Richard Pevear responds to Donald Rayfield
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 away, up’ 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.