Must we read Richard Pevear translations?

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Must we read Richard Pevear translations?

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1alans
Jun 21, 2017, 2:28pm

It seems as if the general consensus is that no one translates Russian literature better than Richard Pevear and his wife Larissa V---. I had a terrible time with his Anna Karenina-I just couldn't stand it
and I didn't know if it was me or the translation. Any thoughts of Pevear and familas? I wonder what their Zhivago is like? I've read some people find them too literary, and apparently Paternacks's
daughter thinks they got the whole book wrong. Thoughts? I feel so obliged to read their work.

2spiphany
Jun 22, 2017, 3:37am

Actually I'm not sure I think there is any kind of general consensus that P&V are the best translators of Russian literature. Rather, they seem to be quite divisive -- there have been equally impassioned criticisms of their translation style, for example here: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-pevearsion-of-russian-literature...

Reviews of translations are tricky things, and in many cases they're not necessarily even written by people who can read the original language. I suspect the praise heaped on P&V is partly a result of this, partly a response to the fact that some of Constance Garnett's translations are starting to feel stilted and Victorian to today's ear, so a more "modern" style is felt to be refreshing, and partly that the slightly odd English which seems to be so typical of P&V's translations captures a strangeness or exoticism that fits many readers' expectations of what Russian literature should sound like.

My Russian isn't good enough to evaluate the strength of their translations (there are others here who can), but I tend to be skeptical that the lavish amounts of high praise are completely merited, for two reasons: 1) from everything I've heard about their workflow, neither half of the team has enough mastery of their non-native language to be a good judge of style in that language. I actually think that having native speakers of both source and target languages working together is an intriguing idea, but Pevear apparently hasn't even rudimentary knowledge of Russian. 2) They've translated so much, and I simply don't find it plausible that every single translation of theirs is the definitive translation of that work when they cover such a wide range of authors and styles. Gogol presents very different challenges for a translator than, say, Tolstoy, and inevitably every translator is going to find that they have more affinity to certain authors than others.

My advice? Pick translations on a book-by-book basis rather than having a "go-to" translator. Sometimes there is one translation of a particular work that most people agree is especially good. Sometimes there isn't, and in such cases I have often found it helpful to read samples of various translations to get a sense of whether one works better for me than another.

3languagehat
Editado: Jun 22, 2017, 6:41pm

I can't stand P&V, and I highly recommend that article spiphany linked to -- Gary Saul Morson is one of my very favorite writers on Russian lit (and lit in general; his Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time is superb). I myself have clobbered them at my blog more than once, e.g.:
http://languagehat.com/more-translation-wars/
http://languagehat.com/janet-malcolm-vs-pv/

And I strongly second spiphany's advice to pick translations on a book-by-book basis. Compare as many as you can find and pick the one that most appeals to you.

4spiphany
Jun 23, 2017, 3:49am

>3 languagehat: I thought you might have something to say about P&V ;) (I follow your blog, although unlike many of your readers, I am in general only a very sporadic internet commentator.)

Thanks for the recommendation of Morson's "Narrative and Freedom" -- that sounds right up my alley! In my former life as a literary scholar in training these were the sort of narratological questions that most interested me.

5bjbookman
Jun 23, 2017, 1:44pm

I also have a problem with some of P&V translations. Thought their Crime and Punishment was atrocious. Their War and Peace was even worst. I had to go back to the Maude translation to finish reading it. I do not want the translators to 'modernize'. It bothers me to find a modern word in a sentence that I know didn't come from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky's pen.
To be fair, I found their translation of The Three Musketeers very readable.

6vaniamk13
Editado: Jun 23, 2017, 10:17pm

I have no interest in defending P&V translations, only having read their Anna Karenina and not being able to read in Russian.... but for the sake of argument... if one doesn't want "modernized" translations of 19th C. works, what exactly does one want an "updated" translation to be, an attempt at using Victorian era English in place of the Russian? Must Dostoevsky "feel" like Dickens and Tolstoy like Henry James? I agree that linguistic anachronisms ought be kept to an essential minimum, but aren't the point of updated translations simply to allow greater readability for general non-academic types (or often to de-bowdlerize works)?

Translations can never attain absolute "artistic" correctness, they are simply interpretations of one writer by another/others. Which translations are "best" will depend on a reader's unique sensibilities, preferences, and tastes. Only an expert bilingual reader/critic/academic can assess whether or not (in their opinion) a translation is approximately faithful to the original author's style, technique, and intent, and then, whether or not a work's stylistic merits and flaws are mostly attributable to the author or to the translator.

7languagehat
Jun 24, 2017, 10:05am

I agree that linguistic anachronisms ought be kept to an essential minimum, but aren't the point of updated translations simply to allow greater readability for general non-academic types (or often to de-bowdlerize works)?

Yes, of course, and people should feel free to choose whichever translation works for them; every translation is bound to have a few errors, but they're unlikely to affect the reading experience much. The problem with P&V, setting aside technical issues, is that they present themselves as far superior to everyone else and their relentless publicity machine reinforces that self-presentation (which extends to their actually going into blog comment threads and arguing with people who criticize them), so that, as the original poster said, "I feel so obliged to read their work." I personally find that revolting and would refuse to read them even if I didn't have other problems with their work. Furthermore, not only are they trying to monopolize the field, they are not using their domination to bring hitherto untranslated works to the attention of the English-speaking reader, they are retranslating every famous work of Russian lit, already available in scads of versions. Bah, I say, bah.

8bjbookman
Editado: Jun 24, 2017, 1:58pm

vaniamk13, you are right in saying that modern translations opens the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin to the modern readers. I am not an expert, just a reader who discovered Russian and Victorian literature at an early age. So my opinions are just that, my opinion. If there is a new translation that gets published, I will read that edition.

9JimElkins
Jun 26, 2017, 1:46pm

Just to say thanks for sending me to Garry Morson's essay. It's spectacular!

10kaggsy
Jul 4, 2017, 2:14pm

I wouldn't read a P/V for all the reasons languagehat gives and because they nearly killed The Master and Margarita for me. The fact that I have heard strong criticism of them by people fluent in both Russian and English makes me wary and I hate the hype plus I think people like Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk and Bryan Karetnyk are more worthy of praise for bringing us newly translated writers than (as languagehat says) just rehashing previously translated works.

11alans
Ago 31, 2017, 12:52pm

Can someone recommend their favourite Anna Karenina? I found the Pevear translation incomprehensible and I don't know if it was me or the book.

12sparemethecensor
Ago 31, 2017, 6:11pm

>11 alans: I've heard really good things about the relatively new translation by Marian Schwartz.

13Guanhumara
Ago 31, 2017, 10:05pm

The problem with P&V that I have found is that they tend to translate idiomatic phrases literally, so that - unless you happen to know the Russian idiom - what sounds dramatic and hyperbolic (and presumably gives the requisite sense of exotic foreignness) may merely be quite a conventional phrase.

I have not read a translation of any of the classics by Marian Schwartz, but she is one of my 'go to' translators for contemporary works. I have been very impressed with her ability to find American idioms to represent the Russian ones.

For classic Russian authors, I tend to look for translations by David McDuff or Andrew Bromfield. I was particularly impressed with how McDuff handled the shifts in register, compared to the Garnett version.

Does anyone else here have opinions on these translators?

14languagehat
Set 1, 2017, 9:05am

I strongly second the praise for Marian Schwartz; I'd read pretty much anything she translated. I quote a sample of her work here:

http://languagehat.com/the-bookshelf-thirst/

15Guanhumara
Set 1, 2017, 11:10am

>14 languagehat:
Nice choice of exemplar passage there. Although the obvious translation for портвейн for a British translator would probably be Bucky!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckfast_Tonic_Wine

Most of the criticism I have seen of Marian Schwartz has been by British readers, for whom the American idioms are as unfamiliar as the Russian originals. But that is unavoidable; to translate Kostya into a neutral standard English register would be awful.

David McDuff uses British colloquialisms - I loved his version of the narrative from the two vagabonds in The House of the Dead - do these cause problems for American readers?

16Guanhumara
Nov 24, 2017, 2:25pm

Having been unflattering about P&V earlier, I feel that I should admit that I am finding their version of The Master and Margarita excellent. Literalness (plus explanatory notes) does seem to be the best way to handle Bulgakov's double and triple entendres. Usually when Bulgakov uses a Russian word with 2 or more possible senses, it is impossible to select which meaning he intends because the ambivalence is deliberate - he intends all of them.

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