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.”