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Translation comparison: Dead Souls

October 8, 2013

Pevear and Volokhonsky are the superstars of current Russian translation, known for their freewheeling, exuberant performances; Rayfield notes in his frugal introduction that every new translation does violence to the one before it, and Rayfield’s violence is to shave the filigrees of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ornate style, giving us a cleaner, more accessible, and somewhat unremarkable edition of Gogol’s only novel.

That’s Evan McMurry for Bookslut, comparing translations of Gogol’s Dead Souls. He accuses Rayfield of what Pevear might call leveling the English, saying “if Dead Souls has ever been an easy read, it’s in Rayfield’s translation. But Gogol was never meant to be airport fare,” and suggesting something must have been “sacrificed for readability.”  He supports his critique of Rayfield by comparing passages:

Flip, for instance, to the opening of chapter five, which begins just as Chichikov is hurrying from the scoundrel Nozdriov’s estate. Below are three versions, the first, for contrast’s sake, [C.] J. Hogarth’s 1842 public domain translation [actually 1916, I think; 1842 is the Russian version – EM], the second Pevear and Volokhonsky’s 1997 translation, and the last Rayfield’s [first in 2008]:

Hogarth: “Certainly Chichikov was a thorough coward, for, although the britchka pursued its headlong course until Nozdrev’s establishment had disappeared behind hillocks and hedgerows, our hero continued to glance nervously behind him, as though every moment expecting to see a stern chase begin. His breath came with difficulty, and when he tried his heart with his hands he could feel it fluttering like a quail caught in a net. ‘What a sweat the fellow has thrown me into!’”

Pevear and Volokhonsky: “Our hero, however, had turned quite properly chicken. Though the britzka was racing along like wildfire, and Nozdryov’s estate had long since rushed from sight, covered by fields, slopes, and hummocks, he still kept looking back in fear, as if he expected at any moment to be swooped upon by the pursuit. He had difficulty catching his breath, and when he tried putting his hand to his heart, he felt it fluttering like a quail in a cage. ‘Eh, what a hot time he gave me! [just look at him!]’”

Rayfield: “Despite his escape, our hero was thoroughly cowed. Although his barouche was hurtling along at breakneck speed and Nozdriov’s village had long ago vanished from sight, leaving only fields, sloping hills, and hillocks to be seen, Chichikov still kept fearfully glancing back over his shoulder as if expecting any minute to see a posse in pursuit of him. He was having trouble breathing, and when he tentatively placed his hand on his heart, he could feel it beating about like a quail in a cage. ‘God, what torment he put me through!’”

Rayfield’s lack of buoyancy is noticeable here. Pevear and Volokhonsky best him with almost every verb: “rushed” is more expressive than “vanished,” “covered” more efficient and visual than “leaving… to be seen,” “swooped upon” more kinetic than “see… in pursuit,” and “fluttering” more acute than “beating.” “Thoroughly cowed” rings odd — it was the passage that first prompted me to compare Rayfield’s translation against my beaten up copy of Pevear and Volokhonsky — whereas “quite properly chicken” has the combination of high diction (“quite properly”) and slang (“chicken”) that Gogol mixed so mischievously. Rayfield’s “posse” sounds out of place, too wild west; Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “pursuit” is better. Chichokov “felt” his heart in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s graph; he “could feel” it in Rayfield, a needlessly indirect rendering. Only in the word “tentatively” does Rayfield get the better of Pevear and Volokhonsky, who translate Chichikov as having “tried  putting his hand to his heart,” which makes no sense — what stopped him from succeeding?

You see what’s missing here – the Russian. This fits a pattern seen in the reviews of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Leskov volume, where critics who don’t seem to know Russian like P&V’s work better than those who do (there are exceptions). That fact isn’t necessarily damning. It could mean that readers of Russian see weaknesses invisible to monolingual readers, or that Russianists’ collective judgment is clouded by jealousy. Or it could mean something else. A lot of people who read Russian are infrequent consumers of Russian-to-English translations.

Here’s the Russian text of McMurry’s passage:

Герой наш трухнул, однако ж, порядком. Хотя бричка мчалась во всю пропалую и деревня Ноздрева давно унеслась из вида, закрывшись полями, отлогостями и пригорками, но он всё еще поглядывал назад со страхом, как бы ожидая, что вот-вот налетит погоня. Дыхание его переводилось с трудом, и когда он попробовал приложить руку к сердцу, то почувствовал, что оно билось, как перепелка в клетке. «Эк, какую баню задал! смотри ты какой!»

And since I have it here and pixels are free, here’s David Magarshack’s version (1961):

Our hero was certainly frightened out of his wits. Although the carriage was going along at a spanking pace and Nozdryov’s village had long ago passed out of sight, hidden behind fields, the sloping ground, and the hillocks, he still kept looking back in terror, as though expecting every minute to be overtaken by his pursuers. He was breathing heavily and when he tried to lay a hand on his heart he felt it fluttering like a quail in a cage. ‘Dear, oh dear, he has scared me out of my wits. What a fellow!’

And Christopher English’s (1998):

Our hero had certainly been given a terrible scare. Although his chaise raced along like a bat out of hell and Nozdryov’s village had long been lost from sight behind the fields, hills, and rolling countryside, he continued to cast fearful looks behind him, as if expecting at any moment to be overtaken. His breathing was laboured and when he pressed his hand to his heart he felt it fluttering like a quail in a cage. ‘Goodness, what a close shave! What an abominable character!’

[Update 6/3/22: and Isabel Hapgood’s (1886) in a separate post.]

I was suspicious of the way McMurry uses “kinetic,” “efficient,” “acute,” and “visual” as self-evidently positive terms. Gogol’s writing can be noticeably less visual than one expects, and who’s to say without looking at the Russian how kinetic this partial paragraph should be? Even “Gogol was never meant to be airport fare” worries me a little – it sounds smart to say a great writer isn’t supposed to be smooth and easy, but compare it to the story Gogol told Pushkin about the typesetters who couldn’t stop laughing while working on his stories, which proved that “I am a writer perfectly to the taste of the mob.” Gogol is weird in linguistic and other ways, but that’s not the same as inaccessible.

Let’s look at McMurry’s passage:

трухнул […] порядком

To me this seems like an energetic, mildly unusual, but easily understood way of saying our hero had a single significant bout of cowardice. Hogarth’s “was a thorough coward” doesn’t seem to get the “one time” meaning of the -нуть suffix. P&V’s “turned quite properly chicken” is the most daring and works except that the word “chicken” has perhaps too much schoolyard forcefulness. Magarshack’s “frightened out of his wits” is a little too cliché and insufficiently critical of Chichikov, while Rayfield’s “thoroughly cowed” seems like a good middle ground to me; I don’t know why McMurry found it odd.

полями, отлогостями и пригорками

This is a simple “noun, noun, and noun” construction, but the nouns in it aren’t as parallel as those in “over the river and through the woods.” I searched for the singular form of each at and found 22,401 occurrences of поле, 18 of отлогость, and 222 of пригорок. Here I like how Pevear and Volokhonsky keep the “X, Y, and Z” format with “fields, slopes, and hillocks.” I’m not sure that Magarshack and Rayfield gain enough precision with “sloping ground” and “sloping hills” instead of “slopes” to be worth it. Hogarth shortens it to an alliterative X and Y with “hillocks and hedgerows,” and I’m not sure why.


Only Magarshack goes with the generic and easily understood “carriage” instead of a specialized term like “britzka” or “barouche.” Christopher English uses “chaise,” and in still another translation Robert A. Maguire joins with P&V and Hogarth in using some spelling of britska. Normally I’m for being comprehensible, but Maguire makes the good points that Gogol draws a lot of carriage-related distinctions in the book and modern Russians probably find бричка almost as exotic as we find britzka (see pp. 18-19 of “Translating Dead Souls”). I share English’s (but not Maguire’s) intuition that “chaise” is specific and somewhat exotic, but not nearly as bizarre as “britzka.”

ожидая, что вот-вот налетит погоня

This is a case where I find P&V’s “swooped upon by the pursuit” to be an unnecessarily odd, though not opaque, bit of English. Rayfield’s “posse” and Magarshack’s “his pursuers” seem better to me, since they can unproblematically be applied to the people pursuing and not only the act of pursuing, just like погоня. Or if you like the abstract sense, English’s “expecting at any moment to be overtaken” works well.

когда он попробовал приложить руку к сердцу, то почувствовал, что оно билось, как перепелка в клетке.

I like P&V’s version of the first half, “when he tried putting his hand to his heart.” McMurry reads “tried” as if it meant “attempted something that might not work” instead of “did something as a test,” which would be a different verb in Russian. In context, and with the -ing form, I think it’s clear enough in English. Magarshack’s “tried to lay a hand on his heart” sounds like it might mean what McMurry thinks; that may be language change since 1961, or a UK/US difference, or just me. On the other hand I think I like Rayfield’s “beating about like a quail in a cage” better than “fluttering…” in the other three four, since the Russian verb used is the standard one for heartbeats, not a bird-specific one; in the Russian sentence we don’t know it was beating faster than usual until we get to the quail (though we may guess).

“Эк, какую баню задал! смотри ты какой!”

Баню задать is a low-frequency idiom that was later used by Reshetnikov (1866) and Mel’nikov-Pecherskii (1875-81) in the meaning “punish, deliver a beating.” The lexical meaning is something like “what a sauna you/he gave me! Look at what you’re like!” Hogarth and P&V keep heat in the image; Magarshack and Rayfield don’t, though they of course knew it was there. Rayfield’s “torment” seems more to the point than Magarshack’s “scared me out of my wits.” I think Rayfield’s and P&V’s solutions are defensible, and it depends how you think idioms work. English finds a third way by using a metaphor unrelated to the heat of the bathhouse, and that’s also defensible, though “close shave” is more common than баню задать. It’s interesting that задал is translated as third-person in each translation. I thought in context Chichikov was talking to the absent Nozdrev, since there’s a ты and the following sentence says that he wished all sorts of things on Nozdrev. But since it’s unanimous against my second-person reading, I assume I’m wrong. Any native speakers care to confirm?

By the way, I was able to verify everything but Rayfield’s translation, for which I’m trusting McMurry’s excerpt. I can’t recommend Maguire’s “Translating Dead Souls” highly enough (see these two related posts).

My bottom line, based on these few sentences and not the whole book: Hogarth was a trailblazer [update 6/3/22: or rather Isabel Hapgood was 29 years before him]; everyone later improves on his effort; it surprises me that recent translators find so many flaws in each other’s work that they keep redoing the same ten novels, instead of finding the twenty-third most important novel of the period and translating it for the first time.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2013 8:42 am

    it surprises me that recent translators find so many flaws in each other’s work that they keep redoing the same ten novels, instead of finding the twenty-third most important novel of the period and translating it for the first time.

    Bingo. I’m starting to think there should be a law passed against new translations of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky for the next couple of decades. (Just kidding! I believe in freedom of the press! But the world really doesn’t need another translation of Dead Souls or War and Peace.)

  2. Robert permalink
    April 28, 2022 10:25 am

    Each translation seems to be a rewrite of the story in their own words rather than a translation of the Russian text. The stated preferences, for example, the phrase, “what a sweat the fellow has turned me into” aren’t better translations of the original Russian, but just the ways the translator thinks the contemporary reader would better understand. Pevear’s “What a hot time the fellow gave me.” fails to convey the impression of Chichikov being so scared he breaks out into a sweat. And Rayfield’s “What a torment…” fails to convey Chichikov’s reaction to that torment. It seems like each translation is merely a translation of the prior translation, translating older English into modern English with no reference to the original Russian. Personally, I prefer the Hogarth translation, which while being a bit more clunky to read, gives more of a flavor of the times. As an aside, I had the Rayfield translation in my cart on Amazon and deleted it to look for the Hogarth version.

  3. June 3, 2022 8:15 am

    Isabel Hapgood’s 1886 translation of the passage is quoted in this 2022 post.


  1. LITERATURE ETC. | hermetic definitions
  2. LITERARY WORLD WEEKLY Dead Souls: English translations compared | 49th Parallel Post

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