Done with Tolstoy
"In Crime and Punishment, there is a sentence that goes like this: ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it.’” Richard Pevear lets the words hang in the air, along with a note of faint bafflement. From his Paris apartment, one half of the world’s only celebrity translation team is recollecting some of the knotty, cross-lingual jumbles that he has spent his working life trying to untangle.
“I came running to Larissa”—Larissa Volokhonsky, Pevear’s wife of thirty years and collaborator on twenty-one works of Russian-to-English translation—“and said, ‘Can that be? Is that what he said?’ And she checked and said yes. ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it.’” Reassured, if still skeptical, he jotted it down and moved on to Dostoyevsky’s next syntax-warping creation.
The inconspicuous passage would resurface before long, though. The translation was published and, Richard recalls, “one very eminent reviewer . . said, ‘They occasionally lapse into banalities, for instance.’ And he quotes this same sentence.” First lodged years ago, the complaint is a rare blemish on a generally worshipful public reception, perhaps tempting the duo to tidy up such repetitive, infelicitous wording. Instead, two decades and many printings later, Richard shrugs off the critic’s jibe and sticks to his guns. “But it’s unmistakable in Russian!”
“It’s very simple,” adds Larissa in her heavy Slavic accent, “so simple, I later found the same sentence in Chekhov.”
But there is nothing simple about the ongoing Pevear-Volokhonsky partnership (known widely in literary circles as PV). Their output, spilling over tens of thousands of pages and encompassing the hundred-fifty-year golden age of Russian literature, rivals even their most prolific forerunners in both quality and quantity. It is easier to list the canonical prose authors they have neglected (only Turgenev and Nabokov, though Larissa has lobbied her husband to turn their attentions to the former) than all of those they have translated. From the Patriotic War against Napoléon to the era of nineteenth-century radicalism and reform, and then on to the October Revolution, the Communist terror, and the postwar period, the Pevear-Volokhonsky project now surveys a cultural expanse as broad as the Siberian frontier.
Even their unconventional division of labor sets them apart from their contemporaries. Occupying separate rooms, husband and wife execute a two-step process that begins with Larissa’s word-for-word English rendition from the original. Richard, who speaks only basic Russian, then shapes Larissa’s special proof into literary English while rejecting anachronistic vocabulary and constructions. After hundreds of chapters, revisions, and personal consultations, the method has resulted in two prestigious PEN Translation Prizes and—as a mark of their uncommon public acceptance—a much-coveted selection to Oprah Winfrey’s juggernaut book club.
Now they have passed another important milestone. In putting their stamp on Lev Tolstoy’s final novel, Hadji Murat, they have at last reached the end of the great author's major writings. But if translating the life’s work of Russian fiction’s foremost master were cause for a certain amount of triumphalism, you wouldn’t know it from talking to P and V.
Asked if he believes they have delivered dispositive English versions of the great works of Russian literature, Richard responds flatly, “I don’t believe in definitive translations.” Larissa similarly demurs: “The thing is that, we cannot set ourselves such a goal. We set ourselves a goal to make a faithful translation that conveys the style, the voice, the spirit of the original. . . . Some translations live for a very long time—but that does not mean that there should not be new translations. In fact, if there are no new translations, that means something’s wrong. The work is dead.”
The Russian classics were in little danger of falling into neglect before the arrival of their most recent custodians. Aylmer and Louise Maude, another husband-wife team, active at the turn of the century, were friends and admirers of Tolstoy; their translations of his early works won the author’s personal approval. Ann Dunnigan, a stage actress whose love of Chekhov led her to render her own editions of his finest plays, inspired the non-Russian-speaking Tennessee Williams to pen a loose adaptation of The Seagull. British and American linguists have generated an array of creditable offerings, and, ever since the books fell into the public domain decades ago, competing publishers have sought out their own translations.
No figure, however, casts a larger shadow across Russian-to-English translations than Constance Garnett, who was the most important Russian interpreter of her generation and is still widely read today. Her contributions range from the colossal tomes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Chekhov’s vast collection of short stories and the memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Garnett, a gifted student of classics at Cambridge, began studying Russian while enduring a difficult pregnancy in the 1890s. She became acquainted with the exile Sergei Kravchinsky, who fled the Russian Empire, after assassinating the head of the tsar’s secret police, and settled in London. With Kravchinsky’s early assistance and the encouragement of her husband, the editor and publisher Edward Garnett, Constance Garnett began a career that would result in some seventy volumes and introduce English speakers to the flower of nineteenth-century Russian letters. Garnett counted among her admirers Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence. Joseph Conrad, in a 1902 letter to Edward, lavished special praise on her version of Anna Karenina. “Of the thing itself I think but little,” he wrote, “so that her merit shines with the greater lustre.”