Garnett and Tolstoy.

Translator Rosamund Bartlett (also author of a biography of Tolstoy) has a very interesting piece in the Financial Times on the history of Tolstoy translations; the centerpiece is an account of how the woman who practically defined Russian literature in English got her start:

Within months of its completion in 1893, Tolstoy’s philosophical magnum opus The Kingdom of God is Within You was being read in English in northern Pakistan by the explorer Francis Younghusband, and in South Africa by a young Indian lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi. It had an equally immediate and explosive impact on both of them, and on countless others in cities as far-flung as Chicago, Alexandria and Rangoon who promptly resigned army commissions or abandoned commerce.

The translation they read was by Constance Garnett, a remarkable woman who would play a key role in popularising Tolstoy as a novelist. Born Constance Black in Brighton in 1861, the momentous year in which serfdom was abolished in Russia, she graduated in classics from Cambridge and began her career as a librarian in the East End of London. Marriage to the editor and critic Edward Garnett brought her more directly into the world of letters. His work led to friendships with writers such as Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence, and also to contact with Russian émigrés. Through her interest in socialism, Constance Garnett had already met George Bernard Shaw, a leading light in the Fabian Society, which was a common thread uniting the community of radicals, writers and exiles from Tsarist Russia among whom she and her husband ended up living on the Kent-­Surrey border. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. He provided assistance in her first translating project: Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story.

Garnett learnt more Russian with another revolutionary with whom she fell in love. Sergei Stepnyak (who had assassinated the Russian head of the secret police in St Petersburg in 1878) encouraged her to tackle Turgenev. But then, as now, the market for literary translation was small, and publishers needed to sell books. What was selling in 1894 was Tolstoy, so it was to The Kingdom of God is Within You that Garnett turned next. Earlier that winter she made her first visit to Russia, and had an inspiring meeting with Tolstoy in a snowbound Moscow. His piercing eyes, she reported, “seemed to look right through one and to make anything but perfect candour out of the question”, while at the same time “there was an extraordinary warmth and affection in them”.

As Erik McDonald of XIX век said, “There’s so much I didn’t know here — it would have taken me a long time to guess the first thing Garnett translated.” (He has some good links on other Garnetts as well.) Thanks for the FT link, Paul!


  1. Stories like this give me good goosebumps. Garnett’s translations figured hugely in the reading selections of my childhood.

  2. Garnett was who I wanted to be when I grew up. Sigh. 🙂 Live, learn, and learn some more.

  3. To the critic of the New York Times, his [Dole’s] version suggested “the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.

    A translating phenomenon observable in many languages.

  4. That is a very informative article. I had known absolutely nothing about Garnett’s background.

  5. Very interesting. We discussed here a while ago how Garnett improved Dostoyevsky’s philosophical vocabulary in her version of Notes from Underground. So she started as a translator of philosophy. Aha.

  6. Stefan Holm says

    Good article about Constance Garnett and the history of Tolstoy in UK/USA. But reading the English and Swedish Wikipedia articles respectively about Lev Tolstoy made me react upon two differences (although the articles apparently in much are calques).

    The first is the Nobel prize, which Tolstoy was never granted. In Sweden this is still after 100 years one of the most serious controversies in the history of the prize and the credibility of its awarding committee. The issue isn’t mentioned in the Swedish article but the English one tells that it was Tolstoy himself, who fought tooth and nail not to be awarded (which seems consistent to his philosophy of life).

    The second is Shakespeare, who isn’t mentioned in the English article, but in the Swedish version described as a man, whom Tolstoy looked upon with distaste, uneasiness and confusion. After reading King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth he had found him being a bad screenplay and not a true artist. At the age of 75 Tolstoy re-read Shakespeare and got the same feelings except for the ‘confusion’. Shakespeare’s reputation, he stated, was built upon ‘grand evil and untruth’.

    The Swedish Wikipedia also mentions George Orwell’s Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool as a comment upon this ‘controversy’. But the moral is: in advocacy the selection of facts is as important as facts themselves. May I add that I admire them both, the realist and the idealist.

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    Presumably a lot of aging Boomers who in the ’70’s thought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (or Be Here Now, or the Greening of America, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or . . .) was the Most Profound and Lifechanging Book they’d ever read feel a little embarrassed about that now, four decades down the road. It would be interesting to know how the enthusiastic Tolstoyans (or Blavatskyites, or whatever else was on offer at the time) of the 1890’s felt about it by the the 1930’s.

  8. I’m certainly not embarrassed by ZAMM; I reread it every few years. Jonathan Segal Chicken I thought was stupid even at the time.

  9. What he said.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Never tried Zen/Motorbike; might do in view of the above.

    Agree in spades about the utterly, utterly silly Jonathan Livingstone Budgerigar. High contender for Worst Thing I’ve Ever Actually Read All The Way Through (I was younger and more tolerant and didn’t know it was OK to stop and fling the horrid thing away with a muffled cry of disgust.)

    I speak as one who actually *likes* the Second Epilogue to War and Peace.

  11. There actually is a parody called Jonathan Segal Chicken; I had forgotten that, but evidently the title stuck in my memory. What is more, there are other Jewish-themed parodies named “Marvin Stanley Pigeon” (published in The New Yorker in the 1972-11-18 issue) and Jonathan Livingston Fliegle. The first begins thus:

    Marvin Stanley Pigeon was no ordinary pigeon. While other pigeons spent their time grubbing for food, Marvin Stanley Pigeon worked away on his book on the window ledge outside the Manuscript Room of the Public Library in Bryant Park. He wanted to get his novel done in time for Macmillan’s spring list.

  12. .. was the Most Profound and Lifechanging Book they’d ever read feel a little embarrassed about that now, four decades down the road.

    I too have found that my disposition and receptiveness towards certain books have changed, say with regard to Naked Lunch and Ulysses. It’s not that I feel embarassed at how they affected me, but rather bemused. It’s instructive and entertaining, at any rate. I don’t feel as if I have “progressed”, but instead merely altered.

  13. May I add that I admire them both, the realist and the idealist.

    I don’t think that Shakespeare, who set most of his plays in the past and in other countries (partly for prudential reasons, to be sure), and whose plots often turn on magic (Macbeth, The Tempest) or outrageous coincidence (The Comedy of Errors) can realistically be called a realist. Shakespeare was the most un-ideological of writers, and wrote his plays primarily for money, like any Hollywood screenwriter. (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money.” —Samuel Johnson)

    Indeed, an apocryphal Hollywood agent said that he had the greatest respect for Shakespeare, because every writer says when he’s made enough money he’ll go home, but when Shakespeare had made enough money to buy a grand house in Stratford, he actually did go home.

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