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.