Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7

I’m giving a couple of pre-concert talks for the Indianapolis Symphony, which is performing Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, “Leningrad” on Friday, February 6 (and then again on the 7th in Carmel), under the direction of Krzysztof Urbański. It is such a perfect case of the changing fortunes of a musical work against the backdrop of world events. Here’s a little taste of what I’ll be saying.

I’ve been asked to discuss the context of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, and in order to do that I would like to first ask you to imagine a situation, let’s call it a performance scenario.

We are used to being asked to silence our phones and mobile devices at live performances. Some people have very loud ring tones and beeps and dings that can be quite distracting when you’re trying to listen. Imagine a situation where it’s not someone’s phone that’s distracting you but a ring of artillery surrounding the city blasting away from seven miles out, not to mention your own artillery firing back from just down the street. And let’s add to this picture a company of half-starved musicians on the stage, not the usual philharmonic orchestra—because they were evacuated to Siberia months ago, along with their conductor. What was left was the Radio orchestra, not a bad group, but then they’ve been in the city under siege for nearly a year. Half of them have died of disease and starvation. To find more players you’ve had to go out to the troops protecting the city, find former members of regimental bands, jazz bands, anyone who can play. The score was airlifted in on a medical transport in July, and when the conductor saw it, his first response was, “We’ll never play this.” Many of the musicians were too weak to blow their instruments when rehearsals started. Sometimes they would collapse on stage during rehearsal. They would only ever manage to play the entire work once before the performance, at the dress rehearsal. The musicians just didn’t have the strength to get through the whole thing.

We can add more detail. The German forces bombarding the city did not do so indiscriminately. For hours every day, their guns range across the city, looking for crowds, people lining up at bus or tram stops, ticket windows, crossroads, factory gates when the shifts changed, entrances to theaters and musical events, just like the one being planned, the one they’d been ordered to carry out, whatever it took. And so an hour before the concert is due to begin, the city’s defenders begin laying down a ferocious barrage of artillery aimed at the enemy guns, forcing the German soldiers to take shelter. Just before the concert starts, they stop firing and are quiet. No German shells land in the center of the city for the next hour and twenty minutes, just enough for the concert to take place. It was, what Brian Morton in a 2006 book would later claim, “probably the only time in musical history that military operations were coordinated to assist an orchestral concert.”

This is the performance scenario I would like for you to imagine. This was the scenario for the performance of the Leningrad Symphony on August 9, 1942 at the Leningrad Philharmonic. With this picture in our heads, it is no wonder that the Leningrad Symphony should have become one of the most powerful symbols of wartime resistance.


This scenario, however, like the photograph of the soldier buying a ticket to the performance that night, is not the whole story of the work, though it’s a very powerful one. It helps to explain why the symphony immediately became wildly popular and frequently performed all over the world, and there’s much more that can be said about this world-wide reception in the midst of WWII, and I will say more, but this is too simple a representation, too easy a way of making sense of the work’s provenance and lasting importance. It’s not complete.

Thinking of the work as something of a historical document in this manner, a representation of “the siege of Leningrad,” let’s say, makes it into something one-dimensional and maybe not even that artistic. It reminds me of the way Aleksei Karenin, Anna Karenina’s big-eared husband in Tolstoy’s famous book, approaches art. He doesn’t know anything about it and has no feeling for it, so he reads books about it in order to be able to express his opinions. We reduce the music when we categorize its meaning based on the events it supposedly depicted, and supposedly is a good word to remember.

Right, just couldn’t help the Tolstoy reference. These are in my head for the duration, I’m afraid, the fruit of reading and teaching those works so many times. Today I listened to Bernstein’s recording of the 7th with the Chicago Symphony, turning off the heat in the house just to try for a bit more atmosphere. God, what a big, bombastic and yet ambivalent work.

The Translator’s Answerability

My previous post on Masha Gessen’s review of the two new Anna Karenina translations, one each by Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz, attrAK Gessen reviewacted some criticisms. I’ll respond in a couple of posts to make each one shorter.

Schwartz AKJohn Cowan comments, “You write as if the translator had no responsibility to the author at all, and it is all one whether the AK translator writes ‘All happy families are alike’ on the first page, or ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'”

I hope this wasn’t a widespread impression from my piece. But maybe I wasn’t clear enough. A glance at the Weinberger essay I quote from should dispel any lingering doubts, especially where he writes: “Now obviously a translation that is replete with semantical errors is probably a bad translation.”Bartlett AK Outside of parodying or otherwise hijacking a text for other purposes, it’s hard to imagine a context where switching a Tolstoy line for a Dickens line would be seen as a successful translation strategy.

But why the “probably” in Weinberger’s quote?  Because “fidelity may be the most overrated of a translation’s qualities.” It is the easiest thing to get right. Not easy of course, just the easiest.

His amplifying example: “I once witnessed an interesting experiment: average 9-year-old students at a public school in Rochester, New York, were given a text by Rimbaud and a bilingual dictionary, and asked to translate the poem. Neither they nor their teacher knew a word of French. What they produced were not masterpieces, but they were generally as accurate as, and occasionally wittier than, any of the existing scholarly versions. In short, up to a point, anyone can translate anything faithfully. But the point at which they cannot translate is the point where real translations begin to be made. […] A translation is a whole work; it is not a series of matching en face lines and shouldn’t be read as such. It means that the primary task of a translator is not merely to get the dictionary meanings right — which is the easiest part — but rather to invent a new music for the text in the translation-language, one that is mandated by the original.”

He uses poetry as his primary example, but the same is true of artistic prose. Translations are whole works, not series of matching lexical or semantic items, which means that the primary task of most translators is not merely getting the dictionary meanings right (the easiest part) but inventing new music for their works that resonates in the receiving culture’s language and literary traditions. Without that, it doesn’t matter how “accurate” their renderings are, for no one will want to read them. Responsibility to the author is implicit in this, but responsibility to the text is foremost. As Samuel Johnson once put it when asked by a reader regarding his intentions in a particular passage of Rasselas, “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what was in my head, God and myself. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that.”

Responsibility to an author can become explicit, too, however. It was part of the Maudes’ motivation for translating Tolstoy — they had met the man and were long-time friends and admirers. Something like this has happened to me two or three times, and I’ve written about two such instances in “A Matter of Trust,” part of a forum on “Translation and Social Commitment,” published by 91st Meridian.

In such cases, the author’s encouragement can increase one’s motivation to do things well, and interest in the literary qualities of a text comes to seem a rVenuti bookather empty and abstract substitute for the respect and affection one feels for the person. I suppose this is the “simpatico” method that Lawrence Venuti critiques in his book The Translator’s Invisibility. He is probably right that, as a method, it fails for some kinds of literature, as his example of experimental Modernist poetry makes clear. But it is also a mode of work that can be powerful and productive for many translators, an additional source of responsibility often overlooked in discussing their work.