An Interview with Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, Editors & Translators of Permanent Evolution

We are pleased to present this interview with Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, editor/translators of the recently published Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film by preeminent Formalist critic Yuri Tynianov.

Yuri Tynianov was a key figure of Russian Formalism, an intellectual movement in early 20th century Russia that also included Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson. Tynianov developed a groundbreaking conceptualization of literature as a system within—and in constant interaction with—other cultural and social systems. His essays on Russian literary classics, like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and works by Dostoevsky and Gogol, as well as on the emerging art form of filmmaking, provide insight into the ways art and literature evolve and adapt new forms of expression. Although Tynianov was first a scholar of Russian literature, his ideas transcend the boundaries of any one genre or national tradition. Permanent Evolution gathers together for the first time Tynianov’s seminal articles on literary theory and film, including several articles never before translated into English.

How did this translation project come to both of you? You mention in the translators’ note that Tynianov’s work benefits from a large-scale translation project—how did you choose which articles to include?

Ainsley Morse: I’d been wanting to translate Tynianov for a long time. Originally I imagined just translating “Archaists and Innovators,” which Tynianov himself had put together as a collection and published in 1929. But after talking to various colleagues and thinking more about what I would want to make available to students, I decided on a less cohesive, but more comprehensive collection that would also be more oriented toward both students of Russian literature and non-Russianists. Seven of the seventeen “A & I” essays did end up in our book, but we cut a lot of Tynianov’s (admittedly brilliant and crucial) essays on Pushkin, while adding several essays on film and the previously unpublished continuation of his work on parody (“On Parody”).

The primary motivation for making this book comprehensive and large-scale was the interconnected nature of Tynianov’s thought. Rather than writing some articles that are purely literary-historical and others that are densely theoretical, he shifts from one mode to another within a single article; similarly, he will open a certain line of thought in one article and develop it more completely in a different context, sometimes several years down the line. For instance, some of his most striking observations on poetry can be found in the “The Foundations of Film”; his ostensibly superficial, feuilleton-esque revue of contemporary poetry, “Interlude,” likewise contains nuggets of theoretical gold.

Philip Redko: We wanted to include articles that would be of general interest to scholars of literature and culture (“Literary Evolution,” “Literary Fact”) as well as works that have more niche appeal, such as “Ode as an Oratorical Genre,” or the piece on Tiutchev and Heine. The film articles, too—they’re so great, and they were written at a time when cinema was still quite young (at least from our perspective), still trying to find its own place among the older art forms. I think it could be useful to read Tynianov as a theorist of new kinds of media (even in very old art forms like poetry, he would focus on the cutting-edge, on the interaction of art and contemporaneity, hitting on just what made something from the eighteenth or nineteenth century radical, what would have been most shocking to contemporary readers). Sometimes I find myself wondering what Tynianov would have thought of Twitter or memes or whatever else, and then I think you can find insights in his work that could apply to these very recent forms of expression—even though he was writing a century ago. But yeah, when you read these articles side by side, you start to see the interconnections that Ainsley mentions, and of course interconnectedness is such an important concept in Tynianov, one that he develops explicitly—again, not in one particular article but across his whole oeuvre.

What is the significance of the title Permanent Evolution?

AM: It’s kind of a self-indulgent pun. “Permanent revolution” is, of course, Trotsky’s phrase, and would have certainly been a buzzword for Tynianov and the other Formalists working in the shadow (or blazing light) of revolutionary-era tumult. Although Tynianov managed to stay on the sidelines of a lot of the ideological debates of his time (compared, say, to Shklovsky), he certainly did not deny the decisive significance of political goings-on for himself and his colleagues. Meanwhile, the concept of evolution is central for how Tynianov thinks about literature and how it changes over time. But he generally rejects the idea of gradual, placid development for what he describes as “leaps,” irregular, jerky and not necessarily progressive moments of change. In this way, too, the implicit reference to revolution hiding behind “evolution” in the title is not inappropriate.

PR: Yes, it’s hard to overstress the importance of evolution for Tynianov, and he conceived of it just as Ainsley describes. I also think that “permanent evolution” sounds like a paradox, though I’m not sure that it is. I mean, permanence is a very anti-Tynianovian idea—any trend or idea in art that sticks around too long becomes derivative, loses all its power. So putting permanence in the title was a little perverse. On the other hand it’s true that for Tynianov evolution never stopped, hence was “permanent.” But the truth of it seems less sincere than the punning and perversity.

Ainsley—you’ve lately translated Andrei Egunov-Nikolev’s modernist novel Beyond Tula: A Soviet Pastoral. Can you compare the experience of translating Permanent Evolution with that of Beyond Tula?

AM: It’s actually difficult to compare the two! Although the books came out only a few months apart, I translated Beyond Tula much earlier—I wasn’t really working on them at the same time. It’s an interesting question to consider, though. There are a number of interesting parallels—Tynianov and Egunov are age-mates (both born in the mid-1890s), writing at the same time and in a similar milieu; they both enjoyed an excellent education (Egunov was a trained classicist) and of course Tynianov also wrote novels (and even some poems). But the texts in question are very different—a novel and a collection of theoretical articles—and presented different issues (one point of contrast there was not feeling bad at all about having lots of footnotes in Tynianov, while I still feel sheepish about how many there are in Beyond Tula). I spent much more time thinking about how to get Egunov’s “voice” right, while with Tynianov a huge initial effort went into just understanding what he was talking about. Once we had that figured out, it was often a matter of balancing his specific idiom against something that actually made sense in English.

You write in the introductory note that “Tynianov’s terminology invites further explanation”—can you explain a bit about the Names and Terms section and how you went about creating it? How might readers best use this section? And how do you envision this collection being used by scholars and in undergraduate and/or graduate classrooms?

AM and PR: Yet another motivation for doing this larger-scale collection was the fact that, while there were several good translations of certain key Tynianov articles (“On Literary Evolution,” “Literary Fact,” etc.), they had been translated by different people at different times—so key terms that appear in many different Tynianov articles were being translated differently, often so differently that a reader who hadn’t seen the Russian would never guess that YT was referring to one and the same concept in different contexts. The “Names” section is definitely aimed at non-Russianists or simply beginning readers who may not have heard of many of the poets and writers Tynianov name-drops (sometimes quite casually) in the articles. It’s also meant to highlight the figures that Tynianov refers to over and over in different contexts. The “Terms” section can be similarly useful for non-experts, since it contains terms that Tynianov uses (like “zaum,” the Futurist poets’ abstract sound-language) that might be unfamiliar. Meanwhile, this section is also an attempt to distill some of the Tynianov-specific concepts whose definitions, as I mentioned earlier, he sometimes develops over the course of multiple articles. The hope is that someone reading one article and encountering one of these terms for the first time can both find some clarity in our short definition, and also be encouraged to check out some of the other articles in which Tynianov uses the same term and/or develops it further.

As for how this collection can be used: I’ve been assigning article or bits of articles to undergraduate students since before the book came out, and strongly encourage colleagues to do the same. There’s a wide range of accessibility to the articles in the book—I can’t really imagine assigning “The Ode as an Oratorical Genre” to undergraduates, but I think many of the other articles could lead to really rewarding discussion with students, if properly framed. I certainly think of this book as a resource for graduate students in Slavic or Comparative Literature programs. I mentioned earlier how much time we spent making sure we understood what Tynianov is saying (something that can still flummox native-Russian-speaking scholars of Formalism today), and one of our specific translation goals was to not reproduce baffling collocations—in this sense, our translation, though very faithful, is sometimes interpretive. We crowd-sourced feedback from scholars in the US, UK and Russia on particularly tricky parts, which sometimes resulted in really fascinating revelations.

One of our fondest hopes was that this book would find its way to scholars of other literatures, since Tynianov’s work is just too brilliant to limit to the dusty corners of Russian and Slavic departments. I’m happy to say that people from all over the world have expressed their enthusiasm for the book and plan to use it in teaching.

Finally, I’d draw everyone’s attention to Daria Khitrova’s excellent introduction, in which she makes a powerful case for the direct relevance of Tynianov’s thinking to today’s challenges in higher education and the “crisis of the humanities” in particular. There are some fascinating parallels between the ideological debates raging in the Soviet 1920s and today’s hand-wringing over erudition and its discontents, but Tynianov provides an accessible and productive template for how to introduce theory to students, while avoiding some of the pitfalls left behind by American academia’s obsession with 60s French theory (to give one example). Non-Slavic scholars have been turning to Russian theorists over the years (Bakhtin, Jakobson, and more recently Shklovsky) for a “fresh” perspective (usually decades after their writing), and we’re hoping that now is Tynianov’s time—it does seem like his ideas are especially relevant for our cultural moment.

Ainsley Morse is a literary translator and an assistant professor in the Russian Department at Dartmouth College. Her scholarly work is focused on literature of the twentieth century, particularly the Soviet period. She has translated poetry, prose and scholarly works from Russian and the languages of the former Yugoslavia.

Philip Redko is a translator, editor, and teacher. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Harvard and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Permanent Evolution is available now from Academic Studies Press. Pick up your copy here or from your favorite bookseller.