Too cheerful to translate Dostoevsky well?
I have no idea how Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of The   Brothers Karamazov came to be regarded as definitive. Let me rephrase that. I know why . Fourteen thousand copies a year, practically indefinitely, is why. There’s a lot of money at stake, for them and for their publisher. What I don’t know is how. Admittedly, their method is a publicist’s dream come true. A husband-and-wife team, Larissa makes a literal translation as close to word-for-word as possible and then Richard tidies up her copy. (He hasn’t mastered the language himself, not even at a conversational level, which is why I feel comfortable criticizing their work so harshly. I may not know Russian—but neither does Richard Pevear .) The result, as you might imagine, is a fairly close replication of the original. The promotional material practically writes itself. No one has ever offered a truer approximation of Dostoevsky’s prose! P & V are like Gillette razors—you just can’t get any closer!

Unfortunately, the result is not something you would want to spend 974 pages with. When I decided to tackle The Brothers Karamazov last month, I chose my translation the obvious way: I pulled up Amazon previews for half a dozen versions and compared the opening pages and tables of contents to see which one grabbed me. Here are a few chapter headings from the Oxford World Classics translation by Ignat Avsey, the one I ended up going with:
Second Marriage, Second Brood

An Unseemly Encounter

A Careerist Seminarian
Here’s what P & V have:
Second Marriage, Second Children

An Inappropriate Gathering

A Seminarist-Careerist
That last one is especially offensive to the ear of a native English speaker. They make a worse blunder in the scene where Mrs. Khokhlakov is explaining to Alyosha that Dmitry might opt for a temporary-insanity plea. “Suppose we have a person who’s perfectly sane, and suddenly he’s suffering from diminished responsibility,” is what Avsey has her say. “Come to think of it, who doesn’t suffer from diminished responsibility these days? Don’t you, don’t I? We all do.” P & V translate the crucial phrase as “fit of passion”—“Who isn’t in a fit of passion these days?” That’s readable (unlike “seminarist-careerist”), but utterly wrong. Elsewhere they have “stupid” where Avsey has “absurd,” “brief” where he has “direct,” and “be healed by you” where he has “be redeemed through you.” (Those three are from the page preceding the famous “Rebellion” chapter, if you would like to check the context.) Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Russian literature at Northwestern, compared this tone-deafness to “someone translating Paradise Lost from English into Russian who had somehow missed that Milton was a Christian.”

Morson’s brutal, unanswerable takedown of P & V, where that quote appeared, was published by Commentary magazine, and I mention the venue because it is enormously important. Commentary ’s literary section is top-notch, on par with what you’d find in places like The New Republic or the New York Review of Books , but because it is a conservative magazine, it will always be in some sense marginal to the world of the literary press. That is precisely why they were able to publish Morson’s hatchet job despite the overwhelming publicity push proclaiming P & V the wonder duo that would make all previous Dostoevsky translations obsolete. Conservative outlets are perfectly placed to deflate that sort of manufactured conventional wisdom, because they live at the outskirts of the high-brow world. They are the boy who says the emperor has no clothes, and the mainstream outlets are the courtiers.

When I say that places like NYRB and The New Yorker  aren’t likely to step up in this way, I don’t mean to imply that their writers have bad literary judgment or that their editors are in deliberate cahoots with the PR departments of the big publishing houses. The way it usually works is something like this: An editor will publish a piece that takes a negative view of some widely acclaimed work—say, a pan of Les Misérables . For the next week, half the people who engage in small talk with that editor will say “Hey, I saw that review you ran of Les Mis . Thought it was a bit harsh.” This is the kind of small talk editors get, from co-workers as much as acquaintances and strangers. So he commissions (or greenlights) a more positive review—if he can get a big-name author like Adam Gopnik , so much the better—and the effect on the work’s reputation is a wash. Something along these lines happened five years ago with Sam Tanenhaus when P & V’s much-hyped War and Peace came out; that story is here . The galling thing is, most of the people nudging the editor to soften his criticism don’t actually know or care much about the merits of the work in question. They just read somewhere or heard on NPR that it was the hot new thing, and they want a chance to use that penny of cultural currency before it loses its value. Their opinion can usually be traced back to a press release—but then, that’s why good publicity hacks get paid such good money.

This, of course, is what happens when the editor runs a negative review in the first place, which isn’t often. Usually a magazine will only run a hatchet piece contrary to the conventional wisdom if it comes from a big name, and big names don’t typically write hatchet jobs. Those pieces make enemies, and they have too much to lose. And, as Morson points out in his Commentary article, translations of classic works are even more likely to get raves than the average much-hyped critical darling. Most writers who get that sort of assignment are excited for the chance to talk about a classic work that means a great deal to them. They gush about the novel, naturally, and their enthusiasm often embraces the translation along with it.

I harp on the point that conservative magazines are well placed to dissent from this hype-driven feedback loop because, alas, they usually don’t. The conservative press has largely abandoned the field of cultural criticism. Every conservative magazine reaches far more readers online than in print, but almost none of them publish much cultural criticism on their websites—and that includes the ones whose print editions have decent back-of-the-book sections, like The Weekly Standard and Commentary . The most high-brow conservative magazine, The New Criterion , publishes almost no fresh online content at all. (Cross-posts from Roger Kimball’s PJ Media blog don’t count.) Apart from the occasional blog post at The American Conservative , there’s just nothing on fiction, non-fiction, TV, or movies. For comparison, the websites of The New Republic and The Nation have whole sections devoted to books.

Most conservative websites will publish pieces denouncing a film or a novel for liberal bias or applauding it for its conservative moral message, but they run precious few proper reviews. Speaking as a reader of these websites, I say it’s all right for a good writer to say what’s conservative about a piece of art, but it would be so much better to have a conservative writer say what’s good about it.

UPDATE:  I forgot to mention the bawdy song the innkeeper’s girls sing just before Dmitry’s arrest. It’s a good test for any translation, because one of the rhymes is left unfinished—the narrator breaks off halfway through the second line and simply says, “There followed a most unprintable rhyme.” Even P & V realize that a literal translation won’t do in this case. The English version has to imply how the verse would have ended , leaving the translator no choice but to decide what he thinks the missing text is, using context clues and his own intuition (mostly the latter).

The song is about a series of men who come courting the singers, and their reasons for accepting or rejecting their advances. The gypsy, for example, is a no-go because “ He’ll turn out to be a thief / And that, I’m sure, will bring me grief .” The businessman does better: “ To the wealthy merchant I’ll be wed / And a queen I’ll lie, all day in bed .”

The unfinished couplet is about a soldier. The original Russian doesn’t give a translator much to go on: Google Translate renders it “Soldiers will pack carry / And I for him . . . ”

P & V make a decent attempt, managing to work in a mild profanity:
The soldier boy will pack his kit

And drag me with him through . . .
But we must concede the superiority of the Avsey version, which, unlike P & V’s, makes me laugh:
The soldier will march to seek his luck

And leave me dying for a . . .

Articles by Helen Rittelmeyer


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