Sara Wheeler on Constance Garnett.

Sara Wheeler writes for LitHub about Constance Garnett and other translators:

My first publication was a translation, not something I wrote myself. It was an essay in Greek about the poet C.P. Cavafy for a literary anthology of that kind of thing. Before taking up Modern Greek I had spent thousands of hours of my youth translating Homer for my studies—probably too many hours, when I should have been doing something else. I am not very good at written translation, and have a tremendous respect for those who carry it off. Having a smaller vocabulary than English, Russian in particular requires the translator to wrestle constantly with nuance. (Dusha, for example, means “soul,” and also “heart” in a figurative sense. The word appears more than a hundred times in War and Peace.)

The one I hold dear to my own dusha, as a woman, and as a translator, is Constance Garnett. Born in Brighton in 1861, Garnett translated 70 volumes from Russian, including all Dostoyevsky’s baggy monsters. She was an indefatigable worker who moved through the literary and political circles of a troubled time and emerged as a heroine, always on the side of the poor and oppressed, fighting in a man’s world. She was the opposite of a Little Englander, determined to see things from an international point of view.

Fair-haired, short-sighted, and in poor health all her life, Garnett had a pinched childhood. When she went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, as a scholar at 17, she had never before left Sussex. She read classics and math, both of which provided rigorous training in the art of translation and the expression of precise meanings. She began learning Russian just before she turned 30 when she fell in with a gang of fiery exiles. She lectured a little, taught, moved to London, and associated with the Fabians—a movement which she later joined, and later still left. She was friends with George Bernard Shaw, who claimed he would have liked to marry her had he been richer.

Garnett worked at the People’s Palace, a library designed to improve the education of working people in London’s East End. She married Edward Garnett, a publisher’s reader and would-be novelist who started a newspaper for cats (motto “Cave Canem”) which included a food column. His family had always been sympathetic to political refugees, and the newlyweds embarked on married life with an altruistic sense of purpose. For her part Connie befriended many Russian Jews who had fled persecution after the assassination of Alexander II. The couple set up home in Surrey in a cottage where Constance once picked 27 quarts of blackberries in a day and found a mouse preserved in a jar of treacle.

We talked about Garnett’s life back in 2014, but this account has more details (and more piquant ones — that newspaper for cats!), and there’s a nice slap at Nabokov, who “jumped in to damn her versions”:

But compare his translation of Gogol’s sleighbells in Dead Souls to Garnett’s. Chudnym zvonom zalivayetsya kolokolchik becomes:

Garnett: “The ringing of the bells melts into music.”

Nabokov: “The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy.”

Who, do you think, has the tin ear?

Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. A newspaper for cats! I would guess it failed because the cats would sit on it rather than read it.

  2. Twenty-seven quarts of blackberries may be fine for jam or pie, but I wouldn’t want to eat them fresh

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is interesting to see “little Englander” used as a sneering pejorative when in its original context it meant “someone who does *not* wish England to exercise imperial rule over as much of the globe as possible.” Dismissing the anti-imperialist as merely parochial or xenophobic (because conquest is the sign of the broad-minded cosmopolitan) is quite a rhetorical move.

  4. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jwb
    I am not sure that the original little Englanders were anti-imperialist as such; at least some of them were Liberals who wanted to apply their version of free-market capitalism to developing countries without expensive administration costs or other Government interference (apart from the odd warship to enforce compliance in business deals).

  5. The extract from the Mauds’ translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich is problematic in more ways than one. There’s no way to be sure the brocade was meant to be golden (silver or white is more likely), the wrong object get polished (it should be the cord), and it’s unclear why shubka should mean a fur cloak rather than a fur coat.

  6. I agree with Brewer, and quite a rhetorical move is not so hard when Little Englander has meant different things to successive generations. The opposite of a Little Englander, determined to see things from an international point of view is pretty wide of any mark here. Little England in the 19C wasn’t about international versus parochial.

    Rather than learning the protocols of apostrophe-S, eight or nine-year old English-speaking children should be reading Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.

    Plastic O’Paddy apart from the odd warship
    Gunboat diplomacy was Palmerston, the generation of Liberals before Gladstone or the Manchester free-trader (founders of the Guardian newspaper) Liberals. Palmerston sent gunboats anywhere, not just to the colonies, in the name of British interests.

  7. We’ve previously talked about how Garnett introduced into Notes from Underground a useful vocabulary distinction that doesn’t exist in the original.

  8. PlasticPaddy says:

    @ajp
    You are right about Gladstone, and I suppose it is unfair to blame him for not realising the negative impact of imposing an unfavorable free-trade regime on colonies before making them “independent” without addressing the way that their economies and institutions had been shaped by colonialism. When overriding interests (e.g., preserving the Union) were at stake, he was able to put aside some of his economic scruples.

  9. @PP: “My mission is to pacify Ireland.”

  10. @AJP Crown: “My mission is to pacify Ireland.”

    Mission impossible, then. Have a look at events on the Fermanagh-Cavan border recently: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/08/man-dies-police-raid-mcguinness-lunney-torture-case

    Relative pacification, sure. Great improvement, so it is.

  11. John Cowan says:

    I wonder if Little England is a calque of Kleindeutschland, which originally made no reference to colonies, just to Austria[*]. The OED is silent on this point, but defines Little Englander thus: ‘an opponent of an active international policy or role for England (in effect for Britain), originally (now historical) with regard to the British Empire; (now also) spec. an opponent of England’s (or Britain’s) active involvement in or membership of the European Union (or its predecessors)’. There is also an older definition ‘Barbadian’, which surprised me.

    [*] Although in NYC, Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, or Dutchtown in English (which is where I live now) was the German settlement (segregated by province) in what is now the East Village and the Lower East Side. This was before Jewish settlement, and of course long before the arrival of the currently dominant population, which is Puerto Rican and Dominican. The General Slocum disaster of 1904 (when my father was still a few months from his birth in Philadelphia), which killed more than 1000 people when a fire broke out on a ship that had neither working fire-suppression nor working life preservers (some of them were filled with lead!), pretty much put an end to the German character of the neighborhood.

  12. What… why would you put lead… in a life preserver?!

  13. PlasticPaddy says:
  14. Mission impossible, then.
    Opinions may have changed, but 50 years ago, when I went to school, Gladstone did everything like Home Rule right but just a little bit too late and then there was the car crash that was poor Parnell. Gladstone was Britain’s best old-Etonian PM, though I prefer Disraeli who didn’t go to school at all. He doesn’t get much press nowadays, Gladstone.

    I wonder if Little England is a calque of Kleindeutschland
    Another possibility is that they both got going in 1848. (I’ve got nothing to back it up, though.)

    the German settlement (segregated by province) in what is now the East Village and the Lower East Side. This was before Jewish settlement
    How does it compare with the area around East 72nd & 2nd Avenue, which was called something like Germantown when I lived in NY and still had bakeries etc. Was that a neighborhood of late-19C German Jewish immigration?

  15. John Cowan says:

    To save money at the expense of the passengers’ lives. After all, the manufacturer had no privity of contract with them. This was well before product liability was a thing. (Correction: it was iron, not lead.)

    In addition, even those life preservers that actually contained cork had not been replaced on schedule, and so the cork had rotted into cork dust with essentially no buoyancy. It’s a horrific tale with plenty of blame to go around, but only the captain was actually punished.

  16. I liked the evisceration of P&V – I don’t speak Russian so I can’t comment on their translations, but their English is invariably wooden and stilted. When on occasion friends have asked me which translation of this or that Russian novel they should read my answer is invariably “literally any of them but Pevear and Volokhonsky”.

    And Nabokov being a tedious prescriptivist bore also does not surprise me in the least as it shows up in every word and sentence of his work, like an overeager student trying to impress his teacher with furiously overwritten prose.

  17. John Cowan says:

    He doesn’t get much press nowadays, Gladstone.

    There’s that classic story of Gladstone resting upstairs while Mrs. G entertains guests who get into a heated political argument, until someone says “There’s One Upstairs who can resolve all our difficulties” and Mrs. G says “Yes, and he’ll be down soon”. There’s also the Queen saying he spoke to her as if she were a public meeting (though Disraeli said it was he who said that).

    How does it compare with the area around East 72nd & 2nd Avenue, which was called something like Germantown when I lived in NY and still had bakeries etc.

    Yorkville got started around 1880, but the disaster gave it a big boost as many Kleindeutschlanders moved uptown. By the 1930s most Germans were in the boroughs or the burbs, though. The area was a target for all kinds of political and economic refugees from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Jews, and a stretch of it is now called Little Hungary. Nowadays it’s white, rich, and safe.

    There remains in the heart of the East Village the small but beautiful Ottendorfer Library (a landmark building, including the interior). It’s the oldest public library in NYC still functioning as such; it merged with NYPL in 1901. When it opened in 1884, half the books and most of the staff were German. Across the top of the main entrance is a terra-cotta plaque reading “FREIE BIBLIOTHEK u. LESEHALLE”.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    If that’s “free” as in “beer”, it’s calqued from English; “free” as in “speech” wouldn’t make much sense…

  19. Wikt.en says: “Frei can mean ‘free of charge’ only in the context of public services, e.g. freie Krankenversorgung ‘free medical care’ and in some fixed expressions such as Freibier ‘free beer’ [!] or freie Kost und Logis ‘free board and lodg[ing]’. Otherwise, kostenlos should be used.” A library certainly counts as a public service.

    But yes, it’s probably a calque: before the NYPL merger it belonged to a smaller and older branch library association called the New York Free Circulating Library, which was intended to serve the very poor. I thought it might just possibly mean ‘independent’: Duden gives the example freie Mitarbeiterin ‘independent journalist-F’, but the Ottendorfer (named after the newspaper publisher and philanthropist who founded it) was never independent.

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    Die Getränke sind frei
    wir wollen einen heben
    Wer immer es sei:
    der Spender soll leben
    Man darf nicht vergessen
    drei Bier sind ein Essen
    Drum Leber verzeih:
    die Getränke sind frei

    Die Getränke sind frei
    und gut für die Nieren
    Drum kommet herbei
    und lasst euch kurieren
    Die Ärzte empfehlen
    für durstige Kehlen
    oft Bier als Arznei
    die Getränke sind frei

    Die Getränke sind frei
    drum lassen wir´s laufen
    Das gelbe vom Ei
    ist kostenlos saufen
    Man trinkt ohne Qualen
    und denkt nicht ans Zahlen
    Es bleibet dabei:
    die Getränke sind frei

  21. Prost!

  22. Why would it be a calque? It means a library open to the public, just as „freier Durchgang“ in Vienna is used for passageways through buildings that are open to the public. Maybe a little obsolete, but strikes me as normal 19th century German.

  23. Dismissing the anti-imperialist as merely parochial or xenophobic (because conquest is the sign of the broad-minded cosmopolitan) is quite a rhetorical move

    I think Little Englanders were viewed the way isolationists are viewed in the US today. Imperialists often believed themselves motivated by a selfless higher purpose, bringing civilization to the benighted and ignorant parts of the world. They didn’t see themselves as “conquerors” in the Roman or Mongol style. India was never “conquered”, nor were Canada, Australia, or even large parts of Africa, at least the way the British saw it. They were simply backwards places glad of British leadership. Britain simply had to accept its natural role as the torchbearer of progress. And while all that may be self-serving nonsense, to be fair there actually was quite a lot parochialism and xenophobia in the Little England camp, just as there is quite a lot of it in the American isolationist camp.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Freibier, yes, but freie Krankenversorgung barely makes sense to me; I’d go for Gratis- or kostenlos with that one.

    *Freies Bier would not be immediately comprehensible.

    Die Getränke sind frei

    That, on the other hand, is immediately comprehensible, and awesome. Allons, enfants de la Courtille

    strikes me as normal 19th century German

    It may indeed be.

  25. Imperialists often believed themselves motivated by a selfless higher purpose, bringing civilization to the benighted and ignorant parts of the world.

    That sounds more French than British, actually. The British never tried to make their empire actually British, just some of the people in it so they could do the “indirect rule” thing.

  26. It may have had a different sense when first coined, but “little Englander” is widely used today to connote insularity, chauvinism, and provincialism — so Wheeler’s usage seems quite reasonable and standard. Whatever “rhetorical move” there may have been, she’s not to blame.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    By chance I just came across this quote on the internet, attr. J.B. Priestley and said to have been first published in 1934: “I wished I had been born early enough to have been called a Little Englander. It was a term of sneering abuse, but I should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That _little_ sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love.”

  28. That’s from Priestley’s English Journey (“The author describes his travels around England in 1933 and shares his observations on the social and economic conditions of that period”); it continues “And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced, staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world, and being surprised and pained and saying ‘bad show!’ if some blighters refused to fag for them. They are patriots to a man.”

  29. AJP "Otto" Binswanger says:

    That sounds more French than British, actually. The British never tried to make their empire actually British…

    Ok, although in Chapter 7, The Last Wave, (and on pp.123-131 of my paperback) of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson had quite a lot to say about how the French organised the education systems and learning of French in Indochine for different reasons: in order to break Siamese ties with Cambodge & Laos in the west and Chinese ties with Vietnam in the east, as well as producing

    a carefully-calibrated quantum of French-speaking and French-writing Indochinese to serve as a politically reliable, grateful, and acculturated indigenous elite, filling the subordinate echelons of the bureaucracy and larger commercial enterprises.

    There are (to me) fascinating examples in the footnotes of the careful calibration.

    “That _little_ sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love.” -J.B.P.

    Lille Norge is a current affectionate expression in Norwegian with this sentiment. I don’t know its origin. But although the pop. is only 5m, Norway’s coastline is one of the longest in the world, and that makes ‘lille Norge’ always sound slightly off to me. Perhaps it’s partly intended as a paradox.

  30. Norway’s coastline is one of the longest in the world

    Well, if you go all fractal and count all the ins and outs along the way, but I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind when they think of the size of a place. “A straight line along Norway’s sea borders (the coastal perimeter) is 2,650 kilometers (1,650 mi) long.” The UK coastline is around 12,429 km or 7,723 miles.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    That sounds more French than British, actually. The British never tried to make their empire actually British

    Pleasant though it would be to attribute the British colonial strategy to a superior appreciation of the merits of the Other, I think the reality was that Indirect Rule was (a) much cheaper (b) regarded as more practical, on the grounds that the conquered were thought to be pretty much incapable of acquiring western culture either in the foreseeable future or (for the more racist) ever.

    For all that French cultural imperialism leaves its own sour taste, it does at least – at its best – entail the belief that there is nothing paradoxical about the idea that you can be a black Frenchman.

    It’s characteristic that Félix Houphouët-Boigny was a French cabinet minister; it’s inconceivable that Kwame Nkrumah would ever have been a British cabinet minister.

    The major ideological supporter of Indirect Rule in Africa was that foul man Frederick Lugard. As Wikipedia says, he “loathed the educated and sophisticated Africans of the coastal regions.”

  32. It’s characteristic that Félix Houphouët-Boigny was a French cabinet minister

    While that’s true, I think it’s even more significant that he was a member for Côte d’Ivoire (or rather an indigenous member; there was a separate constituency for the European inhabitants). Sir Dadabhai Naoroji Dordi was the first British MP from India (not counting Anglo-Indians), but he was the Liberal member not for India but for Finsbury Central.

    (Which reminds me that piracy and smuggling were formerly charged as being committed “on the high seas in the county of Middlesex”, and also of one of the King of Spain’s titles in pretense, “King of the East and West Indies and Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea”.)

    Just before the Late Great Unpleasantness broke out, there were proposals much discussed whereby the American colonists would choose and send representatives to Commons, though without vote. Adam Smith was one of the supporters of this idea, and even foresaw the day when Parliament itself might move to America if its economy continued to grow faster than Britain’s. But with a three-month round trip delay, any claim of such “representatives” to actually represent would be farcical, and they would be hardly more than unpaid lobbyists. So with strong opposition on both sides of the Atlantic, the proposal was discarded.

  33. It may not be fractal but if Britain’s coastline is 7.7k miles then they’re measuring it at least in coffee spoons, if not in grains of sand. Give or take a few fjordal inlets, from Bodø at the top of Norway to Oslo at the bottom is the same distance as from Oslo to Rome (or so they say).

  34. It’s characteristic that Félix Houphouët-Boigny was a French cabinet minister; it’s inconceivable that Kwame Nkrumah would ever have been a British cabinet minister.

    There were two Indian members of the Imperial War Cabinet:

    Ganga Singh Maharaja of Bikaner (1917)
    Satyendra Prasanna Sinha Member of the Executive Council of the Governor of Bengal (1918)

    Sinha’s career in the British government:

    In 1917, Sinha returned to England to work as an Assistant for Secretary of State, Edwin Samuel Montagu. Later, he also worked as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and Conference along with the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singh following the outbreak of the First World War, and represented India in Europe’s Peace Conference in 1919. In the same year, he was made Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for India and also raised to the peerage as Baron Sinha of Raipur in the Presidency of Bengal. He became the first Indian member of the British House of Lords, taking his seat in February 1919.

    Baron Sinha of Raipur sounds about as likely as Baron Ungern of Mongolia.

  35. PlasticPaddy says:

    What I would say is that sometimes the perception of “non-whites” as other in predominantly “white” countries comes more from inside the “non-white” person, I. e., some real or perceived reaction by a “white” person is assumed to be hostile and due to “prejudice” on the part of the “white” or “lack of conformity” on the part of the “non-white”, depending on the exact psychological makeup of the latter.

  36. AJP Crown-Colony says:

    Baron Sinha of Raipur sounds about as likely as…

    …as Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum, Earl Alexander of Tunis or Viscount Montgomery of Alamein – to name the three first off the top of my head.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sometimes, sure. Typically, not a bit.

    Introspection (on the part of a member of the majority group) is not a reliable guide in these matters.
    If you want to know whether there is antisemitism around, ask a Jew. Et sic de similibus.

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    @SFReader:

    Fair point. However, it puts me in mind of the remark by Mrs Turton to Adela in A Passage to India:

    “You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”

    Not the same as the good old revolutionary French idea that anybody prepared to put in the effort to acquire la langue et la civilisation françaises can become a full-fledged Français(e). (Perhaps even a rosbif could? bit of a stretch, there …)

  39. John Cowan says:

    It may not be fractal but if Britain’s coastline is 7.7k miles [12.4K km] then they’re measuring it at least in coffee spoons

    That’s the CIA Factbook estimate, but no source is given. The UK Ordnance Survey uses 1 km² grid squares, and any square containing both land and sea is assumed to contribute 1 km of coastline. On that basis, the Big Island has 17.8K km of coast, and all the U.K. territorial islands together (not only Ireland but the Scilly, Orkney, and Shetland archipelagos, the Isle of Wight, etc.) have 31.4K km of coast. Of this, 5K km is on the eastern side of Britain and the rest along the Celtic Seas.

    The same system is used by the EU, and because the UK has a fractal dimension of 1.25, its coast is much longer than Italy’s (9.2K km), France’s (7.3K km), or Spain’s (also 7.3K km). Greece, though, also a very islandy country, has 15.1K km.

    No part of the UK is more than seventy miles (113 km) from the sea. The most inland point is Church Flatts Farm, Coton on the Elms, Darbyshire, which is equidistant from points on the Lincolnshire coast in the east, the Cheshire/Flint border on the north coast of Wales, and Gloucestershire coast in the west at the Severn estuary.

    Baron Ungern of Mongolia

    Well, Lord Nelson was not only Viscount-and-Baron Nelson but Baron Nelson of the Nile.

    comes more from inside the “non-white” person

    It is perfectly rational for individuals of color in the U.S. to treat unknown white men as hostile and dangerous until proven otherwise, on the same principle as mushrooms and snakes. The non-poisonous greatly outnumber the poisonous, but it is better to be safe than very, very sorry.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    When I am ennobled for my services to Truth, Justice and the unAmerican Way, I should like to be Baron Bawku, but the convention seems to be that you only get to take the name of a foreign place for your title if you’ve killed a significant number of people there.

    Might have to default to Baron Samedi after all. Not sure if it’s altogether consistent with the principles of Calvinistic Socialism, but on the other hand it’s way cool.

  41. John Cowan says:

    Well, there is always the model of Cato Uticensis, who killed only himself in Utica, but was given the “victorious general” title anyway.

  42. The UK Ordnance Survey uses 1 km² grid squares, and any square containing both land and sea is assumed to contribute 1 km of coastline.
    Who’s doing this, the CIA or the OS? How very arbitrary. They’re guessing the ones with a tiny bit of land will average out those with very little sea at about 1 km? I suppose the longest single straight diagonal is root two, or 1,41km, and the shortest approaches zero. Makes no sense to me, but it’s well above my pay grade to suggest an improvement. All I know is that the jagged left-hand side of Britain ought to be much longer than the smooth right (East) coast.

    The Ordnance Survey Blog may be fun for anglophiles & anglophobes alike. Incidentally for anything to do with physical geography mapping ‘the UK’ is a worthless red herring. Except for the purpose of making political comparisons Britain, the island of Ireland or the British Isles are what’s interesting.

  43. It is perfectly rational for individuals of color in the U.S. to treat unknown white men as hostile and dangerous until proven otherwise

    “Individuals of color in the U.S.” and “white” do not actually contribute to the meaning of this sentence.

    The real question is how “unknown” a given man in a given location exactly is. Contexts matter a whole lot, to the extent that ignoring it and defaulting to suspicion is quite often socially unacceptable.

  44. “Individuals of color in the U.S.” and “white” do not actually contribute to the meaning of this sentence.

    I have no idea what you mean, but you’re clearly not an individual of color in the U.S.

  45. David Eddyshaw says:

    While I agree with JC on this, JP’s comment reminds me of a point made by Bruce Schneier on the advice traditionally given to children, “Never talk to strangers”:

    https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/06/talking_to_stra.html

  46. Yeah, that was a very strange response. It’s true that popular/cultural expectations about risk are often inaccurate. (American men, for example, are much more likely than women to be victims of assault or murder, whether the perpetrator is a acquaintance or a stranger.) However, that does not mean that certain measures of broad-based caution are unreasonable or unuseful.

  47. John Cowan says:

    Nor that they can’t be tuned. “Eat no strange mushrooms” is a lot more necessary advice than “Eat no strange berries”, even though there are poisonous berries. From which we see that mushrooms is indeed essential to the meaning.

  48. JC’s not wrong, but his point is only a special case of a more general one, much like also the latest two are both special cases of “Eat no strange flora”.

    I am not at all convinced that “Eat no strange berries” is less necessary — thanks to e.g. my local train station having some yews planted around, I see poisonous berries almost daily for most of summer and fall. But then both of these are kind of already covered by general human dietary neophobia (and I guess that has an analogue for the case of strange men as well).

  49. John Cowan says:

    As is well known (at least to the Hattics), despite being Born-from-the-yew son of Born-from-the-Yew by name, and ancestrally from the Plain of Yews, and living in the New Place of the Yews, I have never seen a specimen of Taxus baccata in my life.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    the New Place of the Yews

    More likely rowans than yews.

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