The Art of Translation

by Dennis Abrams

Several people have asked me, “Why the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation? Why not the standard Constance Garnett?” Good question, and one I hope to answer in this post.

Constance Garnett (December 16, 1861 – December 17, 1946) translated over seventy volumes of Russian literature into English, including all of Dostoevsky’s works, two volumes of Chekhov’s plays and hundreds of his short stories, all of Turgenev’s major works and most of Tolstoy’s, in addition to works by Herzen, Goncharov, and Ostrovsky. In David Remnick’s article “The Translation Wars,” he cites D.H. Lawrence, who was amazed by her endurance, remembering her “sitting out oin the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high — really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”

We do, in fact, have Garnett to thank for introducing and popularizing Russian authors to the West. Her translations, though, while perhaps suitable for the time, no longer quite pass muster, and when you read how she did her translations, you’ll understand why. She worked with such speed, under such pressure to get it done and move on to the next work, that if she came across a word or a phase she didn’t quite understand, she’d simply skip it and move on. She is, as Remnick points out, often wooden in her renderings, and often not quite up to the challenge of translating “certain verbal motifs and particularly long and complicated sentences.”

My problem with Garnett (and translation is always a huge issue with me) is that her translations don’t sound particularly “Russian,” or at least how I imagine it to sound translated — it sounds like lovely Edwardian English. And even more disconcerting, every writer sounds alike. Joseph Brodky once wrote, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.” Another critic, Kornei Chukovsky, praised Garnett for her translations of Turbvenev and Chekhov, but not her Dostoevsky. As quoted from Remnick, “the famous style of ‘convulsions’ and ‘nervous trembling,’ he wrote, becomes under Garnett’s pen ‘a safe blandscript; not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original.'”

The husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, goes over the original text first and creates a transliterated draft marked with her comments on the writer’s style, Pevear works from that draft to polish the English text, and the two go back and forth until they’re both satisfied,no matter how long that might take. It took them two years, for example, to translate “The Brothers Karamazov.”) on the other hand, work to capture as much as possible the the idiomatic style of Dostoevsky, to make Dostoevsky sound like Dostoevsky, even at the price of occasional awkwardness. Indeed, Dostevsky’s critics and there are many, don’t hesitate to point out his seemingly erratic, even sloppy prose. In Reminck’s article, Pevear defends Dostoevsky from the charges.

“‘Dostoyevsky did write in a hurry,’ Pevear said. ‘He had terrible deadlines to meet. He wrote ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Gambler’ simultaneously. He knew that if he didn’t finish ‘The Gambler’ on time he would lose the rights to all his future books for the next nine years. That’s when he hired his future wife as a stenographer and dictated it to her. Tolstoy was better paid, and he didn’t even need the money. And yet Dostoyevsky’s roughness, despite the rush and pressure, was all deliberate. No matter what the deadline, if he didn’t like what he had, he would throw it all out and start again. So this so-called clumsiness is seen in his drafts, the way he works on it. It’s deliberate..’ ‘And this is how people speak,’ Volokhonsky said. ‘We mix metaphors, we stumble, we make mistakes.’ ‘Other translators smooth it out,’ Pevear said. ‘We don’t.'”

And that, in a nutshell, is why the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations are what I’ll be reading for Project D. I want my Dostoevsky to sound like Dostoevsky, warts and all.

For comparison sake, the first three paragraphs of the two translations:


“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitations, towards K. Bridge.

He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house, and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady, who provided him with garret, dinners, and attendance, lived on the floor below, and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time has passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. Her was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.

This was not because he was cowardly and abject, quite the contrary; but for some time past he had been an overstrained, irritable condition, verging on hypochondria. He had become so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but any one at all. He was crushed by poverty, but the anxieties of his position had of late ceased to weigh upon him. He had given up attending to matters of practical importance; he had lost all desire to do so. Nothing that any landlady could do had a real terror to him. But to be stopped on the stairs, to be forced to listen top her trivial, irrelevant gossip, to pestering demands for payment, threats and complaints, and to rack his brains for excuses, to prevaricate, to lie — no, rather than that, he would creep down the stairs like a cat and slip out unseen.”

Peaver and Volokhonsky:

“At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S___y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K___n Bridge.

He had safely avoided meeting his landlady on the stairs. His closet was located just under the roof of a tall, five-storied house, and was more like a cupboard than a room. As for the landlady, from whom he rented this closet with dinner and maid-service included, she lived one flight below, in separate rooms, and every time he went out he could not fail to pass by the landlady’s kitchen, the door of which almost always stood wide open to the stairs. And each time he passed by, the young man felt some painful and cowardly sensation, which made him wince with shame. He was over his head in debt to the landlady and was afraid of meeting her.

It was not that he was so cowardly and downtrodden, even quite the contrary; but for some time he had been in an irritable and tense state, resembling hypochondria. He was so immersed in himself and had isolated himself so much from everyone that he was afraid not only of meeting his landlady but of meeting anyone at all. He was crushed by poverty; but even his strained circumstances had lately ceased to burden him. He had entirely given up attending to his daily affairs and did not want to attend them. As a matter of fact, he was not afraid of any landlady, whatever she might be plotting against him. But to stop on the stairs, to listen to all sorts of nonsense about this commonplace rubbish, which he could not care less about, all this badgering for payment, these threats and complaints, and to have to doge all the while, make excuses, lie — oh, no, better to steal catlike down the stairs somehow and slip away unseen by anyone.”

It is always amazing to me to note the difference between translations, even in paragraphs as seemingly straightforward as these.

What do you think of the two translations and of the problem of translation in general?

More tomorrow…

This entry was posted in Discussion. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to The Art of Translation

  1. BTrunner says:

    I’m in! The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation it will be.

  2. Scott Seaman says:

    I’ve never read Dostoevsky and the first several paragraphs were a challenging stylistic immersion into the pages ahead. I enjoyed reading the differences between the two translators compared and remember standing in the bookstore comparing books just as you did to try to discern the difference. While close enough to get the point across, I’m pleased to be going with the more “authentic” version. Thanks for the primer.

  3. Alan Bellman says:

    Thanks for the explanation. This clears up some confusion I had last week when I tried to compare the Garnett version with the Pevear version.
    If you navigate to the Pevear selling page for Crime and Punishment on the Barnes and Noble website and click on the link to Read An Excerpt, you actually get to read the Garnett translation. Same thing with Google Excerpts which appears as an icon in several book discussion sites. I found a copy of the Garnett book in my daughter’s collection and was curious to compare the two. Can you imagine my surprise when the book I was holding and the online “excerpt” were word-for-word the same!

  4. Diver5 says:

    I have read a French translation to ” Crime and Punishment” while in high school and I thought the style was “invasive” and rough. Invasive, I guess because it invaded the notion that there was justice and what we would like to believe in; that the human soul is strong and hard to break. At a young age, this was a shock to me.
    The comparison of both styles is really interesting and Peaver’s resembles more what I remember of Dostoevsky’s work.

  5. Joni Rodgers says:

    Trying not to be distracted by the potential novel in the life/love/work of Peaver and Volokhonsky…

  6. Doak says:

    Certainly, translation is a challenge, since no two languages are literally equivalent. Throw in the difference that time makes, and you have yourself an even more complex problem. Of course, no translation will capture the music of the author’s language, so the translator can hope, at best, to create no more than a dulled reflection of the original.

    It sounds like Pevear and Volokhonsky have the best method. Take a native speakers from both the original and target languages and have them hash it out until both are satisfied. I look forward to reading their work, as well as Dostoevsky’s.

    • I think (or at least optimistically hope) that a good translation will be more than “a dulled reflection of the original.” A lot depends on the original language of course (I’m guessing that some languages are easier to fully translate into English than others), the style of prose, a host of other issues all play their part. How poetry can be fully translated is, of course, another question entirely.

      • Doak says:

        I may have been a bit carried away with my language, there. I also hope that it is more than “dulled,” but it will be distorted. It won’t sound like the original. Even if it did, the same sounds will not evoke the same reaction from a reader who is native to a different language. I suppose a skilled and thorough translator could come pretty close.

  7. marchhare says:

    I’m glad you brought up the subject of translation, Dennis. I’ve often wondered how to find the best translation of foreign books. Besides asking Dennis, is there a resource for this? Thanks.

    • Good question. I think I talked about this once on The Cork Lined Room. Years ago when I was living in New Orleans, I was hanging out a friend’s bookstore when a woman came in to get a copy of Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” for her book club. I went to the shelf and pulled out, I think it was four different translations. We read the first paragraphs of all four and not only were they noticeably different, in certain cases the very meanings were subtly different. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with the issue of “How do you pick the ‘best’ translation.”

      There are the responses of other critics of course, and there are guides such as the “Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation,” which cover the topic fairly well, or books like Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” where he lists his favorite translations, or you learn the names of translators whose work you admire (Pevear and Volokhonsky for the Russians for example, or Edith Grossman for authors who write in Spanish (her work on Marquez and Cervantes is stellar — her book “Why Translation Matters,” is well worth reading), but to a large extent, it is a matter of personal taste. Read a few paragraphs of each translation, and listen to the voice — who do you feel comes closest to what you imagine the author’s voice is like?

  8. Taylor Kirk says:

    I’ll put my two cents in here, because it’s probably the only time here I’ll be able to comment from any experienced perspective. (I have no background in literature, for example.)

    I am a professional full-time translator, translating from Portuguese and Spanish into English. I am not a literary translator; they are rarely able to make a living translating literature full-time and are usually professors.

    There are two extremes in translation: absolutely literal and absolutely liberal. Here’s an example from Portuguese:

    “O que lembro, tenho.”
    João Guimarães Rosa

    Literal translations might include:
    “I have what I remember.”
    “What I remember, I have.”
    “I have what I remember.”

    My rendition, upon reading this quote for the first time, would be:
    “That which I remember will always be mine.”
    (Very flowery, I know, but a profound quote like that somehow invokes longer equivalents in English in my brain). When I read the word “tenho” (“I have”), after the “O que lembro” (“what I remember”, “that which I remember”) I immediately assume that he is talking about memories that last, that (until senility) are essentially all that we “have”. He’s not telling someone that he happens to have memories, he is making the point that memories are something we can hold onto in a way that we can’t with material possessions, for example. As a side note, the literal translation would use the present tense, since the word “tenho” is also thus expressed. But an “emotional” reading would realize the lasting nature of what he is talking about, and the translation would be in the future. Portuguese, like English, often uses the present tense in reference to the future, e.g. “*I am going* to France next week”.

    Literary translators have the option of essentially mimicking the nature of the target language at the time the book was written. This was Garnett’s approach. She would want the reader to experience a sort of time travel, and using English language from that period might accomplish that. I have never done anything in comparative Russian literature so I’m not familiar with the “famous” Russian>English translators.

    So keep in mind the Italian quip “Traduttori, traditori” (translator, traitor). Translators will be traitors in some way no matter what because no two languages can be perfectly translated. So go easy on us. 🙂

    By the way: my name is Taylor and it’s nice to meet you!

    • Taylor:

      It’s very nice to meet you as well, and thank you so much for your comments!

      And please don’t think that I was being “tough” on translators — I know full well what a difficult position you find yourself in, trying to find a balance between fidelity and…readability? artistic fidelity? (For example, in translating Dante…does one use terza rima which, while while true to Dante is thought by some to be clumsy in English, go to a free verse or other poetic form translation, or even a prose version?) I’m looking at it solely from the perspective of a reader, one who is trying to find a translation that’s closest (again, whatever that might mean) to the original author’s intentions.

      I hope to see a lot of you on the blog.


  9. Taylor Kirk says:

    🙂 I’m the recruit. And as for poetry translation, I don’t think I could ever even touch that! I would have to understand poetry in English first.

    And this might belong in another post column, but does anyone else’s blood pressure go up while reading this book? The sense of anxiety is so overwhelming before Raskolnikov even does anything. But I think it’s a tribute to the author that this feeling is so easily transmitted to the reader.

    • Eddie: Excellent recruit. Definite bonus points. And Taylor — you’re right. Anyone who thinks that reading a “classic” novel is an exercise in boredom, just needs to start reading C&P The sense of dread he is able to build in his readers is truly palpable.

    • Diver5 says:

      Exactly! Anxiety! See my post above

  10. Robin Seaman says:

    I recruited my brother, Scott, who’s already posted. So, I’m in the competition for bonus points, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s