Almost exactly two years ago, I posted The Translation Wars, about the history of translations from Russian and in particular the latest darling of the publishing world, the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (or Volokhonskaya, as her name would normally be rendered). There I mentioned their forthcoming translation of War and Peace; it has now come forth, and the NY Times Reading Room blog has just finished a group reading of it, in the midst of which they paused for a discussion of The Art of Translation. I found it fascinating, and I think anyone who enjoyed the discussion in my previous post and its thread will feel the same. Sam Tanenhaus, the moderator, raves a bit about P&V and then says “I’m curious to know what others think, and to know what passages have impressed them — for ill as well as good. Does anyone in the group dislike this new translation — or find others superior?” I don’t think he was prepared for what he got.
The first responder says “Garnett keeps the flow of the sentence and the work going more smoothly so I am not tripping over this or that detail… With this current translation I feel an awkward stumbling that I sense doesn’t have to be.” The second says he loves the novel: “As far as comparisons between translations, I can tell you that my well-worn copy is a paperback version of the Signet Classics translation by Ann Dunnigan, and without laying the passages side by side, there’s nothing really in the Pevear/Vokhonsky translation that seems to me an improvement over the Dunnigan translation.” The third had the same reaction: “Frankly, I did not see enough of an improvement to justify buying the new book. I was all set to buy it after reading so much about how it would now be the definitive translation, but after the comparison test I decided to reread the Maude.” The fourth: “Both are good, but on the whole I find the PV a little clunky, and the Briggs more fun to read.” The fifth concurs: “I think the new translation is fine but I don’t find it all that different from earlier translations I’ve read, in particular by the Maudes and by Ann Dunnigan.”
All of this made me very happy—first, that so many people are going to the trouble of comparing translations, and second, that they’re refusing to jump on the P&V bandwagon, even when unsubtly prodded to do so by the moderator. Consensus so far (from non-Russian-speakers): meh, it’s OK but no big improvement, I’ll stick with my previous favorite. This is an admirable slap in the face to the marketer’s THE NEW THING IS THE GREATEST EVER! YOU MUST HAVE IT!!
But then Pevear himself comes along and provides a long defense of his own translation (listen up, you peons, I’ll explain to you why mine really is as superior as the pull-quotes say). This struck me as unfair; the moderator’s already got his thumb on the scales, why should Pevear get to bully people too? But one respondent says “Shockingly, Richard Pevear believes that Richard Pevear was right in each of his choices,” and another agrees that P&V are “stilted, unnatural and stiff” and says he does not believe that Pevear has dealt with that accusation. Then Michael Katz, Professor of Russian Studies at Middlebury, says he doesn’t agree with Pevear about the importance of Tolstoy’s use of “transparent,” Timothy D. Sergay says he is one of the “Russian-English translators and literary scholars with proficiency in both languages… who object in principle to the general method the team employs and the results it produces,” and Dmitry Buzadzhi and Sara Gombert weigh in with a detailed criticism of P&V for making “that which is ordinary and unmarked in the original stand out in translation.” Pevear returns with a huffy and defensive response (“the rumors of my ignorance of Russian are somewhat exaggerated”), whereupon Sergay rather too politely backs down. It’s all great fun, but I regret to report that Mr. Tanenhaus couldn’t tolerate it; in his outraged response, he says “O.K, gang. No more Mr. Nice Guy Moderator. Today, the gloves come off, which is to say: In re this translation, many of you are — how to put this? — off your rockers. The translators don’t need me to defend them — and, as it happens, Richard Pevear has posted his own response. But here’s the opinion (from the November 22 issue of The New York Review of Books) of Orlando Figes, the eminent historian of Russia…” There follows a quote from Figes’s adulatory review and a long rehash of the P&V talking points (Tolstoy isn’t “smooth,” yada yada). Whassamatta, Sam, can’t take a little dissent? If the almighty Times puts its imprimatur on a translation, the rest of us should bow down and worship? If you don’t read Russian (and I think you don’t), you don’t really have any business pronouncing on the superiority of P&V; you’re simply taking Pevear’s word for it and trying to enforce conformity.


  1. Wow. It’s always … something … when people make clear that the only reason they started a given “discussion” is that they expected everyone to agree with them.

  2. It’s true all over the place these days. Stay inside the paradigm, folks.

  3. Cool! It appears, there’s almost as much heated discussion in the Russian-English translation realm, as it is in the English-Russian one.

  4. Really interesting. I liked the translation of War & Peace I read (should check who did it when I get home) enough that I don’t feel any major impetus to buy a new translation. Ellen was just saying the other night that she’d like to read it.

  5. It seems strange, anyway, to invite people who don’t know the original language to compare translations. I might like one text better than another. Suppose I then get a grammar and dictionary and tackle the language and find out that the text I liked is nothing like what the author wrote. Am I really going to dig in my heels and insist that it’s a better translation?

  6. Well… I think a fluent reader of English who does not speak Russian is competent to do some comparisons between two translations of a Russian work. I do not speak Turkish; but I have said I think Maureen Freely’s translations of Pamuk are better than Erdağ Göknar’s, and I stand by that — the infelicities in Göknar’s translations are very minor but you do occasionally notice them, whereas Freely’s sentences read as if they were written originally in English. I think that fluency is a positive attribute of a translation which I don’t need the original to get — I’m fairly certain that Pamuk’s texts read fluently, as if they were written in Turkish.

  7. (I should note that is based only on two books translated by Freely and one by Göknar. A lot of sentences in total though.)

  8. I haven’t read that translation, but from the excerpted passage I already dislike it. For instance:

    But on the road, on the high road along which the troops were marching, there was not that coolness even at night and in the woods

    is a translation of

    Но по дороге, по большой дороге, по которой шли войска, даже и ночью, даже и по лесам, не было этой прохлады.

    The original seems a little bit clumsy, until you realize that it’s arranged, as they used to say, “periodically”–that is, with attention to a particular rhythm. The marching of the sentence, and the passage itself, is meant to replicate the weariness and enervation of the marching troops. The translation puts the coolness that resolves the sentence right in the middle, which wrecks the rhythm completely.
    And this quote from Richard Pevear:

    Terms like “gorgeous,” “sonorous,” and “lovely” simply have no relevance to Tolstoy’s work

    suggests that such a man ought not to be trusted with a work as beautiful as War and Peace.

  9. That sentence struck me too; how can a translator ignore Tolstoy’s sentence rhythm? It has to go “even at night, even in the woods, there was not that coolness.”

  10. Somewhat off-topic, but have you seen It’s got the complete text of each edition of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, first in the original French and then with up to five different English translations for each poem.
    My French is awful-to-nonexistent, but I find that by reading multiple good-faith English translations side-by-side, I can manage to carve out some negative space where the nuances of the original might peek through.
    I stumbled across this the other day while following a train of links, and thought you might find it interesting.
    (NB: Some of the 3rd-party links may not be SFW. It is Baudelaire, after all.)

  11. another case of pevear: when asked to criticize his translation of ‘the great gatsby,’ murakami said, “there are 5 or 6 translations of gatsby, but mine is the best one.”

  12. I remember seeing a translation of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” into German that had rendered the first sentence (“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England”) into something ending “daß England ist für immer”. Why on earth? The whole thing is a rising melodic line, and “England” is its climax. Is there something grossly wrong about “daß ist für immer England”? There can hardly be, because the flatfooted rendering “Wenn ich sterben sollte, denken Sie nur dieses an mich: / Daß es irgendeine Ecke eines fremden Feldes gibt / Das ist für immer England” that I just found on line at least gets that part right, at the expense of (to my ear) anything else.

  13. John Cowan says:

    If Pevear were “a wiser he and sobra” (Ogden Nash) he would fall afoul of Quine’s Paradox. But he’s committed to the proposition that he’s always right.

  14. As you probably know, Anonymous’s definition of knowledge at the end of that eight year old post was recognized as problematic thirty years before then.

  15. Anonymous’s definition of knowledge … was recognized as problematic

    Problematic ? Useless. Here is what Anon wrote:

    My belief that P counts as knowledge that P iff:

    1. P
    2. I believe that P
    3. If 1, then 2
    4. If not 1, then not 2

    4 is the contrapositive of “if 2 then 1″. So 3 and 4 together are sneakily equivalent to “1 iff 2″. The whole caboodle 1-4 amounts to: “I believe that P exactly when P”.

    Anon is thus claiming that knowledge consists only of beliefs that actual states of affairs are actual states of affairs. Well, fancy that ! This gives us no clue as to how to identify states of affairs as “actual”. It merely says that we know what we know.

  16. Or rather that we know1 what we know2.

  17. Well, yes, but the shape of the definition, with the addition of clause 4, looks a lot like attempts to avoid the Gettier problem, but which are in fact still vulnerable.

  18. John Cowan says:

    Alas, I have no JSTOR access now, but Anon’s version looks like a broken restatement of a standard four-clause definition of knowledge:

    X knows p iff

    1) X believes p (belief);

    2) p is true (true belief);

    3) If p were not true, X would not believe it (justified true belief);

    4) If p were true, X would believe it (justified true belief such that the justification supports the belief, which evades the Gettier counterexamples).

    The subjunctive moods in #3 and #4 are critical to the meaning, and that’s the part that Anon misplaced somewhere.

    My own view is pretty much that of Peirce, and in a way Quine: knowledge, like meaning and proof, are simply concepts that don’t meet scientific standards of precision and clarity. “Their drift was clear enough”, as Lytton Strachey said about the Thirty-Nine Articles, “and nobody bothered about their exact meaning.” Would that matters had remained so!

  19. My own view is pretty much that of Peirce, and in a way Quine: knowledge, like meaning and proof, are simply concepts that don’t meet scientific standards of precision and clarity.

    That’s also my view, in a way. I also hold that precision and clarity, though not scientific concepts, are yet earnestly to be desired. I fail to find them in the earnest discussions of the “Gettier problem” that I have read.

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