Janet Malcolm contributes the latest polemic against Richard Pevear and Linda Volokhonsky (hereafter P&V), the famed husband-and-wife translators of the Russian classics, whose preeminence in their field is now being challenged by a number of critics. I have read the previous arguments with interest (for instance, by Gary Saul Morson and Helen Andrews), but they failed to convince me that P&V grossly misrepresent their sources; in fact, most of these critics, including Malcolm, have a problem not with the couple’s command of Russian but of English. For my part, let me say at the outset that I do not read Russian—rather than hiding this important fact in a footnote to a misleadingly expert-sounding discourse about the nuances of Russian words, as Malcolm does.
I feel slightly defensive on behalf of P&V, because they have been my main conduit to Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. Kazuo Ishiguro once made the following observation:
I often think I’ve been greatly influenced by the translator, David Magarshack, who was the favourite translator of Russian writers in the 1970s. And often when people ask me who my big influences are, I feel I should say David Magarshack, because I think the rhythm of my own prose is very much like those Russian translations that I read. (qtd by Rebecca L. Walkowitz)
I can say, similarly, that I have been influenced by P&V as much as by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Bulgakov. When I first tried, as a teenager, to read Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, I began with Constance Garnett’s versions and in both cases abandoned them around page 100. The fact is that I didn’t really start reading nineteenth-century English realist novels with any appreciation until I was in my twenties, and those are what Garnett’s translations tend to sound like, at least to ears untutored to Edwardian nuances. My introduction to literature came more through Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and the modernists/post-modernists (Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, Morrison, DeLillo); so when I discovered P&V’s translations early in college, I was able to hear in their versions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky the energy, the clarity, and even the bizarrerie of those non-Victorian writers.
Given that the Russians’ brand of realism comes out of European Romanticism and gives a spur to European and American modernism—whacking the Western literary imagination like a fiery boomerang in the same way that Latin American magical realism was to do a century later (I owe this analogy to Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel)—I see P&V’s calculated evasion of Victorian English as eminently appropriate. Without P&V, I doubt I would have sweated with Levin at the reaping or walked dizzily through the city with Raskolnikov during my college years’ long hot summers of extra-curricular reading, some of the best and most intense reading experiences of my life.
Now I am actually in sympathy with Malcolm’s desire to defend Constance Garnett from the disdain in which she is now held; she seems to be regarded patronizingly as a well-intentioned and high-minded English lady who got in over her head. Once I found my footing in literary history, I was able to appreciate Garnett more, and I read all thirty bajillion pages of War and Peace in her translation, which should show that I hardly hate her! (I particularly think she is good with Tolstoy, though I do prefer P&V for Dostoevsky.) However, Malcolm strangely sets up the straw man of an entirely complimentary—a really very sweet and beautiful—tribute to Garnett from D. H. Lawrence, which she reads as condescending, even though Lawrence would only mean it as praise to picture a writer out in nature rather than locked up in a dusty study. By contrast, I would imagine that the roots of fashionable Garnett-hatred can be found in Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature, which Malcolm does not mention. In any case, J. M. Coetzee’s defense of Kafka’s first translators, Willa and Edwin Muir, in his Stranger Shores, might be applied mutatis mutandis to Garnett:
The Muirs…introduced a difficult, even arcane German modernist to the English-speaking world years earlier than one might reasonably have expected this to happen. […] [Translator Mark] Harman would do well to recognize that, if a striving toward elegance—fluency is a better term—marks the Muir translation as of its time, then, in its very striving toward strangeness and denseness, his own work—welcome though it is today—may, as history moves on and tastes change, be pointed toward obsolescence too.
But Garnett’s English is now historical; it is for readers of Lawrence (and Eliot and Dickens)—who are not necessarily the budding reader’s first novelists these days, as they were not mine. And the budding reader is justified in choosing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky before the English novelists, because, frankly, the Russians are better and in some ways more relevant. (I imagine no nineteenth-century English novel speaks to American political realities in 2016 as clearly as does Dostoevsky’s Demons, for example.) Also, our twentieth-century American writers’ swerve from Victorian realism led them to the Russians—Hemingway and Faulkner and O’Connor and perhaps most of the great Jewish- and African-American writers (for religious and political as well as aesthetic reasons) clearly took more from the Russians than the English.
To see why the contemporary American reader might prefer P&V to Garnett, let me focus on one of Malcolm’s examples. She chooses a passage from Anna Karenina meant to indicate Dolly’s appearance as a selfless wife and mother, in contrast to the novel’s society belles.
Now she did not dress for her own sake, not for the sake of her own beauty, but simply so that as the mother of those exquisite creatures she might not spoil the general effect. And looking at herself for the last time in the mirror, she was satisfied with herself. She looked nice.
Now she dressed not for herself, not for her own beauty, but so that, being the mother of these lovely things, she would not spoil the general impression. And taking a last look in the mirror, she remained satisfied with herself. She was pretty.
“Garnett’s ‘She looked nice’ is inspired,” Malcolm judges. And by the standards of Garnett’s English, in which “nice” evoked the fastidious and deliberate, it may be; in the contemporary American idiom, however, “nice” is a non-word, a way to say nothing inoffensively—”You look nice” is just what I would say to someone who didn’t look too good. “Pretty,” conversely, suggests an innocent form of the beautiful; it is without erotic connotation—you would say it of a child or a flower—and is therefore appropriate for this good woman trying to look well as she takes her children to church. For me, “pretty” is le mot juste. (Whether or not we approve of Tolstoy’s gender ideology is another question; the translator only needs to convey it vividly. But those of a feminist bent might find a critical foothold in P&V’s choice of “pretty” that is largely absent from “nice.”)
In these omni-politicized times, I always suspect people of lurking political motivations, so I wonder if Malcolm is not responding on some level to P&V’s politics; from Pevear’s prefaces, I have always gotten the idea that they were religious conservatives. Of previous inadequate translations of the opening sentence of Notes from Underground, Pevear writes, for example, “It speaks for the habit of substituting the psychological for the moral, of interpreting a spiritual condition as a kind of behavior, which has so bedeviled modernity.” Broadly in sympathy with Dostoevsky’s critique of the modern, P&V have tellingly avoided only the Westernized liberal Turgenev among the canonical Russians. Garnett, in contrast, can at least be retrospectively cast as a progressive, a pioneering female literary intellectual translating the foreign avant-garde in the broad atmosphere of the New Woman.
An observation in conclusion: Malcolm quotes Pevear’s statement of ambition to use his translation to “enrich my language, the English language,” which she judges “bizarre.” But Pevear’s preference for using translation to revitalize one’s own language, or language as such, echoes (knowingly, I would think) the twentieth-century’s single most famous essay on the subject, Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”:
Of necessity, therefore, the demand for literalness, whose justification is obvious but whose basis is deeply hidden, must be understood in a more cogent context. Fragments of a vessel that are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. For this very reason translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense, and in this the original is important to it only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed.
“[T]he original’s way of meaning”: this is what I imagine I have gleaned, not only as a reader but also as a writer, from Pevear and Volokohonsky.