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The quiet rebels of Russian translation


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Massively influential translators Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear are interviewed for the current issue of The Paris Review (The Art of Translation No. 4). Check out an excerpt of the interview below.

Credited with starting a “quiet revolution,” Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear have joined the small club of major translators whose interpretation of a master­piece displaces the one read by generations before. Volokhonsky, who is Russian, and Pevear, who is American, have been married 33 years. In that time, they have translated much of Russian literature as we know it. Their 30 or so translations include The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Hadji Murat, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, The Master and Margarita, Doctor Zhivago, Gogol’s Collected Tales, Dead Souls, The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov, and Chekhov’s Selected Stories.

Until their translation of The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1990, the English-speaking world got its Dostoevsky (their preferred spelling—with one y) from the great British translator Constance Garnett. Though her translations of Turgenev and Chekhov are generally considered virtuosic, her versions of Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy have drawn criticism for Victorian elision. Her Gogol translations are “dry and flat, and always unbearably ­demure,” complained Nabokov. “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,” grumbled Joseph Brodsky. The critic Korney Chukovsky summed it up best and most brutally when he wrote, “Who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky’s style? . . . But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe bland script: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.” For her part, Garnett once wrote, “Dostoievsky is so obscure and so careless a writer that one can scarcely help clarifying him.”

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky. Though ­almost unanimously praised by reviewers and Slavic scholars, they have a few critics who accuse them, in fierce blog posts, of being too literal or prone to unidiomatic turns of phrase. Pevear, who is sometimes drawn into the online jousting, never apologizes for erring on the side of the unfamiliar sounding over muting the original.

In 2004, the translators were propelled to commercial success when Oprah Winfrey chose their translation of Anna Karenina for her book club, making the 137-year-old book an instant best seller. (The Moscow Times called it “the greatest promotion of Russian literature since Omar Sharif cantered across the steppe in a fur hat as Doctor Zhivago.”)

Pevear and Volokhonsky have won the pen Translation Prize twice, for The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina. Pevear, who has also translated French and Italian works, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris. In addition to translating Russian contemporary poets, Volokhonsky, who attended Yale Divinity School, has translated theological texts into Russian. They have two trilingual children.

The interview took place in January over two long afternoons in their ground-floor apartment in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, where they have lived since 1998. Volokhonsky is warm and reserved. She has strong opinions, sometimes delivered bluntly. She doesn’t like facile answers. She accepts praise with sincere embarrassment and pleasure. She speaks with a thick Russian accent, which adds to her considerable charm. Pevear looks like a New England ship captain, bearded and with an excellent head of hair. He has a slow, easygoing manner which belies his precise tastes. He enjoys puns and repartee. In the beginning, the couple took turns speaking, listening respectfully in mortuary silence as the other spoke. But soon, they were interrupting each other, finishing the other’s sentence, prodding the other to speak, teasing or correcting each other, though they were always in general agreement. At the end of the interview, which, like a nine-hundred-page Russian novel, seemed to contain all subjects simultaneously, we opened a half bottle of champagne. Pevear had bought it to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but the two had fallen asleep before midnight.

–Susannah Hunnewell

INTERVIEWER

How did you meet?

PEVEAR

We actually met because of Russian literature. I had written an essay on the Soviet dissident and writer Andrei Sinyavsky. It was published in The Hudson Review in 1972. I remarked ironically that the poet Yevtushenko was giving readings in Madison Square Garden—among his translators were John Updike and Richard Wilbur—while Sinyavsky was in a Soviet labor camp. I received a letter from Irene Kirk, a professor at the University of Connecticut. She told me he wasn’t in prison, he had been released but also stripped of his citizenship and deported. She had helped him and his family leave for France.

VOLOKHONSKY

When I arrived in the United States, I stayed for a while with this professor, and she started matchmaking. Succeeded after a while. Not immediately.

INTERVIEWER

Who was resistant?

PEVEAR

Circumstances. Irene told me there was someone I should meet, and she invited me down to Connecticut. I was very surprised. I lived in Maine and worked in a boatyard as a woodworker—boats were still made of wood back then. I took a little time off and drove down. It happened that Larissa had to renew her visa, which meant she had left for England just as I arrived.

INTERVIEWER

You missed each other.

PEVEAR

It took a few more years. By then we were in Manhattan, both of us.

INTERVIEWER

You lived on West 107th Street.

PEVEAR

Yes. And by some miracle I found Larissa an apartment on the same street.

VOLOKHONSKY

It was convenient.

PEVEAR

Larissa always says that if it hadn’t been for 107th Street, we’d never have been married. When I moved to New York, I took up cabinetmaking. That’s how I earned a living.

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes. We were neighbors with a wonderful, crotchety woman, an old translator from Russian, Mirra Ginsburg. She was a very good translator. We liked her. When we started to try to translate The Brothers Karamazov, we showed her samples. By then, Richard had translated some Russian children’s poetry. Richard’s very good at jingles.

PEVEAR

Who’s that knocking at my door?

His badge is stamped with number four.

His shoulder bag is big and fat.

His coat is blue, so is his hat.

VOLOKHONSKY

She read our samples and said, You can’t do it. Just stick to your cabinetry and these children’s poems. You’re so good at these children’s poems. And she said one phrase that sent me through the roof. She repeated it several times—she said, I adore the smell of wood shavings.

INTERVIEWER

Your first critic.

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes. We had yet another critic, at the very beginning, an old Russian émigré lady. When we first told her we were translating The Brothers Karamazov, she said, Oh, Dostoevsky, I hope you correct his awful style. I said, No, that is precisely what we’re going to keep.

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to translate The Brothers Karamazov?

PEVEAR

I had read it for a summer course I took at Harvard in Russian literature. I happened to have a wonderful professor, Vladimir Markov. The course transformed me. I loved these books. I read Constance Garnett’s translation. After we were married, I thought I’d try David Magarshack’s translation. I started reading it. Then Larissa got curious.

VOLOKHONSKY

I had my Russian edition of Dostoevsky, and I decided to read along. Dostoevsky had always really gripped me. Usually if you read in your native tongue, unless you’re either a scholar or an especially curious and attentive reader, you just read. You follow the plot, the characters, you hope maybe this time this one won’t murder that one! But now I started actually looking at the language. I said, How is Magarshack going to translate this? And lo and behold, he didn’t. It wasn’t there. The jokes, or the unusualness, just disappeared.

INTERVIEWER

What was there instead?

VOLOKHONSKY

Something very bland. Something tame, not right. The meaning is there, but the style, the tone, the humor are gone. For example, there is a character, Mr. Miusov. He’s a secondary character, but he’s important because this particular scene is seen through his eyes. Mr. Miusov has just come from abroad. He’s a liberal, he’s cultivated, he’s refined. Describing him, Dostoevsky adds this sarcastic touch—he says Miusov is “столичный, заграничный.” It has the same jingle as hoity-toity. English kindly gave us “metropolitan, cosmopolitan.” We were lucky. We’re not always so lucky.

INTERVIEWER

What had the other translators said?

VOLOKHONSKY

“Who had been in capitals and abroad.” They would give the information but not the voice. This is the kind of thing I began to notice throughout the novel. Sometimes three times, five times on a page.

PEVEAR

And I discovered during our work together on Dostoevsky that he was not a brooding, obsessed man, but a very playful, free spirit. You see it in his style. The style of Dostoevsky is extremely varied. He would practice writing pages in different voices. He shows characters through the voice, through the way they use or misuse language. Which meant a lot of people used to say that he didn’t write very well! For example, there is a little note at the beginning of Karamazov, “From the Author,” about how he came to write the book. The “author” is not Dostoevsky—he makes that perfectly clear—although everybody seems to think that Dostoevsky is the narrator. But the narrator isn’t a writer at all. He just happens to live in the town where the novel is set. He got interested in the story of the Karamazov brothers and the murder of their father and wanted to record it. The whole point of this preface is to introduce all possible voicings of this narrator, who writes absurd things like, “Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.” And of course all the translators vary the words, because Flaubert said you should never use the same word twice on the same page. Finally he says, “Well, that is the end of my introduction. I quite agree that it is superfluous, but since it is already written, let it stand.” Dostoevsky gets you into the entire question of whether this man is trustworthy. Does he know what he’s talking about? The uncertainty surrounding this narrator is very important, and all of that is introduced just by the way it’s written. So the light suddenly went on.

VOLOKHONSKY

I said to Richard, You are reading a different book.

PEVEAR

It occurred to us that there was a whole other register to Dostoevsky, and the translators hadn’t translated it. There was something to be done there.

INTERVIEWER

So what happened exactly?

VOLOKHONSKY

We had no names as translators. Richard had some kind of name as an essayist and as a poet.

PEVEAR

I had published one book, a translation of the French philosopher Alain, with New Directions.

VOLOKHONSKY

So we prepared four passages representative of four different kinds of narrative and dialogue. We sent these samples to five of the most prominent Dostoevsky scholars, and they all sent us very positive responses.

PEVEAR

We had this package of samples and letters, and I started mailing it out to major publishers, who all turned it down.

INTERVIEWER

What was their reason?

PEVEAR

There was no need for a new translation.

VOLOKHONSKY

And then, finally, there was this wonderful small press.

PEVEAR

I sent it to Jack Shoemaker at North Point Press. His assistant called us on the phone from California. He said they wanted to publish it, and with regard to an advance, asked, How does a thousand dollars sound? I said, Very small. He said, I’ll get back to you. Which usually means you’ll never hear from them again. But he actually called the next day and said, How does six thousand sound? I said, Much better than one thousand. They put everything they had into it. They really did a beautiful job. They made a press kit—I wish I could show it to you. It was a double portfolio with samples and letters. They sent it all over. We got wonderful reviews in small-town newspapers because they didn’t have to read the book. They just read the press kit. My favorite one was from the Wichita Eagle, which did a full-page review, with a full-page photograph. The title was “Karamazov Still Leads Creative Way,” and the photograph was—Tolstoy! With his big beard and scowling face . . .

VOLOKHONSKY

And big eyebrows.

*Image of Dostoevsky above courtesy lifeondoverbeach.com