Born in Prague in 1960, André Markowicz spent the first four years of his life in Moscow. Brought up in France in a family of Russian intellectuals, he began translating under the guidance of the linguist Efim Etkind. Chekhov offered Markowicz an initial opportunity to translate prose, but it was with his translation of the complete works of Dostoyevsky for Actes Sud in the early 1990s that he first rose to prominence.
The interviewer’s introduction says: “By the time he finished the mammoth undertaking in 2002 he had proved something: what people had been reading by Dostoyevsky wasn’t Dostoyevsky. It wasn’t his style, there was nothing of his collision of linguistic registers, which had been smoothed out to obtain a language far too literary for an author whose strokes of the pen were like axe blows.” This illustrates a major difference between French tradition, which expects translations to read like French literature, and the Anglo-American tradition, which welcomes variety of style, including the kind of “low” register that is resisted in France. Some excerpts:
When you read the original text alongside the first translations (which came out almost immediately), you realize that you’re not looking at the same author. Dostoyevsky writes obsessively, there is a very striking use of repetition. The early translations took out those repetitions. On the other hand, he also makes up sentences which are not proper written Russian. That’s quite normal; in Russian, nobody tells you how to write properly. But the translators would construct sentences in proper written French. All the same, the ideas were still there. The issues which Dostoyevsky addresses are so crucial: responsibility, the relationship between God and the world, humanist values in modern society, good and evil, the nature of obsession. These are questions of philosophy, not style. So you can read a very bad translation of Dostoyevsky and still be gripped by reading him. The fact that Dostoyevsky’s works had already been translated meant that I was in the fortunate position of a writer putting forward his own vision of that output. I was lucky to be able to work on the style, using the ear that I had for the text in my native language. Now, in Dostoyevsky, as in any writer, style is sense. My translation was not so much a new reading as a way of clarifying a number of points, after a century of reading Dostoyevsky…
[. . .]
I was one of the first translators to become the focus of very personal discussion. What the readers of my generation were arguing about was not so much my translation, in the end, as the ones they’d grown up with. Was my own reading right? At any rate, I can certainly account for it. But the way I translate, not respecting the canonical norms for French literature because the author is Russian, well, that of course upsets those readers who only see foreign literature through the lens of French literature. But it seems to me that we should be able to go beyond this difficulty. For me this is extremely important. It is in this respect that translation is a political act. It is not simply a question of turning what is foreign into French, but of understanding that it should not be the same as we are. Translation should be a process of reception, not of assimilation.
There’s much more of interest, including an illuminating discussion of Shakespeare towards the end. And I like his modesty: “People quoted me as saying that I was restoring the true face of Dostoyevsky. I never claimed to be doing so much. The earlier translations were clearly inaccurate in terms of style, but they did give a certain face to Dostoyevsky. Mine gave him a different one.” Next up, Pushkin: “‘I’ve taken thirty years to translate Eugene Onegin,’ he says. ‘It’s my whole life’.”