Literary Translation: How To Get Rich and Famous A tale of two translators

Greater than 7 minutes, my friend!

While reading about the despicable translation practices of Constance Garnett, I confess to having a few ‘uh-oh’ moments, as in, “Uh-oh, I do that all the time!” Am I a terrible translator too? Would Hemingway love me as well?

Let me explain. This morning’s Google surfing turned up a New Yorker article written by David Remnick in 2005, titled “The Translation Wars.”

It starts off seemingly as a bio piece about Constance Garnett (1861-1946), a Victorian-era British translator who brought the great Russian classics into English. Always a frail and sickly woman (who rivaled James Joyce and Aldous Huxley for poor eyesight), Garnett studied Russian with her husband’s friend, Felix Volkhovsky (Russian socialist revolutionary exile) in 1891 while she was ‘in the confinement’ of her first pregnancy. She went on to translate into English the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and more. The ‘and more’ includes winning the admiration of Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield… Constance Garnett’s were the go-to translations for the literati of the early 20th century Lost Generation.

Constance Garnett

Constance Garnett

Here is Katherine Mansfield’s 1921 letter to Garnett:

“Dear Madam,

As I laid down my copy of War & Peace tonight I felt I could no longer refrain from thanking you for the whole other world that you have revealed to us through these marvelous translations from the Russian. Your beautiful industry ends, Madam, in making us almost ungrateful. We are almost inclined to take for granted the fact that the new book is translated by Mrs Constance Garnett. Yet my generation (I am 32) and the younger generation owe you more than we ourselves are able to realize. These books have changed our lives, no less. What would it be like to be without them!”

The New Yorker article says:

A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling 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. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”

Hemingway recalls telling a friend, a young poet named Evan Shipman, that he could never get through War and Peace—not “until I got the Constance Garnett translation.”

And yet…

I say unto thee, a translator goeth unloved by her source language readers.

In Remnick’s article Vladimir Nabokov just about spit nails whenever he looked at her work:


Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

“The typescripts of Nabokov’s lectures, which he delivered while teaching undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell, are full of anti-Garnett vitriol; his margins are a congeries of pencilled exclamations and crabby demurrals on where she had ‘messed up.’ For example, where a passage in the Garnett of  ‘Anna’ reads, ‘Holding his head bent down before him,’ Nabokov triumphantly notes, ‘Mark that Mrs. Garnett has decapitated the man.’”

And Remnick quotes the poet Joseph Brodsky as saying: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

Enter the New Wave of a new age of translators: Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian emigré). The married dynamic duo decided that the English translations (several, including Constance Garnett’s) of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov could be vastly improved.

Karamazov Brothers by Spoony Bards

The Brothers Karamazov

According to the New Yorker: “Larissa wrote out a kind of hyperaccurate trot of the original, complete with interstitial notes about Dostoyevsky’s diction, syntax, and references. Then, Richard, who has never mastered conversational Russian, wrote a smoother, more Englished text, constantly consulting Larissa about the original and the possibilities that it did and did not allow. They went back and forth like this several times, including a final session in which Richard read his English version aloud while Larissa followed along in the Russian. Their hope was to be true to Dostoyevsky, right down to his famous penchant for repetition, seeming sloppiness, and melodrama.”

All well and good. But if you translate it, will publishers go for it?

Random House: “No, thanks. Garnett lives forever. Why do we need a new one?”

Oxford University Press: Turned them down after one of their university dons marked up the manuscript with ‘corrections.’

Another six publishing houses later… “There was only one bite: Jack Shoemaker, from North Point Press, a small house in San Francisco (now defunct), called, offering an advance of a thousand dollars—roughly a dollar per page. They estimated that the translation would take five to six years—more than twice as long as it took Dostoyevsky to write the novel. Although translators of long-dead authors do not have to share royalties, the arithmetic was unpleasant. Pevear called back and shyly asked if, perhaps, North Point could come up with a bit more money. Shoemaker offered six thousand. “P/V,” as they would come to be known in the academic journals, went to work on The Brothers Karamazov.

This is what P and V had to say about it:

“We thought, if we can do this together, we should start with the book that meant the most to us and had suffered the most from previous translators,” Pevear said. “Dostoyevsky’s marvellous humor had been lost. The Divine Comedy is divine, a religious work, but it’s also funny; there are comic moments. The same with Dostoyevsky, and the comedy comes when you least expect it. Ilyusha is dying. His shoes are outside the room. His father is banging his head against the door. A prestigious German doctor comes from Moscow to treat the boy. The doctor comes out of the room after seeing him and the father asks him if there is any hope. He says, ‘Be prepared for anything.’ Then, ‘lowering his eyes, he himself prepared to step across the threshold to the carriage.’ Dickens would never have joked at such a moment. He would have jerked all the tears he could have from us.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Larissa said. “Translators too often look for the so-called Russian sensibility, and, lo and behold, they find it: the darkness, the obsessiveness, the mystic genius. All of that is there, of course. But there is also a lightness, a joyful Christian lightness, too. There are deaths, suicide, the death of a child, Ivan goes mad, Mitya goes to prison—and yet the book ends with joy.”

Volokhonsky and Pevear

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

After the success of Karamazov, they continued translating Russian works, and in 1998 finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Their publisher, Penguin in the U.K., was less than enthusiastic and the couple found themselves in copy-editor wars, where an editor who was sensitive to the double-entendre of such words as ‘balls’ and ‘come’ thought it might be a good idea to make substitutions…

Pevear told Remnick: “And then they started blue-pencilling in alternate translations from Rosemary Edmonds, dozens and dozens of times. I was out of my mind with rage. There were more than a hundred cases of that. It took me two weeks, working twelve-hour days, to restore everything.”

Okay, Karenina came out in 2000 in the U.K. and didn’t sell. But Caroline White of the New York branch of Penguin ordered a print run of 32,000. Obviously Mrs. White was of the faith that ‘if we print them they will buy them.’

And you’ll never believe what happened next…

“Then, one day in the spring of 2004, White called Pevear in Paris. She had big news. Oprah Winfrey was selecting ‘Anna Karenina’ for her book club. Neither Pevear nor Volokhonsky quite understood the commercial implications. In fact, they had no idea who Oprah Winfrey was. ‘I thought she was a country singer,’ Richard said.

White informed them that Viking-Penguin would print an additional eight hundred thousand copies of their translation in a single month. Soon the buses, subways, and coffee shops of America were filled with people reading Tolstoy.

I asked Richard and Larissa what ‘the Oprah moment’ meant for them.

‘It means I have an accountant,’ Richard said.”

*              *              *

To sum up, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have tried to restore, to recapture, some of the original Russian rhythm and nuance. They were not trying to make it simple, they were making it more ‘real.’

For example, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace there are phrases and even a speech that appeared in French in the Russian original. Most English translators have brought it all into English. But Volokhonsky had other ideas.

“Tolstoy used French for a reason, or for several reasons: to give the tone of the period; to play on the ironies of a French-speaking Russian aristocracy suddenly finding itself thrown into war with France; to suggest a certain frivolity and uprootedness in characters like Prince Vassily and the witty Bilibin. . . . Interestingly, when Napoleon banters with his troops, he does so in French, but when he talks seriously, Tolstoy lends him Russian.”

Double entendres about going to balls and recently coming aside, keeping things real led the duo to make conservative choices about translating curses and obscenities. They chose to be circumspect because they felt it was a more accurate rendering of the author’s Russian writing. Anthony Briggs’ translation of War and Peace has General Kutuzov using the f-word. P and V wrote the following to Remnick:

“We’ll do as Tolstoy did. He would never have written out “fucking bastards,” and in any case Briggs has not been very inventive. None of us can figure out what epithet Tolstoy had in mind for Kutuzov, but it seems to have involved the mistreatment of mothers.”

To return to Constance Garnett, here is my ‘uh-oh’ moment: David Remnick writes, “when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on.”

Yes. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Anyways… back to the sins of Constance Garnett. It is an eternal problem faced by — not specifically translators — but any communicator bringing complex knowledge to simpler folk. You could be Lao Tzu trying to communicate Taoism. You could be a Christian missionary trying to bring religion to a heathen tribe. You could be Gabriele Veneziano trying to explain string theory to six-year olds. Or you could be Constance Garnett trying to make the rich tapestry of Russian writing accessible to English readers. How do you do it? On which side do you err? Too much complexity or too little?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the accused touched the hearts and souls of many with her translations. If her translations were simplistic or awkward, they did not offend or besmirch the names of her sources. Quite the contrary.

Marc Chagall Le Quai aux Fleurs detail



E.S. Dempsey

About E.S. Dempsey

Literary and short business/science/legal translations from most European languages, also Japanese. Short book translations via Babelcube. Translations for (pro bono). Target=English

4 thoughts on “Literary Translation: How To Get Rich and Famous A tale of two translators

  1. Thanks, I thought it was very interesting as well as funny as well as identifying some very recognizable moments for translators — I have read on one of the LinkedIn or ProZ forums about translators weeping and wailing and taking umbrage over their carefully crafted translations being ‘edited’ by copy editors who ruined the translation.

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  2. What a marvelous story — and marvelously well told! You are such a talented writer, I’m sure it serves you well in your translating.

    I say we lobby Oprah to include more translated works in her book club!

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