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Tolstoy 2.0

An American poet and a St. Petersburg native may be the great Russian writer's ideal translators

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s novel about a family torn apart by adultery, was first published in 1877. It was somewhat unexpected, then, in June 2004, when a softcover translation of the Russian classic debuted at number one on the New York Times Best-Seller List. Behind this renewed interest in Tolstoy stood the work of husband and wife translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose sensitive English rendering won accolades and even the approval of Oprah, who added it to her famous book club. Preserving the cadence and emotion of Tolstoy’s style is a large part of what makes their work different. Pevear, an American poet, and Volokhonsky, a St. Petersburg native with a background in linguistics, may be the great writer’s ideal translators. Reached at their summer home in Burgundy, France, hard at work on Tolstoy’s other sprawling masterwork, War and Peace (due out in 2007), the couple discusses battles with editors, how they started and how to listen to a complex voice.

Maisonneuve Magazine Why did you choose to pursue translation?

Larissa Volokhonsky One day, we were reading The Brothers Karamazov simultaneously, Richard in English and I in Russian. I kept wondering, “How did he translate this, and how did he translate that?” And I would look at the translation and discover that a lot of humour and a lot of stylistically interesting sentences were simply smoothed over, and the whole tone was lost. Dostoevsky is a very amusing writer; he plays all the time … it was very sad. So we said, “Why don’t we try to do it?” That’s how we started. And then our first translation was praised, so we got encouraged and decided to go on.

It is very nice to think—or to hope—that owing to our translations, the English reader can come as a guest into Russian culture. We’re not just retelling the plot; we’re really trying to re-create these works as Russian literature for an English-speaking reader.

Richard Pevear War and Peace is unique. It doesn’t bear comparison, even with Anna Karenina—and certainly not with Dostoevsky. They’re all very different. What amazes me the more I work on War and Peace is the originality of Tolstoy—his formal inventiveness as a writer, his freedom as a writer. If you think of the rhetoric—this is the early 1860s, the time of the American Civil War—and the style of American or English prose at that time: the long sentences, the rhetoric of George Eliot or of Dickens, of Melville. And then Tolstoy comes along and writes a sentence made up of two words: “Drops dripped.”

LV These are two cognates. Literally, “drops dripped.”

RP But it’s very striking. And in the scene, it’s the scene just before the death of little Petya Rostov.

LV Who’s [about] fifteen.

RP And he’s very alert; he’s very aware that something’s going to happen and his senses are all out. And Tolstoy uses this—so simple and extraordinarily audible … because it’s at night, it’s a night scene, and all he says is “drops dripped.” (Pause) I don’t know, I find that extraordinary.

MM Literary critic Walter Benjamin says that the translator should never be translating for an audience, that “no poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” Where do you fall in the creative process?

LV We try to chase out of our heads an idea of pleasing the reader, or the idea that the reader won’t understand—because there’s no limit to it. Where do you stop? When we submitted our translation of Anna Karenina to Penguin, they returned the manuscript. Couldn’t we produce something more reader-friendly? And we said we couldn’t because Tolstoy’s prose isn’t reader-friendly. And who is this reader? Some kind of hypothetical reader who is what, ignorant? Used to simple prose? Where do we stop? We can’t translate Tolstoy! And we actually had a fight with our editors, a long and difficult fight. And in the end, we insisted on doing it the way we thought it should be done.

MM Tolstoy is known as the master of realism. But do you find that there’s more to it, that the writing beneath the surface is deceptively deep?

RP Yes. It’s not simply a chronicle of life. He’s a very expressive writer and he has an intention on the world. You know, he’s not simply recording; he always has something in his head that he wants to say and show and demonstrate.

LV And he’s extremely observant. After you start reading him intensively, you start seeing things, certain things, differently because he shows you. Certain gestures—the way a man smiles, the way a young lady speaks because her upper lip is slightly shorter than it should be and covers the upper teeth. And it stays with you forever. He’ll describe someone like he describes this beautiful Hélène Kuragin, and each time he mentions her, he mentions her magnificent shoulders. It’s not because he wants the reader to remember that she has magnificent shoulders.

RP It’s like “grey-eyed Athene” with Homer. It’s an epithet. Almost every time Homer mentions her, he says “grey-eyed Athene.” So, “Hélène of the magnificent shoulders.”

LV Tolstoy’s not afraid at all of repetition. And I consider it one of my tasks to very carefully catch all the repetitions and, wherever possible, to keep them despite all the inner and outer editors that sit in our heads and in the offices—because it’s very important. Tolstoy really does it—it’s deliberate, almost always deliberate. Very often, to vary it would be unthinkable.

RP Tolstoy is the master of irony. You have to be careful. If you think that something looks awkward or wasn’t intended, and correct it, you may miss something essential. There’s a sentence [where] he says, “Nine days after the abandoning of Moscow, a messenger from Kutuzov arrived in Petersburg with official news of the abandoning of Moscow.” None of the translators do that. The Maude translation says, “Nine days after the abandonment of Moscow, a messenger from Kutuzov reached Petersburg with the official announcement of that event,” because the repetition looks like a clumsy one.

Now I began looking at it, and I began to hear this sentence and see this absurd situation: nine days after the abandoning of Moscow, the official news came of the abandoning of Moscow. The people in Petersburg are always nine days out. They never know what’s happening when it’s happening—they just have never been there—and the whole novel is based on this difference: between Rostov, who’s sitting on the battlefield, or Pierre Bezukhov or Andrei, and these generals in their conferences, and the czar in Petersburg, and the planners who make strategic battle plans—none of which ever work. And even Napoleon, who is standing at the battle of Borodino and can’t see anything because he’s too far away. And he sits there as if he’s commanding the battle and he doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. This little silly repetition is a very sharply ironic comment on the distance between the fact and the official announcement of the fact. And I think that certainly Tolstoy meant it that way. But all the translators correct it.

MM Vladimir Nabokov writes that there are three types of translators: the scholar, “the well meaning hack,” and “the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere.” Which ones do you consider yourselves to be?

RP (Laughter) Oh, I suppose the third!

LV Well …

RP We’re not hacks …

LV … and we’re not scholars.

RP Maybe there’s a fourth kind.