I’m afraid my delay in reading last week’s New Yorker means that it’s no longer on newsstands (and the article isn’t online), but if you can find a copy, the November 7 issue has an article by David Remnick called “The Translation Wars” that discusses the history of English translations of Russian literature, beginning with the sainted/damned Constance Garnett (“She worked with such speed, with such an eye toward the finish line, that when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on”) and focusing on the husband-and-wife team of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (she provides him with detailed trots, he turns them into literary English). The saga of how they got their first translation (The Brothers Karamazov) published is depressing at first (Random House responded: “No, thanks. Garnett lives forever. Why do we need a new one?”) but turned out happily, and they’re now well off and working on War and Peace (and keeping the French in French, hurrah!). Aside from a pointless rehash of the many-times-rehashed Nabokov-Wilson spat (“Your translation of Onegin sucks!” “No way, it’s your Russian that sucks!”), it’s well worth reading.

But since you probably can’t read the Remnick piece, I’ll share a nice bit of Georgii Adamovich I just ran across in his essay on Remizov: Разговорный язык слагался у нас, как впрочем и везде, в стороне от грамматических насилий, под различными перекрестными влияниями, одно отбрасывая, другое усваивая, и как всякий подлинно живой организм переваривая, претворяя в свое то, что было чужим. [Conversational language among us, as everywhere, has been formed apart from grammar’s violence, under various reciprocal influences, rejecting one thing while adopting another, and like every genuinely living organism digesting and making its own that which had been another’s.]


  1. Do you remember whether the piece mentions David McDuff at all?

  2. I just looked through it, and it doesn’t seem to.

  3. LH,
    You are right that the rehash of the Nabokov-Wilson spat was completely unnecessary. That section could have easily been excised. It might have been more worthwhile if Remnick had compared P/V to someone like Andrew Bromfield who’s translated a lot of modern Russian literature.
    Remnick’s comments about abandoning Russian for the “mathematical logic of French” made me scratch my head. He even complains about the Russian verb system! Compared to French the Russian verb is a paragon of logic and efficiency. In his defense though, I have to say that in my experience there is some truth to the stereotype that emigre Russians were very harsh teachers by American standards (at least at Yale), and I’m sure Remnick is not the only eager Russian student who was crushed and driven off to learn French or Spanish.

  4. I had an electronic copy forward to me, if anyone wants it.
    I’m depressed by publishers’ unwillingness to part with old translations as well. I’d love to see P/V’s translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky become the standard ones one of these days.

  5. It’s such a different story in classical languages where new translations are eagerly awaited while the “classic” translations are held dear right alongside. I’ve got several translations of the Homeric Hymns finding something wonderful in each. And even in Latin – a language I can theoretically read – I love comparing translations to each other and the original.
    Although William Matthews was refering specifically to classical languages, he sums up my position on all translation: “A poet from classical languages is kept alive by a process of continual translation, an enterprise that grows on itself like a coral colony.” [From The Mortal City: 100 Epigrams of Martial.]

  6. It’s such a different story in classical languages where new translations are eagerly awaited while the “classic” translations are held dear right alongside.
    Yes, and I wish that were true generally — if you can’t read a book in the original, at least reading two or three different translations gives you a stereoscopic view.

  7. I have widened your stereoscopic approach: I read an author whose language I don’t know in 2 translations: Russian and English. G.G.Marquez is much more enjoyable this way.

  8. Michael Farris says

    Tatyana, that sounds like a good idea, unfortunately I’m too impatient and I almost never read a book twice cover to cover. With books I really like I’ll dip in and out at different places so that in effect I’ve read it many times but only once linearly from beginning to end. Now I’ll have to try reading a second translation of a book I’ve already read in translation. I recently finished Planet of the Apes in Polish (Planeta małp), if I see a cheap English translation I might give it a try.

  9. I read an author whose language I don’t know in 2 translations: Russian and English.
    Perhaps what I am doing is similar, since I have resolved to read (and made some progress in reading) The Thousand and One Nights for the first time (properly, anyway) in Catalan, a language I have not otherwise studied. Ah, the heady Romance allure of Les mil i una nits (Anònim)!
    I confidently predict that I shall never read The Planet of the Apes in Catalan, though – nor in Occitan neither.
    As for the analogy of stereoscopy, it is indeed potent, and provides one of the main justifications or excuses for those of us who labour from time to time at translating the untranslatable.

  10. Michael Farris says

    Noetica, don’t knock it, Planet des Singes (?) is a smart, funny sci-fi satire and nothing like the big, dumb movies that are supposedly based on it (okay, the first movie did have it’s charms, but it was mostly big and dumb and had very little to do with the book).

  11. Michael, I won’t in my ignorance dispute the literary merits of El planeta dels simis. I simply meant that life is short. I think I would want to attempt Ulysses in Portuguese, first.
    Compare all of this, by the way, with Thomas Jefferson supposedly learning Spanish through a reading of Don Quixote, as he claimed to have done before an incredulous John Quincy Adams.

  12. Chris, could you please email me a copy of the article? Thanks in advance!

  13. Noetica, you remind me of…me. attempting to read Spy by JFCooper in original in 4th grade, on a bet with my then admirer/braid puller. Stalled on the page 11 when realised I can fake it by taking Russian translation from the adult library…

  14. I’d be very grateful if Chris T could also send me an electronic copy of the article. I’m in Moscow, and it takes awhile for my New Yorker to reach me. I’m particularly curious since a Russian translator colleague and I have been analyzing the Pevear Volkonsky translations — checking them against the Russian — and are baffled, to put it mildly, by the lavish praise of their work.

  15. Could you expand on that? What do you find problematic in their translations: problems of tone, omissions, mistranslations? I’ve never used any of their translations, so I don’t care one way or the other, but I’m curious.

  16. When you compare the English to the Russian, you find mistranslations; inconsistencies of approach (sometimes idioms are translated literally — even if they make no sense; sometimes not); stylistic errors; literalism; mixed styles; and just plain old bad English. As far as I recall (true, I’ve lived in Moscow for many years), you can’t say “he drank up his pants” in English. And does anyone whose native language is not Russian know what “unclean powers” might be? Or do you think a 19th century Russian peasant could say, “Well, I declare!” My colleague, who has been doing the lion’s share of analysis, has been entertaining and horrifying me with examples for months now. Sometimes I accuse him of making them up because they sound like parodies of bad translation, not something that won the PEN Club Translation Prize.
    We’re expecting to finish our article (in Russian) early in 2006 (probably February), and if folks are interested, I’ll let you know where an electronic version can be found.
    We started this because I’d been reading so many rave reviews of the P/V translations, I was curious. I expected to find them rather good. I cannot understand how reviewers can write about translations without knowing the original language and/or checking the translation against the original. I gather Remnick continues the praise of P/V?

  17. Please do let me know when your article is out; I’d love to read it. Remnick doesn’t actually come right out and say P/V are great translators, but he leaves that impression. On the other hand, he admits his Russian isn’t that great.
    By the way, Remnick says her brother is a poet — would that be Анри Волохонский?

  18. Well, good that Remnick admits that, but then: why write about translation if you don’t know the language of the original well? I know Russian very well, but I wouldn’t attempt this kind of analysis without a Russian colleague.
    Yes, her brother is Анри. If you’d like (and if this site allows) I can send an interview with P/V in Russian. I can also suggest a few Russian sites for translators that might interest you and others who check in. I’ve been sending Russian colleagues to your site, and they’ve been enjoying the various “illusions” (frequency, recency) and other articles.

  19. Interesting comments, MAB. I can’t read Russian, but I have done a fair amount of Dutch to English translation, and the PV method as described in this story struck me as pretty odd. And certainly as problematic as Garnett’s. Considered logically the steps don’t make sense: (a) Mrs., not being an English stylist, does a straight literal translation which doesn’t necessarily result in all the right meanings coming across, (b) Mr., not fluent in Russian, does what amounts to a rewrite to make it sound better (but how does that preserve or get back to the author’s sense?), (c) then Mr. reads it back to Mrs. while Mrs. reads along in the original text, and they doctor it up some more depending on how it strikes her. Translation is hard enough for one person to do, but this sounds like a pretty schizoid two-person process.

  20. Michael Farris says

    The method _could_ work I think if both are extremely fluent in both languages. But one weak link (apparently in this case his Russian) and it’ll fall apart for the reasons Martin lists. I’ve had similar problems in editing things written by non-native speakers, I think I understand what they write and make it sound better but get further away from what was intended (an unavoidable process unless you have somebody who knows what they’re doing checking the editor, not often the case).
    Still, I’d think if they were both fluent enough I’d think going straight from Russian to English without the trot but both double checking the work (with maybe some back translations in tricky parts). I do like reading the translation outloud while a native reads the original but again, that would work better if he were more fluent in Russian.

  21. If you’d like (and if this site allows) I can send an interview with P/V in Russian
    Sure, post the link in a comment — I’d love to see it.
    I’ve been sending Russian colleagues to your site, and they’ve been enjoying the various “illusions” (frequency, recency) and other articles.
    Umm… are you quite sure you’re sending them here and not to my bitter rivals Language Log? ‘Cause they’re the ones who are always going on about frequency illusions and that sort of thing.
    (Just kidding about the bitter rivals part, in case anyone was tempted to take me seriously! I drop by Language Log Plaza for a beer all the time.)

  22. Michael Farris says

    “I drop by Language Log Plaza for a beer all the time”
    But if it’s just to see what the evil bastards are up to now, it doesn’t count.

  23. When I first read the reviews of the P/V translations, I didn’t know he didn’t speak or read Russian. This method of cribs and literary editing was used in the USSR, often to provide work to writers who otherwise could not publish their own poetry or prose. We’ve looked for studies of it, but can’t find any. So although we can’t cite research, it’s hard to see how it would produce fine translations: one person doesn’t know the target language thoroughly and the other doesn’t know the source language at all. With this method the two people are almost working between the languages, not in them.
    Yes, ideally you have a native speaker of Russian who knows English well help you and double check what you’ve done. It’s easy to miss allusions, or gloss over something that should have been marked, or get the tone of something wrong, or simply misunderstand a tricky passage. For historical reasons, Russian and English-speaking translators have not been able to work together, and there are plenty of mistakes. (You ought to try watching Sex in the City with Russian translation some time — the translators miss jokes, allusions, slang, tone, etc. to such an extent, you feel like you’re in two realities.) But both translators must have a high level of competence in both languages, or else it is a case of the blind leading the blind.
    I’ve always sneered a bit at Garnett, whose translations do tend to be smoother than the original — she tended to make the language more neutral, less marked, and more British culturally. But when you compare her translations to P/V and some other contemporary translators, she turns out to be quite decent. At least she got the meaning right most of the time.
    Ah — I see I started on your site and jumped to Language Log for the frequency and recency illusions. Those links get confusing… Sorry, the P/V interview is a word doc, don’t have the original link. Materials get passed around here, and you lose the thread.

  24. Yes, I’ve come to appreciate old Connie more over the years — she may be stodgy (and leave out the hard bits), but she’s reasonably reliable and doesn’t read too badly (even if she makes everybody sound the same).
    Could you send me the Word doc as an attachment? The address is languagehat AT Thanks!

  25. Here’s one interview, 2 clicks away on Google, and in HTML format.
    As to inadequate translations, at least on the Russian side in years past the tradition MAB mentions (cribs-to-literary translation), born out of misery, brought astonishingly good results. Years of reading world literature thru magazine Inostrannaya literatura convinced me of superior level of Russian literary translators, not least because of at min 80 y.o tradition of treating it as separate philological profession, with special education and academic institutes (famous foreign literature’ faculties @IFLI, etc) – but also for many decades being the only available means of earning money for hundreds of first row of Russian writers and poets (Akhmatova is the first example that comes to mind). Those people just couldn’t produce a bad job, by their very nature. [some of the translated writing I find better in Russian translation than English originals, f.ex., Bradbery “Dandelion Vine” translated by E.Kabalevsky]
    Sad state of the current translation in Russia, paradoxically, comes from generally positive turn in economic situation in the country and the way literature and arts catch up with the West model.
    Also, a small note about “Sex and a city” voice-over (or the subs) – it’s completely different cattle of fish, not comparable with literary translation. If you want to listen to something even funnier, you should’ve watched American and French porn in the 80’s, in Russia, with the voice-over: it surpassed the action by magnitudes in sheer entertainment value.

  26. Chris T. or Artem or anyone: I would love a digital copy. I have the original and was gonna scan it in for some of my Russian friends – in Russia – who want to read it. Many cheers in advance.

  27. Tatyana: well, Akhmatova’s “translations” might have been lovely to read, but unless we compare them to the original, we don’t know if they are good translations (even with the caveat that it’s hard to define “good”). But as far as the Russian tradition of excellent literary translation, superb teaching of translation, and advanced theory of translation goes — you won’t hear an argument from me. Maybe it exists in the US (and I’d be grateful for links to info), but so far I haven’t found anything that is even close to the level of sophistication of academic work here.
    I would also quibble about the so-called drop in the level of translation here. Yes, there are thousands of hacks, but there are still thousands of excellent translators and interpreters, working both ways (Russian to English, English to Russian). That said, even with “good translators” on both sides, there are plenty of mistakes. I can’t figure out why — it’s no longer hard to find a colleague to help — but you still see errors that could have been easily avoided with a phone call or email.

  28. I’d love to be forwarded the word doc of the P/V article. Thanks in advance! (Like someone else, above, I’m in Russia and it is hard to get hold of the New Yorker).
    As for P/V themselves… has anyone read Gary Saul Morson’s excellent “And Quietly Flows the Vodka”? It is a satire on Russian studies, and of Russian literature in general.
    He takes a snide little swipe at P/V, talking of their translation of Tostoi’s “Воскресение”, as “Sunday” in the English…. hehe.

  29. And Quiet Flows the Vodka: or When Pushkin Comes to Shove: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Russian Literature—sounds great! (It was published under the name Alicia Chudo, by the way.) Thanks for calling the book to my attention; I’ll have to look for it.

  30. Yes, Alicia Chudo… tres amusant. Very good book and very funny. Highly recommend it to anyone interested in Russian studies or Russian classics. “Chudo” uncovers an unpublished Dostoevskii chapter, which is particularly funny.

  31. Andrew Dunbar says

    I have widened your stereoscopic approach: I read an author whose language I don’t know in 2 translations: Russian and English. G.G.Marquez
    Me too! I now have my favourite Gabo novel in 8 languages (but I’m missing Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Korean, and Swedish if anybody can help).
    In case anybody is interested in which exotic languages are more difficult, I can follow just enough of the Japanese to see that it’s not a fun translation, but the Arabic is close to utterly impossible for me.

  32. Michael, I would love a digital copy of the article if you can forward it on.

  33. Sorry, guess that was Chris, not Michael.

  34. Natalie Maygua says

    I think about this trhat is very important for us all. thank you.

  35. MAB: I’d love to see the article as well. I stumbled onto this discussion in the course of looking for a single website that had anything but vague praise for P/V as translators. I think the classic case is Oprah (whom they’ve never heard of) making them rich by recommending their Anna Karenina without reading their translation EVEN IN ENGLISH!
    I’ve been working on Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, comparing Aylmer Maude’s 1898 translation with the original, and finding it mostly fairly accurate. Then, finally (I’m in Russia this year), the 1995 P/V translation came, and I opened it with excitement–and blah. It really isn’t a new “translation”; it reads like they changed a few words here and there in Maude’s translation. For example:
    “If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint, on reading, hearing, or seeing someone else’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other men who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art” (Maude).
    “If a man, without any effort on his own part and without any change in his situation, having read, heard or seen a work by another man, experiences a state of mind which unites him with this man and with others who perceive the object of art in the same way as he does, then the object which calls up such a state is an object of art” (P/V).
    Note there that “man” is a translation of “chelovek” (yesli chelovek, bez vsyakoy deyatel’nosti s svoey storony i bez vsyakogo izmeneniya svoego polozheniya)–which is to say that in 1995, with two accurate and colloquially natural non-gendered equivalents for “chelovek” (person and human being) available to them, P/V followed the Victorian Maude in using “man.” The entire translation is like this. I’m guessing that this time they just skipped Larisa’s trot and had Richard just do a little light editing to Maude. But why would anyone in 1995 not go: “hm, I wonder whether Tolstoy’s word for ‘man’ is gendered or non-gendered? Maybe I ought to have Larisa check–just for shits and giggles.”
    The great thing for P/V, of course, is that “their” What Is Art? gets published in the Penguin series, gets used in courses all over the world, they make great royalties–off work that was mostly done by somebody a hundred years ago.

  36. Man, that’s bad. Why do they get such great press?

  37. Why do they get such great press?
    Probably because nobody’s really paying attention. Because their translations are easy to read, and people figure they must be more or less accurate. Your average reader “forgets” that s/he’s reading a translation; your average educated reader that “remembers” it’s a translation figures that somebody who knows both languages well MUST be checking the translation for accuracy, so it MUST be more or less reliable. But in fact it’s a pain in the ass to get ahold of the translation AND the original, and go through even a random paragraph stereoscopically. Most bilingual readers aren’t going to bother; and by far most of the people who read translations (including reviewers) aren’t bilingual. And we don’t have a tradition of serious translation criticism, so there is no automatic mechanism that prompts book review editors to look for bilingual translation experts to send translations to for review.

  38. Oh, one other thing:
    “But as far as the Russian tradition of excellent literary translation, superb teaching of translation, and advanced theory of translation goes — you won’t hear an argument from me. Maybe it exists in the US (and I’d be grateful for links to info), but so far I haven’t found anything that is even close to the level of sophistication of academic work here” (MAB).
    I disagree completely here. I am constantly APPALLED at the low level of sophistication of academic work in translation studies here (in Russia). I’m teaching in a translation studies department at Voronezh State University this year, and my colleagues are constantly amazed at my mentions of this or that truism that translation scholars in the West all take for granted–anything coming out of cultural studies, in particular. I recently attended the 7th Fyodorov Readings in Translation Studies at the University of St. Petersburg, and found the conference aptly named: all anybody had read was Fyodorov and other Soviet translation theorists from the sixties. There was one paper exploring a cognitive-science approach to translation, but apart from that, everything was the sort of thing you tell beginning translation students: languages are different, so you can’t translate word for word; it’s important to be accurate, etc.
    There are several reasons for this backwardness, obviously. One is the economy: it’s still difficult for people to buy Western books here (they’re too expensive, and won’t ship to Russia). Another is old chauvinistic habits, which for some reason seem to be particularly strong among translation scholars here: everything worth saying was said by Russians, so why even bother looking at Western scholars? (My linguist colleagues are no longer like this; my translation scholar colleagues definitely are.) A third is the economy (I know, everything’s the economy here): because university salaries are shit, the creative intellectuals go freelance, make a living doing translating and writing articles for magazines, leaving a lot of boring drudges in the universities. Certainly that seemed to be the case in St. Petersburg, but I’ve been absolutely underwhelmed by translation scholars at Moscow State (generally regarded as the best university in the country) as well.
    As for US translation scholarship, I’ve done a lot of it myself (The Translator’s Turn 1991, Translation and Taboo 1996, What Is Translation? 1997, Who Translates? 2001), and I have several chapters (8-10) summarizing the major trends in my textbook Becoming a Translator (1997, Russian translation Kak stat’ perevodchikom 2005). Another good source of info on approaches to translation by an American is Edwin Gentzler’s Contemporary Translation Theories (1993). The biggest American name in translation studies today is Lawrence Venuti (The Translator’s Invisibility 1995, The Scandal of Translation 1997, Translation and Minority 2000, etc.). I’m not crazy about Venuti’s stuff myself, but a lot of people swear by it–and certainly it’s a lot more sophisticated than anything I’ve seen by a Russian translation scholar.

  39. Thanks for the titles — I’ll have to investigate them. I admit I haven’t kept up with translation theory myself (I tend to assume “theory” = “unreadable academese,” so I probably miss a lot of good stuff).

  40. Gee, sorry to have missed a few weeks of LH on holiday! Gosh, Doug Robinson has joined us! I know your work well. In fact, I wrote praising flap copy for the Russian edition of your book. I work with folks at Inyaz, and think very highly of them. (Tend to side with the Inyaz folks in their disdain for the MGU folks; it may be a big, rich university, but it’s not best in all fields.) Find conference papers and presentations here a mixed bag, but figured they are like conferences everywhere else. As much as I usually fight the assertion that the Russian provinces are behind the capital, I have found that to be fairly true. Was just in Saratov, and they are doing good language teaching, but not at all up to date on what’s happening in Moscow or the rest of the world in translation. Not even sophisticated about Internet resources.
    Am fascinated by the different perception of levels here; laughed out loud when I read the bit about “Russian colleagues’ amazement over what are considered truisms in the US” since I had just the exact same conversation in reverse with a Russian colleague about US scholars’ presenting as a revelation what has been a truism here for decades. Maybe we’re reading and talking to the wrong people? Worth a separate discussion whenever you’re in Moscow. Feel free to contact me via email.
    On P/V — I think you are right that they use previous translations; that’s made explicit in a quote by P in Robert Wechsler’s book “Performing Without a Stage — the Art of Literary Translation” (which I also liked). And you are sadly right that publications don’t bother to ensure a reviewer who can check the translation against the original language. In Weschler’s book he seems to imply that even the PEN Club folks don’t compare the translation to the original. I gasped. Is that right? THEN HOW CAN THEY AWARD TRANSLATION PRIZES? This is beyond nuts.
    There was a piece of criticism of P/V by Timothy Westphalen (their Dead Souls), which I can send, and I’m tracking down some scholarly works published in the Tolstoy Studies Journal. But in general it seems that people “have heard” their translations are good, so they open them expecting “good” and think they get it. It becomes a self-perpetuating myth.

  41. I’d love to see the Dead Souls review (I’m reading it now in Russian), if you can send it to me.

  42. I’d also like to see the review, if you could send it to me:
    Thanks a lot.
    This is a great discussion — nice to find some dissing of P/V somewhere. Been reading their Demons againts Besy quite closely. For the most part, good, but there are some really clunky little bad boys in there, too.

  43. First time I’ve ever heard anything bad about P/V. This thread got kind of long; to sum up, would most of you vote AGAINST reading the P/V translations? I was comparing the translations of Garnett and P/V for The Brothers Karamazov, and I thought that the husband and wife did a much better job (I do not speak or read Russian — I just mean their version seems to flow better and seems more of what I would expect the Dostoevsky to sound like).
    Also, should I read the P/V versions of Master and Margarita and Dead Souls, or look elsewhere?

  44. I, too, am interested in a comparison of the P/V and Garnett versions. Garnett seems to be dismissed heavily in the New Yorker article, and I wonder how much truth there actually is to her writing in Edwardian prose and omitting words she did not understand. It seems to read fluidly to me, but does it stick to Dostoevsky’s style, or does she invent one of her own?

  45. I, too, am interested in a comparison of the P/V and Garnett versions. Garnett seems to be dismissed heavily in the New Yorker article, and I wonder how much truth there actually is to her writing in Edwardian prose and omitting words she did not understand. It seems to read fluidly to me, but does it stick to Dostoevsky’s style, or does she invent one of her own?

  46. The P/V translations of Gogol and Master and Margarita are the worst of their batch. Definitely do not recommend.
    I haven’t done a thorough analysis of Garnett’s translations, but would like to. I, too, rather sneered at her. She does “smooth things over” — it was the translation culture at the time. So the rocky bits in Russian, the illiterate peasant talk, the strange images sometimes (or maybe often) get turned into something more neutral. I haven’t found places where she left things out. And I have to say that when checking against her translations, my colleague and I have found that she got the sense right when later translators didn’t. Virtually always.
    Right now I feel rather protective of Connie. There is the image of her as a kind of bluestocking who couldn’t get rough and tumble with the texts, almost as if she was dabbling a bit on translation in between dinner parties and afternoon tea. But, excuse me, this was the woman who translated 70 volumes of Russian literature — and without internet, dictionaries, computers. And she was the first one to do so. Her translations may be dated — although remember that she was a contemporary of the people she was translating, so in some cases she “correctly” conveys their style — but they are an extraordinary achievement.
    I was interested in what Christian had to say about the P/V Dostoevsky being more “what he expected Dostoevsky to sound like.” My colleague and I think that’s why people have bought into P/V. Everyone sneers at Garnett as being too staid, so when people who don’t know Russian read some of the whoppers in P/V, they think, Gosh, so THIS is what people are talking about with Russian literature! People “drinking up their pants!” It sounds so wild and passionate! Alas, in Russian the phrase is not wild and passionate; it’s just a commonplace way to say that the guy pawned his trousers to buy booze.
    The article my colleague and I did in Russian was recently printed in Moscow; within the next week or so we’ll put an abridged version up on one of the language sites. Will be happy to provide the link. Next step is to redo in English for an English-speaking audience. But must finish some other work first!

  47. M. Meylikhova says

    I came across this discussion entirely by accident: I was looking for Remnick’s article to send to a friend and up popped this site; I stayed and read the learned comments of various people with regard to the article itself and to P/V translations.
    The reason I am writing this is because I was astonished by a comment from one of the posters on this site telling someone to stay away from especially P/V’s “Master and Margarita” and the Gogol translations. I find this advice absolutely not worthy. Their translations are imperfect and subjective as any translations are by definition and of necessity. But I would challenge the poster MAB to come up with a better recommendation.
    No, I am not a literary professional, translator or a writer. I am a life-long reader of Russian literature, born and raised in Moscow and educated in MGU (I graduated from one of the “gumanitarny fakul’tet”, no, not “filologicheskij”) before emigrating in 1978. I am only stating this to establish that (a) my Russian is a native language and (b) I had a reasonably good background in humanities. I did not lose my habit of reading books in Russian in my 27 years of living in an English-speaking and writing environment.
    I do not usually read Russian classics or moderns in translation but I had to, by necessity, look at and compare various translations from Russian into English when my son (who does not know Russian), then a high school senior, was assigned to read “Crime and Punishment” for his world lit class. I leafed through the Garnett’s translation, which he brought from the school library and checked some chapters against my copy of the “Crime and Punishment” in Russian. I was absolutely appalled by the blandness and insipidity of her language! I went to my local bookstore where I spent a couple of hours going through one or two other translations (can’t recall whose) before alighting upon P/V’s version and it was a hit. I read several chapters closely in parallel with the original text and found it quite a satisfactory exercise. I got it for my son and made a mental note about the translators’ names for future reference.
    My son (now a sophomore in college) had subsequently developed quite an interest in Russian lit (he tells me, it is “in”) and I had to repeat this exercise several times since then. So far, I compared the P/V’s translation of “Master and Margarita” with 2 other translations I found – one, by Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O’Connor, and an older one by Mirra Ginsburg. There was no comparison as far as the treatment of both the Soviet vernacular and of the scenes with Pilat and Yeshua. P/V’s was by far the better of what is available and, though not perfect, it is not, as one of the correspondents here sneered at, to be avoided at all costs. Ditto for Gogol’s “Collected Tales” as compared against a selection from “Vechera na khutore…” and “Peterbugskie povesti”. I found the translation quite adequate. I know that my son since got a copy of “Dead Souls” but I have not looked at it yet. He read it and waxed beautifully, over several late night phone calls from college, how poetic were the passages at the end (yes, the “ptitsa troika” passages).
    I also beg to differ about the “non-gendered” vs. “gendered” usage while translating Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?”. I read an interview where Pevear acknowledges and discusses using other translations for comparison so it doesn’t surprise me that there are close similarities in the passages quoted. I fail to see any problem with using a gendered word “man” by both the Victorian Maude and contemporary P/V. I think that “man” is closer to Tolstoy’s “chelovek”. “Man” fits with the time, to which the original belongs; it is characteristic of the times. Tolstoy’s “chelovek”, although a gendered word, conveys a universal concept of a human being. So does “man” in English. Or at least it used to, until a fallacy, promulgated by the politically correct professoriate in academe, has foisted this artificial usage of “person” or “human being” where a perfectly good word “man” can and should be used. It fits very well with Tolsoy’s meaning as well as with his time. Perhaps in the eyes and ears of a 2006 reader, it is somewhat of an anachronism, but so are a lot of things, and to “modernize” a translation would be to allow it to become less true to original, less accurate, in a single word, worse.
    I can only add that the quality of translation into Russian found in the old “collective works” of just about anyone – from Dickens to Thomas Mann was so superb that it opened up the new worlds for generations of people otherwise stuck in a closed society. Though I stopped reading Russian translations of anything written in English long before I left Moscow, I still read the French and the Germans in the superb Russian translations (having not yet had time to become proficient in those languages).
    Cheers, great site, great conversation.

  48. I’m glad you found the discussion! But I’ll point out that, since English isn’t your native language, you’re bound to react differently to translations. Perhaps the idea of a Russian peasant saying “Well, I declare!” doesn’t seem as ludicrous to you as it does to me. And chelovek isn’t gendered — it has no implication of male or female — which is why it’s a bad idea to translate it as “man.” People used to ignore this sort of thing, but fortunately that’s no longer true.

  49. I was interested in M Meylikhova’s comments. The article we wrote that explains our complaints about the P/V translations is now in abridged form at
    I think it makes clear what we DO want from a translation, which is to give readers in another language and culture as close to the same experience of reading a work as the readers had/have in the original language and culture. That means, in part, that where a text reads easily in Russian (no marked words, no coinages), it should also read smoothly in English. When the Russian is marked in some way (differentiating peasant from aristocratic speech, or coined words, or an unusual image or choice of words), you want it marked in English. We want the reader to understand what is “standard Russian literary language” or “standard conversational language” and what is unusual — what the author’s voice is. By these criteria (and others) we found the P/V translations lacking. I read along the English for a half paragraph, or page, or sometimes even a page or two with no problem — and then WHAM, it’s like hitting a speed bump. There is a literalism, or disconcerting syntax, or a speech by someone that just does not sound like English. Or a howler.
    Tastes differ and definitions of what a “good translation” also differ. By our definition Garnett isn’t always great, but at least she is consistent, while P/V are not — in one place they are literal, in another place they are creative, some place else the language is archaic and then in the next sentence or phrase it’s too modern. Or, in their Chekhov collection they give the title of a story as the (British style) Death of a Clerk, who is identified in the first sentence as an American-style office manager, sitting in British stalls, with reference a few lines down to Russian privy councillors and then a general who works in an American-style Department of Transportation. This is just plain sloppy. And hard to read.
    And as a translator I do take offense at P’s apparent use of other translations. To me it’s like doing a crossword puzzle by flipping to the answers and then showing your spouse the filled-in puzzle and saying, Look, Hon, I did it all!
    I suppose we wouldn’t have felt the need to point this out if these were just “some new translations.” New translations come out all the time, and some are okay, some are quite good, and some aren’t very good. But these are touted as the “best.” P/V talk about how they work and their goals, why their translations are better than previous ones. And they win awards. So our questions were: Are they really the best? Do they do what they say they are going to do? Our answer is: No.

  50. M. Meylikhova says

    I did not expect any responses to my previous post. But since you acknowledged it, here are my 2 cents in reply to these remarks.
    In the comment posted by “language hat”, it is dropped, en passant, that since I am not a native speaker of English, my sensibilities could not be that offended when I see a Russian peasant saying: “I do declare!” (as apparently is the case in the P/V’s translation of the “Karamazovs”). This comment is practically oozing with self-satisfied superiority. It also contradicts a point made in an earlier post on the thread where “MAB” said rather archly that non-native speakers of Russian couldn’t possibly understand what P/V mean by “unclean powers” and other such literalisms. It was that comment, if I remember correctly, that prompted my original response. Looks like in the eyes of the professionals, the reading public, whatever the native language, elicits nothing but ever-so-slight contempt.
    Going back to the “I do declare!” example: not having read the “Brothers Karamazov” in P/V’s translation, I couldn’t have noticed it. But having now read the dialogue in the article linked by “MAB”, I agree that it is dissonant. To use a further musical analogy, one would have to have a tin ear to miss this. I actually found a couple of similar missteps in P/V’s “Master and Margarita” (which I can’t quote now because I do not have a copy of the book in front of me). Be it as it may, I disregarded them because, by comparison with other versions, the P/V’s “Master” was still by far a more readable one in my opinion.
    Which brings me to this: there are very few objective measures of quality in translation. It is a subjective endeavor where “better” or “more readable”, &c. are but imprecise categories; in short, it is a matter of opinion. Yes, you can site this or that faux pas; there could be mixtures of English and American idioms, there could be “bukvalizmy” or anachronistic usage. But in the end, a Garnett’s translation of “Crime and Punishment” was flat and unreadable whereas P/V’s made for exciting reading and that is what counts.
    A writer writes for readers, not for philologists and linguists. Ditto, a translator who translates so that a reader in another language could gain a glimpse of a great work of art. A translation will rarely, if ever, approach the original. I spent my childhood reading what were thought to have been good Russian translations of Scott, Dickens and other authors who wrote in English. Having now re-read many of them in originals, I can tell you that some of those translations are greatly lacking. Scott’s characters spoke in modern Russian and a lot of the Victorian flavor was gone out of Dickens. Would I rather not have read Scott or Dickens in those translations? No. Would I rather that Ivanhoe in Russian was translated with equivalents of “thou” and “quoth” and “methinks”? Methinks I would, but it wasn’t done that way and I would not have missed “Ivanhoe” for the world! There is no such thing as a perfect translation and P/V’s efforts, for all their shortcomings, are infinitely more readable in the eyes of somebody who is reasonably well read in two languages.
    As to gendered vs. non-gendered &c. The noun “chelovek” formally is of masculine gender. Grammatically, its declension falls into a pattern characteristic of nouns of a masculine gender. That’s why I said that it is a gendered noun even though it may mean a generic “human being” as well as (and as often as) a male one. It seems that usage of the word “man” to denote a generic “human being” has been going out of fashion in American English lately. Whether this development is “natural” to the language or it owes more to pressures from a lunatic fringe of the “gender studies”-mongers, I cannot tell. But I would not have called this development “fortunate”. Thankfully, it’s been a while since I left the world of academia where it is de rigueur now to view language as a tool of patriarchal oppression. So I’ll stick with my point that we should not apply the early 21st century sensibilities to the 19th century writing.

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