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?