Translation comparison: stories by Leskov
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.
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.