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Richard Pevear responds to Donald Rayfield

October 5, 2013

Probably the most severe critique of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s recent translation of selected stories by Leskov came from Donald Rayfield. You can find excerpts of Rayfield’s and others’ reviews at this old post, with some objections from both Volokhonsky and Pevear in the comments.

To recap, Rayfield criticized their method of translation for turning ordinary and transparent Russian phrases into opaque, awkward-sounding English, apparently in the service of a dogmatic word-by-word literalism. As examples of what he considers obvious mistakes, he refers to a passage from Anna Karenina, where the Russian “Как он смеет говорить, что я велел украсть у него брюки! Он их пропил, я думаю” becomes “How dare he say I ordered his trousers stolen! He drank them up, I suppose,” and one from Doctor Zhivago, where “Ах, да плюньте вы на эти ковры и фарфор, пропали они пропадом. Есть из-за чего расстраиваться!” is translated “Ah, spit on the rugs and china, let it all perish. As if there was anything to be upset about!” It’s the English expressions “he drank them up” (meaning “he sold them to buy drink”) and “spit on the rugs and china” (meaning “don’t bother about the rugs and china”) that Rayfield finds inadequate.

It happens that Rayfield misquoted Pevear and Volokhonsky both times (I’ve given the accurate versions above). Rayfield’s misquotations (especially “drank his trousers through”) sound worse than the actual translations. However, his point seems to hold if you accept his criteria.

Literary Review has now published Pevear’s letter responding to Rayfield. He points out the misquotations, but he also objects to the substance of Rayfield’s critique:

The phrase ‘drink up’, according to the OED, means ‘to spend or waste (money) on liquor’. It’s perfectly good English. There’s no need to replace it with a wordy explanation. The phrase he [Rayfield] quotes from our translation of Dr Zhivago is also not what we wrote, which was: ‘Ah, spit on the rugs and china, let it all perish.’ The Russian could be paraphrased as ‘don’t bother about the carpets’, as Rayfield suggests, but why give up such an expressive phrase as ‘spit on’, which also happens to be what Pasternak wrote? The norms of English surely don’t call for such levelling.

Rayfield responds to the response:

I apologize for using the vulgar word for trousers, shtany, rather than briuki, and for recalling Pevear’s ‘drank them up’ as ‘drank them through’. But my point remains perfectly valid: Pevear and Volokhonsky’s English (whatever the OED says) is opaque — the Russian means ‘sold to buy drink’. Next, if an English host tells me to ‘spit on the rug’, I will either do so or politely refuse; if a Russian host says, ‘spit on the rug’, I understand that I don’t need to take my shoes off, or that the rug is of no value. So there is every reason to give up such an ‘expressive’ phrase and level the English.

So what it comes down to is different standards for deciding what is good English. Pevear cites the Oxford English Dictionary, and has cited it in similar discussions. Rayfield doesn’t care what the OED says, only about how a speaker of each language would interpret the phrase today. This dispute has a chronological piece (the OED has definitions from Tolstoi’s time, and ours, and in between, and earlier; Rayfield is judging what he himself, or a hypothetical British reader alive today, will understand a phrase to mean) and a frequency piece (many non-obsolete definitions in the OED will be unfamiliar to any given English speaker; Rayfield thinks that if most Russian readers would understand a phrase without hunting in a dictionary, most Anglophone readers should also be able to). For Rayfield, the Pevear/Volokhonsky approach leads to opaque language; from their point of view, his approach leads to a dull leveling of style.

My own boring position is that this is a matter of line-drawing, that one can sin in both directions, and that there’s no perfect way to allow for the fact that both English and Russian have changed since Anna Karenina was written. I argued in comments on the old post that пропить in the sense of ‘sell something to buy alcohol’ was transparent in Tolstoi’s time and remains so, while the analogous use of ‘drink up’ was transparent then but is opaque now. Never using English expressions that have lost popularity really would limit a translator, as Pevear warns, but using them freely risks infelicitous attempts at archaisms. Even with reference books we can’t become fluent speakers of 1870s English.

They go on to argue about the best translation for Leskov’s title Пламенная патриотка, translated by P&V as “A Flaming Patriot.” Rayfield says that the Russian title is neutral, while “A Flaming Patriot,” a literal, word-by-word translation, sounds obviously ironic in English. In the story the irony becomes apparent only gradually, not from the outset. In his original review Rayfield suggests the title “A Woman Who Loves Her Country Ardently.” Pevear not unreasonably finds this wordy. “A Flaming Patriot,” by the way, is also used by Leskov scholar Hugh McLean. Another disputed title is Чертогон, where Rayfield prefers “Chasing out the Devil” to P&V’s “The Devil-Chase.” In this case Irmhild Christina Sperrle is with Rayfield, while McLean goes with “Exorcism” and in brackets “[=Devilchase].”

Finally they argue about whether Pevear and Volokhonsky denigrate the work of other translators. I find this the least interesting part of the disagreement. After reading both sides I’m not convinced either that Pevear and Volokhonsky have said anything egregious about their “rivals” (Rayfield’s term) or that Rayfield has slandered them in this respect. It seems that over the years they’ve said critical things about various translators for various reasons, but nothing that made my blood boil in Rayfield’s presentation.

Unfortunately Literary Review doesn’t seem to have made the Pevear-Rayfield exchange available online. It’s on page 48 of the October 2013 issue. Incidentally, the version of the OED I have access to through my library supports both Pevear and Rayfield. ‘To consume or spend in drinking (money, etc.). Also with awayup’ is indeed there under ‘drink,’ but it’s the eighth of nine transitive meanings, and the two usage examples after 1884 lack “up” and have “earnings” and “every cent” (not something like an article of clothing) as their objects.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2013 8:11 am

    It will not surprise you to learn I am entirely on Rayfield’s side here. The answer to “why give up such an expressive phrase as ‘spit on’, which also happens to be what Pasternak wrote?” is because we’re talking about English, not Russian. In Russian, it’s expressive; in English, it’s absurd and takes you out of the story. It’s obvious P&V have their own, in my view peculiar, theory and method of translating, which could be summed up as “if it’s in the OED, it’s fair game (even though it may not have been used for two centuries), and if it’s expressive, we’re running with it (even if no speaker of English has ever said it).” And that’s fine! Let a thousand translations bloom, say I; obviously, lots of people enjoy their work (though their vast sales are primarily a function of their publicity machine — very few people actually compare translations before buying one). The reason I dislike them is not their translation practice but their obsession with stamping out dissent wherever they find it. Something tells me Marian Schwartz (to name a translator I thoroughly respect) doesn’t spend her time writing furious letters-to-the-editor and blog comments defending every jot and tittle in her translations against anyone who dares to complain about them. (Of course, that could be because nobody finds anything to complain about, he snarked…)

    • October 6, 2013 4:09 pm

      Where do you stand on “A Woman Who Loves Her Country Ardently”? In most of these specific cases I think Rayfield has a point (which isn’t surprising, since the examples being fought over are ones he picked out, and not only from the Leskov volume), but I thought that was a bit of an overreaction. Why not just replace “Flaming” with fiery, ardent, burning, or some such?

  2. October 8, 2013 8:50 am

    Yeah, I agree, but any given nitpick can be argued to death, and there is no perfect solution; it’s the overall picture that matters, and the cumulative effect of P&V’s choices goes (in my view) way over the top. Or, as they would doubtless say, grief has come — open the gates!

  3. October 12, 2013 1:22 pm

    Thank you for this fascinating commentary on various translations. I am in the position that I love Russian literature, but am entirely dependent on translators.All I can say is how well a translation read: I cannot for obvious reasons comment on the closeness to the original.

    I must confess that when I read P&V’s translation of “Anna Karenina”, I was at times pulled up short by some expression that struck me as odd (and I’d agree with Rayfield that “Drunk up his trousers” is certainly odd. I more recently read “Anna Karenina” in the translation by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, and this did seem to me to flow more smoothly, and was, indeed, frequently beautiful. But which version came closer to Tolstoy I am in no position to say: i suspect it’s a matter of swings and roundabouts. Of course, where the original is knotty, and is intended to pull the reader up short, it is to be unfaithful to the original to smooth it out; but introducing knottiness in one language where there is none in the original is also, I think, to be unfaithful to the original, even if the translation is literally correct.

    The only language I know other than English is Bengali, and I often try my hand at translating from Bengali into English (purely for my own satisfaction rather than with any thought of publishing). I know, for instance, that when, in Bengali, someone is asked to “raise your face”, that is best translated as “raise your eyes”. Nothing is lost in making this departure from the literal meaning, and something that would have sounded awkward in English is avoided. In the same way, I do not see how “Spit on the rugs” can be defended: surely, something such as “To hell with the rugs!” (or, if that is too strong, “never mind the rugs” or something similar). I suppose I can figure out from the context what “Spit on the rugs” means, but it causes me to pause momentarily at a point where the Russian reader reading the original wouldn’t.

    I suppose different translators aim for different things. Personally, as a reader, I would like the translator to try to re-create the same effect in the target language as exists in the original, and if this means departing from the literal meaning of the original, I would prefer that to creating an awkwardness where none exists in the original.

    • October 13, 2013 11:56 pm

      I agree with everything you say, and I like the way you put “try to re-create the same effect in the target language.” A teacher of mine said something similar once and it made an impression on me (I think he said “a translation that has the same effect on a reader as the original is a brilliant translation”).

      Several years ago, before the internet, when it was sometimes hard to find Russian books, I used to read anything I could get my hands on. One of the pleasant surprises that came to me that way was a Bengali-to-Russian translation of Last Poem by Rabindranath Tagore. I remember liking it at the time, but unfortunately that’s my only contact with Bengali literature so far.

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your impressions of the Zinovieff and Hughes translation of Anna Karenina. I know very little about it, but as you see, I’m very interested these days in how people respond to different translations.

  4. October 1, 2015 4:36 pm

    All the Dostoevsky translations I read have for a good while been the Pevear-V ones though I should really give someone else a turn next time round. One thing that sticks out for me as a genuine criticism is their frequent use of the word in an everyday context – “physiognomy”!
    I don’t think I’ve actually heard it used once in my entire life in spoken English!”

    • October 3, 2015 2:54 pm

      I couldn’t agree more about “physiognomy”! Languagehat and I discussed it here once.

      • October 18, 2015 12:38 pm

        Sorry about the delay in remembering to return heer till now following my comments. Gratifyingly interesting the common noticing of the jarring use of ‘physiognomy’! Maybe ‘face’ doesn’t quite carry the full connotation of whatever the Russian word is but surely still it would be hugely preferable to the stilted, decidedly ‘literary’ use of phys . . . particularly in the case of Dosteovsky who tends to intentionally write in a conversational one-to-one tone.


  1. "Drink up": lost in translation: how can it be regained? - English Vision

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