Transparent Sounds and Fury
или «С прозрачных звуков на чистую воду»

Письмо в газету «Нью-Йорк Таймс» по поводу эссе Ричарда Пивера “Tolstoy’s Transparent Sounds”, опубликованного 14 октября 2007 г.
We read Richard Pevear’s essay this Sunday with mixed feelings. It’s wonderful that a new translation of “War and Peace” will spur renewed interest in Tolstoy’s masterpiece. It’s unfortunate that English readers will apparently be getting yet another product of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s dubious approach to translation touted as “original Tolstoy”.

As we all know, Pevear, who does not speak much Russian, collaborates with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, who prepares a word-for-word English crib, which Pevear himself can hardly understand at first [1]. This practice seems suspicious from the very beginning but could be justified if it produced excellent results. But the actual (not self-proclaimed) quality of the translations proves the opposite. Pevear and his wife do not “make up one translator who has the luck to be a native speaker of two languages” as Pevear claims in his essay, but rather remain two not entirely professional translators, neither of whom has quite mastered the other language and who seem to be multiplying each other’s mistakes. Let’s look at some facts.

Pevear says their collaboration frequently saves him from the awful fate of producing “smooth” or “natural” translations. This charge of “smoothness” has often been leveled at one of the most prolific translators of Russian prose, Constance Garnett, who worked in Victorian England. It is indeed true that her rendering of Russian prose makes Russia resemble the England of her times to the modern American reader and that certain irregularities of original texts were made unnoticeable in her translations, when she turned them into correct and unmarked English. It goes without saying that better translations of Russian classics can be produced today, eliminating the Victorian feel and reflecting the idiosyncrasies of Russian authors more faithfully. This does not, however, mean that the solution is to go to the opposite extreme, to make that which is ordinary and unmarked in the original stand out in translation.

A translator’s role is to attempt to recreate for the reader the experience of the reader of the original text. What sounds natural in the original should sound natural in translation. Pevear writes that the phrase “prozrachnye zvuki” is “pure Tolstoy”, assuming that it would stand out for a Russian reader as a striking and original phrase. His translation “transparent sounds” certainly sounds strikingly unusual to the English-speaking reader, a phrase to pause and consider. As a matter of fact, “prozrachnye zvuki” is a fairly common descriptive phrase – not one heard in ordinary conversation, but familiar to literate readers of Russian. It can be found in works by such notable writers of the 19th and the 20th century as Fet, Blok, Balmont, Mandelshtam, Nabokov and Tynyanov. Apparently, all of them wrote in "pure Tolstoy".

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations are full of similar examples: in their award-winning translation of “Anna Karenina” one of the characters is reported to have “drank up his trousers” [2]. What is the English-speaking reader to do with this absurd phrase? The Russian “propil bryuki” is an ordinary idiomatic phrase, similar to the way we might say that someone “drank away his inheritance”. This is only one of many Russian idioms and set phrases turned by Pevear and Volokhonsky into the peculiar thinking of a particular writer.

These mistakes, which make ordinary people and language exotic and strange, are obvious to most Russian speakers and translators. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation method and its results were analyzed at length in the article “Pevear and Volokhonsky: The Sweet Smell of Success?”, which was published in the Russian translators’ journal “Mosty” (N1 (9)/ 2006), by Viktor Lanchikov, a Russian literary translator and professor of translation at Moscow State Linguistic University, and Michele Berdy, a translator and Moscow-based columnist for The Moscow Times. The article also provides numerous (and hilarious) examples of factual mistakes, but mistakes in meaning seem less detrimental to the original authors than the stylistic oddities.

Why, then, has this pair received so many positive reviews? One explanation is that most reviewers of their books have not actually compared the originals with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations. Another is that Russia is still an unfamiliar country for the average American reader; maybe they did, after all, have peasants in the 19th century who casually said “Well, I declare” (see Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”). It is also undeniable that people fall for new and reportedly innovative things. When new translations are unanimously proclaimed “absolutely faithful”, “true to the verbal inventiveness of Dostoyevsky” and simply “a permanent standard” (excerpts from blurbs), when they are produced in an unusual and vaguely romantic way, when they claim to break away from the dull past and give the modern (presumably more intelligent and sophisticated) reader the real thing, and, finally, when they are endorsed by a definitive expert on translation like Oprah Winfrey, they are bound to become bestsellers.

As readers, we will encounter most foreign-language literary masterpieces in translation, which creates an enormous responsibility for the translator. Possibly the most important task a literary translator faces is that of enabling a foreign audience to hear the unique voice of the original author as if the author had written in the translated language. If the English-speaking audience were unfortunate enough to know Russian writers through Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations alone, the voices of Gogol (“How – what? An arm, Osip Nikiforovich!”), Dostoyevsky (“Yes, good-looking. Even very”), Bulgakov (“You’ve, what, been to the doctor?”) and Tolstoy would sound like a raucous choir of people with speech problems – a sound which is far from being “transparent”.

Dmitry Buzadzhi
Translator/editor, professor of translation at Moscow State Linguistic University,
Sara Gombert
Freelance translator/editor, based in Moscow


[1] Robert Wechsler, Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation (Catbird Press, North Haven, CT, 1998) p. 201-202
[2] “How dare he say I ordered his trousers stolen! He drank them up, I suppose. I spit on him and his princely rank. He daren’t say that, it’s swinishness!” We shall remark in passing that “swinishness” is a calque of the Russian “svinstvo”, which is a commonplace word, so the phrase is no stranger than “It’s nasty of him”.

Это письмо было опубликовано в литературном форуме "Нью-Йорк Таймс". Ответ Р. Пивера сводился к тому, что его критики вместо серьезного разбора придираются к отдельным примерам. Кроме того, Д. Бузаджи и С. Гомберт были обвинены в плохом знании английского языка и резком тоне, напоминающем тон советских партийных гонителей. Ответ на замечания Р. Пивера был отослан в "Нью-Йорк Таймс", но газета предпочла свернуть дискуссию. Размещаем неопубликованный ответ здесь.
This letter was published on the New York Times Reading Room blog. Mr. Pevear's reply largely focused on the fact that his critics were "potshotting at words and phrases". Besides, D. Buzadzhi and S. Gombert were accused of "a surprising ignorance of English" and "snarling voices" reminiscent of "the tone of the old Soviet party denunciations". A reply to Mr. Pevear's comments was sent to the New York Times but the newspaper chose to close down the discussion. Here is the reply which was not posted.

Leaving aside questions of our Soviet ideology and poor command of English, we’d like to respond to some of Mr. Pevear’s comments. “Potshotting at words and phrases is one of the worst sorts of translation criticism”. We couldn’t agree more with Mr. Pevear on this one, and that’s exactly why we didn’t do anything of the sort. As the readers will have noticed, we criticize the approach to translation embraced by Mr. Pevear and his spouse, which manifests itself in unnatural-sounding translations. Naturally, we provide examples of Mr. Pevear’s translations, which cannot conceivably be anything other than words and phrases. However, these words and phrases only serve to illustrate the main point we make, that these mistakes are indicative of a larger, systemic problem, and wouldn’t even be brought up here if they were just random slips in otherwise fine translations. If Mr. Pevear is aware of any effective form of translation criticism other than defining the translator’s strategy and supporting one’s view with specific examples, we’d be grateful if he’d share it with us.

Another phrase which caught our attention in Mr. Pevear’s reply is this: “One of the worst translation practices is the rendering of a figurative expression by its supposed meaning rather than by a corresponding figurative expression”. It is surprising that Mr. Pevear feels so strongly about this practice and says nothing about the opposite extreme, i.e. the rendering of a common figurative expression (whose metaphoric, metonymic or other kind of transferred meaning is almost immediately perceived by the native speaker without the interplay of the literal and the transferred meanings) with the help of a freshly coined phrase, which is at best too original and catchy and, at worst, plain nonsensical. In his translation of Leonid Andreyev’s “The Seven Who Were Hanged” Herman Bernstein (a contemporary of Tolstoy and Constance Garnett) was so anxious to keep the figurativeness of the first two lines of a Russian folk song – “Ne shumi ty, mat, zelyonaya dubravushka…” – that he made one of the heroes sing: “Don't rustle, O green little mother forest…” We have a pretty strong feeling that most English readers would agree that “green little mothers” detract from the quality of a translation much more than the occasional loss of a modicum of “figurativeness”.

Mr. Pevear’s attitude to dictionaries seems a little confusing as well. He dismisses Mr. Katz’s reference when it doesn’t support his claim (“So much for the usefulness of dictionaries!”) but shakes his Shorter Oxford English Dictionary at Mr. Sergay in defense of the phrase “to deceive expectations”. The truth is, of course, that dictionaries are necessary and helpful when used with discretion, but can be treacherous if applied mechanistically. When Mr. Pevear and his wife make the main character of Gogol’s “Overcoat” say: “I’ve come to you, Petrovich, sort of...” he demonstrates exactly this point. Even though all the words used in translation certainly date back to Gogol’s times, the colloquial “sort of” is strikingly modern. So if a translator believes that it is enough to make sure that all the words and grammatical structures he uses are confirmed by this or that dictionary, without taking into account a plethora of other factors, such as the usage of the original and translated phrases in their respective languages, the associations connected to them, the perception of readers in both cultures, etc., he will be no different from a Russian first-year student who writes in his English essay: “This problem doesn’t touch me” instead of “This problem doesn’t concern me” and claims that his usage of the verb is fully justified by the dictionary. One of the definitions of “touch” in Merriam Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary is “to have to do with”, so although “touch” is clearly not the best choice, the claim could be made that it is in the dictionary, and expresses the true poeticism of the Russian (“Eta problema menya ne kasayetsya”).

Dmitry Buzadzhi,
Sara Gombert


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