Pushkin’s poetry is capable of not only helping humanity overcome its values crisis, it might even be able to lend a hand in saving us from global warming. —Julian Henry Lowenfeld1
Well-known English diplomat and historian Harold Nicolson defined diplomacy as “the management of international relations by negotiations.”2 It is not surprising that the second resolution adopted during the first session of the United Nations General Assembly, in early 1946, was devoted to the rules concerning the nascent Organization’s working and official languages,3 in which negotiations were to be held and the most important documents drafted. Thus, the principles of multilingualism and cultural diversity were established at the very foundation of the United Nations, which has become a unique forum for finding solutions to the most pressing problems facing humanity. Promoting tolerance, mutual respect and understanding, the multilingual environment has contributed to the intellectual and spiritual enrichment of the Organization’s staff and the representatives of its constituent Member States, ensuring their effective participation in the work of the entire United Nations system, as well as greater efficiency and better outcomes.
To support the aims and work of such an international organization, it is important to strive for public engagement by telling the story of the United Nations in many languages across multiple platforms. A notable example of a multilingual resource that provides “authoritative information and debate on the activities of the larger United Nations system” is one of its flagship publications, the UN Chronicle. From its inception, the Chronicle, originally named the United Nations Weekly Bulletin, was conceived as a multilingual periodical. Its first issue was released on 3 August 1946 in English and French, with a Spanish version added in January 1948. The magazine later expanded its range of languages into Arabic and Chinese, and began to translate its content into Russian in 1982, following the request made by the General Assembly, in resolution 36/149 B, that the Secretary-General make “a more strenuous effort to ensure balance in the use of official languages in the publications and programmes of the Department [of Public information].”
This current, all-digital incarnation of the UN Chronicle features a dedicated page for each official language. In terms of the number of websites available on the Internet by language, Russian ranks second only to English, indicating a high demand in Russian-speaking communities for this particular means of obtaining information. Although most of the articles submitted to the Chronicle are in English, distinguished contributors, including Heads of State and leaders of international and intergovernmental organizations, may choose to write in either their native tongue or in the working language of their entities, provided it is also one of the official languages of the United Nations. Thus, the original drafts of the articles by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the former Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Rashid Alimov, were submitted in Russian. As the United Nations publication, the UN Chronicle regularly covers the Organization’s policies and practices concerning multilingualism. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the first session of the General Assembly, the magazine published an article entitled “Fifty Years Ago: The Official Languages,” which explores the nuances of translation and interpretation, discussing various approaches to rendering between a host of linguistic systems, as well as differences among diverse cultural contexts.4 In the pages of the Chronicle, multilingualism is seen as an effective tool for combatting illiteracy,5 a means of preserving endangered and dying languages,6 and an integral component of global citizenship.7
Among other measures undertaken to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity is an initiative establishing a special day for each of the Organization’s six official languages, proposed by the Department of Global Communications (formerly the Department of Public Information) in 2010. Each of these days is associated with either a turning point in the history of the language itself or a memorable date in the life of a renowned literary figure. Russian Language Day is observed on 6 June, which marks the birthday of Russia’s most celebrated poet and writer, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799 - 1837).
Much has been uttered and written about Pushkin, but as historian Vasily O. Klyuchevsky once observed, “no matter how much has been said [about the poet], it never seems to be enough, there is always the desire to add more.”8 The significance of Pushkin’s oeuvre within world history and culture was emphasized during the twenty-ninth (1997) session of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which resolved to participate directly in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth. In 1999, the UNESCO Executive Board called upon Member States to organize official festivities in their respective countries, and the world marked the bicentennial of the writer’s birth “on an exceptionally grand scale with a great variety of events.”9 This global commemoration of the Russian poet’s legacy affirmed the conviction of the American translator of his works, Julian Henry Lowenfeld, who noted in an interview with Gaseta.ru, “I think that Pushkin, like Homer or Shakespeare, belongs to the whole world. One does not need to be a Russian to understand and love him.”10
For Lowenfeld, Pushkin is a “spiritual antidote” that treats “depression, pessimism and the sense of hopelessness.”11 Others, such as language professionals working in the multilingual United Nations Secretariat, also turn to Pushkin, who himself notably served in Russia’s Imperial Collegium of Foreign Affairs. Do they hope to find in his writings bits of advice or consolation? Are they driven by their love for the arts and literature, or do they page through his volumes out of pure curiosity? On the eve of this year’s Russian Language Day, the UN Chronicle spoke to Mr. Kaiss Jarkass from the Arabic Translation Service, and Mr. Botao You, a United Nations Chinese translator who works from English and Russian.
Kaiss discovered Pushkin almost 50 years ago in his native Syria, where he immersed himself in Arabic translations, travelling in his thoughts from Bakhchisarai and Arzrum to Northern Palmyra, where he would study medicine and the Russian language. It was in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, where Kaiss first read the Russian poet of African descent in the original, admiring the writer’s rebellious temperament and firm faith in liberty. At the same time, Kaiss marveled at Pushkin’s lyrical songs of nature, his subtle delight in beauty and the deep philosophical implications of his work. The young man’s horizons widened as he discovered a plethora of vividly depicted manners, tenors of life and indigenous customs of various peoples, including the inhabitants of the Caucasus, the Crimea and Bessarabia. Fascinated by an infinite diversity of characters, Kaiss drew upon Pushkin’s multicultural narratives, which ultimately determined his choice to become a translator at a multilingual international organization. Although Kaiss is fluent in Russian, he continues to study the tongue with the Language and Communication Programme at United Nations Headquarters, established to support a multilingual workforce while enhancing staff performance and integration. When the Programme’s Russian section announced a poetry contest in 2018, Kaiss fulfilled a life-long dream, translating into English one of his favorite works by Pushkin, “Recollection”:
Когда для смертного умолкнет шумный день, When noisy days go silent for the mortal men,
И на немые стогны града And on the city's alleys deadened
Полупрозрачная наляжет ночи тень The pallid shadows of the night, and sleep descend,
И сон, дневных трудов награда, Reward of daily labors, 'tis then
В то время для меня влачатся в тишине For me, the time when hours of tormenting wake
Часы томительного бденья: Drag by quietly and so slowly:
В бездействии ночном живей горят во мне Amid the listless night, the serpent of my heartache
Змеи сердечной угрызенья; Bites more severely, burns more sorely;
Мечты кипят; в уме, подавленном тоской, My dreams inflame; my mind's depressed by painful sadness
Теснится тяжких дум избыток; A throng of heavy thoughts, like madness,
Воспоминание безмолвно предо мной They come together in my soul, my blood and marrow;
Свой длинный развивает свиток; Before me, memory unrolls
И с отвращением читая жизнь мою, Stilly its lengthy scrolls; and reading, with disgust, on rolls
Я трепещу и проклинаю, My life, I tremble, curse and I
И горько жалуюсь, и горько слезы лью, Complain bitterly, and the bitter tears I cry
Но строк печальных не смываю. <1828> Yet, don't erase the lines of sorrow.
For Botao You, a long-time follower of the UN Chronicle, which he regularly reads in Chinese, English and Russian, Pushkin helped to overcome a sense of frustration and even despair during the peak of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, which wreaked havoc upon New York City last spring. Like most of his colleagues, he was compelled to work from home, which was not an easy transition. Overnight, the buzzing United Nations Headquarters gave way to a languishing bedroom-to-living-room routine. Once surrounded by friends and colleagues, Botao suddenly found himself in isolation. Then he chanced upon a video of the renowned actor Fan Wei, whose recitation of Pushkin’s stanzas “If by life you were deceived…” (Если жизнь тебя обманет…) made the performer a household name in China.
IF BY LIFE YOU WERE DECEIVED... 《假如生活欺骗了你》
If by life you were deceived, 假如生活欺骗了你，
Don't be dismal, don't be wild! 不要忧郁，也不要愤慨！
In the day of grief be mild! 不顺心时暂且克制自己，
Merry days will come, believe. 相信吧，快乐之日就会到来。
Heart is living in tomorrow; 我们的心儿憧憬着未来，
Present is dejected here: 现今总是令人悲哀：
In a moment, passes sorrow; 一切都是暂时的，转瞬即逝；
That which passes will be dear. 而那逝去的将变得可爱。
Translated by M. Kneller Translated by ZHA Liang-zheng12
The verse was composed in exile, and thus resonated with the sentiments of a population worn out by the pandemic and growing dispirited under lockdown. “The message was irrefutable,” recalls Botao. “While powerful enough to snap me out of my despondency, the lines were as simple and light as a gentle breeze…They comforted me as only Zen may do. I was spellbound”, he added. It is this captivating effortlessness with which Pushkin heals and touches people’s hearts that also drew Lowenfeld to his work. “The depth of Pushkin’s revelation is hidden in its simplicity,” the translator once stated.13
This multilingual dedication to the genius of Russian literature marks Russian Language Day 2021, revealing the hope that Pushkin’s legacy will continue to bring people and nations together, while increasing interest in Russian history and culture. Along with all other common efforts, the power of Alexander Pushkin’s poetry and prose will serve as yet another means not only of overcoming turmoil in one's life, but also of supporting humanity in confronting the most formidable global challenges.
1. Valentina Perevedentseva, “The spiritual antidote of Julian Lowenfeld”, Russkiy Mir Foundation. Available at https://russkiymir.ru/en/magazines/article/144070/ (accessed on 7 June 2021).
2. The author proposed to employ the definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary. See Harold G. Nicolson, Diplomacy (London, T. Butterworth, 1939), p. 15.
3. According to the UN General Assembly resolution 2(1), the working languages of the Organization are English and French, while Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish were proclaimed official languages, in which all official documents would be made available. Interpretation between these languages must also be provided. Arabic became both an official and working language of the General Assembly on 18 December 1973. This day is observed as Arabic Language Day.
4. "Fifty years ago: the official languages", UN Chronicle, vol. 33, No. 3 (1996), p. 48.
5. Lachman M. Khubchandani, "Potentials of literacy: a multilingual perspective", UN Chronicle, vol. 40, No. 2 (January-August 2003), p. 42.
6. Alfred Capelle, "Protecting the world's languages", UN Chronicle, vol. 39, No. 4 (December 2002 - February 2003), pp. 46-47.
7. Gugulethu Jemaine Nyathi, "Multilingualism and global citizenship" and Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu, “Safeguarding cultural and linguistic diversity in the context of global citizenship”, UN Chronicle, vol. 54, No. 4 (2017), pp. 15-18. Available at https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/multilingualism-and-global-citizenship and https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/safeguarding-cultural-and-linguistic-diversity-context-global-citizenship.
8. Cited in Natan Eidelman, “Slovo o Puskine” (lecture delivered at the highest courses for directors and screen writers), Iskusstvo kino, No. 6 (June 1999). (Natan Eidelman, “A Word about Pushkin” (lecture delivered at the highest courses for directors and screen writers), (The Art of Cinema, No. 6 (June 1999)). Available at https://old.kinoart.ru/archive/1999/06/n6-article21.
9. Igor’ Sergeevich Ivanov, Novaiia rossiiskaiia diplomatia: desiat’ let vneshnei politiki strany (M., OLMA-press, 2001), p. 201. (New Russian Diplomacy: Ten Years of the Country’s Foreign Policy).
10. Alexander Bratersky, “Ne nuzhno byt’ russkim, chtoby l’yubit’ Pushkina”, interview with Julian Henry Lowenfeld, Gazeta.ru, 8 February 2017. (“You don’t need to be a Russian to love Pushkin”). Available at https://www.gazeta.ru/culture/2017/02/08/a_10515305.shtml.
11. Valentina Perevedentseva, “The spiritual antidote of Julian Lowenfeld”.
12. Both English and Chinese translations are from Qiming Chen, “Analysis on Three Versions of “If by Life You Were Deceived” from Perspective of Stylistics”, Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 4, No. 3 (May 2013), p. 598.
13. Alexander Bratersky, “Ne nuzhno byt’ russkim, chtoby l’yubit’ Pushkina”.