Saturday, March 30, 2019

Part One: Notes from the Dead House by Dostoyevsky (Translation Wars)

 I opted to read Dostoyevsky's  Notes from the House of the Dead, as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge (2019 edition), hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate (see sidebar).
When I first built my list in late December 2018, I thought I would read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot for the "Classic in Translation" category.

But when I picked up The Idiot and started browsing the chronology of D.'s life in the introductory pages, I noticed that he had been imprisoned in Siberia for his political (anti-tsarist) activity and associations. I was then consumed with an interest to read the semi-autobiographical novel he wrote about his experiences in prison. I also was curious to investigate how Siberian prisons of the mid-19th century were like or unlike the 20th-century gulags?
As a result of this mental meandering, The Idiot went back on the shelf (til next year?) and I had another huge decision to make: Which translation of Notes from the House of the Dead would I read?

**This decision proved to be much more complex than I anticipated, for many reasons. For one thing, there has been a tremendous amount of controversy about translations of classic Russian novels since the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky began doing translations for Knopf and many other publishers starting about 15 years ago. 

Who knew? I unwittingly became enmeshed in trying to sort through this controversy, when all I wanted was for some knowledgeable power to proclaim "X has written the best translation of the novel to date."  What I learned, to my dismay, is that no choice of a translation is as simple as that, and especially NOT Russian translations. 

As a result, I chose two of the more recent translations of Dostoyevsky's novel. One was the library copy of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation entitled Notes from the Dead House and the other was the Penguin Classic The House of the Dead, translated by David McDuff. Slightly different titles, but the same book. Richard Pevear is American and he and Volokhonsky reside in the U.S.  David McDuff is English and resides in the UK. . 

To make the decision a bit more complicated, I learned from my research that David McDuff was hired by Penguin Classics to translate a number of Russian novels by Dostoyevsky and other Russian classic authors specifically for an American audience. This information prompted me to ask: Are there no American translators of the Russian language that would do?

My next step was to begin reading both versions, and to look for differences as I turned the pages of the first few chapters.
From the start, I noted I was forming a preference for the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. (I also leaned toward the P&V probably because of Pevear's fascinating introduction to the novel, which surely prejudiced me.) But in the first chapter of the novel, the narrator explains how surprised he was to discover that within the prison, a number of prisoners performed the role of providing (selling)  alcoholic beverages for fellow prisoners.

David McDuff translated the Russian word Dostoyevsky used as "barman." The barman did this, the barman did that, etc. Pevear and Volokhonsky, on the other hand, translated it as "taverner."   I'm sure this seems a minor distinction, but to me, "barman" is awkward. Secondly, if it is a word, it is not in use that I'm aware of, but more important, it has no meaning without a lot of context.  (Of course, "bartender" could not be substituted because a bartender is not usually used to describe a bar owner, or one who is the proprietor of a bar, which these prison  purveyors of alcohol were.  At that point, I wondered, (with dismay), if McDuff used the term "barman" because it sounded more American. I shrugged at this point, read a bit more, and found I preferred the phrasing and the word choices of the P and V. So I tossed the McDuff aside.

I realize that I have grossly oversimplified the complexities of the art of translation. So, if you are interested and can bear it, please read on.
Why did Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky come to receive severe criticism of their translations?
Most critics decry their method, which can be condensed as follows: Volokhonsky translates the Russian text word for word, phrase for phrase, sentence by sentence--she performs a strictly literal translation into English. Pevear, who supposedly does not know the Russian language, (I find this hard to believe, but that is what some critics report. Others say he has a "limited" or "insufficient" knowledge), then takes Volokhonsky's work and reworks it into English prose.
I was taken aback by this assertion about their process. How can Pevear do a viable representation of the original without knowing the intricacies of the Russian language?

The following is an excerpt from critic Janet Malcolm's June 2016 article in The New York Review of Books: Her viewpoint is typical of people who view P and V's "takeover" of the Russian translation market as a "disaster."
"..[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 [Constance] 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."

Another fascinating article that discusses the negative aspects of P and V's translations are discussed in "The Pevearsion of Russian Literature," (follow the link) published in Commentary in 2010, by Gary Saul Morson, a professor of literature at Northwestern University. He compares P and V's process of translation to this: "Imagine someone translating Paradise Lost from English into Russian who had somehow missed that Milton was a Christian." Hyperbole to the extreme, I'd say.

And don't miss the article, "Translation Wars," by David Remnick, published in The New Yorker in 2005. In it, P and V get their chance to explain what they're doing.

I'm not as troubled by the fact of lots of P and V translations. But I am perplexed that because many, many publishers have invested so much in them,  publishers, critics, and readers say that it is highly unlikely that there will be new Russian translations into English for at least a generation to come. This is indeed serious, that one translation team can so dominate the market.

I have barely scratched the surface of this issue. Part Two will be my review of the actual novel.


  1. Wonderful post! I also find the choice of translation fascinating and a little intimidating. I think the way you are doing it, seeing which translation works best for you personally as a reader, is a great way to approach this. I have two second hand copies of War and Peace on my shelf and when (if) I get to reading it, I plan to do the same.

    I wonder why both translators did not choose “bootlegger” as the translation?

    1. Hi Ruthiella,
      I have the "new" War and Peace translated by P and V on my shelf, which I purchased a number of years ago--in 2014, I think, when it was published to much acclaim.
      I read War and Peace when I was 17 and loved it, but definitely, ultimately must read it again.
      Maybe "bootlegger" would have been a good choice, perhaps. How tricky it is! I'm glad translating is not by job!

  2. I also research translators and I also have run into the Pevear and Volokhonsky controversy. I read thier translation of The Brothers Karamazov. I have even done comparative readings like you have. I have run into commentary from serious critics who do like them including Harold Bloom. In the end, I do not really know enough to have a solid opinion either way.

    1. Brian,
      I think that's the boat most readers are in. I'm interested that Harold Bloom liked the P and V translations. Gosh, he probably knows them.

  3. The word 'barman' is used in the UK. I think of bartender as being American, but as it is a translation of an old book then taverner fits the bill better. I hate it when translators modernise the book out of the time it was written in.

    1. Katrina,
      So funny...
      I no sooner wrote this post, than I was sitting before bedtime reading The Stranger Diaries by Elli Griffiths, a UK novelist (such a great book!), and one of the characters referred to the "barman."!! It's funny, because I read several places that David McDuff was chosen to do translations, geared toward American readers for Penguin. Oh, well.
      Translation is a very difficult occupation, if you ask me, and I'm so glad I'm not one of them!

  4. At the risk of sounding opinionated (lol!), I can't bear the translations of Pevear and Volokhonsky. At first I read them with an open mind, quite ready to like them, but I so agree with Malcolm in that they turn the prose into flat, dead, English. Nevertheless I ran my uneducated opinion by a friend who is fluent in Russian and she agreed, so now I avoid them like the plague. One thing I can say for them, they have excellent marketing behind them.

    As for McDuff, I was somewhat 'meh' with his translation but he must be better than P/V for flow and interest. I go with Aylmer/Maude for Tolstoy. I must admit I do love Constance Garnett's translations. She's criticized for putting too much of herself into the translations but I think they have a delightful flow and capture the attention.

    Thanks for such a well-written and thought-provoking post on a topic that doesn't get mentioned often. So interesting!

    1. Cleo,
      I'm so glad you're willing to share your opinions, and I want to encourage you to always express yours, and please do if they're different than mine. I love that, and I wish bloggers were more open with their opinions.
      Actually, I'm still pretty clueless about the Russian to English translations, and I'm not at all happy about the marketing thing that has made P&V just about the only choice out there.
      I've taken note of the Aylmer/Maude translators for when I reread War and Peace. Unfortunately, back in 2010, I purchased the P/V translation of W&P. Now I'm stuck with it! So, all in all, I'm still gathering information about all of this.
      But, Cleo, so long as we're sharing opinions, Janet Malcolm, although I admire her energetic exclamatory hyperbole, I find she can be just too over-the-top with drama sometimes. If I ever meet her in a women's restroom, I just might tell her.
      Twenty years later, I am still trying to recover from her criticism of Sylvia Plath's LIFE, in The Silent Woman, the most provocative work I've ever read by Malcolm. She had a few glaring misstatements of fact in the book. It's fascinating what she managed to do in that book. What a character!