The Tricky Art of Literary Translation

The New Yorker has this excellent article about translating Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, perhaps the most well-known Russian authors. It mentions good old Constance Garnett, the most enduring of Russian translators into English. (I was inflicted with her dreadful Crime and Punishment translation in high school and somehow managed to still love the book.) And the article would not be complete without mentioning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the darlings of all those highbrow literary critics who read classics of Russian literature in English.*

I’ve always found Pevear and Volokhonsky’s method of translating to be fascinating. From the article:

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.


Pevear and Volokhonsky made it clear that their work is a collaboration—her Russian, his English—but they work in adjoining offices, alone. “We don’t want to work over short passages together,” Pevear said. “Larissa does an entire draft first. The first draft for ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ took two years, and thankfully we had an N.E.H. grant”—for thirty-six thousand dollars—“which we stretched out.”

It’s a great article–long, but worth the read.

Sometimes I wonder if Pevear and Volokhonsky will ever fall out of favor. Breon Mitchell wrote in the preface to his translation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial that even though an original work never seems to get old, translations have a way of getting stale, so to speak, over the years. (Consequently, if you’re interested in what really goes into literary translation, the sheer amount of thought and decision making, Mitchell’s preface makes for interesting reading.) By that logic, Pevear and Volokhonsky will probably fall out of favor. (Of course, Garnett also should have fallen out of favor long ago, but she’s still hanging on.)

I’m not saying I want Pevear and Volokhonsky to fall out of favor–most of their translations are decent, at least from what I’ve read. The first page of their Doctor Zhivago was very good, but I’ve never cared for their translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

Seriously though, just don’t read Constance Garnett. Just… don’t.

*Yes, I realize I’m sounding rather highbrow and pretentious right now, with my implication of, “Well, I read Russian classics in Russian.” So, a confession: I absolutely cannot handle Dostoevsky in the original. His work is much too difficult for me. But Bulgakov is quite fun in the original.


2 thoughts on “The Tricky Art of Literary Translation

  1. Interesting post, Natalie. Having read both the translations of Garnett and the PV team, but not yet the pleasure of reading much of anything in Russian, I have to say they seemed suited for different things. I agree, Garnett’s Crime and Punishment is pretty atrocious, but I really liked her “Possessed”. A friend of mine and I read this together at the same time and he read the PV translation. I thought in some ways, my translation was more quirky and dark but the PV’s still seemed pretty strong. I wish I had the two translations with me so I could provide an example. Anyway, thanks for posting the NY article. I read it a long time ago but it was still as interesting to read as ever.

    All criticism aside, would it not be pretty seriously cool to be married, living in Paris, and translating world-class literature with your hubby? Just saying.

    1. OMG, yes. The way you phrased that last paragraph makes me want to drop everything, find a husband, and move to Paris (not necessarily in that order) and lounge around in a nice flat that I probably can’t afford, translating Russian literature.

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