‘Oh, Those Russians!': The (Not So) Mysterious Ways of Russian-language Harry Potter Fandom (Part One)

In honor of J.K. Rowling’s birthday, I will begin the week by running a two part series about Harry Potter fandom in Russia, written by Ksenia Prassolova, who was until just a few weeks ago a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program. Prassolova was in this country on a Fullbright fellowship, pursuing research on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. She has now returned to Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad), where she is completing her doctorate. It is perhaps fitting that the last time I saw Ksenia, we were both waiting in line together at the MIT COOP bookstore around midnight, waiting for the clerks to pass us our eagerly awaited copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. When I got my copy, I wandered off into the night in a daze and forgot to say goodbye.

My wife and I took our his and hers copies back to Senior Haus with us and climbed into the hammock we have in our backyard, reading by flashlight as late into the night as we could muster, and then waking up at the first daylight to push on through. Our son was nice enough to bring us meals so we could shut out the entire world and just immerse ourselves into Rowling’s world. And I am happy to say that we finished the books before the day was over.

Upon returning to Russia, Ksenia has sent me a long awaited series of blog posts describing what she calls Russian Language Harry Potter fandom. It’s a fascinating account of what cultural theorists like to call glocalization — suggesting that while Harry Potter is read around the world, local conditions of production and reception, including in this case especially issues around copyright and translation, shape how it gets read and in what contexts. Ksenia’s first installment takes us through the history of Lord of the Rings fandom in her country which in many ways set the stage for what happened with the Potter books and then discusses the centrality of translation to sustaining and energizing the fan culture. (Of course, it helps that Ksenia’s primary research background is in translation studies.) Next time, we will get deeper into fan fiction and other forms of fan cultural production in Russia.

‘Oh, Those Russians!': The (Not So) Mysterious Ways of Russian-language Harry Potter Fandom

by Ksenia Prassolova

The first thing that should be said about Russian fandom is that it exists. It may come as a surprising and as a somewhat baffling statement, but not many people within English-language fandom realize that fandom is an international phenomenon, and even those who do understand the international part would still cling to the “exotic” image of Russia that doesn’t really go together with something as native to the Western grassroots culture as fandom. Truth is, however, that ever since the Iron Curtain fell Russia has been doing its damnedest to catch up with the West: legally, politically, and culturally; new values were both imposed from the top and picked up eagerly by the young people who didn’t exactly want to associate themselves with the Soviet past and had no romantic recollections of it.

Because both the concept of fandom and its practices were borrowed as is, what we now know as ‘Russian fandom’ is not, on a general level, that different from its American counterpart. Demographically, we share the same patterns: people of both sexes and of all ages discuss canon, those who are involved in writing fan fiction are mostly female (according to anecdotal accounts), and those who write slash are almost exclusively female. Most discussions and creative work used to concentrate on several sites and forums, but with mass migration to blogs Russians moved to livejournal.com and diary.ru (a Russian blogging facility). In fact, in Russia we rarely even call our fandom ‘Russian’, we call it ‘Russian-language’, because this implies that fandom is a universal concept that merely varies to a larger or lesser degree from one national ‘incarnation’ to another. Harry Potter fan fiction posted on hogwartsnet.ru is very similar to that posted on fanfiction.net – genres, clichés, slash and all; fanart is scarce, but fanvids created by Russians are pretty similar those created in the West; we do have ship wars just like everybody else and just like everybody else we were eager to find out whether Snape was good or evil.

I would be very far from truthful, though, if I said that there were absolutely no differences between the way fandom works in Russia and the way it works in the English-language community, borrowed concept or no. The differences are firmly in place and are due to a combination of historic, linguistic and cultural factors. In this post I will try to concentrate on the most notable of them. I will be mostly talking about the Harry Potter fandom, since this is the one I have first-hand knowledge of, yet one has to start somewhere, and in ‘our’ beginning there was Tolkien. The beginning, however, didn’t happen until 1975.

Tolkien Apocrypha

Fandom-wise, Lord of the Rings was for Russians what Star Trek was for Americans. It also happened much later, and the gap between the emergence of canon and appearance of consolidated fannish activity around this canon was much wider in case of Lord of the Rings in Russia. This canon that started them all entered the Soviet scene gradually and in a most fascinating way. The first Russian translation of Lord of the Ringswas started in 1975 by A. Gruzberg, a linguist from Perm, and appeared in 1978; the entire trilogy was written by hand and was only available to friends and acquaintances of the translator. Later on it was transported to Leningrad, where it was published in Samizdat in 1981 (source). The first attempt at official translation followed shortly – in 1982 – and was comprised of two books, The Hobbit and The Fellowship, translated by by V. Muravjev and A.Kistjakovsky. This translation was abandoned, and the official Russian version of the trilogy was only published as late as 1990. By the time it happened the trilogy had already acquired a fair number of followers (those responsible for the non-official translations, for one) who would engage in a variety of fannish activities: from song and poetry writing to live action role playing games, which became extremely popular among the fans. In fact, the Hobbit Games of the beginning 1990-s were so well known that ‘being fannish’ is still associated with role-playing and Lord of the Rings in certain circles of fandom.

There are many reasons for Lord of the Rings to have become popular when it did in the Soviet Union and – later – the new Russian Federation. It was the only source of its kind available to Russians at that time: while the Soviet readers had enjoyed the long and rich tradition of science-fiction and gathered around what was known as KLFs (Clubs of Science-Fiction Readers), the genre of fantasy was relatively new. With it came new feelings and new attitude to the source text: I am not saying that the possibility of escapism was the only reason Tolkien’s work became popular with Russian readers, but the bread lines of the late 80-s and early 90-s definitely were part of the equation. Apart from role-playing games, the fans of Tolkien would write verses and songs, learn Elven languages, and write what they called ‘apocrypha': fan fiction that fell under the category of alternative history or alternative universe. By that time fan fiction had already been widely known abroad, and Western fandom started the colonization of the Internet, but international cross-fandom communication was scarce, and the name for this practice was re-invented rather than borrowed. The term ‘fan fiction’ has later been re-introduced into the Russian fandom, and there is now a lot of confusion as to whether ‘apocrypha’ are, in fact, fan fiction or fall into some specific category of fan writing. The debate continues, and no definite conclusion has been reached.


“Art Belongs to People”

An even more interesting question arises when we examine how those apocrypha/fan fiction works were distributed or, really, published before the Internet came along. Again, let us consider the history: the oft-cited quote of Vladimir Lenin’s, “Art Belongs to People” pretty much determined the attitude to common cultural property in the Soviet Union. Communism in general (in its part where private property was dismissed) and that ‘art belongs to people’ motto in particular, became a convenient excuse for translating and/or re-writing ideologically safe yet culturally important content from the West. Two most notable examples of re-writing original content under the new name were Volkov’s Wizard of the Emerald City trilogy, based on the Wizard of Oz, and Alexei Tolstoy’s Buratino, based on Pinocchio (both published in 1936).

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The interesting thing about the two was that although original creators were credited in the books and the tales were more translations than re-writes, their covers still bore those Russian authors’ names. Many Russian kids, me included, first learned that there had been some Western original only long after reading the stories themselves, or never learned at all. In other, not as dire, cases the translators would get if not all, but at least as much credit as original creators. Thus, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Russians would distinguish between ‘Zakhoder’s Alice‘, ‘Nabokov’s Anya‘ and ‘Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland‘, the latter being a common referral to a bunch of academic translations.

This mindset, in which culture was considered a common good for everybody to benefit from, held fast and strong even after the Soviet Union joined the Universal Copyright Convention 1793. Moreover, the 70-s and the 80-s brought the flourishing of ‘Samizdat’ – a non-official publishing and distribution network reserved for rare and censored literary and research content. Samizdat took many forms, from almost professional copying and binding to photographing pages and distributing the resulting pictures. Although Samizdat was a full-bodied publishing and distribution network for the underground, it was mostly used to deal with ‘serious’, ‘original’ content. Thus, while fans were able to write and share stories between themselves, they were – for the most part – unable to turn their individual networks into fanzine production because they simply didn’t have the access to the necessary equipment. When the 90-s came, and suddenly the market was flooded with start-ups looking for profit, it was only logical that some fans sought to bring fan fiction to the printing press. Profit was, of course, as much of a consideration for those fans as the lack of an adequate fannish distribution network. By that time, the laws had been changed (and the new legislation had been adopted – almost verbatim – from the West), yet the values stayed, so the new publishing houses didn’t think twice when presented with an opportunity to publish work based on popular sources.

The first fan fiction published in post-Soviet Russia was a collection of Sherlock Holmes inspired stories from the Novossibirsk society of Conan Doyle fans. This precedent, the lack of fannish distribution network, and a certain disregard for the new law lead to the appearance of a far more curious publication: Nick Perumov’s Ring of Darkness – a novel-length fan fic set in the Lord of the Rings universe. Here is what Nick himself has to say on the process of publication:

“On October 16, 1991 , the contract on my book was signed with “Kavkazskaya biblioteka” publishing house. Royalties for my book amounted to a huge for that time sum of 75000 rubles, calculated according to the norms of Writers’ Union . Many times I was asked one and the same question, how it could be possible for an unknown writer to be published without any connexions in the publishing house; be published in the period of total collapse and food cards. Now, ten years later I can’t give the proper answer. I guess that such a phantastic affairs was possible due to the chaos and disturbance of early 1990s. Another favourable moment was in 1996, it was the First boom of the Russian fantastics. Anyways, “The Ring of Darkness” then caled “Pescending of Darkness” was published in “Kavkazskaya biblioteka”. How it could have happend is another pair of shoes. ” ( source)

It is interesting that while the content of Perumov’s published fan fic is still a subject of fierce debate among Tolkien fans and followers, the legality of the publication is rarely questioned, and, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no legal action against Mr. Perumov or his publishing house(s); moreover, his Tolkien-based novels are still popular and are re-printed on a regular basis. The initial 1993 publication set another precedent, and other Lord of the Rings fan fiction shortly followed after The Ring of Darkness, most notable of them, of course, is Black Book of Arda – a Silmarillion-inspired alternative universe that tells the story of Arda from the point of view of its Evil.

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As of the end of 1990-s Russian fans migrated to the Internet en masse. Shortly after that we finally caught up with Harry Potter, and then it was about translation all over again.

Potter Comes to Russia

First published in Britain in 1997, Harry Potter only appeared in Russian in 2000: Maria Spivak founded the ‘Harry Potter Research Institute’ (formerly located at www.harrypotter.ru) and posted the Russian translations of books one and two; Pauline started the ‘People’s Translation Project’ and her team came up with their version of book one; and, finally, ROSMAN publishing house hired Igor Oransky to create the official version of the first book in Russian. Of all three translations, it was the official that was the sloppiest in its quality and latest in its arrival: by the time it was published fandom had already finished reading Spivak’s rendition of Chamber of Secrets. Thus, two things happened in 2000: ROSMAN had lost the moment forever, and translation games began.

ROSMAN could not account for the relative unpopularity of Harry Potter in Russia (compared to the Potter-craze that took over the world, the success of this book in our country was modest at best) and kept changing translators: Oransky was dismissed after book one, and Marina Litvinova, a well-known Shakespearian scholar and a professional translator herself, was hired to work on books two through four. Of the three volumes she had translated, only The Prisoner of Azkaban did not receive annual mock award for the worst translation (Chamber of Secrets) or the worst editing job (Goblet of Fire). After it became known that Litvinova had not translated book four, but instead turned it into a seminar for her students (effectively letting her students translate it for her), a scandal broke out and ROSMAN was forced to change translators yet again. This time, Viktor Golyshev, Vladimir Bobkov, Leonid Motylev – all famous for their work as translators of sci-fi classics – were asked to do the job. They did a fine enough rendition of book five, but didn’t linger for book six: to translate Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, ROSMAN invited Sergey Ilyin, who was best known for his fantastic work with Nabokov’s texts and Maya Lakhuti – a very talented translator of children’s literature. Again, this team did a good job and a decent translation, but by that time it had already been six books too late.

The People’s Translation Project

In the meantime, fandom was eagerly looking for flaws in official versions and engaging in translation projects of their own. Inspired by Maria Spivak, the ‘People’s Translation Project’, high regard for translators in our country and the nagging ‘I can do that, too’ feeling, fans started to create both individual (Fleur, Yuri Machkasov) and collective (Snitch, The Phoenix Team, Harry-Hermione.net, HP Christmas Forum) translation projects, and by the time Half-blood Prince was released in Russia in December 2005, there had already been nine (sic!) independent translations on the Web, some of them completed not a week after the July 16 release of the English version. When the final Harry Potter book leaked five days before the official release, a new translation project made it their goal to have the initial job done by July 21.They succeded, which sets a curious record: an amateur translation appears before official translators’ names are announced. This is a new project, too, the one that has not been working on any of the previous Potter installments. We already know of at least four projects that are continuing their work, and of two projects that have just started with book seven, and it is safe to assume there will be more of them. Understandably, amateur translation is a widely discussed phenomenon, and two main questions arise in all discussions: that of legality and that of quality.

Under the provisions of article 19 (p.2) of Federal Copyright Law, translation is ‘fair use’ as long as it is done for educational purposes and the length – or amount – of the translation suits the immediate educational need. That is, I can use Harry Potter in classroom during my ‘Theory and Practice of Translation’ class, but I am not supposed to have my students translate the entire series. One can, however, justify translating the entire book for the purpose of self-education: in fact, I know of at least three individuals who did translate books five and six to learn English better, and succeeded. While you can, arguably, translate books one through seven and get away with it, you can not share the result of your work. As of 2003, representatives of J.K.Rowling have been sending out C&D letters to various translation-related sites, which always resulted in the removal of translations from public view. At this point, however, sending C&D letters is like trying to stop an avalanche: the amateur translation projects multiply against all odds. For a number of reasons (the poor quality of the official translation; its late arrival; the translation tradition in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia; a growing number of Russians with a fair command of foreign languages; etc.), translation has become one of the games fandom plays: it is now as integral part of what we do as fans as fan fiction, fan art, filking or creating fanvids. In fact, once the name of the project, ‘people’s translation’ is now a name of the practice that spread across fandoms: it applies to any fan translation project, in which not one, but several individuals are doing a fast collaborative translation and editing work. Normally, there would be 10 to 20 people working on a translation, the same people would then beta-read and edit each other’s work, then a draft version would be compiled, which goes to the final editing and proof-reading performed by one or two individuals – usually those who are in charge of the project. It is their job to ensure smooth communication on the forum, to find substitutes if one or more of the translators have dropped out, and to mediate conflicts; and whether the team produces quality results depends on the leader.

People engage in amateur translation for various reasons: some want to improve their English, some want to improve the overall quality of the Russian Potterverse, some find that translation is a good way to participate in fandom. Whatever the reason, the issue of the quality of the result is quite important. The thing that is important to understand here is that not all amateur translation is done by amateurs. Many of the fan translators I know are also professional translators in their non-fannish lives, so they, at least, know what they are doing. As shown by Oransky and Litvinova, it is not always that a professional translator will produce good results: one also needs dedication and fascination with the source, and fans do tend to have those aplenty, so when it does come down to amateurs doing the job, their lack of skill or knowledge is often compensated by extensive teamwork, networking and overflowing enthusiasm. The results vary from ‘extremely unreadable’ or ‘unfinished’ to ‘way better than the official’, and each non-English-reading fan often finds themselves supporting this or that amateur translation. The choice has to be made, for instance, when writing fan fiction – because names are translated differently – or when just discussing the source text: it is considered traditional in our fandom to stick with one or the other translation and defend it against the opponents when the time comes. Nowadays there is a growing number of people who prefer reading the original and are able to do that, but some of them, too, fall into temptation and either side with one project or start their own.

Most of those translation projects exist online and do not overstep the boundaries of fandom. To date, there are only two exceptions from this general rule: a translation of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, made by the Snitch project, which was stolen from the translators, printed in Latvia and sold in Belarus a couple of months before the official Russian release; and a fan-made Russian version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, printed, bound and distributed in Israel. The appearance of the latter is especially curious if one takes into account the fact that neither of Rowling’s Comic Relief books has been translated officially: the only two existing versions available to Russian-language readers come from the People’s Translation project and that unknown Israeli source. The pictures below show the comparison of the spread and cover of the fake (top) and real (bottom) editions of Half-blood Prince.

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Comments

  1. Florence Gallez says:

    I have read with much interest Ksenia Prassolova’s two-part research piece on Russian-language Harry Potter fandom.

    But first I must say it was an inspiring pleasure to meet and talk with Ksenia when I visited the CMS department last November. Within seconds we were exchanging ‘Russia’ stories of our experience of living and working there – she, as a researcher, me, as a journalist.

    If I may add a note to her judicious remark that “in Russia we rarely call our fandom ‘Russian’, we call it ‘Russian-language’, because this implies that fandom is a universal concept that merely varies to a larger or lesser degree from one national ‘incarnation’ to another.” – I think that the choice of ‘Russian language’ over ‘Russian’ reflects also a concern to include the Diaspora – Russian emigrants worldwide [many of whom are in the US]. This is something I found out when I produced a piece on ‘Second Life in Russia’ for CNN International’s ‘Eye on Russia’ special program this summer.

    My initial idea was to report on Second Life users in Russia, but it soon became clear that a good proportion of Russian Second Lifers are located outside of Russia’s borders: in the former satellite countries [now called the Commonwealth of Independent States countries], and in great part in the United States and other Western countries. This prompted me to re-phrase my pitch to CNN as an exploration of ‘Russian-language Second Life’.

    Florence Gallez

    [Moscow-based journalist]