Tuesday, June 7, 2016


In Anna Karenina, the day after the fateful ball, resolved to forget Vronsky and resume her peaceful life with her son and husband (“my life will go on in the old way, all nice and as usual”), Anna settles herself in her compartment in the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and takes out an uncut English novel, probably one by Trollope judging from references to fox hunting and Parliament. Tolstoy, of course, says nothing about a translation—educated Russians knew English as well as French. In contrast, very few educated English speakers have read the Russian classics in the original and, until recent years, they have largely depended on two translations, one by the Englishwoman Constance Garnett and the other by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude, made respectively in 1901 and 1912. The distinguished Slavic scholar and teacher Gary Saul Morson once wrote about the former:
I love Constance Garnett, and wish I had a framed picture of her on my wall, since I have often thought that what I do for a living is teach the Collected Works of Constance Garnett. She has a fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period, which makes her ideal for translating the Russian masterpieces. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others. Every time someone else redoes one of these works, reviewers say that the new version replaces Garnett; and then another version comes out, which, apparently, replaces Garnett again, and so on. She must have done something right.
Morson wrote these words in 1997, and would recall them bitterly. Since that time a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English. Surprisingly, these translations, far from being rejected by the critical establishment, have been embraced by it and have all but replaced Garnett, Maude, and other of the older translations. When you go to a bookstore to buy a work by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, or Chekhov, most of what you find is in translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

In an article in the July/August 2010 issue of Commentary entitled “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature,” Morson used the word “tragedy” to express his sense of the disaster that has befallen Russian literature in English translation since the P&V translations began to appear. To Morson “these are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.” Morson fears that “if students and more-general readers choose P&V…[they] are likely to presume that whatever made so many regard Russian literature with awe has gone stale with time or is lost to them.”

In the summer of 2015 an interview with the rich and happy couple appeared in The Paris Review. The interviewer—referring to a comment Pevear had made to David Remnick in 2005—asked him: “You once said that one of your subliminal aims as a translator was ‘to help energize English itself.’ Can you explain what you mean?” Pevear was glad to do so:
It seemed to me that American fiction had become very bland and mostly self-centered. I thought it needed to break out of that. One thing I love about translating is the possibility it gives me to do things that you might not ordinarily do in English. I think it’s a very important part of translating. The good effect of translating is this cross-pollination of languages. Sometimes we get criticized—this is too literal, this is a Russianism—but I don’t mind that. Let’s have a little Russianism. Let’s use things like inversions. Why should they be eliminated? I guess if you’re a contemporary writer, you’re not supposed to do it, but as a translator I can. I love this freedom of movement between the two languages. I think it’s the most important thing for me—that it should enrich my language, the English language.
This bizarre idea of the translator’s task only strengthens one’s sense of the difficulty teachers of Russian literature in translation face when their students are forced to read the Russian classics in Pevear’s “energized” English. I first heard of P&V in 2007 when I received an e-mail from the writer Anna Shapiro:
I finished the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina a few weeks ago and I’m still more or less stewing about it. It leaves such a bad taste; it’s so wrong, and so oddly wrong, turning nourishment into wood. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. I’ve always maintained that Tolstoy was unruinable, because he’s such a simple writer, words piled like bricks, that it couldn’t matter; that he’s a transparent writer, so you can’t really get the flavor wrong, because in many ways he tries to have none. But they have, they’ve added some bad flavor, whereas even when Garnett makes sentences like “Vronsky eschewed farinaceous foods” it does no harm…. I imagine Pevear thinking he’s CORRECTING Tolstoy; that he’s really the much better writer.
When I leafed through the P&V translation of Anna Karenina I understood what Anna Shapiro was stewing about. The contrast to Garnett glared out at me. Garnett’s fine English, her urgent forward-moving sentences, her feeling for words—all this was gone, replaced by writing that is like singing or piano playing by someone who is not musical. For example:
Garnett: All his efforts to draw her into open discussion she confronted with a barrier that he could not penetrate, made up of a sort of amused perplexity.

P&V: To all his attempts at drawing her into an explanation she opposed the impenetrable wall of some cheerful perplexity.
Garnett: After taking leave of her guests, Anna did not sit down, but began walking up and down the room. She had unconsciously the whole evening done her utmost to arouse in Levin a feeling of love—as of late she had fallen into doing with all young men—and she knew she had attained her aim, as far as was possible in one evening, with a married and honorable man. She liked him very much, and, in spite of the striking difference, from the masculine point of view, between Vronsky and Levin, as a woman she saw something they had in common, which had made Kitty able to love both. Yet as soon as he was out of the room, she ceased to think of him.

P&V: After seeing her guests off, Anna began pacing up and down the room without sitting down. Though for the whole evening (lately she had acted the same way towards all young men) she had unconsciously done everything she could to arouse a feeling of love for her in Levin, and though she knew that she had succeeded in it, as far as one could with regard to an honest, married man in one evening, and though she liked him very much (despite the sharp contrast, from a man’s point of view, between Levin and Vronsky, as a woman she saw what they had in common, for which, too, Kitty had loved them both), as soon as he left the room, she stopped thinking about him. (...)
Another argument for putting Tolstoy into awkward contemporary-sounding English has been advanced by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and, more recently, by Marian Schwartz, namely that Tolstoy himself wrote in awkward Russian and that when we read Garnett or Maude we are not reading the true Tolstoy. Arguably, Schwartz’s attempt to “re-create Tolstoy’s style in English” surpasses P&V’s in ungainliness. Schwartz actually ruins one of the most moving scenes in the novel—when Kitty, fending off her sister’s attempt to comfort her for Vronsky’s rejection, lashes out and reminds her of her degraded position vis-à-vis the womanizing Stiva. After the outburst the sisters sit in silence. In Garnett’s version:
The silence lasted for a minute or two. Dolly was thinking of herself. That humiliation of which she was always conscious came back to her with a peculiar bitterness when her sister reminded her of it. She had not expected such cruelty from her sister, and she was angry with her. But suddenly she heard the rustle of a skirt, and with it the sound of heart-rending, smothered sobbing, and felt arms about her neck. 
Schwartz writes:

The silence lasted for a couple of minutes. Dolly was thinking about herself. Her humiliation, which was always with her, told especially painfully in her when her sister mentioned it. She had not anticipated such cruelty from her sister, and she was angry with her. Suddenly, however, she heard a dress and instead of the sound of sobs that had been held back too long, someone’s hands embracing her around the neck from below.
by Janet Malcolm, NY Review of Books |  Read more:
Image:Photofest, Vivien Leigh in Julien Duvivier’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, 1948