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Summer Loafing, or Russian Literature in Translation

15 June 2016

One of the great gifts of being a teacher is that, when the school year ends, my attention turns from teaching to research, exploration, and stretching my brain a bit (this is a necessary refresh for all teachers). In neoliberal terms, I suppose it’s professional development. But I like the more 19th century way of thinking about “the life of the mind” and just taking time to think and be. This can also be a challenge, however, when there are tasks needing done—especially writing and publishing tasks, for those of us whose jobs require it—but the freedom of a lazy morning coffee often moves me in a different direction, a kind of much needed procrastination, that can be both forthbearing and a distraction.

Before breakfast, I reached for my Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, which I’ve been picking at for the past few weeks. As an undergraduate, I had read Anna Karenina and had adored it, so I was expecting to pick up Tolstoy’s supposed masterpiece and be drawn in and inspired. The Anna Karenina I had read as a 23 year old was an edited edition of the Garnett translation (something I will admit I didn’t pay any attention to as an undergraduate). The Garnett translation is known for its beautiful prose style, but also for its inaccuracy—she apparently worked as quickly as possible, skipping over words and entire passages that she didn’t understand, to make deadlines. Kent and Berberova’s edit sought to maintain the beauty of Garnett’s translation while repairing her errors and filling in what she had cut. As my first experience with Russian literature during my undergraduate years, it was, to be a bit cliché about it, a revelation. But I can only describe War and Peace, so far, as a boring slog through wooden prose, instrumental at best, unreadable in its worst passages. I decided to give Tolstoy up and pick another novel for summer reading.

Coincidentally, as I ate my breakfast I stumbled on this fascinating comparison of Anna Karenina translations by Janet Malcom, wherein she takes Pevear & Volokhonsky to task for their translation. And so I spent the morning wandering down an unexpected path, reading about the art of translation and comparing translations of War and Peace. I skimmed over Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator,” which I’d read in graduate school, and then Vladimir Nobokov’s scathing essay on translation, “The Art of the Translation,” which I’d never seen before.

Because I stand in awe of Nobokov as a writer, I didn’t know that I would disagree so strongly with some of his thoughts on translation. Reading a few people’s commentaries on his essay, it would seem he was more or less an unreconstructed Russophile (in the 19th century sense of the word, as in an ethnic chauvinist) and believed that the beauty and complexity of Russian was untranslatable. He concluded, then, that the job of the translator was more or less to transliterate and be as “accurate” as possible to the original. He was against rendering a translated work into beautiful prose in the target language at all, and preferred what might be thought of as more a transliteration than a translation. There is a grain of truth here, in that he felt like the current aesthetic preferences of the translator’s context would distort the historical or contextual meaning of the original. Yet this is why so many people love Garnett’s (admittedly problematic) translation, in that her prose in English is both contextually close to Tolstoy’s Russian (late 19th century ruling class) and is beautiful in English—which, of course, Nobokov despised.  Because his English prose is so shockingly gorgeous, particularly because it’s more or less the American dialect, I had not realized how much Nobokov sneered at English as a language, because he viewed it as so simple (the sheer number of cases and declensions in Russian is mind boggling).

Perhaps hewing more closely to Nobokov’s notion of translation, Pevear & Volokhonsky’s War and Peace does an admirable job of attempting to reproduce Tolstoy’s explicit and purposefully “bad” Russian in English, but ends up, rather than conveying what Tolstoy was doing with his playful and pursposeful stretching of the Russian, reading like a slavish transliteration without soul. Apparently, Tolstoy himself preferred the translation by the Maudes, with whom he’d actually become friends in the early 20th century. But the translation that people praise for its prose in English, even when they find fault with its translations, is the Garnett. Unlike Anna Karenina, Garnett’s translation of War and Peace has not been edited, and only exists in its original, flawed form. There is also a recent translation by Anthony Briggs, used now by Penguin Classics, which has won awards (a side by side look at some passages with the Pevear & Volokhonsky shows its skill with English). For the moment, I’m done with my attempt at summertime Russian literature, as I can’t decide which translation to pick—I’ll probably opt for some candy, like some epic sci-fi or a re-read of Game of Thrones.

This kind of intellectual wandering, “vagabondizing” as Melville might have said, is one of the reasons I love summer.

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