Cost in Translation

barnes and noble saleI read Crime and Punishment in five days. It was my first Dostoevsky, I was on Christmas break, and I was taken. The novel had been on my shelf for months. I bought it in one of Barnes & Noble’s regular buy-2-get-3rd-free sales, and I didn’t give one thought to the translator.

Once I fell in love with the book and decided to pursue more of Ol’ Dosty, I realized that choosing a translation is part of the transaction. The novel I loved so much was translated by Constance Garnett in 1914—surely a more modern translation would be better. I quickly learned about the married translating juggernaut team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Richard Pevear is an American poet, and Larissa Volokhonsky is a Russian theologian. What could be better? A husband-wife tag-team transforming prosaic Russian into lyrical English sounded like a dream. I talked with one knowledgeable friend who said this duo captures the poetic feel of the original (I’m pretty sure he was quoting a book jacket) and that clinched it.

I have purchased and read almost every Dostoevsky novel translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I truly loved some (Notes from Underground is the favorite) and got through all (eventually). My single-minded loyalty to Pevear and Volokhonsky led me to  accept only their translations for other Russian authors—particularly Tolstoy. At this juncture I own their translation of Anna Karenina, and I read the first third of their War and Peace.


My dedicated Dostoevsky shelf.

I do not speak or read Russian, so I am at the mercy of literary critics, polyglots, and bored Amazon reviewers. There are many P&V detractors. Whether they prefer other modern translators, Constance Garnett, or someone in between, many reviews (that are not featured on book jackets) criticize Pevear and Volokhonsky. The more I have read, the more I have had to accept they may not be the be-all end-all of Russian translators.

Where would I be if I only read Garnett’s translations? Would I love Dostoevsky even more? Or would I be unsettled by the mismatched spines on my shelf? I’d certainly have a few more dollars in my pocket.

The master and margarita covers

Excuse me while I judge a book by its covers.

One book that’s been on my mind for years is The Master and Margarita. To be honest, the various covers look cool as hell, and every time I see one I feel compelled to possess it. I only recently realized this is a Russian novel, and this realization brought to the fore the old debate: stick with my #relationshipgoals translators or seek out the “best” translation?

I went with the latter. According to various random internet reviewers (I am very particular), Mirra Ginsburg’s 1967 translation of The Master and Margarita is the best, so I took the plunge; I ordered the Ginsberg translation from a used bookseller on Amazon.

This is what arrived:

The Master and Margarita P and V translation

I tried.

I let the seller know that the delivery was not what was advertised, and they were remarkably kind—they refunded my purchase (unasked for) and asked me which translation I preferred (I felt like a phony).

Now I own another Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of another classic Russian novel. I will read this edition, and hopefully it will live up to its cover art (or the art of other covers). But the question lingers—what have I lost? What experience would I have had with the Ginsburg translation?

The question exists in every translation. The question exists in every novel and poem and piece of art that is influenced by its creator’s knowledge and experience and culture and intent. Even if I were fluent in Russian my reading would be limited by my circumstances; I am a native English speaker and require annotations for Joyce and Faulkner.

I read because I want to experience beauty; I pursue Russian novels because I want the beauty they have to offer. I want to put myself in the best position to receive beauty, whether that means evaluating translations or reading preliminary texts or exploring scholarly criticism. The fruits are worth the labor.


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