I’ve finally gotten to Rachel May’s The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English, which Noetica gave me for Christmas, and it’s just as good as I expected. I’ve read the first of its four chapters, a history of Russian translation into English, and I thought I’d share some of the nuggets that made me put a pencil mark in the margin. On the difference between the English (who tended to get excited about Russian lit when the Russians did something to attract their attention, and then drop it) and the Americans:
The American response to Russian literature followed a different chronology…. There were neither the great surges of russophobic curiosity nor the periods of indifference, but rather a steady increase of interest, particularly in Turgenev. Americans had earlier access to Russian literature: in the 1870s there were probably three times as many American as British translations, and their quality was generally superior as well. Many works by Gogol and Tolstoy and several novels by Turgenev, including Dmitri Roudine, Fathers and Sons, and Smoke, appeared in New York in the 1860s and 1870s, a decade or more before London publishers brought them out. What is more, they were reviewed in all the major American journals. Especially in the case of Fathers and Sons (trans. 1867), the reviews were enthusiastic about the novel’s aesthetic as well as documentary merits. …
Americans’ affection for Russian literature was not only more constant but more broadly based. George Sand once commented to the itinerant Russian intellectual M.M. Kovalevsky that the English praised Turgenev highly but read him little; Kovalevsky found, on the other hand, that “even middle-class Americans” knew Turgenev’s works.
But even some Yanks had strong negative reactions; Maurice Thompson called Tolstoy “a rich man who prefers to live in brutal vulgarity” and his novels “as dirty and obscene as the worst parts of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass.’” (I wonder if that sold some extra copies?)
Dostoevsky was little known until Constance Garnett (long idolized for her Turgenev translations) got around to him; “when Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov finally appeared in 1912, it caused an enormous sensation,” and she followed it with “eleven more volumes of Dostoevsky’s works in the next eight years. ‘Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky’s major works was, at least in its immediate effects, one of the most important literary events in modern English literature,’ her biographer wrote.” And then she did the same for Chekhov: “As with Turgenev and Dostoevsky, Garnett did not limit herself to a few of Chekhov’s works but heaped upon the English reading public thirteen volumes of stories, two of plays, and one of letters, thereby creating a rich humus within which the cult could develop. And develop it did. The appearance of Garnett’s Chekhov collection has been likened in impact to her Brothers Karamazov…” And I can’t resist mentioning that Oxford’s first curriculum of Slavic studies, established in 1887, was called “Lithu-Slavonic Languages.”
But I have one bone to pick. On page 43 she writes: “New translations of earlier Soviet works began to appear: Bely’s Petersburg came out in English in 1959…” What could she have been thinking? The first Russian edition of Bely’s masterpiece came out in 1916, and he was about as un-Soviet a writer as could be imagined. But even Jove and bonus Homerus nod, and this is otherwise a wonderful book—I’m very much looking forward to the rest of it.