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Claire Davison, Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, 256 p., ISBN 978-0-7486-8281-2
Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio
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Claire Davison, Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, 256 p., ISBN 978-0-7486-8281-2

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1From a critical, archival and comparative perspective Claire Davison’s illuminating study (194 pages) brings to light a whole new chapter in literary modernism. For it reveals to us an archaeology of encounter occurring as fragments of Russian literature and correspondence are translated into English by Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and the Russian émigré Samuel Solomonovitch Koteliansky. The focus on Mansfield’s and Woolf’s collaboration with Koteliansky underlines the literary and feminist implications of this research, for Davison’s object and motivation is that unseen, unspoken, often neglected area between languages, texts, genders and a poetics of exposure to the foreign which she traces in Woolf’s and Mansfield’s reading notes and literary production during this period, stretching from Koteliansky’s encounter with London publishing circles around 1915 and especially the Hogarth Press in 1919 to the mid-1920s. Furthermore, the precision of her focus should not belie the measure of Davison’s wider contribution to Translation Studies in this work, for her meticulous discoveries and comparative analyses of different translations in regard to the Russian original are commented with reference to major figures in the field, especially Wismann, Meschonnic, Dalgarno and indeed Bakhtin, an emblematic precursor of Davison’s own insistence on dialogism as a quality of the Russian text, the modernist encounter with it and as crystallising a philosophy of language which is the red thread of her book .

2The argument of the different chapters is woven around a set of recurring Russian texts: Dostoevsky’s Stavogrin’s Confession, translated by Woolf and Koteliansky in 1922, Chekhov’s diary and letters translated between 1919–1924 by Mansfield and Koteliansky, Tolstoy’s hitherto unpublished prose poem ‘The Dream’ by Mansfield in 1921, his Love Letters by Woolf and Koteliansky in 1923, Gorky’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy 1920–24 by Mansfield, Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf, all of which give reading the book the reminiscent quality of one’s first encounters with Russian novels in translation—that utter difference of atmosphere and foreignness of names cutting into English, whereby we share Mansfield’s and Woolf’s 1920’s experience of and enthralment with this strangeness. In this respect the extensive footnotes, 10 page bibliography and 5 page index are important reading tools and key elements for our cartography of the more unfamiliar Russian references.

3Davison draws our attention from the outset to the paradigm of encountering and mediating foreignness, including one’s own: Koteliansky’s exile in England and English from a shtetl in the Ukraine, his grounding in Hasidic recitative and exegesis through rereading and annotation, Mansfield’s nomadic exiled existence and theatrical play with identity, Woolf’s philosophical and literary engagement with “not knowing”, as well as to both her and Mansfield’s ear for English made strange to itself through contact with the foreign: ‘a language whose edges have not been smoothed for us by daily use’ (27), says Woolf of reading in translation, or Mansfield, reading back to an age ‘when life was long and books were few’ (30).

4We encounter Mansfield and Koteliansky ventriloquising voices when translating a sequence of Chekhov’s letters for The Athenaeum in 1919 and Virginia Woolf’s receptivity to a dialogic interweaving of voices in Goldenveizer’s Talks with Tolstoy (1923), structural traces of which Davison reads in Three Guineas. These examples occur in the first chapter

5‘Unknown Languages, Unruly Selves, Thinking Through Translation’. The following chapter, ‘Representing by Means of Scenes, Translating Voices’ consolidates the modernist women writers’ particular receptivity to voice and theatricality, highlighting Woolf and Koteliansky minimising the author’s presence and releasing polyphony in Stavrogin’s Confession and Mansfield and Koteliansky reproducing the nocturnal landscapes and mists of Saint Petersburg through ‘recitative effect’ and ‘richly textured soundscape’ (63) in Kuprin’s ‘Captain Ribnikov’, leading Davison to qualify both these ventures as ‘avant-garde translations’, surpassing ‘the rigid divide between foreignising and domesticating’ and bringing ‘the patterns and inflections of Russian prose closer to English’ (78).

6Chapter III ‘The Queerest Sense of Echo, Translating Independent Moveables’, the subtitle of which is inspired by Keats’ letter to Fanny Brawne, coyly presenting ‘imprudent moveables’ as preferable to ‘prudent fixtures’, examines Woolf’s and Mansfield’s ‘gender-aware attentiveness’ (95) to female character and language, which means we see Woolf and Koteliansky keeping open the transgressive potentiality and mutability of sexuality in Stavogrin’s Confession and hear the subaltern voice of the prostitute speaking back in Mansfield and Koteliansky’s translation of ‘Captain Ribnikov’, voicing effects which Davison deftly amplifies through comparative analysis with the conventional sexual stereotyping of the 1923 French translation by Henri Mongault. Equally, in Gorky’s Reminiscences of Andreyev Mansfield’s and Koteliansky’s translation inclines gently ‘towards the tentatively homoerotic appeal of intimacy’ (101), just as in Stavogrin’s Confession we are shown Woolf and Koteliansky avoiding unconscious censorship and revealing glimpses of intimacy and intensities of affect that other translations occlude. Furthermore, Davison traces a compelling thread of interaction between the translations and literary production in suggesting that Woolf and Mansfield’s male characters might be read in counterpoint with these translations, as ‘partly feminised, ungraspable characters created from what the texts hints at’ (105) and estranges. So is translation itself seen here as an encounter between writer and reader which ‘queers the pitch’, an expression Davison borrows from a letter written by Woolf to Vita Sackville West in 1938 and which further underlines how the co-translators are defined as working through the historical determinism of author reception by dislocating categories of gender, power and voice in intensely dialogic forms, thus uncovering new aspects of Russian literature to the reading public.

7This point opens onto the fourth chapter ‘Editors’ Choice: Craftsmanship and the Marketplace’ focusing on the co-translators as cultural mediators and editors. Hence we see Woolf and Koteliansky shifting focus and agency in their retranslation of the title of Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ as ‘The Possessed’ and shifting the conventional early 20th–century version of Tolstoy in their translation of Goldenveizer’s Talks with Tolstoy, of which the title reflects, argues Davison, the tenor of Woolf’s own essay titles and her wish to expand textual encounter within the very workings of language. Furthermore, the Hogarth Press is brought to our attention as engaging in modernist recomposition, deliberately fashioning a Georgian Tolstoy against 19th–century mimetism, just as Mansfield and Koteliansky’s translation of Chekov’s 1916-19 letters in The Athenaeum is seen to promote a displaced, very timely image of Chekhov, acting as an invitation to London audiences to attend his plays with a different aesthetic vision. Davison draws particular attention here to Woolf’s sensitivity to Tolstoy’s more fragmentary, visionary qualities and to Mansfield’s identification with Chekhov’s gentle offbeat counterpoint to the ‘tyranny of the ought’ underlined in the earlier chapter (105). Indeed, Koteliansky’s collaboration with Philip Tomlinson is presented in counterpoint as editing out women, clownish irreverence and chatter against Chekhov’s own literary mantra, ‘A story without a woman is like an engine without steam’ (124). The cover image of Davison’s book, Valloton’s mysterious Intérieur avec femme en rouge de dos (Interior with Woman in Red) 1903, is a perfect mise en abyme of this ars poetica, which Chekhov shared with Mansfield and Woolf.

8Thus does Davison continue to illuminate these female minds and pens at work in the shadows of a male-dominated editorial scene. When the Autobiography of Countess Sophie Tolstoy is translated for Hogarth in 1922 by Leonard Woolf and Koteliansky, the editorial presentation of which Davison qualifies in no uncertain terms as an ‘avant-garde historiographical metafiction’ (133), our attention is nonetheless deflected to Woolf copyediting in the wings and grappling with the mad, misunderstood and creatively thwarted Sophia Andreevna Tolstoy, wife of the great man, to whom she bore 13 children, and we are aptly reminded of the spectre of Judith Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own.

9Chapter V proposes an opening out from the intricate close-reading of the previous chapters to more ‘distant readings’, echoing Moretti’s thesis that secondary critical literatures can reveal wider patterns at work in world literatures. Thus Davison proposes to address how the modes of composition and philosophies of being encountered in the translations might converge in a sharpened sense of biography during the modernist period as a form of trans-national life-writing – a counter-fusion of the fleeting poetics of the everyday with the measured time of the life and times approach. Thus Tolstoyean dismantling of heroics is seen as inspiring Strachey’s ‘classic iconoclasm’ (146) in Eminent Victorians and Leonard Woolf’s and Koteliansky’s venture with Gorky’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy, but most intriguingly Woolf herself, through Davison’s reading her 1920 review of the latter, ‘Gorky’s Tolstoy,’ and Goldenveizer’s diary which she co-translated in 1923, as uncannily refracted through the portrait she sketched of her father in ‘Leslie Stephen, The Philosopher at Home’ 1932. This is indeed an inspired moment in Davison’s reading at which Leslie Stephen is drawn and remembered through the figure of Tolstoy, in a reminiscent intertextual current of nachtraeglichkeit which is the kairos of this chapter and which Woolf herself defines in the essay, ‘some figure lives on in the depths of the mind, and causes us, when we read a poem or a novel, to feel a start of recognition, as if we remembered something we had known before’ (156).

10Indeed, as if to underline the fleeting modernity of life seized and translated in the moment, we are reminded that Woolf’s vision of Tolstoy in Gorky’s reminiscences was that of ‘an untouched amateur photograph’. In this vein Davison brilliantly pursues her critical edge, reviewing the translations themselves in terms of the modernist paradigm shift in portraiture and life-writing, comparing Constance Garnett’s Chekhov—a solid, ‘grounded and contextualised’, ‘life and times’ ‘landscape painting’ (159)—to the broken chronology and aphoristic montage-like features of Koteliansky and Mansfield’s portrait of Chekhov, itself reminiscent of Mansfield’s style.

11In the conclusion Claire Davison points to the infinitely elusive nature of her attempt to grasp this transitional, dialogic space of negotiation between languages, and cultures, Bloomsbury and the Soviet avant-garde, reminding us how the co-translator writers’ ethical and aesthetic implication in this liminal space of perception both affirm and reiterate their own modernist poetics. There is a prismatic sense here of where the attention, minutiae and breadth of her own enterprise overlap with theirs, as a scarcely visible scene from literary history and poetics crosses frontiers and is made contemporary in a revelatory Benjaminian inscription of the unspoken past in the present.

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Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio, « Claire Davison, Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 48 | 2015, mis en ligne le 23 mars 2015, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio

Institut catholique de Paris

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