Legend has it that Grigory Potemkin, the chief minister and lover of Catherine the Great, decided to impress her with the prosperity of lands newly conquered by the Russian Empire. So he had the pasteboard facade of houses constructed along the road just far enough away to look real. Ever since, the phrase “Potemkin village” has indicated something that looks authentic and impressive—until one examines it closely and discovers its falsity. Thus it is with the celebrated work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who are making a decades-long project of presenting authoritative new English editions of the great works of Russian literature. These are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.
The Pevear-Volokhonsky versions of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Bulgakov have earned rapturous reviews by James Wood in the New Yorker and Orlando Figes in the New York Review of Books, along with a PEN translation award. It looks as ifpeople will be reading P&V, as they have come to be called, for decades to come.
This is a tragedy, because their translations take glorious works and reduce them to awkward and unsightly muddles. Professional writers have asked me to check the Russian texts because they could not believe any great author would have written what P&V produce. The danger their translations pose is this: if students and more-general readers choose P&V—and it is clearly the intent of their publishers here and in England that their editions become the universally accepted renditions into English for a generation or more—those students and readers are likely to presume that whatever made so many regard Russian literature with awe has gone stale with time or is lost to them.
When I teach Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I want students to appreciate and not just take on faith why their works are supreme accomplishments. Often enough, they have reported that they have become so absorbed in the psychology and ethical dilemmas of the characters that their way of looking at life itself has changed—a reaction that accords with the peculiar and astonishing urgency unique to Russian literature. But since the P&V editions have begun to appear, students—who have no experience that would allow them to recognize the difference a translation can make—have wondered aloud to me why their peers using those versions in other classes seem to be reading something entirely different.
Pevear and Volokhonsky, who are married, work in an unusual fashion. She, a native Russian speaker, renders each book into entirely literal English. He, who knows insufficient Russian, then works on the rendering with the intention of keeping the language as close to the original as possible. What results from this attempt at unprecedented fidelity is a word-for-word and syntax-for-syntax version that sacrifices tone and misconstrues overall sense.
Students once encountered the great Russian writers as rendered by the magnificent Constance Garnett, a Victorian who taught herself the language and then proceeded to introduce almost the entire corpus of Russian literature to the English language over the space of 40 years, from the 1890s to the 1930s. Her greatest virtues were her profound and sympathetic understanding of the works themselves and a literary artist’s feel for the English language.
Over time, in the case of a few major works, better versions were produced. Ann Dunnigan’s translations of War and Peace, Chekhov’s plays and stories, and Ivan Goncharov’s tragicomic masterpiece Oblomov provide a more accurate rendering of the language and, perhaps, an even greater degree of literary grace than Garnett’s. Bernard Guilbert Guerney accomplished the impossible with a translation of Nikolai Gogol’s enormously difficult and complex Dead Souls, conveying the weirdness, linguistic inventiveness, and perfectly timed humor that had eluded everyone else, even Garnett. To be sure, Garnett and Guerney have their flaws, including some errors in meaning, but editing byjudicious scholars has often corrected those mistakes. Ralph Matlaw thoughtfully revised the Garnett version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Elizabeth Allen did the same with many works in The Essential Turgenev. Susanne Fusso’s recasting of Guerney is the only Dead Souls worth reading.
Above all, translators need a thoroughgoing understanding of the work and a feel for the genre in which it is written. Garnett’s Victorianization of Tolstoy was not inappropriate; to produce an English version of Tolstoy, it really does help to know George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, both of whom Tolstoy loved. For Dostoevsky, familiarity with Dickens goes a long way, as Garnett surely knew. One cannot adequately translate a work one has not experienced with critical sensitivity, because it is that experience, not just the sequence of signs on a page, that one needs to convey.
How does this play out in P&V’s work?
Imagine someone translating Paradise Lost from English into Russian who had somehow missed that Milton was a Christian. There is something of that in the P&V version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Its nameless narrator, the “underground man,” wants above all to discredit the deterministic credo that people are mere “piano keys” played upon by the laws of nature—that since we must always act according to our own perceived best interest, everything we do is in principle predictable and choice an illusion. In response, the underground man describes and performs acts that violate his best interest, either to disprove the prevailing theory or just because, just so, for no reason at all. His word for such acts of self-injury is, in English translations before P&V, “spite.” It is fair to say that to miss the concept of spite is to miss the work entire.
But that is just what P&V do. Instead of “spite,” they give us “wickedness.” Now, the Russian word zloi can indeed mean “wicked.” But no one with the faintest idea of what this novella is about, with any knowledge of criticism from Dostoevsky’s day to ours, or with any grasp of Dostoevskian psychology, would imagine that the book’s point is that people are capable of wickedness.
Everything about the underground man is spiteful, including his prose. Here is the book’s famous opening in the Garnett/Matlaw version:
I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver isdiseased. However, I don’t know beans about mydisease. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course, I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, it is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then — let it get even worse!
I am a sick man … I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me. I am not being treated and never have been, though I respect medicine and doctors. What’s more, I am also superstitious in the extreme, well, at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, sir, I refuse to treat it out of wickedness. Now, you will certainly not be so good as to understand this. Well, sir, but I understand it. I will not, of course, be able to explain to you precisely who is going to suffer in this case from my wickedness. I know perfectly well that I will in no way “muck things up” for the doctors by not taking their treatment; I know better than anyone that by all this I am harming only myself and no one else. My liver hurts; well, then let it hurt even worse!
What has wickedness got to do with it? The underground man is constantly turning on the reader, taunting him, putting words in his mouth, answering objections to things he hasn’t yet spoken of. During that pause between the first two sentences represented by the ellipsis, it’s as if he were thinking: “So, you think I want your pity, and allow you to condescend to me? Well, I’ll show you I don’t give a damn what you think! I’m a spiteful man, so there!” As the best Dostoevsky critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, put it, the underground man is taking a sidelong glance at his listener, cringing in anticipation either of sympathy or contempt, and exaggerating so as to leave him deniability should someone pin him down by believing him. His prose is all loophole. Garnett caught that tone well enough for generations to experience it. P&V don’t seem to have heard it.
When challenged in this way, P&V invoke the virtues of their literal accuracy. In their War and Peace, you learn that a heroine is wearing not a ribbon but a toque, and a hero’s outfit is a redingote. What’s more, they are eating not soup but a cold sauce, and it has cockscombs in it. Such repairs are all well and good, but readers typically turn to translations not to hear about culinary ephemera but to read literature.
Another example. The Brothers Karamazov is divided into 12 books, one of which is entitled “Nadryvy.” Garnett translates the word as “Lacerations.” P&V use “Strains.” Again, both are possible so far as the dictionary is concerned. To choose, one has to understand that the term names one of Dostoevsky’s key concepts. As the text makes explicit, nadryvy refers to deliberately inflicted self-injury, the tearing at one’s wounds out of sheer masochistic pleasure. The image of tearing is important, because it recalls the pleasure in self-flagellation taken by the insane monk Ferapont. It also brings to mind the saintly Alyosha Karamazov’s lacerated finger, which was bitten by an insulted schoolboy. Such resonances disappear if one reads not of “lacerations” but instead of “strains.”
In one scene, Alyosha’s monstrous father, Old Karamazov, taunts him in the presence of another son, Ivan. The old man relishes how he used to drive Alyosha’s mother to hysterics by spitting on her icons. The memory of his mother is Alyosha’s own icon, and he falls into the very same hysterics. Struck by theextraordinary resemblance, the father cries out:
“Ivan, Ivan! Water, quickly! It’s like her, exactly as she used to be, then, his mother. … He’s upset about his mother, his mother,” he muttered to Ivan.
“But she was my mother, too, I believe his mother. Was she not?” said Ivan, with uncontrolled anger and contempt. The old man shrank before his flashing eyes … it seemed really to have escaped the old man’s mind that Alyosha’s mother was actually the mother of Ivan too. “Your mother?” he muttered, not understanding. “What do you mean? What mother are you talking about?”
Ivan has concealed his hatred for his father, who abandoned him as a child, but here it bursts forth. By forgetting who Ivan’s mother is, the old sot seems, once again, to deny his son’s very existence. With sarcasm bordering on assault, Ivan reminds the old man that Alyosha’s mother is also his mother. But in P&V, Ivan says the opposite, that his mother is also Alyosha’s!—“But my mother, I think, was also his mother, wouldn’t you agree?”
It doesn’t matter whether grammatically the sentence can be rendered this way. If you get a passage like this wrong, you have lost the novel.
When rumors circulated that Mark Twain had died abroad, he cabled: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” If Pevear had composed the message, it might be: “Regarding the recent information pertaining, as you agree, to my accomplished demise, sir, the communications have been overfalsified.” Tone, word choice, playfulness, timing: all these qualities, which P&V do not notice, belong to the essence of humor.
Gogol’s Dead Souls stands as the comic masterpiece of Russian literature. Gogol’s hero, Chichikov, travels across Russia buying up the deeds to serfs (or “souls”) who have died since the last census and are therefore legally alive. Since they are still taxed, these “dead souls” constitute a negative asset, so any money offered for them is a gain to the seller. No one can figure out why Chichikov wants to buy non-people, and the author plays the theme for all the existential and theological humor it is worth. Only at the end do we learn that Chichikov plans to use these souls certified by the bureau of audits as collateral for a mortgage. The story reads, and probably always will, as if it were right out of today’s papers.
Guerney and his revising editor Fusso understand Gogol’s sense of humor from within. They mimic the sorts of jokes he makes, play on words as he does, and let the narrator apologize for one straight-facedabsurdity with another still more outrageous. LikeGogol, theyallow the sounds and associations of words and idioms to suggest ever-longer chains of sublime nonsense.
Thus, Chichikov tries to soften up the landowner Sobakevich by illogically praising every town official as the worthiest of all. But Sobakevich denounces each as worse than the last. When Chichikov ventures to call the governor a superb fellow, Sobakevich deems him, instead, “a brigand—the biggest one on earth!” At last Chichikov thinks of extolling Sobakevich’s reputed friend the police chief. In Guerney/Fusso:
“A swindler!” said Sobakevich with the utmost sangfroid. “He’ll sell you out and he’ll take you in, and dine with you right after that. I know them all, they’re all swindlers, every man jack of them; the whole town is like that, one swindler mounted on another and using a third one as a whip, Judases all of them. There is but one—and only one—decent man; that’s the Public Prosecutor, and even he, if the truth were to be told, is a swine.”
But in P&V:
“A crook!” Sobakevich said very coolly. “He’ll sell you, deceive you, and then sit down to dinner with you! I know them all: they’re all crooks, the whole town is the same: a crook mounted on a crook and driving him with a crook. Judases, all of them. There’s only one decent man there: the prosecutor—and to tell the truth, he, too, is a swine.”
“Swindler” is funnier than “crook,” not to mention that “crook” momentarily raises the possibility that “driving him with a crook” means “with a hooked staff.” Good humorists only suggest a double meaning when it makes the line funnier, not because, as in this case, the translators haven’t thought of it. In the superior version, Sobakevich’s final comment is funny because he is trying to create the false impression that only under extreme pressure does he admit that the decent man is really a swine. The Guerney/Fusso version is dragged out as Sobakevich intends; the P&V version is too straightforward, and in being straightforward, they blow the joke.
When Chichikov first arrives in town, we are told that “there was something substantial about the ways of this gentleman, and when he blew his nose he did so exceedingly loudly,” as if somehow the loud nose-blowing was proof of substantiality. P&V put it this way: “The gentleman’s manners had something solid about them, and he blew his nose with exceeding loudness.” Not only is the connection between the two clauses weakened, but “solid manners” is too earnest a notion for the author. Gogol does something inventive and strange in almost every sentence, and that’s where this book’s real energy lies. To be flat-footed and literal as if that were enough is to make a lively masterpiece into a dead soul.
We read of Chichikov’s servant, “Petrushka the flunkey,” settling into “a very dark cubbyhole, whither he had already brought his overcoat, and together with it, a certain odor all his own, which had been imparted to the bag brought in next, containing sundry flunkeyish effects.” “Sundry flunkeyish effects” is just howGogol sounds. Alas, P&V’s Petrushka settles into “a very dark closet, where he had already managed to drag his overcoat and with it a certain smell of its own, which had been imparted to the sack of various lackey toiletries brought in after it.” To be sure, the Russian here is tualet, or toiletries, as P&V want us to know, but the point is that in Russian, the sound of the word tualet is funny and its tone jars with the word preceding it. As every critic notes, but P&V do not understand,Gogol often chooses words less for their meaning than for their humorous sound and resonances (which is why, for example, the hero of his story “The Overcoat” sports a complexion described as “hemorrhoidal”—a nonsensical concept if taken literally but an inspired image).
Is there anyone who thinks “a certain smell of its own” is as amusing as “a certain odor all its own,” or who prefers “various lackeyish toiletries” to “sundry flunkeyish effects”? Isn’t it obvious that the sentence should end with the funny phrase—as it does in the Russian—and not with the anticlimactic “brought in after it”?
At last the townspeople wonder obsessively why on earth Chichikov would buy dead souls. Perhaps he’s really a secret government inspector? Or maybe a certain storied war veteran seeking revenge for his lost limbs? Or maybe, just maybe, he’s Napoleon in disguise? Or, God help us, the Antichrist? In the better version, the townsmen ask themselves:
After all, what sort of parable is this, really? What sort of parable are these dead souls? There’s no logic to dead souls; how then can one buy up dead souls? Where would you dig up a fool big enough to buy them? And what sort of fairy-gold would he use to buy them? And to what end, to what business, could one utilize these dead souls? … What reason can there be to dead souls? Why, there just isn’t any! All this is simply the Devil riding on a fiddlestick, so much moonshine, stuff and nonsense, pigeon milk and horse feathers! This is, simply—oh, may the Devil take it all!
Pevearized, the passage reads:
What was this riddle, indeed, what was this riddle of the dead souls? There was no logic whatsoever in dead souls. Why buy dead souls? Where would such a fool be found? What worn-out money would one use to pay for them? To what end, to what business, could these dead souls be tacked? … What was the reason for the dead souls? It was all mere cock-and-bull story, nonsense, balderdash, soft-boiled boots. Mere devil take it!
The Russian questions are hyperactive, exaggerated, challenging anyone who would even think there might be a sensible answer. They repeat the emphatic particle zhe, which carries a “can you possibly answer that?” sense, and they produce humor through a buildup of hysteria. That’s why “where would you dig up a fool big enough to buy them?” outdoes P&V’s “where would such a fool be found?” Would anyone in such a state end with the stilted “Mere devil take it”? Gogol’s humor cascades into a series of synonyms for nonsense, and it hardly matters what they are as long as they crowd each other and sound ridiculous.
Nowhere is the P&V distortion so plain and disturbing as in their versions of Tolstoy.Critics sometimes say it is impossible to ruin Tolstoy because his diction is so straightforward. But it is actually quite easy to misrepresent him if one does not understand the language of novels. Since Jane Austen, novels have tended to trace a character’s thoughts in the third person. The choice of words, and the way one thought begets another, belongs to the character, and so we come to know her inner voice. At the same time, the character’s view may not comport with the author’s, and it is the art of the writer to make clear that what the character is seeing is deluded or self-serving or foolish. This “double-voicing” lies at the heart of the 19th-century novelistic enterprise. For Dickens and Trollope, “double-voicing” becomes the vehicle of satire, while George Eliot and Tolstoy use it for masterful psychological exploration. If one misses what is going on, the whole point of a passage can be lost. Pevear and Volokhonsky do, and constantly.
At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Stepan Arkadyevich, whose wife has discovered his infidelity, tells himself that his honesty will not allow him to say he repents of his actions. We hear the author’s irony at the philanderer’s notion of honesty. As Stiva thinks of his wife, we listen in (in the revised Garnett version) on his inner voice, along with Tolstoy’s implicit commentary:
Stepan Arkadyevich was a truthful man with himself. He was incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he repented of his conduct. … All he was sorry about was that he had not succeeded in hiding it from his wife. … Possibly he might have managed to conceal his sins better from his wife if he had anticipated the effect on her should she discover them. He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her, and shut her eyes to the fact. He had even supposed that she, a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother, ought from a sense of fairness to take an indulgent view. It had turned out quite the other way.
Who could have guessed?
The author’s irony at such a sequence of thoughts is felt throughout and produces the snap of the final sentence. Had Stiva ever bothered to see things from his wife’s point of view, her devastated reaction would have been no surprise at all.
All that double-voiced irony fades from P&V’s rendition, which begins “Stepan Arkadyevich was a truthful man concerning his own self.” Someone might think that he is “truthful with himself” but not that he is “a truthful man concerning his own self.” P&V’s final sentence, “It had turned out to be quite the opposite,” misses the wit to which the whole paragraph builds, and which Garnett brilliantly renders as “It had turned out quite the other way.”
The same sort of failure of meaning occurs in the P&V War and Peace. One of the most moving moments in this enormous novel occurs when Prince Andrei dies. Ann Dunnigan translates:
Nikolushka cried because his heart was rent with perplexity. The Countess and Sonya cried out of pity for Natasha and because he was no more. The old Count cried because he felt that before long he too must take the same awesome step.
Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now, but not because of their own personal grief; they wept out of a reverent emotion that filled their souls before the solemn mystery of a death that had been consummated in their presence.
P&V weaken the tone:
Nikolushka wept from a suffering bewilderment that rent his heart. The countess and Sonya wept from pity for poor Natasha and because he was no more. The old count wept because he felt that soon he, too, would have to take that same dreadful step.
Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now, but they did not weep from their own personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.
When I first compared these passages, I was surprised by P&V’s “poor Natasha”; the authorial expression of sympathy seemed wrong, but I assumed that P&V, with their literal-translation approach, had captured Tolstoy’s own false step. I went and checked out the Russian; the word “poor” is absent.
Unlike Dunnigan, P&V, like Tolstoy, repeat the word “wept” rather than switch to a synonym. And P&V are correct that Tolstoy’s description of Natasha’s and Marya’s awareness is literally “simple and solemn.” But in its syntax, vocabulary, and tone, Tolstoy’s Russianusage is elevated and poetic. It is suffused with the sense of “solemn mystery,” as Dunnigan renders it. It should be obvious that one should pick “awesome step” over “dreadful step” to describe the Count’s sudden sense of his own eventual end (all the more so because the former comes closer to capturing the alliteration of the Russian “strashnyi shag”). P&V’s “wept from a suffering bewilderment” is awkward, not elevated. Dunnigan’s “filled their souls” is more solemn than P&V’s “came over their souls,” and “consummated in their presence” comes much closer to Tolstoy’s tone. It also suits more adequately the finality of death and the fact that these are the last words of this part of the novel.
The marketing of Pevear and Volokhonsky is a remarkable accomplishment. Each of their editions has allowed magazine and newspaper editors to commission articles in which writers of distinction are given the rare opportunity to review without qualification a genuinely great work that has great meaning for them—to salute it, pay tribute to it, and show their own critical sensitivity and knowledge in discussing it. With such reviews in hand, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has been able to appeal to the burgeoning circle of book-club readers to take a chance on something old and enduring—with its greatest triumph being winning the endorsement for Anna Karenina in 2004 from none other than Oprah Winfrey, with the P&V version right there at the bookstore by the tens of thousands to welcome the buying throng.
What these readers are getting, alas, is great literature that has been stripped bare of its own solemn mystery, no longer consummated in our presence.