In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages,
is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.1
Whether one agrees or not with Nabokov—whose own translation into English of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin sacrificed poetic rhythm, rhyme, and readability for literal word-by-word equivalence—there is no doubt that the practice of translation is strongly influenced by the literary tastes and sensibilities of the receiving culture.
When the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were first translated into English, beginning with Ivan Turgenev’s in the 1870s, they were patted into a Victorian mold of “good writing.” That the first to be translated was Turgenev, the most Europeanized of all the Russian writers, was to have a lasting influence on the reception of Russian literature in the English-reading world: Turgenev’s elegant simplicity of style and gentle social realism fixed the acceptable boundaries of “Russianness,” influencing later translations of the rougher and more Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which really only began to be widely read in English from the 1890s on.
No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946), who translated into graceful late-Victorian prose seventy major Russian works, including seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol, four of Tolstoy, six of Herzen, seventeen of Chekhov, and books by Goncharov and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D.H. Lawrence, recalled her
sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be this high…really almost up to her knees, and all magical.2
She worked so fast that when she came across an awkward passage she would leave it out. She made mistakes. But her stylish prose, which made the Russian writers so accessible, and seemingly so close to the English sensibility, ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard of how these writers ought to sound and feel. For the English-reading public, Russian literature was what Garnett made of it. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1917, “Turgeniev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev.”3
The Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure.”4 Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers’ styles so that “Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev”:
In reading the original [of Notes from Underground], who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky’s style? It is expressed…
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