20 May 2015

those Russians

● I have been taking a renewed interest in Russian literature, and wondering which are the best translations. Constance Garnett’s (from the 19th century) are the ones most people are familiar with, but they have their limitations.
My colleague Celia Green can read Russian, and tells me that it often contains implied emotions or statements which are more or less impossible to convert to English without distortion. This might explain why the literature can seem sparse and bleak. The emotional warmth which tempers the bleakness is lost in translation.
In Garnett’s case, the solution seems to have been to skip over the problem, acceptable I suppose if all you want is the plot. One of her critics complained that in her translations of Dostoyevsky, the author’s emotional style of “convulsions” and “nervous trembling” is lost, producing “not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original.”
Occasionally comparing her version of The Idiot with a German translation while reading it, I noticed that some passages (usually ones involving somewhat ambiguous interactions between characters) have been completely left out by her, presumably because she found them too difficult to reproduce.
The recent revised translations of the Russian classics by Pevear and Volokhonsky seem to me, judging from extracts, to have been largely successful in transmitting more of the warmth and psychological complexity of novels such as Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov — though some detractors describe their work as gimmicky, and I wasn’t sure about leaving large chunks of French in at the beginning of War and Peace. (The Russian aristocracy at the time of Napoleon largely spoke French among themselves, and Tolstoy is creating an effect by having them switch between French and Russian, which Pevear/Volokhonsky try to recreate — but in practice it’s tedious to keep having to refer to footnotes.)
The husband-and-wife team had difficulty getting sympathy from publishers for their project of conveying the original texts more authentically. Not surprising, in a world that believes hard in its own point of view, and has little time for subtlety. Random House and Oxford University Press turned them down. At Penguin they got an editor for Anna Karenina
who kept telling us that things might read obscene in a way we hadn’t intended. For example, Kitty says, ‘I love balls.’ This editor was good enough to tell us that this might read funny. But Kitty liked going to balls! What were we supposed to do? And one sentence read, ‘Did you come recently?’ Oh, it was all pretty painful.
One of the symptoms of mediocracy is the compulsion to reinterpret everything in the light of prevailing standards, and a resulting inability to see things from the perspective of an earlier time. It’s one of the things that makes most contemporary dramatisations of anything written before 1945 unwatchable, except as parody.

Oxford Forum should be given funding.