Reading in Translation

Russell Carr

I have a confession. I majored in Russian Literature without finishing War and Peace.I read small sections of it in Russian, but was expected to read all of it in English. In the past 25-years since college, I hesitate to mention my major, because most people ask about War and Peace. Is it any good? Is it worth it? I had to look away at these questions and try to change the subject, or lie about it.

Why did I never read it? Partly because I was a Dostoevsky man at the time (Yes, there are camps among Russian lit nerds). Also because, every time I tried, it just seemed boring to me. In college, I was reading the classic translation of it by Constance Garnett, a British translator from the early twentieth century. Then a few years ago, I heard about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation from 2007. It was supposed to be more accessible to today’s American readers, if Americans still reads tomes like War and Peace. I felt the difference immediately.

Here’s a brief comparison:

Constance Garnett: “Anna Pavlona, with the adroitness and quick tact of a courtier and a woman, felt an inclination to chastise the prince for his temerity in referring in such terms to a person recommended to the empress, and at the same time to console him.”

Pevear and Volokhonsky: “Anna Pavlova, with her courtly and feminine adroitness and ready tact, wanted both to swat the prince for daring to make such a pronouncement about a person recommended to the empress, and at the same time to comfort him.”

To me, the second is less stodgy, less like an old Victorian house you might visit in Vienna. The second version has plainer language, language we are more likely to use or hear every day as Americans, including vernacular such as “swat.” We can connect more with Anna Pavlova’s feelings, both her anger and compassion, about the prince.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation is better. I’m saying it fits better in our time. It sounds better to our ears. This often happens with translations. They peak based on their adherence to cultural norms of a given era. For instance, in the early twentieth century, Garnett’s translations were considered the gold standard. They were loved, particularly in Britain.

As readers, we often underestimate a translation’s importance. However, it shouldn’t be undervalued. After all, it’s how we are able to access the work. Our understanding of a novel, memoir, short story, or, especially, a poem is filtered through the translator’s understanding of it and his or her ability to convey the work in our language and idiom.

Here are several factors that will allow you to compare translations when multiple versions exist:

•  The form of English the translator knows: It’s important to find out where the translator lives. The translation might be into British English, American English, or Canadian English. A translator naturally will use idioms from his or her country. If you are an American and your translator of a French novel is from Wales, then you will be trying to understand French humor translated into Welsh humor. You would also need to understand Welsh expressions, particularly for dialogue. You want the translation to be as close to your form of English as possible to reduce the unfamiliar filters it must pass through on its way to you.

•  The translator’s intended audience: Good translators think about their audience just like authors do. Is the translator a professor and envisions a translation that will awe his or her colleagues with esoteric details in footnotes? Or, is the translator intending the translation for a more general consumption?

Time period: Even if nationality isn’t a concern, the language can still be confusing if it was translated several generations ago. Expressions will be different, but also the translation might have been reviewed by censors and required to meet certain cultural requirements to be published. For instance, expletives in the original might have been omitted or altered. Prejudices might be smoothed over or exaggerated from the original to fit the translator’s time.

Cultures and Languages: Translation involves both the culture and language of the work. You should look at the translator’s credentials. Does he or she have advanced degrees in the original language? If so, they have studied it fairly extensively. Other signs of expertise can be lengthy periods of time living in both countries.

Translator’s own writing: Is the translator a writer also? If so, the translator will likely have an understanding of writing craft. This understanding of craft will help the translator properly interpret the original author’s ideas. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, was an outstanding translator for Americans because he lived in both Russia and America and wrote in both languages. It is also helpful if the translator has written in the same genre as the author’s work. Poets often translate poetry better than fiction writers, for instance.

Dedication to the author:Has this translator published translations of other works by this same author? It conveys a deeper understanding of that particular writer and also experience with the writer’s style.

In short, translations matter. With the right one, War and Peace has become much more engaging for me. With a contemporary translation, I made it all the way through this great work of literature, despite Tolstoy’s soap box soliloquies about Napoleon and history. In fact, maybe finishing it is why I’m in Chekhov’s camp now.


Russell Carr is a physician living in Maryland.  He will complete an MFA at Converse College in fiction with a minor in nonfiction by the end of 2018.