15 November 07 | Chad W. Post

This post on Languagehat.com is fascinating, especially in the context of yesterday’s post on the way reviewers review translations.

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.


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