The flyleaf of this book sports a quote (“One finally gets the musical whole of Dostoevsky’s original”) from an enthusiastic notice in the New York Times Book Review of a new translation of The Brothers Karamazov, which the Pevear-Volokh onsky tandem unleashed upon the English-speaking world a quarter of a century ago.  As the author of that enthusiastic review, and hence a person in some small part responsible for the tandem’s continued success, I may be entitled to a private reminiscence.

Some months back, as I was scrolling idly through mentions, for the most part hostile, of my own person on Google, I came across the foreword to a book written by a certain Professor Morris of the University of Hong Kong.  The professor recalled the impression made on him in his youth by Hemingway, who, in his own turn, had been influenced by Dostoyevsky:

He read many of his important books, including The Brothers Karamazov, as translated into English by Constance Garnett (1861-1946).  She was the first English translator to render Dostoyevsky into English, and her translations were the only ones available to Hemingway.  The publication of Dostoyevsky in English caused a sensation—they were something “new,” something that “surprised the world.”  I was especially taken by this statement in A Moveable Feast: “In Dostoyevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them. . . . ”  That idea in that sentence changed my life—even as I read it.  Ideas and writing so great they changed you even as you read them!

The italics are the professor’s, but even without them it would have been clear to me by now that this is somebody who takes his reading seriously.  A melancholy sigh, after scrolling a few paragraphs down, did not quite cover up the embarrassment I was beginning to feel:

I had my students read Garnett and Hemingway, and together we read that sentence in A Moveable Feast.  Then one day late in 1990, I read a review of a new translation of Dostoyevsky’s book.  The book review, written by Andrei Navrozov, praised the new translation and was highly critical of Constance Garnett and her translations of Dostoyevsky—the translations Hemingway had read and said they “changed you as you read them.”  The new translators were Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Garnett’s translations, Navrozov said, were lies, emendations, rewritings, camouflage—all without the music of the original.  This new information devastated me: Hemingway had based his great statement—the one that changed my life—on a falsehood.  Therefore, what I had believed and taught my students was based on a falsehood, or a series of falsehoods—both Garnett’s and Hemingway’s—Garnett’s intentional, Hemingway’s unknowing because he did not read Russian and had to rely on a translation.  A whole chain of communication, thought, and analysis in my life and profession over a period of several decades was suddenly without a basis in truth.

“Could I still cling to the idea even if the source were false?” asked the bewildered professor.  “Can I still teach Hemingway?”

What does this story say about the adjudication of sources?  I don’t read Russian, so if I couldn’t trust Hemingway or Garnett, can I trust Navrozov, or Pevear and Volokhonsky?  Can I really trust Dostoyevsky?  At the very least, the experience made me a sceptic, maybe a cynic.  I learned to question everything—translators, authorities, sources—everything.

The italics, this time, are mine.  The professor is right on the money.  Translation is the literary equivalent of taxation without representation, and once in a while somebody’s sure to rebel against the damnable injustice of it.

But then again, if the professor is even a little of the cynic he claims to have become, he ought to reflect that the injustice is not confined to translation, but rather lies quite near the very essence of literature, perhaps of all art, insofar as it aims to represent reality.  Art translates God’s creation into its languages—far more innumerable than those of the cannibal tribes and oftentimes less comprehensible than computer code—and the Hebrew or Mohammedan ban on visual representation is but one known way to redress the apparent injustice, bordering on sacrilege, of its operational premise.

Chekhov conceived and described his Three Sisters as a farce, yet both in his native Russia and in the West, where it has practically shaped modern theater, this play is read and performed as a tragedy.  Who is right—the author, the translators, the directors, the critics, the readers?  Conversely, in the 1920’s a Russian writer suggested playing Shakespeare’s King Lear as a farce, with Lear as a kind of bawdy bumbler and a foil for the intellectual Fool.  Who is right?  In short, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the professor’s newfound cynicism.

Matters get even more serious, however.  Since 1990, the year of their debut with The Brothers Karamazov, the Pevear-Volokhonsky tandem has brought about nothing less than a revolution in the way the Anglophone world is reading the Russian classics—or would be reading them, anyway, if its denizens still read books like they did when Constance Garnett reigned supreme.  Dostoyevsky has been given the tandem treatment in both the big novels—The Adolescent, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons—and a number of shorter works, notably The Double, The Gambler, Notes From the Underground, and now Notes From a Dead House.  Old greybeard Tolstoy has likewise been seen to—with Anna Karenina and War and Peace, no less.

They have done Gogol with Dead Souls, The Inspector, and Collected Tales, Chekhov with a volume of his short stories and another of the novellas, and Leskov with The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories.  And then nonchalantly, as though along the way, they have got their hands into the cookie jar of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and knocked down 700-odd pages of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (“Of the thing itself I think but little,” as Conrad said of Garnett’s Anna Karenina, “so that her merit shines with greater lustre”) as a digestive aperitif.  All have been published by Random House and its subsidiaries Knopf, Vintage, and Penguin.  The Brothers Karamazov, in a beautifully designed Everyman’s Library edition, is now in its 18th printing.

The Pevear-Volokhonsky revolution is actually a restoration.  It has not been about dethroning Constance Garnett—it is with her reign over this realm that any translator must reckon—so much as about restoring 20th-century modernity to Russia’s 19th century.  Perhaps modernity is a slightly misleading term for the vitality, rawness, and solecism that people like Hemingway could only have relied on their intuitions to discern when Garnett was their Virgil—and their Dostoyevsky.  But whatever term we choose, it is this crucial “unliterary” quality of Russian writing that has been smothered under the millions of tons of paper, ethically recycled or otherwise, which British and American translators set themselves to filling with schoolbook prose à la russe in the decades that followed Garnett’s retirement in the early 1930’s.

Hemingway was not Garnett’s only admirer.  Similar encomia have been left behind by innumerable literary grandees, from D.H. Lawrence to Joseph Conrad, and this is neither surprising nor disturbing.  Garnett belonged to the Edwardian era and was attuned to whatever temporal extension of it was to be found in the sitting rooms of St. Petersburg and Moscow in the silver age cut short by World War I.  She traveled to Russia, took tea with Tolstoy, and in the end managed to capture in her bewitchingly precise English—exquisitely refined and at the same time curiously robust—the country-house, upstairs-downstairs, nest-of-the-gentry shooting-and-fishing life that her native country, and much of Europe, was sharing with the empire of the czars.

But Tolstoy was a count, born to an estate with some thousand serfs on his ancestral land—an aristocratic planter’s family in the antebellum South is the nearest American equivalent—a man, in short, for whom his real home is the countryside.  So it was for a well-born Turgenev and even to some large extent for Chekhov, a commoner.  A writer like Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, was a raznochinets, a cultural newcomer and a social mongrel, an urbanized provincial, an embittered “sceptic and moqueur,” aboriginal to the tradition that would one day beget Joyce and Camus.  In the country house that was Garnett’s Russia, he was a virtual stranger—too proletarian to know an angler’s lure from an emerald parure, too neurotic to think twice before marrying, too cynical to like the world as it was and too intelligent to believe it could be changed for the better.

If, in Garnett, the West had produced an English translator equal to the task of rendering the Russian voices consonant with the epoch, when it came to the newer, discordant and disturbing voices—feverish and inarticulate, often abusive or hysterical, mixed with the wails of factory sirens and the crackle of revolvers fired at point-blank range—Garnett faltered.  Dostoyevsky, after all, was a writer judged by no less a connoisseur of cosmic chaos than Friedrich Nietzsche to have “the voice of blood.”  Yet his “convulsions” and “nervous trembling,” as a Russian critic put it, become in Garnett “a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mown in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.”  That Garnett herself was not entirely unaware of this failure—ultimately, a failure of nerve—is evident from the testimony of her son, who wrote,

About Dostoyevsky’s style, however, she said that one of her greatest difficulties in translating him was to make the English as vague, imprecise in meaning and rambling as the original.  She was always having to stop herself from giving way to the temptation of putting what he was trying to say more clearly than he had succeeded in doing.

Great surges in literacy, education, and publishing notwithstanding, despite millions of university diplomas and academic scholars in Manhattan outnumbering ditzy blondes in Hollywood, no new talent came along to take up the slack.  The new cottage industry of “new translations of Russian literature,” like many other branches of academic endeavor, was essentially a low sham, a provincial scene—with imposters, swindlers, fantasists, and clowns straight out of Gogol’s The Inspector—over which Garnett’s stylistic epigones like David Magarshak towered as exemplars of probity.  And yet the inspector tarried.

Reading the Pevear-Volokhonsky Brothers in publisher’s proof all those years ago was, for me, a moment of truth—like the implied denouement in the Gogol play when the real inspector finally arrives to expose the fraud and to punish the wrongdoers.  Since then, millions of copies of the tandem’s translations have been bought; their Anna Karenina alone, thanks to a cameo appearance on Oprah, sold 800,000; and yet their approach to translation is no more accepted in scholarly circles in 2015 than it was in 1990.

“The Pevearsion of Russian Literature” is how one Stakhanovite of academe has entitled a recent essay in Commentary.  “Disastrously popular new translations of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others,” runs the subtitle, “threaten to dishearten and distance new generations of readers from transformative works of greatness.”  (The italics, to the mortification of anyone who has ever attempted an English sentence, are mine.)  “They are innovative only in a very reactionary way,” opines in the British Literary Review another pundit, adding, “how these bunglers won a PEN translation prize remains a mystery.”  THE PEVEAR-VOLOKH ONSKY HYPE MACHINE, screams a literary blogger’s headline, AND HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN STOPPED OR AT LEAST SLOWED DOWN.  “It’s unclear what Pevear studied in college and graduate school,” sniffs a professor of linguistics.  “The American University in Paris site laconically states that he graduated from Allegheny College and received a Master’s degree from the University of Virginia.”

I regret having just used the word approach to describe what Pevear and Volokhonsky actually do when they translate.  It is a little like using it to describe the unaccountable behavior of a pharmacist who sells you the medicine your doctor has prescribed, or the bizarre conduct of a lawyer who does not use his office to transfer your life savings into his private account.  What Pevear and Volokhonsky actually do is what a translator must do, which is to bite the proverbial bullet.  The bullet, in this instance, being a courageous, stubborn, almost autistic conviction that it is the solecisms and malapropisms of the original—not the European commonplaces, as easily conjured by the translator as they are easy on the reader’s eye—that add up to the author’s substance, to say nothing of his literary style.

It has been suggested that Pevear and Volokhonsky find encouragement in “The Misery and Splendor of Translation,” a 1937 essay by José Ortega y Gasset, which somehow makes me think of Robinson Crusoe inspecting the footprint.  “Readers from any country will not be satisfied with a translation written in the style of their own language,” writes the sagacious Spaniard.  “They want the reverse: language stretched to the limits of comprehension, through which the translated author’s manner of speech can be seen.”  To write—that is, to write what is worth reading—the philosopher argues,

is to make continual incursions into grammar, into established usage, and into accepted linguistic norms.  It is an act of permanent rebellion against the social environs, a subversion.  To write well is to employ a certain radical courage.  Fine, but the translator is usually a shy character.  Because of his humility, he has chosen an insignificant occupation.  He finds himself facing an enormous controlling apparatus, composed of grammar and common usage.  What will he do with the rebellious text?  Isn’t it too much to ask that he also be rebellious, particularly since the text is someone else’s?  Yet he will be ruled by cowardice, so instead of resisting grammatical restraints he will do just the opposite: he will place the translated author in the prison of normal expression.  That is, he will betray him.

As my parable of the good pharmacist implies, it takes guts to be an honest man.  Cowards make bad writers, worse translators, and impossible critics.  Ortega y Gasset’s insinuations account for much, I submit, of what makes the Pevear-Volokhonsky revolution the sanguineous spectacle that it has become.

This year, we have the Pevear-Volokonsky Notes From a Dead House.  A corrida involving their version of the title has already begun—why couldn’t they call it Notes From the House of the Dead, like everyone else?—Larissa Volokhonsky having complained to me in a private letter that “it has become controversial.”  I replied by reminding her that my father, Lev Navrozov, whose translation of the novel had been published by Moscow’s Foreign Languages Publishing House back in the 1950’s, entitled the book Notes From a Dead House, just the way she and her partner have.  My father’s reasoning?  If the author wanted the Siberian prison where he had been an inmate to be remembered by posterity as “a house of the dead,” rather than “a dead house,” the syntactic conveniences of the language were at his disposal.

Lev Navrozov, however, was in the enviable position of being the only translator into English in Soviet Russia—and consequently did not have academic politics to plague him while deciding what is honest and what is a sham.  The KGB, thank goodness, took no interest in such matters.


[Notes From a Dead House, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 336 pp., $26.95]