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“A Thankless Occupation”: James Joyce and His Translator Ludmila Savitzky

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 33-61

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Arriving in Paris in July 1920, James Joyce and his family did not intend to stay for more than a few weeks but ended up staying for twenty years, largely thanks to the extensive network of devoted and enthusiastic supporters the writer found in Europe’s artistic capital. Some details of Joyce’s early years in Paris are only now coming to light as new information emerges from institutional and private collections, drawing our attention to hitherto ignored figures in Joyce’s entourage. A case in point is Ludmila Savitzky who did much to introduce Joyce to French literary circles and, eventually, to the reader at large by authoring the first French translation of Joyce’s writings—Dedalus: Portrait de l’artiste jeune par lui-même (Paris: La Sirène, 1924). Until recently, Savitzky’s name was by and large absent from Joyce studies. But this situation is sure to change with recent discoveries of new documents and the revival of scholarly interest for this writer, literary and theatre critic, translator, and witness to one of the richest periods in Parisian cultural life.1 Presently, we have enough material to go beyond the cursory mentions of Savitzky in Joyce scholarship, in order to reconstruct an important episode in Joyce’s literary career in Paris.2

Like Joyce, Ludmila Ivanovna Savitskaia (1881–1957), better known by an assortment of stage, pen, and married names—Lucie Alfé, Lud, Ludmila J. Rais, Ludmila Bloch-(Savitzky), Ludmila Savitzky—was an expatriate who left her native land in search of cultural and professional freedom. The varied list of her cognomens reflects both the plethora of her activities in Paris—stage acting, literary fiction (poetry and prose, for adults and for children), literary translation from three languages (English, Russian, German), theatre and literary criticism—and the quick succession of three marriages that, at the time, flew in the face of the social and moral conventions from which she had sought liberation in Paris. But this onomastic fluidity also reflects the uncertain identity of an exile who cannot quite settle into a new cultural role, an ambiguity that is also visible in the multiple spellings of her original name (the flickering third l in Ludmil(l)a and all sorts of consonant combinations in the surname).3

Savitzky was born to a family of old landed gentry in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals. Her father, Ivan Savitskii, was a Roman Catholic from Lithuania and a doctor by education; her mother, Anna Alferova (hence Ludmila’s first pseudonym, Lucy Alfé)—a Russian Orthodox from the Ukraine. Both parents espoused radical politics (Anna knew Lenin) that led to their administrative removal to the Russian empire’s cultural periphery. In 1889 the family moved to Tiflis (now Tbilisi), where Ivan Savitskii served as a magistrate and Ludmila received her secondary education in a Russian classical gymnasium. She had learned French as a child and early in her life she contracted a dual passion for Russian and French literatures, especially poetry. In 1897, the family moved to Lausanne, one of the centres of Russian political emigration, where they remained for the next three years, the children attending a private pensionnat. In 1900, Savitzky saw Paris for the first time as an interpreter for a Russian general touring the Universal Exhibition. From that time on, she was always on the move: First came a stay in England, where she studied English literature (1900); then a year-long return to Russia (1901); and a definitive move to Paris (1902), interrupted by another year in England (1903), where she taught French. In Paris, like many other women whose ambitions were frustrated in tsarist Russia, Savitzky enrolled at the Sorbonne. But she was more interested in the bohemian life of Montparnasse, laying the groundwork for her extensive connections in Parisian artistic and literary circles, from Apollinaire and Picasso to Marinetti and Max Jacob. At this time she made her debut as a literary translator, with Maxim Gorky’s poems and stories, but then she opted for an acting career and was briefly married to a fellow actor. In 1908, she began to publish poetry and theatre criticism in the French press. Her first collection of...

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