On Garnett meeting Tolstoi, and the economics of translations
Via @literaturarussa on Twitter, Rosamund Bartlett has an interesting essay on Tolstoi in English, from Eugene Schuyler’s translation of The Cossacks in 1878, through the period when Tolstoi’s fame as a pacifist and religious thinker surpassed his reputation as a novelist, through the rival translations by Constance Garnett (Anna Karenina, 1901; War and Peace, 1904) and Aylmer and Louise Maude (Anna Karenina, 1918; War and Peace, 1922). Bartlett has herself translated Anna Karenina (2014), and sorted out some beekeeping jargon that had stumped everyone before her. But here she’s mainly writing about her predecessors:
The translation they read was by Constance Garnett, a remarkable woman who would play a key role in popularising Tolstoy as a novelist. Born Constance Black in Brighton in 1861, the momentous year in which serfdom was abolished in Russia, she graduated in classics from Cambridge and began her career as a librarian in the East End of London. Marriage to the editor and critic Edward Garnett brought her more directly into the world of letters. His work led to friendships with writers such as Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence, and also to contact with Russian émigrés. Through her interest in socialism, Constance Garnett had already met George Bernard Shaw, a leading light in the Fabian Society, which was a common thread uniting the community of radicals, writers and exiles from Tsarist Russia among whom she and her husband ended up living on the Kent-Surrey border. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. He provided assistance in her first translating project: Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story.Garnett learnt more Russian with another revolutionary with whom she fell in love. Sergei Stepnyak (who had assassinated the Russian head of the secret police in St Petersburg in 1878) encouraged her to tackle Turgenev. But then, as now, the market for literary translation was small, and publishers needed to sell books. What was selling in 1894 was Tolstoy, so it was to The Kingdom of God is Within You that Garnett turned next. Earlier that winter she made her first visit to Russia, and had an inspiring meeting with Tolstoy in a snowbound Moscow. His piercing eyes, she reported, “seemed to look right through one and to make anything but perfect candour out of the question”, while at the same time “there was an extraordinary warmth and affection in them”.
There’s so much I didn’t know here — it would have taken me a long time to guess the first thing Garnett translated. (By the way, her son David Garnett also led an interesting life; see also his wife’s obituary.)
The point about the market for literary translation makes me think. Taken at face value, it makes the eleventh translation of Crime and Punishment or Dead Souls or War and Peace seem like a pharmaceutical company’s me-too drug: a way to leverage the power of marketing to defeat the expiration of a patent or copyright (or get around a rival’s). If we can’t stop one thing from entering the public domain, we can just make people believe they need what’s newer. But do publishers still need to sell books, or rather do we readers need publishers to sell books? Grant-supported or crowdfunded translations could easily be released as free e-books, like Marian Schwartz’s recent translation of Mamleyev’s The Sublimes. For that matter Benjamin Sher gave away his 1997 translation of Vaginov’s The Tower (Козлиная песнь, 1927; literally Goat Song, from a purported etymology of “tragedy”) years ago. And I just now learned from a 2008 Languagehat post that Chris Lovett translated the same novel and also offers it to all online. This post of Lizok’s suggests that almost free e-books are also possible, even for current authors, like Andrea Gregovich’s translation of Vladimir Kozlov’s Number Ten.
Maybe in the past there were economic reasons to keep redoing the greatest hits (distinct from artistic reasons — I recognize that translators may legitimately believe a book has never been done well enough, or may prefer to spend a few years of their life with Dostoevskii or Tolstoi instead of Avdeev or Mel’nikov-Pecherskii). But now surely it will be possible to translate more hitherto unavailable titles? I’m biased, as someone who’s co-translating a Leskov novel available in Russian and French but not English, but I think a new model of translating works previously undone and distributing them for free is possible and would be fantastic for readers.