Lost in translation?
Not if Julian Connolly has anything to say about it.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.
When Julian Connolly entered a lecture hall at Japan’s Chuo University, he was confident — well prepared, he thought, to speak before 200 students about the role of the father in Russian literature. But a surprise was in store. “I hadn’t been fully informed of my audience,” Connolly admits. His audience was not a Russian studies class, as Connolly supposed, but rather a class in American culture. And as Connolly soon discovered, “I was the American culture!”
A professor of Slavic languages and literature at U.Va. for nearly 30 years, Connolly has dedicated his life’s work to the study of Russian language and literature. He first traveled to Russia on a class trip in high school and returned energized and changed. “I’m very fortunate,” Connolly says. “Since I was 17, I always knew what I wanted to do.” After earning his doctorate, he came to U.Va. in 1977 and now chairs the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature.
A long-time member of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society — he’ll be the Society’s president in 2007 — Connolly has traveled the world to present his papers on Nabokov and other Russian authors. Having already attended conferences and presented papers in New York, England, Russia and elsewhere, the globetrotting professor last year received word of an opportunity he couldn’t refuse — an invitation to present his work in Japan.
Sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Literature and Science’s Center of Excellence Program, Connolly gave four lectures to variety of audiences. His first talk, on the role of the “rusalka” or female water spirit in 19th- and 20th-century Russian literature, was before a group of Slavic studies graduate students and faculty at Tokyo University. The next day, he discussed representations of the father in Russian culture and society — again, to his surprise — before the American culture class at Chuo University in the Tokyo suburbs. Rounding out Connolly’s itinerary were two talks at Kyoto University. The first was a presentation on the difficulty of decoding Nabokov’s fiction at the semiannual meeting of the Japan Nabokov Society, and the second was an analysis of Nabokov’s controversial translation of Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” with a small study group.
“I was amazed by the students’ willingness to engage,” Connolly says. “I was highly impressed with the spirit of intellectual inquiry demonstrated by the people I met at these lectures,” from Russian literature scholars and experts to students simply hoping to get a better grasp on the English language.
When he wasn’t busy lecturing — or playing English vocabulary games with students — Connolly made a point to immerse himself in the Japanese experience. “I had expressed interest in seeing and experiencing traditional Japanese culture, and my hosts spared no effort to give me memorable experiences, ranging from visits to ancient Shinto shrines to attending classical Noh and Kabuki theater performances,” Connolly recalls. “Of course, we also experienced more contemporary Japanese traditions such as singing in a karaoke club,” a skill at which Connolly’s hosts particularly excelled, he says.
An additional highlight of the trip for Connolly was the cuisine. A confirmed “Iron Chef” fan, he developed a particular appreciation for the emphasis on form in Japanese food and elsewhere. “Throughout my trip, I was impressed by the tremendous attention paid to the aesthetics of presentation.”
“It was fascinating,” Connolly says frequently of his overall experience. “An American professor talking about Russian literature to Japanese scholars in Japan! It was truly globalization at work.”