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Culture news
Translators get together over tea and texts.
11.28.2008 20:15

tea party Social and professional networking, cultural interaction, and an appreciation of Russian and English literature, combined with good food, delightful music and a soothing atmosphere are just some of the features of the Translators’ Tea Party, a fluid group of experienced and novice linguists who meet at St. Petersburg’s Zoom Cafe every Sunday to socialize and to translate a piece of Russian or English literature.

In a word, “it’s therapy,” said the group’s unofficial but committed organizer, Polly Gannon.

A visiting professor at the philological faculty of St. Petersburg State University, Gannon, 55, moved to St. Petersburg from Ithaca, New York, 11 years ago after completing her PhD in Russian literature and Slavic linguistics at Cornell University.

“I came here, ostensibly for a year, with my daughter,” says Gannon. “We’ve been here ever since.”

“The reason I came here was professional. I certainly didn’t plan on moving my whole life here,” says Gannon.

“But that was in the ’90s and it was a very chaotic but fascinating time in Russia. And it seemed that there was just a lot to do, and I felt somehow useful in a way that I wasn’t feeling at the moment in the States.”

The Translators’ Tea Party is just one of the projects with which Gannon is involved. She is a Russian-English translator, as well as academic director of cultural studies at the New York-St. Petersburg Institute for Cognitive and Cultural Studies, which conducts a three-week event held in St. Petersburg every summer in cooperation with Stony Brook University in New York.

The concept for the Tea Party grew out of one of these programs where Gannon had taught a seminar on translation studies in the summer of 2005. “We wanted to just keep meeting after the institute,” she recalls.

So a group of five or six people started meeting every week at Bouche Cafe where they would spend about three hours translating.

As the group expanded, they found it necessary to find a venue that could offer more space. So the translators moved to Zoom in late 2005 where they have been meeting ever since.

Without even looking at Zoom’s book-size menu, Gannon orders a latte and a bowl of vegetable soup. “They have the best food in the city,” she said.

However, before they knew the menu by heart, it was the unique character of the cafe, which is popular with students and young people, that appealed to the translators.

“There aren’t many places like Zoom in Petersburg, and I dare say there aren’t many places like Zoom in the world... It’s a place with a wonderful atmosphere and interesting people and good food... There are many good things to be said about Zoom,” said Gannon.

What makes Zoom particularly appropriate for the Tea Party is its literary quality, she said.

“It used to be full of books... And they always deliver your bill in a book,” said Gannon. “But I think people thought you were meant to just pay your bill and then take the book because the number of books dwindled pretty drastically after the first few years.”

However, looking around at the bookshelves, Gannon notes that the restaurant’s literary collection appears to be rebounding.

Just like books in the on-site library, the number of participating translators also fluctuates from week to week.

“There’s a core group of about six people,” says Gannon. But there are also quite a few people — many of them students at the philological department of SPbGU [the university] — who attend on a sporadic basis.

“[And] in the summer, for example, the numbers swell because of the New York Institute,” says Gannon. Of her 100 to 150 students every year, many of them like to take part, she explains.

“Sometimes we have several tables working together on different translations,” she says. “But usually in the summer it becomes more of a social event than a working translators’ event.”

Nevertheless, Gannon says the group almost always manage to complete at least one translation. And there are a few basic principles that the group tries to follow. Because the group mainly translate from Russian into English and English into Russian, the participants prefer to have at least one native speaker of each language in a group.

“But when there are people with other languages, the other languages are sort of brought into the discussion too,” she adds.

As for the selection of texts, suggestions are encouraged but the group does try to follow some basic principles.

The group enjoys translating short stories, but their focus is on poetry “because it’s manageable,” says Gannon. From Russian, the group has translated works by such poets as Arseny Tarkovsky, Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Kuzmin. Some of the English poets they have tackled are Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov and Robert Frost — “oldies but goodies,” as Gannon put it.

However, despite being shorter in length than most pieces of prose, translating poetry from English into Russian presents an added challenge because of the different poetic traditions, said Gannon.

“What Russians hear as poetry isn’t what we [English speakers] hear as poetry,” she explains. “In Russia and in Russian, you want to hear this meter and this rhyme, and it doesn’t really sound like poetry unless you hear those palpable, formal features.”

As a result, participants of both native languages are discovering the value of different forms of poetry.

“We talk about how we’re ‘growing different ears’,” says Gannon. “For those of us who are used to shying away from rhyming meter, because in English it easily sounds like a Hallmark greeting card or something, we’re learning to appreciate this rhyme and meter. And the Russians are also ‘growing ears’ for poetry without ... a formal metrical pattern.”

The group also has an objective in selecting Russian texts, and that is to try and choose pieces that have not been widely translated.

Recently, for example, Tea Party members have translated a number of short stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950), an ethnic Polish Ukrainian-born Russian-language writer who once said he was “known only for being unknown” and was largely unpublished during his lifetime, explains Gannon.

“I guess he would be considered a modernist. And, really I don’t know why he was neglected for so long, but recently a three-volume edition of his work came out in Russian. So he’s been making sort of a splash in Russia and also in the world of Slavic studies abroad.”

Nevertheless, Gannon admits there is one well-known, widely-translated Russian author for whom the group has a shared affinity.

“We love Chekhov,” she says. “You can never translate Chekhov often enough; that’s what we think.”

“For some reason his stories just lend themselves to English in a way, I guess, and are very much part of the spirit of the Tea Party,” said Gannon. “We have a special relationship with Chekhov.”

Ultimately, says Gannon, there are so many texts that have not been translated from English into Russian and from Russian into English that the choice can be overwhelming.

“So we sort of do it randomly, by serendipity,” she says, “and we just do what we feel compelled to do and what we love.”

The Translator’s Tea Party has a blog (, maintained by Gannon, where she posts various texts that the group has translated.

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