Over the past few weeks, there’s been an ongoing discussion of the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace in the i>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.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .