Dr. Seuss to Appear in Russian Translations
The last few decades have passed in Russia under the aegis of "Westernization," a trend particularly noticeable in contemporary children's literature. Bookstore shelves have been flooded with mythical characters, glamorous super-heroes and endless derivatives of commercially successful films and cartoons. With ongoing pigeonholing of children's literature, Walt Disney characters have become nearly sole legitimate representatives of American children's books in Russia and around the world. The reason behind this phenomenon is simple - writing for children is infinitely more challenging than composing for adults. "An author for children must respect children's intelligence; he or she must understand that just because children may have less height, they are not less intelligent or less deserving of high quality literature. At the same time, the author must recognize that the child does know less vocabulary, and should not write over children's heads," elaborates Philip Nel, Associate Professor and Director of the Program in Children's Literature at Kansas State University. Thus dismayed by the status quo, some Russian parents are seeking relief in the best the United States has to offer.
With the advent of television, computer games, and other entertainment mediums aimed at children, some experts speculate that the genre of children's literature in Russia has lost its significance, as modern Russian children no longer read. This, however, can hardly be the case in a country with a rich tradition of profound, high quality children's literature. Despite the censorship of the Soviet Union, many quality children's books that still enjoy infinite respect were written, translated, and published, from the endemic Korney Chukovsky, Agniya Barto, and Samuil Marshak, to foreigners Mark Twain, Astrid Lindgren, and Tove Jansson. Due to high demand, many of these classics are still being reprinted today, but the problem with some is an unwelcome "modern" twist aimed at cutting production costs and increasing sales - poor translations, terrible adaptations to contemporary language and vulgar, glossy illustrations.
According to the Eksmo publishing house, one of the five largest publishers in Russia, local demand for children's literature is quite stable; some 17 percent of all books published in Russia annually are meant for the young reader. Eksmo representatives claim that competition in this segment of the market is tough; if the literature segment meant for schoolchildren (age seven and up) truly is in decline, the market for the littlest ones is actually growing and will continue to do so. The most well-received authors, however, remain the same as twenty years ago. Better still, most can be reprinted without exclusive rights.
"Judging by the fact that children's books take up more and more space in the bookstores, the demand is growing. However, there are too few new authors on the shelves, mostly classics -- modern literature is, for the most part, represented by kitsch. In this regard, the demand has frozen on the level of last century's end," describes Irina Arzamastseva, a philologist at Moscow State Pedagogical University and an expert in children's literature.
About 70 percent of the books presently produced for children are meant for children between the ages of one and 10, ages when children are mostly read to by their parents, who naturally prefer to purchase the books they find most useful and instructive -- either time-tested classics they know from personal experience or encyclopedias. By the time children are old enough to read on their own, they have already encountered most of the good stories. Novel, engaging plots are hard to come by, especially when the parental filter is off and other media is readily available.
Going Down the Drain
The ideological censorship of the Soviet era seems to be a mere nuisance when compared to the commercial pressures of today's market. Those who assess the state of modern children's literature by the assortment of books on the store shelves may, indeed, get the feeling that contemporary children's literature is degrading -- the racks are stacked with cardboard marred by aniline hedgehogs and wide-bunnies that could have come from outer space. Children's departments have turned into gift shops of glossy, trite Disneyesque paraphernalia.
As publishers attempt to tap into the budgets of well-off parents, modern children's writers follow the market, producing products meant for entertaining such as mysteries, thrillers and fantasies - the most popular genres among contemporary kids. "The marketplace always has an impact on what children's writers are able to create. If writers are not able to sell their works, then they will lose money. So they must keep their publishers' desires in mind. That said, I think that this is much more true now than it used to be," comments Nel.
"I have a feeling that 'instructive' and 'entertaining' have become one and the same. As children are not yet employed, the publisher's customers are the parents on whom they attempt to foist the brightest and most attractive 'products.' An educational product called 'the alphabet book that will teach your child to read in 10 minutes' is not much different from the entertaining 'Subcelestial Vampires' book," ponders Nika Dubrovsky, a journalist and an expert on children's literature.
But even in the macrocosm of wizards and unicorns, where ideals of leadership, success, and triumph of good are at the forefront, contemporary Russian children's writers have yet to produce a local character of Harry Potter's magnitude. Indeed, edifying stories dealing with ethical and psychological subjects of the everyday, the leading genre in children's literature of the Soviet times, are all but absent. Even if it is difficult to explain to modern children some of the obsolete values that Soviet books promoted – such as loyalty to the party, modern substitutes are yet to be verbalized. Subjects of current concern, like terrorism, the wars in the Caucasus and the widening income gap have all passed unnoticed by modern Russian children's writers.
"The purity, the antecedence of impressions and the vitality of the spirit are innate in children of all times. But Soviet children froze at the sight of a postage stamp from the far country of Guadalupe; they felt a poignant lack of information about the world beyond the Soviet Union's borders. Modern children no longer collect stamps, they are at the center of a large information boom and more freely form relationships with the world. But they also bear the load of responsibility for this freedom. A contemporary child is lonelier, the freedom is sorrowful. Maybe that's why children's literature is attempting to amuse and entertain, rather than to preach," comments Arzamastseva on the evolution of the needs of Russian children.
The gaping void in children's literature in Russia for those interested in reading about their contemporaries and seeking answers to the pressing questions of today is undeniable. Certainly, there are books by Grigory Oster and Eduard Uspensky, but these are mere drops in a ocean of tasteless, poorly-edited literary garbage, full of condescension, which incidentally is not lost on the kids.
"I think that children who are fed fantastical foxes, kittens, little girls and baby talk from modern books and cartoons will grow up to be either imbeciles or surrealists. What do you think a kid who spends all of his childhood watching horrific kitschy images, accompanied by sweet and suspicious talk, often in bad Russian, can grow up to be?" asks Dubrovsky.
Arzamastseva agrees, "If the publishing business doesn't recognize that production of children's books depends on the state of the modern writers' community, the consequences will be dire, up to the loss of a societal need for developed, rich, and diverse children's literature, causing a total schism between contemporary values of upbringing and the literary canons formed by a different epoch."
The Parents Rebel
In an attempt to "alter the present landscape of Russian children's literature," if not with something new than with something novel for the Russian reader, Nika Dubrovsky has taken matters into her own hands. The St. Petersburg-based Kyrlya Myrlya Publishing House is undertaking a project to officially publish the works of Dr. Seuss, who Korney Chukovsky called "the most renowned American children's writer," and, despite the recent success of J.K. Rowling, still the best-selling children's author in the English language. Dubrovsky will assist the project as Acquisitions Editor.
While there were a few Soviet era adaptations of American children's books that became mainstream in Russia, such as Chukovsky's Doctor Aybolit, which is an adaptation of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting and Volshebnik Izumrudnogo Goroda by Alexander Volkov, a derivative of Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, American literature in general was not ideologically sound. "I believe that all English-language children's literature was brought into the Soviet Union thanks to a few illustrious translators, such as Marshak and Chukovsky. In the years following World War II, when Seuss became enormously popular, the Cold War was already underway, with Soviet children's literature being a strictly ideological phenomenon. Thus, Dr. Seuss was our ideological opponent. For those Soviet citizens who had access to the originals, this did not interfere with their love for him, but it limited the wider population's access to his work," says Dubrovsky, explaining the reasons behind Dr. Seuss’ absence from Russian culture. Dubrovsky claims to have personal motives for having initiated the translation project. "My son, Benjamin, is half American, he is four years old and, like the majority of American children, he has read plenty of Dr. Seuss. At some moment, I felt that it was my duty to help publish Dr. Seuss in Russian," she explains.
Today, all the rights to Dr. Seuss' work (including some 44 books, translations, and toys based on his characters) belong to his widow, Audrey Stone Geisel, the director and organizer of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company with which publishing rights had to be negotiated. "The process of acquiring permission was very tedious, as we had some hiccups with the translations, so it is a pained publication. It wasn't easy," recalls Dubrovsky.
The first three translations to be published by Kyrlya Myrlya are The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hatches an Egg, and Horton Hears a Who, and the books are being published with their original illustrations. Dr. Seuss carefully planned the placement of pictures on the page and their relationship to the text. The lines of the poems were placed according to the logic of the images -- they jump, multiply, disappear, or suddenly take over the whole space. Employing his background in advertising, he choreographed the story with the images in such a way as to engage children, drawing from one page to the next.
Who is Dr. Seuss?
Dr. Seuss' work has delighted readers across the globe for more than 60 years. Nearly 30 of his books have been adapted for television or video, and at the time of his death in 1991, some 200 million copies, translated into 15 languages, had been sold around the world. Of the best-selling children's books in the United States, Dr. Seuss still has several in the top 20. "Dr. Seuss is America's most popular poet: if you were to quote Seuss's verse, people could identify Seuss as the author. Seuss's illustrations, what I call an energetic cartoon surrealism, are also instantly recognizable," reflects Nel, who has authored two books on Dr. Seuss, "The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats," and "Dr. Seuss: American Icon." "He has had such an impact on children's literature that, when people think of children's literature, they think of Seuss."
Born March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) walked into the milieu of American children's literature as an unexpected and all-consuming force; his work was revolutionary and apostate, as much censured and hated by conservative teachers and librarians, who deemed it frivolous and inappropriate, as it was adored by child readers. A graduate of Dartmouth College and an Oxford dropout, Geisel tried his hand at archeology, advertising, sculpture, inventing children's toys, and directing cartoons and documentary films in Hollywood, but it was in writing for children where he eventually found his vocation. As any innovative work, his first book "And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street" was refused by some 27 publishers, but the 28th, Random House, took the risk and hit a goldmine. In 1957, Dr. Seuss was asked to write a book for little children using just 250 most commonly used words children should know, an entirely novel approach to books that resulted in a tour de force - The Cat in the Hat.
With his verse rhymes and outlandish creatures, his imaginative power and his optimistic faith in children, Dr. Seuss managed to ideologically reconstruct the world of children's literature of the 1950s, shaped primarily by the Dick and Jane stories that were uninspired and unimaginative. Dr. Seuss offered his readers a game instead of a list of instructions, crazy phantasmagoria instead of arid descriptions of a Utopian existence, surrealist adventures instead of boring and meaningless droning. "Seuss's main characters tend to be rebels and con men. The Cat in the Hat, Sam-I-Am, Marco (of Mulberry Street) are all imaginative characters, and their imaginations create excitement and possibility. As the Cat says, 'it's fun to have fun / but you have to know how,'" comments Professor Nel.
His poems bear all of the traits useful to a growing child - accessibility, lightness, sonority, and naughtiness, but despite its surrealism, significant social and political topics of the adult world also permeate his work. "Dr. Seuss is an ingenious mixture of adult themes - politics, war, tyranny, ecology and an entirely childish attitude towards the world. However, his understanding of 'being a child' is not derived from infantilism and helplessness, but from valor, freedom, and the will to take risks," opines Dubrovsky.
"In his works, Seuss tends to place a lot of faith in the child. Adults mess up the world, and it's up to children to set it right again. In The Butter Battle Book (1984), Seuss's satire of the U.S.-Soviet arms race, the little boy is the one who questions what's going on. The adults seem hell-bent on creating more and more dangerous weapons. The boy asks questions. In Yertle the Turtle (1958), the smallest turtle in the stack, named Mack, questions and ultimately topples the dictator Yertle. Seuss suggests that even the smallest among us can speak out and make a difference," explains Nel. Likewise, Horton Hears a Who, meant for ages 2 to 5 and written following Seuss' visit to Hiroshima, in which the generous and fearless elephant Horton rescues an entire city, albeit hidden on a speck of dust, presents Seuss' vision of a human life as the most valuable of treasures.
Seuss in Russia?
Despite all the merits of Dr. Seuss' work, his relevance for the modern Russian child and his ability to alleviate the status quo of modern children's literature is questionable. "As figures who challenge the wisdom of people in power, Seuss's characters are more relevant now than ever," believes Philip Nel. "Seuss characters tend to be rebels, and Americans of many backgrounds are inclined to imagine or to align themselves with rebels, the underdog, or the outsider. Seuss's characters - the Cat, Horton, Mack (in Yertle the Turtle) are outsiders in the true sense of that word. Do Russians identify with rebels as much as Americans do?" he asks.
"Doctor Seuss is the quintessence of the American way of life and thought. It is he, and not the renowned Mickey Mouse, who is the carrier and promoter of the true America," proceeds Nika Dubrovsky. "I have the feeling that brands are the only phenomena that can cross borders quickly: degenerate signifiers, such as the Teletubbies. Any personages and styles that are more complex take root with more difficulty. On the other hand, truly great authors should be international, and the history of world literature, of which children's authors are merely a part, proves this."
"The relevancy of the classic characters does not depend on the time of year," opines Irina Arzamastseva. "As the personages of Dr. Seuss belong to the same 'liberal intelligentsia' camp as those of Chukovsky and Uspensky, the Elephant Horton may find a place among them. But the question is, how willing are modern children, who sense the vehement pulse of the contemporary world, to accept characters inhabiting a much slower universe. To them, Spiderman seems closer."
One of the serious difficulties in bringing Dr. Seuss to the Russian reader is the tricky translation. Professor Nel explains, "The big challenge in translating Seuss into Russian is that much of his work depends upon games he plays with the English language. Dr. Seuss is not nearly as popular in non-English speaking countries because it is so difficult to translate his poetry and his American idioms into another language. Many Beginner Books do depend upon plays with language: Fox in Socks (1965) and Oh Say Can You Say? (1979) are composed entirely of tongue-twisters. I can't imagine that these two would translate very well." Nika Dubrovsky, on the other hand, remains optimistic. "The translators of both Hortons, Yulia Friedman and Mitya Manin, along with the editor Misha Lurye, tried to translate using contemporary Russian language in the text. It's important to note that we're not just publishing Dr. Seuss, we are translating him; in a certain way, it's a new creation. That's how it should be judged," she expounds.
With little baby talk, the use of a lively Russian language and proper allusions and cultural references, Dr. Seuss may indeed have a niche to fill in the realm of modern children's literature in Russia. According to Dubrovsky, the distributor of the books has one of the largest distribution networks in Russia, and the books of Dr. Seuss will have a chance to reach smaller regional towns. The distributor has also agreed that the prices for the Russian print run will be kept low. "McDonald's sells food to 'billions', while only a few people are able to shop at expensive healthy food boutiques," compares Dubrovsky. "For me, Dr. Seuss was an attempt to publish good literature for the masses. We'll see what comes of it." A whole series of Dr. Seuss books for little ones is also being planned in an English-Russian bilingual format. Whether this publishing project is commercially viable is still unclear, the criteria on which the success of the undertaking will be judged is yet to be formulated.
Although publishers tend to be unresponsive to innovations and rarely take risks, there are good children's writers on the market today, including Dmitry Emts, Sergey Sedov, and Arthur Givargizov, as well as Nina Pikuleva, who, according to Irina Arzamastseva, has the unique literary gift of writing poetry for one-year-olds. But their work is yet to replace the existing store-loads of rubbish.
"The requirements that publishers present writers with are nebulous in the artistic sense and strict in the genre/thematic one. One can make a list and hang it on the doors of most publishers: 'developmental' poetry for toddlers, 'propitiatory' stories for elementary students, 'decorous but not Puritan' love novels for girls. New authors enter the market with much difficulty, as the literary process is not synchronized with the publishing process," explains Arzamastseva.
Although popularizing Dr. Seuss, the American Korney Chukovsky whose work is not quite contemporary, may not greatly contribute to filling the existing abyss in quality literature either, he has a good chance of joining the ranks of the classics in Russia, translating into a breath of fresh air and something novel for young Russian readers. But that, of course, is up to the children to decide.
© Russia Profile, 2011