Translating Dostoevsky

Translating Dostoevsky February 23, 2016

In a 2005 New Yorker piece, David Remnick surveyed the efforts to bring Dostoevsky and Tolstoy into English.

For decades, the field was dominated by the translations of Constance Garnett. They were far from universally liked. Nabokov “ranks Tolstoy at the top of all Russian prose writers and Anna as his masterpiece—and pronounces Garnett’s translation ‘a complete disaster.’ Brodsky agreed; he once said, ‘The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.’”

He adds, “The typescripts of Nabokov’s lectures, which he delivered while teaching undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell, are full of anti-Garnett vitriol; his margins are a congeries of pencilled exclamations and crabby demurrals on where she had ‘messed up.’ . . . where a passage in the Garnett of Anna reads, ‘Holding his head bent down before him,’ Nabokov triumphantly notes, ‘Mark that Mrs. Garnett has decapitated the man.’”

Kornei Chukovsky complained that Garnett’s translations completely lost Dostoevsky’s “convulsions” and “nervous trembling.” What she offered instead was “a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.”

Remnick thinks the severe criticisms are justified: “Garnett’s flaws were not the figment of a native speaker’s snobbery. She worked with such speed, with such an eye toward the finish line, that when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on.”

Remnick’s heroes are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who began translating Brothers Karamozov in the 1980s. Their ongoing project began rather accidentally. Living in Manhattan, Pevear made a living building furniture, while Volokhonsky, a Russian emigree earned money translating: “One day, when Richard was reading Karamazov (in a translation by one of Garnett’s epigones, David Magarshak), Larissa, who had read the book many times in the original, began peeking over her husband’s shoulder to read along with him. She was outraged. It’s not there! she thought. He doesn’t have it! He’s an entirely different writer!”

The couple began their own collaborative translation of Brothers: After looking at the various translations—Magarshak, Andrew MacAndrew, and, of course, Constance Garnett—they worked on three sample chapters. Their division of labor was—and remains—nearly absolute: First, Larissa wrote out a kind of hyperaccurate trot of the original, complete with interstitial notes about Dostoyevsky’s diction, syntax, and references.” At the end of several rounds, Pevear would read his English translation while his wife followed the Russian text: “Their hope was to be true to Dostoyevsky, right down to his famous penchant for repetition, seeming sloppiness, and melodrama.”

The road to publication was marked with rejections, as it often is, but when their translation of Anna Karenina was picked up by Oprah Winfrey’s book club in 2004, sales, shall we say, picked up. The rest, for English-speaking fans of the Russian novel, is history, as the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations have become the thrilling standards, full of “convulsions” and “nervous trembling.”

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