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.


  1. “Дело было самое обыкновенное и не заключало в себе ничего такого особенного.”
    – the case was very ordinary and it didn’t contain in itself anything that like special/unusual.
    if word for word it says this, the closest to the russian original, just how it sounds in english i can’t say, must be repetitive, ungrammatical, not how the literary translation should sound like i guess. just substituting delo with it and other omissions make it sound maybe more natural in english, but it removes Dostoesvky’s as the blog author describes as if like hectic, uneven, emotional style in russian, if to reverse translate the “simple” version in english “it was quite simple and there was nothing unusual about it”- it would have sounded “eto bylo ochen’ prosto, ne bylo nichego neobychnogo ob etom” – which sounds like some everyday banal speech
    haha, in my translation Dostoevsky would sound maybe the most natural 🙂

  2. Tolstoy once commissioned a back translation of Anna Karenina, from English back to Russian. Got very upset that it resembled nothing of what he wrote.

  3. Vadim Penzin says

    While I cannot propose the best English translation of this sentence (my command of the English language is not even satisfactory for that), I would try to explain what an average, native Russian reader feels about this piece.
    Considering the *information* that this sentence conveys, it is repetitive. The parts “Дело было самое обыкновенное” and “не заключало в себе ничего такого особенного” tell the same: something has happened and it was usual. For sure, the sentence (both parts of it) says nothing about complication or simplicity of what has happened.
    However, this repetition is purposeful. It is the kind of repetition one hears in a lullaby; its intention is to soothe, to calm down the reader, to create a very certain air or a mood.
    Please remember that the preceding sentence mentions an invitation: “мещанин и баба приглашали к себе Лизавету”. In my very humble opinion, a translator must take this pretext into account. “Дело” here refers to the invitation. “Приглашали”, as opposed to “пригласили” (the latter form always specifies a single event), may also mean that the invitation was made several times in the past—to my shame, I do not remember the text that well. Hence a hint of recurrence, or maybe regularity.
    What could be simple or complicated in an invitation, especially in a regular one? The sentence is all about this invitation being unremarkable in itself, and the remainder of the paragraph explains exactly what was the purpose and the nature of this invitation.
    My version is (please have mercy on me): “It was the most usual affair and there was nothing in particular about it”.
    The sentence is full of beauty to an ear of a modern Russian, people do not speak or write that way nowadays. Unfortunately, I cannot express that.

  4. oh, if it was about an invitation, not a legal case, then the sentence should sound very differently of course, sorry i didn’t check out the text, the preceding sentence, and dont remember it too, read it when, long ago
    then ” it was the most usual affair’ is of course the closer translation

  5. David Marjanović says

    How about “nothing special”? I’d immediately translate особенно by German besonders “special, particular”.

  6. Vadim Penzin says

    It depends rather on the personal taste and subtleties of meanings.
    See, one of possible translations of the word «особенный» or «особый» is “outstanding”, that immediately reminds of another Russian word: «особняк», a private house that stands apart from nearby buildings, or the Russian expression «держаться особняком»: of a person, to keep oneself apart from other people, not to mingle in. All these words obviously have a common stem, a shared meaning, so to say. Dostoyevsky literally writes that the affair (or the business because the purpose of the invitation was rather business-like, a petty trade) “did not hold in itself nothing in particular”. (You may say “nothing special”—I should get to this soon.) One may also say “nothing outstanding”—this, while being a possible translation, looks ugly to me because an outstanding thing, by definition, cannot be contained within something else, as I see it. It was merely an example.
    Regarding your suggestion of the word “special”: the Russian language has borrowed this word since long ago: «специальный», but Dostoyevsky could not have used this epithet for it sounds way too modern for his time. Yes, «особенный» is very often translated as “special” back and forth, but I would not use it exactly because it may be translated back also as «специальный».

  7. Anatoly says

    This is all rather baffling, since as far as I can make out, the actual translation by P&V has this sentence:
    “It was a most ordinary matter, and there was nothing very special about it.”
    The “simple/complicated” variant only seems to appear in interviews by P&V or fawning articles about them.

  8. Vadim Penzin says

    I am puzzled by “exactly the same sentence in Chekhov”—what is it?

  9. Baffling indeed. Well, apparently they take more care in correcting their translations than in remembering what’s in them. This is clearly an improvement on saying the thing was simple and that moreover it wasn’t complicated. But still not as good as the despised Garnett: “It was a very ordinary matter and there was nothing exceptional about it.”

  10. Anatoly, really?
    It certainly complicates a simple matter.

  11. Anatoly says

    Sashura, it does, doesn’t it?
    Here’s the passage in Google Books search (hopefully available to everyone, Google Books is maddeningly selective sometimes):

  12. Blimie! So what happened? Pevear was quoting from memory, or slightly changed the phrase for the argument’s sake?

  13. Courtesy of Anatoly, we have a link to that sentence in P&V’s translation. There is not much left to criticize and yes, it has turned out a rather ordinary matter after all.
    It’s interesting though that Garrett’s version did not need much improving upon: “It was a very ordinary matter and there was nothing exceptional about it.”

  14. Ha!

  15. I wonder if anyone has read PV’s Leskov translations. There’s a review by James Meek in the LRB (paywall), but it is more about Leskov than PV.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t understand the copyright point – the originals of most/all of the Famous Russian Stuff PV work on are public domain and for most Official Classics (i.e. public-domain books by dead authors that still get assigned in school AND are occasionally read for pleasure by non-students) the English-language publishing market will sustain a few rival editions in print simultaneously. Now, maybe some of these books are “full,” so that e.g. when I was in college it seemed that there were approx 3 versions of Homer that were widespread (Fagles, Fitzgerald, Lattimore) and perhaps no major publisher would have been willing to front too much money for a brand-new 4th alternative until one of the existing 3 fell out of favor. On the other hand, not too many years ago at a nonspecialist store (it was a Borders Books, so before they went belly up) I found a shelf with 10 or 11 different in-print English versions of the Tao Te Ching. In any event, all you need is a meaningful minority of the universe of college professors who assign Famous Dead Russian Novels In Translation to buy into the only mildly contrarian notion that PV are overrated and you have a built-in market for a line of PV alternatives in affordable paperback editions with a little bit of extra scholarly-looking front matter and/or notes in the back.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Come to think of it, Fagles Fitzgerald and Lattimore were all American and it seems implausible to me that the vast majority of non-U.S. Anglophones assigned to read Homer in translation in high school or college in Melbourne or Belfast or Singapore or what have you back in the ’80’s got stuck with one of those three, so maybe I understated the market.

  18. Begging leave to digress – though not completely, since remaining still within the subject field of Russian classics in English translation – I feel I must share the link I came across today: Stephen Fry reading James Falen’s translation of Евгений Онегин.

  19. The Daodejing probably has more translations into English than any other work, at least a hundred of them, and that’s not counting mine, the Unix Power Classic.
    Here’s my Chapter 41:
    Thoughtful hackers hear about Unix
       and try to use it.
    Ordinary hackers hear about Unix
       and mess about with it a little.
    Thoughtless hackers hear about Unix
       and crack wise about it.
    It wouldn’t be Unix
       if there weren’t wisecracks about it.
    So we establish the following rules:
    The most brilliant Unix seems the most obscure.
    Advanced Unix seems like retrocomputing.
    The most powerful code seems like just loops and conditionals.
    The clearest code seems to be opaque.
    The sharpest tools seem inadequate.
    Solid code seems flaky.
    Stable code seems to change.
    Great methodologies don’t have boundaries.
    Great talent doesn’t code fast.
    Great music makes no sound.
    The ideal elephant has no shape.
    The Unix Way has no name.
    Yet for just this reason
       it brings things to perfection.
    And here’s 17, which is less technical:
    The greatest project leaders
       hardly make their presence known.
    Next best are those
       who are loved and honored.
    Next come those who are feared.
    Next the PHBs, who are despised.
    The demand to be trusted is not enough;
       indeed, it finds no trust.
    The true leader shuts up and shows us the code.
    Then when the tasks are accomplished,
       and the project is complete,
       all the contributors say,
       “We did it ourselves.”

  20. I don’t understand the copyright point – the originals of most/all of the Famous Russian Stuff PV work on are public domain and for most Official Classics (i.e. public-domain books by dead authors that still get assigned in school AND are occasionally read for pleasure by non-students) the English-language publishing market will sustain a few rival editions in print simultaneously.
    I assumed that this was the point: because publishers know that their translation of a PD work could be undercut at any time by the new hotness (as the kids say), they work hard to sell the non-undercuttable aspects: charismatic husband-and-wife team! Memorable and characterful work processes! Trustworthy, readable results for today’s reader, not shifty and old-fashioned like Garnett or cranky and awkward like Nabokov! The goal isn’t to compete on a bookstore shelf with six other versions, it’s to be the only one on the shelf, thanks to the power of marketing, inventory issues, etc.

  21. In the 60s (I think it was) a connubial German team produced a translation of Watt for Suhrkamp that I didn’t at all like. Leaving to one side the cosy husband-and-wife teams, does anyone know of good translations of novels done by a partnership ?
    I have seen German editions of works by obscure philosophers, where several people are listed on the title page as translators. I suspect they collaborated only in the sense that they divided up the work among themselves.

  22. Richard Lourie in 1992 wrote a good three-way comparison between Garnett, McDuff and P/V.
    McDuff left glasnost as it is in his English text! There is also a fine discourse on poshlost, podlost and the devil.

  23. does anyone know of good translations of novels done by a partnership?
    Um, Constance Garnett. Really. She paid a quarter (if I recall correctly) of her pitiful translator’s fee to a Russian helper, who first worked with her to make sure she understood the texts, and then reviewed her English (her collaborators varied; all were fluent in several languages).
    BTW, the academic world has come out rather strongly against the P/V translations (after a couple of good reviews early on). The journalistic world isn’t paying attention — yet.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Here’s my Chapter 41:

    …so… much… awesomeness…

  25. Yes, Laozi was quite the master programmer, as well as being the master philosopher, the master poet, the master sage, the master rod-fisherman (and fish-cook, see chapter 60), the master netter (fish and butterflies) and the master baiter.

  26. Richard Lourie in 1992 wrote a good three-way comparison between Garnett, McDuff and P/V.
    Wow, that’s a great review, doubtless the best review of a Russian translation the Times has ever published—Lourie actually read it in the original so he could do the job right! I may have to make a post of it.

  27. Thanks to Dmitriy for mentioning another Fry’s Delight, just listening to it, excellent.

  28. Re. Lourie, I was wondering if he did a longer, more exhaustive essay on translations of D.
    He must have had tons of scribbles as he read and compared.

  29. Trond Engen says

    A bit of Fry and Lourie.

  30. Actually, the concept of ‘simplicity’ also intrudes into the translation of another famous work.
    Voice mon secret. Il est très simple
    ‘Here is my secret, a very simple secret’.
    The first translation, into Japanese, for instance, translated ‘simple’ as meaning ‘It’s really nothing at all’, i.e., with overtones of modesty about the secret. Others have emphasised how ‘uncomplicated’ the secret is.

  31. A great article and a fine blog – I added it to my blogroll. (Hey, “blogroll” is no longer flagged by the Firefox spell checker!)
    I believe that Pevear has gone on record as denying that he is as deficient in Russian as everyone says he is; but I know nothing else about it. I did enjoy reading their Crime And Punishment, but then it’s one of the greatest books of all time.

  32. Yeah, my complaint is not so much about the quality of their translations—I’m only familiar with the few bits I’ve seen, and I assume on average they’re no better or worse than the run of the mill, so that a good book will come through OK—as about their PR machine, which presents them as THE GREATEST EVER and basically says if you don’t read their versions, you’re cheating yourself, which is a vile lie and they should be ashamed of themselves.

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