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!


  1. any rumors flying yet about their new Zhivago coming this fall? It was certainly time for another attempt — perhaps this will be dismaying though.

  2. I managed to find that edition of Commentary at a bookstore here in Cologne. The passages quoted from P&V versions of Dostoyevsky are pretty sad stuff, compared with those of Garnett/Matlaw.
    I think I have a partial explanation for the media hyping of P&V. The wooden, semi-intelligible quality of their translations is exotic. It’s just what you expect to get when you buy a novel by a Great Russian Writer. It’s the apanage you need in discussions with your world-weary, cosmopolitan friends from Akron. You don’t want Dostoyevsky sounding like John Irving, now do you ? Everybody has read Irving, or seen the movies.
    I read Crime and Punishment and The Idiot in Garnett’s translations when I was about 18. All I remember was that they were hard going, and the Russian characters seemed to be short-circuited robots. When I read German translations of The Karamazov Brothers, the Notes and Evil Spirits (Geier’s title) two years ago, they blew me away. The Grand Inquisitor section in the Brothers shook me up even more than the final minutes of Mary Poppins. I was made of sterner stuff when I was 18, I guess. Maybe it’s not the translations so much as the age of the reader.

  3. wonderclock says

    So what ARE the best translations of Dostoevsky and the other 19th-century Russians?

  4. There is no one “best.” Each has its good and bad points. I always tell people to read a chunk of as many translations as they can find (easy to do now with Google Books and Amazon Inside the Book) and choose the one they enjoy reading most; whatever occasional inaccuracies they encounter will be more than made up for by the overall experience of reading the book.

  5. Yesterday, I talked to Professor Morson about his article. He acknowledged that the best criticism of the P/V translations is this brilliant article in Russian:

  6. Here‘s the direct link to “Успех и успешность” by М. Берди and В.К. Ланчиков; the first author is Michele A. Berdy, LH’s very own mab (who used to comment more frequently, sigh).

  7. Alan Shaw says

    Very interesting article. I’m sorry to say I mentioned their Crime and Punishment to my father when he asked me to recommend a translation. Purely on the basis of what I was hearing.
    Too bad Nabokov isn’t still around; he would have left them in smoking ruins. Especially for what they do to his beloved Gogol.

  8. Folks, please take note, and Hat in particular: at this link you can hear Alan Shaw reciting sections of the Odyssey in Greek. In the blog article On Reciting Ancient Greek he explains his own views as “a poet, playwright, composer, and translator”.
    I was quite taken by his delivery, for a particular reason: it reminds me of the way James Hind could declaim Greek. Jimmy was a Scot, a friend of mine who taught in the Classics department at UT Austin many years ago when I was dabbling in Greek.

  9. The Baroque recitation of La Fontaine to which Alan Shaw’s blog links is pretty fun, too. (Though the audience doesn’t seem to think so.)

  10. If I’m not mistaken Orlando Figes was one of those who gave P&V a top rating.

  11. Alan Shaw says

    Thanks, Stu, for listening and commenting. I did those recordings six or seven years ago; I hope at some point to do a Youtube video with a longer segment from the Odyssey.
    Lazar’s La Fontaine recitation was done at the St. Petersburg (Russia) Early Music Festival; probably a lot of the audience weren’t following the French very well. My favorite part is where he graphically (and literally) illustrates the words “sur les dents.”

  12. you can hear Alan Shaw reciting sections of the Odyssey in Greek
    And very well, too; there’s still too much emphasis on the pitch accent for my liking (one does that when one is getting used to the concept, but people who actually speak pitch languages don’t do it that way—the pitch contours will vary from heightened to barely perceptible depending on flow, context, and emotion), but it still sounds more like my own recitation of Homer than anything else I’ve heard, and that is of course how I judge quality.

  13. Orlando Figes was one of those who gave P&V a top rating.
    Which is just one reason you shouldn’t take historians as literary guides.

  14. it still sounds more like my own recitation of Homer than anything else I’ve heard
    What’s this ?? Chapter, verse and link, please !

  15. marie-lucie says

    I just looked at the “Baroque recitation” of Le Lion et le Moucheron and could only understand a few words here and there. It seems that the performer is using a recreation of 17th century pronunciation, which, coupled with the speed of his delivery sometimes, makes it hard to understand him. No wonder that the presumably Russian audience looks puzzled.
    The harpsichordist is very good, but I did not see a mention of what it was that he was playing.

  16. I understood lion and moucheron. I looked up moucheron to be absolutely sure what kind of mouche the performer was talking about, since his gestures suggested a butterfly to me.

  17. Alan Shaw says

    Yes, the pronunciation takes some getting used to. It helps to have the text handy.
    The harpsichord piece is a Gigue by Froberger, with the interesting title “la rusée Mazarinique.” The score explains: “lentement et avec discrétion comme le retour de Mr. le Cardinal Mazarin à Paris.” (supposedly right after the Fronde)

  18. Avec discrétion, that’s a good one. Monsieur le Cardinal must have been expecting to have his wily chopped off at any moment.

  19. I’d comment more frequently if it weren’t so blazing hot that the wireless transmission towers are melting. And the electricity goes off. And the water disappears. And cell phones die. Moscow can’t cope with this kind of heat.
    I’m glad Morson liked our article. And I’m very glad he got an excellent venue for his.
    And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dunk my head in a vat of cold water.

  20. You should be at your beautiful dacha, mab.

  21. I am at my beautiful dacha, Mr Crown, and for the first time in recorded history, it’s miserable even here. True, the air quality is better (Russia still has leaded gas, so the city air is just plain dangerous these days). And true, at about 2 am it cools down (to the low 80s). But there hasn’t been a breeze in weeks. I wanted to jump into your waterfall.

  22. mab! Hang in there; I’m sorry to hear you’re experiencing such misery. If you can’t be comfortable at a dacha, where can you be comfortable, dammit?

  23. Good question, Hat, and one millions of Muscovites are asking. The only people who are (sort of) happy are the purveyors of fans and air conditioners, which sell out the nanosecond they arrive. I don’t think there has been such a long spell of such hot weather ever recorded before. And the next 10 days look like more of the same. Sigh.

  24. Right now it is unbearably hot in Moscow, California, Virginia, and Minnesota.

  25. It’s damn hot in Norway too. Somewhere in the low to mid seventies is my guess, and more to come. The locals are all dizzy and may faint.

  26. Wow. The low 70s. I remember them. Well, probably the heat will end with a crash down to the 50s and we’ll be complaining about the crappy cold weather. In the meantime, I’m singing Heat Wave…(Martha and the Vandellas).

  27. It’s humid here too. Technically, it’s rain, I suppose. By The Beatles.

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