Anti-Semitism in Soviet Translation | April 2015 | Translation Journal

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Anti-Semitism in Soviet Translation

Anti-Semitism in Soviet Translation


In the Soviet Union translation has always been controlled by the communist power. The comparative analysis of original literary works and their Soviet translations shows that references to the Jewish people, their culture or history in the text to be translated could result in significant asymmetry between the original and its translation. The aim of this article is to consider the causes of this asymmetry, types of changes introduced to the translated texts, and consequences of such intrusion for reader’s interpretation.

Key words: literary translation, political censorship, ideology, asymmetry, anti-Semitism


In the Soviet Union translation as a meeting point of different cultures and ideologies has always been controlled by the Communist power; expediency and strategy for translation of texts were predetermined by ideological factors. The importance of the latter for Soviet translation is emphasized both by Western and Ukrainian researchers (M. Tax Choldin (1989), L. Kolomiets (2013), S. Sherry (2012), M. Striha (2006)). In the USSR a complicated system aimed at controlling all stages of translation has been created, with political censorship functioning as the main mechanism of this system. The comparative analysis of original literary works and their Soviet translations allowed us to single out a few thematic types of material that were omitted or replaced by Soviet translators or excised by editors (censors) to provide the desired interpretation by readers: (1) critique of the Soviet ideology and ideologues, communism and communists, all spheres of life in the USSR; (2) positive images of “bourgeois society” and “class enemies”; (3) Soviet ideologemes, used with an unorthodox meaning; (4) religious content; (5) national-conscious content[1] . The so-called “Jewish question” borders on the last two types: the presence of any material about Jews, their religion, culture or history in the text to be translated could result in significant ideologically-motivated asymmetry between an original and its translation or even prohibition of the latter. Some attention to this problem has been paid by A. Blium (1995) and S. Sherry (2012). Still, attitudes towards the Jewish theme by agents of translation in the USSR and the consequences of political censorship for this type of literature remain insufficiently explored. 

Anti-Semitism and Soviet totalitarianism 

Anti-Semitism was part of the official policy in the Russian Empire where the civil rights of Jews were restricted significantly. At the end of the XIX century pogroms and repressive legislation resulted in the mass emigration of Jews to Western Europe and America. Between 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left Russia (Landau, 1998).

After the October Revolution the outlawed status of the Jews was abolished (Trotsky, 1941). According to A. Blium, documents of Soviet censorship bear evidence ofdifferent kinds of persecution in books and periodicals containing anti-Semitic materials in the 1920s (Blium, 1995). These attitudes to the Jewish nation corresponded to the Soviet policy of “internationalism” and support for the national renaissance of the Soviet peoples. In 1930s the situation changed: the Soviet stage of anti-Semitism started when Stalin got rid of the Jews among the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The end of the 1940s – beginning of the 1950s witnessed the apotheosis of official Soviet anti-Semitism when in the Ukraine 1,234 Jews were arrested (Kurabtsev, 2006), dozens of literati and translators among them.  

These ambivalent and changeable attitudes towards this nationality predetermined editorial policies. As it will be shown later, translation of works by Jewish authors as well as literature dedicated to the Jewish people, culture, etc. was restricted. In the literature published in the USSR, Jews were gradually turned into one more category of Orwell’s “non-persons”, and, paradoxically, anti-Semitism at the same time became a “non-problem”. (According to the dominant ideology, the latter just did not exist in the Soviet Union and was forbidden to mention.)

Due to fluctuations in the communist power’s attitudes to anti-Semitism, some published translations were later banned. Thus The index of books to be excluded from libraries and book sales network (1973) included dozens of such books, e.g.: Evreiskii vopros v kommunisticheskom dvizhenii (1917-1921) by Agursky S. (translated by Maizel G.), Izbrannye sochineniia by Ahad-Gaam, Obnovlenie evreistva by Martin Buber (translated from the German by Rumer I.) (all published in Moscow in 1919); a collection of Jewish poetry Iz evreiskih poetov (translated by Vladislav Hodasevich, published in 1922 in Berlin) (Blium, 1995). 

Soviet language ideology and translation

In 1919 the Council of People’s Commissars declared Hebrew a “religious language” and prohibited using it at Jewish schools. Though the language was never officially forbidden in the USSR, translations from and to Hebrew were not published. There was only one exception: the period of neutral attitudes of the Soviet ideologues to the “ancient Jewish” (as Hebrew was called by the Soviets even after it had been revived in Israel) – the period after Stalin’s death (1953) and until the rupture of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel in 1967. According to A. Reitblat, five editions of Russian translations from Israeli literature were published in the Soviet Union during this period; there were three collections Poety Izrailia [Poets of Israel], Rasskazy izrail’skih pisateley [Short stories by Israeli writers], Iskateli zhemchuga: Novelly izrail’skih pisateley [Pearl finders: short stories by Israeli writers]), A. Penn’s poems and M. Avi-Shaul’s novel Shveitsarskiye Metamorfozy (Reitblat, 2005).

Unlike Hebrew, Yiddish never got any special status in the USSR. Some popular Yiddish authors were translated into Russian, Ukrainian and other languages of the Soviet Union’s nationalities (e.g. poems by Peretz Markish were translated by Anna Akhmatova and other poets, Sholem-Aleichem’s prose in translations was published in millions of copies). And vice versa, publications in Yiddish, both original and translated, were limited; one could hardly find a book in this language:

“Yiddish has been subjected to harsh discrimination and suppression, while other Soviet minorities are encouraged to preserve and develop their languages and cultures[2] . The splendidly decorated Soviet bookshops have special sections devoted to the literatures of the various minorities. I could find books in each of these languages by following the signs on the shelves, but I never saw a sign marking the shelves for Yiddish books” (Shneiderman, 1970).

Jewish authors and translators in the USSR

The above-mentioned Soviet language ideology and cultural policy could not but have a negative effect on the interaction (through translation) with Jewish and other literatures. But beside the restrictions on translations from Jewish authors and into Yiddish, the unofficial prohibition of Hebrew, there was one more tendency worth mentioning here. That is the tendency of canonization, typical of the Soviet culture[3]. Despite the restrictions on translations into and from Yiddish, Sholem-Aleichem, one of the most prolific Yiddish writers, became one of the most extensively translated and published authors in the USSR. Soviet archives contain materials proving that he was popularized by the communist power through numerous publications, conferences and other events to honor him. Sholem-Aleichem received the party’s support not only due to his literary merits. His works did not contradict the Soviet ideology; besides, he was a friend of Maxim Gorky, an iconic Soviet figure. Sholem-Aleichem highly appreciated Taras Shevchenko, the famous Ukrainian author, also canonized by the Soviet power as a “people’s” poet. Taken together, these characteristics had a positive image that suited the Soviet ideology (Estreich, 2012). By 1960s the Soviet publishing houses had published over six million copies of Sholem-Aleichem’s works in 20 languages (Remenik, 1963). 1971-1974 and 1988-1990 saw publications of new six-volume collections of his works translated into Russian.

Another Yiddish author, Peretz Markish, also enjoyed official recognition and support in the USSR. Rewarded for his writings with the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize, later he was arrested together with 12 other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (1952). These people were tortured and finally executed. This tragedy got the name of the Night of Murdered Poets, as among the victims there were five distinguished men of Yiddish letters (the poets Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, Itzik Feffer, Itzik Kvitko and the novelist David Bergelson). Among the executed there were also translators (Leon Talmy, Ilya Vatenberg and Chaika Vatenburg-Ostrovskaya). J. Sherman calls the murdered poets “the last among dozens of important 20th-century Jewish literati eliminated by the Soviet state from the early 1930s onwards: among the most prominent eliminated by the Soviet state were Moyshe Litvakov, Max Erik, Izi Kharik, and Moyshe Kulbak in 1937, Yisroel Tsinberg in 1938, and Zelig Akselrod in 1941” (Sherman, 2002).

The translators’ Jewish nationality could provoke negative evaluation of their work at any stage of their careers, even if they were assimilated Jews and their mother tongue was Russian. Actually, there were many Jews among the commonly recognized Soviet masters of literary translation, e.g. Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam and Samuil Marshak. In 1968 the compiler of the anthology Mastera russkogo stihotvornogo perevoda [Masters of the Russian poetic translation] Efim Etkind, the well-known translator and linguist, was accused of “Jewish nationalism”, as among the translators there were many Jews (D. Brodsky, I. Erenburg, O. Mandelstam, S. Marshak and B. Pasternak). E. Etkind was accused of “lavishing praise on the Jews at the expense of Russian poets” (Etkind 2001, 125). The anthology did not receive an imprimatur then; Prof. E. Etkind was discharged from the university and had to emigrate.

Anti-Semitism and Jewishness in literary works and their translations

As has already been mentioned, in the USSR “the Jewish question” and anti-Semitism gradually became “non-problems”, forbidden to be mentioned. In translations of fiction we can see at least three kinds of ideologically-motivated intrusion: (1) excision of anti-Semitic material from the translated texts of foreign literature; (2) excision of all references to anti-Semitism, irrespective of the original author’s attitude towards the latter; (3) excision of references to Jewishness.

Expressions of anti-Semitism in works of foreign literature were excised from translations, as a rule. Let us consider an example from the novel Three Soldiers (1921) by American writer John Dos Passos with the Russian translation by V. Azov. In the following fragment two American soldiers say about the recruit Eisenstein, a Jew:

 “Goddam kike!” said Powers as Eisenstein walked off up a side street,planted, like the avenue, with saplings on which the sickly leavesrustled in the faint breeze that smelt of factories and coal dust.
Kikes ain't so bad, said Fuselli, “I got a good friend who's a kike” (dos Passos 1921, 7).
The soldiers refer to Eisenstein only as a “kike”. This word has an offensive connotation, especially when combined with the word “goddam”. In the Russian translation the word combination “goddam kike” is replaced with almost neutral “Вишь, какой [That’s what he’s like] without any reference to the character’s nationality. In the other two cases the informal offensive word “kike” is replaced with the neutral “еврей [Jew]: 

 Вишь, какой, сказал Поуэрс, когда Эйзенштейн отошел и направился по боковой улице, обсаженной, как и аллея, молодыми деревцами. Их чахлые листья шелестели при слабом ветерке, пахнувшем фабриками и угольной пылью.

Что ж, евреи народ ничего, сказал Фюзелли. У меня есть один большой друг, тоже еврей”[4] (dosPassos 1924, 4).

ThephraseKikesain'tsobadistranslatedasевреи народ ничего” [theJews are people all right] though the most adequate translation would beЖиды не такие уж и плохие”. This translation (published in 1924) reflects the Soviet policy of 1920s – the policy of internationalism and elimination of anti-Semitism. Unlike anti-Semitism, the references to the Jewish nationality are not subject to excision here. Moreover, the translator uses the Soviet ideologeme народ[people] referring to the Jews; this would be excised by censors a decade or two later.

In 1930-1950s references to Jewishness and anti-Semitism could be excised even from translations of anti-fascist literary works dedicated to the tragedy of Holocaust. Thus, S. Sherry finds striking examples of this censorship policy in the Soviet translation of U. Sinclair’s novel Dragon’s Teeth published in Internatsional’naia literatura (1942) in heavily abridged form (cut from over 300 pages in the English to only 54 in the Russian):

“Sinclair’s novel fits the new propaganda model of portraying the Nazis as dangerous beasts, however the internal policy of anti-Semitism means that it is subject to extensive censorship aimed at removing the theme of Jewish persecution. This is manifested mainly in the erasure of any Jewish attributes of all the main characters… As well as altering the main characters’ identities, the systematic nature of the Nazi prosecution of the Jews is also entirely erased from this novel” (Sherry 2012, 181-182).

Thus, in all cases the words Jew, Jewish, Jerusalem are just omitted in the translation, “a rich Jew” is translated as “a millionaire”, “the filthy Jewish swine” is replaced with “the vile speculator”. As a result, the novel “becomes a generalized denunciation of Nazi Germany, a description of only the political rather than the ethnic aspect of the system” (Sherry 2012, 188). 

Great attention was given to erasing all references to the Jewish background of some people important for the Soviet system. Thus, this kind of information about Lenin could not be published, even if it was just a character’s remark in a literary work. The Holovlit’s[5] Report on confiscations and prohibitions N8 (1936) contains information about excisions made in the play Hermann Friedberg by Z. Lev. In the translation by B. Cherniak the following phrase was excised by the censor: “Всеевреивсегдаломаюткомедию. Что, Лениннеломалразве?” [All Jews are constantly playing the fool. Didn’t Lenin play the fool?] (Blium 1995, 31).


Logocracy in the Soviet state and translation

Logocracy, typical for totalitarianism, conditioned the development of literature and translation in the USSR. One of the aspects of the Soviet logocracy was the unofficial ideological ban of certain words, “еврей” [Jew] and its derivatives among them. After the rupture of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel in 1967, use of the toponym “Иерусалим [Jerusalem] was also forbidden or at least limited. The famous Soviet poet Korney Chukovsky, who edited the collection of biblical stories rendered for children[6] was instructed not to use the above-mentioned words. This ban resulted in distortion of the translated stories. For example, in the story of Moses, Jews are never mentioned. Pharaoh commands to kill all “мальчиков, рожденныхвсемьяхрабов” (Chukovsky 1990, 23) [male children born into the families of slaves]. Further, the image of a nation appears in the text: “Такимойнародврабствегоритнесгорает, – подумалМоисей. – Надоспастиегоотвластинасильников, чтобыонбылсвободенисчастлив” (Chukovsky 1990, 26) [“Just so my people burn in slavery – but do not burn out”, Moses thought, “They must be saved from the power of tyrants to be free and happy”]. Moses tells Pharaoh that he has come to lead his people out of Egypt. Further in the text the narrator uses the words “народ (Моисея)” [(Moses’) people] andрабы (египетские)” [slaves (of Egypt)]. The idea of freeing the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage (that could bring about undesirable associations, at least with Zionism) is replaced with a more generalized idea of freeing the oppressed that completely corresponded with the Soviet ideology.


The peculiarities of translation of literature touching upon the themes of Jewishness and anti-Semitism reflected the fluctuations of the Soviet ideology. The ambivalent and changeable attitudes towards this nationality in the USSR predetermined editorial, and, consequently, translational, policies. Any references to the Jewish people, their culture or history in the text to be translated could result in significant ideologically-motivated asymmetry between the original and its translation or even prohibition of the latter. The above-mentioned asymmetry was caused by (1) excision of anti-Semitic material from the translated texts of foreign literature; (2) excision of all references to anti-Semitism, irrespective of the original author’s attitude towards the latter; (3) excision of references to Jewishness. Translators/editors also employed replacement of ethnic factors and characteristics with social or political ones.

The Jewish nationality of authors and translators could provoke a negative evaluation of their work at any stage of their career. Dozens of important 20th-century Jewish authors and translators were eliminated by the Soviet state from the early 1930s onwards. Their original works and translations were prohibited for decades.

Unfortunately, post-Soviet readers have to face the consequences of the Soviet policy today. All of the translated texts cited here as well as dozens of other translations, inadequate due to ideologically-motivated adaptation, have been re-published in Russia in the 21st century without any comments on their inadequacy.    


Blium, Arlen (1995). Evreiskaiatemaglazamisovetskogotsenzora.InEvreivRossii. Peterburgskiyevreiskiyuniversitet, seriyaTrudypoIudaike”, v.3. Accessed online at:

Chukovsky K. (ed.) (1990). Vavilonskaia bashnia i drugie drevnie legendy. Moscow: Knizhnoe obozrenie.

Dos Passos, D. (1924). Tri soldata. Leningrad: Goslitizdat.

Dos Passos, John (1921).Three Soldiers.New York: George H Doran Co.

Estraih, Gennadiy (2012). Sovetskaia kar’era Sholom-Aleihema. Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2012. №14. Accessed online at:

Etkind, Efim (2001). Zapiski nezagovorschika. Sankt-Peterburg: Akademicheskiy proekt.

Fedotova O. (2012). Politychna tsenzura drukovanyh vydan’ v USRR – URSR: praktyka obmezhennia drukovanoyi produktsiyi. Visnyk knyzhkovoyi palaty. №2.

KolomietsL.V. (2013) Ukrayinskyihudozhniyperekladtaperekladachi 1920-30hrokiv. Кyiv: Kyivskyiuniversytet.

KurabtsevO. (2006). Represiyiprotyevreyiv-hromadianradianskoyiUkrainyu 1945-1953 rr. Naukovi pratsi. Istoriya. Tom 48. Mykolayiv: vydavnytstvo CHDU.Accessed online at:

Landau, RonnieS. (1998).StudyingtheHolocaust: Issues, ReadingsandDocuments. London:Routledge

ReitblattA. (2005). IzdanieIvospriyatieizrailskoiliteraturyvRossiiv 1980-2000hgodah. Novoeliteraturnoeobozrenie. №73.Accessed online at:

Remenik G. (1963). Sholom-Aleihem. Kritiko-biograficheskiy ocherk. Moskva: Hudozhestvennaia literatura.

Sherman, Joseph (2002). “Seven-fold Betrayal”: the Murder of Soviet Yiddish. Midstream. A Quarterly Jewish Review. – July / August 2002 Feature. Accessed at:

Sherry, Samanta (2012). Censorship in Translation in the Soviet in the Stalin and Khrushchev Eras. Doctor of Philosophy thesis. University of Edinburg.

Shneiderman S.L. (1970). Yiddish in the USSR. New York Times Book Review. November 15. P.71.

Striha M. (2006). Ukrayinskyihudozhniypereklad: mizh literaturoyu I natsietvorenniam. Кyiv: Fakt.

TaxCholdin, Marianna(1989). Censorship via Translation: Soviet Treatment of Western Political Writing. In The Red Pencil: Artists, Scholars, and Censors in the USSR, edited by Marianna TaxCholdin and Maurice Friedberg, 21-52. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Trotsky, Leon (1941). Thermidor and Anti-Semitism. The New International, Vol. VII №4, May 1941. Accessed online at:

[1]Some of these themes have already been analyzed in my articles: Zaboroneni temy radians’koho hudozhnioho perekladu [Prohibited themes of the Soviet literary translation].Visnyk HNU imeni V.Karazina, 2014, № 77 (1102); Perevod kak ob’ekt vozdeystviya politicheskoi ideologii [Translation as an object of political ideology pressure]. Karel’skiy nauchnyi zhurnal, 2013, №1; Perekald tvoriv Shekspira ukrayins’koyu: ideolohichnyi aspect [Translation of Shakespeare’s works into the Ukrainian: ideological aspect]. Nova filolohiya, 2012, №50. 

[2] A highly controversial statement, as a closer examination reveals the insidiousness of the Soviet cultural and language policy aimed at annihilation of everything truly nationally-specific. On this subject see, for example:KolomietsL.V. (2013) Ukrayinskyihudozhniyperekladtaperekladachi 1920-30hrokiv [Ukrainian literary translation and translators of 1920-30s], Кyiv; Striha M. (2006) Ukrayinskyi hudozhniy pereklad: mizh literaturoyu i natsietvorenniam [Ukrainian literary translation: between literature and nation-building], Кyiv: Fakt.


[3]In the USSR the literary reputation of the author depended to a great extent on ideological factors, and the communists used their power to create the canons of Soviet and national literatures, and even their own canon of Western literature. Consequently, the works by “canonical” authors tended to be published (and translated) extensively; authors not recognized by the Soviet authorities could not get an opportunity to publish their works in this country.

[4]That’s what he’s like!” said Powers as Eisenstein walked off up a side street,planted, like the avenue, with saplings. Their sickly leavesrustled in the faint breeze that smelt of factories and coal dust.

Well, the Jews are people all right”, said Fuselli, “I got a good friend who's a Jew

[5]Holovlit (Holovne upravlinnia u spravah literatury i vydavnytstv [The Main Administration of Literature and Publishing Affairs]), founded in 1922, carried out preventative and post-publication censorship (Fedotova, 2012).

[6]Vavilonskaia bashnia i drugie drevnie legendy [Tower of Babel and other ancient legends]. 

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