How We Read the Russians

I really enjoyed New Yorker editor David Remnick’s recent article titled “The Translation Wars,” published in the 11/7/05 issue and (probably) not available online. Much of it’s about the previous go-to translator Constance Garnett and the highly regarded current husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. P/V got their start when Volokhonsky, a Russian emigree, reacted with outrage after taking a peek at the translation of “Karamazov” her husband was reading. As an experiment, they tried translating three chapters. 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.”

Here’s Pevear, later in the article, talking about this “sloppiness”:

“‘And yet Dostoyevsky’s roughness, despite the rush and the pressure, was all deliberate. No matter what the deadline, if he didn’t like what he had, he would throw it all out and start again. So this so-called clumsiness is seen in his drafts, the way he works on it. It’s deliberate. His narrator is not him; it’s always a bad provincial writer who has an unpolished quality but is deeply expressive. In the beginning of "The Brothers Karamazov,” in the note to the reader, there is the passage about “being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.” He stumbles. It’s all over the place.’“

After reading about their complete lack of income starting out, it’s a pleasure to read this:

"Then, one day in the spring of 2004, [Viking-Penguin senior editor Caroline] White called Pevear in Paris. She had big news. Oprah Winfrey was selecting 'Anna Karenina’ for her book club. Neither Pevear nor Volokhonsky quite understood the commercial implications. In fact, they had no idea who Oprah Winfrey was. 'I thought she was a country singer,’ Richard said.”

Remnick asked Pevear, who’d been told during that phone call that Viking-Penguin would print an additional 800,000 copies of their translation in a single month, what the “Oprah moment” had meant for them. Pevear replied:

“It means I have an accountant.”