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Translating Russia’s first gay celebrity a challenge, researcher says

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


LAWRENCE — Although he is just 43 years old, Slava Mogutin has seen Russian attitudes toward homosexuality come full circle – from outlawed to accepted and back again to pariah status.

A journalist, poet and visual artist, Mogutin was arguably Russia’s first openly gay public figure, even though he has been exiled from his homeland since 1995, when he became the first Russian citizen to be granted asylum by the United States on the basis of persecution due to sexual orientation.

In a new book chapter, Mogutin’s friend and colleague Vitaly Chernetsky, University of Kansas associate professor of Slavic languages & literatures, examines how he and others have translated Mogutin’s writings into English with the aim of maintaining the author’s characteristic in-your-face style.

Chernetsky’s chapter, “Literary Translation, Queer Discourses, and Cultural Transformation: Mogutin Translating/Translating Mogutin,” is part of a new book titled “Translation in Russian Contexts: Culture, Politics, Identity” (Routledge), edited by Brian James Baer and Susanna Witt. Chernetsky writes that the work has ethical, political, cognitive and aesthetic challenges.

Mogutin has been a prolific writer since age 17, making a name for himself as an exponent of “new journalism” after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Shortly after Russia repealed Stalin-era laws against sodomy in 1993, Mogutin pushed the boundaries of acceptability, becoming the first person to try to officially register a same-sex marriage in Russia.

Chernetsky writes that this was “no less a landmark in the emergence of Russian gays into visibility than the publication a few months earlier of the collected writings of Evgenii Kharitonov (1941–1981), the leading Soviet gay author of the samizdat era, edited and with an introduction by Mogutin.”

Samizdat refers to underground, uncensored publications produced during the Soviet era.

Even after the sodomy laws were repealed, Chernetsky writes, Russia “was still a very homophobic country” and Mogutin’s actions “immediately made him a target for harassment by police and other state authorities.” Like the activists of Pussy Riot in 2012, Mogutin was charged in 1995 with “malicious hooliganism,” so he fled Mother Russia.

Mogutin himself has worked as a translator, translating the words of such gay American writers as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg into Russian during the early ’90s period of openness. Chernetsky contrasts this work with that of earlier Russian translators, who “de-eroticized … (Walt) Whitman’s palpable homoeroticism — even if it was consistently explained away in Soviet-era publications as universal love or sympathy for the proletariat.”

Chernetsky writes: “Mogutin’s translations into Russian, just like his original writings and later his visual arts work, can be seen as a deliberate effort aimed at building a vision of queer personhood that is not bound to accomodationist, normalizing and consumer-oriented strategies. On the contrary, he celebrates the right to be different, to transgress dominant social norms, to give expression to identities and experiences previously voiceless in Russian.”

Even so, Mogutin has worked with translators like Chernetsky to transform his own Russian writings into English. Chernetsky recounts working with Mogutin to translate Mogutin’s 1990 poem “The Army Elegy,” into English.

“The poem was famous for having provoked outrage and even walkouts among ‘respectable’ Russian audiences at group poetic readings by its very first line,” Chernetsky writes. “As no word for penis in contemporary English carries a transgressive charge comparable to the Russian ‘khui,’ we settled in our translation on a more matter-of-fact" slang term. 

To make up for this soft-pedaling, Chernetsky writes, “we chose on several occasions to include English words that could be perceived as shocking or transgressive” elsewhere in the poem so that “the overall transgressive intent was still present in the resulting English text.”

In all his translation work, Chernetsky writes, Mogutin’s “paramount goal is to make the text a hard-hitting challenge to his audience’s preconceived notions and sensibilities — literature as an instrument of freedom — yet this challenge is combined with the challenge of reintroducing the tender and the lyrical … hoping to enact a paradigm shift in the many different cultural milieux in which he operates."

Photo: Slava Mogutin, 2012, in Beirut. Photo via Share Conference, Flickr.