Socks

Vivien Leigh in Julien Duvivier’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, 1948
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Vivien Leigh in Julien Duvivier’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, 1948

In Anna Karenina, the day after the fateful ball, resolved to forget Vronsky and resume her peaceful life with her son and husband (“my life will go on in the old way, all nice and as usual”), Anna settles herself in her compartment in the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and takes out an uncut English novel, probably one by Trollope judging from references to fox hunting and Parliament. Tolstoy, of course, says nothing about a translation—educated Russians knew English as well as French. In contrast, very few educated English speakers have read the Russian classics in the original and, until recent years, they have largely depended on two translations, one by the Englishwoman Constance Garnett and the other by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude, made respectively in 1901 and 1912. The distinguished Slavic scholar and teacher Gary Saul Morson once wrote about the former:

I love Constance Garnett, and wish I had a framed picture of her on my wall, since I have often thought that what I do for a living is teach the Collected Works of Constance Garnett. She has a fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period, which makes her ideal for translating the Russian masterpieces. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others. Every time someone else redoes one of these works, reviewers say that the new version replaces Garnett; and then another version comes out, which, apparently, replaces Garnett again, and so on. She must have done something right.

Morson wrote these words in 1997,1 and would recall them bitterly. Since that time a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English. Surprisingly, these translations, far from being rejected by the critical establishment, have been embraced by it and have all but replaced Garnett, Maude, and other of the older translations. When you go to a bookstore to buy a work by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, or Chekhov, most of what you find is in translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

In an article in the July/August 2010 issue of Commentary entitled “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature,” Morson used the word “tragedy” to express his sense of the disaster that has befallen Russian literature in English translation since the P&V translations began to appear. To Morson “these are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.” Morson fears that “if students and more-general readers choose P&V…[they] are likely to…


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