Translating War and Peace

Rendering Russia’s literary masterpieces into English

Orlando Figes

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. Since the publication of their acclaimed version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1990, they have translated fifteen volumes of classic Russian works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, restoring all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers, and paying more attention (in a way that their predecessors never really did) to the interplay or dialogue between the different voices (including the narrator’s) in these works—to the verbal “polyphony” which has been identified by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as the organizing principle of the novel since Gogol.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

War and Peace is their latest translation. It is an extraordinary achievement, particularly because Pevear does not speak or read Russian but relies on a literal translation (with notes on syntax, nuances of meaning, and literary references) by his wife Larissa to write a more finished English draft. What really makes this wonderfully fresh and readable translation stand out from its predecessors is its absolute fidelity to the language of Tolstoy. Words for particular types of clothing and fashions have been carefully researched: the “aunt” in the opening scene is dressed “in high ribbons”; Prince Ippolit wears a “redingote”; and when she dresses for the ball Natasha pins on a headdress called a “toque” (mistranslated as a “ribbon” by Garnett).

The same is true of military and hunting terms. There are occasional misjudgments: the “uncle” in the hunting scene is awkwardly described as refusing “social service” instead of “public appointments” (as in Garnett and Edmonds) or even “public service”—the usual understanding of the Russian term obshchestvennaia sluzhba. There are also one or two errors, such as making Prince Andrei and his sister Maria bid farewell at the end of Part One by kissing “each other’s hands.” The correct custom, as described by Tolstoy, was for Andrei to take his sister by the hand and kiss her.

One of the virtues of this translation is its sensitivity to different linguistic idioms. It captures the archaic phrasing used by the old Prince Bolkonsky, for example:

Well, tell me,” he went on, getting back on his hobbyhorse, “how have the Germans taught you to fight Bonaparte by this new science of yours known as strategy?”

The new War and Peace is more inventive in its rendering of plain speech than previous translations, which are too cockney-coy, too grammatically correct, to communicate the drunken street-talk of the workmen in this scene, for example, just before the capture of Moscow by the French. Compare Pevear and Volokhonsky’s

He ought to square it properly with people!” a skinny artisan with a sparse beard and frowning eyes was saying. “Or else, what, he’s sucked our blood—and he’s quits.”

with Rosemary Edmonds (who follows Garnett closely):

Why don’t he give us our wages we’re entitled to?” a lean boot hand with a scanty beard and knitted brows was saying. “He sucks our life-blood out of us, and then he thinks he’s quit of us!”

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, 1873.
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, 1873.

Another merit of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is its fidelity to Tolstoy’s syntax, its countless repetitions and endless sentences, so that for the first time the English reader gets a real sense of how his writing sounds and feels to read in the original. In the scene before Prince Andrei’s coffin, quoted above, where Tolstoy uses the past tense of the verb “to weep” (plakat’) no less than seven times, Pevear and Volokhonsky are the only translators not to flinch from using “wept” throughout: Garnett says “cried” four times and “wept” three; Louise and Aylmer Maude say both words three times each, omitting one verb altogether; Edmonds has “wept” four times and “cried” thrice; while Anthony Briggs says “wept” five times, omits one verb, and then breaks the repetition with “gave way to tears.” There is another passage where Tolstoy uses the word “anteroom” (priemnaya) five times in as many lines. It is a specific word with specific meanings which he goes on to discuss:

During his service, mostly as an adjutant, Prince Andrei had seen many anterooms of significant persons, and the differing characters of these anterooms were very clear to him. Count Arakcheev’s anteroom had a completely special character.

The Maude translation uses three different words for “anteroom” and omits it once. Edmonds omits the word twice; Garnett once; while Briggs removes the repetition altogether by omitting the noun twice and using two rather different words (“reception-room” and “waiting-room”) on the other occasions. Pevear and Volokhonsky are the only ones to translate all five repeats of the noun.

They also make the most of those large rhetorical structures that are such a hallmark of the Tolstoyan style. Take that long sentence, referred to already, in which Rastopchin tries in vain to stem the chaos before the arrival of the French. Garnett breaks it into seven sentences; Briggs into five; Edmonds breaks it toward the end. But Pevear and Volokhonsky recognize the sentence for exactly what it is—the description of a man who cannot “stem the flow of the enormous current of people which carried him along with it”—and they leave it as they should, in all its glory, as one unbroken stream of words:

But Count Rastopchin, who now shamed those who were leaving, now evacuated government offices, now distributed good-for-nothing weapons among the drunken riffraff, now took up icons, now forbade Augustin to evacuate relics and icons, now confiscated all private carts, now transported the hot-air balloon constructed by Leppich on a hundred and thirty-six carts, now hinted that he would burn Moscow, now told how he had burned his own house and wrote a proclamation to the French in which he solemnly reproached them for destroying his orphanage; now he assumed the glory of having burned Moscow, now he renounced it, now he ordered the people to catch all the spies and bring them to him, now he reproached the people for it, now he banished all the French from Moscow, now he allowed Mme Aubert-Chalmet, the center of all the French population of all Moscow, to remain in the city and ordered the old and venerable postmaster general Klyucharev, who had done nothing particularly wrong, to be arrested and exiled; now he gathered the people on the Three Hills to fight the French, now, in order to be rid of those same people, he turned them loose to murder a man and escaped through a back gate himself; now he said he would not survive the misfortune of Moscow, now he wrote French verses in an album about his part in the affair—this man did not understand the meaning of the event that was taking place, but only wanted to do something himself, to astonish someone or other, to accomplish something patriotically heroic, and, like a boy, frolicked over the majestic and inevitable event of the abandoning and burning of Moscow, and tried with his little hand now to encourage, now to stem the flow of the enormous current of people which carried him along with it.

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David Remnick

Constance Garnett
Constance Garnett

Poor Mrs. Garnett! Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife. (Or they never get that far: until the King James commission, English translators of the Bible were sometimes burned at the stake or strangled—or, as in the case of William York Tyndale, both.) Translators are, for eternity, sent up, put down, nitpicked, and, finally, overturned. The objects of their attentions dread their ministrations. Cervantes complained that reading a translation was “like looking at the Flanders tapestries from behind: you can see the basic shapes but they are so filled with threads that you cannot fathom their original lustre.” And yet they persevere: here comes Edith Grossman, four centuries later, quixotically encountering the Don and his Sancho on behalf of a new generation of English readers.

Without translators, we are left adrift on our various linguistic ice floes, only faintly hearing rumors of masterpieces elsewhere at sea. So most English-speaking readers glimpse Homer through the filter of Fitzgerald or Fagles, Dante through Sinclair or Singleton or the Hollanders, Proust through Moncrieff or Davis, García Márquez through Gregory Rabassa—and nearly every Russian through Constance Garnett.

As a literary achievement, Garnett’s may have been of the second order, but it was vast. With her pale, watery eyes, her gray hair in a chignon, she was the genteel face of tireless industry. She translated seventy volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication, including all of Dostoyevsky’s novels; hundreds of Chekhov’s stories and two volumes of his plays; all of Turgenev’s principal works and nearly all of Tolstoy’s; and selected texts by Herzen, Goncharov, and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”

Without Garnett, the nineteenth-century “Rooshians,” as Ezra Pound called them, would not have exerted such a rapid influence on the American literature of the early twentieth. In “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway recounts scouring Sylvia Beach’s shelves for the Russians and finding in them a depth and accomplishment he had never known. Before that, he writes, he was told that Katherine Mansfield was “a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer,” but now, after reading Chekhov, she seemed to him like “near-beer.” To read the Russians, he said, “was like having a great treasure given to you”.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).

In Dostoevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoy. Tolstoy made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brady photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house.

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov

Among the most astringent and authoritative critics of Garnett were Russian exiles, especially Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. Nabokov, the son of a liberal noble who was assassinated at a political conference, left Russia in 1919. He lived in Europe until 1940, when he came to the United States. In “Lectures on Russian Literature,” there is a facsimile of the opening pages of his teaching copy of the Garnett “Anna Karenina.” On the blank left-hand page, Nabokov has written a quotation from Conrad, who told Garnett’s husband, Edward, “Remember me affectionately to your wife, whose translation of Karenina is splendid. Of the thing itself I think but little, so that her merit shines with greater lustre.” Angrily, Nabokov scrawls, “I shall never forgive Conrad this crack”—he 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.”

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. Life is short, “The Idiot” long. Garnett is often wooden in her renderings, sometimes unequal to certain verbal motifs and particularly long and complicated sentences. 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.” For example, 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.” When Nabokov was working on a study of Gogol, he complained, “I have lost a week already translating passages I need in ‘The Inspector General’ as I can do nothing with Constance Garnett’s dry shit.”

A less imperious but no less discerning critic, Kornei Chukovsky (who was also a famous writer of children’s books), esteemed Garnett for her work on Turgenev and Chekhov but not for her Dostoyevsky. The famous style of “convulsions” and “nervous trembling,” he wrote, becomes under Garnett’s pen “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.”

Garnett (1862-1946) was one of eight children. Her father was paralyzed, and when Constance was just fourteen her mother died of a heart attack from the exertion of hoisting her husband from chair to bed. Constance won a scholarship to read classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and after graduation she married a publisher, Edward Garnett, the scion of a family of English literary aristocrats.

When the Garnetts were setting up housekeeping, Edward began to invite various Russian exiles as weekend guests. Constance was entranced by their stories of revolutionary fervor and literary ferment. In 1891, when she was confined with a difficult pregnancy, she began to learn Russian. Soon, she tried her hand at translating minor pieces, beginning with Goncharov’s “A Common Story” and Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” and then moving on to her favorite of the Russians, Turgenev. In 1894, she left behind her infant son and her husband and made a three-month trip to Russia, where she drove long distances through snowstorms by sleigh, visited experimental schools, and dined with Tolstoy at his estate.

When Garnett returned to England, she began an ascetic lifelong routine of housekeeping, child-rearing, and translating. Mornings, she made porridge for her son David, and then, according to her biographer Carolyn Heilbrun, “she would go round the garden, while the dew was still on the plants, to kill the slugs; this was a moment of selfindulgence.” Garnett was a sickly woman, suffering from migraines, sciatica, and terrible eyesight, and yet her ailments did not deter her from working as a translator. She turned down an offer from Tolstoy’s close friends Louise and Aylmer Maude to collaborate on a translation of “War and Peace” and did it on her own. (So, too, did the Maudes, her only rival in Tolstoy.) Garnett went nearly blind working on “War and Peace.” She hired a secretary, who read the Russian text to her aloud; Garnett would dictate back in English, sometimes grabbing away the original text and holding it a few inches from her ailing eyes.

Hemingway recalls telling a friend, a young poet named Evan Shipman, that he could never get through “War and Peace”—not “until I got the Constance Garnett translation.” Shipman replied, “They say it can be improved on. I’m sure it can, although I don’t know Russian.”

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

Richard Pevear was living in Manhattan in the mid-nineteen-eighties when he began reading “The Brothers Karamazov.” He and his wife, a Russian émigrée named Larissa Volokhonsky, had an apartment on the fourth floor of a brownstone on West 107th Street. To earn money, Pevear built custom furniture and cabinets for the emerging executive class in the neighborhood. He had always earned just enough to get by: in New Hampshire, he cut roses in a commercial greenhouse; he worked in a boatyard repairing yachts. He’d published verse in The Hudson Review and other quarterlies, and he’d worked on translations from the languages he knew: French, Italian, Spanish. He’d translated poems by Yves Bonnefoy and Apollinaire, and a philosophical work called “The Gods,” by Alain, a teacher of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Weil.

Larissa was born in Leningrad; her brother Henri is a poet who was a rival of Brodsky. While Larissa was still living in Russia, she learned English, sat in on a translation seminar, and, using a smuggled copy of The New Yorker, translated a story by John Updike. After she emigrated, in 1973, she translated “Introduction to Patristic Theology,” by John Meyendorff, a Russian Orthodox priest and thinker.

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!

As an experiment, a lark, Pevear and Volokhonsky decided to collaborate on their own “Karamazov.” 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. Then, Richard, who has never mastered conversational Russian, wrote a smoother, more Englished text, constantly consulting Larissa about the original and the possibilities that it did and did not allow. They went back and forth like this several times, including a final session in which Richard read his English version aloud while Larissa followed along in the Russian. Their hope was to be true to Dostoyevsky, right down to his famous penchant for repetition, seeming sloppiness, and melodrama.

When they had a text they liked, they sent a copy to an editor at Random House. It came back with a brief letter that said, in Richard’s reading, “No, thanks. Garnett lives forever. Why do we need a new one?” Then they tried Oxford University Press. The editors there sent the text along to an Oxford don, who objected to Alyosha Karamazov being called an “angel”; in the margin he wrote instead “good chap”; another marginal note said, simply, “balls.” Oxford University Press turned them down. They did not despair. Pevear and Volokhonsky had in the meantime armed themselves with enthusiastic letters of endorsement from some of the country’s best Slavic scholars—including Victor Terras, at Brown; Robert Louis Jackson, at Yale; Robert Belknap, from Columbia; and Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky’s supreme biographer, from Stanford—and sent the manuscript out to Holt, Harcourt Brace, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and a couple of others. There was only one bite: Jack Shoemaker, from North Point Press, a small house in San Francisco (now defunct), called, offering an advance of a thousand dollars—roughly a dollar per page. They estimated that the translation would take five to six years—more than twice as long as it took Dostoyevsky to write the novel. Although translators of long-dead authors do not have to share royalties, the arithmetic was unpleasant. Pevear called back and shyly asked if, perhaps, North Point could come up with a bit more money. Shoemaker offered six thousand. “P/V,” as they would come to be known in the academic journals, went to work on “The Brothers Karamazov.” In time, they would become the best-selling and perhaps the most authoritative translators of Russian prose since Constance Garnett. [Read More]

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