Posted on | December 23, 2010 | 7 Comments
I first discovered the insurmountable problem that is translation as a high school Latin student, trying to muster a serviceable version of the Aeneid without perverting the stately, deliberate structure of Vergil’s sentences. As it turns out, I’m not much of a translator: I get too wrapped up in the internal architecture of the language to render anything that isn’t stupefyingly literal. Since I don’t plan to become a translator, this is a non-issue, but it’s something that I occasionally find vexing as a reader, no matter how hard I try to pretend that stripping a book of its native language is as basic as substituting an ingredient in a recipe.
I’m not one of those purists who believes you can never truly “know” a book if you haven’t read it in the original. In the instances where I am able to compare translations to the original, more often than not I’m reassured by the ability of translators to inhabit the spirit of the book they seek to reproduce. Still, I think it’s possible to acknowledge the integrity and validity (not to mention necessity) of translation while still feeling a tiny pang of loss. No matter how faithful an adaptation, it will always have been mediated by another mind.
Which brings me to Tolstoy. When pressed, I usually identify Tolstoy as my favorite author and if there’s any language in which I could magically and instantaneously become fluent, it would be Russian. I’ve always read Tolstoy in the Maude translations—the definitive early twentieth-century editions by a married couple, Louise and Aylmer, who were themselves practicing Tolstoyans. The Maude translation happened to be the first copy of Anna Karenina I owned, purchased before I was in the habit of comparing different versions, and for the sake of continuity of voice, I stuck with them. Their Tolstoy is my Tolstoy. Still, all the hullaballoo about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky—the star translators who are steadily making their way through the Russian canon—has been hard to ignore, and I finally picked up their rendering of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.
How to compare translations without being able to hold them up against the original? On their surface, they are only so different, but the slow accretion of minor variations has a cumulative effect. Pevear and Volokhonsky tend towards what I imagine to be a more literal interpretation, complete with stylistic repetitions and even, where appropriate, nineteenth-century usages. Here is a short passage from their “Kreutzer Sonata,” probably my favorite of Tolstoy’s short works:
But the moral law avenges itself once it’s violated. Hard as I tried to arrange the honeymoon for myself, nothing came of it. The whole time was vile, shameful, and dull. But very soon it also became painfully oppressive. That started very soon. I think on the third or fourth day I found my wife looking dull, began asking her why, began to embrace her, which in my opinion was all she could have wished for, but she pushed my arm away and burst into tears.
To look “dull” is an odd enough construction, at least in contemporary language, that I wonder if the repetition of this word is deliberate. Did Tolstoy use it twice, with subtly differentiated meanings? There’s also the repetitive clausal structure in the last sentence: “began… began…” The whole passage has the haphazard rhythm of a man in rushed speech, his thoughts outpacing his ability to express them. Here, by contrast, is the Maude version:
But a moral law avenges itself when it is violated. Hard as I tried to make a success of my honeymoon, nothing came of it. It was horrid, shameful, and dull, the whole time. And very soon I began also to experience a painful, oppressive feeling. That began very quickly. I think it was on the third or fourth day that I found my wife depressed. I began asking her the reason and embracing her, which in my view was all she could want, but she removed my arm and began to cry.
Their language favors the formal. The first sentence, almost identical in its choice of vocabulary, avoids contractions. While they still have the repetition of “began,” they smooth it out grammatically, eliding the actions of “asking” and “embracing” together for a more polished effect. For Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “dull,” they have “depressed,” a slightly more abstract word choice that doesn’t call up the same colorless, enervated quality. Theirs is more elegant, or at least more elevated. To an extent, the two couples represent each side of the classic translation debate—should one privilege style or substance?—though both are too fine, too subtle, to be lumped wholly into one or the other camp.
Also telling is how the two duos navigate Tolstoy’s ironic humor. Here’s a Maude passage from “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” (admittedly an odd choice for discussing humor) describing Ilyich’s upwardly-mobile home décor:
In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there were damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes—all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class.
Versus Pevear and Volokhonsky’s newer version:
Essentially, though, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to appear rich, and for that reason only resemble each other: damasks, ebony, flowers, carpets, and bronzes, dark and gleaming—all that all people of a certain kind acquire in order to resemble all people of a certain kind.
It’s a particularly cutting observation, made in passing, of the aspirant kitsch of the upper-middle class. At first, I found this sentence clunky in the second iteration: I stumbled over the repetition of “rich,” and even more conspicuously, the repetition of “a certain kind.” It seems an evasive vocabulary choice—what kind? Again, the Maudes appear to take pains to iron out some of what (presumably) are the language’s awkward idiosyncrasies: “moderate means,” “others like themselves”—these are constructions of relative formality. But on further consideration, the Pevear/Volokhonsky version is funnier. Their irony takes on an edge of cruelty in its elusive refusal to credit the “kind” of people to whom it refers.
In the end, I’m not sure I have a preference, or even if I did, on what it should be based. Does one read more smoothly than the other? I suppose the Maude translation does, though perhaps only on the basis of its familiarity. Its vaguely stodgy word choices give their translation a fitting, if slightly musty, old-world air. Then again, the way Pevear and Volokhonsky’s rhythms can catch you off-guard are more revealing of (speculatively speaking) the true intention of Tolstoy’s language. I guess my refusal to settle for one or the other means both are doing something right. Or maybe that’s just Tolstoy.