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 in convulsions of syntax, in a frenzied and somehow piercing diction where malicious irony is mixed with sorrow and despair. But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.5
Joseph Brodsky sniped that the “reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”6
In the English-speaking world there is a common perception, largely due to Garnett’s translations, that Tolstoy’s style is classically simple and elegant. This is only partly true. Tolstoy writes with extraordinary clarity. No other writer can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy. His moral lexicon is penetrating and direct, without the nuances and ambiguities that make Pushkin so complex, and in this respect Tolstoy’s writing is relatively easy to translate (“goes straight into English, without any trouble,” Garnett said7 ). But there are other elements of Tolstoy’s literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities that have been ironed out, not just in Garnett’s translation, but in most of the subsequent translations of this masterpiece.8
Tolstoy’s syntax is unconventional. In War and Peace he frequently ignores the rules of grammar and word order to strengthen an effect or to recreate the looseness of the spoken word—a practice that can make his Russian read quite clumsily at times. He employs a wide variety of linguistic idioms, from the archaic civil service language of the chancelleries (put into the mouths of statesmen such as Arakcheev) and the Latin-German pattern of eighteenth-century literary Russian (spoken by the old Prince Bolkonsky) to the Gallicized and sentimental Russian of the early-nineteenth-century salon and the plain speech of the soldiers, peasants, and workmen.
Above all, Tolstoy is deliberately repetitive. Repetition is perhaps the most distinctive single feature of his style. The literary scholar R.F. Christian has highlighted several types of repetition in War and Peace.9 Tolstoy constantly reiterates a particular mannerism or physical detail to identify his characters and suggest their moral qualities: Princess Marya’s “radiant eyes” or Napoleon’s “small white hands.” In describing the peasant Platon Karataev, Tolstoy uses the word “round” (krugly) no less than five times in one sentence. He repeats words and phrases for rhythm and rhetorical effect, sometimes using the same word six or seven times in as many lines, as in Prince Andrei’s death scene (in the excellent new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):
They all went up to [the body in the coffin] for a last farewell and they all wept.Nikolushka wept from a suffering bewilderment that rent his heart. The countess and Sonya wept from pity for poor Natasha and because he was no more. The old count wept because he felt that soon he, too, would have to take that dreadful step.Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now, but they did not weep from their own personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.
Equally characteristic is Tolstoy’s fondness for building large rhetorical structures through the classical device of repeated triads of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions:
Read more >>>Now thousands of feet and bayonets moved with flying standards and, at the officers’ command, halted, turned, and lined up at intervals, circling around other similar masses of infantry in different uniforms; now there came the sounds of the measured thudding and clanking of the dressed-up cavalry, in blue, red, and green embroidered uniforms, with embroidered musicians in front, on black, chestnut, or gray horses; now, stretching out with the brazen noise of polished, shining cannon shaking on their carriages, and with their smell of linstocks, the artillery crawled between the infantry and cavalry and settled in their appointed places.