Russians Still Brooding Over Translations

As the Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh wrote this summer, the new (and old) translations of War and Peace are causing a raucous among the Russian literary elite. But the New York Review of Books’ Orlando Figes writes in his review of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new version of Tolstoy’s classic that hating on translators is nothing new.

No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946), who translated into graceful late-Victorian prose seventy major Russian works, including seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol, four of Tolstoy, six of Herzen, seventeen of Chekhov, and books by Goncharov and Ostrovsky.

She worked so fast that when she came across an awkward passage she would leave it out. She made mistakes. But her stylish prose, which made the Russian writers so accessible, and seemingly so close to the English sensibility, ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard of how these writers ought to sound and feel. For the English-reading public, Russian literature was what Garnett made of it. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1917, "Turgeniev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev."

The Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations "dry and flat, and always unbearably demure."Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers’ styles so that "Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev":

In reading the original [of Notes from Underground], who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky’s style? It is expressed in convulsions of syntax, in a frenzied and somehow piercing diction where malicious irony is mixed with sorrow and despair. But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.

Joseph Brodsky sniped that the "reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett."