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On Garnett meeting Tolstoi, and the economics of translations

August 11, 2014

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2014 7:47 am

    Needless to say, I heartily agree. (I remember years ago someone was translating a Russian novel online and soliciting suggestions for how to render difficult lines, which I thought was a great idea; unfortunately, I can no longer recall what the novel was and have no idea how to look for it.)

  2. August 11, 2014 9:42 am

    Wonderful plan, and very appealing to us monolinguists! As an aside, would you happen to know if there’s ever been an English translation of his fragment “Rome”? And what translations of his work would you recommend? I’m a bit of a completist but I have a copy of the P/V translated collection and I’d prefer to replace it, not being that fond of their work….

    • August 26, 2014 11:05 am

      I’m none too fond of their work either — having (casually not professionally) compared their translations of some of Dostoevsky’s and Chekhov’s stories to the earlier Garnett translations. Accuracy has its merits, but not at the expense of meaning and understanding. I know Nabokov had contempt for her (although his own attempts at translations are forgettable at best and awful at worst), but her English prose does a better job of capturing the characteristics of the Russian landscapes and characters than many of the later translations on the market.

      Garnett was a remarkable woman, intelligent, disciplined, well-read, and witty. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but was otherwise much like Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch: “… the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

      Her sisters included the well-known labor organiser Clementina Black (leader of the Matchgirl strike with Annie Besant, and much respected by Shaw and other leaders of the Fabian Society), and Grace Black Human who spent a good part of her life in Ceylon and India working to end child prostitution.

      Garnett’s grandson Richard, who passed away last year, wrote a very well researched and affectionate biography of her called Constance Garnett; a Heroic Life, well worth a look if you can find it.

      • August 26, 2014 11:09 am

        Thanks, sounds like an interesting book — too bad it’s so pricy (even used it’s at least $23.70). I’ve added it to my private wishlist in case it comes down in price, and maybe I’ll remember to look for it at the library.

  3. August 11, 2014 9:47 am

    Sorry – didn’t make it clear I was talking about Gogol there…..

  4. August 11, 2014 10:05 am

    I’m afraid there doesn’t seem to have been an English translation of Рим [Rome], though there are versions in French and Italian, if you read either of those languages. And it warms my heart that you’re not that fond of P/V!

  5. August 11, 2014 10:30 am

    I think Hat is right that “Rome” hasn’t been translated into English. Michael R. Kelly wrote an article about it in 2003 where he refers to “the lack of a readily available English translation,” which made me hope there was an out-of-print one from long ago, but if there is, I can’t find it.

  6. August 11, 2014 2:42 pm

    Ah well – thanks anyway, and what a shame! My French is from school so alas I think I would struggle – I’ll have to find someone whose French is good enough to translate it for me! 🙂 I think I shall dispense with the nasty P/V volume and search out some better versions (although I have a few old Penguin volumes already).

  7. between4walls permalink
    August 11, 2014 6:31 pm

    I did not know any of the biographical details about Garnett just the prodigious amount of work she did- what a fascinating woman! Thanks for sharing this.

    Re: translations of greatest hits, I’m reading Rosemary Edmonds’ War and Peace translation, and apparently she translated for de Gaulle during WWII!

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