Janet Malcolm vs. P&V.

I usually add new issues of the NYRB to the large pile on the shelf to my left and let them ripen as I continue reading issues from last summer, but an e-mail from LH reader Rick alerted me to the lead piece in the latest (June 23) issue, Janet Malcolm’s evisceration of my least-favorite world-conquering translating team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As readers (like Rick) who know my feelings about the ubiquitous P&V will guess, I was thrilled by Malcolm’s piece. Mind you, it’s over the top; P&V’s translations aren’t as bad as she makes out [I may be bending over backwards here, as Anatoly thinks — see Update below], and her (laudable) fondness for Constance Garnett leads her to lash out at Marian Schwartz as well, and Schwartz, one of the best living translators of Russian, certainly doesn’t deserve it (though the bit Malcolm quotes is indeed a blunder). But in a culture war, as in any other war, one must occasionally go over the top, and this stuff is glorious — after recalling the halcyon days when everyone read Garnett, she continues:

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.”

She quotes other people appalled by the new rulers of the roost (Anna Shapiro on the P&V Anna Karenina: “It leaves such a bad taste; it’s so wrong, and so oddly wrong, turning nourishment into wood”) and provides several passages translated by Garnett and P&V, with acerbic commentary; read the whole thing, and then read the excellent discussion at XIX век, where Erik McDonald is more bothered than I am by Malcolm’s unfairness to P&V (though we are equally bothered by her unfairness to Schwartz) and there are good comments by kaggsy (“I’m happy with archaisms, I don’t want a book that old brought ‘up to date’”), Alex K. (“‘Образуется’ was not a neologism Tolstoy thought up. The word itself was legit”), Julia (who is “not a fan of Pevear/Volokhonsky” but finds the article “too harsh and narrow”), and especially Russian Dinosaur, whose long comment I won’t try to summarize.

Unrelated, but I have to pass along the news that the Paris Review‘s series of video interviews with authors talking about their first book, and the latest is Helen DeWitt on The Last Samurai! (On behalf of my profession, I would like to apologize for the copyeditor who defiled the proofs of her brilliant book. We’re not all like that, I swear.)

Update. Anatoly Vorobey has posted (in Russian) about the Malcolm piece and the reaction to it, and has some very interesting things to say. He starts out by savaging P&V, calling them “ужасные переводчики, уродующие каждый текст, которого касаются” [awful translators, mutilating every text they touch], which pleased me; then he turns to the specific example of Tolstoy’s “образуется,” and his long discussion is well worth reading if you know Russian. In brief, he says that as far as he can tell this sense “it’ll work out, it’ll be all right” was introduced by Tolstoy to the literary language and was not (as some XIX век commenters claimed) already common, though it may have been used dialectically, and therefore the various published translations “she’ll come round,” “it’ll work out,” and “things will shape up” are inadequate (because not innovative). He dislikes Schwartz’s “it’ll shapify” not because it’s (in Malcolm’s word) “weird,” but because the learned suffix –ify is implausible in the mouth of the peasant Matvei. Anatoly proposes “it’ll set down,” which seems satisfactory to me.


  1. From one of Tolkien’s letters:

    “Jarrold’s appear to have a highly educated pedant as a chief proof-reader, and they started correcting my English [in The Fellowship of the Ring] with no reference to me: elfin for elven; farther for further; try to say for try and say and so on. I was put to the trouble of proving to him his own ignorance, as well as rebuking his impertinence.”

    And then on to nasturtians.

  2. David L says:

    Well, this presents a conundrum. Some time ago, a friend gave me the P&V version of W&P as a Christmas present, and it’s been looming at me ever since. I read the Penguin Classics version years ago (Garnett, I’m sure), but young and callow as I was at the time I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate it.

    So should I tackle P&V, or should I spend $0.99 and get the Garnett version on my Kindle? It will go on my reading schedule the winter after next, if all goes well.

  3. I’ll give you the same advice I give everyone about translations: read a bit of each and see what appeals more to you, what makes you want to keep reading. It’s irrelevant which is theoretically “better”; what’s important is what works for you. (If you like the novel enough, you might wind up reading both!)

  4. Also, you don’t need to pay 99 cents, you can download it free here.

  5. David L says:


    Once or twice or I’ve had problems with free downloads from Gutenberg — strange formatting and page breaks, that sort of thing. Free is nice but 99 cents for a tidier looking version fits in my budget too.

  6. When I download free stuff to my friend’s Kindle, I get the PDF and tell her to turn the Kindle sideways (landscape). Works great: you get full width and about 1/3 of a page in height.

  7. john burke says:

    If David L. is about my age, he may be remembering the Penguin Classics editions of Russian literature translated by David Magarshack, a few of which which I read around 1960. I’ve read some of the back-and-forth about P&V (whose versions I haven’t read) and about Garnett, whose versions I remember as impossibly archaic in style, though I was very, very young at the time–the expostulation “Only fancy!” echoes faintly in my memory–but no one ever seems to mention Magarshack. Is he not well thought of? If so, why? I’m totally unequipped to judge any translation from Russian as a translation, and I don’t remember enough of Magarshack at this distance to have an opinion one way or the other about how his work reads as English prose. I’d welcome guidance on this.

  8. I remember enjoying his translations in college (45 years ago…). I wrote about him and his name recently.

  9. Evan Hess says:

    Magarshack did the Penguin Karamazov, but War and Peace was translated by Rosemary Edmonds, who generally did Tolstoy for Penguin. My edition was in two volumes, with the cover of volume two illustrating the death of one of the main characters. I’ve never quite forgiven Penguin for that spoiler.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    the cover of volume two illustrating the death of one of the main characters

    *incoherent giggling*

  11. This is what my W&P looks like. Soviet editions for the non-spoilerrific win!

  12. My Penguin Classics version would have been from the mid 1970s. It disappeared long ago, but it was a single volume, and as best I recall the cover art was a picture of people in jolly 19th century military uniforms (and with extravagant facial hair) in the midst of battle, so not much of a spoiler there.

  13. Wait, you mean there’s war in War and Peace?

  14. David L says:

    In the English version, yes, but maybe that was an improvement by the translator.

  15. Frank T. McCarthy says:

    Janet Malcolm accepts the claim that the Russian translations of Pevear and Volokhonsky (PV) are “fake” and “Potemkin translations”. Both terms suggest that the translators have deceived their readers. But how she never explains. She compares several passages of Anna Karenina translated by Constance Garnett and then by PV. She prefers Garnett’s translation and sides with the “simple reader” who only wants a translation that “advances his pleasure and understanding”. She does not side with the “advanced” and perhaps “masochistic” reader who wants a translation like the original.

    Malcolm reads the Garnett translation with greater pleasure. No one can challenge her preference there. But consider a paragraph from Garnett’s Anna Karenina that she cites. It begins “After escaping her guests” which is how Garnett translated the Russian “проводив гостей”. PV translate the phrase as “After seeing her guests off” which is precise since the Russian verb “проводит” includes a particular meaning of leading someone to the door. It has no meaning associated with “escaping”. Escaping one’s guests is very different from leading them to the door. Garnett has injected an emotionally laden term for the neutral term that Tolstoy used. This is a small but not isolated example. It happens in almost every paragraph of Garnett’s Russian translations.

    Anyone reading a paragraph of Garnett’s Anna Karenina might find it more enjoyable than the PV version of the same. Garnett is a fine writer. But since Malcolm implies that Garnet’s translation also advances her “understanding” better than that of PV, she should explain how that works. Because the PV translation is consistently much closer to Tolstoy’s Russian than Garnett’s translation. That is why so many critics have praised the work of PV. The reader of the PV translation of Tolstoy gets a much more precise idea of what Tolstoy wrote than the reader of the Garnett translation. Perhaps the deception at work here is Malcolm’s. It is hard to miss the note of envy in her description of PV as “the rich and happy couple”. Why begrudge them anything? Was there ever a more unlikely path to riches than translating Russian literature?

  16. You’re being no fairer than Malcolm when she pillories Schwartz for a single howler. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to take your word for it that “It happens in almost every paragraph of Garnett’s Russian translations” or that “The reader of the PV translation of Tolstoy gets a much more precise idea of what Tolstoy wrote than the reader of the Garnett translation.” And your final remark is a very unlovely ad hominem.

  17. Rodger C says:

    It sounds like it may be the time to recall an exchange a few years ago, when I inquired about a distinction between “choice” and “desire” in Garnett’s translation of Notes from Underground–a very consistent logical distinction, not found in Michael Katz’s version–and Hat showed that Garnett had introduced it, it having no equivalent in the Russian. Whether her tactic was justified, I don’t venture to assert an opinion.

  18. That was in this 2011 thread.

  19. Frank T. McCarthy says:

    I have a challenge. Pick a paragraph of Constance Garnett’s translation of either War and Peace or Anna Karenina and cite the chapter from which it comes. To make it fair let it be a paragraph of at least eight lines. I think I can find in her translation of that paragraph a misreading of the Russian that is as conspicuous as the example I noted above. If I cannot, then I will concede the point.

  20. As languagehat has said, the best method is to sample a few translations and make up your own mind.

    I have two translations of “War and Peace” – the Anthony Briggs and the Pevear/Volokhonsky. I started on the Briggs and was enjoying it but I started to feel uneasy about the impending “Britishisms” – especially relating to the war scenes. I was dreading the Peter Jackson manoeuvre in his Lord of the Rings movies where we are introduced to a sea of cockney Orcs. So I started the P/V translation. I noted a comment that Tolstoy makes on the manner of Prince Vassily’s speech on the second page.

    Briggs has this: “….said the prince with the predictability of a wound up clock. Sheer habit made him say things he didn’t even mean.”

    Pevear/Volokhonsky: “….said the prince, uttering out of habit, like a wound up clock, things that he did not even wish people to believe.”

    What Briggs describes is instantly familiar – and is even humorously worded. The prince doesn’t mean what he says because he’s not even paying attention to what he says. He’s on “automatic pilot”.

    But with P/V, the prince is saying things he didn’t wish people to believe. What does that mean? If I say things that I DO wish people to believe then there is a suggestion of manipulation i.e. the implication that I myself DO NOT believe these things. Is Tolstoy implying that in social circles everyone is out to manipulate everyone else? Is he saying that, in this case, Prince Vassily has momentarily stopped this? But this idea of constant manipulation would surely make conversation impossible….

    ….and while trying to make sense of this I found myself going around in a huge circle and eventually coming back to the only interpretation that made sense i.e. that the P/V must mean what the Briggs actually says.

    Now I know that part of the point of P/V is to make you stop in your tracks and think things out. But that is only beneficial if it leads you to reconsider the text and dig out new meanings or old meanings that you hadn’t seen. To simply go round in a big circle and end up where you started is a total waste of time.

    And W&P is a huge book. And I really don’t want to have to stop every couple of pages to go round in that big circle. So I’m sticking with Briggs. Bring on the cockney Orcs!

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