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Unruinable Tolstoi

June 4, 2016

I want to like this piece by Janet Malcolm, since it unhesitatingly praises Constance Garnett, but it bothers me.

I agree, in most cases, that Garnett’s versions of certain passages chosen by Malcolm are better than more recent ones. But I don’t think Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s or Marian Schwartz’s efforts deserve the full force of Malcolm’s hostility; if these are the worst examples she could find, the full translations can’t be as bad as she says. (I read P&V’s Anna Karenina some years ago and don’t share Malcolm’s opinion of it.)

Here’s one of Malcolm’s comparisons:

In Garnett’s version:

The silence lasted for a minute or two. Dolly was thinking of herself. That humiliation of which she was always conscious came back to her with a peculiar bitterness when her sister reminded her of it. She had not expected such cruelty from her sister, and she was angry with her. But suddenly she heard the rustle of a skirt, and with it the sound of heart-rending, smothered sobbing, and felt arms about her neck.

Schwartz writes:

The silence lasted for a couple of minutes. Dolly was thinking about herself. Her humiliation, which was always with her, told especially painfully in her when her sister mentioned it. She had not anticipated such cruelty from her sister, and she was angry with her. Suddenly, however, she heard a dress and instead of the sound of sobs that had been held back too long, someone’s hands embracing her around the neck from below.

The Russian:

Молчание продолжалось минуты две. Долли думала о себе. То свое унижение, которое она всегда чувствовала, особенно больно отозвалось в ней, когда о нем напомнила ей сестра. Она не ожидала такой жестокости от сестры и сердилась на нее. Но вдруг она услыхала шум платья и вместе звук разразившегося сдержанного рыданья, и чьи-то руки снизу обняли ее шею. (part 2, chapter 3)

It took me a minute to see why Malcolm calls the Schwartz passage an “ungrammatical muddle” (and I still think the syntax is fine). Schwartz seems to misread вместе ‘together, along with’ as вместо ‘instead of,’ and unlike Garnett, she doesn’t supply a verb like “felt,” so it seems like Dolly is hearing Kitty’s arms embracing her. (In Russian the arms are the subject of “embraced,” not the object of “felt” or “heard” — literally “…and someone’s arms from below embraced her neck” — but I see nothing wrong with Garnett’s approach.)

Elsewhere Malcolm looks at P&V’s rendering of this passage:

Дарья Александровна причесывалась и одевалась с заботой и волнением. Прежде она одевалась для себя, чтобы быть красивой и нравиться; потом, чем больше она старелась, тем неприятнее ей становилось одеваться; она видела, как она подурнела. Но теперь она опять одевалась с удовольствием и волнением. Теперь она одевалась не для себя, не для своей красоты, а для того, чтоб она, как мать этих прелестей, не испортила общего впечатления. И, посмотревшись в последний раз в зеркало, она осталась довольна собой. Она была хороша. Не так хороша, как она, бывало, хотела быть хороша на бале, но хороша для той цели, которую она теперь имела в виду. (part 3, chapter 8; click through for Garnett’s and P&V’s versions.)

Malcolm is irritated that P&V translate Она была хороша as “She was pretty,” where the Maudes have “She looked well” and Garnett has “She looked nice.” Her Russian speaker informant told her that хороша means “good” or “fine,” but the short form хороша here does refer to physical attractiveness (хороша собой) instead of the broader “good, nice” of the long form хорошая. I also like Garnett’s “She looked nice,” but P&V’s switch from “beautiful” for красивая to “pretty” for хороша is more or less the same strategy as Garnett’s switch from “pretty” to “nice.” (Malcolm also seems to overlook that Dolly wanted to be/look хороша for a ball in the past, and not only for her “present selfless purpose.”)

Anna Shapiro wrote this in a 2007 e-mail to Malcolm:

I’ve always maintained that Tolstoy was unruinable, because he’s such a simple writer, words piled like bricks, that it couldn’t matter; that he’s a transparent writer, so you can’t really get the flavor wrong, because in many ways he tries to have none. But they have, they’ve added some bad flavor, whereas even when Garnett makes sentences like “Vronsky eschewed farinaceous foods” it does no harm…. I imagine Pevear thinking he’s CORRECTING Tolstoy; that he’s really the much better writer.

This seems a bit mean, but I like the idea that Tolstoi is unruinable. Critiques of translations can give the author too little credit; a voice like Tolstoi’s can survive attempts at translation worse than any Malcolm considers.

H/t freakcollection. Masha Gessen compared the same translations in 2014.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2016 9:21 am

    I tend to side with Malcolm as I’m not a fan of P/V and find their versions odd. It was only on my second reading of The Master and Margarita – the first P/V, the second Burgin/O’Connor – that I really *got* it, was really swept off my feet by the book. Having said that, I read the Maudes’ translation of AK and loved that too – I’m happy with archaisms, I don’t want a book that old brough ‘up to date’ – I’m in agrement with Malcolm here too!

    • June 6, 2016 10:34 am

      I like archaisms too! And since they’re very hard for translators today to fake convincingly, it’s great when there are decent translations from long enough ago that the language has aged by itself.

  2. June 4, 2016 11:14 am

    I didn’t understand the “shapify” section, either. Here is a puzzle for a translator. Most ignore it, here is one who gave it a shot. But she should not have done so, because English is not innately playful. (Now, me: what wut wot wuut?) “Shapify” seemed playful enough to me.

    I like Garnett, too, but the defense that her numerous howlers (mostly, but not always, invisible to me) can be corrected is a perverse one. Where’s my 13 volume set of corrected Chekhov paperbacks, then? Translation is collaborative, though, over time. Translators ought to correct and borrow from each other.

    “Critiques of translations can give the author too little credit” – this is wise.

    • June 4, 2016 12:19 pm

      I have mixed feelings about “shapify,” but I was confused about Malcolm’s point there too. Where Schwartz has “Stepan Arkadyevich liked a good joke. ‘And perhaps things will shapify! A fine turn of phrase: shapify,’ he thought. ‘I must repeat that one,’” what do translators who used an ordinary non-neologism do?

      Maybe Garnett wasn’t happy with “work out” for this purpose, because in this edition she seems to use “come round” instead (or maybe “work out” is a Kent/Berberova change?).

      • June 6, 2016 2:39 am

        “Образуется” was not a neologism Tolstoy thought up. The word itself was legit. “Княжество Минское образовалось, как видно, из области славянского племени дреговичей,” wrote Soloviev in the first volume of his “History,” published in 1851.

        Rather, Stiva was amused to hear the servant use it in his own, non-standard, folksy way.

        “Good-looking” is probably a decent fit for “хороша” in modern American English.

  3. June 4, 2016 1:45 pm

    I am not a fan of Pevear/Volokhonsky translations and avoid them. “She looked pretty” would have been better than their literal translation. Still, I find the article too harsh and narrow. Malcolm didn’t mention any other translators who worked after Garnett and Maude and before Pevear/Volokhonsky and Schwartz, so it seems that there were none. Also, she didn’t mention that Marian Schwartz translates modern Russian literature, which needs to be done more than re-translating. Such statements that poetry and humor are untranslatable are also not helpful.

    As for “образуется,” the verb existed long before Tolstoy, though it had several meanings that were a little different from the usage in Anna Karenina. It is mentioned in the dictionary of Dal and the National Corpus of the Russian language prior to Tolstoy’s novel. It is important that the servant uses it first, so it could be a word Tolstoy heard from the peasants in this particular meaning. It doesn’t sound like a neologism to modern Russians, and it is the word that is extremely popular nowadays. Also, “образ” doesn’t only mean “shape.” Its meaning of an “icon” is more significant in this case.

    • June 6, 2016 10:32 am

      Julia and Alex K. – I meant to say that “shapify” was a neologism in English, not that образуется was a neologism in Russian. (I know it first from grammar books, e.g. Условное наклонение образуется при помощи частицы “бы”, a meaning which may have been around in Tolstoi’s time.)

      In the text the servant’s use of образуется is treated as some kind of linguistic oddity or innovation by another character, and making up a new word in English is one strategy for representing that; all I meant to say is that if you use an ordinary word in an established meaning in the first instance, the passage later on where attention is called to the word will sound silly.

      Julia, I agree with you that Schwartz should get a lot of credit for translating previously untranslated works!

  4. June 5, 2016 8:26 am

    This seems a bit mean

    Not to me; I really do get the sense that P&V think of themselves as such superior craftsmen they can not only look down complacently on all other translators but might feel they were correcting the author they were translating, even if they wouldn’t say so publicly. Their translations are not horrible, but they’re not the best, and they’re far from deserving the uncritical hosannas they’re routinely lavished with.

    • June 6, 2016 10:41 am

      I just don’t want to veer between uncritical hosannas and merciless bile. I think it’s worth stepping back and considering a bigger universe of possible translations, which would include less studied writers being translated from languages smaller than Russian to languages smaller than English by people who know both languages quite imperfectly. So many writers/languages would be lucky to have someone of the caliber of the sixth-best Tolstoi-into-English translator working on them!

  5. June 6, 2016 8:11 am

    By coincidence, I read JM’s article this morning. While I enjoy seeing the monolithic P&V get a bashing, I thought JM was really unfair about Marian Schwartz’s version. I can’t say whether P&V deserve all this contumely, as I only once did a really close comparison of their translation with the original – when reading Crime and Punishment – and I found them perfectly OK – detail was preserved accurately, even if their ‘voice’ reflected a dutiful attempt to reflect the syntax of the original without recapturing its brio. However, I have read the Schwartz Karenina very closely, because I was asked to write a review of the Schwartz and Bartlett AK translations last year for the journal of the Great Britain-Russia Society. As this journal isn’t available online, I’ll post a relevant extract from my review below:

    Schwartz retains literality at the cost of easy reading, while Bartlett’s prose – although more richly textured and apparently natural – appears to lose a certain degree of fidelity, at least at the textual level, because of those very qualities. An example both translators cite is the adjective veselyi (jolly), which Schwartz translates throughout by a single word – cheerful – and its cognates (e.g. cheer, cheery), whereas Bartlett resorts to a richer vocabulary, including ‘merry’, ‘livelier’, and ‘light-hearted’, in order – as her introductory essay explains – to convey the ‘richness of meaning implied in the original’. Bartlett suggests that Russian is simply more concise than English, and that therefore multiple meanings may be implicit in a single word; to fix on a single English equivalent for that word, as Schwartz does, would be unduly confining for the translator (and repetitive for the reader). This argument makes a great deal of sense and justifies Bartlett’s slightly more enjoyable style, yet there are clearly points in the narrative where Tolstoy intends repetition to jar brutally on the reader.
    In Part Five of the novel, Vronsky is placed in an impossible situation by Anna, who is now living with him openly. Vronsky would like Anna to behave discreetly and accept that she must be avoid society until their relationship is regularized by divorce and remarriage. Anna, however suffers bitterly from former friends’ contempt for her new status; additionally, she fears that their attitude will contaminate Vronsky’s love for her. In St Petersburg, she defies the unwritten rules by attending the opera in full décolleté as if nothing were amiss. Vronsky has to witness Anna’s public snubbing, while fielding his own mother’s mockery (despite her chequered past, Vronsky’s mother hates Anna for spoiling her son’s career). In a short passage which follows Vronsky from his mother’s box at the opera to Anna’s, Tolstoy uses the same adverb to describe both women’s actions: nasmeshlivo (jeering). Spaced just a few lines apart, this repetition forces the reader to compare these two apparently incomparable women. One is brave, passionate and despairing, the other is an immoral and cynical hypocrite: yet both treat Vronsky similarly during this crucial scene. Schwartz, predictably, rises to Tolstoy’s challenge by repeating the word ‘derisively’ for each use of nasmeshlivo. The effect of the original Russian is thus reproduced: there is, of course, a risk that readers will fail to recognize Tolstoy’s deliberate jar and blame the translator for bad writing instead. Bartlett, on the other hand, dodges out of this quandary by ingeniously making Vronsky’s mother’s tone ‘scornful’ and Anna’s expression ‘arch’. This creates a much smoother reading experience yet disarms that important Tolstoyan tripwire.
    Occasionally, Schwartz’s fidelity to Tolstoy goes too far for my taste: keen to stress the intratextual links created by the repetition, sections apart, of a single word (here obrazovat’, to take shape), and equally keen not to let Anglophone readers forget the repetition, she created her own, memorably jarring effect with the neologism ‘shapify’. Yet to me the creation of a new word where the original used a standard verb is excessively disruptive: it out-Tolstoys Tolstoy.

    I think JM has fallen into the trap of blaming the translator, when the reality is that Tolstoy intended his writing style to (occasionally) arrest the reader’s intention and disturb convention.

    • June 6, 2016 9:01 am

      A superb comment! That’s maybe the most basic dilemma in translating — whether to translate throughout by a single word (and its cognates), or use a richer vocabulary; I tend to fall on Schwartz’s side of the divide, but I can understand the attraction of the other. However, it seems to me it’s more important to preserve the author’s repetitions (if one trusts the author enough to assume the repetitions are an artistic choice), because otherwise you’re missing something crucial. (I think of Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба, where the translator missed the powerful repetition of the first sentence at a crucial point much later in the book.)

    • June 6, 2016 10:50 am

      Thanks for sharing part of your excellent review! “Shapify” certainly gets everyone’s attention, but your case that Schwartz’s approach works best for насмешливо ‘derisively’ is very persuasive.

      I’m probably repeating myself on this issue, but I think the question of whether and how much to preserve repetitions is made even trickier by the different norms in Russian and English. A given level of “too much” repetition will jar the English reader more than the Russian one, in part because we’re so used to mechanical substitutions of Romance and Germanic synonyms to avoid repetitions. Keeping every repetition in prose seems like translating poetry using the same meter — it’s hard to do, it requires sacrifices, and in the end it has a different psychological effect on the reader because a ternary meter that perhaps sounds languidly mournful in Russian sounds like Dr. Seuss in English.

  6. June 6, 2016 9:53 am

    Actually, Schwartz’s syntax is kind of a mess, at least here: “she heard a dress and instead of the sound of sobs that had been held back too long, someone’s hands embracing her around the neck from below.” How does one hear someone’s hands embracing one around the neck from below

    • June 6, 2016 10:22 am

      I see what you’re saying, but for me it’s a semantic issue, not a syntactic one – we both parsed that sentence the same way and came up with the same unexpected meaning. The problem comes out of two Russian words that are one letter apart being confused, presumably by Schwartz, unless there’s a textological issue I don’t know about. I’m sure this is not typical of Schwartz, who certainly knows вместо from вместе; instead it looks like a one-off slip of the pen that doesn’t say anything about her general approach to translation.

  7. Frank T. McCarthy permalink
    June 13, 2016 9:11 pm

    What can it mean to describe the work of a translator as a “fake” and a “Potemkin translation” as Gary Morson described the work of Pevear and Volokhonsky (PV)? Janet Malcolm approvingly quoted this assessment. The apocryphal Potemkin villages are famous symbols of deception. Where is the deception in PV? They aim to produce a translation as close to the original Russian as possible. If there are two Russian adjectives, they always maintain the same sequence in English. They strive to maintain the same clause structure within a sentence. If Malcolm and Morson don’t like the result of this approach, fine. But what justifies the gratuitous insults they have directed at PV? I appreciate the way that Anna Shapiro has dissociated herself from these insults.

    • June 13, 2016 10:34 pm

      I agree that there’s no reason to insult anyone in these discussions, while I also think it’s interesting and useful to talk about the pros and cons of any translator’s approach.

      I understood the Potemkin village analogy as referring not to deliberate deception, but to something that looks excellent from a distance but turns out not to be as good as it seems. And indeed, in the first paragraph of his 2010 piece, Morson twice spells out that this is what he means: Potemkin “had the pasteboard facade of houses constructed along the road just far enough away to look real. Ever since, the phrase ‘Potemkin village’ has indicated something that looks authentic and impressive—until one examines it closely and discovers its falsity.” Then again, “These are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.”

      I don’t think it’s necessary to assume that Morson is calling Pevear and/or Volokhonsky Potemkin. His main complaint seems to be that P&V are not sensitive enough readers, rather than that they are out to trick us. In Morson’s opinion, they don’t pay enough attention to the context of the entire work when they choose what word to use for злой in Notes from Underground or надрывы in The Brothers Karamazov, they don’t notice humor and playfulness enough to recreate it in Gogol, and they fail to reproduce the distance between the views of character and author in Tolstoi. All these claims are supported with specific examples. Even if one doesn’t agree with Morson’s evaluation of any or all of them, I think what he’s doing is far from gratuitously insulting people: he’s explaining why certain things matter to him in books he knows well in both languages and multiple translations, and showing the drawbacks of an approach that has different priorities than his own.

      I’m curious — how has Anna Shapiro “dissociated herself from these insults”? Does she no longer believe what she wrote to Malcolm in 2007, or was she misquoted, or would she have preferred that her assessment of P&V remain private? I don’t doubt you, but I haven’t read or heard what you’ve read or heard.

  8. June 20, 2016 4:42 pm

    I also like Garnett’s “She looked nice,” but P&V’s switch from “beautiful” for красивая to “pretty” for хороша is more or less the same strategy as Garnett’s switch from “pretty” to “nice.”

    Yes, I noticed this right away. I was puzzled by many of Malcolm’s complaints, but mostly I just couldn’t understand how she could feel that strongly when she can’t read the original! I can see enjoying one version over another, of course, but she goes further than that.

  9. June 20, 2016 9:50 pm

    Alas I don’t speak Russian, so can’t speak to the heart of the debate. I very much appreciate these thoughtful comments, though. Just wanted to say that Malcolm–whose work I’ve quite enjoyed in the past–lost my trust as soon as she so badly misread Lawrence’s thoughts on Garnett. It’s clear from that passage, as well as other comments in his letters, that he admired her efforts greatly. If Malcolm gets Lawrence so wrong–who’s writing in a language she actually understands–why should we trust what she has to say about one she cannot?

    • June 21, 2016 7:36 am

      Can’t she get one thing wrong without “losing your trust”? That’s like lambasting Schwartz as a translator because of one goof.

      • June 21, 2016 2:12 pm

        Those don’t seem comparable: translators make so many decisions and singling out one seems churlish. But Malcolm uses the Lawrence quote as evidence for her claim that people have been out to get Garnett from the beginning. But Lawrence isn’t suggesting any such thing, and I’m not sure anyone else has been either. I guess I am just sensitive about Lawrence, my very favourite writer, who often gets criticized for things he never said or beliefs he didn’t hold.

  10. June 21, 2016 2:18 pm

    Fair enough!


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