23 June 08 | Chad W. Post

One of the fundamental discussions in the world of literary translation is the debate between whether a translator should “retain the foreignness” of a work, or “smooth” it over for the benefit of the target audience.

Richard Pevear’s recent letter to the London Review of Books about his retranslation (along with Larissa Volokhonsky) of War and Peace gets at this issue in a very direct way:

There is one clarification I would like to make after reading Michael Wood’s detailed and attentive review of our translation of War and Peace (LRB, 22 May). Wood mentions my disagreement with Anthony Briggs over the use of contemporary idiomatic English in translation, and to illustrate what he sees as the occasional problems of our more literal approach, cites the example of the old Prince Bolkonsky’s death scene. Our version reads: ‘In the presence of Tikhon and the doctor, the women washed what had been he [‘to chto bylo on’], bound his head with a handkerchief’ and so on. Wood finds the phrase ‘what had been he’ clunky and prefers Briggs’s ‘what was left of him’, finding it more natural. Tolstoy could have written ‘to chto ostalos ot nego’ (‘what was left of him’), which is also more natural in Russian, but instead chose to use the extremely forced and unidiomatic phrase ‘to chto bylo on’. Is this a matter of Tolstoy’s own clumsiness, which a translator would do well to correct? Not at all. Death is the central theme of Tolstoy’s work; he struggled all his life with the mystery of the moment when what had been here is no longer here. The women wash ‘what had been he’ but, as Tolstoy’s wording implies, was no longer he. The mystery of his departure is the point, not ‘what was left’.

No doubt many readers will say they prefer the more idiomatic phrase anyway because it ‘reads better’ in English. That is the dilemma every translator faces. We chose to keep the strangeness where the original is strange.

I’m not a huge fan of the P&V translations (their translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is my least favorite of the ones that are currently available), but I can see where he’s coming from in this particular case. “What had been he” rings wrong in all ways, but at least he’s got a proper defense of why he chose this particular phrase.

The thing that more concerns me is the relentless defensiveness of Pevear. He’s always popping up in comments boards and letters pages to defend the greatness of his translation, which is as disconcerting as “what had been he” . . . I’m all for translators being more active in promoting their works and getting more attention in general, but in this case P&V overshadow the work itself. In fact, the “About the Author” flap of War and Peace has a picture of P&V and information about all the books they’ve translated, rather than info about Tolstoy. The three-sentence bit on Tolstoy’s bio is actually on the front flap and references none of his other works. And on the “other books by” page, instead of a list of other books by Tolstoy, one finds a list of other books translated by P&V . . .

I’m a bit conflicted about all of this—it’s great that P&V are able to bring new readers to Tolstoy, but this strikes me as a bit odd. P&V have become brands of a sort, “The Russian Translators,” and that’s a bit strange, especially when so many people have so many questions about their translation methods and results. Would make an interesting discussion in terms of how to market translations though . . .

(Thanks to Jeff Waxman for bringing our attention to this letter to the editor.)

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