"In Crime and Punishment, there is a sentence that goes like this: ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it.’” Richard Pevear lets the words hang in the air, along with a note of faint bafflement. From his Paris apartment, one half of the world’s only celebrity translation team is recollecting some of the knotty, cross-lingual jumbles that he has spent his working life trying to untangle.
“I came running to Larissa”—Larissa Volokhonsky, Pevear’s wife of thirty years and collaborator on twenty-one works of Russian-to-English translation—“and said, ‘Can that be? Is that what he said?’ And she checked and said yes. ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it.’” Reassured, if still skeptical, he jotted it down and moved on to Dostoyevsky’s next syntax-warping creation.
The inconspicuous passage would resurface before long, though. The translation was published and, Richard recalls, “one very eminent reviewer . . said, ‘They occasionally lapse into banalities, for instance.’ And he quotes this same sentence.” First lodged years ago, the complaint is a rare blemish on a generally worshipful public reception, perhaps tempting the duo to tidy up such repetitive, infelicitous wording. Instead, two decades and many printings later, Richard shrugs off the critic’s jibe and sticks to his guns. “But it’s unmistakable in Russian!”
“It’s very simple,” adds Larissa in her heavy Slavic accent, “so simple, I later found the same sentence in Chekhov.”
But there is nothing simple about the ongoing Pevear-Volokhonsky partnership (known widely in literary circles as PV). Their output, spilling over tens of thousands of pages and encompassing the hundred-fifty-year golden age of Russian literature, rivals even their most prolific forerunners in both quality and quantity. It is easier to list the canonical prose authors they have neglected (only Turgenev and Nabokov, though Larissa has lobbied her husband to turn their attentions to the former) than all of those they have translated. From the Patriotic War against Napoléon to the era of nineteenth-century radicalism and reform, and then on to the October Revolution, the Communist terror, and the postwar period, the Pevear-Volokhonsky project now surveys a cultural expanse as broad as the Siberian frontier.
Even their unconventional division of labor sets them apart from their contemporaries. Occupying separate rooms, husband and wife execute a two-step process that begins with Larissa’s word-for-word English rendition from the original. Richard, who speaks only basic Russian, then shapes Larissa’s special proof into literary English while rejecting anachronistic vocabulary and constructions. After hundreds of chapters, revisions, and personal consultations, the method has resulted in two prestigious PEN Translation Prizes and—as a mark of their uncommon public acceptance—a much-coveted selection to Oprah Winfrey’s juggernaut book club.
Now they have passed another important milestone. In putting their stamp on Lev Tolstoy’s final novel, Hadji Murat, they have at last reached the end of the great author's major writings. But if translating the life’s work of Russian fiction’s foremost master were cause for a certain amount of triumphalism, you wouldn’t know it from talking to P and V.
Asked if he believes they have delivered dispositive English versions of the great works of Russian literature, Richard responds flatly, “I don’t believe in definitive translations.” Larissa similarly demurs: “The thing is that, we cannot set ourselves such a goal. We set ourselves a goal to make a faithful translation that conveys the style, the voice, the spirit of the original. . . . Some translations live for a very long time—but that does not mean that there should not be new translations. In fact, if there are no new translations, that means something’s wrong. The work is dead.”
The Russian classics were in little danger of falling into neglect before the arrival of their most recent custodians. Aylmer and Louise Maude, another husband-wife team, active at the turn of the century, were friends and admirers of Tolstoy; their translations of his early works won the author’s personal approval. Ann Dunnigan, a stage actress whose love of Chekhov led her to render her own editions of his finest plays, inspired the non-Russian-speaking Tennessee Williams to pen a loose adaptation of The Seagull. British and American linguists have generated an array of creditable offerings, and, ever since the books fell into the public domain decades ago, competing publishers have sought out their own translations.
No figure, however, casts a larger shadow across Russian-to-English translations than Constance Garnett, who was the most important Russian interpreter of her generation and is still widely read today. Her contributions range from the colossal tomes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Chekhov’s vast collection of short stories and the memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Garnett, a gifted student of classics at Cambridge, began studying Russian while enduring a difficult pregnancy in the 1890s. She became acquainted with the exile Sergei Kravchinsky, who fled the Russian Empire, after assassinating the head of the tsar’s secret police, and settled in London. With Kravchinsky’s early assistance and the encouragement of her husband, the editor and publisher Edward Garnett, Constance Garnett began a career that would result in some seventy volumes and introduce English speakers to the flower of nineteenth-century Russian letters. Garnett counted among her admirers Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence. Joseph Conrad, in a 1902 letter to Edward, lavished special praise on her version of Anna Karenina. “Of the thing itself I think but little,” he wrote, “so that her merit shines with the greater lustre.”
Not everyone thought so. “I shall never forgive Conrad this crack,” vowed Vladimir Nabokov, years later, in his seminal Lectures on Russian Literature. “Actually, the Garnett translation is very poor.” An émigré novelist who, like Conrad, wrote as brilliantly in English as in his native tongue, Nabokov loathed Garnett’s treatment of Tolstoy and saw it as his responsibility to defend his country’s literature from its most authoritative and celebrated translator. Having spent years painstakingly wresting Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin into English (many translators—Pevear and Volokhonsky included—regard the task of modifying Pushkin’s poetry as too complex to be attempted), Nabokov felt a kind of curatorial protectiveness of great works in their original languages. The mortal sin of the translator, he wrote, was to sacrifice what he called “absolute accuracy ” for the sake of readability. “A schoolboy’s boner is less of a mockery in regard to the ancient masterpiece than its commercial interpretation or poeticization,” he wrote. “The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.”
Nabokov lambasted Garnett’s linguistic errors, her inability to preserve complex syntactical flourishes, and apparent tendency to simply excise passages that she could not translate. Among Russian writers especially, the impression developed that she had churned out her translations with a meat grinder—timeless prose from writers as diverse as Dostoyevsky and Turgenev went in, but all that came out was the insipid narrative voice of Constance Garnett. Worst of all, she failed to satisfy Nabokov’s standard of slavish correspondence to the original work. “The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language,” he concluded, “has only one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text. The term ‘literal translation’ is tautological since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation or a parody.” In his lights, the labors of Garnett and many like her, measured in years spent sequestered in libraries with foreign usage guides, did not even rise to the level of translation.
The first Pevear-Volokhonsky collaboration was conceived as a way of addressing a commonly cited critique of Garnett and her successors. Husband and wife, each having worked independently as translators, initially joined forces in order to better emphasize the overlooked irony in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “Constance Garnett didn’t understand that he was funny. And every time he was funny—which he very often is, even at the most heartbreaking moment—she removed it,” Richard claims. “The humor transforms the darkness of what he’s describing. And so that all got omitted for a long time. We wanted to restore that; that was our first mission.” After shopping a few sample chapters to publishers, they found a buyer in the now-defunct North Point Press and received financial support from an NEH grant. Richard, then toiling as a cabinetmaker in New York City to support his small family, was able to devote himself fully to the project. "The grant gave us more than a year of free time to work on the translation, finish it, and see it into print. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken us otherwise. It also enabled us to move to France, he remarks. According to Volokhonsky, the funds “really made it possible for us to translate The Brothers Karamazov, and since it was our first translation, it made possible all the rest, in a sense.”
“All the rest”—the fawning reviews, the commercial success, and the unexpected surge of recognition following the Oprah endorsement—is an expansive subject, but not one that either feels the need to elaborate on. Their principal achievement, as they see it, has been the clearing of a middle ground between the finest stylists of one language and the most intrepid readers of another. In their efforts to translate the novel that would eventually become their commercial breakthrough, Anna Karenina, Larissa reports that they set a simple objective: “We want to recreate Tolstoy in English. We want to bring the English reader to Tolstoy, not Tolstoy to the English reader.”
But they would not measure their work by a Nabokovian standard. “I always like to say that literal translations don’t exist,” Larissa continues. “Unless you translate the phonebook.”
Richard, while accentuating the translator’s duty to strive for total fidelity to his literary sources, strikes a philosophical tone on the value of translations that fail to attain it. He cites Edward FitzGerald’s groundbreaking but flawed Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as a “notorious example.” When the brilliant Robert Graves attempted to correct his predecessor’s distortions of the Persian language, the end result was “worthless and dull. And then you go back to FitzGerald and it sings. It sings the wrong song, but it sings. These are some of the ironies of translation.”
Another irony is that after beginning as Dostoyevsky specialists, P and V’s work on Tolstoy has changed their estimation of the other great Russian novelist. Richard says, “I thought I was a Dostoyevskian. Well, we decided to do Anna Karenina and I thought it would be simple. Just Tolstoy, nothing to it. Just straight narrative. I was astonished, when I started working on it, how false that idea was and how difficult it was. But also how tremendously rewarding it was. . . . I began to read the book, I began to see what he does, and to feel his art.”
And art, including the art of translation, is rarely simple.
This article was updated on May 2, 2013.
Kevin Mahnken is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
Richard Pevear received an NEH grant of $36,000 to translate The Brothers Karamazov from the definitive text published in 1976.
New York City is the greatest public works project in the USA. It is a city of tubes, grids, circuits and networks. We are organised by numbered floors and numbered streets and numbered apartments, fed and watered through great pipes and tunnels and bridges, shuttled to and fro in shifts along lines. On Monday night the magnificent machines were revealed to us, as they failed one by one.
American newscasters hyperventilate about everything, and foam at the mouth when the subject is weather systems over the Northeastern United States, so there seemed no special reason to pay them any urgent attention in the days leading up to Sandy. The storm only became real when the governor announced the closure of the subway system onSunday morning. The process takes eight hours. Employees moved train cars, removed tracks that might be damaged by salt water, primed pumps, cleaned drains, evacuated stations and cleared rail yards prone to flooding.
That night, the Metropolitan Transit Authority posted photos of Times Square subway station, empty. Penn Station, empty. Grand Central Station, empty, and a shot of the last train out of town. Through the ventilation grid outside my house, an automated voice recited, like a ghost: ‘There is a Brooklyn-bound… express train… two stations away.’ Then she fell silent.
Alan Weisman, the author of The World Without Us, was recently asked what would happen to New York City if ‘all humans vanished’:
Within two days, without pumping, New York’s subway would impassably flood. Within twenty years, water-soaked steel columns that support the street above the East Side’s 4-5-6 trains would corrode and buckle. As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Plugged sewers, deluged tunnels and streets reverting to rivers will conspire to waterlog foundations and destabilize their huge loads, toppling structures. Gradually the asphalt jungle will give way to a real one.
On Monday, the Staten Island Ferry was suspended, the trains to New Jersey cut off, the airports closed and Amtrak canceled its trains. The power company, Consolidated Edison, closed the steam energy facilities that provide hot water and heat to large swaths of high-rise Manhattan. (I had never heard of the steam energy facilities before.) As the storm approached landfall on Monday afternoon, the government cut off the bridges. The Statue of Liberty’s torch went black. Around 7 p.m., as the southern tip of Manhattan was engulfed in floodwater, ConEd flicked the switch and Lower Manhattan went dark. The darkness crept north. From uptown in Harlem we watched on YouTube the video of a transistor exploding somewhere on the east side, leaving the city dark as far north as 39th Street. City workers evacuated hospitals where back-up generators had failed.
Some beacons remained. We looked at the photo of the carousel with water lapping at its edges in Brooklyn Bridge Park, still somehow floodlit. At the tip of Manhattan the lights at Goldman Sachs headquarters in the waterlogged financial district burned alone through the night, powered by some sort of off-grid generator that was too big to fail.
Water cascaded across the city, although it had barely rained. The power in Harlem never went off, and we watched on our computers as water flooded the tunnels, the edges of Manhattan, the construction site at Ground Zero, the avenues of Alphabet City, where stranded taxis bobbed like rubber ducks. In Frederick Law Olmsted’s city parks the stately trees fell down. The emergency phone system was overwhelmed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charismatic sign language interpreter, Lydia Callis, became a celebrity, and Bloomberg’s custom of closing his press conferences with a summary of the most important points in mangled Spanish seemed suddenly heroic.
The day after the storm, the subways still closed, the lights still on, I read George Oppen’s poem ‘Of Being Numerous’:
We are pressed, pressed on each other, We will be told at once Of anything that happens
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horse-back, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.
Later, Henry will say, 'Your girls flew well today'. The hawk Anne Cromwell bounces on the glove of Rafe Sadler, who rides by the king in easy conversation. They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one.
Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner. All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying; the beating off and the whipping in of hounds, coddling of tired horses, the nursing, by the gentlemen, of contusions, sprains and blisters. And for a few days at least, the sun has shone on Henry. Sometime before noon, clouds scudded in from the west and rain fell in big scented drops; but the sun re-emerged with a scorching heat, and now the sky is so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.
As they dismount, handing their horses to the grooms and waiting on the king, his mind is already moving to paperwork: to dispatches from Whitehall, galloped down by the post routes that are laid wherever the court shifts. At supper with the Seymours, he will defer to any stories his hosts wish to tell: to anything the king may venture, tousled and happy and amiable as he seems tonight. When the king has gone to bed, his working night will begin.
Though the day is over, Henry seems disinclined to go indoors. He stands looking about him, inhaling horse sweat, a broad, brick-red streak of sunburn across his forehead. Early in the day he lost his hat, so by custom all the hunting party were obliged to take off theirs. The king refused all offers of substitutes. As dusk steals over the woods and fields, servants will be out looking for the stir of the black plume against darkening grass, or the glint of his hunter's badge, a gold St Hubert with sapphire eyes.
Already you can feel the autumn. You know there will not be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western counties stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king's hand on his shoulder, Henry's face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water's edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat.
'Sir, how are you not burned?' Rafe Sadler demands. A redhead like the king, he has turned a mottled, freckled pink, and even his eyes look sore. He, Thomas Cromwell, shrugs; he hangs an arm around Rafe's shoulders as they drift indoors. He went through the whole of Italy – the battlefield as well as the shaded arena of the counting house – without losing his London pallor. His ruffian childhood, the days on the river, the days in the fields: they left him as white as God made him. 'Cromwell has the skin of a lily,' the king pronounces. 'The only particular in which he resembles that or any other blossom.' Teasing him, they amble towards supper.
The king had left Whitehall the week of Thomas More's death, a miserable dripping week in July, the hoof prints of the royal entourage sinking deep into the mud as they tacked their way across to Windsor. Since then the progress has taken in a swathe of the western counties; the Cromwell aides, having finished up the king's business at the London end, met up with the royal train in mid-August. The king and his companions sleep sound in new houses of rosy brick, in old houses whose fortifications have crumbled away or been pulled down, and in fantasy castles like toys, castles never capable of fortification, with walls a cannonball would punch in as if they were paper. England has enjoyed fifty years of peace. This is the Tudors' covenant; peace is what they offer. Every household strives to put forward its best show for the king, and we've seen some panic-stricken plastering these last weeks, some speedy stonework, as his hosts hurry to display the Tudor rose beside their own devices. They search out and obliterate any trace of Katherine, the queen that was, smashing with hammers the pomegranates of Aragon, their splitting segments and their squashed and flying seeds. Instead – if there is no time for carving – the falcon of Anne Boleyn is crudely painted up on hatchments.
Hans has joined them on the progress, and made a drawing of Anne the queen, but it did not please her; how do you please her, these days? He has drawn Rafe Sadler, with his neat little beard and his set mouth, his fashionable hat a feathered disc balanced precariously on his cropped head. 'Made my nose very flat, Master Holbein,' Rafe says, and Hans says, 'And how, Master Sadler, is it in my power to fix your nose?'
'He broke it as a child,' he says, 'running at the ring. I picked him up myself from under the horse's feet, and a sorry bundle he was, crying for his mother.' He squeezes the boy's shoulder. 'Now, Rafe, take heart. I think you look very handsome. Remember what Hans did to me.'
Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer's body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen's family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king's service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn't know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly.
Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England's business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.
At home in his city house at Austin Friars, his portrait broods on the wall; he is wrapped in wool and fur, his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it. Hans had pushed a table back to trap him and said, Thomas, you mustn't laugh; and they had proceeded on that basis, Hans humming as he worked and he staring ferociously into the middle distance. When he saw the portrait finished he had said, 'Christ, I look like a murderer'; and his son Gregory said, didn't you know? Copies are being made for his friends, and for his admirers among the evangelicals in Germany. He will not part with the original – not now I've got used to it, he says – and so he comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming: a tentative outline, partly inked in. Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start with his hat. Some evade the issue and paint his seal and scissors, others pick out the turquoise ring given him by the cardinal. Wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn't like to meet him at the dark of the moon. His father Walter used to say, 'My boy Thomas, give him a dirty look and he'll gouge your eye out. Trip him, and he'll cut off your leg. But if you don't cut across him, he's a very gentleman. And he'll stand anybody a drink.'
In my exhaustive research for today's comic, I read that John Steinbeck often signed his books with a drawing of the Pigasus, a mythical flying pig. He also included the Latin motto "Ad astra per alas porci":