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Disastrously popular new translations of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others threaten to dishearten and distance new generations of readers from transformative works of greatness By Gary Saul Morson
EGEND 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 vkdth a PEN translation award. It looks as if people 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 proGARY SAUL M O R S O N is Frances Hooper Professor of duce. The danger their translations pose is this: if stuthe Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. dents and more-general readers choose P&V—and it is Yale University Press published his "Anna Karenina" clearly the intent of their publishers here and in Engin Our Time in 2007 and is presently bringing out his land that their editions become the universally acceptbook on quotations. The Words of Others: From Quota- ed renditions into English for a generation or more— tions to Culture. those students and readers are likely to presume that July/August 2010
Well. However. as Garnett surely knew. But since the P&V editions have begun to appear. There is something of that in the P&V version of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. a native Russian speaker. I am an unattractive man. linguistic inventiveness. would imagine that the book's point is tbat people are capable of wickedness. Susanne Fusso's recasting of Guemey is the only Dead Souls worth reading." It is fair to say tbat to miss tbe concept of spite is to miss tbe work entire. better versions were produced. Ann Dunnigan's translations of War and Peace. Over time. But that is just what P&V do. 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. work in an unusual fashion. Bernard Guilbert Guemey accomplished the impossible witb a translation of Nikolai Gogol's enormously difficult and complex Dead Souls. not just tbe sequence of signs on a page. who are married. Pevear and Volokhonsky." Now. I am extremely superstitious. Besides. Here is the book's famous opening in tbe Garnett/Matlaw version: I am a sick man. Everytbing about tbe underground man is spiteful. for no reason at all. let's say sufficiently so to respect medicine. just so.) No.. everytbing we do is in principle predictable and cboice an illusion. Instead of "spite. TUDENTS ONCE encountered the great Russian writers as rendered by tbe magnificent Constance Garnett.. but editing by judicious scbolars bas often corrected those mistakes. and perfectly timed bumor that had eluded everyone else.whatever made so many regard Russian literature with awe has gone stale with time or is lost to them. the underground man describes and performs acts that violate his best interest. it really does help to know George Eliot and Anthony IVollope. 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. and Ivan Goncbarov's tragicomic masterpiece Oblomov provide a more accurate rendering of the language and. One cannot adequately translate a work one has not experienced with critical sensitivity. in Englisb translations before P&V. but I understand it. Garnett and Guemey have their flaws. Ralph Matlaw thoughtfully revised the Garnett version of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Her greatest virtues were her profound and sympathetic understanding of the works themselves and a literary artist's feel for the English language. and Elizabetb S Allen did tbe same witb many works in The Essential Turgcnev. with any knowledge of criticism from Dostoevsky's day to ours." wants above all to discredit tbe deterministic credo that people are mere "piano keys" played upon by tbe laws of nature—that since we must always act according to our own perceived best interest. familiarity with Dickens goes a long way. conveying tbe weirdness. wbo knows insufficient Russian. because it is tbat experience. or with any grasp of Dostoevskian psychology. I think my liver is diseased." But no one v*dth the faintest idea of what this novella is about. How does tbis play out in P&V's work? Imagine someone translating Paradise Lost from Enghsb into Russian wbo bad somehow missed that Milton was a Christian. 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 sometbing entirely different." they give us "wickedness. Of Coiiinieiitary 93 . I want students to appreciate and not just take on faith why their works are supreme accomplishments. Cbekbov's plays and stories. an even greater degree of literary grace than Garnett's. In response. To be sure. eitber to disprove the prevailing theory or just because. tben works on tbe rendering with the intention of keeping the language as close to the original as possible. to produce an English version of Tolstoy. but I am. botb of wbom Tolstoy loved. His word for sucb acts of selfinjury is. including his prose. Its nameless narrator. Garnett's Victorianization of Tolstoy was not inappropriate. I am a spiteful man. Often enough. He. What results from tbis attempt at unprecedented fidelity is a word-forword and syntax-for-syntax version that sacrifices tone and misconstrues overall sense. the "underground man. tbat one needs to convey. from the 1890 s to the 1930s. renders each book into entirely literal Englisb. She. including some errors in meaning. I refuse to treat it out of spite. "spite. I don't treat it and never have. For Dostoevsky. perhaps. in the case of a few major works. You probably will not understand that. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious. Above all. W HEN I TEACH Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I don't know beans about my disease. even Garnett. though I respect medicine and doctors. the Russian word zloi can indeed mean "v^dcked. translators need a tboroughgoing understanding of the work and a feel for the genre in which it is viritten.
What's more. It also brings to mind the saintly Alyosha Karamazov's lacerated finger. which was bitten by an insulted schoolboy." P&V use "Strains. The image of tearing is important. Another example. sir. of course.. (I'm sufficiently educated not to be superstitious. putting words in his mouth. To choose. they are eating not soup but a cold sauce. it's as if he were thinking: "So. exactly as she used to be. with uncontrolled anger and contempt The old man shrank before his flashing eyes. at least enough to respect medicine. then let it hurt even worse! What has wickedness got to do with it? The underground man is constantly turning on the reader. you learn that a heroine is wearing not a ribbon but a toque. because it recalls the pleasure in selfflagellation taken by the insane monk Ferapont. hut readers typically turn to translations not for ephemera hut to read literature. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. When challenged in this way. his mother. quickly! It's like her. I think my liver hurts. course. put it. "But she was my mother. But still.. I know better than anyone that by all this I am harming only myself and no one else. sir. I'll show you I don't give a damn what you think! I'm a spiteful man. Alyosha's monstrous father. but I understand it. My liver is bad. but readers typically turn to translations not to hear about culinary ephemera but to read literature. Old Karamazov. one of which is entitled "Nadryvy." Garnett translates the word as "Lacerations. I will not. and exaggerating so as to leave him deniability should someone pin him down by believing him. too. What's more. though I respect medicine and doctors. one has to understand that the term names one of Dostoevsky's key concepts. well. P&V don't seem to have heard it. and he falls into the very same hysterics. you will certainly not be so good as to understand this. the father cries out: "Ivan. P&V invoke the yirtues of their literal accuracy. and am not sure what it is that hurts me." he muttered to Ivan. answering objections to things he hasn't yet spoken of. I can't explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case hy my spite. Was she not?" said Ivan. I am not being treated and never have been. An unattractive man. His prose is all loophole. taunts him in the presence of another son. hut I am.. you think I want your pity. his mother." In one scene.) No. cringing in anticipation either of sympathy or contempt. then. well then — let it get even worse! P&y opens: I am a sick man. I don't know afigabout my sickness. As the text makes explicit. I am also superstitious in the extreme. if I don't treat it. In their War and Peace. Such repairs are all well and good. I believe his mother. "Your mother?" he muttered. He's upset about his mother. I refuse to treat it out of wickedness.P&V invoke the virtues of their literal accuracy. During that pause between the first two sentences represented by the ellipsis. I know perfectly well that I will in no way "muck things up" for the doctors by not taking their treatment. taunting him. and a hero's outfit is a redingote. However. the tearing at one's wounds out of sheer masochistic pleasure. and it has cockscombs in it. Now. Mikhail Bakhtin. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "get even" with the doctors hy not consulting them. be able to explain to you precisely who is going to suffer in this case from my wickedness.. The memory of his mother is Alyosha's ovra icon. and allow you to condescend to me? Well. Such resonances disappear if one reads not of lacerations" but instead of "strains. it is out of spite.. nadryvy refers to deliberately inflicted self-injury. Ivan. well. I am a wicked man. not understanding. The old man relishes how he used to drive Alyosha's mother to hysterics by spitting on her icons. My liver hurts. "What do you mean? What mother are you talking about?" 94 The Pevearsion of Russian Literature : July/August 2010 . Ivan! Water. both are possible so far as the dictionary is concerned. The Brothers Karamazov is divided into 12 books. Garnett caught that tone well enough for generations to experience it.. so there!" As the best Dostoevsky critic. Struck by the extraordinary resemblance. the underground man is taking a sidelong glance at his listener. Well." Again.it seemed really to have escaped the old man's mind that Alyosha's mother was actually the mother of Ivan too. Such repairs are well and good..
wouldn't saugfroid. belong to the essence of humor. the old sot seems. Like Gogol. Judases. In the The story reads. but here it bursts forth. timing: all these qualities. Since they are still taxed. crook. Tone. the P&V the narrator apologize for one straight-faced absurdity version is too straightforward. Chichikov tries to soften up the landowner ways of this gentleman. told that "there was something substantial about the Thus. all of them. if the truth had died abroad. "a brigand—the biggest one on earth!" At last again. There's only one travels across Russia buying up the deeds to serfs (or decent man there: the prosecutor—and to tell "souls") who have died since the last census and are the truth. these "dead souls" constitute a negative asset. "He'll cations have been overfalsified. allow the sounds and associations of words and idioms to When Chichikov first arrives in town. and tion that "crook" momentarily raises the possibility the author plays the theme for all the existential and that "driving him vidth a crook" means "with a hooked theological humor it is worth. deceive you. playftilness. Only at the end do we staff. Gogol's hero. they're all swindlers. When Chichikov ventures to call abandoned him as a child. which P&V do dinner with you! I know them all: they're all not notice. they blow the joke." If Pevear had composed the message. and even he. he cabled: "Tbe reports of were to be told. If you get a passage dler mounted on another and using a third like this wrong. They mimic the decent man is really a swine. Judases all of them." not to menure out why Chichikov wants to buy non-people. sell you. and then sit down to playfulness. not because." my death have been greatly exaggerated." Good humorists only suggest a double meanlearn that Chichikov plans to use these souls certified ing when it makes the line funnier. With sarcasm Chichikov thinks of extolhng Sobakevich's reputed bordering on assault. to deny his son's very existence. Ivan has concealed his hatred for his father. they forward. you have lost the novel. which P&V do not notice. Ivan reminds the old man that friend the police chief. Sobakevich deems him. who worse than the last. Ivan says the opposite. because he is trying to create the false impression that Guemey and his revising editor Fusso understand only under extreme pressure does he admit that the Gogol's sense of humor from within. we are suggest ever-longer chains of sublime nonsense. every man jack It doesn't matter whether grammatically the of them. But Sobakevich denounces each as nose-blowing was proof of substantiality. The Guerney/Fusso versorts ofjokes he makes. crooks. and probably always will. the whole town is the same: a crook Gogol's Dead Souls stands as the comic mastermounted on a crook and driving him with a piece of Russian literature. In Guerney/Fusso: Alyosha's mother is also his mother. and let sion is dragged out as Sobakevich intends. as you But in P&V: agree. and when he blew his nose Sobakevich by illogically praising every town official as be did so exceedingly loudly. and in being straightwith another still more outrageous. that his mother is also Alyosha's!— "A swindler!" said Sobakevich with the utmost "But my mother. was also his mother." therefore legally alive. as in by the bureau of audits as collateral for a mortgage. one as a whip. so any money offered for them is a gain to the seller. word cboice. the translators haven't thought of it. this case. Chichikov. forgetting who Ivan's mother is. to my accomplished demise. one swinsentence can be rendered this way. word choice. is a swine. too. But in P&V. No one can fig"Swindler" is funnier than "crook. is a swine. it might be: "Regarding the recent information pertaining." Tone. There is but one—and only one—decent man. By the governor a superb fellow." as if somehow the loud the worthiest of all. and dine with you right after that. Sobakevich's final comment is funny right out of today's papers. sir. "He'll sell you out and he'll take you you agree?" in. the whole town is like that. belong to the essence of humor. P&V put it W Coinnientary 95 . I know them all. timing: all these qualities.Imagine if Mark Twain's quip was translated by Pevear. as if it were superior version. once instead. the communi"A crook!" Sobakevich said very coolly. he. play on words as he does. I think. that's HEN RUMORS circulated that Mark Twain the Public Prosecutor.
to what business. a certain odor all his own... To be flat-footed and literal as if that were enough is to make a lively masterpiece into a dead soul. As every critic notes.Gogol s humor cascades into a series of synonyms for nonsense. and N 96 The Pevearsion of Russian Literature : July/August 2010 . stuff and nonsense. containing sundry flunkeyish effects. which carries a "can you possibly answer that?" sense. may the Devil take it all! Pevearized. Alas. the Antichrist? In the better version." 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 vvdth the anticlimactic "brought in after it"? At last the tovwispeople wonder obsessively why on earth Chichikov would buy dead souls. The choice of words. the Russian here is tualet. and together with it. novels have tended to trace a character's thoughts in the third person. what sort of parable is this. and it hardly matters what they are as long as they crowd each other and sound ridiculous. soft-boiled boots. Gogol does something inventive and strange in almost every sentence. and he blew his nose vÁÜi exceeding loudness. and it hardly matters what they are as long as they crowd each other and sound ridiculous. nonsense. They repeat the emphatic particle zhe. balderdash. as P&V want us to know. 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. or toiletries. really? What sort of parable are these dead souls? There's no logic to dead souls. but P&V do not understand. "Petmshka the flunkey. But it is actually quite easy to misrepresent him if one does not understand the language of novels. 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. but the point is that in Russian." Not only is the connection between the two clauses weakened. what was this riddle of the dead souls? There was no logic whatsoever in dead souls. simply—oh. could these dead souls be tacked?. which had been imparted to the bag brought in next. he's Napoleon in disguise? Or. Is there anyone who thinks "a certain smell of its ovwi" is as amusing as "a certain odor all its own. the hero of his story "The Overcoat" sports a complexion described as "hemorrhoidal"—a nonsensical concept if taken literally but an inspired image). this way: "The gentleman's manners had something solid about them. could one utilize these dead souls?.What reason can there be to dead souls? Why." To be sure. whither he had already brought his overcoat. Mere devil take it! ' The Russian questions are hyperactive. for example. We read of Chichikov's servant. Since Jane Austen." settling into "a very dark cubbyhole. . which had been imparted to the sack of various lackey toiletries brought in after it. pigeon milk and horse feathers! This is. exaggerated. the townsmen ask themselves: After all. Gogol often chooses words less for their meaning than for their humorous sound and resonances (which is why. but "solid manners" is too earnest a notion for the author. indeed. so much moonshine. the sound of the word tualet is funny and its tone jars with the word preceding it. Perhaps he's really a secret government inspector? Or maybe a certain storied war veteran seeking revenge for his lost limbs? Or maybe. to what business. OWHERE 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. the passage reads: What was this riddle." "Sundry flunkeyish effects" is just how Gogol sounds. and that's where this book's real energy lies. just maybe.. God help us. challenging anyone who would even think there might be a sensible answer. 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 vdth the stilted "Mere devil take it"? Gogol's humor cascades into a series of synonyms for nonsense. P&V's Petmshka settles into "a very dark closet. where he had already managed to drag his overcoat and with it a certain smell of its own. there just isn't any! All this is simply the Devil riding on a fiddlestick. and they produce humor through a buildup of hysteria.What was the reason for the dead souls? It was all mere cock-and-bull story.
the character's view may not comport with the author's. It had turned out quite the other way. ought from a sense of fairness to take an indulgent view. belongs to the character. tells himself that his honesty will not allow him to say he repents of his actions. her devastated reaction would have been no surprise at all. with their literal-translation approach. The countess and Sonya wept from pity for poor Natasha and because he was no more. we listen in (in the revised Garnett version) on his inner voice. He was incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he repented of his conduct.Critics sometimes say it is impossible to ruin Tolstoy. Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now. but not because of their own personal grief. and constantly. and shut her eyes to the fact.. but they did not weep from their own personal grief. One of the most moving moments in this enormous novel occurs when Prince Andrei dies. the whole point of a passage can be lost. 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. the authorial expression of sympathy seemed viTong. The Countess and Sonya cried out of pity for Natasha and because he was no more. If one misses what is going on. 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." The same sort of failure of meaning occurs in the P&V War and Peace. I was surprised by P&V's "poor Natasha". but I assumed that P&V. As Stiva thinks of his wife. and in no way remarkable or interesting. the way one thought begets another. which begins "Stepan Arkadyevich was a truthful man concerning his ovm self. At the beginning of Anna Karenina. Coiiiiiiciitary All that double-voiced irony fades from P&V's rendition." misses the wit to which the whole paragraph builds. We hear the author's irony at the philanderer's notion of honesty. He had never clearly thought out the subject. When I first compared these passages.. and it is the art of the writer to make clear that what the character is seeing is deluded or self-serving or foolish.All he was sorry about was that he had not succeeded in hiding it from his wife. would have to take that same dreadful step. along with Tolstoy's implicit commentary: Stepan Arkadyevich was a truthful man with himself. whose wife has discovered his infidelity." Someone might think that he is "truthful with himself" but not that he is "a truthful man concerning his own self.. had cap- 97 . But it is actually quite easy to misrepresent him if one does not understand the language of novels. merely a good mother.. Had Stiva ever bothered to see things from his wife's point of view." P&V's final sentence. At the same time.. This "double-voicing" lies at the heart of the 19th-century novelistic enterprise. The old Count cried because he felt that before long he too must take the same awesome step. but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her. and which Garnett brilliantly renders as "It had turned out quite the other way. while George Eliot and Tolstoy use it for masterful psychological exploration. P&V weaken the tone: Nikolushka wept from a suffering bewilderment that rent his heart. Pevear and Volokhonsky do. The old count wept because he felt that soon he. "It had turned out to be quite the opposite. He had even supposed that she. Ann Dunnigan translates: Nikolushka cried because his heart was rent with perplexity. Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now.. "double-voicing" becomes the vehicle of satire. too. 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. Stepan Arkadyevich. a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking. For Dickens and TroUope. 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. and so we come to know her inner voice.
like Tolstoy. Straus and Giroux has been able to appeal to the burgeoning circle of book-club readers to take a cbance on something old and enduring— with its greatest triumph being winning the endorsement for Anna Karcnina in 2004 from none other than Oprah Winfrey. Tolstoy's Russian usage is elevated and poetic. tured Tolstoy's own false step. Farrar. is great literature that has been stripped bare of its ovra solemn mystery." and "consummated in their presence" comes much closer to Tolstoy's tone." as Dunnigan renders it. Dunnigan's "filled their souls" is more solemn than P&V's "came over their souls. vocabulary. is great literature that has heen stripped bare of its own solemn mystery. P&V's "wept from a suffering bewilderment" is awkward. Each of their editions has allowed magazine and newspaper editors to commission articles in which v^Titers of distinction are given the rare opportunity to review without qualification a genuinely great work that has great meaning for them—to salute it. It should be obvious that one should pick "awesome step" over "dreadful step" to describe the Count's sudden sense of his ovm eventual end (all the more so because tbe former comes closer to capturing the alliteration of the Russian "strashnyi sha^'). and sbow tbeir own critical sensitivity and knowledge in discussing it." But in its syntax. alas. repeat tbe word "wept" rather than sviatch to a synonym. And P&V are correct that Tolstoy's description of Natasha's and Marya's awareness is literally "simple and solemn. alas. Unlike Dunnigan. P&V. Witb such reviews in hand. S*- 98 The Pevcarsion of Russian Literature : July/August 2010 . no longer consummated in our presence.what these readers are getting. not elevated. It also suits more adequately the finality of death and the fact that these are the last words of this part of the novel. and tone. It is suffused vrith the sense of "solemn mystery. T HE MARKETING of Pevear and Volokhonsky is a remarkable accomplisbment. Wbat these readers are getting. no longer consummated in our presenee. pay tribute to it. the word "poor" is absent. with the P&V version right there at the bookstore by tbe tens of thousands to welcome the buying tbrong. I went and checked out the Russian.
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