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Negative reviews

September 17, 2013

Positive reviews of translations sound the same, and sometimes they’re so vague that you can’t tell if the reviewer spent any time comparing passages to the original. It’s the negative reviews that are not all alike and show how translators differ.

I’m someone who believes that it’s impossible to translate every aspect of a text at once. You can worry most about lexical meaning, or keeping the language of the translation as smooth as the original, or sound play and rhythm, or preserving repetitions, or word order, or avoiding anachronisms, or any number of other things. You can manage several of these things at the same time, but never all of them. Translators choose different priorities. No choice is perfect. Each choice is important.

If that isn’t difficult enough, I’d also argue that there’s no one in the world who’s well-positioned to judge which of several plausible translations is the best. Almost all of us have a better ear for the tone and register and other effects of one language or the other. Even perfect bilinguals, or teams of native speakers of two different languages, don’t speak the author’s idiolect; they didn’t even study abroad in nineteenth-century Russia, or publish in nineteenth-century Anglophone periodicals. Our inadequacy as translation critics is a question of degree.

So that’s where I’m coming from when I quote at length from negative reviews of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, or for that matter of Robert Chandler. It’s primarily to tease out what each translator cares about most, and what necessarily is sacrificed.

Since I’ve been paying attention, I’ve noticed four bits of conventional wisdom about particular Russian-to-English translators: 1) Constance Garnett is awful, 2) David Magarshack is awful, 3) Pevear and Volokhonsky are the best translators ever, and 4) Pevear and Volokhonsky are awful. I don’t believe any of this. Maybe in an extreme case like C. J. Hogarth abridging Oblomov you can say a translation is “clearly unsatisfactory,” but on the whole I think there’s a lot of good to be found even in the much-criticized Isabel Hapgood, and still more in the work of the amazing translators of the last few decades, who had resources Garnett and Hapgood didn’t have.

Luckily there’s a replacement for the uninformative positive review: when translators defend their own methods from critics. Like the original criticism, this can actually tell us something. In that spirit I’d like to point out Pevear and Volokhonsky’s response to Chandler’s negative review and their comments on this blog. Next month I hope to be able to link to their response to Donald Rayfield, and his response to their response. I’d like to think that my original post that linked to reviews of P&V’s The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories was fair; you can decide if it was, or if, as Richard Pevear says, it was “intellectually dishonest” of me to call the post a “translation comparison” when all I did was select, summarize, and quote from comparative reviews of a book I admitted I hadn’t read.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia Denne permalink
    September 18, 2013 2:59 pm

    It surprised me how defensive the Pevear/Volokhonsky team is when other translators notice their mistakes. In one of her comments to your excellent and fair earlier post, Larissa even says that they all come from the same source. I wish that they would reject the conspiracy theory and correct the mistakes pointed out by others. Though their translations are considered literal, in some cases I am even more troubled by their “небрежность.” Here is one example from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Prince Andrei’s dream right before his death (Volume IV, Part One, XVI) is an excerpt that I memorized when I was thirteen, and it still haunts me every time I reread the book. Here it is in Russian:

    “И этот страх есть страх смерти: за дверью стоит оно. Но в то же время как он бессильно-неловко подползает к двери, это что-то ужасное, с другой стороны уже, надавливая, ломится в нее. Что-то нечеловеческое — смерть — ломится в дверь, и надо удержать ее. Он ухватывается за дверь, напрягает последние усилия — запереть уже нельзя — хоть удержать ее; но силы его слабы, неловки, и, надавливаемая ужасным, дверь отворяется и опять затворяется.

    Еще раз оно надавило оттуда. Последние, сверхъестественные усилия тщетны, и обе половинки отворились беззвучно. Оно вошло, и оно есть смерть. И князь Андрей умер.”

    Here is the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (pp. 984-985 in Knopf 2007 edition):

    “And this fear is the fear of death: it is standing behind the door. But as he is crawling strengthlessly and awkwardly towards the door, this terrible something is already pushing against it from the other side, forcing it. Something inhuman – death – is forcing the door, and he has to hold it shut. He lays hold of the door, strains in a last effort – to lock it is already impossible – just to hold it shut; but his attempts are weak, clumsy, and, pushed by the terrible thing, the door keeps opening and shutting again.

    Once more it pushes from the other side. His last supernatural efforts are in vain, and the two halves open noiselessly. It comes in, and it is death. And Prince Andrei died.”

    (I don’t seem to be able to italicize in this comment, but italics for “it,” “death,” “оно,” and “смерть” are identical in the original and the translation.)

    I see several problems with this translation. I would think that P/V mean “superhuman” or “extraordinary” when they write “supernatural” (“supernatural” in this sense is used in this translation throughout “War and Peace”). The phrase “сверхъестественные усилия” is a common idiom in Russian. As a native Russian speaker, I don’t feel that the door keeps opening and shutting – it happens once. My main concern, however, is with the tenses and with “оно,” which disturb a Russian speaker immediately. “Death” in Russian is a feminine noun, and there is no note in the P/V translation explaining Tolstoy’s startling usage of a neuter personal pronoun, (it, not she). An English speaker misses the point altogether. Also, Tolstoy wrote, “It came in, and it is death.” The past tense immediately followed by the present tense makes all the difference here. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    • September 19, 2013 4:19 am

      Yes, this translation is misleading: “And this fear is the fear of death: it is standing behind the door.” What does “it” stand for in this English sentence? Either “death” or “the fear of death.” But in the Russian text, the italicized “оно” cannot grammatically stand for either. It’s something unknown yet – later on, Tolstoy says it IS death – but for now it is only a something. Note that Garnett capitalized “It” without capitalizing “death”: “…behind the door stood It.”

  2. September 19, 2013 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Julia, my initial reaction is to agree with you about “supernatural”/“superhuman” and the tenses. Вошло could have been rendered “came in” or conceivably “has come in,” and I’m not sure why “comes in” was chosen. And as you say, this is an example where an oddity in the original was smoothed over, not reasonably or unreasonably preserved.

    The оно is tricky. Alexei, in my reading the italics in English (like Garnett’s capital letter) save “it” from seeming like it refers to “(the fear of) death.” “It is standing behind the door” isn’t the same as “it is standing behind the door.” I see that a “dictionary of euphemisms” uses this passage and another from Saltykov-Shchedrin as examples of оно being used in a special sense to refer to something terrible and/or mystical. On a more general level, wasn’t оно used more broadly in the nineteenth century, extending to cases where speakers today would use это? If we imagine an alternate text where смерть is omitted in the first (partial) paragraph Julia quotes and doesn’t appear until “оно есть смерть” in the second paragraph, then оно would just anticipate “это что-то ужасное” and “что-то нечеловеческое.” (That’s not the text we have, but I find I can read the оно that way anyway, which may just be because my non-native Russian is insufficiently attuned to the gender of inanimate nouns.)

    • September 28, 2013 9:20 am

      If the italicized “it” works fine, Erik, I’m taking back my comment. Thanks to your post, I’ve reread the whole passage leading to Andrei’s death – this is the Tolstoy I have nearly forgotten or perhaps never really understood when I was younger.

  3. September 22, 2013 7:24 pm

    As someone with no Russian at all, I’m thankful for the recent translation work from the likes of P&V and Chandler as well as the availability of earlier translators who have fallen into disrepute a bit. I’ve noticed that even Garnett has her fans among people not named Nabokov! However, the proliferation of choices does make it difficult to select a consensus “best” translation: I finally settled on P&V’s for Anna Karenina, but I saw that even Russian professors at universities thought other translations were comparable for some of the reasons you touch on in your post (i.e. weighting certain qualities higher than others). Your final paragraph points me to yet another evaluation tool I hadn’t really considered before, so I look forward to reading up on some of those examples before long. Until then, very nice to discover your blog, Erik!

    • September 23, 2013 12:53 am

      Glad to see you here, Richard! I’m starting to think there’s never a consensus best translation, only consensus worsts. It’s all so difficult – surely hardly anyone has read every English version of, say, War and Peace cover to cover, and if they did, were their impressions of the ninth one they got to anything like a first-time reader’s?

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