Meduza in English: translating Russian news
October 15, 2019
“Russian speakers and Russian-language thought have implications well outside the borders of the Russian Federation, and I’m not talking about election interference. How does civil disobedience spur change? How does it fail? How can we talk about gender in a world where many languages have grammatical gender deeply built in? How can people make art about events too traumatic or ecstatic to be represented? What forms can online media take that the world has never seen before, and what are their effects? Those are the kinds of questions you encounter on a daily basis if you read about Russian-language life in depth.” —Hilah Kohen
Hilah Kohen is the news editor at Meduza in English, an independent online news outlet that publishes and aggregates stories on Russia and the former Soviet Union. Meduza is a rare thing: a prominent Russian-language news outlet that operates independently of the Russian government. Meduza in English also brings a selection of the vast range of articles on the site to an English-speaking audience, alongside original pieces. Kohen and Managing Editor Kevin Rothrock select, translate, edit, and write the articles that appear on the English site.
As Kohen notes, “Meduza doesn’t give you a single narrative about Russia, but it gives you a lot of tools in one place to start building your own.” It is a storytelling project with political implications, and a model for opening up an exchange between people who live continents and oceans apart, but whose politics are very much entwined.
I corresponded with Kohen over email to learn more about her work at Meduza. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Lydia Zoells: Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be interested in Russian culture/history/politics?
Hilah Kohen: Like many people in my position, I started out by reading nineteenth-century Russian novels in English translation. That experience sparked a hope that, by learning the Russian language, I could get to know people and cultures with which I otherwise would have been entirely unable to communicate. Timing was also a factor: I began learning Russian in 2014, when authoritarian tactics in the Russian state and a focus in the U.S. on Russia as a state alone both began to take hold in ways that seemed to be irreversible. I wanted to be able to get to know Russian speakers as people and members of a culture grappling with those constraints.
LZ: Could you briefly describe your role at Meduza?
HK: I’m the News Editor of Meduza in English, which is just what it sounds like: Meduza is one of the few prominent Russian-language media outlets that the Russian government and its allies do not control, and Meduza in English brings that perspective into English. We’re a team of two, and we select, translate, write, and edit everything that’s posted on the English-language edition of Meduza. That means most of my time is spent deciding which pieces we’ve published in Russian on any given day are important for our English-language audience to access, translating those pieces, and editing them for publication. When I get the chance to write original pieces, I tend to focus on contemporary literature and culture, queer life in Russia, and how English-language pop culture takes on new forms and meanings in Russian.
LZ: Why do you think it’s important for people to be informed about Russia and Russian news?
HK: At the risk of sounding cheesy, the Russian Federation is a place where human beings live their lives, not just a red-walled complex with stony-faced former KGB agents inside. Reading intentionally about events in the Russian Federation rather than encountering scattered information about it in Anglophone media means thinking about almost 150 million people as people. On top of that, Russian speakers and Russian-language thought have relationships and implications well outside the borders of the Russian Federation, and I’m not talking about election interference. How does civil disobedience spur change? How does it fail? How can we talk about gender in a world where many languages have grammatical gender deeply built in? How can people make art about events too traumatic or ecstatic to be represented? What forms can online media take that the world has never seen before, and what are their effects? Those are the kinds of questions you encounter on a daily basis if you read about Russian-language life in depth.
LZ: What makes Meduza different from other periodicals?
HK: In Russian, Meduza is different for a couple of reasons. First, it’s part of a brilliant group of new media projects whose leadership is not formally subject to government control, whether implicit or explicit. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to read Meduza between the lines, but it does mean we have more flexibility to tell the truth in certain high-stakes stories. Of course, actually using that flexibility can still be a leap of faith: one of our special correspondents, Ivan Golunov, was recently arrested on fabricated drug charges after reporting on corruption and FSB ties in the Moscow funeral industry. He was freed only after an extraordinary public solidarity movement. There are massively important issues like the climate crisis, with which we still haven’t taken that leap of faith, but we always have more room to do so than many other outlets.
Second, Meduza has a unique way of conveying both the forest and the trees. When you open Meduza, the goal is that you get a picture of all of the day’s most important events within seconds. You don’t have to sort through a massive homepage to get to that picture, and you don’t have to go to multiple smaller, specialized sources either. At the same time, we have a team of special correspondents who report in great depth on anything from human interest stories in rural Russia to high-profile political events in regional capitals. Meduza doesn’t give you a single narrative about Russia, but it gives you a lot of tools in one place to start building your own within certain narrative and political constraints.
In English, we do our best to tell stories about Russia with a similar breadth and depth. What differentiates us from many other English-language outlets that do the same is that we’re telling these stories from what’s originally an independent, Russian-language point of view. The fact that so many of our stories are translations, not original stories written in English by English speakers for English speakers, is often what gives our readers an unexpected perspective. For example, Meduza often publishes monologues from LGBTQ Russian speakers, and they are some of my absolute favorite texts to translate. There are always questions behind them that I never would have thought to ask and ways of surviving and creating that really make you complicate your ideas of what queer life can be. Another example our readers bring up often is our coverage of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries. There aren’t many other places where English speakers can read what folks from the former Soviet Union are thinking and writing about a cultural product that holds so much interest for English, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian speakers alike.
LZ: How do you decide what articles to translate/emphasize for an English-speaking audience?
HK: The fact that we only write and translate pieces about Russia already cuts out a substantial portion of Meduza’s Russian-language coverage because the scope of that coverage is global. We also try to stay away from stories that mainstream English-language outlets and wire services will already be covering (which means many fewer Putin stories, thank goodness). What we often emphasize are stories on the details of local politics, which is where real change in Russia often gets brewing; stories that really sit at the intersection of politics and culture reporting; and stories that have a strong connection to the Anglophone world. We also always do our best to carry over Meduza’s original in-depth reporting because you really won’t find that anywhere else. When it comes to our original English-language reporting, we do get significant news scoops once in a blue moon. Usually, though, my boss and I are bringing our own skills to the table. For example, I really enjoy highlighting new books from or about Russia, whether they’ve been translated yet or not.
LZ: What other languages, if any, is Meduza translated into?
HK: It’s just English at this point.
LZ: Are you conscious about the assumptions and stereotypes readers might bring with them when they come to your articles?
HK: To be honest, I am always thinking about what assumptions my readers might bring to what I’m writing, perhaps against my better judgment. I recently had a conversation in the LA Review of Books with three women who are really breaking ground in Anglophone writing on Russia, and they made me think in a lot of depth about whether my job is to try to push against commonly accepted misconceptions or whether it’s simply to convey Russian-language voices and let readers do the rest. When unimportant stories play right into those stereotypes, though—like the time a group of shamans in eastern Siberia sacrificed five camels to “strengthen Russia”—I don’t translate them. Our audience isn’t necessarily going to hear about the role of Siberian shamans in indigenous language preservation or grassroots protests, so why give them clickbait that won’t enable them to learn anything they don’t already know? Many of the stories I come across already have that complexity baked in, thankfully.
There’s another aspect to this question, and it’s that assumptions go beyond national stereotypes. Our analytics say that almost seventy percent of our readers are men—it used to be even more—and any news outlet would be wrong not to try to reach a broader group of people by focusing on stories that are likely to interest many different readers while bringing a set of experiences to the table that may be new for the readers you’ve already got.
LZ: How does the internet play into what you do, and how news about Russia is disseminated? Are you aware of shifts that have happened in journalism about Russia and the former Soviet Union, due to technological advances?
HK: Meduza, like many other Russian-language news outlets, is distributed only on the Internet. I’m not the right person to ask about how online media in Russia have developed in tandem with historical events, but just as a non-expert, it seems to me that something really special happened when the USSR collapsed just as the Internet took off. You can find things on the Russian internet that seem unimaginable in English: there’s a journalism project founded by Pussy Riot members that tracks socially significant court cases for the general public on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis; there’s a ton of “special projects” that use interactive full-screen formats to draw attention to a whole variety of issues; there was even a project that posted primary documents from the revolutions of 1917 in the format of a social media network with a profile for each historical figure. It’s amazing. The sheer variety and creativity of Russian online journalism definitely gives even a new observer like myself the impression that when Russian-language media remade itself in the absence of the Soviet government, it really used that opportunity to start from scratch to make incredible things.
All these things are threatened to some degree by recent developments in government censorship. It’s not like these measures are inherent to the Russian government—they have a Soviet prehistory, but there has been a significant increase in censorship in just the past few years. For example, an agency that used to just approve media passes has started blocking news websites if they describe suicide cases too explicitly or if they report on graffiti that insults Putin. A newly passed law would enable the Russian government to isolate domestic Internet traffic from the World Wide Web on command if fully implemented. However, that escalation just goes to show what a force the Russian Internet can be. In the relative absence of physical spaces for social protest and public speech, it’s become a necessary tool that Russian speakers have used very effectively.
—Lydia Zoells, Editorial Assistant, MCD x FSG