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Five and a half Oblomovs

January 17, 2012

I don’t usually post about book reviews, but Barry P. Scherr packs so much information about Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov and its English translations into a few hundred words that I know I’ll want to remember it later.

Scherr compares blogger and translator Marian Schwartz’s 2008 translation to five earlier efforts:

  • 1915 – C. J. Hogarth’s translation is “clearly unsatisfactory… he greatly abridges the novel and even rewrites certain sentences to provide continuity…”
  • 1929 – Natalie Duddington’s “language” may be “old-fashioned,” but her translation is “quite accurate” and “influential on subsequent translators” (based on 1862 book version)
  • 1954 – David Magarshack’s “style, particularly in the dialogue, does not quite capture the richness of the original, and the rendering of metaphorical phrases is sometimes too literal” (based on 1859 serialized version)
  • 1963 – Ann Dunnigan’s translation “exhibits occasional flaws,” but she is “the most scrupulous of [Hogarth, Duddington, Magarshack, and Dunnigan] in following Goncharov’s paragraph structure, the liveliest in rendering his dialogue, and the most creative in finding English phrases that capture the flavor of the Russian,” and she consistently “combines fidelity to the original and naturalness in her English” (based on 1859 serialized version)
  • 2006 – Stephen Pearl “tends to rework the Russian more” than Schwartz will in 2008, “often coming up with phrases that make his version the more colloquial in English”; “at his best” he is “the most inspired,” and “many of his individual sentences are wonderfully idiomatic, though not every choice works equally well” (based on 1859 serialized version)
  • 2008 – Marian Schwartz is “particularly good at conveying Oblomov’s style and each character’s manner of speaking while staying close to the original”; her translation “contains various instances” where Scherr “felt that the choices in English were too literal… or did  not convey the precise sense… even though on the whole her translation evinces an excellent sense of style and is a pleasure to read” (based on 1862 book version)

This is just the sort of comparison that teachers deciding which translation to recommend need. The bottom line for Scherr is that Dunnigan’s, Pearl’s, and Schwartz’s translations are the best. The full review has more on the textological issues: apparently it’s controversial whether 1859, 1862, or a third version from 1887, which slightly revises the 1859 text and was the last approved by Goncharov, is the best to follow.

Scherr also shows his work by contrasting the last five translators’ approach to one passage. Schwartz has “‘Good gracious! [Помилуй!]’ he said, returning. ‘Beef and veal! Oh, brother Oblomov [брат Обломов], you don’t know how to live. You, a landowner! What kind of a gentleman are you? You live like a Philistine [по-мещански]. You don’t know how to entertain a friend! Well, has the Madeira [мадера in 1862, мадера-то in 1859] been bought?’” “Good gracious!” corresponds to “Upon my word” in Duddington, “Good heavens!” in Magarshack, “For pity’s sake!” in Dunnigan; “brother Oblomov” is “my dear Oblomov” in Dunnigan, while Pearl has “Come on, Oblomov, is this any way to live?” for that sentence; “like a Philistine” is “like a shopkeeper” in Duddington, Magarshack, and Dunnigan, and “like a tradesman” in Pearl; and those who translate the 1859 edition have “at least” in the sentence about Madeira.

See Scherr’s review in Slavic and East European Journal 55.3 (2011): 469-71.

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