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Translation comparison: stories by Leskov

August 1, 2013

Back in 2011 I learned from The Millions and Wuthering Expectations that Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky were working on “a 600-page collection of stories by Nikolai Leskov.” Now The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories (New York, 2013) has been published and reviewed in lots of places (though I don’t think the quarterly Slavic journals’ reviews are out yet). I haven’t read it and can’t offer my own review, but here are links to reviews that compare P&V to other translators or are interesting for other reasons:

Robert Chandler in The Spectator: Chandler is a prominent translator who has translated Leskov himself. He’s as fair-minded and generous in spirit as anyone, so the strongly negative parts of the review get your attention:

Pevear and Volokhonsky set themselves the admirable goal of reproducing Russian classics in all their strangeness, not smoothing anything over, not toning anything down. But here, as in their previous translations, they do not fulfil the claims Pevear makes in his always impressive introductions. Their English is often odd, but it is seldom interestingly or expressively odd.  Their dialogue is particularly weak. This is how, in their version of a key chapter of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, Katerina accuses her lover, Sergey, of promiscuity: ‘And why were you fool enough to deal with unworthy ones. With unworthy ones there shouldn’t be any love.’ Sergey replies:

Go on, talk! Is that sort of thing done by reasoning? It’s all temptation. You break the commandment with her quite simply, without any of these intentions, and then she’s there hanging on your neck. That’s love for you!

In the original, all this is powerful and straightforward. Here, however, there is no sense of living speech.

Chandler thinks P&V’s “puns are lame” in their version of “Lefty.” In this he disagrees with most reviewers, possibly because he’s the only one to look at William Edgerton’s translation. (P&V: “Because our Russian faith is the most correct one, and as our anceptors believed, so the descenders should believe”; Edgerton: “Because our Russian faith is the rightest one, and the way our forefathers believed is just the way their dissentants have to believe.”) He also thinks David Magarshack’s and David McDuff’s translations of Leskov are better than P&V. [Update 9/17/13: Pevear and Volokhonsky responded in a comment on Chandler’s review, arguing that in “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” Sergey is “a wheedler and a cheat” and in context his words are supposed to “ring false,” and that Edgerton’s translation of потомцы as “dissenters” is unjustified, as there is no idea of dissent in either that word or the story as a whole.]

A. N. Wilson in The Times Literary Supplement hits P&V hard for the usual reason: they can be “ploddingly literal” and vivid, natural dialogue in Leskov turns into an English “literal rendering” that “is not a sentence you can imagine anyone actually saying.” On the other hand, in the “translators can’t win” department, when their dialogue sounds more natural, Wilson finds it incongruously modern and American. The expression “go places” (for ходить), innocuous to my American ear, to Wilson sounds “like a character in Friends.” He wants translations to sound timeless, with neither modern language nor “false archaism.” Wilson seems to prefer the dialogue in another new translation of Leskov by Ian Dreiblatt, and also has nice things to say about Robert Chandler and Margaret Winchell as translators.

Donald Rayfield in Literary Review praises P&V’s selection of stories and their “ingenuity” in coming up with neologisms in “Lefty,” contra Chandler. But he is harsh overall:

With this generous selection of Leskov’s prose, the mills of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – he with little Russian, she with imperfect English – have now almost completed their grinding exceedingly small of all Russian classical literature. They are innovative only in a very reactionary way: they produce an English version so close to the Russian original that it seems either designed, like Nabokov’s version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, to prove that Russian literature is untranslatable, or to revert to the practice of fifth-century translators of the New Testament into newly literate languages, who felt it would be sacrilegious to alter one whit of the vocabulary or syntax of the original Greek when the sacred text appeared in Armenian, Georgian or Syriac. That was a valid principle for languages which had only just acquired an alphabet and needed foreign models to construct abstract vocabulary and compound sentences; it is a very bad principle when translating into a language such as English, which has developed its own norms over the last thousand years. Consequently, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s howlers are notorious among those who have read the originals or not lost their sensitivity to good writing: in their version of Anna Karenina, where the Russian propil shtany means ‘sold his trousers to buy drink’, they write ‘drank his trousers through’. One can forgive Oprah Winfrey, who often mistakes dross for gold, for lauding this version as the best ever, but how these bunglers won a PEN translation prize remains a mystery. Similarly, as insensitively literal as Google Translate, in Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago they translate pliun’te vy na kovry (meaning ‘don’t bother about the carpets’) as ‘spit on the carpets’. [Update: Larissa Volokhonsky in comments below says Rayfield got these alleged howlers “through the grapevine” and “didn’t bother to verify them,” and gives the Russian and English of the Anna Karenina example. P&V’s phrase is actually “he drank them up,” not “through,” as Rayfield claims. I checked the Dr. Zhivago example and it is extremely close to Rayfield’s quotation. See comments for details.] Pevear and Volokhonsky themselves do not hesitate to denigrate far superior work by their rivals, past and present, just as Nabokov did. Nabokov’s arrogance had to be accepted as an inalienable part of his genius, whereas Pevear and Volokhonsky’s merely exposes them to severe critical backlash.

He prefers other Leskov translators: Robert Chandler, Michael Shotton, and James Muckle. [Update 10/8/13: Pevear and Rayfield exchange letters on p. 48 of the October 2013 issue of Literary Review, not available online. See this post.]

Madeleine LaRue in The Quarterly Conversation also likes the part of “Lefty” that Chandler found lame:

The translation achieves a few moments of absolute genius: “Lefty,” a story that Leskov himself once called “hardly translatable,” features a narrator who seems to constantly be mixing up words, botching idioms, and speaking in pseudoscience. This was the narrator responsible for the “internecine conversations” mentioned above; somewhat later, he describes the sovereign’s tour through an English cabinet of curiosities:

Then the Englishmen invited the sovereign to the last collection, where they have mineral stones and nymphosoria collected from all over the world, starting with the hugest Egyptian overlisk down to the subderminal flea, which cannot be seen with the eye, but causes remorsons between skin and body.

The translators have succeeded in conveying Leskov’s sense of humor (and not only at the level of wordplay, but also at that of self-irony and social commentary) as much as his delicate sense of tragedy.

Claire Messud in The New York Times is yet another reviewer who seems to like P&V’s renditions of the malapropisms in “Lefty.”

Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble, without knowing Russian, has some perceptive remarks on the difference between P&V’s and Magarshack’s translations. She starts with some P&V dialogue, “’There’s no disputing,’ he said, ‘that we haven’t got far in learning, but, then, we are faithfully devoted to our fatherland’”:

Here I must say that, knowing no Russian, I can’t judge a translation’s faithfulness to either the letter or the spirit of the original.  But I do think about it when I find that David Magarshack translates that last line this way: “’We needn’t argue about that,’ he said.  ‘It is quite true that we haven’t advanced far in science, but we’ve always been loyal sons of our motherland.’” It is not so much that Pevear and Volokhonski prefer “fatherland” to “motherland,” though I certainly don’t, but the way Magarshack puts it better realizes Leskov’s gift for the non sequiturs that his characters consider simple reason, and is thus more subtly amusing.  Earlier in the same story we find Pevear and Volokhonsky have the emperor chiding Platov: “Please, don’t spoil the politics on me.” while Magarshack has him saying, “Look here, don’t you go interfering with my politics!” which sounds much better to me.  On the other hand, Pevear and Volokhonsky are more alert to imperial dignity when they have Alexander say, “Well, that’ll do now,” while Magarshack seems to be channeling Bertie Wooster with “This has jolly well got to stop.”

Jeff Tompkins at PopMatters gives a pro-P&V review, saying their translations have in many cases “effectively become the new standards over the last two decades,” praising their malapropisms, and noting the difficulty of their task: “Leskov’s wayward narrative voices must have presented a challenge even for these translators, and the wonder is that they come through with so many laugh-out-loud touches that give us some sense of what this writer must be like in the original.”

Edmundo Paz Soldán in a blog post for El País uses the new English translation as an excuse to bring up Leskov for his Spanish readers. I had no idea this sort of thing happened. In other news about English’s undoubtedly temporary but still rising status as a lingua franca, my wife told me this morning that new species, until last year described in Latin, may now be described in Latin or English.

For more on translating Leskov, here’s an old post on Barry P. Scherr’s review of Margaret Winchell’s translation of The Cathedral Clergy, where he favorably compares her to Isabel Hapgood.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2013 7:37 am

    That Rayfield review is music to my eyes. Whenever people ask me about P&V, I manfully suppress my instinct to foam at the mouth and simply say “Contrary to their exceedingly successful PR, they are no better than other translators; try to find as many translations as you can of whatever you want to read and pick the one that reads best to you.” Next time I want to dis them (which I’ve done repeatedly at LH), I’ll just quote Rayfield’s fine takedown (“he with little Russian, she with imperfect English” … “as insensitively literal as Google Translate”).

  2. August 2, 2013 9:26 am

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been reading various works of Leskov by different translators and wondered who to rely on. Rayfields recommendations are helpful.

  3. Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
    August 2, 2013 9:50 am

    The Literary Review will publish Richard Pevear’s reply to Mr. Rayfield’s review of our Leskov collection in its September issue. I will only point out here that the examples Mr. Rayfield cites of “notorious howlers” in our work, besides having nothing to do with Leskov, are total distortions. He evidently got them through the grapevine from some of our other admirers and didn’t bother to verify them. Mr. Chandler is free to prefer his own translation of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to ours. The brief passage he quotes, however, is hardly “powerful and straightforward” in the original. Sergei is a wheedler and a cheat; he uses the pompous phrase “unworthy ones” to describe the women he has deceived. Katerina Ivanovna, who is indeed powerfully straightforward, picks it up and chides him with it by repeating it. In fact, the whole of Sergei’s little speech here is false and his tone betrays him. Katerina catches it but doesn’t want to recognize it. The context is important and obviously can’t be conveyed by one brief quotation. Unfortunately, that’s all Mr. Chandler gives his readers.

    • August 2, 2013 11:04 am

      Thank you very much for your comment. I look forward to reading Mr. Pevear’s response to Rayfield’s review and will certainly link to it.

      If Rayfield misrepresented your past work in his review, I understand why you take exception and have changed the post to reflect your concerns.

      In defense of Chandler, he does not mention his own translation in his review. It seems to me that you and he have substantive differences about methods of translation in general and Leskov in particular, but it is clear that you, he, and Pevear have all given these issues serious thought.

      • Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
        August 3, 2013 6:59 am

        Thank you, Eric. All I wanted to say was that someone who has translated the same work will almost inevitably disagree with another translator. The problem I find with Mr Chandler’s criticism is that it leaves out the whole context of the brief passage he quotes. And the context is all-important.

  4. August 2, 2013 11:39 am

    Erik, this was such a useful exercise. It is amazing, isn’t it, how much Leskov there is in English now.

    The kinds of linguistic goofing that Leskov does, the subject of your recent posts, is going to lead to big differences among translators. So readers will have to judge the artfulness of the English.

    • August 9, 2013 1:56 am

      Your comment was the first ever false positive in my spam filter, or at least the first that I’ve noticed. Sorry about that, Tom. It is amazing how much Leskov there is in English – I’m only now realizing just how much.

  5. August 2, 2013 1:57 pm

    I’ve managed to get a copy of Dr. Zhivago, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky (2010), and in book 1, part 5, section 8, I read “Ah, spit on the rugs and china, let it all perish. As if there was anything to be upset about!” for “Ах, да плюньте вы на эти ковры и фарфор, пропали они пропадом. Есть из-за чего расстраиваться!” This is very close to what Rayfield wrote in his review, and I am reinstating that part of the post. I am waiting to see a copy of Anna Karenina to confirm the “пропил штаны,” but if that also can be verified, I think it’s entirely reasonable to find fault with “drank his trousers through” as a translation.

    • Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
      August 3, 2013 7:51 am

      Here, again, it’s a question of context. Rayfield’s “spit on the carpets” does indeed sound like literal spitting. But the two full sentences, as you give them in Russian and English, are obviously an impatient exclamation, an emotional outburst. Rayfield’s “don’t bother about the carpets” is a paraphrase of the meaning, but loses the force of the expression, which is as normal in English as in Russian. As for the quotation from Anna Karenina, the phrase Mr Rayfield attributes to us is badly distorted. First of all, Tolstoy did not write “пропил штаны,” as Mr. Rayfield says; he wrote: “Как он смеет говорить, что я велел украсть у него брюки! Он их пропил, я думаю.” Which we translated as: “How dare he say I ordered his trousers stolen! He drank them up, I suppose.” It is the same use of “drank up” as in “He drank up his inheritance, his property, his wedding ring” and so on (see the OED). The expression is perfectly normal, spoken English. There is no need to replace it with an explanatory phrase.

      • August 3, 2013 10:02 am

        Thank you – it’s very helpful to see the immediate context in Russian and English! “He drank them up” sounds much better to me than “drank his trousers through,” and it’s unfair of Rayfield to change “up” to “through” to make his point seem stronger. On the other hand, I share the view that these uses of “spit” and “drink up,” though possible in English, are less transparent and less normal than the corresponding Russian expressions. The problem may be that the Russian пропить что has remained reasonably common after Tolstoi’s time, while the English “drank up (his inheritance, etc.)” has not. (I recognize those Ngrams are flawed, but I wanted to show I’m going on something besides my own intuition.)

        How much a translation should take into account the relative commonness of similar phrases in different languages, or whether it matters what happened to a word after the time the original text was written – these are questions different people answer differently. If I understand correctly what I’ve read of your and Mr. Pevear’s philosophy, you want to expand the language you’re translating into by deliberately using these rare but established forms. As I understand your critics, they find it unnecessary and distracting when a different construction, one less superficially similar and “literal,” is possible and would keep ordinary language sounding ordinary.

        Personally I find these questions interesting and, even when I favor one side in a particular case, I see that there are reasons to hold either view.

        By the way, I should say I’m very glad that you decided to translate Leskov and bring his works to a larger audience! Thank you for that, and for taking the time to talk about your work here.

      • Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
        August 4, 2013 10:34 am

        It is good to hear that you welcome our translation of Leskov. We do hope Leskov reaches a larger audience, which he certainly deserves.

        I now find myself in the amusing position of having to defend Donald Rayfield. I am quite sure that he did not distort the example “drank them up” as “drank his trousers through” on purpose to prove his point. He obviously got his example from hearsay (испорченный телефон) and simply didn’t bother to check.

        In twenty-eight years of working together, we have responded to criticism only a handful of times and then only when there were factual errors involved (often because the critic hadn’t read the work). I think we have exercised rather remarkable self-control. This time we decided to respond because Donald Rayfield attacked, and attacked very violently, not only our work, but also our character. We asked him in a personal letter what gave him reason to think that we denigrate other translators. This is what he wrote in reply:

        As for your attitude to your ‘rivals’, I note that Larissa Volokhonsky is quoted (by David Remnick) as ‘outraged’ by David Magarshack: I would say Magarshack is bland, even dull, but never outrageous: reading his Dostoevsky, the English-speaking reader doesn’t get the twinges one gets from the unidiomatic literalism of the P/V version.

        And here is my response to that:

        В Вашей рецензии нашего перевода Лескова Вы вышли за рамки критического суждения о тексте и нанесли нам личное оскорбление, сказав, что мы очерняем (denigrate) других переводчиков прошлого и настоящего. В письме Ричарду Вы привели пример такого очернения, сославшись на статью Дэвида Ремника, где он описывает мою ярость (outrage), когда я обнаружила, что в переводе «Братьев Карамазовых» Магаршака сглажены или полностью отсутствуют все случаи игры слов, юмора или иронии, которые играют такую важную роль в стиле Достоевского. Статья Ремника была написана в 2005м году, а описываемое событие относится примерно к 1986му году. Я не помню, какое выражениe я употребилa в 1986м году, какое в 2005м, и точно ли г-н Ремник передал мои слова. Но даже если я и употребила слово «негодование» или «ярость», это всего лишь передает эмоцию и никоим образом не соответствует смыслу слова «чернить».

        Обсуждая проблемы перевода, мы часто прибегаем к цитированию других переводов, что также не может быть квалифицировано как «очернение». Никогда мы не употребляли в адрес других переводчиков, ко многим из которых мы относимся с глубоким уважением, слова, которые Вы позволили себе в наш адрес: «неумелый», «корявый», «беспомощный». Таким образом, Вы ложно обвинили нас в очернении, чтобы оправдать свое собственное.

        And while I am defending our character I would like to say that, with regard to our “behavior as public figures,” we have no idea what it could mean. We have appeared a few times for talks or readings in the U.S., we have no “marketing machine” or powerful PR, we don’t even have an agent. When we began in 1986 no agent wanted us, and so we remain agent-less to this day. The blurbs on the editions of our work are supplied by our publishers; we have no control over that. Nor are we responsible for Oprah’s totally accidental choice and the resulting article by David Remnick.

        Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak my mind on your very interesting blog. This post is too long and there is no room to discuss the real problems of translation. We’ll have to do it some other time.

  6. August 2, 2013 3:12 pm

    Of course it is, and Volokhonsky’s defensive overreaction, with counterattacks that turn out to be unsupported by facts, is, sadly, typical of this pair; compare Pevear’s responses in the NY Times Reading Room discussion some years ago. They can’t let anything go — if someone on the internet doesn’t worship at their shrine, attention must be paid and the heathen must be crushed. It’s kind of sad, considering how incredibly successful they are by now; other translators would love to have their income and name recognition.

    • August 2, 2013 9:08 pm

      I don’t think I agree with you about Pevear’s contributions to that discussion. The tone is at times regrettable, on several sides, but the matters in dispute are real enough, and having the translator defend his and Volokhonsky’s choices helps us understand their method and its pros and cons.

      In the end I find myself agreeing with Timothy D. Sergay that the main drawback of P&V’s approach is “the impression that the original author and the author’s speaking characters traded in stylistic oddities at very many turns where an examination of the Russian original shows ‘unmarked’ or common parlance.” But I think some of Pevear’s response is quite valid. If someone is going to criticize their translation of “Что с вами?” when in fact they translated a completely different expression as “What’s with you,” of course he should be allowed to point that out.

      The argument between Michael Katz and Pevear about the meanings of прозрачный, in and out of the dictionary, is pretty instructive all around. After my attempts to track down ни к стру, ни к смотру, when I discovered that everyone defined it in a way that fit the immediate context of the Leskov text where they found it, Pevear’s argument that lexicographers were trying to account for Tolstoi’s use of прозрачный for sounds, rather than documenting an independently existing usage, seems plausible to me. But so does Katz’s opposite point!

      I don’t want this thread to leave the impression that I find nothing of value in Pevear and Volokhonsky. If you step back, I think their admirers and detractors agree that 1) sometimes translators smooth over oddities in the original, and that’s bad, and 2) sometimes translators make unmarked language in the original sound odd in the translation, and that’s bad. The difference is largely in where to draw the line, and P&V seem to fight hard against 1) while worrying relatively little about 2).

  7. August 3, 2013 9:57 am

    Well, there are two entirely separate issues: their actual practice of translation, and their behavior as public figures. The latter seems to me so repugnant that it makes it hard for me to be objective about the former, which is why I simply tell people “they are no better than other translators” rather than trying to go into detail. But while some of their choices are perfectly defensible, others seem to me (and others) absurd, and they defend them all equally doggedly, refusing to admit that they might ever have made a mistake. It’s human, all too human, but that doesn’t make it admirable.

  8. Richard Pevear permalink
    September 16, 2013 3:20 pm

    The odd thing is that your blog is not a comparison of translations, as your title says; it is a comparison of various reviews of a translation which neither you nor any of your respondents have read. Isn’t that what’s known as intellectual dishonesty?

    • September 16, 2013 5:25 pm

      Well, I try to be honest. You know I haven’t read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Leskov because I say so at the beginning of the post. The reviewers who did the work of comparing, between them, nine or so translations of Leskov are identified by name, with links and excerpts of the parts of the reviews that deal with the translation(s) rather than the original. It should be clear who’s comparing what to what.

      When someone’s taken the trouble of comparing multiple translations of one work, I like to call attention to it. This series started with a post highlighting Barry Scherr’s 2011 review that evaluated six translations of Oblomov. When I can, I include my own views, but I think the readers of this blog find these comparisons useful whether I did the comparing myself or not.

      By the way, I remain willing to link to your response to Rayfield’s review, or publish it here. I even subscribed to Literary Review so I wouldn’t miss it, but I didn’t see it in the September issue. If it has appeared or will appear elsewhere, please let me know where, and I’ll put the information in a new post and a link in the body of this post.

      • Richard Pevear permalink
        September 17, 2013 1:29 am

        The Literary Review is apparently waiting for Donald Rayfield’s reply to my letter, so that they can print the two together. They told me that they thought they thought they would be able to do that in the September issue. It seems they’re still waiting.

      • Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
        September 17, 2013 2:44 am

        This is all very praiseworthy, Eric, were it not for the fact that you quote profusely from the negative reviews and give no or almost no quotations from the positive ones. And even in those you choose the parts that express criticism. However, Claire Messud calls Leskov in our translation “delicious” and she is a writer of a certain stature, as you certainly know. Surely to judge our work one does not necessarily have to be a linguist (who often pulls quotations out of context treating them as “text” and forgets about the rhythm of the phrase, the flavor or even the sense of the whole) or a translator (who often has a natural impulse to offer his own version, especially if he himself already translated one of the works in question, as happens to be the case with Mr Chandler). For whatever reason you tend to dislike our work without having read it. Well and good. But to pass your collection of citations as objective is not entirely objective.
        We, by the way, wrote a reply to Mr Chandler’s review, which can be read here:

  9. September 17, 2013 10:08 am

    Thank you both for your comments.

    I do not dislike your work, and I’ve read your Anna Karenina. I can see how this post gives the impression I am hostile to you for no reason. My very ignorance of your Leskov volume kept me from defending you against your critics (or supporting them). I initially intended to link only to reviews that compared your translation to others’ efforts, but for whatever reason this would have left me with almost exclusively negative reviews. I added “or are interesting for other reasons” to justify including the positive reviews by Claire Messud and Jeff Tompkins, though I didn’t quote from them much because they didn’t get into the linguistic issues that are closest to my heart. I also tried to highlight positive aspects of mixed reviews, and noted that A. N. Wilson set a rather difficult standard by demanding that your dialogue sound natural but never modern or American.

    What interests me most is an abstract issue that frequently comes up in discussions of your translations: the tradeoff between, on the one hand, trying for natural dialogue, living speech, unmarked language in English where the language was unmarked in Russian, and on the other hand, allowing the translation to be difficult, unfamiliar, other than smooth when the language of the original calls for it. As I said in a previous comment, from what I’ve read of your work and your public discussions of your work, it seems to me that, compared to other translators, you are more worried about preserving opaqueness and difficulty and less committed to recreating unmarkedness. I might myself draw the line differently, but I also believe that there are advantages and drawbacks to any approach, and no translation is or can be perfect.

    I think Anglophone readers of Russian literature are spoiled to have so many talented translators to choose from, and I’m grateful to you and all other translators of Leskov for making his work more widely known. I’ll be sure to link to your exchange with Rayfield when it appears, and thank you for pointing me to your response to Chandler.

    • Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
      September 18, 2013 3:34 am

      Thank you, Eric, for your response. Is it not interesting in itself that those reviewers who do not know Russian and do not enter into “linguistic issues” are more able to appreciate our translations than those who look at them through a linguistic and theoretical “meagroscope” (our word for Leskov’s “мелкоскоп” in “Левша”)?
      You read our translation of “Anna Karenina”. Did you encounter any opaqueness and difficulty? Is it not a straightforward and clear text almost throughout (even when we do follow Tolstoy’s difficult and disheveled syntax and unusual metaphors)? Where do your other examples of “opaqueness and difficulty” come from?
      The limits of “normal” language can be perceived differently by different people. We often discover that our critics’ notion of it is astonishingly narrow. English words and phrases, such as “swinishness”, “drank up his trousers (fortune, house, wedding ring etc),” “pouring buckets” (about rain), “spit on something” (meaning “don’t bother”), “dog’s death”, and many others (which travel from one review to another and are easily traced to one source) were solemnly proclaimed calques from Russian, while they are perfectly normal in English and are easily understood by any unprejudiced reader. They may be less frequent in English as charts may show but that does not change the fact that they are more expressive and interesting than a gloss or a more ordinary phrase. In any case they are not helpless literalisms, or “google translate” as Dr Rayfield and some others would have it. They are what makes the prose of our translations alive. Not to mention that, — just for example, — we used the much discussed “swinishness” twice in twenty five years of work and in about fifteen thousand pages of text, and Muriel Spark allows herself to use the same word three times in the first two pages of her novel “Loitering with Intent”.
      As for our dialogue, which our critics find unnatural, or American, or sometimes even incomprehensible, I must tell you that many of the same expressions are freely used by such writers of the English language as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, the same Muriel Spark and others. Not to mention “Downton Abbey” and “Miss Marple” in BBC productions.
      We do allow ourselves the freedom to depart from the rigid rules (your “marked” and “unmarked”) when we think that the whole will gain from it. This is called artistic freedom, which cannot be subject to any rules established and taught by the theorists.

  10. September 19, 2013 11:43 am

    I think two things can happen. People can define “normal language” in roughly the same way and disagree about whether a particular case (“swinishness,” say) meets their shared criteria. Or they can have different criteria. Maybe A thinks a word that’s common in modern Russian should be translated by a word that’s common in modern English. But B thinks both modern languages are irrelevant, and what’s important is how common the words were in the 1870s. And C thinks that if a word was common in the Russian of Tolstoi’s time, it should be translated by an English word that was common in 1870s English AND remains common today. D doesn’t care if you translate a word that was used every day in 1870s Russia with a word attested 3 times in all of English literature, if it conveys the sense more precisely than more common alternatives. And E, F, G…

    When you say certain English phrases that you use “may be less frequent in English as charts may show but that does not change the fact that they are more expressive and interesting than a gloss or a more ordinary phrase,” I think it reveals that you’re measuring with a different yardstick than some of your critics. Other people care a lot about comparative frequency (across languages and over time), and you believe in using low-frequency phrases to make language “expressive and interesting.”

    Likewise, when Mr. Pevear argues, in the NY Times Reading Room discussion Languagehat linked to, that “translation should enlarge a language” and cites dictionaries and old quotations against the intuitions of readers today, I believe he’s also prioritizing the “expressive and interesting” and belittling the importance of objective frequency or subjective judgments about whether language sounds ordinary. (The full passage: “Timothy Sergay again brings up our use of the phrase ‘deceived the expectations,’ which he thinks is a helplessly literal rendering of the Russian. I always refer to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993 edition) when I work. If Mr. Sergay had done the same, he would have found under ‘deceive’ the third current meaning as a transitive verb: ‘Be or prove false to, betray, now chiefly figurative,’ and as an example of this meaning the following quotation: ‘John Mill: “Never was expectation more completely deceived.”’ English and Russian happen to coincide perfectly here; there’s no question of an “incorrect lexical choice.’ Mr. Sergay finds the phrase odd, but why should he impose his limits on the English language? Translation should enlarge a language, not diminish it.”)

    This coherent and reasonable theory is not always compatible with the also coherent and reasonable theory that “thought must resemble thought, speech must sound like speech, and a curse should be as real on the page as it is on your lips when you stub your toe badly.”

    Maybe I’ll do a future post on your Anna Karenina, which as it happens is one of the few books I’ve read in multiple English translations – but I read yours in 2002, and the other one in 1992, so my memories of my impressions would not be worth much. It would be interesting after this discussion to look at a few passages in detail (as Julia Denne does with a passage from War and Peace). I did not find your translation overall to be distractingly opaque and difficult, and I use those terms not to attack your work but to try to get at the differences in approach between you and other translators.

    • Larissa Volokhonsky permalink
      September 19, 2013 4:29 pm

      Thank you, Erik, for exposing the incompatibility of two coherent and reasonable theories. I do not not know what to say to that and therefore I will not say anything, Except that I do not see how any translator can satisfy your hypothetical Mr’s A, B, C, etc. I’ll go back to my work with the same yardstick that has served me and Richard very faithfully for twenty eight years.

      • September 19, 2013 4:38 pm

        I agree – no one can satisfy everything. Thanks again for taking the time to comment. It’s kind of you to discuss these issues with an amateur who’s interested in what you do professionally.

  11. November 2, 2020 10:32 am

    Hi Erik McDonald,

    Thanks for this comparison and for giving Pevear and Volokhonsky translations the benefit of the doubt. I know so many grad students in Russian and Slavic studies (including native speakers) who praise most of these translations for how clean and faithful they are. Yet I continue to read so many hostile reviews from people like Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler and this Languagehat guy above who engage in vicious ad hominem against the pair without considering what it is they are doing while fixating on choices that frankly can be argued for either way. Although I often make a habit to read Russian literature in several translations while studying the original as a back up reference (My Russian is still mid-level), I have always loved Pevear and Volokhonsky for bringing a high standard to the work they do as well as how much it exposed Russian literature to a generation of younger readers. Languagehat above is very prejudicial in how characterizes P&V’s work, coupled with snarky condescenscion that I’ve encountered in other posts of his on Russian literature.
    Granted their approach may not work for every writer but I think their translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin and Leskov work quite well, as does their edition of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Gogol and Pasternak, eh not so much.

    Hope you get to see this comment.

    Chathan Vemuri

    • November 4, 2020 9:11 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I think English-speaking fans of Russian literature are fortunate to have so many translators doing good work in their various styles. It’s surprising how heated discussions of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s work can get, but I appreciate their willingness, and their critics’ willingness, to express strong opinions. I wouldn’t call Languagehat’s or anyone else’s contribution here condescending. I think LH has thought about these issues a lot, and I respect his views. In the end I think people just disagree about both what translators’ goals should be and how well they’ve met them.

      • cvemuri2 permalink
        November 4, 2020 9:38 pm

        I wasn’t referring to anyone else on here as condescending, just the one, and that too based on the tone of his comments which are frankly unnecessarily hostile so I’ll have to disagree I’m afraid with all due respect. I think one can dislike a translator without attributing bad faith to them. And I think that’s far too common among a lot of P&V critics – Donald Rayfield, Marian Schwartz, Languagehat and others. P&V arose at a time when translations of Russian literature in the West were limited to a few choices of varying quality. They helped revitalize it for a popular market. In many ways they’re a late 20th-early 21st century equivalent of Constance Garnett in terms of churning translation after translation. Whether they’ll stand the test of time like Garnett is another matter. But I know for a fact P&V are very respectful to Garnett as a predecessor and even declined to translate much of Turgenev as they felt no one could do it better than Garnett. They certainly have breathed new life into Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and left a mark on how others approach both. I read Oliver Ready’s translation of C&P and I was struck just how much he was influenced by P&V while also doing his own thing. They truly do respect and understand the Russian canon and deserve some respect, whether one likes their translations or not.

      • cvemuri2 permalink
        November 4, 2020 9:46 pm

        Of course I should also stress I’m not exactly an impartial critic as I happen to be incredibly fond of P&V and use them as my primary go to English translators for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, though I also read the other translations to get different feels for the novels. Some of the subsequent translations I like – Schwartz’s Anna Karenina, Oliver Ready’s C&P. But others I frankly don’t care for – Bartlett’s Anna, Michael Katz’s C&P or Anthony Briggs War and Peace.

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