Assembling My Atheneum: Larissa Volokhonsky & Richard Pevear
If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. So far, I’ve featured A.S. Byatt and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.
Do you like my new button? I’m so excited that I finally have a bookshelf-related picture for the feature! For this round, I’d like to introduce you to my very favourite translators, a husband and wife team: Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. But first, a digression into the nature of translations.
I’m a bit of a language nerd; one of my majors in college was Modern Languages, and in addition to studying Russian and French I took a couple of linguistics classes. So when I decide to read a book originally published in a language other than English, I immediately begin looking into my translation options. With contemporary literature, there usually aren’t any choices, but the classics are a different thing altogether. If it’s Russian, French, or Latin, I’ll see if I can find a free version in the original language online to compare to the English translations I’m looking at. But with all other languages, I’m at sea! So I use Google to try to get information, check the Amazon discussions of various translations (usually you can find a few people comparing and contrasting in their reviews), see if other book bloggers have any suggestions, and basically research as much as possible before making my choice. And once I’ve made my choice, I’m committed: if the library doesn’t have that translation, I won’t read the classic. (Or more likely, I’ll desperately try to ILL a copy in my preferred translation, ask for that version as a present, etc.) With English-language classics, I’m more than happy to buy the cheapest version I can find, or check out what’s available for free online. But the problem with non-English classics is that those versions rely on old translations, ones either published before 1911 (when translators were given copyright access for their work) or ones that have been around long enough to become public domain. In many cases, these are Victorian translators. Now, I love the Victorians, but their expectations of translators are the mirror image of my own. Translators were expected to ‘improve’ upon the original: faithfulness was not a virtue! So if, for instance, you mainly read Constance Garnett translations (an incredibly energetic translator), you’d be forgiven for imagining that most of the Golden Age Russian authors have remarkably similar styles. Since for me, as a reader, writing style is one of the most important aspects of fiction, I get frustrated at the idea of an author’s voice being subsumed by a translator. That being said, I also don’t believe that a good translation is one that’s necessarily ‘smooth.’ If the author wasn’t a smooth writer, the translation should reflect that! And certainly, a translation of a work from a couple hundred years ago shouldn’t read ‘modern.’ After all, do George Elliot or Wilkie Collins or Jane Austen have the same style as a modern author? Of course not, and that’s why we love them!
With all this in mind, let’s get back to Pevear & Volokhonsky (P&V from now on)! They hail from the US and Russia respectively, and you can read about how that affects their approach in this interview. Basically, they use their native language proficiencies in tandem, which makes perfect sense for a translation! And since they’re academics, they’re knowledgeable about the various times of the authors they translate, and they use that knowledge in their selection of English phrases. Not to mention, they’re fans of Lord Peter Wimsy and Harriet Vane! ;)
Apart from wishing I had their life (living in Paris, translating literary masterpieces), I’m also a P&V fangirl based on my experiences. I’ve read various Russian classic authors in the original (in the interest of full disclosure, there were primarily short stories or chapters from novels, since literature wasn’t my main focus in college) as well as in translations, and whenever I did a comparison, I found the P&V translation had the same feel to me as the Russian. And I will always admire them for their decision to leave the French in the main text of War and Peace (with English translations in the footnotes; Pevear has also translated French fiction); in my view, that’s how Tolstoy wrote it and that’s how it should be presented. So at this point, I’m willing to trust them completely! If there’s a P&V translation, it’s the only one I’ll read. And if there’s not a P&V translation, I have been known to throw a bit of a hissy fit.
P&V have primarily stuck to 19th century Russian literature, with a couple forays into Soviet authors. These latter two are Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (which I own, thanks Steph!) and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (just published, with Frances running a group read that I’m dying to join if only my library was getting a copy). The lion’s share of their translations focus on Fyodor Dostoevksy: The Brothers Karamazov (which I own and plan on reading soon), Crime and Punishment (which I used to own, before foolishly lending it to a friend), Notes from the Underground (I read in a different translation and intend to reread in the P&V one), Demons, The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, The Idiot, The Adolescent, The Double, and The Gambler. They also have translated much of Chekhov’s shorter fiction, published in two volumes: The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov (I’ve read) and The Complete Short Novels. They’ve also tackled two volumes of Nikolai Gogol: The Collected Tales and Dead Souls (top of my reading plans for 2011; I wish I owned a copy!). Finally, there’s the work they’ve done on Leo Tolstoy: What is Art?, Anna Karenina (I own this and have read it two or three times), War and Peace (I also own this and have read it), and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.
Whew! So you’ve got several authors to choose from to get to know them. If you’re a fan of magical realism, I highly recommend going for Bulgakov. If you enjoy those fat Victorian doorstoppers, Anna Karenina will probably appeal. If the Russians make you nervous, try dipping your toes in with some Chekhov. And if you enjoy fiction that focuses more on the characters’ inner lives, Dostevsky might be just the ticket. (I haven’t read Gogol or Pasternak, so I feel incompetent to recommend them, which is why I’m leaving them out of this paragraph, but I’ve heard good things about both!)
Finally, a brief mention of the Oprah effect: while I began reading P&V’s translations before Oprah selected their Anna Karenina for her book club, I’m very happy that they now have more money, fame and impetus to keep translating! I know some people have a knee-jerk disdainful reaction to anything Oprah has made popular, but P&V are well-respected within their field, so don’t allow your Oprah disdain to keep you from my favourite translators. ;)
What, in your opinion, makes a good translation? Do you have favourite translators? What, in your opinion, makes a good translation? (I know I’ve asked this before, and I took note of all of the ones y’all suggested, but it’s a question I’m always curious about!)