The Sweet Smell of Success?

Russian Classics in the Translation of R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky

M.Berdy, V.Lanchikov

The English version of the article “Óñïåõ è óñïåøíîñòü. Ðóññêàÿ êëàññèêà â ïåðåâîäàõ Ð. Ïèâåðà è Ë. Âîëîõîíñêîé.

It’s hard to argue with the fairness of the rule: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. But it’s not so easy to continually abide by it, either. It’s a rare person who can immediately get an idea about a book without taking a look at its cover.

Western publishers understand this, of course, and load their covers with praise and positive reviews. If you believed everything printed on a new book, you would think it was just about to land on all the best-seller lists, and its author was in the running for the Nobel Prize.

PR is all well and good, but the reviews and comments on the covers of Russian classics translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are remarkable in their unanimity. It’s surprising that the quality of translation is thought to be worth noting at all – this is an honor that few translators can boast of (especially those working in Russia, where publishers in general avoid evaluations of translations’ quality). The books’ reviews are a chorus of praise for Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ability to transmit all the features of the original texts: “Absolutely faithful…” – “An especially faithful recreation…” – “A capital job of reconstruction…” – “Fidelity to the original…” – “True to the verbal inventiveness of Dostoyevsky…” The translations are declared to be nothing less than classics: “This Anna Karenina will be the definitive rendition for generations to come.” – “…Destined to become the definitive edition of Gogol’s short fiction.” – “Every page of the new Karamazov [is] a permanent standard.” – “The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation will become the standard version”.

However, even someone with only a slight familiarity with the problems of translation can see some contradictions in the positive reviews: on the one hand, the translators are praised for their idiomatic English (“Lively, idiomatic version”), and on the other hand, for their success in not losing the specificities of the originals’ language (“As close to Dostoyevsky’s Russian as it is possible”) – that is, for their ability to transmit idiomatic Russian. Perhaps herein lies the main triumph of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations – maybe they have managed to solve one of the most famous antimonies of the English translation authority T. Savory: “A translation should read like the original text” – “A translation should read like a translation”?

The most famous reviewer of P/V (as this creative union is called in academic journals) doesn’t speak Russian and gave a rave review for one of their books without having read it. Oprah Winfrey didn’t say why she chose specifically P/V's translation of Anna Karenina for her book club, and it appears that no one has asked her. But after it was chosen for her book club, their translation went to number one on the New York Times’ best-seller list and became a sensation: a best-selling translation, and not only that, a best-selling translation of a 100-year-old classic – a truly unheard-of phenomenon on the American book market.

But even before the appearance of P/V’s “Anna Karenina”, reviewers who spoke Russian and were familiar with the originals of their translations were praising their work, including Andrei Navrozov and John Bailey. Two P/V translations, “Anna Karenina” and “The Brothers Karamazov” received PEN Club prizes. And David Remnick, head editor of “The New Yorker”, made the claim in a lengthy article in his magazine that P/V were possibly “the premier Russian to English translators of the era”. Judging from his article, it is true that Remnick’s opinion of P/V is not 100%-positive. He did direct some criticism towards P/V, but it was lost in the thunder of applause.

Success? In a way. We can at least be glad that some literary translators working in the U.S., a group that is generally ignored, have won such recognition. To see why they have won such recognition, we need to take a closer look at the working methods of these famed masters.

It’s unclear what Pevear studied in college and graduate school. The American University in Paris’ site laconically states that he graduated from Allegheny College and received a Master’s degree from the University of Virginia. Pevear told the correspondent from “Inostranets” that he had studied at Harvard, where he “attended summer courses on Russian literature in translation”. After college, Pevear held a number of different jobs: he worked as a carpenter, repaired yachts and worked in a greenhouse. During that time he wrote poetry (printed in the “Hudson Review” and other publications) and translated works from the French, Italian and Spanish (poems by Apollinaire and Yves Bonnefoy, the philosophical treatise “Gods” by Alain).

Pevear’s wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, gives the following account of her life to “Inostranets”: “I was born in Leningrad, and attended university there. I studied linguistics. I was in literary circles, as my brother Henri is a poet. I was surrounded by poets and writers. My path in Russia and in emigration was a fairly winding one. I studied theology for four years in the West. I left Russia in 1973, first for Israel, and then ended up in America almost by accident. But now, in retrospect, I feel that it was all part of some plan (…) I was taught English from an early age. So I already knew the language pretty well when I left in 1973”.

Since we’re talking about language skills, it’s worthwhile to mention that, according to Volokhonsky, “Richard doesn’t know Russian as well as he should”. Pevear’s weakness in Russian has been noted in other articles, especially during the period when P/V were working on their first translations of Russian classics. He has visited Russia, but spent only three weeks here. He admitted to Remnick, to the evident displeasure of his wife: “I’ve never been curious to see Russia. I’m not curious to see the city of Moscow. Should I be?”

Remnick recounts how the pair first came to consider translating Russian literature. Richard was reading David Magarshak’s translation of “The Brothers Karamazov”. Larissa was indignant after looking through the book: It’s not there! Dostoevsky is an entirely different writer! The couple read and dismissed two other translations (by Andrew R. McAndrew and Constance Garnett), before deciding to create their own. First, Larissa wrote out a “hyperaccurate” word-for-word translation with comments on the style and syntax of every sentence. Then Richard, in consultation with his wife on various subtleties of the original, reworked the text to create what they believed to be a proper translation. The couple then revised the result several times together.

Thus was formed the method they used to translate a considerable part of the works of Leo Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, as well as Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”.

This method is not new. Translators of the previous generation surely remember how, in the Soviet era, translating from word-for-word translations of then-classics like Dzhambul Dzhabayev, Suleiman Stalsky and others put food on the table for many poets and writers. This method is also used in the U.S., especially for translations of poetry. For example, the poets Richard Wilbur and W.S. Merwin translated Voznesensky and Mandelshtam with the help of Russian speakers. But the extent to which the results, with all of their literary merits, can be called translations in the full meaning of the word is really the question.

Unlike other translators who work in this manner, Pevear does not limit himself to the word-for-word translation provided by his Russian collaborator. In his book on literary translation, Robert Wechsler describes Pevear and Volokhonsky’s working method. After Volokhonsky has prepared her translation with extensive commentary, Pevear then turns to previous translations of the text, because without them, he says, it is impossible to make sense of this crib. [1]

This method is, to put it mildly, doubtful. Nonetheless, let us take a look at the practical results of P/V’s translation program before we rush to any conclusions.

The first element of these translations that strikes the reader is a persistent lack of distinction between specificities of individual speech and that which is common usage. We can see the effect in this short passage from “The Master and Margarita”:

”– Trety god vnoshu denezhki, chtoby bolnuyu bazedovoi boleznyu zhenu otpravit v etot rai, da chto-to nichego v volnakh ne vidno, – yadovito i gorko skazal novellist Ieronim Poprikhin”.

In P/V’s translation:

“It’s the third year I’ve paid in so as to send my wife with goiter to this paradise, but there is nothing to be spied amidst the waves,” the novelist Ieronim Poprikhin said venomously and bitterly”.

We won’t dwell on the fact that Poprikhin was transformed from a short-story writer to a novelist in translation – this kind of mix-up can happen to any translator. But it’s worth spending some time to consider the literal translation of “nichego v volnakh ne vidno”. First of all, the phrase “there is nothing to spied amidst the waves” doesn’t make much sense. Second of all, the English-speaking reader will, of course, take this turn of speech to be an invention of the author. Give it a day or two and an American journalist may write: “There is nothing to spied amidst the waves, as Bulgakov put it.”

The only problem is, this expressive phrase is not Bulgakov’s. It’s a well-known line from the folk song “Vniz po matushke po Volge”: “Nichego v volnakh ne vidno – / Odna lodochka cherneyet, / Nikogo v lodke ne vidno – / Tolko parusa beleyut.”And it has been used almost idiomatically more than once in Russian literature and journalistic writing. For example, in his book “Abroad” Saltykov-Schedrin writes:

“Vy uzhe tem odnim schastlivy, chto vidite pered soboi prochnoye polozhenie veshchei. Katorga tak katorga, pripevayuchi tak pripevayuchi. A vot beda, kak ni katorga, ni pripevayuchi – nichego v volnakh ne vidno”.

Or take this excerpt from Dostoyevsky’s “A Writer’s Diary” (1876):

” Suzhdenie, vprochem, shirokoye – shirokoye, kak bezbrezhnoye more, i, uzh konechno, - “nichego v volnakh ne vidno”; zato natsionalnoye”.

To avoid similar confusions, we feel it necessary to advise English-speaking readers that, with all due respect to Bulgakov’s talent, it would be incorrect to grant him the authorship of the following phrases found in the aforementioned translation: “the man was no gift” (“chelovek etot ne podarochek”), “that’s the whole salt of it” (“v etom-to vsya i sol”) and “sit there stiller than water, lower than grass” (“sidi tam tishe vody nizhe travy”. In addition, the phrases: “That’s from another opera,” “A dog’s death for a dog” and “Its song has been sung” were not invented by Chekhov (this is how P/V transmit the expressions “Eto vy iz drugoi opery”, “Sobake sobachya smert” and “Yeyo pesnya uzhe speta” from the stories “The Man in a Case”, “Peasant Women” and “A Dreary Story”).

Moving along, the following phrases in P/V’s translation of “Dead Souls”: “It’s simply devil-knows-what!”, “God loves trinity” and “For you a human soul is the same as stewed turnip” (“Prosto chert znayet chto takoye!” “Bog lyubit troitsu” and “U vas dusha chelovecheskaya vsyo ravno chto parenaya repa”) were not thought up by Gogol.

Finally, the expression “to drink up one’s trousers”, found in the couple’s translation of “Anna Karenina”, which was awarded a PEN Club prize, is not a neologism coined by Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

“How dare he say I ordered his trousers stolen! He drank them up, I suppose. I spit on him and his princely rank. He daren’t say that, it’s swinishness!

(– Kak on smeyet govorit, chto ya velel ukrast u nego bryuki! On ikh propil, ya dumayu. Mne plevat na nego s ego knyazhestvom. On ne smei govorit, eto svinstvo!)

There are, however, true neologisms to be found in “Anna Karenina”. One of them afterwards became widely used – Stiva Oblonsky’s butler Matvei was comforting his master, who became fascinated with the words: “Nichego, sudar, obrazuyetsya”. [2]

“A mozhet byt, i obrazuyetsya! Khorosheye slovechko: obrazuyetsya, – podumal on. Eto nado rasskazat”.

” Stepan Arkadych (…) mog nadeyatsya, chto vsyo obrazuyetsya, po vyrazheniyu Matveya (…)”

P/V in general engage in the practice of literally translating widely-used Russian idiomatic phrases so that they seem to be the inventions of particular authors. In this case, however, they rendered a phrase that was either coined or introduced to the public by Tolstoy with the help of the common-place English phrase “to shape up”: “Never mind, sir, it’ll shape up”. It can’t really be said to be “as Matvei put it” any more.

The Russian “obrazuyetsya”, however, as we can see in the quote from Chekhov, does mean “to settle down”, “to be all right”. In the first case, “shape up” conveys the speaker’s certainty that something indefinite will take on clear features. In the second, the Russian “obrazuyetsya” expresses the hope that life will sort things out.

How is the English-speaking reader to guess that “to drink up one’s trousers” was not made up by Tolstoy, and that the well-known “to shape up” is masking an actual invention of the author?

P/V’s exceptional concern over the saving of formal aspects in translation affects how they translate set forms and syntactic specificities of speech:

  • Zdravstvuite! – ryavknul kto-to v golove e Stepy. – Etogo eshche nedostavalo!” (Bulgakov, “The Master and Margarita”)
    ‘Hel-lo!’ someone barked in Styopa’s head. ‘Just what we needed!’
  • – A chto eto u vas, velikolepnaya Solokha? – I, skazavshi eto, otskochil on neskolko nazad.
    – Kak chto? Ruka, Osip Nikiforovich! – otvechala Solokha. (Gogol, “The Night Before Christmas”)
    “And what have you got here, magnificent Solokha?” – And having said it, he jumped back slightly.
    “How – what? An arm, Osip Nikiforovich!” replied Solokha.
  • – Da, khorosha, – progovorila ona, nakonets. – Ochen dazhe. (Dostoyevsky, “The Idiot”)
    “Yes, good-looking,” she said at last. “Even very.”
  • – Ya nikomu nikogda ne rasskazyval, tebe pervomu seichas rasskazhu, konechno, Ivana isklyuchaya, Ivan vsyo znayet. Ranshe tebya vsyo znayet. No Ivan – mogila. (Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”)
    “I’ve never told anyone, you’ll be the first, except for Ivan, of course, Ivan knows everything. He’s known it for a long time before you. But Ivan’s a grave.
  • – Golubchik moi, – bormotala ona, drozha ot radosti, – Vladimir Platonych! Otkuda Bog prinyos? (Chekhov, “The Darling”)
    “My little dove!” she murmured, trembling with joy. “Vladimir Platonych! Where did God bring you from?”

The translation of “golubchik moi” as “my little dove” is certainly an interesting choice. Let us hope that it never inspires anyone to translate the affectionate form of address “lapochka” as “my little paw”.

Occasionally this conscientious copying of Russian syntax into English leads to even more entertaining results. Let’s try and figure out what emotion is being expressed in Stiva Oblonsky’s question: “What, you didn’t expect me?” More likely than not, it is surprise: if we were to translate this sentence into Russian from the English, it would be: “Kak, vy menya ne zhdali?” In fact, in the original Tolstoy, Stiva has arrived unexpectedly and merely asks: “Chto, ne zhdali?”

Characters who express this kind of surprise in English, but not in the original Russian, can be found in other translations of Russian classics by P/V:

  • – Zdravstvyui, Ganka, podlets! Chto, ne zhdal Parfyona Rogozhina? (Dostoyevsky, “The Idiot”)
    “Greetings, Ganka, you scoundrel! What, you weren’t expecting Parfyon Rogozhin?”
  • – Chto, gotov moi sunduk? (Gogol, “The Night Before Christmas”)
    “What, is my chest ready?
  • – Vy chto, byli u vracha? (Bulgakov, “The Master and Margarita”
    “You’ve, what, been to the doctor?”

With this approach, marvels occur not only with the intonation and communicative intent of characters, but with the image of the character in general. What kind of person could, for example, pronounce the following phrase, found in a P/V translation: “Good-bye, brothers, God be with you!”? In John Eliot’s novel “Felix Holt, the Radical”, the priest Rufus Lyon bids a deacon farewell in a similar manner: “God be with you, brother. We shall meet to-morrow, and we will see what can be done to subdue these refractory spirits”.

The text that P/V translated, however, didn’t have anything to do with the clergy; the speaker was the merchant Kuzmichyov from Chekhov’s “The Steppe”, who was saying goodbye to some wagon drivers: “Proshchaite, bratsy! S Bogom!” (In his translation of “The Steppe”, Ronald Hingley gave the phrase as: “Good bye, lads, and good luck”).

We can see this practice at work in the P/V translation of a longer passage from “The Brothers Karamazov”, where Kolya Krasotkin is saying goodbye to a peasant that he met by chance:

– Proshchai, Matvei.
– Proshchai.
– A ty razve Matvei?
– Matvei. A ty ne znal?
– Ne znal; ya naugad skazal.
– Ish ved. V shkolnikakh nebos?
– V shkolnikakh.
– Chto zhe tebya, poryut?
– Ne to chtoby, a tak.
– Bolno?
– Ne bez togo!
– Ekh, zhist! – vzdokhnul muzhik ot vsego serdtsa.

“Good-bye, Matvey.”
“Are you really Matvey?”
“I am. Didn’t you know?”
“No, I just said it.”
“Well, I declare. You must be one of them schoolboys.”
“One of them schoolboys.”
“And what, do they whip you?”
“Not really, so-so.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It can.”
“E-eh, that’s life!” the peasant sighed from the bottom of his heart.

One could conclude from this translation that there were some truly remarkable peasants in Russia in Dostoyevsky’s lifetime. They conversed like well-bred antebellum debutantes from America’s South (“Well, I declare”), [3] and then immediately broke into the lingo of an uneducated cowboy (“You must be one of them schoolboys”). What’s more, they seemingly had the ability to read the minds of their conversation partners, expressing surprise about facts, of which they had not yet been informed: “And what, do they whip you?” At the same time, as becomes the Russian peasant, they were of a fatalistic, submissive disposition: “E-eh, that’s life!” – something like the French “C’est la vie”. Admittedly, Dostoyevsky’s Matvei was not comforting Kolya, but rather expressing his dismay (“Ekh, zhist!), but at least almost every word of the remark in English can be traced back to the Russian. Unfortunately, the concept “naugad” (“at random”, in this context, “taking a guess”) disappeared from the dialogue, and the understatement “Ne bez togo” (approximately corresponding to the phrase “could be worse”) was replaced with the bland “It can”.

Taking into account such combinations as “unclean powers”(nechistaya sila), “freedom of person” (svoboda lichnosti), “to look one’s eyes out” (vse glaza proglyadet), “to pour buckets” (lit kak iz vedra), “to enter into the situation” (vkhodit v chyo-to polozhenie), “the woman question” (zhensky vopros) and other such calques, the diagnosis seems clear: chronic literalism. We could avoid an already well-trodden path and simply point readers to I.A. Kashkin’s 50-year-old article taking apart the “principle of technical precision” proclaimed by Ye.L. Lann (who tried to provide a theoretical basis for literalism), [4] and that would be the end of it. However, to begin with, P/V are far from being as consistent as Lann in their literalism. They translate some Russian idioms literally and find English analogues for others. In some places, they keep the syntactical structure of the original, and in others, modify it to fit the norms of English. This inconsistency is apparently what led to the contradictory praise of the couple’s reviewers, who lauded their translations both for their rich idiomatic English and their “faithfulness” to the style of the original author. Moreover, a simple repetition of Kashkin’s arguments will not help us to explain the reasons for the great acclaim they have received, mentioned at the beginning of this article. To get to the bottom of all of this, we should examine the couple’s views on translation theory.

Remnick notes, “Pevear, especially, has read some of the theory about translation: Walter Benjamin, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Roman Jakobson, and, of course, Nabokov”. In the article, Remnick describes an episode when Pevear quotes with great feeling the French poet and translator Valery Larbaud’s prayer to St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators.

Is Pevear acquainted with the views on translation espoused by the intended recipient of Larbaud’s prayer? It’s enough to read St. Jerome’s classic “Letter to Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating”: “in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for word”. To reinforce his position, St. Jerome refers to Euagrius of Antioch’s preface to the life of the blessed Antony. "A literal translation from one language into another obscures the sense; the exuberance of the growth lessens the yield (…) Leave others to catch at syllables and letters, do you for your part look for the meaning". [5]

Ortega y Gasset is a different story; now there’s a translation theorist who could inspire calques like “The unclean one beguiled me” (“Nechisty poputal”) or “How not get excited?” (“Kak zhe ne vsvolnovatsya?”). Here is Ortega on translation:

“Readers from any country will not be satisfied with a translation written in the style of their own language. They have plenty of that in the works of their own writers. They want the reverse: language stretched to the limits of comprehension, through which the translated author’s manner of speech can be seen. A good example of this are the translations of my works into German. Over the course of a few years, fifteen of them have been published. This success was possible in large part due to the successful translations. My translator pushed German’s grammatical capabilities to the limit in order to accurately render what was not German in my manner of speaking. In this way, the reader is able to reproduce the Spanish train of thought without effort. This allows him to take a break from himself, and he has the pleasure of becoming someone else for a time”. (The Misery and Splendor of Translation)

We can with full confidence name the Ortega article that Pevear read, because it is probably the Spanish philosopher’s only work dedicated entirely to translation. Nonetheless, American editors of textbooks on translation theory love to include it along with works by prominent translation scholars. We are reminded of Yelena Molokhovets, the author of the once-famous cookbook “The Young Housewife’s Companion”, who also wrote and published numerous brochures, such as “A Study of the Prophecy of Isaiah”, “The Meaning of the Sacraments of Baptism and Anointment”, “Monarchism, Nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy”, and so on. Yet theologians and political scientists, who, apparently, take their subjects more seriously than some of their colleagues in the field of translation, are not in the habit of citing the works of Mrs. Molokhovets, which does not in the least detract from her culinary merits.

What’s more, Ortega wrote about the translation of philosophical works, not literature. Which means that even if we agree with the philosopher’s recommendations, we should make it clear that they are only relevant for specific types of texts. In addition, if Pevear is guided in his translation practice by a philosopher, then why does Volokhonsky ignore the opinion of a theologian, namely Alexander Schmemann, whose picture, as Remnick tells it, hangs over her writing desk? The following is an excerpt from the theologian’s writings:

“The principle of translation is this: to write in the language into which you are translating, as the author whom you are translating would have written, if that were his native language.” [6]

If English were Bulgakov’s native language, it’s unlikely that he would have perplexed his readers with phrases like, “Here the second oddity occurred, touching Berlioz alone” (“Tut priklyuchilas vtoraya strannost, kasayushchayasya odnogo Berlioza”), or “Not only not to get up, it seemed to him that he could not open his eyes” (“Ne to chto vstat, – emu kazalos, chto on ne mozhet otkryt glaz”). At any rate, in the original, these phrases sound completely natural.

As far as Ortega’s argument implying the effectiveness of literal translation in transmitting the cultural specificities of the original language is concerned, we can see its results in P/V’s translations of direct speech. They have Russian characters exclaim: “Ai-yai-yai!” (a transliteration of the Russian), which in English sounds characteristic of Jewish speech. Some of their characters address each other as “brother” (“brat”, “bratets”), which is a form of address associated with African-Americans and certain religious groups. Others cry, “Ah, so?!” (“Akh tak!”), sounding like the interjection of a stereotypical Chinese speaker, and which, incidentally, means something entirely different than the Russian phrase. It’s hard to say what Russian cultural specificities stand behind this burst of multiculturalism.

According to Pevear, however, this literalism stems from a desire to transmit, at any cost, the style of the original author, which every previous translator has maliciously distorted. To support his method, Pevear points to the irregularities in Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s Russian, smoothed out in earlier translations.

So, we’re talking about the rendering of irregularities, meaningful “flaws” in style. There’s no arguing that the intention is noble. Tolstoy himself stressed: “I love that which is called irregularity, which is uniqueness” (from a letter to F. Tischenko, April 18, 1887).

That’s why the pleonasm “vdrug neozhidanno” found in “Anna Karenina” (“– Stiva! – vdrug neozhidanno skazal Levin, – chto zh ty mne ne skazhesh, vyshla tvoya svoyachenitsa zamuzh ili kogda vykhodit?”) is unsurprisingly rendered by P/V as “suddenly and unexpectedly”: “‘Stiva!’ Levin said suddenly and unexpectedly. ‘Why don’t you tell me whether your sister-in-law got married or when’s she going to?’”

But wait a minute here. Is this truly “unique” to Tolstoy?

  • – Milye vy moi! – vdrug neozhidanno ulybnulsya Verner i srazu poteryal vsyu vnushitelnost svoei pozy, snova stal arestantom, (Leonid Andreyev, “The Seven Who Were Hanged”)
  • No posle segonyashnego obeshchaniya, dannogo znakomym Zarudinu po drugim zhenshchinam strannym sryvayushchimsya i bezvolnym golosom, on vdrug neozhidanno pochuvstvoval svoyu silu i vnezapnuyu blizost tseli. (Mikhail Artsybashev, “Sanin”)
  • – Ruku potselui, – vdrug neozhidanno skazal otets. (Mikhail Bulgakov, “The Embroidered Towel”)

From a purist’s point of view, “vdrug neozhidanno” might be not quite correct. In everyday speech and in literature, however, it is certainly not a rarity. Apparently, P/V regard this word combination in the same way as those pedantic editors whom they accuse of attempting to put out translations of sterile accuracy. The opposing sides’ viewpoints are the following: the editors say, “This is an irregularity. Needs correction.” P/V say, “This is an irregularity. Therefore, no correction needed.” But neither the editors nor P/V have asked themselves whose speech is “irregular” – that of the author, or that of the enormous mass of Russian speakers.

Another example is the tautological expression “segodnyashny den” found in “The Master and Margarita”: “Vcherashny den, takim obrazom, pomalenku vysvetlyalsya, no Styopu seichas gorazdo bolee interesoval den segodnyashny” translated as “The previous day was thus coming gradually into focus, but right now Styopa was much more interested in today’s day”.

However, it was not only Bulgakov’s works that the unhappy phrase crept into:

  • Segodnyashny den menya sostaril... (Ivan Turgenev, “A Month In the Country”)
  • – Ne okazhete li vy nam vnimanie I ne soglasites li stat na segodnyashny den nashim provodnikom? (Valery Bryusov, “The Fiery Angel”)
  • Ves segodnyashny den byl zanyat tem, chtoby posredstvom nechelovecheskikh usily vyzhat otkuda-nibud khot neskolko kopeyek na lekarstvo Mashutke”. (Alexander Kuprin, “The Wonderful Doctor”)

In their work, P/V don’t see the difference between the language norm, phrases used in everyday speech and the writer’s individual style. That’s why, as we’ve seen earlier in our discussion of literal translations of Russian idioms, the question arises: how is the English reader to see the difference between a “unique trait” of the original author, an “irregularity” commonly found in Russian usage, and a clumsy phrase created through the literal translation of a perfectly correct and widely used expression or structure? The English-speaking reader has little choice but to ascribe all of these things to the originality of the author’s style.

This issue has been considered in translation studies:

“When translating literature or journalistic prose, the choice of language means which do not correspond to the original in terms of usage leads to a distortion of the stylistic characteristics of the text by creating the illusion of an individual (the author’s own) stylistic device where no such device is employed”. [7]

This consideration is of paramount importance in literary translation. Since a translator is expected to render the author’s individual style, he has to start by defining the characteristic features of this style. At the same time, as the great English actress Ellen Terry once said, “There is all the difference in the world between departure from recognised rules by one who has learned to obey them, and neglect of them through want of training or want of skill or want of understanding. Before you can be eccentric you must know where the circle is”. The individual can only be perceived against the background of the common, therefore a thorough knowledge of the language background is required to identify and reproduce the idiosyncrasies of particular authors.

If one fails to take this into account and thoughtlessly copies formal elements of the original, one can end up presenting the most mediocre writer of trashy literature as a brilliant stylistic inventor by inadvertently ascribing to him the authorship of phrases and syntactical structures which are commonplace in the original language but sound fresh and unexpected for the readers of the translation.

Pevear, however, puts a premium on other things. “The main thing about translation is intuition,” he says in the interview in “Inostranets”. “At the end of the day, what really matters is the sense of the language, not linguistic skill”. How one develops a sense for a language in which one does not have a solid background, is not explained.

What’s more, when translating an author who worked over a hundred years ago, one is well advised to at least familiarize oneself with the specificities of the language of that period. Volokhonsky didn’t do a particularly good job helping her husband with this. The couple’s translations are replete with mistakes which give away a poor knowledge of the language spoken around the time the original books were written.

Mistakes of this kind can even be found in their translation of “The Master and Margarita” – the most modern of the books translated by P/V. For example:

” – Vot etikh by vrunov, kotorye rasprostranyayut gadkie slukhi, (…) vot ikh by sledovalo razyasnit!”

Compare: Sharik’s threat in “The Heart of a Dog”: “A sovu my etu razyasnim…” Those who are familiar with the book will remember what Sharik eventually did to the owl.

We shall quote another passage from which the meaning of the verb “razyasnit” (in the colloquial speech of the time) will become even clearer:

"In 476, the Roman Senate completely acknowledged the fall of the Roman Empire, or, in modern terms, “razyasnil” the Roman Empire". (Osip Dymov, “Universal History Edited by ‘Satyricon’”, 1911)

Without further ado, here is how P/V translated the abovementioned phrase from “The Master and Margarita”: “‘It’s the liars that spread these vile rumours (...) they’re the ones that ought to be explained!’” This obviously dispenses with the sinister undertone of the word “razyasnit” and the funny side of the colloquial usage. (The best solution here would perhaps be the expression “to sort something/someone out”, which combines the meanings “to set a matter straight, make something clear” and “to punish someone by attacking him”.)

A passage from Gogol’s “The Overcoat” is worth quoting as well:

“Teper uzhe vsyaky chastny chelovek schitayet v litse svoyom oskorblyonnym vsyo obshchestvo. Govoryat, vesma nedavno postupila prosba ot odnogo kapitan-ispravnika, ne pomnyu kakogo-to goroda, v kotoroi on izlagayet yasno, chto gibnut gosudarstvennye postanovleniya i chto svyashchennoye imya yego proiznositsya reshitelno vsuye. A v dokazatelstvo prilozhil k prosbe preogromneishy tom kakogo-to romanticheskogo sochineniya, gde cherez kazhdye desyat stranits yavlyayetsya kapitan-ispravnik, mestami dazhe sovershenno v pyanom vide”.

In P/V’s translation: “Nowadays every private individual considers the whole of the society insulted in his person. They say a petition came quite recently from some police chief, I don’t remember of what town, in which he states clearly that the government’s decrees are perishing and his own sacred name is decidedly being taken in vain. And as proof he attached to his petition a most enormous tome of some novelistic work in which a police chief appears on every tenth page, in some places even in a totally drunken state”.

Just as a short-story writer in P/V’s “The Master and Margarita” was turned into a “novelist”, a “romantic work” here became a “novel”. The mistake is all the more unfortunate because Gogol didn’t mean a genre or a general mood but was referring specifically to the literary movement, which, at the time when “The Overcoat” was written, was already in its last stages. In fact, in the beginning of his career, Gogol’s contemporaries regarded him as a member of that movement, comparing him to Hoffmann.

The translation of “gosudarstvennye postanovleniya” as “government’s decrees” is an even more telling mistake. P/V weren’t aware that the word “postanovlenie”, according to the Dal dictionary, used to carry not only the modern meaning of “law, decree”, but also meant, “state of affairs, order”.

  • Konechno, unichtozhenie chinov (po krainei mere grazhdanskikh) predstavlyayet velikie vygody; no siya mera vlechet za soboyu i besporyadki beschislennye, kak i voobshche vsyakoye izmenenie postanovleny, osvyashchennykh vremenem i privychkoyu. (Alexander Pushkin, “On People’s Education”, 1826)
  • Tserkov ne oblekala kharakterom tserkovnosti mirskikh ustroistv, podobnykh rytsarsko-monasheskim ordenam, inkvizitsionnym sudilishcham i drugim svetsko-dukhovnym postanovleniyam Zapada (Ivan Kireyevsky, “On the Nature of European Enlightenment And On Its Relation to Russian Enlightenment”, 1852)
  • – Nu, a kak naschet drugikh, v lyudskom bytu prinyatylh postanovleny, vy priderzhivayetes takogo zhe otritsatelnogo napravleniya? (Ivan Turgenev, “Fathers And Sons”, 1862)

What Pushkin, Kireyevsky and Turgenev referred to was obviously not governmental decrees, and P/V’s predecessors understood the meaning of Gogol’s tricky expression much better than the proponents of the “intuitive” approach. Isabel F. Hapgood rendered it as “all the imperial institutions were going to the dogs”, while Gordon McDougall gave “all the state’s institutions were going to the dogs”.

In P/V’s translation of this passage, we are struck not only by Volokhonsky’s poor knowledge of the language of the era in which the text was written, but by Pevear’s seeming inability to look at his translation through the eyes of an English-speaking reader. The turns of phrase “insulted in his person”, “of what town”, “decidedly taken in vain”, “a most enormous tome”, “even in a drunken state” do not only fail to meet the standards of normative English, they are simply unintelligible. The phrase in which Pevear breaks the rules governing the sequence of tenses (“a petition came…in which he states”) looks far too modern. Gogol’s sly naivete is ruined by clumsy syntactical calques, and the unexpected “denouement” – “dazhe v sovershenno pyanom vide” (now there’s a true cause for complaint!) doesn’t have a tenth of the comic effect in translation, with which the author invested it. [8]

If we were to continue listing similar misunderstandings/missteps, we would produce a “most enormous” tome to rival in size the couple’s prizewinning “Anna Karenina”. These are not separate imperfections, about which we could say, “Nobody’s perfect. It could happen to the best of us.” Unfortunately, we are looking at a pattern of mistakes, arising from an unsystematic method of translation.

At the same time, P/V can’t be accused of entirely ignoring the language of the era from which they are translating. Their attention, however, focuses only on English vocabulary. Pevear emphasizes that they include only those words which were in use at the time the text they are translating was written (the translators rely upon the Oxford English Dictionary to make their determinations). They are no Sidney Monas, who, in his translation of “Crime and Punishment”, uses the too-modern “pal”, instead of the phrase more closely related to Dostoyevsky’s time, “old boy”. Remnick: “ ‘We won’t do that,’ Pevear said, making a face of a child who has inadvertently eaten a Brussels sprout”.

To clarify: one of the earliest recorded appearances of the world “pal” (in the meaning “a comrade, mate, partner, associate, ‘chum’”) was in 1681, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It can be found a couple of times in “Oliver Twist”.

The expression “fifty-fifty”, on the other hand, which P/V use in their translation of “The Idiot” (“Ya beru polovinu na polovinu” – “I’m considering a fifty-fifty proposition”), only appeared in the beginning of the 20th century (the phrase was first recorded in 1913, according to the dictionary).

Not to mention this remark by the main character of “The Overcoat”: “I’ve come to you, Petrovich, sort of…” (“A ya vot k tebye, Petrovich, togo…”). Although it consists of words that were undoubtedly in circulation in Gogol’s time, in this combination they sound far too modern, as if the author’s clerk had been transformed into a stammering American teenager.

It’s too bad that intuition failed to clue P/V in to how modern readers would perceive the word combination “insulted and fantastic woman” (“oskorblyonnaya i fantasticheskaya zhenshchina”, as Nastasya Filippovna, one of the main characters in “The Idiot”, is described). What “fantastic woman” means to English speakers is clearly different from what Dostoyevsky implied.

However odd P/V’s translations may be, though, – with their haphazard mixture of English idioms and literalism, the confusion of the individual with the common, and the lack of proper understanding of period styles – they can all be accounted for if we take into consideration another aspect of Pevear’s translation agenda. In spite of his self-professed faithfulness to original texts, he admits that translation is not his only goal:

“I began as a writer, as a poet, not as a translator, so I started with that set of problems. It seemed to me that English prose had become textureless, flavorless, flat, naive, a kind of dull first person. ‘I woke up. I saw the window. I felt very bad. The sun was rising over the hills.’ Now Dostoevsky writes often in the first person, but there’s a richness of texture and idea and voice. So one subliminal idea I started out with as a translator was to help energize English itself.”

The above quote was from Remnick’s article in “The New Yorker”. From the interview in “Inostranets”, it's clear that this idea moved from subliminal to conscious:

I hope that my work is useful to Americans. I hope that our translations to some extent enrich their culture and their relationship to the possibilities of language. After all, the majority of American authors write in a very primitive style: “Hi, Jack, how are you?” “Not bad, let’s go have breakfast,” he said. “Let’s go,” I said. That kind of style. I’m trying to show that there are more complex and rich possibilities. And Dostoyevsky is just that kind of writer. To translate him means to enrich the English language.

As we all know, a literary translator mediates between the author and the readers. In this capacity, he is naturally expected to portray the author the way the latter would like to appear before readers, no matter what language they speak. If the translator has an additional agenda, a sense of professional duty should at least move him to warn the readers of his intentions. Even better, he should keep away from translation altogether if he must engage in self-expression, so that his fits of creativeness do not distract the reader from getting to know the original author. Yes, it is not infrequent that a translation makes an impact on literary tradition. Hemingway’s style, for instance, which was recreated in Russian by Kashkin and his disciples, had a significant effect on the Soviet prose of the 1960s. What’s important, however, is that the “Kashkinians” didn’t have this objective in mind. All they wanted to do was to honestly fulfill their professional duties, but the result was so convincing, organic and relevant that it simply could not pass unnoticed. Kashkin wrote a good deal on Hemingway’s style (which, incidentally, he didn’t judge from hearsay), but on no occasion did he state his desire to “enrich” the vocabulary of Russian prose. [9]

What we haven’t considered yet is the origin of P/V’s wide fame. Here is our attempt at an explanation.

The stylistic tradition in the translation of Russian literature into English took shape in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. This tradition was almost single-handedly established by the English translator Constance Garnett, who translated a total of 70 volumes of Russian literature, including the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Turgenev, Chekhov, Ostrovsky and Gorky. Those were sound, potent and mainly accurate translations which triggered immense interest in Russian literature in the English-speaking world. They went on to become the stylistic benchmark for those who translated Russian literary works after Garnett.

As time went by, literature changed and so did the translation norm. The stylistic inventiveness of English-speaking authors opened up new opportunities for English-speaking translators. Under new circumstances, translating Dostoyevsky the way Garnett did meant smoothing him out in the Victorian fashion. Garnett came under criticism for her cautious avoidance of Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s irregularities and of the clumsy uneducated speech of Chekhov’s characters. The famous line from Chekhov’s “Wedding” – “Oni khochut svoyu obrazovannost pokazat i vsyo vremya govoryat o neponyatnom” – was rendered by Garnett as “He wants to show off his learning, and always talks of things no one can understand”.

This is smooth writing indeed, but it was born out of necessity. Garnett had a very good idea of which individual traits of particular authors should be reproduced in translation. In his unpublished memoirs, her son David says the following: “About Dostoyevsky’s style, however, she said that one of her greatest difficulties in translating him was to make the English as vague, imprecise in meaning and rambling as the original. She was always having to stop herself from giving way to the temptation of putting what he was trying to say more clearly than he had succeeded in doing”.[10] Garnett, however, was bound by the translation norm of her time, but, given those limitations, her achievements are undisputable.

It was Garnett’s glossed-over style that began to catch the eye of her later readers. It contributed to her image as a blue-stocking, a well-bred Victorian lady who, for some reason, had decided to translate Tolstoy instead of perfecting her needlework skills. This is the image of Garnett presented in Remnick’s article. Vladimir Nabokov was one of the later translators to voice his (sometimes uncensored) critiques of the quality of her translations:“…I can do nothing with Constance Garnett’s dry shit,” “I am concerned with diamonds, not garnets”.

This all calls to mind Pushkin’s response to an unflattering review of Zhukovsky’s work in the journal “North Star”. The younger poet wrote in defense: “Why should we bite the breast of the mother who fed us? Just because our teeth have grown? (…) Oh! Some kind of literary republic this is. Why does it punish some and crown others?” Respectable literary circles would prefer to forget Nabokov’s violent attacks on Boris Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare (“vulgar, inept and full of howlers as any of the versions of Tosltoyevsky concocted by Victorian hacks… his vulgar and illiterate Hamlet…"). [11] But Nabokov’s runs at Garnett, one of those “Victorian hacks”, are quoted with relish.

Modern critics of Garnett don’t see the difference between her method of translation and the style of the era. Those who reproach her for her archaic style lose sight of the fact that Garnett mostly translated her contemporaries, which means that the language of her translations is dated almost to the same extent as the language of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Chekhov. Therefore, if authenticity is our decisive criterion in evaluating a translation, we’ll have to agree that Garnett’s language, for all its smoothness, is far more faithful to the original than the language of modern “remakes”.

The translation methods Garnett used are, of course, a different story. Translation methods have indeed become more daring and sophisticated and allow translators to transmit authors’ “uniqueness” with greater accuracy. But the ways to achieve this accuracy are by no means limited to violations of language norms or indiscriminate copying of the formal devices of the original. Modern translators might, for example, have taken the liberty of rendering Tolstoy’s “obrazuyetsya” with something like “things’ll righten up”, which sounds similarly clumsy and uneducated, yet makes sense and is suitably unusual.

To summarize, many modern readers are dissatisfied with Garnett’s translations due to her naturally dated language and her adherence to the translation methods of her time, glossing over irregularities of the originals. Since a submersion in the style of an earlier era requires certain efforts on the part of modern readers, and because most people have not had much occasion to analyze the results of different methods of translation, these two reasons for reader dissatisfaction become confused.

And all of a sudden, new translations appear which are heralded as “absolutely faithful”, “true to the verbal inventiveness of Dostoyevsky”. Translations that do not resemble a single previously-published translation of the authors in question. So these are the real Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy! They turned out to be pretty strange guys: “to drink up one’s trousers”, “sit there stiller than water, lower than grass”.

Garnett’s interpretation of Russian literature seems lacking to many modern readers, the way of life inaccurately represented and the speech of characters too stiff and formal. But in exchanging her work for that of Pevear and Volokhonsky, readers get a more eclectic, but not more accurate version.

The translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have certainly been successful, as is evidenced by the songs of praise of their multitude of reviewers, but to name a single one of their translations a success, a genuine achievement, is simply not possible.

(This article was first published in the Russian translation journal "Mosty” ¹ 1 (9), 2006; English translation by S. Gombert and D. Buzadzhi)


[1] Robert Wechsler, Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation (Catbird Press, North Haven, CT, 1998) p. 201-202

[2] The following quote from Chekhov’s “Three Years” serves as evidence that, at least in the eyes of his contemporaries, Tolstoy was the inventor of this expression: “Eto, ya dumayu, samo soboi uladitsa ili, kak govorit lakei u Tolstogo, obrazuyetsa”.

[3] A woman agreeable in every respect expressed herself in the same manner in P/V’s “Dead Souls”: “Now that’s just: I declare!” (“Nu uzh eto prosto: priznayus!”)

[4] I.A. Kashkin, “Dlya Chitatelya-sovremennika” (For the Reader and Contemporary) – Moscow, Sovetsky Pisatel, 1977

[5] “Pamyatniki srednevekovoi latinskoi literatury IV-VII vekov” (Monuments of Medieval Latin Literature of the 4th-7th centuries) – Moscow, Naslediye, 1998, p. 107 - 108

[6] Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, Journals. 1973-1983, Moscow, Russky Put, 2005, p.87

[7] L.K. Latyshev, “Perevod: Problemy teorii, praktiki i metodiki prepodavaniya” (Translation: Theory, Practice and Teaching Methods) – Moscow, Prosveshcheniye, 1998, p.89

[8] Edmund Wilson had a much better feel for Gogol’s frequent “dazhe”. In a letter to Nabokov, Wilson wrote, “ I don’t think that “dazhe” exactly means even in Gogol, but, as we should say, in fact, or as a matter of fact” (The Nabokov-Wilson Letters. Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. 1940-1971 – Harper & Row, N.Y., 1979, p. 115). In the cited passage, the comic effect is produced in large part by that “dazhe”. To paraphrase Wilson, we would venture that in this case, “dazhe” means “to top it all off” or “on top of everything” rather than “even”.

[9] Speaking of Hemingway – in his conversation with Remnick, Pevear, in passing, makes a great discovery in literary theory: “Hemingway read Garnett’s Dostoyevsky and he said it influenced him. But Hemingway was just as influenced by Constance Garnett as he was by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Garnett breaks things into simple sentences, she Hemingwayizes Dostoyevsky, if you see what I mean.” Who would have thought that Hemingway’s “telegraph style” was inspired by the translations of Constance Garnett! Yes, she cut Dostoevsky’s long sentences, but this is only noticeable when one is comparing the original with the translation. Next to the choppy sentences of Hemingway, Garnett’s look positively lengthy. Can it be that Hemingway was able to read the Russian original and feel the difference? After such revelations, it’s no longer a surprise to find out that Pevear sees some similarities between the styles, especially syntax, of Dostoevsky and Alexander Dumas. Pevear noticed this connection while translating “The Three Musketeers”, which was, as he emphasizes, published when Dostoyevsky was just beginning his writing career.

[10] C.G.Heilbrun, The Garnett Family. The History of a Literary Family (The Macmillan Company, N.Y., 1961) p. 193.

[11] V.Nabokov, op.cit., p. 292, 470.