Search Results for: pevear


Several people sent me the worshipful Kevin Mahnken article from Humanities on the ubiquitous Pevear/Volokhonsky translation team (who have the mightiest PR juggernaut in the history of translation). I am not a fan of theirs (see, e.g., here), and I was glad to see Alexander Anichkin take them on in this Tetradki post, focusing on P&V’s allegedly perfect translation—”It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it”—of an allegedly repetitive Dostoevsky sentence:

I thought there was something suspicious about it. It can’t be that Dostoyevsky is as repetitive as this. His style is different from the beautifully succinct Turgenev, or the elaborately detailed, thoroughly explorative Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky writes in a semi-colloquial, almost chatty way, as though he is sitting at a tea table and telling a story to a group of friends. At times, it is sloppy, or seems so.
I searched the Russian text of Crime and Punishment to find the phrase that baffled Pevear. (See ‘Dostoyevsky on one page‘) This is how it goes (from Part I, beginning of Chapter VI):
Дело было самое обыкновенное и не заключало в себе ничего такого особенного.
It’s not repetitive at all, it’s a perfectly normal phrase. I’d translate it something like this:
[It turned out that] It was quite simple and there was nothing unusual about it.
My wife, a native English speaker, thinks that ‘and’ is better replaced with a semi-colon. She suggested:
In fact it was perfectly simple; there was nothing out of the ordinary about it.
“Ничего особенного” can mean ‘nothing complicated.’ For example, when you ask ‘Is it a difficult problem?’, you can get an answer ‘Nothing complicated.’ But here, in Dostoyevsky’s context it’s definitely ‘nothing extraordinary, nothing unusual, nothing suspicious’.
When you read the Humanities article between the lines, you can see that every time Pevear, who has ‘only a basic Russian’ as the author mentions, has doubts, Volokhonskaya bullies him into accepting her version.
Publishers have built such a juggernaut of PV’s translations, probably because of ‘live’ copyright, it’s unstoppable now.

Sadly, that final line is hard to dispute, but it’s nice to see someone pointing out an inconvenient truth.


Long-time readers of LH will know my negative feelings toward the much-lauded translating duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (see, for instance, here); imagine, therefore, my pleasure on being sent a link to “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature” by Gary Saul Morson, and my disappointment on learning it was only an abstract. If anyone has a subscription to Commentary or otherwise has access to the full article, I’d love it if you’d e-mail it to me. Otherwise, feel free to discuss Peveolokhonsky, translation, or (as usual) anything else in the comment thread.
Update. I have been kindly provided with the article; many thanks!

McWhorter on P&V.

John McWhorter goes into detail on why he can’t stand the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, and it’s music to my ears:

It bears mentioning, then, that for whatever it’s worth, I read (although do not speak) Russian well, and more to the point, have run my observations here past a native Russian speaker whose English is excellent-plus and has worked in the past as an interpreter and done translation. That person added insights of their own that I had not caught – and agrees with me that there is a major problem with the lionization of P&V.

I will use as an example just one page, taken (virtually) at random. It is from the 21st and final chapter of the second part of the first volume of the book, and it is typical of how this translation “feels” throughout, especially when people talk, but quite often just in descriptions. It’s a sequence from one of the “war” parts, with military men on a break wallowing in the privations of life outdoors with low provisions.

P&V seem to pride themselves on sticking close to the original. But the reason so many celebrated translators do not do so as diligently as they do is that languages differ in what means they use to convey concepts. This language conveys something with an adjective while that language needs a phrase for it. This language conveys something with a quiet resonance from a word while that language nails that something with an explicit suffix. This language expresses something which, rendered in that other language, sounds hopelessly affected or insincere and you have to work around it.

P&V just aren’t very good at wangling art from such things. And then surprisingly often, given that Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker and Pevear is at least along for the ride, P&V miss basic nuances of how Russian even works. […]

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Parks on Translation Again.

Tim Parks often has interesting things to say about translation, and I’ve linked to his essays before; here’s a recent one from NYRDaily:

Do the beliefs we hold about literature add up to something consistent and coherent? Or are they little more than random pieties? Take two crucial notions I heard repeatedly last year. First, that in a fine work of literature, every word counts, perfection has been achieved, nothing can be moved—a claim I’ve seen made for writers as prolix (and diverse) as Victor Hugo and Jonathan Franzen. Second, that translators are creative artists in their own right, co-authoring the text they translate, a fine translation being as unique and important as the original work. Mark Polizzotti makes this claim in Sympathy for the Traitor (2018), but any number of scholars in the field of Translation Studies would agree.

Can these two positions be reconciled? Doesn’t translating a work of literature inevitably involve moving things around and altering many of the relations between the words in the original? In which case, either the original’s alleged perfection has been overstated, or the translation is indeed, as pessimists have often supposed, a fine but somewhat flawed copy. Unless, that is, we are going to think of a translation as a quite different work with its own inner logic and inspiration, only casually related to that foreign original. In which case, English readers will be obliged to wonder whether they have ever read Tolstoy, Proust, or Mann, and not, rather, Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, or Helen Lowe-Porter. Or more recently, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, or Lydia Davis or Michael Henry Heim.

How perplexing. One of the problems in this debate is that most readers are only familiar with translated texts in their own languages. They cannot contemplate the supposed perfection of the foreign original, and when the translation delights them, they rightly thank the translator for it and are happy to suppose that the work “stands shoulder to shoulder with the source text,” as Polizzotti puts it. It makes these readers’ own experience seem more important. Alternatively, when they rejoice over the perfection of Jane Austen, Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, they do not see what foreign translations have done to the work as it travels around the world.

I too have been vaguely bothered by that “every word counts, perfection has been achieved” claim, so often made and so unlikely if you think about it. He continues with just the kind of thing I like, an analysis of two examples, one from English into Italian and one from Italian into English. I’ll let you read them at the link; here I want to foreground the start of his first example, from Henry James’ story “The Altar of the Dead”: “He had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure.” I understand this to mean that Stransom didn’t like skimpy celebrations of anniversaries, and liked them even less when they were puffed up into an attempt at grandeur. This is the way the Italian translator understood it (“Lui non le poteva soffrire, povero Stransom le celebrazioni scialbe, e ancor più detestava quelle pretenziose”), but it is not how Parks reads it; he says “The story of the fiancée’s death allows us to realize that ‘lean’ has the sense of unhappy (as in the lean and fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream),” and faults the translator for draining it of its Biblical resonance. I think Parks is simply misreading the text. What say you?

The Eternal Husband.

I had a little fun with Dostoevsky’s Вечный муж [The Eternal Husband] in this post, and I hadn’t intended to make a separate post for a short novel that most people have never heard of, but the more I read the better I liked it, and once I finished it I discovered it has been called “a small masterpiece” (Joseph Frank) and “technically perhaps the most accomplished of Dostoevsky’s works” (William J. Leatherbarrow), so I decided I should try figuring out what I thought and what other scholars have said and report back.

The plot is straightforward: Pavel Trusotsky, after the death of his wife Natalya, learns she had had lovers, and goes to Petersburg to confront them. One of them is Aleksei Velchaninov, with whom he had been friendly a decade earlier, and it is Velchaninov who is the point-of-view character — the book opens with his catching glimpses of Trusotsky and becoming increasingly paranoid (he doesn’t remember who he is) until the cuckolded husband barges drunk into his apartment in the wee hours of the morning, acting oddly, assuring him of his undying affection while hinting at darker things. Eventually Velchaninov learns of the existence of a daughter Liza, who he assumes must be his (she is around eight), and he begins plotting to take her away from the increasingly unhinged-seeming and hostile Trusotsky; there are, of course, further complications and developments, some tragic and some comic, and Velchaninov calls Trusotsky an “eternal husband” — one who has to have a wife and will be slavishly subservient to her, turning a blind eye to her infidelity.
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Crevez, chiens!

I’m on Chapter 3 of Part 3 of Crime and Punishment; Raskolnikov is explaining to his mother that he has given away twenty-five rubles that she and his sister had sent him, because he had encountered a family so poverty-stricken they would have had nothing to eat and would have been thrown out on the street if he hadn’t helped them. He admits that he had no right to squander the money they had scraped together with such effort, and ends his little speech by saying that you shouldn’t help people unless you have a right to — otherwise “Crevez, chiens, si vous n’êtes pas contents!”

Of the two translations I have, Sidney Monas simply repeats the French, while Pevear and Volokhonsky provide a translation in a footnote: “Drop dead, dogs, if you don’t like it!” (My Soviet edition also provides nothing but a translation.) They do not, however, appear to be aware that it is a quote from an extremely famous novel. Google Books tells me that Sarah J. Young’s translation identifies it as such (“A near quotation from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables“), but says no more. Only Oliver Ready’s version (praised highly by Boris Dralyuk; see this LH post) gives important context in its footnote:

Crevez, chiens, si vous n’étes pas contents!: “Drop dead, dogs, if you aren’t satisfied!” (French): an almost exact quotation from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, which Dostoyevsky read on its appearance in 1862. See Book Eight, Chapter Four (“A Rose in Misery’), in which the young student, Marius, receives a visit from the young and appallingly emaciated daughter of his neighbour Jondrette. In the course of their conversation, she tells him: ‘Do you know what it will mean if we get a breakfast today? It will mean that we shall have had our breakfast of the day before yesterday, our breakfast of yesterday, our dinner of to-day, and all that at once, and this morning. Come! Parbleu! if you are not satisfied, dogs, burst!’ (trans. Isabel Hapgood).

But even this omits the vital fact of what follows when Marius realizes how much worse off than he the Jondrettes are:

By dint of searching and ransacking his pockets, Marius had finally collected five francs sixteen sous. This was all he owned in the world for the moment. “At all events,” he thought, “there is my dinner for to-day, and to-morrow we will see.” He kept the sixteen sous, and handed the five francs to the young girl.

This is, of course, an exact parallel to what Raskolnikov has done, and I provide it here for the benefit of readers of the novel, which (I am realizing all over again) is damn good.

I can’t resist pointing out that the egregious P&V, in an earlier footnote, refer to G. H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life as “The Physiology of Everyday Life.” No cookies for you!

Repetition in Tolstoy II.

Back in 2008 I wrote what is still one of my favorite LH posts, Repetition in Tolstoy; now, thanks to the latest Russian Dinosaur post, we can revisit the issue. The Dinosaur writes about the competing translations of Anna Karenina that appeared in 2014, Rosamund Bartlett’s (Oxford UP) and Marian Schwartz’s (Yale UP), mentioning the problems with which Tolstoy’s “unhelpful syntax” confronts the translator (“adjectival traffic jams; awkward, unmanageable, and not always even conventionally grammatical gerunds”) and points out the translators’ differing approaches:

Schwartz firmly believes that the ‘unconventional and unsettling’ effect of Tolstoy’s style, the occasional ‘roughness’, the use of apparent “mistakes” and of course the repetitions, are all intended to “convey meaning, to express his spiritual and moral concerns’ (Translator’s Note, xxiii). An obvious example of repetition that both translators cite is the adjective veselyi (jolly) and its cognates such as veselost’ (jolliness, good cheer), which Bartlett claims occurs 318 times in Anna (and she should know). Schwartz chooses to translate this word wherever it occurs by a single English equivalent – cheerful – and its cognates (e.g. cheer, cheery). She suggests that by constantly referring to ‘cheer’, Tolstoy meant to provoke ‘ominous associations’ (xxv) in his readers’ minds – a suspicion that the characters were in fact very far from cheerful. Because Russian is an inflected language with multiple derivations and affixations possible from a single stem, in the original, this repetitive technique creates a rich web of inferences and implications. In English, it causes most readers to wonder at the apparent poverty of the translator’s vocabulary. Surely Tolstoy couldn’t have been such a limited writer, constantly re-using the same word?

Bartlett resorts to a richer vocabulary, including ‘merry’, ‘livelier’, and ‘light-hearted’, in order – as her introductory essay explains – to convey the ‘richness of meaning implied in the original’. She asserts that Russian is simply more concise than English, and that therefore multiple meanings may be implicit in a single word; thus to fix on a single English equivalent for that word, as Schwartz does with veselyi, would be unduly confining for the translator (and repetitive for the reader). […] There is a lot of good sense in this approach, and it certainly makes for a richer text for the Anglophone reader. And yet we must remember Tolstoy uses repetition for several reasons, including for emphasis; for the psychologically jarring sensation which Shklovsky would christen ‘defamiliarization’; and for the ‘Hansel’s breadcrumb’ effect, that is, using a chain of similar words to clarify the narrative’s symbolic underpinnings. The style is meant to convey meaning; to provoke discomfort; and to convey meaning by provoking discomfort, rather like a parallel process in cinema, Eisenstein’s notion of intellectual montage, where contrasting or shocking images initiate an emotional or cognitive process in the viewer’s mind. Unwise translators, by gobbling up the repeated words and substituting unrecognizable synonyms, may erase Tolstoy’s subtly laid ‘pathway’ through the plot – and forestall the thought processes that the author had intended to unlock.

She provides a good example from Part Five of the novel in which Schwartz comes out ahead, and in general I am completely on Schwartz’s side here: authors choose to repeat words for a reason, and barring strong contrary reasons translators should respect that choice. But it’s great to see the opposing points of view laid out so eloquently, and it should make each side more aware of the pluses and minuses.

Dino goes on to recount the debate that erupted when Janet Malcolm wrote her review of various Tolstoy translations in The New York Review of Books; the centerpiece was an evisceration of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of which I thoroughly approved, but it also included an unfair attack on Schwartz for choosing to translate Tolstoy’s “образуется” with the odd “shapify” — however much you may disagree with that choice, it’s absurd to use it to judge an entire book by one of the great translators of our day.

Janet Malcolm vs. P&V.

I usually add new issues of the NYRB to the large pile on the shelf to my left and let them ripen as I continue reading issues from last summer, but an e-mail from LH reader Rick alerted me to the lead piece in the latest (June 23) issue, Janet Malcolm’s evisceration of my least-favorite world-conquering translating team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As readers (like Rick) who know my feelings about the ubiquitous P&V will guess, I was thrilled by Malcolm’s piece. Mind you, it’s over the top; P&V’s translations aren’t as bad as she makes out [I may be bending over backwards here, as Anatoly thinks — see Update below], and her (laudable) fondness for Constance Garnett leads her to lash out at Marian Schwartz as well, and Schwartz, one of the best living translators of Russian, certainly doesn’t deserve it (though the bit Malcolm quotes is indeed a blunder). But in a culture war, as in any other war, one must occasionally go over the top, and this stuff is glorious — after recalling the halcyon days when everyone read Garnett, she continues:

Since that time a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English. Surprisingly, these translations, far from being rejected by the critical establishment, have been embraced by it and have all but replaced Garnett, Maude, and other of the older translations. When you go to a bookstore to buy a work by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, or Chekhov, most of what you find is in translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

In an article in the July/August 2010 issue of Commentary entitled “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature,” Morson used the word “tragedy” to express his sense of the disaster that has befallen Russian literature in English translation since the P&V translations began to appear. To Morson “these are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.” Morson fears that “if students and more-general readers choose P&V…[they] are likely to presume that whatever made so many regard Russian literature with awe has gone stale with time or is lost to them.”

She quotes other people appalled by the new rulers of the roost (Anna Shapiro on the P&V Anna Karenina: “It leaves such a bad taste; it’s so wrong, and so oddly wrong, turning nourishment into wood”) and provides several passages translated by Garnett and P&V, with acerbic commentary; read the whole thing, and then read the excellent discussion at XIX век, where Erik McDonald is more bothered than I am by Malcolm’s unfairness to P&V (though we are equally bothered by her unfairness to Schwartz) and there are good comments by kaggsy (“I’m happy with archaisms, I don’t want a book that old brought ‘up to date’”), Alex K. (“‘Образуется’ was not a neologism Tolstoy thought up. The word itself was legit”), Julia (who is “not a fan of Pevear/Volokhonsky” but finds the article “too harsh and narrow”), and especially Russian Dinosaur, whose long comment I won’t try to summarize.

Unrelated, but I have to pass along the news that the Paris Review‘s series of video interviews with authors talking about their first book, and the latest is Helen DeWitt on The Last Samurai! (On behalf of my profession, I would like to apologize for the copyeditor who defiled the proofs of her brilliant book. We’re not all like that, I swear.)

Update. Anatoly Vorobey has posted (in Russian) about the Malcolm piece and the reaction to it, and has some very interesting things to say. He starts out by savaging P&V, calling them “ужасные переводчики, уродующие каждый текст, которого касаются” [awful translators, mutilating every text they touch], which pleased me; then he turns to the specific example of Tolstoy’s “образуется,” and his long discussion is well worth reading if you know Russian. In brief, he says that as far as he can tell this sense “it’ll work out, it’ll be all right” was introduced by Tolstoy to the literary language and was not (as some XIX век commenters claimed) already common, though it may have been used dialectically, and therefore the various published translations “she’ll come round,” “it’ll work out,” and “things will shape up” are inadequate (because not innovative). He dislikes Schwartz’s “it’ll shapify” not because it’s (in Malcolm’s word) “weird,” but because the learned suffix –ify is implausible in the mouth of the peasant Matvei. Anatoly proposes “it’ll set down,” which seems satisfactory to me.

On Reviewing Translations.

Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen, and Edith Grossman produced these thoughts for reviewers of literary translations, which are cogent enough I thought I’d pass them along:

• Always include the translator’s name in your initial mention of the book and in any bibliographic sidebar.

• If the translation stands out because of its elegance, panache, or daring word choices, by all means say so. If it drags and stumbles, this too is worthy of note, particularly if your conclusions are backed up by examples.

• If the translator has included a note describing his or her approach to the translation, it is useful to summarize the principles mentioned in the statement and to indicate whether the translator’s aims have been achieved.

• When previous translations of a work exist, compare parallel passages so you can indicate the contributions made by the new one.

• If the work of the original author is celebrated for particular literary qualities, it is valuable for the reader to know whether they appear in the translation.

• Most interesting of all for you to consider is this: does the translated work contribute to the literary life of the English language, to our speech, art, and sensibility? In other words, regardless of whether the work is poetry or prose, does the translation expand the boundaries of literary practice in English, introducing new narrative techniques, poetic forms, or modes of telling a story?

Here are two examples of reviews we think are particularly successful at integrating a discussion of the translation into an evaluation of the book under review: Michael Dirda’s review of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, translated from the German by Breon Mitchell (here); and James Woods’ review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (here).

I share their impatience with reviews that include only “a passing comment like ‘ably translated,'” and I hope their suggestions are listened to. Thanks, Trevor!

Dralyuk on Ready’s Dostoyevsky.

I meant to post this months ago, but efficiency is not my strong suit: perennial LH favorite Boris Dralyuk has an LARB review of Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment, and it includes the kind of detailed analysis of passages I crave:

The challenges that this polyphony poses to a translator are staggering. The brave soul must shuttle back and forth between the gestalt — the great unwieldy whole — and its parts, sinking into scenes of violence and casual terror, into fever dreams, into the dramas — little and big — of conversations in tenements and police stations. Ready, who has a practiced ear for Russian dialect and a natural grace with English, is exceptionally deft at navigating these challenges. I’ll point to one instance in which a translator must take note of a number of elements (the structure of dream logic, the use of dialect and folkloric reference, and vividness of imagery) and be honest to them all without bursting the reader’s suspension of disbelief — without, as it were, waking the reader up. In Part I, Chapter 5, Raskolnikov dreams of a scene from childhood — a cart-driver has overloaded his cart with passengers and is beating his nag, urging her to move when she clearly can’t manage:

“Daddy! Daddy!” he shouts to his father. “What are they doing, Daddy? Daddy, they’re beating the poor little horse!”

“Come on, boy!” says the father. “Just drunken idiots fooling around: off we go, boy, don’t look!” — and tries to lead him away, but he breaks free of his grasp and, quite beside himself, runs to the horse. But the poor little horse is in a bad way. She’s struggling for breath, stops, gives another tug and almost falls.

“Flog ‘er till she drops!” shouts Mikolka. “She’s asking for it. I’ll flog ‘er dead!”

“Where’s your fear of God, you mad beast?” yells an old man in the crowd.

A great deal goes right in Ready’s treatment of this nightmare, which continues for another two pages. The father’s pained and abashed dismissal, “Just drunken idiots fooling around,” which he delivers in choked-off fragments in Russian (“пьяные, шалят, дураки”), sounds far fresher and produces a far more poignant effect than previous efforts: “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun” (Constance Garnett, 1914); “They’re drunk, playing mischief, the fools” (David McDuff, 1991); “They’re drunk, they’re playing pranks, the fools” (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1992). “They are in fun,” is, of course, hopelessly dated, while “playing mischief” and “pranks,” though close translations of the verb “шалить,” are not really appropriate to the situation or to the father’s register or mental state.

The “mad beast,” too, is an inspired choice. The Russian original has the old man calling Mikolka a “леший (leshii),” that is, a “wood demon” — a creature from the Russian pagan past, which worked its way into the syncretic faith of the village but, by the 19th century, was, for the most part, an element of idiomatic speech. For instance, to send someone to the wood demon is to send them to hell. Under certain circumstances, where the wood demon’s attributes are central to the exposition of a scene, a translator might want to preserve his presence — but here, where he is very much part of an idiom, suggesting wildness and inhumanity, Ready’s rendition works perfectly, allowing us to speed through the passage nervously, just as we ought to.

There’s much more at the link, but that gives you an idea. From now on, when people ask me what translation I suggest reading, I’ll know what to say. (By the way, Dralyuk is preparing for publication a collection of translations of Russian prose and verse reacting to the year 1917; I’ll be reporting on it in due course.)