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.