LOURIE ON TRANSLATING RUSSIAN.

This came up in a comment thread a while back, but I just reread it and decided it was so good it deserved its own post: Richard Lourie, writing in the NY Times a couple of decades ago, reviewed several translations of Crime and Punishment, and it’s probably the best such thing I’ve seen in an American newspaper. He starts out with the astonishing information that the Dostoevsky book “strengthened my resolve to be a writer and inspired me to learn Russian so I could read the novel in the original. Finally, some 30 years later, in order to review these two new translations, I read it in Russian and was back in that world of dark staircases and ax murders.” A reviewer of Russian literature who reads Russian, and read a novel in Russian in order to review translations: be still my beating heart! And in reviewing David McDuff and the Pevear/Volokhonsky team, he favors the former but comes down on the side of the often, and unfairly, despised Constance Garnett, which gave me intense pleasure. Here are a few paragraphs to give you an idea, but the whole thing is well worth your while:

Later on, Raskolnikov is revolted by his crime, though more by its banality than its criminality. In one of those self-lacerating torrents of consciousness that are a Dostoyevsky specialty, Raskolnikov exclaims: “Oh, the vulgarity of it! Oh, the baseness!” — if we are to believe Mr. McDuff — or “Oh, triteness! Oh, meanness!” if we are to credit Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky. I cannot imagine a Russian murderer thinking: “Oh, triteness! Oh, meanness!” I cannot imagine anyone thinking it, for that matter. This sort of rendering betrays a lack of skill, ear and editor.
The word the translators have rendered as either “vulgarity” or “triteness” is “poshlost” in Russian, a word so rich that Vladimir Nabokov devoted 12 pages to it in his 155-page biography of Nikolai Gogol. In essence, “poshlost” denotes spiritual tackiness; it pains Raskolnikov more that he has proved to be mediocre, banal, even vulgar, than that he has taken life. Mr. McDuff’s “Oh, the vulgarity of it! Oh, the baseness!” is certainly better than the Pevear-Volokhonsky version, but the two “Ohs” and the word “baseness” lend the line too antique a coloration.
Oddly enough, Garnett, translating in an era when “Ohs,” one assumes, seemed less dated, chooses a different syntax entirely, one that is itself exclamation without first signaling that it is such. She says: “The vulgarity! The abjectness!” This also has the value of being concise. The other word Dostoyevsky used, engaging in a little alliteration, was “podlost,” a more common word than “abjectness” ever was. This is one instance in which the problem has yet to be excellently resolved.

Thanks go to Sashura for remembering and linking to it.

Comments

  1. Hmmm. I notice you chose a passage that would show Pevear/Volokhonsky in an unflattering light.

  2. Jeffry House says:

    I believe пошлость was the subject of a literary disagreement between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson as to its meaning. At the time I encountered it, I concluded that Wilson’s proclaimed abilities in Russian were greatly exaggerated.

  3. Hmmm. I notice you chose a passage that would show Pevear/Volokhonsky in an unflattering light.
    Whodathunkit?
    I believe пошлость was the subject of a literary disagreement between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson as to its meaning. At the time I encountered it, I concluded that Wilson’s proclaimed abilities in Russian were greatly exaggerated.
    I discussed poshlost here and here. I thought I had discussed Wilson’s abilities in Russian here, but it turns out I didn’t. He did read the language pretty well, but for him to claim he understood it better than one of the great masters of Russian literature (or even of any native speaker) betrays a self-regard so overweening I find it hard to fathom.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know the context, or the word in question, but Nabokov was not only a native speaker and master of Russian literature, but a master of English too. If he of all people could not think of a satisfactory translation of a Russian word into English, someone who seems to have had only a reading knowledge of Russian was unlikely to do better.

  5. Подлость from подлый, originally meaning “of the lowest classes” but mutating into “low,” “base” or “common” by the 19th century. So one is tempted to translate подлость as “commonness” or “villainy” but neither sounds right. I would suggest avoiding the nouns altogether and just putting it as “how base! how vulgar!” or something like that.

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