Gessen on New Karenina Translations.

The latest NY Times Book Review features one of the best translation comparisons I’ve seen, Masha Gessen’s “Found in Translation.” She starts off analyzing in detail a scene in Anna Karenina in which Anna is watching her lover, Vronsky, watch her, and the ways in which four translations — by Constance Garnett, Pevear/Volokhonsky, Rosamund Bartlett, and Marian Schwartz — handle the word choices involved. Here’s a sample:

Surprisingly, all the translators ruled that the part of Anna’s anatomy that she believed repelled, repulsed, disgusted or offended Vronsky was her hand and not her arm, though the Russian word ruka can mean either. I happen to think Tolstoy is writing about the arm — one of those two full arms that were so beguilingly set off by the black gown Anna wore to the ball in Part 1, Chapter 22, when she and Vronsky fell in love. Now, in Part 7, Chapter 25, when Anna lifts her coffee cup, the full arm, the pinkie gesture and the noisy lips form a tragic triangle. On the subject of the lips, the two newer translations hew closer to the original Russian on the issue of the intentionality of the sound that Anna thinks annoys her lover: Tolstoy makes it clear that it is Anna making a sound with her lips, not her lips making an involuntary sound. Like the extended little finger, this is a habit that Vronsky may once have found charming — in fact, he may still, for, Anna’s jealousy and fears notwithstanding, he still loves her — but she thinks he no longer does.

Her native knowledge of Russian combines with her well-honed literary sensibilities to produce an essay which will give any reader interesting thoughts about the novel and about how translation works, not to mention useful tips about the four versions she compares. The whole thing is well worth your time. (Thanks, Eric!)

And a very happy new year to those of you who follow the Gregorian calendar; to anyone who is still using the pre-Petrine Russian Orthodox calendar, dated from the creation of the world in 5509 BC, I hope the year 7523 is going well for you!


  1. It’s a delicious essay, loved it. I’ve just reread the chapter, not sure if Gessen is absolutely right. It’s not that the word ruka can mean either, it’s that in the scene it can mean either. The set off little finger makes you think first of a hand, but if you take in the whole ‘morning after’ scene, with Vronsky ‘already dressed’ and Anna evidently still in peignoir, it is not hard to imagine that it was her arm.
    Vronsky starts obsessing about Anna’s hands and arms even before the ball scene. In Chapter XVIII, when they first meet. Anna embraces Steva with her arm and surprises Vronsky with her firm, energetic handshake.

    Still, her observation is thought provoking.

    Incidentally, I had a similar stumble, but in reverse, when reading Helen Dunmore’s ‘The Betrayal’. A doctor is telling a boy of ten, an aspiring football player, that his leg is cancerous and must be amputated from above the knee down.
    ‘But my foot is on that part’, the boy says. (p.93 in the Penguin hardback edition)
    The characters are both Russian, and backtranslating from English, I felt it unimaginable that the boy could grieve over the loss of his foot because in Russian you play football with noga (ногами) which means, or includes, both the foot and the leg. Same as ruka includes the hand and the arm.

    For the benefit of non-speakers of Russian, there are separate words for hand (kist’ – кисть) and foot (stopa – стопа) but ruka and noga are used more often and it’s usually clear what is meant from the context.

  2. Happy New Year!

  3. not sure if Gessen is absolutely right

    Well, she’s not either. One of the things I love about the essay is that she’s not laying down the law from some imagined position of omniscience, like so many reviewers, but suggesting alternatives and saying “This is what I think.”

    Still, her observation is thought provoking.

    Exactly! I’d rather somebody be interesting and thought-provoking than boringly correct.

  4. Here is one translator’s response to the Gessen review, which he calls “a subtle example of … the translation police at work”: Personally, I thought the Times piece was quite good, as far as reviews of translations go, but clearly it riled him up.

    By the way, I was given the Schwartz translation for Christmas, and one thing Gessen doesn’t mention is that it contains an introduction by the eminent Russianist Gary Saul Morson. You can read that introduction, Schwartz’s note, and the first 69 pages of her translation here.

  5. Wow, that Valentino piece is really resentful and paranoid. (One gets the impression he doesn’t want anyone criticizing translations at all.) An interesting read, though, so thanks for posting it.

    I love Morson (see my rave here), so I’m looking forward to reading his intro, which I’m saving as a reward for when I’ve done a little work.

  6. From the article:

    In this case, Bartlett, like Pevear and Volokhonsky before her, appears to be on the side of those who aim for idiomatic English

    I think I remember you once posted here an interview with P&V, where they espoused the exact opposite view, saying that the translation should have some jarring Russian-ness to it. I wonder whether they misrepresented their own views, or if they failed so badly that their attempt at Russian-ness sounds to this reviewer like idiomatic English, or maybe they have a different approach for translating Tolstoy vs Dostoevsky, or maybe they I just misremembered/misunderstood their comments, or [some other explanation]…

  7. An excellent question to which I do not have an answer. It may be that Gessen is not familiar with P&V’s expressed views and/or noticed the idiomatic bits more than the jarring ones (which may not have jarred her, since she is a native Russian speaker).

  8. There’s some talk in the article about how Tolstoy’s style appears, when viewed superficially, to be “rough”, “awkward”, “clumsy”, even “flawed”, and the question is, how should the translator deal with this. But I remember hearing quite similar remarks in discussions of translating Dostoevsky. It just seems curious to me that while we non-Russian speakers are assured that the styles of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are so different (e.g. “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”), the two styles are described in similar terms.

    And it also raises the question: who were the contemporaries of D and T who were writing in such a smooth, precise style that we can contrast to this rougher style?

  9. Pushkin, definitely.

    His writing, both prose and poems, is so perfect it that can’t be adequately translated by ordinary mortals. You need a super-genius translator.

    But most translations of Tolstoy are probably an improvement over the original.

    I’ve read somewhere that Japanese made a manga version of War and Peace. What a sensible idea!

  10. But most translations of Tolstoy are probably an improvement over the original.

    I’m sure this is super uncontroversial and no one here will disagree. 🙂

  11. Thanks for the link, very interesting discussion. By the way, here is the thread about the P&V interview I mentioned earlier.

  12. Pushkin was not D’s & T’s contemporary and his prose form is very different (he didn’t attempt to write a 1000 pages novels with 100s of characters). If my recollection from the distant past is not deceiving me, Turgenev was a much smoother novelist.

  13. Having read the introduction to the Schwartz translation Jamie Olson linked to above, I recommend it wholeheartedly — it’s brilliant on Tolstoy, the novel, and life in general. Thanks, Jamie!

  14. I’ve read somewhere that Japanese made a manga version of War and Peace. What a sensible idea!

    There’s a Japanese manga version of everything. Une Saison en Enfer? Sure. Politik als Beruf? You got it. À la recherche du temps perdu? I thought you’d never ask. A remix of Il Principe with Das Kapital? Why not?They fill the cultural role that Cliff’s Notes seem to in the US (or seemed to, before the coming of Wikipedia).


  1. […] to Jamie Olson of the Flaxen Wave for leading me to Valentino’s blog in the comments to this Languagehat post, and to all the […]

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