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.