies one third of European natural gas demand.

The hosts were aware of their mission. To them, respect for culture and tradition was not formal but made the core of their life. The jury's work made them once again appreciate the huge efforts of a rather small number of translators and publishers to help old and new Russian literature retain its prominence in the cultural environment of the English-speaking world, the Rossica Magazine says.

During dinner, Professor Peter France, a member of the jury, told his own life story to show what culture could do to bring nations together. He studied Russian while on military service at the peak of the Cold War. The language curriculum included a great many Russian novels to build up the students' vocabulary. The studies certainly did not intend to make cadets love Russia but to improve their knowledge of the prospective opponent - but the result was quite different.

Another member of the jury, a university professor, said Russian presently ranked second in British language studies, and might soon outrun Spanish, the current leader.

As the award ceremony showed, public interest in Russia and desire to understand it remained prominent in the European cultural life.

A gala dinner in a literary club, which crowned the celebration, was a kind of mutual admiration society of triumphant winners, the jury happy with a big duty done, and scanty outsider guests flattered to be in.

There was a cozy domestic symbolism in the pudding that made the final turn - a dish the British take as much for granted as the global purport of Russian literature.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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