Wodehouse in Russia
Dr. Natalya Trauberg
In the twenties life in the Soviet Union, with all its horrors,
was quite unstable (or peculiar). There were still small publishing
houses that produced popular titles "for mass consumption" which
included P.G.Wodehouse, G.K.Chesterton and even Somerset Maugham.
(Sinclair Lewis, G.B.Shaw and H.G.Wells were "serious ones" because
of their pro-leftist ideology. That is why they were published in
the national publishing houses).
Those popular books had their dedicated reader in the bohemian
young people that resembled their American and English counterpoints.
In poetry, theatre, cinema they conducted left-wing experiments,
and were quite willing to stuff them with the "revolutionary ideology".
The most talented of them, such as S.Eisenstein, left a strong,
even a snobbish. dislike toward that ideology. But this is a topic
I treat in various articles.
My father Leonid Trauberg was at that time a young cinema director,
the co-founder, with Gregory Kozintsev, of FEKS (Factory of an Eccentric
Actor). He read with great fervour the books of Wodehouse. True,
they were hastily translated, abriged and vulgarized, but all those
"young men in spats" lived the very life that their unfortunate
Soviet counterpoints were dreaming about. To that I can testify,
for I was growing up among them.
The year of 1927 saw especially large number of those little books,
and my mother, pregnant with me, was reading them. About three years
before she was renting a room from a rather avant-garde artist,
Valentina Khodasevitch. It was then and there that my mother (her
christian name is Vera) heard two young men laughing and one of
them, Leonid Trauberg, told her that they were waiting for the landlady
and reading an excellent author named Wodehouse. It was the first
meeting of my parents.
Then the thirties came, much less laughable. Wodehouse was declared
"a writer for bourgeois" ("literatura dlya zhyrnykh", "fat tummy
literature") and no longer published. He did bite the Bolsheviks
in one of his stories, but I don't think that played a role in the
prohibition. That particular story was never translated. Simply
all bourgeois books were prohibited and the small publishing
As for his fans they found themselves in the Soviet trap, and sought
to deny the eccentricity if their recent past.
After WWII I studied German and Romance philology at the Leningrad
University. We were reading English books one after another, both
classic and detective stories of the Golden Era. The summer of 1946
I discovered in a library A Damsel in Distress, and fell
in love with it. My father was delighted, but warned me to be careful,
as Wodehouse "had collaborated with the Nazis". I did not believe
this for a second, and began reading all of P.G.W. I cannot express
what a comfort his books provided in those difficult times. For
that alone I'll always be grateful to him. More than anyone, more
than Chaucer, Dickens and Chesterton, he opposed the horror of those
Besides, from my early childhood I believed in God. That was the
legacy passed on to me by my maternal grandparents. So, strangely
or not, Wodehouse became to me an angelic, heavenly voice.
My friends, however, did not fall in the some kind of love with
him. They were not fans of the regime any more than I, but apparently
were not childish enough.
Almost all my life my only job was translating English and Spanish
novels for various publishing houses. Sitting home was perhaps the
safest thing to do in times live that, even after 1953 (the death
of Stalin). I have translated several books of G.K.Chesterton, but
that is a different story.
In the sixties my father gathered up courage to write to Wodehouse.
The writer sent him some autographed books and two photos.
God is merciful, and even the 70s and early 80s, horrible in a
new way, ended. It was late in 1989, almost exactly at the time
of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that I decided to translate a story
about my beloved character Lord Emsworth. It was Lord Emsworth
and the Girl Friend. (I never thought that Wodehouse could be
translated into Russian.)
That's how it began. Within six years I had translated all of the
Blandings novels, except Leave it to Psmith. Then one small
publisher who had produced a 5-volume G.K.Chesterton set expressed
interest in Wodehouse. To these translations I added four more novels,
about Lors Ickenham.
Success exceeded everyone's expectations. Not only my students
(I do teach English literature now) but even my fellow church members
always eagerly wait for the next volume.
Now a Moscow publishing house Ostozhje has begun a sizeable series
of Wodehouse. This is how we divided the books. Mrs Inna Bernstein,
an outstanding professional (she acquainted the Russian reader with
Thomas Malory and Brideshead Revisited), leads a group of translators
who work on the Jeeves & Wooster stories. Within this group the
talent and the humor of Julia Zhukova (The Code of the Woosters)
should be mentioned.
Among non-Wooster translations those done by Ekaterina Dobrokhotova-Maikova
(Bill the Conqueror, Something Fishy) deserve high praise. Introductions
are usually written by me, as someone totally crazy about Wodehouse.
The Khudozhestvennaja Literatura publishing house that used to
hold a virtual monopoly on translating classics in the Soviet era,
has published a 3-volume set of Wodehouse. 1st vol.: Psmith (I.Gurova)
and A Damsel in Distress (translated by Alexander Dorman). 2nd:
several Blandings novels, 3rd: several Jeeves and Wooster novels
(translated by Zhukova and Bernstein). Magazines usually welcome
his short stories, so quite a few have already appeared there.
I cannot think of a better time than now to introduce Wodehouse
to Russians. That unique combination of a rarely found freedom and
rarely found innocence is exactly what we've been seeking for such
a long time. And think of his kindness, his unbelievable professionalism,
his unmatched simplicity! If it is indeed true that non angli
sed angeli, then he is the first among them.
Here is something that gives us hope: Russians have come to love
him. True, it is only intelligentsia, but it is good begining.
Isn't it time to stop pretending that you should only read Ada and
Ulysses? Yes, both books have by now been published, praise God,
but can you imagine someone reading them with the same gratitude
and sentimentality as reading P.G.W. May I repeat: Wodehouse is
the surest medicine against the rubbish that our minds and hearts
were fed. Were else will you find such a meek writer?
The youth that know him love him dearly. Here's Mikhail Kuzmenko,
for example, who discovered Wodehouse through the Jeeves and Wooster
series in Russian. We met with him quite by chance (or, rather providentially,
if you please) through the Internet, and now he has done so much
good for the cause. He puts together catalogs of Wodehouse publications
in English and Russian. Through him we receive the Wodehouse materials
from other countries.