Over the past few weeks, there’s been an ongoing discussion of the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace in the NY Times Reading Room.
According to Karl Pohrt at Shaman Drum, this has greatly helped increase the interest in the new edition of W&P, which is great, and demonstrates the power of these type of online reading groups.
In a recent overview post called The Art of Translation, Sam Tanenhaus praised the P&V translation for being both musical and spare, and then asked what others thought—especially in comparison to previous translations.
Well, the comments section is much too long to recount here, but it’s definitely worth checking out. There have always been detractors of P&V, especially since Pevear isn’t fluent in Russia and instead rewrites Volokhonsky’s more literal translations.
When this came up in the comments section, Pevear jumped in with a somewhat testy—and very, very long—response.
About some specifics and our supposed literalism. Bill Keller finds that the expressions “Why so?” and “What’s with you?” are not colloquial English (they “feel like Russian” to him). That surprises me. I’m a tenth generation Yankee and have been using them all my life. Francine Prose finds that our use of “rare people” in the passage on page 1, “grippe was a new word then, used only by rare people,” is infelicitous. Tolstoy, with strong irony, deliberately says “redkimi,” i.e. “rare people,” and not “the elite,” as Ms. Prose would prefer. She may be one of the rare people who has never heard the expression. “Deceive the expectations” sounds more affected than “disappoint,” but consider the tone of the scene and the social position of the participant! To say “it’s simply not English” implies a rather narrow set of standards. And who sets these standards anyway?
These discussions are always interesting, and it seems to me that P&V translations are occasionally brilliant, sometimes pedestrian, but always get people reading and talking about the “Big Russian Books,” which can’t be all bad . . .
Anyway, following this heated, fascinating discussion, Tanenhaus wrote a defense of P&V, which is also quite interesting, and very polemical, although opening a bit brashly:
O.K, gang. No more Mr. Nice Guy Moderator. Today, the gloves come off, which is to say: In re this translation, many of you are — how to put this? — off your rockers.
But ends with Tanenhaus praising the translation’s difficulty:
The upshot is that the P&V translation forces us now and again to wonder about a turn of phrase or even stop in mid-gallop and cast our eyes down the page for help. Frustrating? Maybe. But don’t those delays have the virtue of approximating the interpretive dislocations of life itself, which seldom unfolds as a smooth narrative but instead taunts us with intervals — often prolonged — of utter incomprehension, through which we must think and rethink and puzzle? It seems to me a translation that seeks to capture Tolstoy’s “voice of truth” (in Figes’s words) shouldn’t be grasped too quickly; in fact, we read most profitably if we’re continually adjusting and adapting as we go so as to immerse ourselves more completely in the experience.
What I most like about this exchange is how passionate people are when it comes to the quality of this translation. These comments—especially from the detractors—open up a lot of interesting topics for discussion. It’s just unfortunate that the Tanehaus and Pevear defenses seem like just that—defenses based in a judgment that P&V are absolutely right, infallible, and beyond debate.
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .