Russian authors in English: which are the recommended translations?

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Russian authors in English: which are the recommended translations?

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Nov 8, 2007, 7:49am

I enjoy reading books in translation, but find that I am often put off by the English rendering, or at least feel that an vital part of the work has got lost along the way. In recent years I have made more effort to seek out the particular translations that I think will work best. Since few Anglophones know Russian, we must put our faith in the skill of translators and are unlikely to be able to determine whether a translation is "good" or "bad", except empirically - and too late! - once we have bought the book. Which are the English translations that fellow readers recommend? Is there any guidance available on the Internet (I have not found much) or elsewhere?

Nov 8, 2007, 11:57am

The New York Review of books has an interesting article up right now, sparked by the release of a new translation of War and Peace about the history of English translations of Russian authors that you might want to check out.

Nov 8, 2007, 4:51pm

Hello fannyprice! Many thanks for that. Actually I had already read it - I realise that there is a heated debate amongst critics about the new War and Peace translations. Despite that, there seems to be a near concensus that the new Volokhonsky/Pevear is about the "best" translation now available. I wonder what the benchmarks are for other Russian works? Many thanks and look forward to hearing more!

Editado: Set 13, 2010, 2:27pm

I recommend the James E. Falen translation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in Oxford World's Classics. Colloquial, straightforward, witty, sparkling. Written in the Onegin stanza verse form of the original. Other good translations: Walter Arndt, also Charles Johnston. There are others. The one to be wary of is Vladimir Nabokov's, which is painstakingly literal but unpoetic; it is accompanied, however, by a detailed commentary that is of inestimable value to Pushkin students (as is his literal translation to those learning Russian).

Nov 17, 2010, 1:42pm

I just started the Pevear Anna Karenina. Are people looking forward to reading their new Dr. Zhivago? I read it in university and the text made little sense to me. i wonder if the new translation will help.

Nov 18, 2010, 2:51pm

I just got a copy of the Pevear Volokhonsky translation of Dr. Zhivago, which I read many years ago in Italian. I am looking forward to reading it again because I loved it.

Nov 19, 2010, 3:23pm

I've read the new Pevear Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace and the only complaint I have is the large amount of French text. I read the article and I understand the argument for leaving it in but logistically, I found it annoying having to constantly refer to the bottom of the page. This was a reread, the first translation of War and Peace I read was the Constance Garnett one but it was long enough ago that a comparison of the two is difficult...except for the large amount of French text in the later...that was quite noticeable.

Nov 19, 2010, 9:24pm

I have been reading the P and V translation of Dead Souls and find some of the diction pretty awkward in English, and particularly the diminutives ("Sweety", "Deary" etc.) are sort of offputting. Did Constance Garnett translate Dead Souls?

Nov 20, 2010, 9:53am

Yes, the copy of Dead Souls that I have was translated by her.

Nov 20, 2010, 6:05pm

Thanks Lisa, I'm going to try and find a copy, then since I have read the first half of Dead Souls in P and V, I can read the second half in Garnett and see how they compare.

Nov 21, 2010, 6:48pm

Caroline Fusso, in her work on Gogol (Anatomy of Disorder), raises some interesting points regarding Gogol, and in particular the difficulty and ambivalence of translating Dead Souls. Partly, difficulties emerge where translators (and Garnett is in part guilty of this) 'smooth over' elements of skaz writing in his work (skaz being dialect and slang which is spoken by a particular character who is, in a sense, defined by their style of talking). Skaz often reads, in Russia, awkwardly, and so translators may simply 'soften' skaz into something resembling ordinary and competent speech. As such, sections of Dead Souls, such as Captain Kopiegin's story, lose their skaz quality, and therefore do not stand out from the text as clearly as they should. Robert A. Maguire's translation (Penguin, 2004) retains this to a degree. But again, Caroline Fusso does include in her work some short translations of particular passages which do retain skaz.

Another author who's work has generated a lot of criticism among translators in Evgenii Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. The two most recent Penguins are both quite faithful, but they have retained melody and rhythm (in other words, they are not direct or literal translations of Pushkin's verse). Vladimir Nabokov, in his four volume translation, presents a masterful, albeit vindictive (yes, very much so), translation which is both literal and direct. The conflict seems to be between those translators who want to ensure that it is still lyrical (and who try to approximate the Onegin stanza in English*), and those who wish to represent a literal translation that is not melodic (that is, Nabokov, who trashes earlier translations). If you're particularly interested in Evgenii Onegin, then Nabokov's scholarship is indispensible; if you don't enjoy his translation, that's fair enough, but he is more thorough in terms of explaining why he translates particular terms as such-and-such than any other translations. On a final note, the old Penguin translation (by Charles Johnston) is a bit insipid in comparison to the more recent ones (Mitchell, apparently, is good (2003, Penguin)).


Nov 21, 2010, 8:56pm

I have the Oxford World's Classics edition of Onegin, translated by James E. Falen (1995). It is a verse translation in the Onegin stanza, and reads beautifully as English. I just read it recently. As a result of it I became intrigued by Pushkin and am now delving through Ruslan i Lyudmila, The Bronze Horseman, etc. etc. and the Troyat biography. I plan to read the Walter Arndt translation of Onegin next, then the Nabokov version and commentary. I feel like I may be too old to try to learn Russian.

As for retaining dialect language in translations, IMO it may be better to soft pedal it, unless it can be rendered idiomatically in the target language. Otherwise it creates a sense of ludicrousness and burlesque that is usually not intended by the author who was seeking verisimilitude. This maxim of course applies no less when translating from English slang, jargon, or dialect, a process which results in truly bizarre French, German, etc. when handled unskillfully.

Nov 21, 2010, 9:14pm

>11 DuneSherban:, 12 very interesting about Gogol, thanks for sharing that.

Earlier this year I read 5 different translations of Eugene Onegin and compared them, I also read Nabokov's commentary. I humbly submit my study of both here, and my review of EO:

I hear that DM Thomas, renowned Pushkin translator is working on a new version of EO.

Nov 21, 2010, 9:37pm

13 Thanks for the links. BTW I have been learning a lot from your essays on Dostoevsky's Writer's Diary.

Nov 22, 2010, 7:23am

oh good, thank you for reading them!

Nov 22, 2010, 4:41pm

I am reading the P and V translation of Anna Karenenina and so far it's
going swimmingly well, but there is one word used serveral times that just
leaps out at me as being totally bizarre. It is the word "twit'. Has anyone come across the use of this word in the version of the novel they have read?
it can't be emblematic of Russian speak can it? Maybe it is intended as being
a sort of slang word.It really jars me and I don't like it.

Nov 23, 2010, 2:47am

@ 15: My pleasure. And profit as well.

Nov 23, 2010, 11:26am

>15 tomcatMurr:

My appreciation for the links; I found your treatment of the translations very well considered, and I cannot but agree with you regarding Nabokov. I found his volumes better reference guides than a source of poetry, though I often think in those cases that it is precisely his scholarship which is more poetic than his translations of the poetry of another. Anyway, nobody else has been so exacting in securing references, allusions and the many possible roots (folkloric, popular, and from foreign novels) of the images in the original.

Earlier, I did not make reference to Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (Обломов). As it stands, there the field of translation is best represented by David Magarshak's 1954 translation. Positively, the translation retains the clear and highly observational nature of Goncharov's prose. Negatively, it does not always convey the 'warmth' of his descriptions, while Zakhar (Oblomov's manservant) suffers again from being denied the same skaz that I mention in Gogol; it is not as clear in this instance, but his voice is supposed to contain contradictory elements, and two distinct discourses that give him, in essence, paranoic transformations of voice throughout the work (between the proud nobility of his voice when he is acting the 'landowner's butler', and of the petty criminal and layabout when he is acting the urban, dispossesed house keeper). It's a small criticism, but important to his character.

I would, however, mention that C. J. Hogarth's translation (1915) should be avoided; the translation, in the terms used by Nabokov that tomcatMurr mentioned on his site, are "paraphrastic". In addition, Hogarth in fact produced a concise version of Oblomov, shearing it of many large chunks of text, while conforming the remainder to contemporary English idioms. If you're interested as part of a comparative exercise, it is available here: There is a more recent translation by Stephen Pearl (2006). I've not yet had a chance to read this version, and intend to do so soon, at which point I'll give some sort of verdict.

Nov 23, 2010, 11:36am

>16 alans:

In Russian, there are a number of slang terms for something like a "twit", if it is implied as a slightly warm, or friendly, insult (as opposed to calling somebody an idiot). The terms below can mean 'idiot', however, and it really depends on the context ...

Durak - fool (male)
Dura - fool (female)

As I mentioned earlier, however, skaz speech (slang, idioms, 'jarred phrasing') are all emblematic of the 'common voice' in 19th century literature since Gogol.

Nov 23, 2010, 8:10pm

it is precisely his scholarship which is more poetic than his translations of the poetry of another

an excellent observation. Thanks for your comments on Oblomov. They add to my appreciation of this masterpiece.

Nov 24, 2010, 3:35pm

Can someone suggest a good cultural history or guide to Russian literature?
I've always wanted to read Orlando Figge's Natasha's Dance, is that the best one out there today?

Nov 24, 2010, 9:18pm

#21> I enjoyed it, alans, but I cannot say whether or not it is the best one, since it is the only cultural history of Russia I have read. Murr (#22) is certainly much more knowledgeable than I am.

Nov 25, 2010, 6:52am

#8,#9,#10 & #11
Thank you for the comments on Gogol's Dead Souls. I'm hoping to read this soon as I have just finished Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov and believe, from the few reviews I've read of "Dead Souls" that Bykov was trying to produce an updated version of Gogol's work.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but that will only be proven one way or t'other when I've read "Dead Souls".

I recommend Living Souls. The translation was by Cathy Porter.

Dez 26, 2010, 5:10pm

I have just read Fathers and sons by Ivan Turgenev in the penguin classic edition. The translation is by Rosemary Edmonds. Now I must say how much I enjoyed this novel and Edmonds translation is free flowing and does an excellent job of bringing out the wonderful lyrical prose of Turgenev. However I did expect a harder edge to the social commentry that (I have read) is a feature of this novel. I was wondering if any of this has been lost in the translation. Rosemary Edmonds in her introduction (written in 1963) says that "The nihilist of Turgenev's day has turned into the beatnik of ours". I think this comparison is unfortunate at best and could never be applied to the character of Basarov. He was no beatnik. Rosemary Edmonds introduction and the fact that other translators have titled the book Fathers and Children has made me question just how much of a difference a translation can make to a book like Father and sons.

Dez 26, 2010, 7:45pm

Mensagem removida pelo autor.

Editado: Dez 30, 2010, 10:25am

>25 baswood:
It can make a difference, but it's nice to see you feel so strongly towards Basarov. I believe Turgenev was reluctant to make a full-fledged hero out of him and this comes across to some as ambivalence or inability on the author's part. If you read a little more Turgenev, which I wholeheartedly recommend*, you get a fuller appreciation for his special gifts.

Here's some insight to Basarov from Turgenev himself:

Interestingly, Basarov became a very controversial character after the book was released. The right felt that Turgenev portrayed Basarov too sympathetically, the left, that he made a poor representative. Regardless, it was very popular.

I agree that the comparison is a little troubling, but I think I understand the point she's trying to make. I also think "Turgenev's day" is important, because it wasn't until later that the nihilists' effect on society were fully realized.

A true, literal translation of the title would be Children, not Sons. To me, Children makes more sense in that it emphasizes the generational divide in the story rather than a specified paternal focus. It doesn't sound as nice though.

*Nest of Gentlefolk and Other Stories translated by Jessie Coulson. A Lear of the Steppes is in there too, just a wonderful story. He should really be known better for his novellas. That tender sadness Flaubert sometimes goes for is much more powerful and rewarding in Turgenev. Track this down too, if you can: Three novellas : Punin and Baburin, The inn, The watch. No ISBN unfortunately.

Dez 30, 2010, 6:08pm


Thank you for the link to google books. Very interesting; its kept me gazing at my computer screen all morning. What comes across from the correspondence also is the level of censorship that Turgenev had to deal with, which had some influence on how he said what he wanted to say. It is always interesting to read what is in an author's mind at the time of writing, but how much this should influence a reading of the text is debatable.

I will certainly follow up on your further reading suggestions, although I might have to make do with other translations to the one that you suggested. The short sories look very interesting and I will be re-reading Father and sons sometime soon.

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