“Deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation…”


Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

The husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky take their roles as translators with the high seriousness of a calling.  No surprise.

They have made acclaimed translations of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. David Remnick  featured them in a New Yorker article here.  The translating team’s Anna Karenina was reviewed in the same magazine here; James Wood discussed the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace here.

They also have perfected their road act — as they demonstrated last night in Stanford’s History Corner.  He, the bearded, bear-like master of the double-take; she, the chic and understated matron. They promised us an unbuttoned conversation.  “We’ll yell,” said Pevear.  They didn’t.  In fact, their shtick was well-honed and sophisticated.

And a little bit unbuttoned.  They discussed their problems with publishers’ editors.  “They told us our Tolstoy should be reader-friendly,” she said.

“They feed a text into a machine for ‘readability.’  They said it had too many long sentences,” he said.

“That’s right,” Volokhonsky countered.  “Tolstoy has too many long sentences.”  Volokhonsky recalled an eminent editor who “made us miserable for a very long time.  A year.”

“We crushed her,” said Peavear.

“But it took a year,” she qualified. “We mostly have very good editors.  They keep quiet.”

“To sum it up, our loyalty is with the author, not reader,” said Volokhonsky.

On one point I respectfully disagree with Pevear, who defended their choice for free-verse translations of Pasternak’s poems in the forthcoming (October) Doctor Zhivago.  Disagreeing with Alexander Etkind‘s and Joseph Brodsky‘s insistence on repeating rhyme patterns and metrical schemes, Pevear said that he had opted for “song – something that lives poetically.”

“The search for rhyme distorts all the rest,” he said, making too many translations sound like  “third-rate Tennyson.”  To which I can only argue with two words:  Richard Wilbur.  Well, four words:  Anthony Hecht.  Brodsky’s Nativity Poems has a number of gorgeous translations — from Glyn Maxwell, among others.

Any surprises?  I had not expected the silver hair.  I had seen her as a young Russian beauty, him as the glamorous poet-cum-translator.  This is proof, of course, that I cannot add.  Their Brothers Karamazov was published nearly twenty years ago — that alone would prohibit extreme youth.  (Moreover, the New Yorker article had warned me that they were a mature couple in their sixties.)

Here’s another surprise:  I didn’t know, until the Russian team told me, that St. Jerome, who translated the Hebrew into the  Vulgate Bible, is the patron saint of translators. Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) even wrote an invocation to Jerome, begging that the Croatian saint “deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation, and the pernicious suggestions of bilingual dictionaries.”

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5 Responses to ““Deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation…””

  1. Marnie Heyn Says:

    I can dance to it.

  2. Elena Says:

    They identified the mistranslation of the very first sentence of Dr. Zhivago: an invocation of memory, based on the unofficial service made at Tolstoy’s funeral. It was captured on film. Pasternak’s father was very close to Tolstoy and would have known. Then Richard Pevear signed my copy of his translation of War and Peace. “Is this the copy with the typo?” he asked, “Ah, yes, let me correct it.” The first line of War and Peace is in French, which he meant to leave alone, but no one noticed the line had an “and” instead of “et.” My copy was from the first printing without the correction. Pevear remedied the error.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Marnie, Dance to what? Laziness, discouragement, and mistranslation??? Don’t we all!

    Elena, I think the “Eternal Memory” theme is fascinating — and the fact that that passage isn’t normally the part of the liturgy you’d be reading as you walked with the coffin to the grave. As you recall, Volokhonsky said it was the central motif of the book. Look forward to their new translation this fall.

    The mistranslation may, in the end, call the West’s attention to Pasternak’s meaning in a way that might otherwise be overlooked, don’t you think?

  4. Elena Says:

    If I remember right, the mistranslation was in the French version. Manya Harari got “Eternal Memory” in the English version right. But the connection with Tolstoy’s funeral just went over our heads. And yes, it is time to rediscover Zhivago. When it came out in 1958, many Americans just bought it out of solidarity with a persecuted poet in the Soviet Union. I’m sure that’s why my mother bought it. I don’t think she actually read it. I did..at ten years old, I don’t think I got a lot out of the text, but I so loved the accessible poems at the end. Now with the Cold War baggage out of the way, it is time for a serious look not just at the figure of Zhivago but also Boris and Leonid Pasternak, Tolstoy’s loyal friend. They consciously built a bridge from the great achievements of 19th century Russia into the Soviet era…- Elena
    NB don’t use the chronology in the Everyman’s Library edition. I found 6 errors, and I’m no expert.

  5. Darien Says:

    Your web site is superb I will have to read it all, thank you for the diversion from my studies!