Friday, December 14, 2007

Translating Russian Literature

I accidentally came upon this old new yorker article by David Remnick about translations of Russian literature which I remembered reading with great interest, and so I thought I will link it here. It is actually a profile of the translator couple Larissa Volkhonsky and Richard Pevear whose translations of the great Russian masters of the nineteenth century have met with great critical acclaim in recent years. I have read only Constance Garnett and the various translators in the penguin classics series but I do hope to get to their versions when I plan to re-read those classics. Of course War and Peace is left unfinished. Herzen's memoirs and Goncharov are also on my immediate to-read list but I don't think they have translated either of these yet.

Speaking of War and Peace and translations of Russian literature there was an excellent series of posts and discussions on the new york times' book blog. Most of these comments are also worth reading in full.


puccinio said...

I usually don't talk about literature but I found that article you excerpted fascinating. I am not very well read. Not as I am well-viewed. And even then, I read more plays than novels. But I love Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Stendhal and Charles Dickens.

It's sad to comprehend how even in the cases of the best masterpieces written in another language, and as good as they are in English, it's still a compromise over the original.

Of Constance Garnett's translation on Dostoevsky, I only read her ''Brothers Karamazov'' which I considered the only great novel with several bad sentences.

But then even then the idiosyncracies of the novel and Dostoevsky was captured, his polyphony which Jean Genet famously described as being the only novel that he knows that not only sets all it's characters on a shooting gallery but willingly places itself there to be shot down.

I read the P/V translations of ''Notes From Underground'' and ''Crime and Punishment'' and I have their ''Demons'' which I plan to read soon.

One thing that struck me in that interview was they said that when they were translating Dostoevsky's final novel, they did not allow themselves to use any words of the English language that was included after the novel was published in 1881. Maybe they differed on different novels because their ''Crime and Punishment'' does have many colloquial slang and features of American English.

Alok said...

I didn't know of that Genet quote. It is very nice.

Translations will always be subjects of controversy because at heart the problem of translation is a philosophical one - how to find a correspondence between two different laguages? Or if we can ever succeed in finding one? People have different ideas about what a good translation should aim for. Ultimately as mono- or at best bi-lingual readers we should be grateful for whatever exists in translation.

That comment about not using any contemporary expression seems logical but then there was a recent translation of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman (which again I have not read) was praised for its use of contemporary American English expressions. Personally it didn't sound impressive to me - I would much rather have the archaic expressions even if I have to consult footnotes or look up in a dictionary.

puccinio said...

The version of ''Don Quixote'' which I have is actually a translation by English novelist Tobias Smollett. I'm learning Spanish so eventually I plan to read the original but this translation which is kind of forgotten or kept aside is championed by Salman Rushdie.

He says that while it isn't exact, it's the only one that captures the spirit of the original and unleashes Cervantes' magic in English.

puccinio said...

As for Genet, like many French intellectuals around the time of the Second World War, he was drawn to the most delirious, schismatic, literary artist of the last century and while he like many others did not share Dostoevsky's views they were stunned by it's ambiguity(which I always felt was intentional on Dostoevsky's part rather than him being an unintentional party to the Devil).

Genet's work however doesn't show Dostoevsky's direct influence, save for ''Querelle de Brest'', whose protagonist follows, R. R. Raskolnikov's footsteps but he said that no novel moved him as much as Dostoevsky's.